Spending Review 2015: Shield the Foreign Office from George Osborne’s cuts call, say MPs

Foreign Affairs Committee says FCO failing to prioritise human rights as resources are squeezed

The Foreign Office should be protected from further cuts in the upcoming Spending Review, a committee of MPs has said.

In its latest report, the Foreign Affairs Committee called on the government to shield the FCO from the Treasury’s push for unprotected government departments to find savings of between 25% and 40% from their resource budgets.

The MPs said the demands on the department were “greater than ever”, and that they were “disturbed” by FCO permanent secretary Sir Simon McDonald's comment that the human rights agenda was “not one of the top priorities” for the FCO.

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“We believe this to be a consequence of the savings imposed so far,” the committee said.

“Whilst the government may choose to force the FCO to downgrade human rights as a priority by imposing severe spending reductions, this committee believes in the ongoing importance of promoting human rights, will continue to scrutinise the FCO’s work in this area, and expects the government to properly resource it.”

The committee argued that there was “limited scope” for the department to make further efficiency savings.

And it pointed to the chaos in the Middle East, the EU renegotiation and forthcoming referendum, and the “security instability” caused by the rise of China as some of the challenges the FCO must face in coming years.

“In short, we cannot recall a more complex and challenging policy-making environment in recent decades, and the FCO needs to have the diplomatic and analytical capability to re-assert its leading role in foreign policy-making,” committee chairman Crispin Blunt said.

Speaking to the committee as it conducted its inquiry, the FCO’s perm sec told MPs he was not "gloomy" about the department’s prospects at the November 25 Spending Review.

While McDonald acknowledged that a "blunt 25%" cut to FCO funding would lead to the department scaling back its ambitions, he said he believed the Foreign Office could "negotiate better than that”.

"Even though the focus in this Spending Round is on reducing non-protected departments, we in the FCO are looking at what we could do if we had more," he said. 

"We’re looking particularly at the Russia part of our policy, strengthening our efforts in Eastern Europe and in Russia. We’re looking at the CT (counter-terrorism) agenda – this is part of a cross-Whitehall agenda – and we’re looking at how we manage our soft power."

The FCO was asked to reduce its real terms resource budget by 10% at the 2010 Spending Review, with a further 6.3% cut imposed in 2013. 

In June, the department was also asked to shave another £20m from its budget.

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