What we learned from the FCDO chief's grilling by UK politicians

Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Permanent Under-Secretary Philip Barton. Photo by: Juan Manuel Herrera / OAS / CC BY-NC-ND

LONDON — The top civil servant leading the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office faced a blistering series of questions from politicians Tuesday, and revealed significant uncertainties about how the new department will operate.

Philip Barton, permanent under-secretary at FCDO, faced members of Parliament from the Foreign Affairs Committee, who demanded answers on a range of aspects of U.K. international policy — highlighting the massive breadth of his department’s remit.

Barton was at times lost for words, as he was rebuked by politicians over alleged shortcomings in the FCDO strategy and the treatment of its staff. He has only been with FCDO since its opening in September, after being recalled from a brief stint as high commissioner to India to run the department, which was created via a merger between the Department for International Development and Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

Barton was joined by FCDO’s Director General of Finance and Corporate Juliet Chua. Here’s what we learned from their run-in with the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Priorities for FCDO, supporting British business

Barton outlined three priorities for the department: Ensuring the merger was “genuinely transformational”; a “relentless focus on delivering the government’s agenda;” and looking after FCDO staff, saying he felt a “very keen responsibility for our greatest asset” and wanted to improve diversity and representation. It comes after concerns were raised by a union representing civil servants.

As well as mentioning the well-being and security of staff, he said he wanted to build FCDO’s “capabilities” including improving the department’s language skills, economic and data literacy, and the ability to support U.K. trade and commerce.

Barton said this was to support the Department for International Trade and “more broadly supporting British business, but also creating in some countries where we have a development effort, creating new markets and making sure that as we help countries with their own economic development that is leading to British business opportunities.”

“We’ve been clear and honest with staff that the overall organization is not going to be as large as the two organizations [FCDO and DFID] put together in total.”

— Philip Barton, permanent under-secretary, FCDO

However, the picture for staff is far from clear

On working culture, Barton said, “we don’t want people thinking ‘did X or Y come from DFID or the FCO … but actually thinking has this person got the right skills for the job?’”

But while “everyone has carried on doing their old jobs,” according to Barton, the department is moving to restructure its directors, for which it is recruiting 42 new people. “One of the risks around mergers is you risk being too large at the top,” he said. “We’ve been clear and honest with staff that the overall organization is not going to be as large as the two organizations [FCDO and DFID] put together in total.”

Chua said there were areas where “duplications … of similar functions” had been identified between the work of former DFID and FCO officials. She added that the department would be looking at areas for efficiency improvements while taking into account the Treasury’s spending review and FCDO’s emerging structure.

“Our intention is to have the majority of the team integrated by spring, April next year,” she said.

The government has insisted there will be no compulsory redundancies as a result of the merger but the Public and Commercial Services Union says some staff have been left in a “precarious” position due to unclear nationality requirements and contracts that are due to expire. Barton said Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is still “considering” whether jobs in the department will be reserved for U.K. nationals.

The department’s widely-anticipated “Indo-Pacific tilt” will also require “increased effort” from FCDO staff, but whether new positions will be created or officials will be repurposed from elsewhere will be “dependent on the outcome of spending review and resources we have going forward,” according to Barton.

Budget uncertainty continues

Following the cancellation of the U.K. government’s three year spending review, FCDO — which has numerous multiyear spending commitments — will need to negotiate with Treasury officials about how much money it can get and when.

Barton revealed FCDO was still working to a three year spending plan and would be approaching next year as “the first year of a three year approach … we are very keen to make sure we can do medium to long term planning”.

“Under all scenarios, we will want to make sure that we are putting forward a strong case for continuing to fund ambitious programs and preserve our core funding streams and to be able to make progress on a one year towards a multi year picture in terms of how we operate as an organization,” Chua added.

The officials said they would continue to follow economic forecasts for signs of potential changes to the aid budget — worth 0.7% of the UK’s gross national income — but would not say if they expected an increased budget next year. The department was forced to make cuts of £2.9 billion ($3.7 billion) earlier this year in response to economic pressures brought on by the pandemic.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.