[Relevant Documents: Second Report from the International Development Committee, 2019-21, Effectiveness of UK aid: interim findings, HC 215, published on 9 June and oral evidence taken before the Committee (impact of coronavirus) on 15 May, 4 and 16 June, and 6 July, HC 292
Oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee (Coronavirus: FCO response) on 30 June, HC 239, and (FCO-DFID merger) on 7 July, HC 525.]
Motion made, and Question proposed,
(1) for the year ending with 31 March 2021, for expenditure by the Department for International Development:
(a) further resources, not exceeding £3,706,011,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 293 of Session 2019-21,
(b) further resources, not exceeding £2,258,300,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(c) a further sum, not exceeding £6,179,917,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament; and
(2) for the year ending with 31 March 2021, for expenditure by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office:
(a) further resources, not exceeding £1,633,176,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 293 of Session 2019-21,
(b) further resources, not exceeding £51,513,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(c) a further sum, not exceeding £1,699,106,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Michael Tomlinson.)
The debate will be opened by the Chair of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion). I warn hon. Members that, because we have two debates, there will be a four-minute limit on all Back-Bench contributions.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling this debate. We can see from the number of people who want to speak just how important a topic this is.
I am here as Chair of the International Development Committee. I was elected by the House to scrutinise development, and I hope that I will be able to continue in that role in some form. The merger came as a complete surprise, especially as the integrated review was formally paused in April and is not due to start until the autumn. I fully accept that it is in the Prime Minister’s gift to change the machinery of government; however, it is unfathomable that a merger is being carried out in the midst of a pandemic, with no consultation of the sector or staff and no evidence that the move will save money or, indeed, make us more efficient at delivering the global Britain the PM so dearly wants.
I would like to start by speaking the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), who is a member of the IDC. He said: “As a boy growing up in India, I saw the crushing weight that poverty exerts on people. I saw the lives blighted by ill health and by lack of education.” Fundamentally, that is what DFID does: it raises people up. Those same children, were they born today, wherever it may be—in Pakistan, Ethiopia or Nigeria—could expect a different course.
UK aid saves lives and changes lives—not the lives of those who promise to support a global Britain or buy whatever service our diplomats are hawking that week, but the lives of the most in need. That is why aid should never be linked to political pressure: the ones who lose out are never the ones in charge, but the weakest, the poorest and the sickest. Furthermore, there needs to be a system in place to scrutinise the aid that is given to eliminate poverty, to enable education and health provision for all and a better life for all, and to meet our commitments on the sustainable development goals.
I would also like to speak on behalf of another IDC member, the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham). She urges the Government to embed gender equality into the new Department. A commitment to girls’ education is meaningless unless child marriage, female genital mutilation, gender-based violence and cultural stereotypes are challenged, so we both also request that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office makes sure that the Department for International Development safeguarding unit is retained, as the UK needs to deal with sexual abuse by aid workers, not just the abuses that are carried out by people in their own country.
The recent IDC report on the effectiveness of UK aid examined the impact of UK aid spending. On humanitarian assistance, from 2015 to March 2019, UK aid reached 32.6 million people; from the start of 2015 until the end of 2017, UK support immunised an estimated 56.4 million children, saving almost 1 million lives; and between 2015 and 2019, UK aid supported 14.3 million children to gain a decent education and 51.8 million people to access clean water and better sanitation.
UK aid spending amplifies our voice on the world stage. It promotes our national interests by projecting our core values and transforming the lives of the very poorest in the world. A shift away from that is counterproductive. Global poverty drives conflict and instability. I agree with the Secretary of State that, unless we use our aid now to address covid-19 in the global south, 30 years of development investment could be wiped out. That position is evidenced by the World Bank’s estimate that 49 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty this year alone.
The IDC is finalising a report on the merger, to be published next Friday, which will examine the management of the transition to the new FCDO, the principles underpinning UK aid, and future scrutiny arrangements for official development assistance spending. I hope that the Government will use the report to strengthen the new Department and avoid the pitfalls of other countries.
The UK voluntarily adheres to an internationally recognised definition of aid. That gives us great international standing, as it is seen to be doing the right thing. ODA is designated as assistance given
“with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as the main objective”.
UK aid is also bound by four Acts of Parliament, notably the International Development Act 2002, which put poverty alleviation at the heart of the UK aid programme. I am therefore relieved that both the PM and the Foreign Secretary keep reiterating their commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid, keeping within the OECD Development Assistance Committee’s definition, and preserving the primary focus of UK aid on poverty reduction. However, we all know that the devil is in the detail.
Although DFID remains the largest distributor of UK aid, at 73%, its share of spend has been decreasing over recent years. Non-DFID aid has a very different geographical profile, with around three quarters of it going to middle-income countries, including China, India and South Africa. The shift to increasing amounts of ODA being administered outside DFID has created significant challenges for the management and oversight of spending. Not all ODA programmes administered outside DFID are adequately targeted towards poverty reduction. Seven of the 10 UK Government Departments assessed, including the Foreign Office, were failing to meet aid transparency targets. DFID, however, has been rated very good for seven consecutive years.
It is the Committee’s view that stronger accountability and oversight is needed to help to prevent future distortions in the uses of development assistance and undermining the case for aid. In the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, it became a requirement for the Secretary of State to ensure that the value for money of UK ODA expenditure was subject to independent review. I commend the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for the creation of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which carries out this task. In addition, parliamentary scrutiny is currently carried out via the International Development Committee. Because of the scale of the ODA budget and the fact that this is cross-departmental, I ask the House to look favourably on the Committee’s request that its remit be extended once the merger is completed so that it can continue to scrutinise ODA spend and continue to have responsibility for receiving and considering reports from ICAI. I quote the Centre for Global Development’s Ian Mitchell:
“The Government should create a cross-cutting committee like the Public Accounts Committee to focus on questions of aid value for money. This would provide visibility and reassurance to taxpayers and Parliament alike on aid spending and enable the Foreign Affairs and Development Committee to focus on policy.”
Merging Departments may seem attractive in the short term, with the possible administrative savings and improved policy coherence, but it can be extremely disruptive and costly and impair organisational effectiveness. In the long run, the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office could reduce the UK’s clout on the international stage, rather than enhancing it. Australia’s merger led to the departure of significant numbers of skilled AusAID staff, taking their expertise with them. This had a clear impact on Australia’s aid effectiveness, with AusAID’s former deputy director general Richard Moore estimating that up to 2,000 years of expertise may have been lost. Canada merged its development department with foreign affairs to create Global Affairs Canada. Administration costs in the new department immediately increased and the merger was beset by poor transparency that it is still recovering from. Narrowly defined economic or foreign policy goals can create tension with UK aid’s other objectives, such as poverty reduction, with the risk that neither is done well. There is also a risk that the pursuit of mutual benefit and national interests goals might lead to the tying of aid, so the Government need swiftly to put in measures to prevent that.
