HC Deb 16 July 1969 vol 787 cc611-7
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Michael Stewart)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement on the Report of the Review Committee on Overseas Representation, which has today been laid before the House.

The House will recall that last August I invited Sir Val Duncan, Sir Frank Roberts and Mr. Andrew Shonfield to report urgently on the means of obtaining the best value for money from our overseas representation, having regard to our foreign and defence policies and the economic situation and all that these imply for Britain's rôle in the world.

Their report is far-ranging and draws many important conclusions. These concern a wide variety of matters, from broad issues of policies and priorities to quite detailed points of management. Some of them concern questions which lie outside my direct responsibility. Some are very much in line with thoughts and practices which we ourselves had been developing; others—and I very much welcome this—are novel and suggest new departures in ways of handling the problems concerned.

While the Government warmly welcome the Committee's general approach, my colleagues and I feel that before we can give a specific endorsement to its conclusions, we need to go further into their probable consequences, their implications for the standard and range of our services overseas, and their effect on foreign policy as a whole.

The publication of the report will give many persons inside and outside this House an opportunity to consider these issues. I do not think that it would be right for the Government to commit themselves too deeply before they have had the benefit of this opportunity. I have, therefore, initiated studies and consultations on the report. These include discussions with the appropriate staff associations.

At the same time, I should like to say that I very much welcome the tribute which the Committee has paid to the high standard of our overseas services, and particularly to the competence and adaptability of Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service.

I am sure that the House will join me in thanking Sir Val Duncan and his colleagues for devoting so much of their time to this important task, which they discharged speedily and thoroughly. They have produced a penetrating and objective survey, which has already had a valuable effect in stimulating our own consideration of these problems, and which will be an essential guide through the challenging years ahead.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that we have a mass of important business ahead. There can be only a few questions, and brief ones.

Mr. Wood

I join the Secretary of State in his expression of gratitude to Sir Val Duncan and his colleagues. Am I right in assuming that it is their full report which has been laid before the House? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we shall need time to study the Committee's conclusions, as he suggested, because it is rather difficult from his statement to gather anything that might be in the report?

Although it is clearly right that we should re-examine the needs of our representation abroad, we shall obviously want to consider the particular proposals that are made in the report. Will the levels of any compensation necessary be sufficient to maintain morale in the Service which is obviously essential if, in the right hon. Gentleman's own words, "the high standard of our overseas services" is to be maintained?

Mr. Stewart

There is a sentence on the first page of the report which explains that the published version of the Report includes the full text as originally submitted with the exception only of certain specific references which it was agreed with the Committee should be omitted on security and similar grounds. These omissions are of small significance in the context of the Report as a whole…" On the second and main point, I accept that my statement does not inform the House of everything that is in the report; nor, without unduly trespassing on the patience of the House, could it have done so. What I wanted to do in this statement was to explain our agreement with the report's general approach and the fact that before specific recommendations could be endorsed it was necessary for the Government to have opinions from people both inside and outside the House; and for that purpose we have been having consultations.

I am well aware that the question of redundancies is important. It is clear that, if we proceed on the general lines of the report, within measurable time the total size of the Diplomatic Service will be less than if there had been no such report. Indeed, as hon. Members will see when they study the report, this would involve substantial savings, but whether this means redundancies or whether it can be achieved by the ordinary process of retirement cannot be definitely stated at this stage. The question of compensation for redundancy is being considered as part of the current review of Civil Service superannuation.

Mr. Driberg

Would my right hon. Friend consider that the very fact of military withdrawal from east of Suez, which is fully supported on this side of the House, may itself make it more necessary that we should retain a strong diplomatic and what might be called a cultural presence in many countries throughout the world, not least in the Commonwealth?

Mr. Stewart

My hon. Friend will find that the central proposition of the report is this. First, that it is both possible and desirable to secure a reduction in the total membership of the Diplomatic Service. Secondly, that in deciding how that is to be done the criterion must always be the relevance of the mission in any particular part of the world to the interests of Britain, regarding as our dominant interest at the present time the maintenance of our commercial interests and the improvement of our balance of payments. This is the general approach of the report, and I believe it to be a right one.

Mr. James Davidson

Does the Secretary of State agree that on the whole our missions abroad are somewhat lavishly staffed by comparison with comparable countries, such as West Germany and France? In view of the increased emphasis on commercial representation, what is the right hon. Gentleman's attitude to the seconding of personnel from the Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Service to industry and vice versa?

