William Hague’s former chief of staff has issued a stark warning that the UK’s national security could be seriously damaged by further ‘harmful’ Foreign Office cuts.
Blogging for HuffPost UK, Tory peer Arminka Helic points out the Paris attacks underline the need for a strong FCO to continue its work on diplomacy, hostage negotiation and long-term terror threats.
As the Treasury finalises its spending cuts to Whitehall, Baroness Helic points out that the overseas aid budget now ‘dwarfs’ that of the Foreign Office, which has fewer staff ‘than Sheffield City Council’.
Amid reports that the FCO could suffer cuts of between 25-40%, diplomats fear that several embassies will have to close and the department’s ability to plan for and respond to crises will be hit.
The Foreign Office, along with the Home Office, is among the departments that have yet to 'settle' their plans with the Treasury before next Wednesday's spending review.
While defence is guaranteed a 2% increase and DfID has a protected budget, the FCO is in the firing line for big reductions.
Baroness Helic, the driving force behind Mr Hague’s campaign with Angelina Jolie to combat violence against women in conflict zones, says that the Treasury’s “financial gymnastics don't just bend and stretch a department, they can actually risk damaging it”.
“That is surely the risk today to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office,” she warns.
The peer, who has the backing of several party colleagues, has never before criticised the Government but has decided to speak out amid fears that the deep cuts could undermine the UK's global standing.
She writes: “It is hard to see how the Foreign Office could sustain further cuts today without diminishing its capability to a point that is harmful to our long-term interests as a country.
“Even without the reminder of the savage attacks in Paris, it is clear we live in an era where security is the most valuable currency.”
Baroness Helic points out that the Foreign Office is the smallest spending department in Whitehall, with a total budget of 0.2% of public spending, compared to 1% for the Department for International Development and 5% on defence.
The Foreign Office network of embassies is the same size as that of France, but its budget is 25% smaller. Germany, with fewer Embassies and fewer staff, spends 77% more on its diplomatic service than Britain.
Pointing to the guaranteed rise in the overseas aid budget, Baroness Helic makes clear that nothing can ultimately solve or prevent conflict better than first-class diplomacy.
“We should be proud that we are the second largest donor to Syrian refugees - but all the aid the world can muster will not contain a conflict that has political roots, and that can only be ended by negotiations,” she writes.
“Aid and development should support diplomacy; they cannot replace it. Indeed, without the political solutions that end conflicts and stabilise nations, endlessly increasing aid equates to endlessly funding the international community's failure to act in time and address the root causes of conflicts, poverty and in some cases terrorism.
“We therefore need the Foreign Office, working with Whitehall, to create the conditions for our long-term security and prosperity. But we must make sure it has the funds and the human capability needed to do that.”
Baroness Helic adds that the Syrian peace talks and breakthrough with Iran over its nuclear programme prove the need to strengthen not weaken the Foreign Office. She also adds that in an age of globalised trade, “British companies benefit from commercial opportunities overseas, creating new jobs in our country”.