It’s time for joined up government and a greater role for the House of Lords in foreign affairs
Writing exclusively for Endeavour Public Affairs, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne believes that in a time of great financial turmoil, the Government has to strive to make the efficiencies that will enable the most effective UK policy and approach overseas.
Baroness Nicholson was ennobled and took her seat as a member of the House of Lords in 1997, having also served as a Member of the House of Commons and, subsequently, in the European Parliament.
The global financial crisis and the struggles in the global and national economy continue to dominate the agenda both at home and abroad with no endpoint in sight. In the autumn, the House of Lords will debate the Government’s continuing efforts to propel economic growth whilst ensuring the activities of the banks prior to the financial crisis will not happen again. Understandably, as the Lords’ is a scrutinising chamber it spends the vast majority of its time debating and amending government legislation. This legislation, however, is necessarily national in nature and thus for situations such as the global financial crisis, UK business growth abroad, and foreign affairs in general there is a substantial and significant gap in scrutinising the Government’s record and machinery in achieving its goals overseas. This is unfortunate, and strange, because of the huge wealth of knowledge and expertise amongst the Lords’ on matters of defence, foreign affairs, trade and investment, and international development in practically every region of the world. The fact that this experience comes at a low cost is one of its greatest strengths. Thus, the fact that the Lords’ global knowledge and expertise is largely unused is a considerable loss in value for money for the taxpayer that could be easily rectified.
The oft-provided refrain from the managers of the House is that foreign affairs is covered adequately by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee or its other select committees that shadow each government department. They argue that to set up a similar committee in the Lords would only cause duplication. The diversity of the global financial crisis, for example, punctures this argument for the fallacy that it is. The select committees in the Commons largely track the work of their government departments; they do not aim to either follow government policy in the round, or its impact overseas in total. The system itself, of holding to account individual departments, helps to accentuate debilitating departmental disconnects, which play into the hands of competing and conflicting departmental agendas, budgets and goals, which are particularly damaging for the UK’s overseas presence as it leads to a failure to provide whole-of-government coherence.
The Independent Commission for Aid Impact has recently castigated the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Department for International Development (DFID) for ineffectively coordinating their activities through the Conflict Pool and, in effect, pursuing departmental objectives through what is supposed to be a tri-departmental mechanism. Similarly, despite the Government’s intention of increasing its bilateral official development assistance (ODA) to fragile and conflict-affected countries to 30 per cent of its total by 2014-15 there is no agreed government-wide definition on what a fragile and conflict-affected country constitutes. DFID contends that 21 of its 28 priority countries are such states although its definition does not correspond with either the World Bank or the OECD’s conceptualisation. Additionally, despite DFID having 21 fragile states on its books there have only been two cross-government joint analyses of conflict and stability. There are plans for 13 more although there is no deadline for their completion. This indicates that across government departments there is no agreement of what and where the problem is they are meant to be tackling. Not the best platform for spending billions of pounds.
This lack of departmental coordination is exacerbated by a proliferation of priority countries and sectors. There are suggestions if you read through enough strategy documents and reports that both the National Security Council and the FCO have priority countries, but neither publishes lists of countries, and it is unclear how their priorities work with DFID’s 28 priority countries. More starkly, DFID’s priority countries bear very little resemblance to UK Trade & Investment’s (UKTI) 19 priority markets – only India and South Africa are the same – and have had no bearing on UKTI’s 18 priority sectors and two cross-cutting areas. This is because UKTI, which is co-run by the FCO and the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills (BIS), as well as the UK’s export credit agency, UK Export Finance, do not conceive of poverty reduction or international development more generally, as part of their remits. DFID does have its own arms-length development finance institution, the CDC Group (CDC), which agreed a new high-level business plan in May 2011. This plan does not though correlate with DFID’s priority countries. It focuses solely on South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, even though in Yemen, for example, youth unemployment and a huge youth bulge are immense challenges, but ones that CDC’s funds will not be able to work to mitigate. This underlines the need to bridge the UK’s departmental and public-private disconnects in order to effectively join-up the UK’s effort abroad to drive economic growth and international development.
In a time of great financial turmoil particularly, the Government has to strive to make the efficiencies that will enable the most effective UK policy and approach overseas. That this debate is not happening is lamentable. It may suit the Government’s interests and certain vested interests in the Lords’ upper echelons to continue the state of affairs as it is. This, however, is at the expense of the public interest in gaining value for money and a far more effective departmental synergy abroad. Some parliamentary time to debate and scrutinise this situation, such as three or four specific debates or a focused committee inquiry, would be highly valuable in illustrating the latent knowledge in the Lords’ on these issues and indicate a way forward for more effective government and a coordinated overseas approach that avoids departmental conflict, and for that matter, duplication.