The Foreign Secretary’s Evidence on the Work of the FCDO

On Tuesday the 28th of June, the Foreign Secretary appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee to discuss the ‘work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)’. She was joined by Sir Philip Barton, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the FCDO and Kumar Iyer, the Director General for Economics, Science and Technology at the FCDO.

The session provided a platform through which the Foreign Secretary could delve deeper into fleshing out her vision for the UK’s role in the world, reflecting the seismic consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rising threats posed by China, and an increasingly constrained fiscal environment. It was also an opportunity to take stock of the operational transformation that has taken place within the FCDO since the merger of DFID and the Foreign Office. Here we set out some of the highlights from the session, clustering together the evidence given on the substance of the UK’s foreign policy, and the functional operations of the FCDO.

The UK’s Foreign Policy 


Liz Truss explained that the traditional security architecture had been “shattered”, and this necessitated the formation of stronger alliances. She highlighted the successful collaboration within the G7, particularly in the application of sanctions towards Russia, and emphasised the importance of the NATO Alliance and its expansion plans. Truss made clear that she is supportive of Sweden and Finland’s membership of NATO – just hours before a successful agreement was brokered with Turkey at the opening of the NATO Summit, an outcome the UK had played a substantive diplomatic role in supporting. The Foreign Secretary also repeated her ambition for an ‘Economic NATO’, highlighting the combined GDP weight of the G7 as an “incentivising” force of influence.

The UK’s Role in Europe

The idea for a ‘European political community’ – which both President Macron and Prime Minister Johnson are now claiming to have coined – appears to still have some way to go until the UK is convinced of its practical merits and viability. The political turmoil around the bilateral relationship during the past year suggests there will need to be some careful choreography in bringing all sides to the table. There is clearly no desire from the Foreign Secretary to hand Macron an early victory on his proposal, which would need to be forged through respectful collaboration. However, the fact that both leaders are claiming linguistic and conceptual ownership of the idea suggests it may be the right vehicle, just in need of a careful landing. In the meantime, the UK Government continues to harness the language of NATO – alongside the JEF – as the primary vehicle through which the UK’s security role in Europe is expressed, and to emphasise the deepening of bilateral relationships in Europe. The Foreign Secretary said there have been 13 bilateral agreements forged since Brexit, with seven more in the pipeline.

The UK’s Military Response to Ukraine

The Foreign Secretary said that she and her US counterpart Tony Blinken would be discussing further military equipment for Ukraine during their upcoming meeting, and that the UK would provide training support for Ukrainian defence forces in how to use ‘next-generation’ military supplies and weapons. When asked about civilian and political fatigue around the protracted conflict, Liz Truss disagreed that this could undermine unity within the Western alliance, referencing the recent G7 meeting and the statement given by Commonwealth leaders in CHOGM. She also noted the bi-partisan support for a robust Ukrainian response in Washington DC, and said that she felt confident the liberal coalition would “hold over time”.

Engagement with Authoritarian Regimes

Tobias Ellwood questioned the Foreign Secretary on the morality of pursuing trade agreements with authoritarian governments in the Middle East. Liz Truss described the Gulf States as partners of the UK and noted that a trade deal was being pursued with the Gulf Cooperation Council. She explained that not every country the UK negotiated with was aligned with all elements of British foreign policy and values, but that the Gulf States remained “important allies”. When pressed on the specific example of Saudi Arabia, the Foreign Secretary emphasised that the UK was focused on addressing the major threats facing the world, which includes Russia, and that effectively responding to their aggression requires us to ensure alternative energy sources – including from the Gulf region. Liz Truss acknowledged that we are “not living in a perfect world” and that difficult decisions needed to be made.

China and the Indo-Pacific Tilt

The Foreign Secretary is a keen enthusiast of the UK’s Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’, and highlighted the recently signed Pacific Blue Partnership as an example of the UK clarifying its role in the region. She mentioned partnerships with Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the AUKUS alliance with Australia and the United States, and said the UK was pursuing a “network” of partners across the region. She noted that more announcements would be made in due course about UK investments in the Indo-Pacific.

There was some confusion about the existence of a dedicated HMG China Strategy. The Foreign Secretary appeared to refute media reports raised by the committee that the Government had planned to publish such a Strategy, and rather noted that the Government had regular internal discussions about evolving nature of the threats posed by China, and that the Integrated Review (along with the Network of Liberty and the UK’s G7 work) had set out the framework of the UK’s approach to China. Committee members indicated that they were aware from conversations with HMG officials that a sub-strategy on China that sits underneath the Integrated Review was being developed internally, and the Foreign Secretary said that while there was no commitment to producing a dedicated Strategy, she would look into the question of the production of a focused “written document”. Philip Barton said that the work on a China strategy document was “in progress”, that much of the UK’s strategic planning on our strategic rivals was too sensitive to be put into the public domain, but that the Foreign Secretary had been very clear about the substance of the HMG strategy on China.

