Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witness (Questions 160-179)



  160. I am talking about the new network.
  (Mr Kirk) If it is part of the IT kit that hangs on the end of the network there are stocks of spares deployed around the world available.

  161. In posts?
  (Mr Kirk) In most posts, not in all posts yet. There are also people, Technical Management Officers, who are themselves deployed around the world who have the right diplomatic visas to be able to get into the countries that they are not resident in quickly so that they can get in to support the equipment. This is an area which we have traditionally used to cover our communications requirements and we are now looking to extend it across into our secure IT requirement. I would not say yet that our coverage is perfect or that our response is as fast as it needs to be in the posts where we do not have a resident technical officer.

  162. How fast do you think it should be?
  (Mr Kirk) I think that for the sort of faults that you expect to have fairly commonly on these systems, we ought to be able to fix them certainly within half a working day.

  163. You mean you have somebody travel from another country, be in the post and fix it within half a day?
  (Mr Kirk) Most of those faults can either be fixed by—

  164. I am talking about the ones that cannot be.
  (Mr Kirk)—swapping with the ones you have in post or by remote access, and that is what we are trying to achieve. For posts which require a technical person actually to be present on site, the only way that we can do that with a secure system is by getting somebody there if we do not have somebody already posted there. We have quite a large number of these technical management officers, about 70, deployed overseas at the moment.

  165. So what is the time span that you are targeting for with the location of your specialist officers around different places?
  (Mr Kirk) If it is in the post in which they are resident it is as soon as they can get to the piece of equipment. That could be minutes, it could be hours. Again, it depends if it is a particularly sophisticated piece of equipment that has to be sent out from the UK.

  Mr Chidgey: What have you designed into your system as the maximum time you allow?

  Chairman: I think we are in a vast series of technical questions which I am sure, Sir John, you would answer but I would like to move on to Sir John Stanley.

Sir John Stanley

  166. Sir John, Mr Rowlands asked you a very big question about possible new diplomacy and I would like to ask you an equally big question about the oldest responsibility of your Office, and that is featured in the first of the benefits you hold out to the people of this country in your mission statement, the benefit headed, "Security", in which you say, "We shall ensure the security of the United Kingdom and the dependent territories and peace for our people." In the last century we looked to the Foreign Office to be the eyes and ears of the elected British Government to assess the risks and to pinpoint where the next war was coming from. I think the historians would judge sometimes the Foreign Office got it right and sometimes they got it fairly spectacularly wrong. In this century it is certainly arguable that the role of the Foreign Office in this area is going to be focusing every bit as much on where the next war is coming from, and possibly more focused on where the next major terrorist is coming from, both state terrorism and non-state terrorism. Given the nature of modern conventional weapons, the conventional explosives, and given the nature and the range of weapons of mass destruction and the proliferation of information about those weapons and means whereby they can be put together, I would like to ask you whether or not you feel satisfied that your department is retaining a sufficient degree of focus in this key security area of acting as the eyes and ears of our country round the world in trying to alert our elected government to security threats to this country coming from overseas, and of course including the dependent territories. Do you feel satisfied that with all the pressures on you to make money for Britain, which we all understand, the human rights agenda, the huge panoply of international negotiations, you are retaining a sufficient focus on what is the bottom line responsibility of your department, which is to be sufficiently resourced and sufficiently expert and sufficiently well orientated in trying to alert the government of this country to terrorist threats and also, of course, threats of war but particularly terrorist threats?
  (Sir John Kerr) Chairman, I agree with Sir John about the importance of the question and I am sure the answer is yes. It remains number one among our objectives quite deliberately. If we fail on that priority, it does not really matter about the rest; and on that I completely agree with Sir John. I also agree with the point lurking behind his question which is that it has got more difficult. It was relatively easy—it was always difficult—to know where to focus one's effort in a Cold War situation, it is much more difficult in a situation where the enemy is as likely to be a terrorist as an unfriendly regime or foreign army. It is a priority task for our posts. Our Counter Terrorism Policy Department is one of the growing departments in the Office. It is a key preoccupation of the International Security Policy Command working with other agencies who are also similarly targeted. From my personal view of course the terrorist threat is high among my preoccupations because it is my job to worry about the security of our missions abroad which are a prime target for unfriendly people, and in some ways a surrogate target. Our American friends spend very large sums of money strengthening the security of their missions. There is a risk that our terrorist foe might decide we were a soft target. We are spending quite a lot of money ourselves in dealing with that and I would be happy to talk about that when we move into restricted session, Chairman.

