UK Opposition Say Sharp Cuts To Diplomacy Planned

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LONDON (AP) – Britain’s main opposition party accused the government Thursday of drafting plans to close embassies and reduce anti-terrorism work to cope with a huge national debt and a slump in the value of the pound.

Conservative Party lawmaker David Lidington told the House of Commons an internal Foreign Office memo urges diplomats to draft contingency plans to fire staff and close some overseas posts.

Britain’s Foreign Office, which spends half of its budget in overseas currencies, has been hit badly by the weak pound and faces an annual shortfall of 110 million pounds (US$178 million) – in addition to expected cuts in public spending.

Lidington’s office published the memo, in which Foreign Office officials explain the currency shortfall and public spending cuts could “require us to stop activity, close posts and reduce staff numbers.”

The Foreign Office refuses to comment on leaked documents, but acknowledged the ministry faced severe cost pressures.

Plans for the ministry’s budget will be final only after Britain’s next national election, which must take place by June, the ministry said.

Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant denied the U.K. is identifying overseas embassies to close. “We believe that it is absolutely vital that we maintain our presence in the world,” he told the House of Commons.

Disclosure of the memo came a day after Britain said a weaker pound had led to cuts in programs to tackle opium production in Afghanistan and fight terrorism in Pakistan. Security officials estimate that two-thirds of terrorist plots against Britain emanate from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.

Wednesday’s disclosure came hours after Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced new counter-terrorism plans and insisted that terrorism on the Afghan-Pakistan border remained the “No. 1 security threat to the West.”

Britain will raise Foreign Office spending on anti-terrorism projects in Pakistan to 9 million pounds this year – from 3.7 million in 2007 to 2008, the government said. But ministers said they had hoped to allocate more.

“We will be spending less than we had an ambition to spend,” Bryant said.

Ed Davey, an opposition Liberal Democrat Party lawmaker, argued that any cuts to the anti-terrorism programs were unacceptable.

“When our troops are in Afghanistan to fight the terrorist threat, it is a betrayal of their sacrifice to slash the diplomatic budget crucial to crushing the very source of that threat,” he said.

The money is used to promote a positive image of Britain to Muslims in Pakistan, and to bring mainstream Islamic clerics from overseas to talk to U.K. youths deemed at risk from radical messages.

Conservative lawmaker William Hague later asked that British Foreign Secretary David Miliband specify whether anti-terrorism programs in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq and North Africa had been cut.

Britain is bracing for dramatic public spending cuts as the government looks to trim a net national debt of 870 billion pounds.

Lidington said a decision in 2007 to scrap a system in which Britain’s Treasury protected the Foreign Office from fluctuations in the pound had worsened the ministry’s difficulties, and meant steep cuts were likely.

Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth said the exchange rate was causing difficulties for the military as well.

He has been forced to take hard decisions to make sure the plunge in the pound’s value did not affect Britain’s mission in Afghanistan, he said.

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