We have already heard about the good work that small independent countries can do, and how they make up their Government departments will vary from country to country. My whole point is not that this will bring aid to a shuddering halt but, as I have said, that it will undermine its effectiveness and the good work that the Department does.
The issue is not, as was said earlier, whether aid is in the UK’s interests, but whether the merged Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will genuinely pursue a true aid agenda or will pursue a security, trade or defence agenda. Speaking specifically about UK Departments, we must remember that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office seems to think that it is in our interests to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. While the Prime Minister was in charge of that Department, there were real questions and concerns about the UK watering down EU proposals for an independent international inquiry into the war in Yemen, yet the same decision makers will now be responsible for the aid we send to Yemen.
How do we align those different goals? Am I being alarmist? Perhaps I am, and I hope that these concerns are entirely ill-founded, but we had an urgent question earlier today on Bahrain and its appalling human rights abuses. Our relationship with that country, and the FCO’s investment there through our conflict, stability and security fund, hardly inspire confidence that the FCO really is able to differentiate aid from a strange Foreign Office agenda.
For all those reasons, we really should think again. However, if we are to press ahead with this ill-judged decision, we need more than easy assurances from the Dispatch Box that the focus on tackling poverty and gender inequality will remain. We need that spelled out in departmental plans and strategies, as well as in budgets, and we need strict rules that require a minimum spend in the world’s least developed countries. We also need a more robust framework of scrutiny than ever from the Select Committee and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Otherwise, I fear that ever more spending motivated by trade or defence interests will be parcelled up and badged as aid. We may very well still meet the 0.7% goal, but we will do so in a more hollow and empty way. The fear we have is that that is precisely what the Prime Minister wanted to achieve.