Foreign secretary James Cleverly has become the first secretary of state to admit departments face spending cuts, saying the Foreign Office will need to deliver to a “tighter budget”.
Concern has mounted over potential cuts after chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng stressed the need for departments to “work more efficiently” and have a “disciplined approach to spending” in his mini-budget – fuelling speculation that public services could shoulder the cost of his tax cuts.
Last week, Treasury secretary Simon Clarke said departments would need to look for “efficiencies” – which was interpreted by unions as a euphemism for job cuts.
Speaking at a UK in a Changing Europe event at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham yesterday, Cleverly reiterated the need for “efficiency savings”, saying: “Money’s tight right across government”.
“When that money starts coming back through, I will be able to use that efficiently and well. In the meantime, we’ve got to look at ways of cutting our cloth to match our purse and delivering excellence in foreign affairs on a tighter budget,” he said.
He added: “We can squeal about that all we like. If you turn around to me and say, ‘James, would you like your budget doubled?’, I’d say yes. We could use more money efficiently and well, but the bottom line is money’s too tight to mention.”
Development ‘not deprioritised’ in FCO-DfID merger
During the event, Cleverly also addressed concern that development had been “deprioritised” during the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development two years ago.
Earlier this year, the aid watchdog identified a number of problems in the government's aid spending since the merger relating to record-keeping, transparency, and a “strategic drift” in relation to policy among its concerns.
Responding to a question about the appointment of an FCDO development minister to cabinet and how he saw his own role, Cleverly said that when the department was formed in October 2020, “I know there was some disquiet in the development sector that somehow our development work would be deprioritised. And I say [that it was] very much the other way around.”
He said he had been “uncomfortable with development being seen as a kind of a branch line or an appendix to UK foreign policy”.
He shared an anecdote about a time when he had attended an event before he was made a minister in 2019, at which a high commissioner of a Commonwealth country had told him: “I tried to get through to the British government, it's almost impossible to get through with the exception of DfID. I don't want my country to be seen as a charity case.”
Cleverly said: “And that was, for me, one of the slight problems of having DfID separate from foreign policy. Development policy and foreign policy are absolutely intertwined, they must be always talked of in the same breath.”
FCDO ‘must find a way to compete’ for language skills
During an audience Q&A, Cleverly was challenged on a perceived dearth of language skills at the Foreign Office, which he admitted were “incredibly important” but elusive in a competitive marketplace.
Cindy Yu, the Spectator’s broadcast editor and presenter of the publication’s Chinese Whispers podcast, asked the foreign secretary what the department was going to do to bolster its language skills and cultural understanding.
Yu cited an investigation by the Spectator last year that found only 41 people in the Foreign Office spoke Mandarin to the highest level. An FoI request revealed the number of staff who had passed the “gold standard”-level C1 Mandarin exam had fallen by 10% in the five years since 2016.
He began by recommending attendees listen to Yu’s podcast to improve their understanding of China.
But he was unable to set out how the Foreign Office would attract more skilled linguists, saying it was “not an easy question” to answer.
“We have amazing people at the FCDO. I think language skills really, really matter,” he said.
“I don't have language skills. A couple of people have seen my catastrophic attempt at Arabic and frankly worse in terms of German.
“I recognise you can't really know a country or people without really knowing the language of that country or that people, which is why language skills at the FCDO are so incredibly important. But really, really experienced linguists are a small pool – very, very competed for – so you're going to have to find a way to to compete.”