In conclusion, the Government need to set out how they intend to ensure that ODA administered through the FCDO meets the necessary high standards of transparency and value for money in its programme and spend, regardless of which Department spends it. Parliamentary and independent scrutiny must continue through a dedicated ODA spend committee, as must the maintaining and resourcing of ICAI. We urge the Government to present a statement to Parliament setting out an evidence-led rationale for any change in development priorities, quantifying expected costs, setting out how the changes would be beneficial and, crucially, dealing with how ODA spend will be measured and controlled.
Finally, DFID is not perfect, but on every international rating it scores among the best in the world for transparency and value for taxpayers’ money. I strongly recommend that, rather than fully blending both Departments, which could lose the sum of its parts, the Government instead transpose DFID wholesale, allowing its good work to continue for the benefit of global Britain.
I must say that I agree with almost every word that friend the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) has shared with the House. There are very few who could praise the Department for International Development as highly as I have, not just here but when I first came into contact with DFID in a meaningful sense when I was the adviser to the governor of Helmand. From 2006 to 2007, I had the great privilege of working alongside some of the UK’s most effective foreign policy experts in DFID, delivering marketplaces, roads and opportunities for individuals to turn away from a drugs economy and towards a prosperity that would have, one hoped, led to a real change in that country. It was one of the great privileges of my life. Those experts, however, were not just working in the pursuit of the alleviation of poverty; they were working in Britain’s national interest.
Here, I will pick up on some of the words used by the hon. Member for Rotherham. She specifically and rightly said that these actions are in Britain’s national interest. Defending the people of Sierra Leone—this is particularly close to the heart of the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), whose family hail from there—is absolutely in our national interest. Furthering the work my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) pursued when he was Secretary of State is directly in Britain’s national interest. That is why, although I appreciate the concerns my right hon. Friend has, I think that merging British foreign policy and our national interest with our aid Department can be done to the promotion of both. As long as we maintain the culture, we will do better.
I will answer that with just a few words. Tax is money taken by force. It must be scrutinised by this House to ensure it is being spent appropriately and correctly. That is why I am passionate in defending ICAI, and my hon. Friend chairs the International Development Committee’s Sub-Committee on the Work of the ICAI so effectively.
I am very pleased to hear what my hon. Friend says about the absolute importance of ICAI. He talks about the spending being in the national interest. May I make it clear that many of us believe that every single penny of the international development budget is spent in Britain’s national interest?
That is only true because of the assiduous nature with which my right hon. Friend and others have supervised the spending. There are other organisations that spend in other ways where I would argue that that is not the case. However, the way the DFID budget has been managed by my right hon. Friend—and, indeed, by Ministers such as the one sitting before us today—has absolutely prioritised British national interest through the alleviation of poverty and focusing on different areas, such as defensive and educational elements of our national interest, and has absolutely delivered. I think that is fundamentally in the British national interest, and that is why I am very keen to defend the 0.7% target and the amazing work of the people in East Kilbride, demonstrating that the UK working together abroad really does promote the interests of all of us.
It is essential that we remember that, when we look around the world, we see countries and people with whom we have different relationships. From the Scottish National party Front Bench, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) will talk passionately about Malawi and the deep links between the people of Scotland and Malawi. He is absolutely right. I could talk passionately about Afghanistan or Iraq, two countries I have been involved in. The Minister could talk about Sierra Leone. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield could speak about that depth of relationship with any number of other countries. This is essential. What we are talking about is harnessing the combined interests of the peoples of these islands—our pasts, our histories, our interests and the living bridges that tie us around the world—and making sure that we build on them. That is why this union, the link between Foreign Office and aid, is fundamentally one that can work.
But—there is always a but, isn’t there?—it depends on culture. It depends on making sure that we do not make the mistake that Australia made in losing amazing people. It means we must remember that when we bring DFID and the Foreign Office together it is a merger of equals and not a takeover. It means we must remember that when Lord Hague, when he was Foreign Secretary, spoke about preventing sexual violence in conflict, that was about both aid and foreign policy. We can see that the Departments are already working together. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield will say there is no such thing as a merger of equals. In that case, perhaps this is a DFID takeover of King Charles Street.
There is a real opportunity here. So long as we get the right person as permanent under-secretary—somebody who can work in a multinational environment, who can run a budget that is about a dozen times that of the Foreign Office, and who can hold accountability for British taxpayers’ money and ensure that it is spent in the national interest—I think we can get the effect that the Government seek. If we do, we will supercharge foreign policy from these islands, double down on our soft power and turn it to real strategic effect. I hope that we will do so not just for these islands; not just in defence of the international rules-based system that has allowed us all to prosper, broadly speaking, for about seven decades, mostly in peace and harmony; but for countries around the world, so that more and more can share the opportunities. That has never been more important, and it has never mattered more. The Minister’s hands are heavy with the burden that he carries.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this timely and important debate. I pay tribute to the thousands of DFID staff in my constituency of East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, those here in London and those who are based around the world in the various DFID country offices. We should never underestimate the work that they do, and we must ensure that they keep on doing that work to support people in poverty worldwide. We often hear, in the House and outside it, that DFID is a powerhouse in development and one of the premier aid agencies in the world. It is because of those people, with their passion, their dedication and their commitment to their work, that that reputation exists.
I cannot begin to imagine how those staff are feeling right now, during what must be a challenging time. I am aware that the Prime Minister has reassured them that there will be no compulsory redundancies. However, in answer to my recent written questions, I was informed that jobs will change at DFID in East Kilbride, and that voluntary redundancies have not been ruled out. I would welcome urgent reassurance from the Minister on this issue. In such an unsettling time for workers across the United Kingdom, the Government must do everything possible to support staff at DFID and secure all jobs.
I am perplexed by the timing of the Prime Minister’s decision to merge DFID with the Foreign Office. In the midst of a global pandemic, it does not make any sense. The integrated review was meant to ask the experts, “How do we get this right? How do we make this work?” But with the stroke of a pen, the Prime Minister has done away with the review—another example of a Government who have had enough of experts.
Speaking of experts, I would be extremely interested to hear just who the Government consulted before making the decision to merge the Departments. According to the Prime Minister, there were a whole host of consultations before the announcement, but that does not seem to have been the case. It seems that no civil society organisations—often the experts working on the ground, on the frontline, delivering aid programmes—were consulted. Even Bond, the umbrella network for NGOs and charities working in international development, was in the dark about the decision, just like the rest of us.
Who did the Government speak to, and who actually thinks that this merger is a good idea? What plans do the Government have to consult civil society organisations, such as SCIAF? That organisation has been doing excellent work on women’s empowerment projects in 25 villages in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi and Rwanda; building the resilience of 23,143 agropastoralists in Ethiopia; and integrating community development in Cambodia, supporting 11,095 people to gain food security, water and sanitation facilities.
