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Society, Politics & Law

What is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)?

Updated Monday, 22nd October 2018

Dr Edward Wastnidge takes a look at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, explaining its modern day roles and responsibilities.

View of Whitehall from London Eye Creative commons image Icon Eden, Janine and Jim on Flickr under Creative-Commons license The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, often referred to as just the Foreign Office or FCO, exists to promote the United Kingdom’s interests overseas, and to support its citizens and businesses around the world. It does this by safeguarding the UK’s national security, offering consular services to help British citizens overseas, and by promoting the country’s prosperity through international trade and investment. It employs diplomats and civil servants working overseas and in the UK, and has existed as a government department since 1782.

Why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

This relates to Britain’s legacy as a former imperial power that held territories or dominions across the globe. British-ruled territories started to become self-governing and, in most cases, gained independence by the mid-20th century, though some retained the British monarch as their official Head of State. The Commonwealth came in to being in 1949, as a free association of independent nations, with Queen Elizabeth II acting as its head since her coronation in 1953.

FCO building London Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: UK Government The FCO headquarters is near Whitehall, London.


What are the FCO’s main areas of responsibility?

Promoting UK interests abroad

The Foreign Office plays a key role in projecting the UK’s influence overseas through its emphasis on the so-called ‘rules-based international order’. As part of this, the FCO emphasises British values in the UK’s international affairs, such as respect for the rule of law and human rights, and the promotion of democracy and good governance.

How does it do this?

Through its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a relic of its status as a victorious power in the Second World War, the UK wields influence that is perhaps disproportionate to its current standing in world affairs. It uses this position to make sure it has a say in key global issues, meaning that the UK is often involved in military campaigns abroad to support its aims and those of its allies, as well as peacekeeping operations and promotion of stability in conflict zones.


Another priority area for the Foreign Office in terms of the UK’s interests overseas lies in its focus on promoting prosperity through promotion of economic growth and development of trade relationships with other countries.

How does it do this?

This might be done through securing trade agreements and investments with states that are of benefit to UK industries and business interests, both within the UK and abroad. The FCO will also work alongside other government departments to promote UK prosperity, such as the Department for International Trade, and most recently the Department for Exiting the European Union, as the UK seeks to forge new trade relationships in the light of Brexit.


One of the key areas of responsibility for the Foreign Office is safeguarding the UK’s national security.

How does it do this?

Along with the security services (such as Mi5 and the Secret Intelligence Service), it helps defend the UK and its interests overseas through cooperating with the UK’s allies in in countering threats from hostile states and non-state actors in areas such as terrorism, weapons proliferation and cyber security.

Consular Assistance

Much of the Foreign Office’s work centres on the support it provides to British nationals who are travelling, working or residing overseas.

How does it do this?

The consular assistance provided by the FCO is wide-ranging and involves providing support in areas such as: helping British nationals who get into trouble abroad; cases of forced marriage and human trafficking, issuing emergency travel and other documents; offering travel advice; and providing assistance during crises such as civil unrest or natural disasters.

How does the FCO relate to other government departments?

By the nature of its remit, the FCO has to work closely with other government departments including the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Department for International Development (DfID), the Department for International Trade (DIT), and the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). For example, UK initiatives on conflict prevention and stabilisation are pursued through the Conflict Pool, a collaboration between the FCO, DfID and MoD; negotiations over Brexit involve the FCO, DIT and DExEU; and work on preventing ‘forced marriage’ is done through the Forced Marriage Unit, a joint initiative of the FCO and the Home Office.

Who works in the FCO?

The Foreign Office employs 14,000 people in a variety of roles. Around a third of this number are UK civil servants, meaning that they are UK citizens working on behalf of the government. The majority of these civil servants are based in the UK working in the FCOs offices, centred on Whitehall, while the rest work as part of the UK’s diplomatic service overseas. The majority of FCO employees are locally employed staff working at the various UK missions abroad. UK-based FCO roles include various political, legal and economic experts along with research analysts who specialise in specific countries and/or regions of the world. UK civil servants working as part of the diplomatic service overseas include the UK’s ambassadors – who represent the UK’s interests in the host country, consul-generals – who are in charge of the consular affairs of British nationals abroad, and diplomatic service officers.

What about the Foreign Secretary and government ministers?

In the UK, the Foreign Office is officially led by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, often referred to as the Foreign Secretary. The Foreign Secretary is also served by junior minsters of state for certain regions of the world, such as Africa or the Middle East. The Foreign Secretary is a political post held by a member of the government of the day, whereas civil service posts are non-political, appointed to advise and carry out the policies of the government of the day. Unlike in countries like the United States where there can be a wholesale turnover of government officials when there is a change of president, in the UK the civil service is ‘permanent’ – they do not change with government. To this end the day to day running of the FCO is the responsibility of the Permanent Under-Secretary and Head of the Diplomatic Service.





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