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The Civil Service will embrace the changes that Downing Street is seeking

3 min read

Liam Fox is wrong to call for DfID to be merged with the Foreign Office, says former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell MP.

In Liam Fox’s speech on trade and foreign policy, there is much with which I agree. It is very important to prioritise the work of the Department for International Trade. 


But we should also recognise the extraordinary respect in which the Department for International Development (DfiD) is held around the world for its skill and effectiveness and the huge contribution this will make to Global Britain.

Also, while it is true, as he says, that DFID has 39 home civil servants working in Kenya, only 10 work on the Kenya programme. The Department for International Trade has 22 across Africa and in my view should possibly prioritise Africa more.

As we move through Brexit both domestically and internationally, I am certain the civil service will rise to the challenge to deliver the public services their political masters desire. The new challenges certainly require more sectoral and specific expertise by dint of the fact that we are no longer part of a larger whole, and because of the ever-increasing sophistication of public service technology, which requires ever increasing levels of human skill.

Different parts of the civil service will need to adapt in different ways.

Paradoxically when I arrived at DfID in 2010 as the first Conservative Secretary of State, I found the department largely full of experts and impressive specialists in their own areas but somewhat lacking in generalist civil service skills. So, I set about increasing the classic civil service DNA to bring DfID more within the Whitehall constellation and assist this new department becoming more of a department of state within the government structure. It remains a huge bonus for Britain that the foreign office is still able to attract such an extraordinary quality of talent. This will be greatly needed as we craft the role and policies upon which “Global Britain” depend.

I am sure the Civil Service will embrace the changes that Downing Street is seeking. There has been some public comment about the future of DfID and the possibility that it might cohere with the Foreign Office. It is obviously sensible for the cabinet office, and political advisers, to look at all options for delivering better government and meeting the aims of ministers and elected politicians. But I doubt this reform will be sensible: the coordination which those who support this idea believe would result from a Foreign Office takeover is already available through the mechanism of the National Security Council - In my view one of the Cameron governments most brilliant reforms. This removes the need for any takeover by any other department because defence, development and diplomacy are seamlessly welded together through the NSC.

Such a move would also destroy the most highly respected and effective International Development organisation in the world, since the very specialist and talented people who run it will quickly be poached by International organisations and bodies.

This would be the very reverse of what I think Dominic Cummings is trying to achieve!


Andrew Mitchell is MP for Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, and was Secretary of State for International Development 2010-12.

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