I begin by thanking the hon. Lady and welcoming this opportunity to respond to her question on the merger between DFID and the FCO. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister announced that they will merge to become the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I can tell the House that the process will start immediately and will be completed by September. Alongside this merger, Her Majesty’s trade commissioners will now report formally to the ambassadors and high commissioners in their respective countries. The Prime Minister will set the UK’s overall international strategy, through the National Security Council, and by integrating development policy with our diplomatic network, the UK will be following a similar model to that of some of our closest international partners, such as Australia and Canada.
This move is about placing our world-class aid programme at the beating heart of our foreign policy decision making. We will integrate the development expertise and know-how that DFID does so well with the diplomatic reach and clout of the Foreign Office, ensuring that our impact abroad is bigger than the sum of its parts. Far from diminishing our ambitions, it will elevate them. As the Prime Minister set out on Tuesday, we retain our commitment to spending 0.7% of our gross national income on development, but through closer integration we will maximise the impact of our aid budget in helping the very poorest in the world, while making sure we get the very best value for taxpayers’ money.
For too long, we have indulged an artificial line, dividing the goals that our aid budget and foreign policy serve. This coronavirus crisis has confirmed just how artificial that line is. Across Whitehall, I have chaired the international ministerial group, bringing all relevant Departments together to support the most vulnerable countries exposed to covid-19; to energise our pursuit of a vaccine, working with our international partners; to return stranded British citizens from abroad; and to keep vital international supply chains open. In every one of these areas, we have been compelled to align our development, trade, security and wider foreign policy objectives. As in many a crisis, necessity has proven the mother of innovation. For example, at the GAVI vaccine summit, which the Prime Minister recently hosted, we smashed the target for vaccine funding, with $8.8 billion raised. That was a major success, where our development and foreign policy objectives had to be integrated to serve our dual aim of securing a vaccine for the British people, while making it accessible for the most vulnerable people, right across the world. Likewise we are working to bolster the health systems and institutional resilience of the most vulnerable countries, doing so not only out of a sense of moral responsibility, but to safeguard the UK from a potential second wave of the virus. I am afraid those demarcating a boundary between our national interests and our moral responsibilities in the world are mistaken. Covid has reinforced just how inextricably interwoven they are, just how much they reinforce each other and why we need to integrate them in our foreign policy decision making. It is to boost our impact and influence in the world, and that is exactly what we are doing.
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister U-turned on free school meal vouchers for disadvantaged kids in England, only to stand at the Dispatch Box and cancel meals for the world’s poorest. UK aid reduces suffering. It is not some “cashpoint in the sky”; we will look to the £900,000 military plane makeover for that. DFID is a world leader. It is what global Britain is all about. No wonder the proposed merger with the Foreign Office has been roundly condemned by three former Prime Ministers.
We have to question why this merger is happening now, in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, when our aid is needed most. Why is this happening prior to the integrated review? The Prime Minister insisted that massive consultation had taken place. Which non-governmental organisations were consulted? To my knowledge, none was. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that DFID employees only heard the news on social media? Were unions consulted? Can the Foreign Secretary commit to retaining all jobs, including the 200 EU nationals who work for DFID and those in East Kilbride? What assessment have the Government made of how much this will all cost?
Is the Secretary of State for International Development happy with this change? It is striking that she has as yet made no statement on the matter. It is almost as though the merger has taken place overnight. Will international development retain a Cabinet Minister and a seat on the National Security Council, so that humanitarian concerns are heard at the very top of Government? The Government have committed to 0.7% of GNI on aid spending, but can the Foreign Secretary confirm that this will be overseen by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact? If not, how will the Foreign Office—poorly rated for official development assistance transparency—be held to account? Can the Government commit to maintaining the International Development Committee?
Can the Foreign Secretary guarantee that this will not open the door to tied aid? Do the Government have any intention to repeal or amend any legislation about international development, and if so, in what way? Do the Government intend to continue to use the Development Assistance Committee definition of aid, and if not, what definition will they use? Will the Government ensure that poverty reduction is central to our approach, and how is this consistent with the Prime Minister’s ambitions to take aid away from Zambia and give it to Ukraine?