We have heard from the Government that development will be a core focus of the new Department, but they must understand that there are big concerns that the merger is nothing more than an opportunity to use the DFID aid budget to prop up FCO diplomatic activity. If we lose the International Development Committee—a robust and dynamic Committee on which I have had the pleasure of serving; I think it would be a dreadful idea to lose it—there must be a new cross-departmental ODA Committee in its place. It is for the birds to think that anyone in the Foreign Affairs Committee has time to focus on such a huge programme of aid and development on top of their already valuable work.
I am aware of the time, and I must conclude.
This ill-timed merger cannot happen at the expense of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, particularly those with disabilities. We must ensure that we support them—anything less will be letting down the poorest and most vulnerable across the world.
May I start by very much welcoming this merger and the announcement of 16 June? I also welcome the Prime Minister’s recommitment to 0.7%. We are the only G7 country to so commit, and that has been the case since 2013. We need to be very proud of that. It was in the manifesto on which I stood and it is contained within statute, and I am very pleased that it will continue, but it has to be said that aid is not necessarily the best sell on the doorstep, as we found in December last year. The merger will make sense to many of our constituents, who are generous people but who also want a sense that there is something in it for them—that aid will indeed be in pursuit of the national interest, and the merger surely makes sense in that context.
I am also impressed by the OECD’s 2009 report “Managing Aid”, which laid out the bare facts that Britain is unique in how we have approached international development. Either we are right, or everybody else is right. We cannot all be right, and I have been impressed by the work of, for example, Norway, when I have been doing international development. Despite the fact it is a small country, it punches well above its weight in terms of the effect it manages to bring to bear, and that goes for other countries—often small countries—such as Ireland, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), the Chair of the Select Committee, made reference to Australia. Others have pointed out that there was something of an exodus when Australia merged its Foreign Office-equivalent and international development. I am concerned about the difference in terms and conditions between the civil servants in both Departments, who I know quite well and who I respect and admire enormously. Will the Minister say whether there will be a levelling up or levelling down of those terms and conditions of service in the new Department?
DFID spends its money extremely well, and that is recognised. Other Government Departments, sadly, do not do that. It is true that the Foreign Office tends to spend at the riskier end of the spectrum. It is true that DFID tends to spend its money through large NGOs. That is therefore safer, but nevertheless we need to ensure that the merger inculcates DFID good practice into our aid spending across Government. The test of the success of this evolution will be whether we are able to spend our money better, particularly for Departments other than DFID whose records are not brilliant.
Finally, I make mention of the Gavi replenishment, which the Prime Minister hosted on 4 June. It was a great success. I slightly regret the fact that we did not manage to have in person the Liverpool iteration and the iteration in London that I was planning when I was at DFID. It is an irony, is it not, that it took an infectious disease to throw that off track, but it was a huge success, with $8.8 billion committed for the world’s most vulnerable, potentially vaccinating 300 million children. That is an extraordinary achievement in diplomatic terms—a triumph—and I am enormously proud of that.
Covid will hit the bottom billion hardest. We need to ensure we look again at our aid budget to ensure that we use a large part of it to strengthen healthcare systems across the world, so that when we have an effective treatment for this awful condition and its probable successors and a vaccine that works, we are able to roll that out for those people. As covid has shown, we are all in it together. We are in a global village, and the new Department will be well-fitted to take up the challenges of the future.
When the Prime Minister announced his decision to scrap the Department for International Development, he explicitly told me from the Dispatch Box that
“there has been a massive consultation over a long period.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 678.]
Since then, more than 200 leading aid organisations have disputed that statement. That is summed up by the CEO of the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development stating clearly:
“This proposal did not come as a result of a consultation with those who want to focus on the poorest.”
That is a damning indictment of this decision.
I realise that this is embarrassing for the Prime Minister, but his own Secretary of State for International Development said that the announcement was first made to Parliament, making it clear that there was no consultation, despite what the Prime Minister said to this House. The only conclusion we can draw is that the Prime Minister has misled the House, and not for the first time. That is more than disappointing. It is shameful that we cannot trust what the Prime Minister says from the Dispatch Box.
At a time of global crisis, the public must be able to trust what is being said in this House, especially by senior Government Ministers. The Prime Minister’s sloppy attention to detail and his disregard for accountability makes a bit of a mockery of Parliament. If the Prime Minister expects the public to trust what he says, as a minimum, he must come before this House at the earliest opportunity and clarify what he said. If there was no consultation, let him say so. The demise of the Department for International Development will have a massive impact, not just in Westminster but across the world. It cannot just be dismissed as if the Prime Minister’s words were a slip of the tongue.
It is not just the way the decision was announced that is the problem. As an internationalist and a passionate campaigner for equality, I am appalled by the Government’s decision to dissolve DFID, one of the most important Departments in the Government. It is accountable in its spending and uses its resources to help those most in need. Although Government Members might not like to admit it, I think every Member of the House can see that the decision to merge DFID with the Foreign Office was nakedly political. The Government have rejected the idea of foreign aid as a humanitarian endeavour and turned it into a branch of foreign policy.
Put bluntly, at a time of global crisis, this Government have abandoned support for the world’s most vulnerable communities. The Secretary of State for International Development has said that the coronavirus pandemic could undo decades of international development work, while the International Development Committee has been clear that stability in UK aid is needed now, at this time. This merger does exactly the opposite.
Under DFID, official development assistance goes to eradicating poverty and improving conditions for the most vulnerable people in our world. In 2018, the three aid sectors that DFID spent most of its budget on were humanitarian aid, health and economic infrastructure. For the Foreign Office, it was administrative costs. The Prime Minister says he wants to refocus the aid budget to “safeguard British interests.” For me, eradicating world poverty is a British interest.
International development was one of the few areas where the Government could claim that they were world-leading. Had the Prime Minister bothered to conduct the consultation he claims to have, he would have been informed of the damage that this decision would cause. In the aid and development sector, the decision has been greeted with dismay. Bond, a UK network for organisations working in international development, published a letter signed by almost 200 UK aid and development leaders, calling the decision an “unnecessary and expensive distraction”—
The hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) made a strong point about the strength of the work of DFID. The rest of her speech would probably have gone down better with her local constituency Labour party.
My hope, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) said, is that the merger of DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be an opportunity to reaffirm Britain’s role as a compassionate, ambitious and outward-looking leader on the global stage. Britain is known for its development help and does a distinctive form of development. I pay tribute to the current Secretary of State and recent incumbents of the post.
As UNICEF said recently, Britain can be proud of enabling every child to survive, thrive and unleash their full potential. From their championing of 12 years of quality education for every girl, to their commitment to ending preventable child deaths and remaining the largest donor to Gavi, the vaccine alliance, this Government have demonstrated their dedication and support to children around the world. We want to continue that work, and I believe that it will be possible to do it within the new Department.
