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Budget Resolutions - Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:21 pm on 13th March 2017.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 9:21 pm, 13th March 2017

I welcome this debate. One thing that the Budget shows is that we cannot have properly funded schools and hospitals with a Tory hard Brexit. My schools confirmed that in a meeting I held with the Minister for School Standards and representatives from both a selective and a comprehensive school, both of whom felt that they were going to be under very severe financial pressure as a result of Government funding for schools. Also, on what the Government have offered in terms of health and social care, while the £2 billion over three years is welcome, it clearly will not suffice. As a number of Members have said during the course of various debates, I am sure that in just a year’s time we will have to return to that.

The Budget would have been an opportunity for the Government to roll back their proposed changes to personal independence payments. They claim the withdrawal of mobility funding from people with mental health problems was what was intended in 2012. I urge Ministers to go back and look at the Government response to the consultation in 2012, because that clearly indicated that they did not intend to withdraw those benefits from people with mental health problems.

However, I want to focus most of what I say today on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as it was the Foreign Secretary who opened the debate. Perhaps I have misunderstood the departmental resource budgets, but they seem to show very clearly that the FCO is going to suffer very severe budget cuts, going from £2 billion to £1.2 billion in 2017-18; to £1.2 billion in 2018-19; and to £1.3 billion—going up slightly—in 2019-20. If I have misunderstood those figures, I hope someone will explain them to me, but the Foreign Secretary seems not to be aware of what is happening to the funding for his Department. Perhaps he is thinking that if we add up the budgets of the other Departments that have been created—those for Exiting the European Union and for International Trade—we miraculously we get to roughly the same figure. Well, we do not; we get to less than the £2 billion allocated to the FCO for this year. I hope we will get some clarity on that when the Minister responds, because it is difficult to see how the Foreign Secretary’s claim that this will be a Budget for a global, outward-looking nation will be achieved at a time when the FCO’s budget is plunging.

Other Members have referred to the issue of staff with language skills. We know from a freedom of information request that in June last year fewer than 500 staff in the FCO spoke Russian, Mandarin or Arabic. I wonder what progress has been made on that, given the necessity to strengthen staff numbers in all those areas. The Foreign Secretary was rather dismissive of the concerns being expressed about human rights issues, but I say to him and to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who will respond to the debate, that the Government’s position on Bahrain, Burma, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Yemen makes it clear that human rights are not a priority for them, although trade and arms sales are. This is something that the Government need to take seriously.

There is an area of funding on which I can support the Government, and it relates to the Department for International Development. However, I am worried that the Government are losing their focus on eradicating poverty. There has already been a controversy over the envelope for the CDC. I think it was the spokesperson for the official Opposition who raised the issue of the prosperity fund and the conflict, stability and security fund. Organisations might be doing valuable work, but it is not entirely clear what they are doing or where their funding is coming from. I am waiting for a response to a parliamentary question asking when these funds and activities are going to start appearing on the development tracker, so that we can see what is being spent and, I hope, confirm that it is being spent sensibly on DFID’s priority of eradicating poverty, rather than on slightly less deserving priorities. I hope that the Government will mount a vocal defence of the work that DFID does. I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary did so earlier, because it is clear that the Department and its budget are under a huge amount of scrutiny, if not assault, from certain parts of the press who would be quite happy to see its budget slashed. That is something that the Government must defend.

I should like to finish on a specific issue. I rarely praise the Foreign Secretary, partly because I hold him personally responsible for the decision on Brexit, which I believe is going to do permanent damage to the UK’s economy and to our global influence. He has been outspoken on the issue of Israel and Palestine, however, and I hope that in this anniversary year of the Balfour declaration, he will ensure that the Government recognise Palestine. That would be something of which he could be proud. It would leave a legacy that would be widely recognised internationally, and it would benefit the Palestinians and, in the long term, the Israelis.