Finally, what will happen to all new DFID projects, which reportedly have been paused, and will the Foreign Secretary have a say? How will this decision impact on current recipients of DFID’s spending? Will it impact on the UK’s Gavi commitments referenced by the Prime Minister, and will the Government commit to equitable access to covid-19 technologies?
I thank the hon. Lady. It is good to hear that she is championing global Britain, and I agree with her on her points about the centrality of UK aid to our foreign policy, including our soft power. I totally agree with her on that. Her instincts and ours are entirely aligned.
I have explained and set out in my answer to her question exactly why we are doing this now. Covid-19—the crisis, the challenge—has forced us to align and integrate more closely than we have done before, and that was a positive step, but it has also shown how much further we can go if we integrate the formal decision-making structures. The discussions about and consideration of this have been going on for several weeks and months, but it has been under debate for considerably longer.
The hon. Lady asked about the financial repercussions of the merger. Of course, there are opportunities to save administrative costs, but as we have made clear, there will be no compulsory redundancies or anything like that. We are committed to the 0.7% of GNI commitment, which is something she asked. I can give her reassurance about that. We want the aid budget and the development know-how and expertise that we have in DFID—it has done a fantastic job, including under respective Development Secretaries—at the beating heart of our international decision-making processes.
The hon. Lady asked about the Select Committee. It is ultimately, I believe, a matter for the House, but certainly the Government’s view is that normally the Select Committees would mirror Government Departments. However, as I say, that is a decision for the usual channels and, ultimately, for the House.
The hon. Lady then asked about the National Security Council. Ultimately, the Prime Minister leads the foreign policy of the day. He does that, in practical terms, through his chairmanship of the National Security Council. The role of Secretary of State for the new Department will be to make sure, in an integrated and aligned way, that aid is right at the heart, not just of the Foreign Office, but of Cabinet discussions and NSC discussions.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the Gavi summit. The Gavi summit is an exceptional example of why it makes sense to integrate our decision-making processes in this way, because it links our development means and goals with our wider foreign policy goals. We want a vaccine for the people of this country, but we also know, as a matter of moral responsibility but also good sensible foreign policy, that we must do more to uphold the most vulnerable countries and help them weather the crisis, so that we do not get a second wave of this crisis.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa has just come back from a virtual meeting on Yemen. Yemen is another exceptionally good example of where our foreign policy interests in bringing an end to that terrible conflict align with our development and aid goals—with trying to alleviate the humanitarian plight. I would hope that is something that Members in all parts of the House could get behind.
My right hon. Friend has already spoken about various opportunities. Will he please speak very clearly about the ethos of the international aid Department, and how much that ethos will be kept in the new structure? Because clearly Britain’s soft power really does rely on a fantastic team of people, who have done amazing work over the years to develop an independent and very powerful voice for the UK in standing up for the world’s poorest. Now I think that can be integrated with our politics; in fact, I think it is fundamental to our foreign policy that we champion both together, but clearly it does require maintaining those people, keeping that ethos and maintaining the morale of an amazing team.
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I know that he has looked at this very closely. We have discussed the integration of foreign policy on many occasions. That is absolutely essential, and I agree with him entirely that we want to keep not just the funding but the expertise, the know-how, the branding, the soft power—the elements that make the United Kingdom a development superpower—in the new structure. However, the reality is, and I thank him for his agreement on this, that we have an opportunity to do even better if we focus our aid and our foreign policy, and indeed, we are more aligned on trade and defence and wider security matters in a more focused way. That is the exciting opportunity that this merger allows, but I agree with him entirely on the point that he raised.
I thank my hon. Friend Sarah Champion for her important urgent question.
“The effectiveness with which DFID is able to deliver aid is because the Department has decades of honed experience in understanding the most effective and targeted ways of spending taxpayers’
Vol. 677, c. 276.]
—not my words, but those of the Secretary of State for International Development, last week, who now appears to have simply been completely overruled.
Scrapping a Department that is crucial to global vaccine development provides health care and aids the world’s poorest in the middle of a global pandemic is irresponsible and counterproductive and wrong. The Government should be totally focused on steering our country through the challenges we face right now. We have had one of the highest death tolls from covid-19 in the world. Millions of children are out of school and face the worst unemployment crisis in a generation, which will hit young people and the lowest-paid the hardest; and these challenges are global too.