I particularly want to pick up on a point that the Chair of the Select Committee made about the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) on safeguarding. One of the strengths of DFID has been not only that it has delivered this distinctive aid and, of course, much of it helping and empowering women around the world, as well as helping children, but that it has led the way on the importance of safeguarding. It is important that we have the right measures in place to avoid the sort of scandals that we have had with sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment. Over the past 20 years, work has been done in this area, and it seemed to be improving, and then it has happened again. DFID did great work at its London safeguarding summit on 18 October 2018 in driving the collective effort to try to respond to this. The International Development Committee has produced important reports on this matter and it is currently looking at it again.
This history, which goes back 20 years, is something that I became involved in when Oxfam asked me to sit on its independent commission, looking into the events in Haiti. We were able to do a great deal of research, and we found that, in the in-depth research in three countries on women and girls in refugee camps, sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse was quite common and transactional sex was endemic in two of the three countries. There was even a lack of understanding both by aid workers and the recipients of where the line should be drawn in terms of sexual misconduct. For example, one older woman explained that she had to wait in line for food, because the younger women, who were prepared to be girlfriends of the people handing out food, took precedence. To be fair to those at Oxfam, they responded to the crisis with great energy, and they produced a 10 point plan and agreed to all our recommendations in our report. That resulted in a major overhaul of their systems to ensure that standards were maintained.
Now I have a seven-minute speech and I see that I have 22 seconds left. I will just say that I am also on a DFID aid worker ID steering group and I am determined and very much hope that that can continue its work, because we do need to be able to identify aid workers and their history and then put the protections in place.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That is a very concise summary of what my constituents in Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East are saying to me about the proposed merger of the FCO and DFID. Indeed, far from being broken, my constituents in Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East love the work of DFID and let us face it, there are not many Government Departments that we can say that about. Far from fixing anything, they see this merger as a cause for significant concern and a hugely retrograde step.
Nobody on the SNP Benches or any of my constituents are arguing that UK aid will shudder to a halt overnight as a result, but the worry is that the goal of reducing poverty and inequality in some of the world’s poorest countries will be diluted, with UK aid redirected to serve foreign policy and business interests. The rigorous monitoring and evaluation of aid will be lost in the Department, which is proving notoriously difficult to hold to account, and diplomats rather than aid experts will be making strategic decisions.
My constituents are worried that it will be the world’s poorest communities that will pay the price.
As the Prime Minister himself said, DFID has been a more effective spender of aid than any other Government Department, so my constituents are simply asking why does he want to meddle with that? Conservative Members seem to be arguing that everything will carry on just as before. That is a very strange argument for a fundamental change to departmental structures, and there is nothing that I have read in Government statements or letters that assuages these concerns. On the contrary, they confirm our fears. When speaking to the House, the Prime Minister appeared to argue that we should move aid from Zambia to Ukraine and from Tanzania to the western Balkans, not because of any assessment of need, but because it was in what he thought was the UK’s interests. I have absolutely no objection to the Prime Minister talking about cross-Government strategies, cross-departmental working and so on, but he is absolutely wrong to describe a separate aid Department as a luxury. To me, it is essential precisely because it prevents a conflation of development need and diplomatic self-interest that my constituents fear.
I am listening very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says, but he will recall that, in the White Paper that the Scottish Government produced ahead of the 2014 independence referendum, they recommended that if Scotland had its own arrangements then the international development department would sit within its foreign affairs department.
We have already heard about the good work that small independent countries can do, and how they make up their Government departments will vary from country to country. My whole point is not that this will bring aid to a shuddering halt but, as I have said, that it will undermine its effectiveness and the good work that the Department does.
The issue is not, as was said earlier, whether aid is in the UK’s interests, but whether the merged Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will genuinely pursue a true aid agenda or will pursue a security, trade or defence agenda. Speaking specifically about UK Departments, we must remember that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office seems to think that it is in our interests to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. While the Prime Minister was in charge of that Department, there were real questions and concerns about the UK watering down EU proposals for an independent international inquiry into the war in Yemen, yet the same decision makers will now be responsible for the aid we send to Yemen.
How do we align those different goals? Am I being alarmist? Perhaps I am, and I hope that these concerns are entirely ill-founded, but we had an urgent question earlier today on Bahrain and its appalling human rights abuses. Our relationship with that country, and the FCO’s investment there through our conflict, stability and security fund, hardly inspire confidence that the FCO really is able to differentiate aid from a strange Foreign Office agenda.
For all those reasons, we really should think again. However, if we are to press ahead with this ill-judged decision, we need more than easy assurances from the Dispatch Box that the focus on tackling poverty and gender inequality will remain. We need that spelled out in departmental plans and strategies, as well as in budgets, and we need strict rules that require a minimum spend in the world’s least developed countries. We also need a more robust framework of scrutiny than ever from the Select Committee and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Otherwise, I fear that ever more spending motivated by trade or defence interests will be parcelled up and badged as aid. We may very well still meet the 0.7% goal, but we will do so in a more hollow and empty way. The fear we have is that that is precisely what the Prime Minister wanted to achieve.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this debate and on her comprehensive speech. A year ago, I led the very same debate; we did not know about the merger then, but we did discuss whether DFID should continue as a separate Department at that point, and I think the view was pretty overwhelming in the House that it should continue.
I have to say that I have rather mixed feelings about the announcement. I understand where the Government are coming from, and they do indeed want to make sure that British interests are best served with the aid we provide. However, as I said to the Prime Minister when he announced the merger, I would argue that poverty reduction programmes across the world are just that. It is in the United Kingdom’s interests to alleviate poverty across the world, for a number of reasons. It does reduce economic migration, and it does offer increasing export markets for us, all of which is in British interests. I would also argue that, from a humanitarian point of view, it is right that we have poverty reduction programmes across the world, particularly involving education—especially girls’ education—and health projects. All of that is in the world’s interests. All of that is in our own British interests.
When the Prime Minister made his statement, he said:
“it is no use a British diplomat one day going in to see the leader of a country and urging him not to cut the head off his opponent and to do something for democracy in his country, if the next day another emanation of the British Government is going to arrive with a cheque for £250 million.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 675.]
I think everybody would agree with those sentiments, but as the hon. Member for Rotherham pointed out, the provision of aid is not quite that simple. Quite often, we give aid to charities and non-government organisations working in countries. I do not think we provide budget support to countries anymore—if I am wrong on that, I will be corrected, but it is certainly very small if we do. The bilateral aid we give amounts to only 63% of our whole budget. The remaining 37% is multilateral aid going to things such as the World Food Programme. We do not have the ability to influence evil dictators in the way that we might want to, because our focus, quite rightly, is on poverty reduction. As has been pointed out, not all the aid is spent by DFID. In fact, if we add up DFID and Foreign Office aid, it comes to something like 80%, with the remainder being spent by other Departments. Merging DFID and the Foreign Office does not necessarily mean that we have full control over all that money.
An important point I want to make is that countries with the worst types of Government often house the world’s poorest people. The people in those countries are the neediest, and we must not lose sight of that fact. I understand where we are coming from. We want to provide opportunities for British companies via our aid programmes. We want to try to bring about better government across the world, and if our aid can do that, it is well spent. But we must ensure that each Department retains the focus that it has had for many years—for the FCO, diplomacy and its very useful work in other areas, and for DFID, aid and development. I hope that that focus is not lost, because people a lot less fortunate than ourselves depend on us.
