FCO and DFID merger

9th July 2020

Andrew Mitchell regrets the FCO and DFID merger, but outlines how it can best be implemented.

I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I start by making it absolutely clear that I regard the decision to dismantle DFID as a quite extraordinary mistake. First, it will destroy one of the most effective and respected engines of international development in the world. Secondly, many of the senior figures who are key to Britain’s role as a development superpower are likely to leave and work elsewhere in the international system, destroying at a stroke a key aspect of global Britain. Thirdly, it is completely unnecessary, as the Prime Minister exercises full control and line of sight over DFID’s strategy and priorities through the National Security Council. Churches, faith communities and hundreds—thousands—of supporters up and down the country of Oxfam, Save the Children, Christian Aid and CAFOD are dismayed, as are our many friends around the world, who are shaking their heads in disbelief at this extraordinary act.

Both the Foreign Office and DFID work ceaselessly in Britain’s national interest, but foreign affairs and development, while totally complementary, are not the same thing. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to the 0.7%, but that involves both the money and the OECD rules on what constitutes legitimate aid and official development assistance, and I fear that we will shortly hear that the rules are not quite right for the United Kingdom and we need our own rules. With that, the 0,7% will go up in smoke as the stronger interests plunder the budget and Britain’s development effectiveness dissolves, and with it our international reputation as a world leader in the field.

I absolutely respect my right hon. Friend’s experience. Does he accept that currently, including ODA and non-ODA, we spend nearly 0.8% funding overseas operations in Iraq?

The House will understand why I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me an extra minute, but I have learned during my 30 years in Parliament that, in politics, there is limited point in spending one’s time howling at the moon. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the decision, it has been made, so I will turn now to how best it can be implemented, with the least damage to Britain’s brilliant work and reputation.

I draw the Minister’s attention to the excellent paper produced by Stefan Dercon, who was the chief economist in the Department when I was Secretary of State. I know the Foreign Secretary has had a chance to look at it. I hope the Foreign Office will bear in mind the constructive comments made in that wise and thoughtful paper on how to make the merger work. First It is important to ensure a whole-of-Government approach to the spending of development money. Different Departments spend it, but not consistently, and most of the spend that attracts hostile comment in the press—the spend in China, for example, or the Newton fund—is not spent by DFID. In my first hour as Secretary of State, I stopped all spending to China, unless it was legally incurred. There is a danger that mis-spending by other Departments brings the budget into disrepute with our constituents, and I urge the Government to focus on that point.

Secondly, to ensure an emphasis on the quality of the spend, the ICAI looks at all spending. Its annual report comes out tomorrow, and I urge colleagues to read it. ICAI was set up in the teeth of opposition from the development sector, but it is extremely important for holding to account the quality of spending. It is the taxpayers’ friend, and we must drive up the quality of ODA spend across Government.

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

I am sorry, but I cannot.

Thirdly, DFID’s skill is money. With the best will in the world, the Foreign Office is not that; although populated by the most brilliant diplomats, they are not very good with money and it is not fair to expect Foreign Office officials to take responsibility for running multimillion-pound projects.

The final example I will give is that, to his credit, the Prime Minister has made getting girls into school a priority. I strongly agree. To change our world, educate girls. That is why I set up the girls’ education challenge fund, which was designed to get 1 million girls into school, but looking at the right structures to deliver that is a DFID skill.