Instead, the Prime Minister has decided to undertake a large-scale restructure, which will cost millions of pounds of public money, and he will abolish a Department that is the most transparent, the most effective and a global champion at delivering value for money for British taxpayers. Instead, UK aid will be spent through Departments, which, TaxPayers Alliance found,
“to poverty reduction or the national interest.”
So can the Foreign Secretary tell me: when did the Prime Minister decide this matter? Why did he not wait for the conclusion of the integrated review? Did the decision go through the National Security Council? Which civil society and development partners were consulted? How much will the reorganisation cost and what legislative changes are planned? Will the DFID budget be ring-fenced in the new Department?
The Foreign Secretary also mentioned trade envoys. What role now for the Department for International Trade? Multiple former Prime Ministers, from both sides of the House, have criticised the decision. A former Conservative Secretary of State for International Development said:
“Most British diplomats lack the experience and skills to manage 100 million pound development programs…Trying to pretend these two very different organisations are” the same
Laurie Lee, the chief executive of Care International, said,
“this is the worst decision on aid since the Pergau dam scandal” and
“In the middle of a national crisis, the Prime Minister has chosen to spend time, focus and effort on fixing a problem which does not exist…it’s not too late…to think again.”
This is not global Britain. This retreat from the global stage is a mistake, and we firmly oppose this attempt to abolish the Department. It will not only have a life-threatening impact on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, but it will reduce our ability to make the world safer, fairer and better for all.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and welcome the opportunity to debate this issue with him. He asked a number of questions, including on timing. The covid crisis has required the Government to act and operate in ways that we have not done before—
He is shaking his head before he receives the answer—I thought we were going to have a sensible debate about the pros and cons of this change. I listened carefully to what he said, so he might do me that courtesy in return. We had an integrated approach, and we brought the alignment as far as we conceivably could on covid, the repatriation of nationals, the hunt for a vaccine, and keeping supply chains open. However, this situation has brought to light and made clear to us how much more effective we can be if we integrate through this merger.
The hon. Gentleman asked when the Prime Minister made the final decision. Obviously he spent weeks considering it, but he announced the change on Tuesday, swiftly after the conclusions had been resolved. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the aid budget will be protected, and we are committed to the figure of 0.7% of gross national income—I think that reassures those who are concerned that somehow the aid budget will be cut as a result of this change, which is not true.
The hon. Gentleman asked about DIT and trade, and as the Prime Minister made clear on Tuesday, we will ensure that our trade envoys are responsible for formally reporting to ambassadors and high commissioners in their respective countries. More broadly, the International Trade Secretary, who answered questions in the House a few moments ago, is doing an exceptional job in striking those free trade deals, which are a great opportunity for businesses and consumers in this country. That will continue. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned third party support. There has been widespread agreement on this from the Chair of the Select Committee, from my predecessor as Foreign Secretary, and from the HALO Trust, which is a charity that deals with landmines and welcomes this move.
I will leave the hon. Gentleman with one thought: of OECD developed countries, only one has a separate Ministry of Development. Indeed, the tide has been in the direction of integrating foreign policy with aid and development, as that is the progressive thing to do. I understand why the Labour party, which set up DFID, feels proprietorial about it, but what matters is the effectiveness of foreign policy. What we have learned during coronavirus is that this merger will ensure that we can be as effective as possible, and deliver more efficient value for taxpayers’ money.
In the past week we have seen three changes to the machinery of government, including the merger of the FCO and DFID. All those moves are designed to maximise our resources, as we reignite and re-establish the UK’s global position. In order to continue that restructuring and make it even more comprehensive, particularly with the trade commissioners reporting to the ambassadors, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to support our business export activities, by eventually bringing the Department for International Trade into the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office? Surely that would now make sense.
I thank my right hon. Friend, and pay tribute to her expertise and experience in this area. We are not proposing to integrate DIT into the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, but through the structure with trade envoys we want to maximise our impact in those countries where we are seeking to liberalise, free up, and open up greater access for British businesses and British exports.
The decision to abolish the Department for International Development and rechannel funds for eradicating global poverty to further diplomatic and commercial interests is unforgivable, particularly amid a global pandemic. The last three Prime Ministers opposed this merger, as does every development organisation that has been in touch, and the SNP. Today the International Development Secretary is not even present to answer any questions. Will the Foreign Secretary say whether the Cabinet was consulted? Were international development organisations consulted, and which, if any, supported this decision?
