The Foreign Office is looking to recruit 100 extra staff to work on Brexit, on top of the 50 diplomats currently being deployed across European capitals.
Top officials in the department are having “advanced conversations” with the Treasury over releasing money for this “second tranche”, and the outcome of those talks may be announced in next week’s Budget.
Sir Simon McDonald, permanent secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, told MPs yesterday that he was disappointed that FCO had been slow to deploy extra staff in Europe following the referendum.
He also set out his goals as perm sec, including making the Foreign Office more agile and the “go-to department for everything to do with overseas”, as well as taking a larger share of the UK’s aid budget.
Speaking to the Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, McDonald said it was “disappointing” that many of the 50 diplomats – who have been transferred from other posts as part of an internal reprioritisation exercise – are not yet in post even though half the period between the Brexit vote and likely March 2019 exit day has already gone by.
This is the biggest thing that’s going to hit us, we recognised that straight away, but actually reacting to that takes more time than I would have liked,” he said.
He told the committee it had cost £4.2m to redeploy those staff, and that money for recruiting the extra 100 people would come from the £250m pot Treasury has promised departments for Brexit work.
“We are looking to recruit – temporality for the task in hand – over 100 extra people, but the details of that will come out soon,” he said, adding later that an announcement might be made in the Budget next week.
Asked about his priorities for the Foreign Office, McDonald appeared to lament the curtailed role of the FCO in foreign policy following the EU referendum, but insisted that the department still had influence even though it is not “in the room” for Brexit talks.
“We need to be the go-to department for everything to do with overseas,” he said. “Over the last period, our international policy has become more fragmented.
“With the creation of DfID, with the creation of DIT, with the creation of DExEU, there are now multiple players in international policy. After we leave the European Union it all needs to be more joined up and I think the Foreign Office should lead that.”
Pressed on whether he believed those departments should be subsumed by FCO, McDonald said he had “no argument with [their] existence” but suggested that it was less effective to have many separate policies across Whitehall, and the Foreign Office should lead the UK’s “overall foreign policy”.
It was thought that foreign secretary Boris Johnson had his eye on an FCO takeover of the Department for International Development, speculation former development secretary Priti Patel was forced to reject last month.
McDonald also said yesterday his department was seeking to gain a greater share of the aid budget – official development assistance (ODA) – to which the UK has committed 0.7% of GDP. FCO is the second biggest spender of ODA after DfID.
Andrew Sanderson, FCO’s finance director, told the committee that ODA now makes up a little over 40% of the department’s core budget, up from around 6% in 2010. This is due to rise to around 45% over the spending review period.
It is reviewing existing work to see if it could be rebadged as aid work and funded from ODA, freeing up capital to spend elsewhere in the diplomatic budget.
McDonald was also asked to comment on the resignation last week of Patel, who was forced out of the Cabinet after it emerged she had met with Israeli officials while on a family holiday without the knowledge of the Foreign Office.
He said ministers have historically informed the civil service of trips to politically sensitive places “by convention” rather than obligation, though the process has been reviewed in recent days.
“The ministerial code, I think, is going to be changed to make things clearer,” McDonald added.
The new international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, has pledged to build on the work of her predecessor on transparency and driving value for money, writing in the Daily Telegraph this week that DfID officials should feel they have to compete for cash like charities.