It is incredibly important that we are using this estimates day to debate this subject, because it is an opportunity for us to scrutinise not only spend but the issues behind the decision on this merger, which my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) summarised eloquently.
It will not surprise the House that, as a member of an internationalist party, I am both surprised and horrified by the announcement of the merger of DFID and the FCO and am arguing for the maintenance of the ODA floor at 0.7%. The House will be aware of the importance of protecting this funding for a wide range of reasons, including tackling disparities facing children, women and girls, those with disabilities and in health and education—so important that this floor was part of the Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto.
We have seen across the world failures where diplomacy and development Departments have merged, as my hon. Friend outlined. That is probably due to the difference in expertise and practice of civil servants in those two vocations. While complementary, they are distinct and different. It is important to shine a light on the new responsibilities that this new Department should have, which include ensuring that funding is available for sustainable and green investment to support the countries that will be put most at risk from our own pollution and the climate justice that needs to emerge.
The cynic in me thinks that this decision has been ideologically driven. The concerns of my constituents who have been in touch to express their frustration and confusion over this decision are valid. As a city of sanctuary, we are an internationalist city, which may explain the difference in my experience on the doorstep from that of Government Members. I am concerned by the Secretary of State’s comments about the Government looking to cut £2 billion from the new Department’s budget, with a 30% cut in aid spend across all Departments. That is not what my constituents will be expecting. The reason I am cynical is the vast number of fringe right-wing organisations that have been looking to cut aid budgets, scrap DFID and pull the UK out of the OECD altogether, but no think-tank, think piece or comment can take away the UK’s responsibilities.
Finally, the lack of consultation with the aid sector and staff of DFID and the FCO must call this decision into question. To take this decision during a global pandemic is also questionable, when all minds in the sector are focused on tackling this terrible crisis. Any decision about jobs that is found out via a tweet is very destructive to staff. It leads civil servants to feel irrelevant and their work undervalued. I hope that the Department has taken the time to discuss this with trade unions and that we do not lose this world-class Department.
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.
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.
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.
The announcement that the Government plan to merge FCO and DFID has rightly been met with widespread concern from global aid organisations and poverty charities to former Prime Ministers. As a member of the International Development Committee, my position is no different. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), my fellow Committee members and, most importantly, the Committee staff, who are going through a turbulent time.
The merger will almost certainly end Britain’s ring-fenced £15 billion aid budget, not to mention the fact that the timing is incredibly poor, given that we are in the middle of a global pandemic, when such funding is essential to alleviating the impact on some of the vulnerable people in the world. That is before we even take into consideration the Whitehall redundancies that the merger makes inevitable, without any form of consultation, despite what the Prime Minister claims.
Most worryingly, it appears that the Government are using the current crisis to railroad through their long-held plans to scrap DFID. The proposed merger would be catastrophic on many levels, leading to the reversal of the progress made by successive Governments, in the more than two decades since it was first established in 1997, in everything from health and education to poverty.
Several former Prime Ministers who understand more than most the role that Britain plays on the world stage with its aid commitment have been critical of the Government’s decision. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron have called this move a “mistake”, which will result in
“less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas.”
The charity sector is equally outraged by this decision. Appearing before the International Development Committee last month, Oxfam UK’s chief executive communicated his fears that with half a billion people at risk of being pushed into poverty as a result of covid-19, the move was unbelievable. Similar comments were expressed by Save the Children, Christian Aid and Concern Worldwide.
The Fairtrade Foundation has also hit out at the planned merger, with its chief executive labelling this move a “backward step” that reduces
“Britain’s aims and ambitions on the world stage.”
The Fairtrade Foundation is also concerned about the real intention of this merger, and it has stated that UK aid
“must remain focused on poverty reduction, not diverted for security interests or in return for favourable trade terms.”
Our aid not only helps save lives, but creates opportunities for people to improve their circumstances and life chances. It has lifted millions of people out of poverty, educated them and saved millions more. To cite one example of DFID’s importance, since 2015 the Department’s nutrition programme has reached more than 60 million women, under-fives and adolescent girls, who are among some of the poorest people when it comes to hunger and malnutrition.
I appreciate that time is running out, so I will finish on this point. It is vital that DFID be allowed to continue and that the scrutiny mechanisms that go alongside it, such as the International Development Committee, are kept in place.
I am very pleased to be speaking after my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). Nobody on the Government Benches has done more to improve the lives of girls around the world or to support the world’s poorest, and he has been a real champion of development.
It is clear from this debate and the fact that it is happening that many people disagree with this decision or have serious concerns. I welcome the positive approach that Scotland’s International Development Alliance has taken on this issue in coming forward with a specific request for four commitments from the Government in relation to how the new organisation goes forward. I want to use my time to run through them.
The first is a commitment to poverty eradication and aid effectiveness. That is, of course, partly having the 0.7% target, and it is good that that has been confirmed, but it must be focused on the poorest and those in most need. My own particular interest, being a member of the all-party group on nutrition for growth, is nutrition. In the period since 2015, DFID has seen 50.6 million women and girls reached by the UK’s nutrition programme. The commitment to that programme ends this year, and I would like to see the Minister today or shortly renewing that commitment. It is very important and making a huge difference.
The other three commitments have already been touched on. There is the commitment to accountability, transparency and scrutiny, which means keeping a Committee that scrutinises not only ODA spending, but the Department’s responsibility to ICAI. It is essential that that continues, and if that matter comes before this House, I will be voting to support the retention of such a Committee. Scotland’s International Development Alliance is also concerned to see the retention of the commitment to the strategic development goals and the Paris agreement on climate change. Again, I think the more affirmation of that that is possible, the more it will be welcome.
Finally, as others have mentioned, there is the commitment to safeguarding DFID’s expertise. As the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) referenced, in East Kilbride, which is in the neighbouring constituency to mine, the Abercrombie House operation is a huge asset to DFID and to Scotland, and we want to see it continue.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this debate. I wonder whether the title of “estimates day debate” has ever been so appropriate, given the uncertainty around official development assistance over the next two years.
The Secretary of State for International Development said on Monday there would be £2 billion of cuts, but we do not know where they will fall, and I know from my engagement that there is huge concern across the sector about what criteria are being used to make the cuts. And this is playing out at a time when, according to the Secretary of State herself, coronavirus could undo 30 years of the UK’s international development work. We are only as covid-secure here in the UK as the most affected country globally. The failure to ring-fence the programmes that protect the most vulnerable in this moment of crisis should be a legacy that no member of the Government can take pride in.
