Inside File: Faded Britannia ponders cuts in spending on UN

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The Independent Online
PREDATORS in the Treasury are contemplating what can be trimmed from Britain's international commitments to save money. There is a split - right down the middle, some Whitehall sources say - among Treasury officials over whether to continue to bear costs such as permanent membership of the UN Security Council and international peace-keeping.

What the ministers think about this is not yet clear. They are in two camps about most things anyway - Kenneth Clarke and his advisers on the one hand and what Whitehall insiders nickname 'Dorrillo' - Michael Portillo and Stephen Dorrell, the Financial Secretary - on the other.

But that the Chancellor does worry about UN expenditure is beyond doubt. As previously described in this column, Britain last year lost its seat on the only UN body affording it a direct say in the UN budget: the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions. It did so despite intensive lobbying by the British candidate. The Swedes, who stood against the British and beat them, were even asked to drop out of the race. A Swedish diplomat discussing the matter with British colleagues at the time was told: 'The Chancellor feels it is absolutely crucial that we retain our seat on this particular committee.'

The loss of the seat is likely to inspire even less Treasury confidence in expenditure which some of them regarded as unnecessary in the first place. The budget scrutinised by the ACABQ includes peace-keeping ventures, which cost dollars 3bn (pounds 2bn) last year and are certain to expand further. As a permanent member of the Security Council, Britain has a duty to bear a higher proportion of that cost than other member-states.

Douglas Hurd has impressed his staff with how he has fought to defend his budget in expenditure rounds so far. But they expect a further onslaught from the Treasury next time. At stake is not just Britain's Security Council seat but, by extension, its rightful place among other international heavyweights such as the Group of Seven. It is the legacy of having once been a global power that allows it to fight above its weight.

British diplomats know that any Chancellor with aspirations to Number Ten, faced with a choice of domestic growth and international influence, would be tempted to choose the former. They know that many Conservative MPs regard them as spoilt and snooty people working against British interests, whose one redeeming role is promoting British exports. But, as one senior diplomat said: 'If any Chancellor considers what it would feel like to read in the newspapers about the G6, rather than attending himself the summits of the G7, he might think twice about it.'

As part of its efforts to streamline operations, the Foreign Office is trying to drag itself into the age of modern technology this year. Insiders say computerisation of correspondence to and within King Charles Street has been on the books 'forever'. It is now hoped it will be in place by the end of 1994.

One of the key considerations is how to ensure that the same procedure is followed throughout the Office to ensure that, in addition to incoming telegrams - some of which can under the current system take up to two weeks to reach the relevant departments - even the briefest memos, notes and minutes passed between officials are kept on file.

As one diplomat said: 'Should there ever be another Scott inquiry, you would need to know that even original drafts that have been amended can be found, and even notes like 'I agree with much of what you say but have made a few amendments' are recorded.' Are computer files easier or harder to tamper with than the current paper dossiers? Most diplomats seem to feel there is nothing in it.

Under the computer system, distribution of telegrams will no longer be limited to a list of relevant departments. 'Everybody will be able to access things not immediately in their area, and as a result we'll be a better-informed service,' said one enthusiast. Everybody from the Permanent Secretary downwards is to learn to use the computers. It remains to be seen to what extent senior mandarins master them, or expect staff to print out documents for them; or whether the Foreign Secretary himself intends to take time out to learn.