How will aid spending be scrutinised in the new Department? Will the UK continue to follow the Development Assistance Committee definition of official development assistance, or will the Government try to redefine aid on their own terms? Finally, today we learned that one of the UK Government’s recent Secretaries of State would like the HMS Royal Yacht Britannia to be funded on the back of the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalised people in the world. Is the royal family even aware of that? Is it not the case that such a move is led not by a vision of global Britain, but by the myopic Prime Minister of “let them eat cake” Britain?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive and measured response to this proposal. He asked a series of serious questions, and it is incumbent on me to respond to them. He asked about protecting the aid budget. We have made clear that we remain committed to 0.7% of GNI. He asked about consultation. Of course, there were discussions across Government about this, and it has been looked at closely. The Prime Minister had indicated, with the establishment of joint Ministers across the FCO and DFID, that we wanted to take steps down this path to further integration. As I mentioned in my previous responses, what has really focused our minds is what we have learnt in coming through the challenge of coronavirus on the international level.
The hon. Gentleman asked about third-party support. The former Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, has welcomed it. My right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt has welcomed it. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee has welcomed it. He said that no NGOs did, but I can quote James Cowan, CEO of the HALO Trust, a landmine clearance charity, who said that he welcomes this decision because UK policy
“is very siloed…
and needs to be broken down” and brought together. We certainly endorse that. Aid policy and the aid budget will be at the centre—it will be the beating heart—of our international decision-making.
I am probably going to run this session for 20 minutes, so we need speedy questions and answers.
Will my right hon. Friend consider using overseas aid to create a large-scale, nationwide voluntary overseas apprentice scheme, sending young people overseas to work with charities and businesses to help developing countries but also develop the skills that they need?
I thank my right hon. Friend, the Chair of the Education Committee, who always manages to get apprenticeships into every question he asks with fantastic zeal and enthusiasm. I share his passion. I would be very interested to look at any suggestions he had. One of our priorities is ensuring that every young girl can have a quality education at least up to the age of 12, and that is a good example of where we want to maximise, strengthen and reinforce development policy within our wider international agenda.
This rushed merger was done without consultation with the sector, Parliament, staff or the staff trade unions, at a time when the global south is about to be hit by a global pandemic. The Government urgently need to clarify the implications of the merger on the 3,600 DFID staff. Does the Foreign Secretary agree with the Prime Minister that there needs to be an ODA Select Committee? Is he committed to the Conservative Independent Commission for Aid Impact? Can he confirm that existing DFID projects will continue and funding agreements will remain in place, and what will happen to the current review of DFID projects?
I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Lady does in this area. I do not think it is right to say that we are having no scrutiny. I am here before the Chamber, the Prime Minister has made a statement to the House, and we want to continue that as we go through this process. She asked about accountability. Of course, we want maximum accountability for not just the process but the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, in terms of the structures that apply to it and here in the House of Commons.
I have already answered the question about the Select Committee. Our view is that, in the normal course, it is right for Select Committees to mirror Government Departments, but ultimately that is a matter for the House. There is a huge opportunity in this process to leverage the very best of our aid—not just money but ethos, passion and commitment—with the muscle and clout that comes with our diplomatic network, and that is what we are committed to delivering.
As the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare, the interconnectedness of the modern world means that no one is safe until we are all safe. The UK’s commitment to international development is even more vital in the response to covid-19 at home and abroad. The sudden merging of DFID and the FCO and the absence of any parliamentary scrutiny or consultation means that we must focus on the quality of aid now spent through the Foreign Office. Can the Foreign Secretary give the House a commitment that the aid budget will not be tilted towards richer countries like Ukraine and that we will continue to spend at least 50% of aid in the least developed countries? Can he give a yes or no answer to this: will there be a retaining of a Cabinet Minister responsible for international development—not the Prime Minister—with a place on the National Security Council, so that humanitarian and development considerations are heard at the top of Government?
I share the hon. Lady’s passion and commitment in this area. We have made the commitment to 0.7% of gross national income. We will discuss and scrutinise all the questions around accountability and the structure of the new body. Aid will be represented not just in foreign policy but in the NSC and at the Cabinet table by the Secretary of State for the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—that would obviously be me—and the Prime Minister will oversee it through the NSC, which he chairs.