  Chairman: I am obliged.

Sir David Madel

  167. To add one thing, Sir John mentioned that the Foreign Office had to anticipate where the next war is coming from, and that has changed obviously now, but you are also anticipating where the next threat of serious instability is coming from. I would just like to ask, over the last few months has Russia got more unstable?
  (Sir John Kerr) No, I think in the last few months central authority has strengthened in Russia. I think Mr Putin's Russia looks less likely to move into further deliquescence. That has a hard edge to it. The methods used, for example, in Chechnya are methods which can cause disquiet even to those of us who would wish to see authority maintained inside Russia. I think it is necessary to find in Moscow somebody a position in Chechnya. I do not think Russia is more likely to fall apart now than it was two or three years ago, in fact I would say it is rather less likely to fall apart. There is more money in Russian pockets, the export position is quite different. There is visibly more rule of law or perhaps sometimes rule by law but the central authority is stronger than it was in the latter days of Yeltsin. So I would think not. You also ask me a very difficult question, where is the area of greatest instability. If you take a long-term view and start taking account of population growth and relative economic strength, I think there is no doubt that the Mediterranean will remain very volatile long-term. It does not look like a stable situation if the population on the north shore of the Mediterranean is set to decline while the population on the south shore will certainly double in the next 15 years. The answer to that must be that the north shore must be a little less protectionist and the European Union must be more open in its trading relationship with the south shore, because if the jobs are not kept in the Maghreb, the people will cross the Mediterranean. I think that is, in the medium term, the most unstable situation in our neighbourhood. The Balkans, of course, are still an area of instability but the situation looks less unstable than it did two years ago. I also worry about the threat from Afghan-based terrorism to the Central Asian republics where, with the encouragement of this Committee, we have invested much more effort.


  168. You are opening in Jushek Bishkek.
  (Sir John Kerr) And we will open a post in Bizhkek in Kyrgyzstan, which I am sure is right. Kyrgyzstan is a country under particular threat from terrorism from across the border. I think there are many people in Central Asia who need more encouragement from their friends outside to stand up to the threats. But I think the existential threat to Russia is diminishing.

Mr Maples

  169. I want to ask a couple of questions about the allocation of resources in the budget. If you were to go back to your office and discover the Foreign Secretary had wheedled an extra £30 million out of the Chancellor, what would you spend it on? What is high on your shopping list which would really make a difference?
  (Sir John Kerr) I think I would ask these three people to work harder! I would like Matthew to introduce IT—which is really the most important thing for us to do. It improves the efficiency of everything else we do even faster. He does have a financial constraint, he also has physical constraints on how much he can actually do. I would ask Denise to recruit still more, so that we can improve our training and professionalism still further. With Peter, I would want to extract more money from him to expand our network of posts a bit further and go on strengthening the posts that we have. I was very struck by what the Committee said when they visited the Cauacus and the Caspian and warned us they were not sure the little posts first established when the Soviet Union first collapsed had critical mass. I thought that was completely correct. We have spent quite a lot of effort in increasing the size of these posts. There were 22 UK-based staff there in 1997, there are 34 now. There were 45 locally-based staff in the six posts, there are now 91. So we have had a 50 per cent increase in people from London and a 100 per cent increase in people locally engaged. I think the Committee was quite right there but they are still very small posts—Yerevan, Ashgabat, four or five London-based people; Almaty, eight people. Kazakhstan is a huge, potentially very rich country, there is enormous commercial opportunity there, but we are still doing it on a shoestring; a very good shoestring, of course, extremely good people. If you gave me another £30 million I think I would do everything faster.