I am afraid that this lack of clarity typifies the Government’s approach to this deeply misguided merger. There is so little consistency in their rhetoric. The Foreign Secretary tells us that we are committed to DAC rules, while the Prime Minister says we are giving too much aid to Tanzania and Zambia. We are told that poverty reduction will remain a central focus, but the Government will not rule out making changes to the primary legislation that underpins the direction of ODA spending. They make noises in favour of transparency yet will not commit to ICAI, and the hon. Member for Rotherham is informed that her Committee will shut down in September. My worry is that the Government’s manner in conducting the merger typifies how they will seek to direct ODA in the future: little transparency and no accountability, departments unable to articulate how their ODA spend is allocated, decisions taken by a tiny executive with no consultation.
This really matters. The 0.7%, enshrined in law by a Liberal Democrat private Member’s Bill, represents a huge commitment of taxpayers’ money, and it is vital that it is spent properly, because that means value for money for people in the UK, and it means that where our aid is delivered, we know it actually delivers. The Prime Minister chose to denigrate DFID as a “cashpoint in the sky”, but that talk is cheap and betrays a total lack of understanding of the expertise within DFID and of what Professor Myles Wickstead called
“the thought, effort and commitment that has gone into aid and development programmes”.
That expertise must be maintained.
Of course, ensuring our aid spending is effective is about more than just value for money; there are real concerns about safeguarding, and we have heard nothing about what that will look like. We are rightly appalled at the lapses in behaviour from senior people in NGOs, and we need to be reassured that such things will not reoccur. These are exactly the kind of things that disengage taxpayers from aid in the first place.
I have spoken about the frameworks that need to be in place in order to ensure that our aid spending is world leading—that it is transparent, subject to scrutiny, driven by expertise, and with safeguarding at its heart—but there is also the question of what we choose to prioritise within our aid budget. Poverty reduction is crucial. Will the Government commit to spending at least 50% of aid in the most vulnerable countries? As my recent urgent question made clear, I think this merger is totally unnecessary. There are a number of commitments that the Government have yet to make, and I hope that the Minister will offer some further assurances.
I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing this debate. I want to speak from the perspective of someone who had the privilege of being a joint Minister: Minister for Africa in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and a Minister within DFID. I could not have done either job as well without the other. It was incredibly valuable to have the overall perspective.
I am old enough to know that it is not organisational structures here in Whitehall that matter, but the purpose of what we are doing on the ground. We have a very good framework, with the sustainable development goals, which we are working towards in this decade of action up to 2030, and we should focus, as many posts do across the world, on what they are seeking to achieve. When I held those joint roles, I was able to achieve a lot of the things that we will want to be doing, such as stepping up the money being spent on anti-corruption and governance, including good governance in Ukraine and the western Balkans. These things we all feasible because I had that joint role, and I am willing to believe that, provided we continue to focus on the true purpose, this can work well.
On the issue at hand, I want the Minister to give three reassurances when he responds to the debate. First, will he reassure the House that there will still be a strong voice at Cabinet for the very poorest in the world? We will leave a better world to our children if we can have a healthier, more educated, a more peaceful, freer, more democratic and more climate-resilient world.
Secondly, as the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) just said, we need to make sure that the vast majority of the 0.7% continues to be spent in the very poorest and most conflict-affected parts of the world.
Thirdly, as colleagues will know, I am passionate about the importance of girls’ education and the 12 years of quality education. It is wonderful that the Prime Minister has been such an effective advocate for that cause. It will increase the size of the economy, increase health, reduce poverty, make the world more secure and help our climate, as it reduces population pressures. As the Prime Minister himself has put it, it is the Swiss army knife of development; will the Minister assure me that the Government will continue to emphasise it in their funding as much as they have previously?
In conclusion, I can be open-minded on the structures, as long as the purpose is there. However, in respect of scrutiny in this place, it would be right to have a separate Committee to look at international development.
An awful lot of stuff has been said this afternoon, most of which I agree with. I come at this issue from two perspectives; the first is as the co-chair of the Conservative Friends of International Development. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), I would not have wanted us to be in this position but, also like him, I do appreciate that we have to deal with the landscape as we find it. We have one or two suggestions. Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) said, Cabinet representation is incredibly important. It might be a good idea to have a chief secretary of international development, in the same way that we have a Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Similarly, a permanent secretary for international development in the FCDO might be helpful.
More important is the question of scrutiny, which the Chairman of the International Development Committee, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), is absolutely right to raise—she was right to bring about this debate. As of Tuesday, I have taken over as the Chair of the Committees on Arms Export Controls. Although this is a slightly techy area of the whole thing, it is incredibly important to remember that DFID had a role to play in our arms export control process. Four Government Departments feed into our decisions as to whether to issue export licences: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, DFID and the Ministry of Defence all feed up into the Export Control Joint Unit, which sits in the Department for International Trade. DFID has a role to play in deciding whether we issue arms export licences, and that is to make sure that those people who receive our aid are not going to be spending that money on fancy fast jets and diverting it away from what it should be doing. It is incredibly important to have that DFID role; I hope that the Minister will be able to define exactly what is happening to make sure that that happens correctly in the new FCDO.
There is also the issue of scrutiny by Parliament. One thing that troubles me is that the Committees on Arms Export Controls—CAEC—is made up of members of the four Select Committees that represent or analyse each of those four Departments that I mentioned. The problem that we have now is that as the International Development Committee will no longer exist, it will no longer be able to feed into CAEC. Wide Committees like CAEC include a number of Members who bring different perspectives to the analysis of this very controversial policy area. People from the Defence Committee see it from a military point of view, and there are those from the Foreign Affairs Committee and the International Trade Committee, but those people from the International Development Committee see it from a humanitarian position, an aid position, a compassionate position. We need to think carefully about how we get that element of membership of people who are passionate about international development and who can look at representations with regard to—if anyone is interested—criterion eight of the joint consolidated criteria for export licensing. How can we can get that specific expertise into CAEC?
I was hugely disappointed to hear that the Department for International Development is to merge with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is an internationally recognised development agency, with serious, heavyweight power and a committed and expert team. There is no doubt that DFID has led the world in its commitments to reducing poverty, saving lives and transforming countries around the world. It is consistently the best-performing Department, delivering real value for British taxpayers.
Not only does the Department provide humanitarian support, but it ensures access to clean water and sanitation; responds to global health threats by contributing to disease surveillance—something we must certainly appreciate, given our current situation; and fosters strong governance across the globe, tackling corruption and supporting peace efforts worldwide.
In addition, aid is paramount in tackling climate change in some of the world’s poorest countries, from small-scale renewable energy projects in Uganda to conservation in Latin America. Climate justice comes as a priority and must certainly be recognised. I worry that this merger will water down some of those rights and will detract from the use of our aid budget.
I am deeply concerned by the calls from some Members on the Government side for us to scrap the 0.7% commitment, and very pleased to hear from those taking part in this debate that there is that commitment still. I am very pleased to hear so many Members state that. The UK provides an enormous amount of aid for this money and, for the reasons I have just highlighted, gives a lot of bang for its buck.