First, will the Secretary of State confirm that claims that this merger will take money from the world’s poorest are simply false? Secondly, will he say whether this is a one-off move or part of a programme to give greater coherence and integration to British overseas policy?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. In fact, I wanted to say in relation to the previous question that we are absolutely committed not just to safeguarding and protecting but to improving the work we do to help and lift out of poverty the most vulnerable and the poorest around the world. My hon. Friend asked whether this was a process. I think we are on a process of further integration, but our current plans are the ones that we have announced, and we are very focused on making sure we get maximum effectiveness out of this merger.
Approximately 600 jobs in the Department for International Development in East Kilbride in my constituency may be placed at risk by the shocking Government plans announced this week—shocking to staff, who found out just a few hours before the announcement, and shocking to the international community. They have caused considerable anxiety for local staff and all their families, who have been contacting me. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss these crucial issues for my constituency and to guarantee that those highly skilled DFID jobs will remain in East Kilbride?
First, may I give the hon. Lady the reassurance she needs that the office in her constituency will not be closed? Is it not fantastic to have an SNP Member of this House asking for and giving value to the work that the United Kingdom Government do in Scotland, both domestically and around the world? We welcome her support in that regard.
I had the privilege of being a merged Minister in both the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, and I could see how well our embassies and high commissions worked across Africa presenting a “one UK” face to the world. Will the Foreign Secretary reassure me on three points: first, that he will be a strong voice in Cabinet for the world’s poorest and most dispossessed; secondly, that the proportion of the aid budget that is spent in the poorest and most conflict-affected countries will continue to be significant and at least where it is now; and thirdly, that he will prioritise the campaign for 12 years of quality education for every girl?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the fantastic job she did. It is hard to believe but we do believe we can do even better by integrating, through this merger, the aid and foreign policy functions. She asked three specific questions; it is a yes on all three counts. Indeed, one of the first things I did yesterday was speak to Professor Paul Collier, one of a number of experts in the field, to look at how we can maximise our aid effort alongside our foreign policy, our trade and our wider international security objectives.
For 20 years, since the success of the Jubilee 2000 campaign, there has been a consensus across the House about the importance of international development, and I commend the Churches in particular for delivering and establishing that consensus. I deeply regret that this downgrade is bringing it to an end. Does the Foreign Secretary recognise how many people in the UK profoundly disagree with his claim and believe there is a profound difference between focusing on doing good in the world—tackling poverty and dealing with the climate crisis—and what he and his colleagues regard as our own national interests?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He is one of those Members of this House I always listen to with great care and interest, and he has a track record on these issues as well as on financial issues and many others. I made this point in my opening remarks that we have to be careful about this artificial dividing line between what serves our moral sense of duty and what serves a harder, grittier perception of the national interest. I think that that is an artificial dividing line. I believe in a sense of moral self-interest, an enlightened self-interest, and if he looks at what we are doing on vaccines at the Gavi summit, he will see that that will crystallise the opportunity for us to do things that serve the people of this country, by securing a vaccine, while helping the most vulnerable in the world.
Britain is not alone in unifying its foreign policy, so does my right hon. Friend agree that we can learn from countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which run well-respected and well- funded development programmes from their Foreign Ministries?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is perhaps one of the reflections of the debate in this country that very little attention is paid to the fact that of the OECD countries, there is only one now with a separate Ministry for Development. Indeed, the trend since 2009 has all been in the opposite direction—in Belgium, Australia, and Canada. The zeitgeist and the progressive thing to do is to bring together those functions to ensure that they have maximum impact together.
The Pergau dam aid for arms scandal under the Conservative Government more than 25 years ago exposed the dangers of tying aid to foreign policy. Indeed, in 1994, in a landmark judgment, aid for Pergau was declared unlawful. Is the Foreign Secretary fully confident that there is no danger at all of history repeating itself?
I understand the point the hon. Gentleman is making. It is a perfectly respectable one, but the world has moved on, policy has moved on, and accountability and governance have moved on since the 1980s. Of course we are in a different place. I pay tribute to all the work that DFID has done since 1997. I understand why the Government, through that period, thought it was right as of and in its time. The best way now, the progressive way now, to integrate foreign policy with aid and development is to bring those functions together, and that is where most of the developing countries—indeed almost all of them—have gone.