How to make sense of this? In short, both the Foreign Secretary and the committee are correct. The Government has been advancing its work on its relationship with China, but this is largely being undertaken as an internal planning and research exercise and without the intention to produce a specific new publication beyond the information shared in the Integrated Review. The Foreign Secretary also understandably feels that the nature of the strategy is evident within the actualisation of the UK’s geopolitical activities. There is therefore currently a ‘strategy’ but not a ‘Strategy’. This likely reflects both security concerns about showing our hand on the UK’s emerging thinking on what we have determined to be a “systemic competitor”, but also the realities of the “balanced” approach being pursued by HMG – which has many competing internal voices about how the UK should pursue its public diplomacy towards this economic superpower.


FCDO Operations

First Anniversary of the DFID and FCO Merger

The Foreign Secretary took up her post after the DFID-FCDO merger was first enacted, but has put her own stamp on the evolving department. She said that she had restructured the FCDO along three core principles: to impose geographical accountability, to ensure there is a specific focus on geopolitics, and to establish a dedicated Director-General for development. She explained that this third change was important as when she arrived at the FCDO, she found that there was no dedicated leadership at the board level for development.

When asked if the Department for International Trade should also be merged into the FCDO, the Foreign Secretary said she would not currently support this, but noted that the FCDO works closely and collaboratively with both DIT and the MOD. She added that she believed it was right to have separate Cabinet ministers for those roles, as there is a “significant amount of work and focuses required”, but that the UK needed to ensure that its activities across development, trade, security, defence and diplomacy were all pointing “in the same direction”.

Philip Barton structured his summary of the changes that had taken place within the FCDO since the merger into three policy and activity areas. He first cited the delivery of the UK’s year of international leadership in 2021 (hosting of the G7, Cop26, and the Global Partnership Education Summit) as an example of the successful functioning of the new department, with both diplomacy and development approaches being harnessed effectively. Barton then outlined how the UK’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had been “more agile” as a result of the development integration, which facilitated quick thinking around the provision of humanitarian support. Finally, he emphasised that the UK’s efforts to respond to broader humanitarian crises around the world were better achieved through the cohesion between political and diplomatic efforts, especially in the context of the partnership with the World Food Bank to deliver aid to Tigray and using diplomacy to secure access.

FCDO Staffing

The resourcing and staffing of the FCDO formed a major focus of the session. The FAC Chair asked the Foreign Secretary whether the DFID-FCO merger had created additional pressure on staff, and this was refuted. Rather, Truss highlighted the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic as a primary source of stress and bandwidth challenges. She said that efforts were underway to bring more “talent” into the organisation, to ensure the right expertise in areas such as technology and economics, to better reflect the changing nature of modern diplomacy.

Philip Barton was asked about reports that FCDO had asked for 1,000 additional staff to assist with the UK’s role in both the Afghanistan withdrawal and the Ukraine response. Barton referred to the publicised process of reductions being made to the civil service, which will conclude in the Autumn, and said that this would ultimately provide an understanding of overall capacity. He confirmed that more staff were needed at senior levels, and that there had been reprioritising around Ukraine. The Foreign Secretary noted that staff were moved into ‘Russia’ and ‘Ukraine’ workstreams, and that some staff had been transferred into geopolitical teams to support the UK’s G7 work.

FCDO Funding

While the committee posed several questions about aid targets and the conceptual framing of ODA in the FCDO, the session did not focus substantively on the question of how choices were being made around the allocation of constrained FCDO resources. The Foreign Secretary confirmed that the Government continued to pursue the reinstatement of the 0.7% development commitment “when feasible”, and acknowledged that the UK’s generous Ukraine support meant that the UK was ultimately investing significantly in humanitarian and development activities – albeit in our European neighbourhood. When speaking about the FCDO’s engagement with the Treasury, the Foreign Secretary noted that there were regular discussions about the overall development budget, in particular pertaining to Ukraine and its future reconstruction.

Sharpening the Geopolitical Underpinnings of Development

When asked if she saw “development spending as a tool of diplomacy”, the Foreign Secretary said it has various purposes, but that it must be a coherent part of the UK’s foreign policy. Substantively, this means contributing to the UK’s overall objections of promoting freedom and democracy around the world, and challenging “the geopolitical efforts by malign actors”. She noted that the British International Investment vehicle was launched to specifically address this and serve as a liberal alternative to “strings-attached investment from countries like China”. The G7’s Global Partnership for Infrastructure and Development launched this past week – which brings together several otherwise disparate Western offers to more competitively challenge China’s dominance in several key areas – was cited as complementary to this UK-led initiative.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.