Ten days ago, a Royal Air Force C-17 left Brize Norton in my constituency, carrying parts of a field hospital destined for west Africa. Over the course of another five flights, the 130 tonnes of that field hospital will be taken to west Africa, where members of the UN and others are doing crucial, outstanding work in tackling coronavirus. That shows this country at its best. It shows the expertise of our armed forces, together with an outward looking foreign policy, and the expertise of DFID, which funded that mission. It helps this country spread its good name around the world. I 100% welcome this and the fact that the Government have made it clear that there is a total commitment to our international aid. There is no rolling back from it. It remains world-leading and the 0.7% target is to be maintained.
It is morally and ethically right that we help others, particularly the poorest around the world. But these aid flights also show that in helping others we are helping ourselves, because when facing a virus we are none of us safe until all of us are safe. In making that point, I also show that it would be naive to pretend that these flights are not also an expression of soft power and in pursuance of the British national interest. The merger that has been proposed gives us the opportunity to ensure that British aid money is always spent wisely and well. Too often, despite the good intentions, there has been a feeling that the two Departments are not acting in concert. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who was of course Foreign Secretary, has said:
“The Foreign Secretary may not wish to help a particular country because of its poor human rights record. The DFID Secretary might take the view that the aid that is to be provided is more important and is, in any event, not directly relevant to the human rights situation. The outcome is confusion, both in this country and in the recipient country, as to what the policies and priorities of Her Majesty’s Government are.”
Lord Hague has made a similar point, saying that when he was Foreign Secretary he would often be listened to politely by those abroad, but they really wanted to talk to the DFID Secretary, whose chequebook was four times bigger. That rather proves that in the real world, whether we like it or not, diplomacy and development are intertwined.
We could learn some lessons from how other countries do things. Norway and Denmark do things in a similar way; they are often held up as the gold standard of aid. France, a close western European ally, also has her aid distributed according to a set of pre-set policy goals. This does not mean, I stress, that it is “trade for aid”. We can decide that altruistic alleviation of poverty is exactly what we want to do, provided that that is the foreign policy that we have thought about in advance. There is no sinister plot to decimate Britain’s aid contribution around the world. It is no good being moral and ethical if we are not also effective, and that is why I applaud this.