Whitehall departments are ‘too parochial’, says Sir Simon Fraser

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 20 November 2017 in News
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Former perm sec argues FCO was disempowered by “unnecessary creation” of Department for International Trade

Sir Simon Fraser, former permanent secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Photo: Jack Lawson

Whitehall departments are “too parochial” and policies in immigration, skills, trade and higher education lack coherency, according to the former Foreign Office permanent secretary. 

Sir Simon Fraser, who headed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 2010 to 2015, warned of the pressures on the foreign and defence budgets ahead of an intervention by former Conservative defence ministers today calling on the chancellor to spend more on the military.

Speaking to Chatham House earlier this month, Fraser also argued that the Foreign Office was “disempowered” by the recent Whitehall reorganisation which led to the “unnecessary creation” of the new Department for International Trade.


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Fraser, who is now deputy chair of Chatham House and a managing partner at business management consultancy Flint Global, laid bare his concerns for Britain’s post-Brexit global standing, arguing that Whitehall will have to be restructured to return power to the Foreign Office. 

“The Foreign Office is not geared up for the task ahead, and has been disempowered by the short-term reorganisation of Whitehall for Brexit - notably the unnecessary creation of a Department for International Trade,” he said. “Whitehall will have to be restructured for the long-term.”

These comments were echoed by Fraser’s successor Sir Simon McDonald, who told the Foreign Affairs Committee last week that the creation of DIT, the Department for International Development and the Department for Exiting the European Union had resulted in a fracturing of British foreign policy. 

The Foreign Office should become the “go-to department for everything to do with overseas”, he said, stopping short of arguing for a dismantling of other departments (he said he had “no argument with [their] existence”).

Fraser, whose speech on the implications of Brexit for Britain’s foreign policy priorities came before the committee hearing, also warned of the “pressure on the defence budget”, the “short-sightedness” of damaging cuts to the relatively small FCO budget and the “imbalance between spending on aid and diplomacy”.

“It is surely obvious that a successful foreign policy outside the EU will require an increase or redirection of resources,” he concluded. 

It has since emerged that the Foreign Office is bidding for a greater share of the UK’s aid budget – official development assistance (ODA) – to which the UK has committed 0.7% of GDP. FCO is currently the second biggest spender of ODA after DfID, and has been rebadging some of its existing work as aid, in order to fund it with ODA and free up capital to spend elsewhere.

In a separate hearing with the Defence Committee last week, the former head of Joint Forces Command, General Sir Richard Barrons, warned of shortfalls in defence spending and said military equipment and training was not fit for purpose.

Four former defence ministers are today expected to urge chancellor Philip Hammond to boost military spending in the Budget this week. 

‘Departments are too parochial’

In comments at Chatham House that the Foreign Affairs Committee chair Tom Tugendhat, a Conservative MP, later referred to as criticism of his FCO successor, Fraser said it was “hard to call to mind a major foreign policy matter on which we have had decisive influence since the referendum”.

Elsewhere in the speech, he cited as evidence the UN vote about the UK’s claim to the Chagos Islands – which Britain lost after several European countries abstained rather than support its position – and the country’s “hesitant responses to Donald Trump’s travel ban and withdrawal from the Paris climate accord”.

Fraser argued that UK’s “political establishment commands little respect abroad”, while the British public at home are unconvinced that those in positions of power are committed to helping them achieve a better life. He called on British officials and politicians to rethink their approach to foreign policy. 

“It is still directed by a specialised elite who think in traditional ways and are relatively inexpert in domestic politics, economics, finance, technology or business. 

“Equally, domestic departments in Whitehall are too parochial. The answer is not simply rearranging familiar foreign policy furniture; we should aspire to a more integrated approach to the world. 

“To take an obvious example, we need immigration, trade, skills and higher education policies that are mutually reinforcing and serve a coherent strategy at home and abroad.”

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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