Who is Philip Barton, new permanent undersecretary to FCDO?

Philip Barton, the newly appointed undersecretary of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Photo by: REUTERS / Thomas Peter

LONDON — The U.K. government has named the civil servant who will lead the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office when it begins work in September.

Philip Barton, who is currently serving as the U.K.’s high commissioner to India, said he was delighted at his appointment as permanent undersecretary to FCDO.

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It is seen as a key appointment in the upcoming merger between the Department for International Development and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and the post-holder will need to provide leadership that can unite the two departments.

The Foreign Affairs Committee, which scrutinizes FCO, had recommended that Parliament hold pre-appointment hearings for the role because of the “the political importance of the position and the increasing role of No. 10 [Downing St.] in senior civil service appointments.” However, the government appeared to have ignored that recommendation.

Barton’s selection was widely praised by U.K. foreign policy experts, but eyebrows were raised among some in the development sector over a reported meeting with the tobacco industry during his time as high commissioner to Pakistan. He has significant diplomatic experience, including working on security matters, but is less well known in the development sector.

“I look forward to bringing together our diplomats and development experts to deliver for the people of the U.K. and act as a force for good around the world,” Barton said.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who will lead the new department in the Cabinet, said Barton was “well placed to bring together the talent and expertise of both departments while helping combine our foreign and development policy in a way that is innovative, ambitious, and more integrated than ever before.”

Andrew Adonis, a Labour peer and former government minister, told Devex that Barton has “immense experience and expertise in diplomacy and the management of the Foreign Office, including Pakistan and India, which are major recipients of British aid. He is well suited to manage the new joint department ...

“Labour people like me don’t have much time for Dominic Raab or the decision to merge DFID with the Foreign Office. But Philip Barton is a good appointment to take it forward," he said.

Significant concerns have been raised about the complex machinery of government change involved in the merger, which some say could cause major disruption to the work of both departments and has caused widespread disquiet among DFID staff, some of whom see it as a “takeover” rather than a merger.

Barton will need to placate staff and navigate complex policy dilemmas.

Peter Ricketts, a grandee of U.K. diplomacy, said it was an “Excellent” choice. He tweeted: “Philip is a wise and widely experienced diplomat, including in countries with major aid programmes like Pakistan, with a calm and approachable manner. Choppy waters ahead for the FCO but this puts a very steady Captain on the bridge!”

Barton is a “really nice guy” but also an “FCO lifer” and a “stunningly conventional” appointment, according to Jill Rutter, senior fellow at the Institute for Government think tank, who said she has known him a long time.

Barton was FCO’s director general of consular and security between 2017 and January 2020, during which time Russian spies tried to assassinate former double agent Sergei Skripal in the U.K. city of Salisbury.

He’s done a lot of “big-hitting” jobs in the foreign policy and security arena, Rutter said. “I think he was perceived to have done a very good job on Russia in the wake of the Skripal poisonings [so] that’s probably what marked him out for the prime minister.”

While Barton has strong experience on the harder side of foreign policy, his postings in fragile countries such as Pakistan and Venezuela — instead of “glitzy European embassies” — probably mean he is more “DFID- [and] development-aware,” Rutter added.

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“If you were saying, ‘Who is a person who can ... see the development side and has seen it on the ground?’ then Philip would definitely be one of those people,” she said.

Sophia Gaston, director of the British Foreign Policy Group, agreed that “having worked in India, Pakistan, and USA, this [appointment] confirms ... the meaningful integration of our foreign and development policy.”

But aid professionals need convincing of the government’s commitment to development policy.

“The success of the new FCDO depends on how well development skills are nurtured and development resources managed. That needs a senior official [dedicated to development] to support Philip Barton, at the level of second permanent secretary,” argued Simon Maxwell, a development commentator.

The government has said there will be only one permanent secretary at the department, however.

There was also some disquiet in the sector about a meeting Barton attended with British American Tobacco and the government of Pakistan while he served as U.K. high commissioner there. The company reportedly used the meeting to lobby against the introduction of more prominent health warnings on cigarette packaging, and Barton was strongly criticized for attending. He was photographed sitting alongside tobacco representatives at the meeting, although FCO insisted that he was not involved in the lobbying efforts and was there to discuss counterfeit packaging.

Update: This story was updated to include additional reporting.

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.