I want to talk about fair trade as well, because it is hugely important and it has made such a huge difference, especially to women in developing countries. That is why I listen to the words of the Fairtrade Foundation chief executive, Michael Gidney, who said that now is not the time to reduce Britain’s aims and ambitions on the world stage, and that downgrading the role of the internationally respected, global aid powerhouse that is DFID is a backward step.
I conclude by calling on the Government to protect the aid budget and give priority to protecting programmes and achieving the best and greatest results in reducing poverty. This country and, indeed, the world are changing rapidly, and two decades’ worth of experience must not be thrown to the wayside. I urge the Government to retain the Select Committee to scrutinise the work and expenditure in that field.
I rise to speak on the merger of DFID with the Foreign Office. It is an estimates debate, but the decision as to whether International Development and the Foreign Office should be one Department or two is not about money. Even if it were, to expect it to happen now, at the height of the pandemic when civil servants should be focusing on the UK and world recovery, is an appalling waste of already overstretched resources. No, it is not about money: it is fundamentally about how the UK views its role in the world. It is about values and whether we pursue our obligations as a relatively wealthy country to do right by the poor and most marginalised of the world, while also pursuing our foreign policy, but as distinct objectives. I fear we will subsume those obligations to the poor of the world into the Foreign Office, whose priorities are not about development.
The Prime Minister indicated recently that there is now likely to be a reprioritisation of aid spending. He said
“We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, although the latter is vital for European security”.
He added that the UK must use its
“aid budget and expertise, to safeguard British interests and values overseas.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 667-8.]
What are those values? To me, development is not about national security interests. I believe it is about how we demonstrate our moral compass in the world—
I am not going to give way, because many others want to speak.
The Labour Government of 1997 to 2010 created DFID, following the Pergau dam scandal. It demonstrated our Labour values in its record subsequently on international development and poverty reduction, improving sanitation for over 1.5 million and lifting 40 million children out of poverty. But in the past 10 years DFID’s role in overseas development aid has gradually been reduced. Now DFID spends only 73% of ODA, the rest being spent by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, BEIS and so on. To be fair, DFID has been a shining light and demonstration of the UK’s moral values around the world. DFID has also been rated as the most effective and transparent of Government Departments, delivering real value for money and spending only 2%, of its spend on administration. Meanwhile almost half of the FCO’s spend on ODA goes on administration.
So many key people have criticised this move, including three former Prime Ministers and all the NGOs, bar one, in the field. DFID was created by the incoming Labour Government in 1997 to create a distinct policy line. I am proud of our experience, which has provided life-changing and life-saving support.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate. I stand here as chair of the all-party group on preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for her work as the Chair of the International Development Committee, including the recent work on the effectiveness of aid, which has been an exceptional insight into how we can provide better resources for our overseas projects. I am also acutely aware of the extraordinary levels of knowledge and influence in this House, from previous Secretaries of State to perhaps forthcoming Secretaries of State—I thought that was a fine interview.
Let me discuss something that my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) started with. In this House we are all discussing the value of aid. We have to go back to the doorstep to defend this at a time when we are in debt, almost to second world war levels. We have to be able to go out there to help define and make people understand the value of what we are trying to achieve overseas. That is a very difficult task at present. So we should not be afraid of the forthcoming changes in terms of this merger, and I say that as a sceptic. I was very sceptical about the benefits it may have for our country.
If we can harness the ability and knowledge of all those who work in DFID, with the experience of those in the Foreign Office, we can end this Janus-esque approach, where we give with one hand and take with the other—where a country may have multiple delegations of British diplomats visiting and helping on a diplomatic level, but we are then giving or taking away on an aid project, whichever the case may be.
The other point to make relates to the need for ICAI and the International Development Committee to continue. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) made an apt point about the value of accountability and harnessing the understanding and knowledge of different Members of this House on different Committees. I propose that we continue to see ICAI operate, to have the IDC sitting and to have regular meetings of the IDC and the Foreign Affairs Committee every quarter—or however often they decide it should be—to discuss the projects that have been undertaken.
The last point I wish to make is about gender-based violence. During the covid crisis, we have seen this violence rise, both in the UK and abroad. This is the area where I am undertaking work in this House, so I hope the House can forgive me for being blatantly opportunistic in raising it, but we have an opportunity to start ring-fencing spending and funding on this issue. If there is one problem that I have always identified with DFID, it has been its shortcomings on multi-year funding on projects that could make a huge difference. We have the opportunity now to be strategically forward-thinking in delivering projects that I believe will make a significant difference and we can start by tackling gender-based violence.
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.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this debate, and on her superb leadership of the International Development Committee, which she chairs.
In 1997, there were only 165 Conservatives sitting on these Benches. When the incoming Labour Government announced that they were going to set up this new Department, I have to say that I was against it. However, without any doubt at all, Clare Short did a magnificent job as the first Secretary of State, and even though she led in Northern Ireland, I think she would say that that was what gave her the most pleasure in government.
I was particularly taken by what the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), said. We have the letter from the Prime Minister dated 16 June, and I just hope it does turn out to be like that. I certainly do not want to see the present Secretary of State no longer sitting around the Cabinet table. It is very important that her voice continues to be heard.
We all know that some constituents will have said that what David Cameron did in dedicating the 0.7% figure was not on, because more money could be spent elsewhere instead, and that some people would say, “You shouldn’t bother about what goes on overseas.” Well, I have learned at first hand that investing in other countries where they face challenges brings us huge bonuses and we should continue to do that. I was very grateful for the briefing that UNICEF sent me.
I want to end with some special pleading. I have my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) sitting behind me. When he was Secretary of State, I remember going to see him to ask him for a bit of money, and in a very nice way he said no. I speak as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Maldives and the all-party parliamentary group on the Philippines; any trips we have done are all in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Maldives have tremendous challenges at the moment, not only with coronavirus—they are also treated badly in terms of tuna. Whereas other countries are getting a 5% tariff, they are still stuck with a 20% tariff, which is not acceptable. Also, thinking about the air bridges that the Government have announced, the Maldives have not been included. This is hitting the Maldivian people terribly hard in the two sectors they depend on.
As for the Philippines, what would we do in this country, during this coronavirus crisis, without all the Filipino nurses and doctors working everywhere to help us? That country has been hit very hard by hurricanes and other challenges. I do hope that we will intervene and see if we could just give a bit more development money to the Philippines.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on calling this debate. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess). I will try to make three or four points as briefly as possible.
The idea that foreign policy is separate from aid has been well and truly kicked into touch by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). Whether we like it or not, there is a link between them, and it is better to recognise that, to understand that foreign policy should be moral as well as aid and to understand their combination.
I would ask the Minister three things. First, can we look at strategy as part of global Britain? We have the National Security Council. However, I feel that since the end of the cold war we have been a little complacent in preparing for future problems.
We need a national strategy council to permanently look five and 10 years ahead, whether that is into pandemics, the behaviour of nation states such as China and Russia, or climate change. We are not forward-thinking enough, and that is one of the contributions I would like us to make to understand how we can bring strategy more into our forward-looking policy.
