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Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Volume 678: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2020

What discussions he has had with international (a) development non-governmental organisations and (b) counterparts of the Secretary of State for International Development on the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. (904028)

What discussions he has had with international (a) development non-governmental organisations and (b) counterparts of the Secretary of State for International Development on the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. (904029)

What the timescale is for the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; and if he will make a statement. (904036)

What discussions he has had with international (a) development non-governmental organisations and (b) counterparts of the Secretary of State for International Development on the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. (904040)

The new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office is a huge opportunity for the UK to have an even greater global impact as we recover from the coronavirus pandemic, and also as we prepare to hold the G7 presidency and host COP26 next year.

The Prime Minister thinks that international aid is a giant cashpoint in the sky and the Paymaster General wants to use the aid budget for a new royal yacht, so it is no wonder that 200 non-governmental organisations are against the proposed merger. It has also been claimed that international aid was undermining the diplomatic processes of the Foreign Office, so can the Secretary of State give me the No. 1 example of where foreign aid was used to undermine foreign policy that justifies the abolition of DFID?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point to some of the tensions. The reality is that we think we can have an even stronger impact by integrating—

I will give him an example if he waits a second. We think we can have a stronger impact if we integrate development policy and the aid budget with foreign policy. A good example is the GAVI summit, where we smashed the target and raised $8.8 billion. That is a great example where, led by the Prime Minister, we brought together our development heart and soul with our diplomatic muscle and reach. That is what we are going to do with this merger.

The Paymaster General suggests spending official development assistance money on another royal yacht, instead of on supporting aid workers and the world-class development NGOs based in the UK that save lives. How does that square with the established commitment that every penny of aid is and will continue to be committed to the sustainable development goals, or are we to expect that definition to fade, along with any substantive connection to the Government’s legal obligation to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to spending 0.7% of GNI on aid. The examples of GAVI and COP26, the questions on Yemen and this pandemic all illustrate why bringing together all the different aspects of foreign policy—particularly bringing together aid and development policy with the Foreign Office’s network—is an opportunity for us to be bigger than the sum of our parts abroad and to have an even greater impact as a force for good.

The Foreign Secretary is correct that we are starting to manage covid-19 in the north, but in the global south it is causing chaos, decimation and loss of life, as can be seen from the Afghanistan figures today. Will he explain why, when DFID staff are trying their hardest to shore up the global south against covid-19, he has chosen this moment in time to bring forward a confusing, complicated and expensive merger? Is he still looking for the merger to be completed by 1 September? Will the 30% cuts in the ODA budget that the Treasury is asking for be in this financial year or in future spend?

I reassure the hon. Lady that we are still committed to delivering the merger by September. She asks, “Why now?”. The reality is that coronavirus has illustrated just why it is so important to have an integrated and aligned approach. We have achieved a huge amount through the international ministerial groups we have brought together, but it has also shown how much more powerful we can be as a force for good abroad if we bring all those different elements together, such as aid and the foreign policy network. The GAVI summit is one example, but there are others. We have a moral duty to support the most vulnerable countries around the world to protect them against and prevent a second wave, but it is also important to save the United Kingdom from the implications of that.

As chair of the all-party group on Malawi, I hope the Foreign Secretary will join me in welcoming the election of Lazarus Chakwera as the new President. Malawi has benefited from DFID investment in governance and democracy, and from the transparency initiative, for many years, which has perhaps contributed to this peaceful transition of power. What guarantee is there that in merging the two Departments, that kind of work, which DFID was able to specialise in and which might otherwise be forgotten about, will continue to be provided and properly scrutinised?

I join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming the free and fair election in Malawi. It is really important that such things take place in countries that do not have a history or pedigree of democratic transitions. While I agree with him entirely about that, I am afraid that I do not agree with the assumption in his question. From Kenya to Nigeria in Africa, let alone more broadly across the world, the experience in our missions is that we are most effective when we fully integrate and align the development aims and aid budget with the wider foreign policy strategy. That streamlining is precisely what the merger will help us do across the board.

May I welcome the words of my right hon. Friend this morning? When he listens to the different aid agencies that have supported the merger, such as the Carronbridge-based HALO Trust, does he realise that what they offer is a real change in how we do foreign policy, not just a change in the way we integrate foreign policy and aid at home? Having a forward-leaning, multinational organisation like DFID shaping the way our diplomats act and our embassies respond is a real opportunity to update the way the Foreign Office acts; it is not just about bringing the two Departments together.

I thank my hon. Friend, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. He is right to quote the HALO Trust. He is right that this is an opportunity. Indeed, it will mean significant cultural change for the FCO, not just for DFID. We want to merge and innovate to bring something that is, as I say, the sum of our parts, but also something different. In fact, just one of 29 OECD countries has a separate Development Ministry. I have been talking to the likes of Paul Collier and Professor Stefan Dercon about how we can achieve this in the way that delivers the best impact, particularly in relation to poverty reduction and things like climate change.

I am concerned by reports that as part of the DFID merger, the Government have agreed to pause all new aid spending, including the conflict, stability and security fund. At a moment of such global insecurity, that would be an extraordinary decision. In a week when the Government have fired their national security adviser, are stalling on re-establishing the Intelligence and Security Committee, and are delaying the Russia report, can the Secretary of State at least give me a cast-iron guarantee that conflict, stability and security funding will continue to be applied to new projects and that this Government are taking national security seriously?

I can reassure the hon. Lady that conflict prevention—humanitarian aid—is going to remain, if not be elevated, as one of the key strategic priorities of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. There has been no sustained pause, but we are having a review based on the economic figures that will apply given the impact of covid-19 on GNI. That will make sure that we can prioritise the aid budget in the places that need it most. I would have thought, if she is serious about this, that she would welcome that.