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Tue, 7 July 2020

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By Sarah Champion MP and Pauline Latham MP
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Boris Johnson merges overseas aid department with the Foreign Office — but David Cameron brands it a mistake

Boris Johnson merges overseas aid department with the Foreign Office  — but David Cameron brands it a mistake

The Department for International Development is set to be axed (PA)

5 min read

Boris Johnson is folding the Department for International Development back into the Foreign Office — but his predecessor-but-one David Cameron has called the move a “mistake”.

The Prime Minister — a longstanding critic of DfID who has previously argued for it to become a part of the FCO again — said taxpayers had a right to “expect that we will achieve the maximum value for every pound that we spend” on overseas aid.

And he confirmed that a combined Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office would now be set up. 

But Mr Cameron, the former Tory PM, said the move would mean "less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect".

And Labour accused the PM of scrapping "one of the best performing and most important departments".

Announcing the changes in the Commons, Mr Johnson, who previously served as foreign secretary, said “distinctions between diplomacy and overseas development" were  "artificial and outdated”.

And he added: “As anybody who has any experience in the matter will know, a dividing line between aid and foreign policy runs through our whole system, with the Department for International Development working independently from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and a budget parcelled out between different arms of Whitehall.

“DfID outspends the Foreign Office more than four times over. And yet no single decision maker in either department is able to unite our efforts, or take a comprehensive overview.”

He said: “Faced with this crisis today, and the opportunities that lie ahead, We have a responsibility to ask whether our current arrangements, dating back to 1997, still maximise British influence.” 

And, confirming the set-up of the new joint department, Mr Johnson added: "We must now strengthen our position in an intensely competitive world by making sensible changes, and so I have decided to merge defeat with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to create a new department: The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.”

The new set-up would, he argued, “unite our aid with our diplomacy and bring them together in our international effort”.

The department, which employs hundreds of staff in East Kilbride as well as Whitehall, was originally spun out of the Foreign Office under Tony Blair’s government in the 1990s.

Conservative critics of its work have repeatedly questioned its oversight of the UK’s multi-billion pound overseas aid budget, which sees Britain contribute 0.7% of its Gross National Income (GNI) in development assistance.

'WELL-RESPECTED'

Reacting to the move, Mr Cameron said: "The Prime Minister is right to maintain the commitment to 0.7 - it saves lives, promotes a safer world and builds British influence. But the decision to merge the departments is a mistake."

And he added: "More could and should be done to co-ordinate aid and foreign policy, including through the National Security Council, but the end of DfID will mean less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas."

The move also received a mixed response from MPs, with Labour’s Sarah Champion, who chairs the Commons International Development Committee, saying DfID was “an incredibly strong and well-respected department internationally”.

And she said: “At a time when the future for so many people in developing nations has never looked worse, with existing challenges of violence, famine and disease compounded with the devastating effects of coronavirus, the PM's timing couldn’t be worse."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer meanwhile accused the PM of “the tactics of pure distraction“ on day when the Government has already shifted position on free school meals and the latest labour market figures have shown a sharp spike in those out of work.

Sir Keir added: “I want to see Britain as a moral force for good in the world."

And he added: “We don't achieve that by abolishing one of the best performing and most important departments. A department that has done so much to tackle poverty and injustice.”

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose Government created DfID in 1997, said he was “utterly dismayed by the decision”.

He tweeted: “The strategic aims of alignment with diplomacy and focus on new areas of strategic interest to Britain could be accomplished without its abolition. Wrong and regressive move.”

But Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was “pleased to see that the Foreign Secretary will be given more strategic oversight when it comes to key aspects of overseas influence and spending”.

He said said: “We must learn from similar mergers, for example in Australia and Canada, and ensure that our place on the world stage and international reputation are enhanced rather than put at risk."

'NO PLANS' FOR SECOND FOREIGN SEC

Mr Johnson insisted now was the "right moment to reorganise Whitehall", arguing that the Covid-19 pandemic had "already imposed fundamental changes on the way that we operate".

He said: "A whole of government approach, getting maximum value for the British taxpayer, is just as important abroad as it is at home and so this is exactly the moment when we must mobilise every one of our national assets including our a budget and expertise to safeguard British interests and values overseas."

The Government has confirmed that work will begin “immediately” on the merger, with the new department formally established in “early September”.

It will be led by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, with current DfID Secretary Anne-Marie Travelyan staying in the job “until early September when the new department is formally established”.

A Government spokesperson said: “There are no plans for a second Secretary of State or a Deputy Foreign Secretary.”

There are no compulsory redundancies planned, officials said, while the Department’s office in Kilbride, Scotland, will stay open. 

PoliticsHome understands that civil service unions have yet to be briefed on the plans, while an all-staff meeting with DfID’s top official was due to take place on Tuesday afternoon.

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