The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has neglected the Commonwealth in recent years and should refocus its attention on the network as Britain prepares to leave the EU, including deploying more staff the the countries that make up the group, MPs have argued.
The Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee has called for a new Commonwealth strategy, ahead of the Commonwealth Summit taking place in London from 16 to 20 April.
It will be the first time the UK has hosted the biennial summit since 1997. The cross-party group of MPs argued this represents an opportunity to finally commit some resources to the rejuvenate the Commonwealth.
During the summit, the UK will assume the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office until 2020. In a new report the committee called on the Foreign Office to set out clear aims for its tenure, including how it will support other departments to feed into a new Commonwealth strategy.
“It is essential that the FCO shows leadership,” the report said.
The FCO was also told to clarify to the other 52 Commonwealth members, mostly former British territories, what they can expect from a post-Brexit “global Britain” – an FCO slogan previously dismissed as a “superficial rebranding exercise” by the same committee.
According to the report, committee members are unconvinced the foreign secretary Boris Johnson sees the Commonwealth as a “sufficiently high priority for ‘Global Britain’”. They warned that simply hosting the summit was not enough, and the FCO needed to dedicate further resources to the Commonwealth.
Johnson told the MPs that the Foreign Office had secured funding for 250 additional staff to be deployed in its global network, with 10 new posts to open overseas. The Commonwealth should be prioritised in deploying these staff and new posts, the report argued.
Committee chair Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP, said the Commonwealth Summit was “a great opportunity for Britain to reset the agenda of one of our most important networks”.
He added: “As the UK assumes the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office, we will be in a unique position of leadership and influence within the organisation. If the FCO is to make a success of its ‘Global Britain’ strategy, it has to show leadership; nowhere is this more important than within the Commonwealth.
“The UK helped to shape this organisation but it has neglected it in recent years. For too long, successive governments have talked about putting the 'C' back in Foreign and Commonwealth Office without investing the resources or energy to deliver. That has to change.”
He called on the Foreign Office to put in place a “credible and distinct” Commonwealth strategy for the long term.
The report also suggested the FCO consider launching an online news channel to broadcast coverage from Commonwealth national broadcasters, and an institutionalised forum where legal practitioners from across the Commonwealth can share best practice on implementing international human rights laws and work together on, for example, cyber security and data protection.
The Foreign Office should also set out how it will build a Commonwealth caucus in the United Nations, the committee said.