  170. I thought that is roughly what you would say. You are right, this Committee is always urging you to open something here or opening something in Podronica or a mission somewhere else or strengthen a mission somewhere, and it seems to be an aim which you share if you had the money. I am interested in that regard in that your department spends nearly a quarter of its budget on the British Council and the BBC World Service, about £300 million out of £1.25, so about a quarter. I am not going to ask you to justify this but can I preface this by saying that there are 50 billion people in China learning English, so does it really need the British Council to encourage people to learn English? I know it does other things but that is one of its primary functions. There are commercial language schools all over the place where people are only too willing to pay, and most state education systems are much better than we are at teaching foreign languages and people are learning those languages in schools. As far as international news services are concerned from the free western world with its collected values, which is roughly what the BBC does—a relatively impartial source of news and information about the outside world and transmitting our sort of values of liberalism and free trade and human rights—there are any number of commercial news services which are providing this. In view of what you say you could do with £30 million, is it really sensible to spend £300 million on these two institutions?
  (Sir John Kerr) Yes, I am Oliver Twist, I would want £5 million to share with them too. I sit on the board of the Council, so I am totally schizophrenic. The Council accepts it is not its job to compete with private sector English language teaching providers in developed markets, and it is getting out of that to the extent it is in it. In China, it has a role on English language teaching as being the marker, the centre of excellence, the standard by which the Chinese mark others who are trying to provide English language teaching. It does a lot of other good things in China as well, particularly its programme on government legal reform which I think is crucial, not just from the human rights agenda point of view but from the commercial point of view. If the Chinese develop the habit of writing their commercial contracts under English law, that would be an enormous benefit to the City of London for a very long time. As for the BBC World Service, 42 vernacular services, that is what our money basically goes on. They are important tools of diplomacy. I am not allowed to influence editorial content but they have to consult the Foreign Office if they wish to close down a vernacular service. Some of them clearly are not profit-making and there is no income stream which flows from broadcasting in these languages, but there is a national interest that the BBC World Service should be heard. I also think, by the way, the World Service are almost as interesting on IT as is Matthew Kirk at the Foreign Office. The way they are moving up-market and going on line in places like China is extremely impressive and they have a very, very large audience. So I think we want more of everything please.

  171. So if you had a bit more money, you would share some of it with them even though they are already getting a quarter of the department's budget?
  (Sir John Kerr) The present shares are the broad historical pattern. It has to be said that in the last years of the last government there were sharp cuts on the Council. That has now been turned round and I think correctly so. I think there is a synergy between what we do and what the Council does. In some countries they can do things which embassies cannot do, or it is more difficult for embassies to do. In some places they cannot. In some places they come in under embassy cover and have an office inside the embassy. Their network across Russia is an extremely impressive network, they have many more posts there than I do, and I think that is correct. I am quite a strong supporter of the Council.

Mr Rowlands

  172. I am coming from a completely different position from John. This Committee has actually fought for the British Council's budget over the years particularly in those couple of contentious years you talked about. What puzzles me is we thought we had won, or partly won, and the British Council's budget was rising. We had a note from them about the grant-in-aid allocations and I will only read the regional ones. West and South Europe is going to be minus 24 per cent in the next three or four years; plus 6 per cent in Central and Eastern Europe; minus 12 per cent in the Americas; minus 6 per cent in East Asia and the Pacific; plus 1 per cent in South Asia, minus 3 per cent in Sub Saharan Africa and minus 5 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa. I thought we had actually expanded the British Council budget. In all these regions bar one there is actually a reduction.
  (Sir John Kerr) Apples and oranges. You are right, encouraged by this Committee the Government has increased quite sharply, by 10 per cent, the grant to the British Council. The British Council has had a strategic review, doing the same sort of job we have been doing, looking at IT. The reductions you describe are the reductions in British Council offices, British Council spend in the areas in question, because the British Council too is going on line big time. There is a huge increase in centrally-provided British Council project and programming content. The controversial area is Germany where—

  173. £4 million I think it is.
  (Sir John Kerr)—where they are closing a network of posts. They will be spending more money on Germany but they will not be spending it by maintaining small lending libraries in particular cities. This is because they have done a bit of research and established that the use of these lending libraries is not very cost effective. They are aiming at elites, just as the BBC World Service are. The BBC World Service closed their German language service because they discovered the audience they wanted to get at in Germany nearly all understood English. The comparable effect in the Council has been that they have established that their German audience basically was already on-line and they were not on line to their audience. I think the money is going to be rather well used. There are closures which are causing some pain here and there, but I know of one British Council library around the world where we on the British Council Board worked out that it would actually be more cost effective to close the library and buy the books from Waterstones next door and give them to the people who wanted to read them. So the British Council have made some quite difficult decisions quite correctly.


  174. Correct in accordance with FCO priorities, because there will be a reduction in the applicant countries to the EU and that accords with your priorities?
  (Sir John Kerr) We give a strategic guidance to the Council. It is certainly in accordance with our strategic guidance. It is not a very detailed strategic guidance, they are allowed to make their own judgments country by country, but, Chairman, it is not the case that for the six applicant countries in the first wave, or the six in the second wave, taken together, or taken one by one, the British Council is reducing its investment. It is if you take Ted's numbers and if you take the offices, but if you take the proportion of the British Council budget which is going to be spent in these countries or on these countries, some of it from the centre, it is rising. And that is with FCO encouragement because, as you say, we have a particular interest in making more of an impact in these applicant countries.