Departmental fragmentation is a very real problem in Government, which is why I welcome the announcement made by my right hon. Friend. This Government’s commitment to international aid is, of course, enshrined in law. How will he ensure that social justice programmes, such as those that he has already talked about, including 12 years of quality education for girls, which has been championed by the Prime Minister, continue to receive the priority they need within a much more complex framework?
I thank my right hon. Friend and former Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. Of course she will know from the equalities agenda how easy it is for cross-cutting issues to fall between the cracks of individual Government Departments. We remain absolutely committed, and she will know that I am personally committed, to our campaign to ensure that there are 12 years of quality education for every girl in the world, not just as a matter of moral duty but because it is one of the best levers to raise poverty in those countries. I also cite COP26 and climate change as another example of where we need to bring together our domestic ambitions and our international ambitions across the board and unite our diplomatic muscle and leverage with our development goals.
The spread of covid-19 has pushed half a billion people into poverty and 265 million to the brink of starvation. This merger is a massive distraction in the middle of an emergency. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that official development assistance will not be misspent on foreign security projects, which risk the UK contributing to human rights abuses abroad?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I know that she takes a very close interest in this matter. In relation to conflict situations in particular—I have mentioned Yemen, but I can think of other situations around the world—integrating the aid and development budget and policy is the way that we will get a coherent approach, which not only brings the conflict to an end and alleviates the humanitarian crisis, but is the best vehicle for protecting human rights sustainably.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, we are taking advantage of those officials—I have asked Nic Hailey to head up some of this work in the Foreign Office, as he has experience in Kenya doing exactly what my hon. Friend described in Nigeria—to help us knit together the aid, the development and the wider foreign policy functions. It is misplaced, but I understand why, to think that these functions, including the international security functions in those countries, should remain siloed. The most effective way, with the highest impact, is to bring them together.
For the past two decades the world has witnessed the impact of DFID’s life-saving investments in the HIV response and the wider global health arena. That critical UK global leadership on HIV, health and international development must not be squandered at a time when years of progress are already at risk of being unravelled. How does the Secretary of State believe this level of focus will be achieved in an already overstretched FCO?
The hon. Gentleman raises exactly the point at issue. We want to maximise our focus and funding, but also our political effort, on those key priorities and ensure that we are delivering with the very highest impact. HIV and some of the other ground-breaking areas where we have helped to reduce disease, malnourishment and poverty are absolutely a top priority in the new administrative structures.
This important and necessary change provides the crystal clear clarity of purpose needed to boost and bolster global Britain. Our commitment to spend 0.7% of our national income on aid is enshrined in law. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we owe it to the people of our nation and the many we help across the world to make the best use of every penny?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is exactly what this merger is all about. Ultimately, it is not about the institutional mechanics, but about the strategic objectives and ensuring that foreign policy, aid and our wider international objectives are brought together, and that we demonstrate at home and abroad—in all the areas he described—that we are bigger than the sum of our parts.
“some giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any reference to UK interests”—[Official Report,
Vol. 677, c. 670.]
That is how the Prime Minister describes aid to the poorest and most exploited nations and people in the globe. In a Spectator article, he previously mocked such aid as “politically correct”, with aid workers building toilets that people will end up living in and handing out condoms. In the same article, he said of British colonialism in Africa:
“The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”
Is it not the brutal truth that the Prime Minister is not interested in poverty reduction at home or abroad?
No; after all that bluff and bluster, there is really only a one-word answer. Look at what this Prime Minister did when he was Foreign Secretary—his commitment to making sure every girl has 12 years’ education; the passion that he has brought to the COP26 agenda—a conference that we will host; his commitment to making sure that we promote media freedom throughout the world, as well as all those wider aid and development functions. This is someone who has direct experience of foreign policy and knows, as I understand, that we can maximise our impact in all those areas where we share aspirations and objectives right across the House, and that we can get better results for the people we are trying to help across the world, but also for taxpayers’ money in this country.
