Earlier today (13 March 2017) Mike Gapes MP (Ilford South) spoke in parliament during the Budget Resolutions debate.
Mike Gapes (Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South): The Foreign Secretary has mentioned the British Council. As he knows, the British Council will no longer receive any funds from the British Government. At the same time, there are continuing pressures on our diplomatic missions around the world as a result of the budget crisis with which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has had to deal. Can the Foreign Secretary tell us how many additional diplomats will be appointed to increase the FCO’s budget so that it is able to deal with the consequences of Brexit, which is what the Foreign Affairs Committee called for in a recent report?
Boris Johnson (Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs): I have to say that I am deeply disappointed that I finally gave way to the hon. Gentleman, because he has shown the most staggering ignorance of the British Council, of Foreign Office spending and of the success of our diplomatic network. However, I will give him the answer to his question. In response to the challenge and the opportunities that we have, we are increasing our representation: just in our European posts, 50 more diplomats and 25 new trade experts have been recruited. We are expanding a fantastic network, and that is on top of the enormous soft and hard power that we have. As I am sure the House will know, the United Kingdom is the third biggest contributor to development finance in the world, after the United States and the European Union. That is an extraordinary record, of which I think every Member in the House—certainly every member of this Conservative Government —should be proud.
Mike Gapes (Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South): My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about the hollowing out of the FCO’s budget. On the question of linguists, has she seen the report on Russia from the Foreign Affairs Committee that we published last week? It describes the lack of expertise in the FCO for looking at Russia. Does she agree with me and the Committee that the FCO needs more resources if we are to confront and understand the problems being caused by Russia’s behaviour towards its neighbours?
Emily Thornberry (Shadow Foreign Secretary): It is because I have read that report that I mention Russian language capabilities. In my view, the reports produced by the Foreign Affairs Committee are thoughtful and informative, and I recommend them to the Secretary of State. The Committee has raised a number of flags that need to be carefully considered, because changes are happening to our precious Foreign Office and we are losing capabilities that it will be very difficult to redevelop.
Mike Gapes (Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South): In the Foreign Secretary’s introduction to the debate today, we heard his typical bluster, lack of detail and “winging it” approach, which augurs very well for his forthcoming visit to Russia. His speech gave a complete fantasy view of what is likely to happen to our international trade. We were told that we were going to get a trade deal with the United States, yet the Trump Administration have already torn up the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In any trade negotiations with the UK—with our 65 million population, compared with the EU’s 550 million—the US Administration’s desire to put America first and make America great again will mean that they insist on getting more than they give. Are this Government prepared to accept food from the United States that is pumped full of steroids? Are they prepared to lower our health and safety standards? That is what will happen if we no longer have EU regulations and we accept the American model of trade.
Fortunately, we have the possibility of an agreement with Canada based on the EU-Canada agreement that was negotiated over seven years. Similarly, the EU-South Korea agreement could provide a model for something that would be beneficial to us. However, as my hon. Friend Mr Sharma pointed out, as for the idea that we can just export thousands of crates of whisky to India, as implied by the Foreign Secretary, in some kind of great trade agreement, India generally does not want to consume vast amounts of whisky—certainly not Prime Minister Modi, who I understand is a teetotaller. The reality is that India will desire access for its young people to study in this country and a loosening of the visa regime. So much for this Government’s 100,000 yearly immigration target. The forecasts on which the OBR’s economic growth assessments are based assume 185,000 people coming to this country. How can that be reconciled? This is a Government of smoke and mirrors, and the Foreign Secretary’s pathetic performance today is a great example of that.
Similarly, the Budget states that the Government are going to put £325 million over three years into financially challenged sustainability and transformation plans in the NHS. The STP in my area of north-east London has a predicted deficit of £575 million, which must be eliminated within three years. That is just one STP. The Government say that they are providing £100 million for capital spend on new A&E departments. If the plan to close the A&E at King George hospital in my constituency goes ahead, they will need almost that amount just to replace the beds and wards on the site of the Queen’s hospital in Romford, which is part of the STP. This is Mickey Mouse economics, and it does not make sense.
I do not have time to comment on the underfunding of our schools, the wasting of money on free schools, or the damaging consequences for local government of the continuing cuts. There is a sticking-plaster solution to assist for two years with the social care crisis, but there is no long-term plan. We need a more serious Government that considers such issues.
Then, of course, there is the NICs crisis. As The Daily Telegraph headline said, the Tories are no longer the low-tax party. That is the perception of millions of people in this country. If we had a credible Opposition, we would be able to challenge on that issue effectively and avoid diversions into other matters. Twenty years ago, Labour was 20 points ahead in the opinion polls and on course for a landslide victory, and I say to all Labour supporters, “Things can only get better.”