Mr Rowlands

  175. Perhaps I show my old fashioned nature but we have heard a lot, and we have had it all day from Mr Leonard and Co as well, about the internet and the new ways of contact, and obviously they are, but a physical presence is important. I remember in Prague the significance of that British Council office in some of the worst times when people used to sneak in there at night—we were there to observe them—in the last months of the old regime. The physical presence of an office like that is extremely important both symbolically and in practical terms. So you might become visible on a screen, but you become invisible on the ground. Perhaps we end up with Mr Leonard's virtual embassies.
  (Sir John Kerr) I accept the point. Mr Rowlands is right, but Prague is not the Prague he is remembering. Prague is a place where our embassy in those days, which he will remember vividly, was a small place which was very enclosed, felt very watched because it was very watched, kept quite a good eye on the Foreign Ministry, tried to keep an eye on the Defence Ministry. We now have an embassy which is a lot bigger, which is very public, which needs to get to know the Ministry of Industry, the Ministry of Agriculture, because these guys are coming into the European Union to vote on our laws, so we need to look at them. It is a completely different society there now. There are places in the world where that particular function—the candle burning in the night function—is still very important, and the Council will go on carrying it out where it is relevant.

  Chairman: Sir John Stanley on this point about new posts, then I shall come to Mr Rowlands

Sir John Stanley

  176. The question I want to put to you, Sir John, is this. Under your departmental arrangements with the Treasury do you have freedom, within your cash limit, to open up a new post without Treasury agreement? The reason I am putting that to you is that in our supplementary list of questions we asked you to set out the procedures that your department followed in opening up new posts, and in the series of questions we put to you the last one was "Is there Treasury involvement at any of these stages?" In the middle of your reply there is this little sentence which says that "HM Treasury are not directly involved". Why did you use the word "directly"?
  (Sir John Kerr) Because I was concerned, as always, to be totally honest with the Committee. They are involved, because if they decided we could have no more money, then we would not be able to open up more posts. They are involved in the annual exercise when the departmental budgets are fixed in Whitehall. But we no longer have what Sir John will remember, Treasury attempts to micro-manage the use of that money, and decisions on where we open posts, or where we close posts, or where we strengthen posts are now decisions for us, within a quantum of money which we have had to negotiate with the Treasury. It is also the case that sometimes, in making the case for more money, we adduce as a particular plank in our argument the need for more posts, often adducing the support of our friends in, say, the Foreign Affairs Committee. It would therefore be slightly awkward, not just vis-a"-vis the Treasury, if, having got the money, we ran off with it and did not open the post. So they are indirectly involved because we have, in the process of negotiating on the quantum of resources, talked illustratively about what we will do with them.

  177. But within the cash limits, you are then free to decide where you have the posts, where are the places you have new posts, within the agreed cash limits, without any further reference to the Treasury?
  (Sir John Kerr) Yes.

Mr Illsley

  178. I have a few questions on relations with Parliament. First of all, has there been any progress on the proposed induction course for new Members of Parliament, which was suggested? Have there been any steps taken to involve Members of Parliament in Foreign Office seminars?
  (Sir John Kerr) Thank you, Mr Illsley. Yes, we were grateful for the advice that the Committee gave us in the winter, in December or January. We will, when a new House assembles, as you advised, be running a series of contacts and induction meetings in the Foreign Office, to tell new Members what we do. We will, following the Committee's advice, focus that particularly on the consular and entry clearance bits of our business. We will be carrying forward our seminars. We maintain the two courses that we run for our staff. Also, of course—I am not quite sure how to put it—we will be very sorry to lose the excellent Clerk from this House who is sitting behind me, who is on loan to us and has been beefing up our parliamentary operations. Alas, I hear that another of your Committees has decided to make him its clerk, so we shall lose him, but we very much hope that the Clerk of the House will send us somebody else, as it has been a great advantage to us to have him.

  179. Turning, then, to the percentage of named day Parliamentary Questions answered on the day named, that has now increased from 66 per cent to 85 per cent. I would like to ask, how close are you to achieving your goal of answering all named day questions on the actual day or within the week in which they are asked?
  (Sir John Kerr) Can you remind me which page we are looking at?

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