I very much welcome this merger, which is good for global Britain, good for aid beneficiaries, and good for our ability to explain and advocate international development among a generally sceptical population. Can the Foreign Secretary say, however, what the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s role will be in the merged Department? Also, since DFID’s terms and conditions of service for its staff tend to be rather better than those for Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff and diplomats, will there be a levelling up or a levelling down?
May I thank my right hon. Friend and say what a fantastic Minister he was in the Foreign Office? I worked very closely with him and he was exceptional. He will know from his brilliant work on Yemen the importance of bringing together conflict resolution foreign policy objectives with the aid and development budget and programme that we have been delivering. We will come forward with the details he described as soon as practical so that this House can scrutinise them, but I can certainly tell him that we will want to maintain, if not increase, maximum scrutiny over the aid budget and the functioning of this merger.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer to the urgent question. This move mirrors similar situations in countries such as Australia, with its well respected Aussie Aid. In the merger of the FCO and DFID, what importance will be attached to the provision of sexual and reproductive health rights and family planning as a key component of ODA going forward?
May I thank my hon. Friend and say what a fantastic Minister she was for the Asia-Pacific region? She will know first hand what can be done when we combine all the resources, expertise and efforts right across Government in the international sphere. On the public health goals she mentions, we will not be diluting or dimming the development goals in any way, shape or form.
The reorganisation of Government Departments is day-to-day business; what we object to is the explicit and deliberate politicisation of international aid. Will the Foreign Secretary at least commit to meeting the international development non-government organisations to discuss, for the first time, implementing this selfish vanity project in the least bad way possible?
The hon. Gentleman talks about not politicising and then he comes up with a comment like that. Of course, we will look very carefully. We understand—I want to be clear about this—why NGOs are not universally, shall we say, welcoming this merger. Over £1 billion goes into NGOs’ budgets every year from the aid budget, so I understand why they take a very close interest. I have given the reassurance that we are retaining the 0.7% commitment. Ultimately, in the last analysis, we have to ensure that our policy and taxpayers’ money is brought together and invested in a way that can deliver the most effective results for the strategic objectives of alleviating poverty for the most vulnerable, and delivering on climate change and on the wider international agenda that we on the Conservative Benches passionately support.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, I would like to put on record my view that the takeover of DFID by the FCO will undermine Britain’s influence in Africa, not enhance it. Diplomacy is not development. Diplomacy must and should be driven by British interests. Development must be seen to be in the interests of the country concerned. DFID benefited from not being seen as an arm of British foreign policy. Will the Foreign Secretary take this opportunity to confirm that this takeover will not lead to a reduction in the proportion of aid that goes to Africa?
I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Lady, but I respect her view. I actually think that Africa—we mentioned Nigeria and Kenya as two examples—is an area where we really need to bring together, in one united, forged effort, development, aid and foreign policy objectives in conflict zones. I started my career as a war crimes lawyer—I worked in the FCO—and I saw the risk of having a shadow aid foreign policy at the time of conflict resolution. Bringing those things together will lead not only to a more effective aid and development set of objectives, but to more effective foreign policy. I think that will be at its highest and greatest in Africa.
Having spent time with DFID teams around the globe, I was initially concerned when I heard about the merger. However, they always worked positively and I believe we should too. I therefore wish my right hon. Friend well in looking after the aid budget. I know that he believes in social justice and results, so I trust him to do so. As I am sat next to my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to ensure that we deliver value for money with our aid budget?
I agree with everything my hon. Friend says. He mentions our right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield. I pay tribute to the incredible work he did at DFID. We are absolutely committed, with even more passion and even more zeal, to those objectives, while at the same time, as my hon. Friend rightly says, making sure we can deliver the best bang for our buck with British taxpayers’ money. The best way to do that is in a co-ordinated and integrated way. That is what the merger will achieve.
I had thought we were on the cusp of a very serious question but it descended into political cut and thrust. Actually what we are really focused on, and what this crisis has proved, is that necessity is the mother of innovation and invention. We have to try to drive greater effectiveness not just domestically as we tackle coronavirus but in our international effort, and that is what we are focused on.
We have of course taken this merger decision now because we can see that we need to be as effective as we possibly can be during this coronavirus challenge. Equally, it will help to galvanise the integrated view that will bring into play all the wider security factors that my hon. Friend mentioned.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am now suspending the House for three minutes.