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Let me start by saying that, like many other Members, it was my privilege this afternoon to attend the service of celebration for the Commonwealth at Westminster Abbey, in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen. In the context of tonight’s debate, it was a reminder of the powerful and historical ties that Britain enjoys all over the world; we are a country that will always face outwards and never turn in on ourselves, and, like the Secretary of State, I hope that at next year’s service we will have another member of the Commonwealth present, as a democratic Gambia completes the process of re-admission.
I thank the Secretary of State for opening this evening’s debate on the Budget and Britain’s place in the world. It is an issue of vital importance, and yet one that, it is fair to say, has not been centre stage in the five days of the debate on the Budget. If someone had told us last summer that going into article 50 week the Prime Minister and the Chancellor would be at each other’s throats, at war through the media, and engaged in a desperate blame game, while the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs would be sent into the television studios to act for the Government as the voice of calm and unity, no one would have believed them. However, if this is indeed to be his new role—if he is going to be the new Willie Whitelaw figure, or, dare I say it, the new John Prescott—I congratulate him and wish him the very best of luck in the future.
Of course, there will be some unkind souls who look at the row between No. 10 and No. 11 and think it is exactly what the Secretary of State needed this weekend. In their cynical minds, had it not been for that row, much more attention would have focused on Sunday’s real heavyweight contest, the one the public really wanted to see explode, the one between the two Tory blond heavyweights: Hezza versus Bozza; Tarzan versus the Zip-Glider; the Dog-Killer versus the Dave-Slayer. We were denied a true fight, but we were left with these immortal words from Lord Heseltine:
“When I listen to Boris…he has turned the art of political communication into a science” of using
“waffle charm, delay, anything to stop actually answering questions.”
In the rest of my speech, I intend to ask some very straightforward questions on the Budget and Britain’s place in the world, and I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to answer them without waffle or delay, and with no more charm than he feels is absolutely necessary.
It is striking that we are here to debate a Budget that has almost nothing to say about Britain’s place in the world, and with even less to offer for it. I am sure that we could all have predicted some of the rhetoric that we have heard from the right hon. Gentleman tonight about re-entry into world markets, a truly global Britain and an active global Britain. I predict that we will hear more about “brand Britannia” and terms such as “dynamic”, “agile”, “cutting edge”, “global powers”, “global reach” and “global influence”, and about the yacht and exporting boomerangs and so forth—but the question is this: what is the strategy for achieving all that ambition, and how does the Budget provide the resources to back it up? So far, we have seen no evidence of either.
It is not enough simply to want a relationship with Europe that has all of the benefits and none of the costs and to be a leading global power at the same time, or to say, like Tinkerbell, that all we have to do to make it happen is believe that it is possible. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman almost seems to be implying that if we do not believe, or if we ask awkward questions, somehow these things will not happen, and that fairies will start falling from the skies.
It has been said in this debate—and no doubt it will be said again—that the Government are meeting their commitments to spend both 2% of GDP on defence and 0.7% on development, but while these seem like clear commitments, when we scratch the surface there are many unanswered questions, about how funding is split between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, and about how, where, why and on what this money is actually spent.
It seems likely that a large part of the Foreign Office budget over the next few years will come from funding streams that are nominally shared across Departments, most of them with blandly unobjectionable names such as the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund and the Prosperity Fund. The idea of shared funding is perfectly valid in principle, but we need to know how these funds will be used by the Foreign Office. How much will be classed as “aid” spending, and how much as “defence”, and, for that matter, how much will be classed as both? We need to know why there is so little transparency on this issue, and what kind of oversight there is to make sure that these funds are used responsibly. One might, if one was of a suspicious frame of mind, even conclude that the Government are being wilfully opaque in this matter, but I am sure that the Secretary of State will bristle at the very suggestion, and will want to do all he can to dispel such a thought from the debate.
Of course, the reliance of the Foreign Office—perhaps the over-reliance—on funding from outside its budget settlement is really just symptomatic of a much larger and much more damaging trend under this Government. Unlike defence or overseas aid, our diplomatic service lacks the financial security of a politically or legally binding spending target, and I am sorry to say that it shows. Of the three Departments that share most of the responsibility for “Britain’s place in the world”—the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development—the FCO’s budget accounts for just 3% of the combined total, despite the fact that it is every bit as essential as the other two.
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman saw the Financial Times on Friday, which highlighted the real change in Departments’ resource budgets between 2016-17 and 2019-20. It is no surprise—there was a great deal of fuss about this—that there has been a cut of 37.2% to Department for Communities and Local Government budgets, but which Department has the largest cut of all? It is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has a minus 38.1% change to its budget. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr Ellwood may shake his head, and if I am wrong, he should please tell me. I would be interested to see him go into battle with the Financial Times on this matter.
The Department’s budget is already very small, and it comes as no surprise that these cuts have had serious consequences for our standing in the world and for our global reach and influence. To start with, there has been a loss of expertise. We have seen the Government repeatedly being caught by surprise on events of great global significance such as the Arab spring, the crisis in Ukraine and the attempted coup in Turkey. There has been a hollowing out of expertise in these critical areas, not to mention a loss of skilled linguists. If the Secretary of State can tell us what progress has been made on recovering Russian and Arabic language capabilities, for example, I should be very grateful.