Mr. Stewart

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's suggestion about staffing can be borne out. I do not think that a reading of the report will support it.

We hope to arrange the type of exchange referred to by the hon. Gentleman and are considering what can be done about it.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

As one who has spent a good many years of his life in the Foreign Office, may I endorse the Foreign Secretary's tributes to the work of the Diplomatic Service in times gone by? Will he assure us that the House will have an opportunity of debating the report before the Government implement it?

Mr. Stewart

The question of a debate is not for me. I made my statement today, in effect, to invite study of and comment on the report, and I very much hope that in due time there will be opportunity for the House to consider it more fully.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Will the Foreign Secretary accept that many of us who have high regard for Sir Val Duncan nevertheless question some of the major premises in his report? In particular, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House now whether the report says, among other things, that the Government are guilty of ambiguity of intention in their foreign and defence policies? Is this, perhaps, one of the reasons why his statement has been so unforthcoming today?

Mr. Stewart

No, Sir; it is now open to all hon. Members to read the report, and I do not think that they will reach the conclusion which the hon. Gentleman reaches.

Dr. John Dunwoody

Can my right hon. Friend comment on reports that the Duncan Committee suggested that the British Council should have a much larger and more significant rôle to play, particularly in cultural exchanges and information services?

Mr. Stewart

I do not want to be drawn into trying to give summaries of matters in a report which hon. Members will wish to read in detail. Several recommendations are made about the activities of the British Council which we shall wish to discuss with the Council.

Sir C. Mott-Radclyffe

Now that the Diplomatic Service has been subjected twice in five years to a major inquiry, the first being the Plowden Commission and the second being the Duncan Committee, and both those inquiries having rightly paid a warm tribute to the work of the Service, would it not now be the best thing to allow the Service to get on with its work quietly, without any further committees of inquiry in the offing?

Mr. Stewart

After this report, which hon. Members will realise, when they come to study it, is a very impressive piece of work, I can see no ground for further inquiry for some considerable time to come.

Mr. Luard

The Press has reported, and the Foreign Secretary has tended to confirm today, that the report recommends a concentration of our diplomatic effort in Europe and in North America. Although there may well be economies to be made by concentrating some diplomatic activity for more than one country in a single embassy, would it not be disastrous, especially as we are now withdrawing militarily from Asia and other parts of the world, as my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) pointed out, if we were to neglect the importance of continents such as Africa, Asia and Latin America at present simply because our commercial interests are concentrated in North America and Europe?

Mr. Stewart

I am sure that it is not the intention of the report, and it would certainly not be the Government's view, that one should neglect any area. I think that one may put it in this way. The report pictures a gradation from what it calls an area of concentration where there would be comprehensive missions, then places which would be outside areas of concentration but would still require comprehensive missions, then places which would require what are called selective missions but with some reinforcement, and then places which would have the minimum selective mission.

One's decision as to which kind of mission is required in any particular country cannot be rigid for all time; it must change as the pattern of world trade and power changes. But the decision one makes at any time ought to be related to the relevance of any particular post to British interests, and although among British interests one must put our commercial interests very high, this is not exclusive of the other matters mentioned by my hon. Friend.

Viscount Lambton

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the diplomatic downgrading of any country will cause offence and be likely to discourage increase of trade?

Mr. Stewart

I do not think so. I do not see why it should cause any offence if this or any country said that it proposed to arrange its diplomatic representation in a manner which gave the best deployment of the total number of people employed in proportion to the work which they had to do.

Sir G. de Freitas

If the principle of concentration on Europe and North America is accepted, will my right hon. Friend see that potential recruits to the Service at present in the universities realise that they will spend part of their career in the interesting and stimulating outer world and not merely in Washington, Brussels and London?

Mr. Stewart

I should always assume that anyone taking up a career in the Diplomatic Service would expect to serve in many different parts of the world, partly in what are called the areas of concentration and partly in those which lie outside.

Sir K. Joseph

Is it not odd that there is no representative of the Board of Trade here this afternoon? The President of the Board of Trade rejected only a month ago any idea of the reorganisation, which many people have suggested is necessary, of the export promotion services of the Government and industry. Does that rejection still stand in the light of the Duncan Report?

Mr. Stewart

In the light of the Duncan Report, there will obviously have to be consultations between my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and myself.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House.