New FCDO Permanent Under-Secretary gives evidence on the UK’s foreign policy priorities

On 10 November 2010, Sir Philip Barton KCMG OBE, Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and Head of the Diplomatic Service, gave his first evidence session to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (FASC). He was joined by Juliet Chua, Director General, Finance and Corporate, at the FCDO. Below, we summarise some of the most pertinent revelations of a rich and insightful discussion.

FCDO Priorities

Sir Philip Barton set out his priorities for his tenure, which will span a dynamic period of change in the UK’s foreign policy apparatus:

1. Ensuring the FCO and DFID merger is truly ‘transformational’, leveraging the benefits of an integrated development and diplomatic policy to ensure they become “more than the sum of their parts”.

2. Ensuring the safety of the FCDO’s staff, but also ensuring the FCDO is hiring the brightest talents, is reflective of the diversity of the UK, and then building the capabilities of its staff – including building new skills and strengths in data, economics, languages and trade policy.

3. Ensuring the UK’s diplomatic corps are effective, and delivering a “relentless focus” on the UK’s foreign policy ambitions.

In terms of his personal role as a diplomat and the substance of the FCDO’s work, he highlighted:

– The need for an authentic moral mission around the notion of the UK as a ‘force for good in the world’ – citing media freedom, and the Magnitsky sanctions;

– The potential for trade to be better integrated and more central to the UK’s foreign policy – leaving open the question as to whether DIT will ultimately find itself within the FCDO – and as a bridge between domestic and international policy; and

– Shepherding the transition as the UK leaves the European Union.

COP26 and the G7

When pressed on the UK’s tools to deploy in achieving its ambitions, Sir Philip Barton highlighted both the COP26 summit and the UK’s presidency of the G7 next year as crucial platforms through which to project power and influence. Expanding on the detail around their measures of success, Sir Philip said:

– To ensure meaningful outcomes, development assistance will be tied to the COP26 agenda, and the FCDO will help our global partners with adaption and resilience.

– The relationship between the G7 presidency and COP26 is clearly close, with a plan to use both forums to create “weigh points” to ensure commitments are upheld.

– A successful COP26 summit was defined as leaving the UK “more confident than we can be now that we’re not heading for a climate catastrophe”.

– The election of Joe Biden as President of the United States was highlighted as an important development for the UK’s ambitions on climate change, and the common interest in this area was emphasised as a key focus for the ‘special relationship’.

Specifically questioned on the issue of engagement with China on climate change, Sir Philip Barton could not say whether he believes in the substance of China’s commitment to net zero. He does, however, perceive that China has recognised that it has a part to play in solutions to climate change, and said the UK has opened “a dialogue” with China about this. He acknowledged the way that China’s economic growth plans may temper its commitment to environmental action, but said the UK has a role in helping those nations reliant on coal to transition to a cleaner energy future. He noted that “making a success of COP26 is going to be a complicated jigsaw”.

FCDO Operations and Budgets

Turning to operations, Sir Philip Barton underscored the progress the FCDO was making in advancing its crisis communications, particularly during the pandemic, and starting to explore how social media can be better harnessed as a tool of influence and analysis, and in communicating with the British diaspora.

He acknowledged that the adjusted scope of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) meant the FCDO is now only able to submit a one-year bid, although work is going on behind the scenes to continue long-term planning, “to ensure coherence”.

Sir Philip Barton was joined by Juliet Chua, the Director General, Finance and Corporate, at the FCDO, who was able to speak more specifically to the FCDO’s financial position. Due to the unprecedented falls in GNI in 2020 due to the pandemic – which dictate the scope of the enshrined 0.7% development commitment – she explained that just under £3 billion of savings have been identified to help balance against the expected budget reduction. These savings have been made through moving payments around, shrinking programmes and prioritising ODA spend on a series of core issues: global health, girls’ education, climate change, open societies, democracy and human rights.

Sir Philip Barton acknowledged that it had been difficult to merge the FCO and DFID in a period of significant geopolitical instability. He also stressed that the decision to integrate the departments was not driven by a desire to drive cost efficiencies – although they may eventuate. Juliet Chua noted that there is an objective to merge the majority of teams by April, and that she does believe there will be some potential savings of resources over the longer time, as duplication is removed. Sir Philip Barton later clarified the reality that some personnel will not be retained when the merger is finalised.

The Integrated Review

Sir Philip Barton made the point that the Integrated Review was a “Prime Minister-led review”, which emphasises the political centrality of the Review – with its significance extending well beyond the FCDO and right into the heart of Number 10.

When pressed on the Review’s priorities, he outlined the UK’s ‘force for good agenda’, the heavily trailed Indo-Pacific tilt, as well as strengthening development, diplomacy, defence and security capabilities, and underscoring the importance of the UK’s role in NATO and in leading counter-terrorism efforts. Interestingly, Sir Philip Barton also flagged the UK’s potential in leading work in global governance for emerging areas such as cyber and space – an area of considerable potential influence the BFPG has highlighted as part of our work on advancing the UK’s soft power.

There has been a concern, in a constrained financial climate, about the ‘cost’ of the Indo-Pacific tilt as potentially coming at the expense of the FCDO’s investments in other areas of the world. When questioned on this point, Sir Philip Barton said the manifestation of the “increased effort” in the region is currently unclear, as this will be clarified in the CSR process.

Other Notable Points

The session covered a considerable degree of ground regarding the UK’s global relationships and some of the key geopolitical issues of the day. Highlights of the remaining session include the following revelations:

Nord Stream 2: Sir Philip Barton made clear that the UK has concerns about the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline and its potential impact on Ukraine, although he was not able to set out any specific interventions the UK will be making beyond expressing these concerns to “close European partners”. The pipeline plan has divided European Union member states and is a source of tension with the incoming Biden administration in Washington, worried about the consequences of European energy dependency on Russia.

Foreign Interference: In response to questioning regarding the ISC’s Russia Report, Sir Philip Barton said the FCDO was on the frontline of efforts to address foreign interference, particularly from Russia. However, he confirmed the position that there was “no evidence of successful [foreign] intervention in the EU referendum”.

COVID-19 Pandemic: The FCDO is working closely with other governments to learn lessons about fighting the coronavirus pandemic. The department has taken on board lessons from its struggles in the early phases of the crisis, particularly around emergency repatriation.

Europe: Part of the FCDO’s “global uplift” has been directed to reinforcing the UK’s presence in Europe, and the E3 (the UK, France and Germany) was cited as a key mechanism of cooperation beyond the UK’s mission to Brussels.

United States: Sir Philip Barton emphasised the shared values and shared objectives between the United Kingdom and the United States, and committed to “working very closely” with the Biden administration, emphasising that the United State is “our closest and most important ally”.


This session provided a revealing degree of detail about the substance, priorities and scope of the UK’s foreign policy during an especially consequential period. Along with the Foreign Secretary’s recent evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which the BFPG has summarised here, Sir Philip Barton’s appearance offered illuminating insights about the direction of the Integrated Review and the Global Britain project as a whole.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.