Secondly, when it comes to overseas spending, when I was writing the “Global Britain” document last year that the Prime Minister very kindly wrote the foreword for, we tried to understand where our overseas money was going. Some of it was being spent by the Department for International Development, some by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, some by the Home Office and some by the Foreign Office—quite badly, often. I can congratulate DFID on the quality of its spending, no doubt about it. We do not have an audit of our overseas spending, and I believe that we badly need one. There is no doubt in this House that poverty alleviation is critical—it is moral; it is right; it is good. Grassroots development is critical—it is moral, right and good.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) talked about gender-based violence. I was involved in the campaign against ISIS when we were trying to liberate Mosul and it haunts me still, and makes me deeply upset still, that we knew that we were trying to liberate a city where not only were people being tortured, but women were being raped until their internal organs were collapsing and dying. These things are deeply worrying, and we need strategy. We need DFID and the Foreign Office to be working together on this, but there is a lot of DFID spending that is not on priority areas and spending that is justifiably questionable, so can we please have an audit of overseas spending?
In the 30 seconds I have left, I say that we do need to look again at ODA. We are permanently trying to revise the rules on ODA and we should not be ashamed to do so. For example, we can fund a coal-fired power station but we cannot fund the BBC to develop civil society. I believe that the BBC World Service should be funded from ODA.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on securing the debate. The Prime Minister has had his sights on scrapping DFID for some time. In fact, it has always been an easy target for some on the right, but it is thanks to the good men and women across political parties who helped to build a cross-party consensus that we have sustained our focus on tackling global poverty.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and former Prime Ministers Cameron, Blair and Brown, and many others across different parties, who have supported our effort to tackle global poverty. It has saved millions of lives. We have seen this effort show great leadership around the world. Our investment of 0.7% of GNI to eradicate poverty has built good will around the world. We are an international leader because of the work that we have been able to do together, and that is what is at stake and at risk with the focus on downgrading DFID, on blurring the boundaries, on the militarisation of DFID spending—which is what is coming—and on down- grading the focus on poverty alleviation. [Interruption.] The Minister is shaking his head. I ask him to commit today to continuing the legislative commitment to eradicating poverty and keeping it enshrined in law, so that we do not see the diluting of poverty alleviation, which has built our reputation and soft power around the world. What is happening is a retrograde step.
I have spent many years visiting places to see the work of DFID officials and the NGOs that we support—British NGOs, which are the pride of our country. Of course there have been mistakes but overall, with our DFID, they have made an enormous difference, supporting refugees after the genocide caused by the military attacks on the Rohingya population who sought refuge in Cox’s Bazar and the Syrian refugees on the border of Lebanon and Syria, helping with the situation in camps in Jordan and many other countries where our aid effort has saved lives, and protecting women against violence and rape used as a weapon of war. Our DFID has protected those people. My plea to the Minister is to ensure that, as we move forward, we do not see a downgrading and diluting and we do not see the bad old days of aid for trade—a situation where we damage our global interests. In the middle of this pandemic, when our relationships and our need to work together globally are more important than ever, we must focus on what works, and what has worked is that focus on humanitarian support—on protecting people and saving lives. That is what builds good will, that is what builds our power around the world, that is what builds and strengthens our relationships —that is what will build global Britain, in the best sense of the phrase. As a former colonial power, we must remember our responsibilities to the world.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important debate. I have worked in the international development sector for 25 years—before DFID and during DFID—and I have seen the effects of DFID’s work around the world. I believe this is the wrong action at the wrong time.
I welcome the commitment from those on the Government Benches to the 0.7% support. We must keep the focus on the poorest, who have been campaigned for by people up and down this country for so many years. This is the wrong time because we have not yet seen the peak of the coronavirus in countries around the world. We should be working flat-out with countries, not on accounting changes and organisational charts.
The Government are engaging in organisational navel-gazing instead of taking and shaping our place in the world at this important time. We have COP 26 and the G7 presidency coming up. We should be concerned about these huge issues, not about transforming and merging Departments, which will take two to three years to bed in. We should learn from Norway; at the same time as doing its merger, it increased its aid budget. That contributed to the merger’s success, but also it was not a full merger; it was a light-touch merger. Given the timing of these changes, I think that is what we need.
We should not rely only on more and more multilateral grants, but on local, trusted, adaptive, speedy aid agencies. That is why we have seen over 200 aid agencies complain that this is not the right move. We should listen to them and work with them, especially in response to the pandemic.
We need Cabinet-level representation—a permanent secretary just for this Department. The International Development Committee and ICAI must be maintained. The UK public must see the accountability of this move. They must see that the spending is on the poorest, if there really are to be trade-offs between Zambia and Ukraine. It is in our national interest—our British interest—to eradicate poverty, and we must spend our resources on global changes that we can all be proud of.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this important debate. The merger of DFID and the Foreign Office, without consultation with stakeholders or any clear plan on aid transparency, has caused great concern. To allay that concern, I have three asks of the Minister.
First, transparency in aid spend is crucial to building confidence and international credibility. The latest aid transparency index ranks DFID very highly in comparison with how the Foreign Office spends its aid budget. There are serious concerns about how the recommendations of the index will be implemented in the new, merged Department, so I ask the Minister for assurances that those recommendations will be implemented in the new Department.
Secondly, the International Development Act 2002 requires the Government to be satisfied that their aid spend will contribute to a reduction in poverty. We need clarity and binding commitments from the Government that that will continue. Developing countries are threatened by the coronavirus pandemic due to pressures on already vulnerable healthcare systems, so this is no time for uncertainty over aid programmes. There are fears that the commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on international aid will be removed. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will continue to fund aid at 0.7% of GNI, and that they will commit to allocating resources to promote gender equality and publish reports on those efforts, as DFID does now?
Finally, DFID’s reputation and influence is greater than the sum of its parts. There is a real risk that the UK’s reputation in the aid sector will be diminished as a result of the loss of focus on international aid. We should be leading the call on the cancellation of debt and speaking up for developing countries such as Ghana, where DFID has 34 active projects. Ghana spends 11 times more on servicing its debts than on its healthcare system. Will the Minister confirm the Government’s commitment to debt cancellation?
Unless we have firm guarantees and a long-term commitment from the Government to transparency, direction and influence for international aid, the world’s most vulnerable will suffer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) would normally lead for the Scottish National party on this issue. He is unable to attend because of the pandemic and because the Government have refused to provide for Members to participate virtually in substantive debates, but he fully supported the bid to secure this debate. Today has shown the value of debates on the estimates. Fortunately, the days of SNP Members getting called to order during estimates debates for discussing the estimates are long gone, and this debate has demonstrated why debates on Government spending are so important and can work so effectively. Sometimes the SNP divides the House on the estimates. We will not do that today, but we reserve our right to do so in future.
The Prime Minister’s announcement of the merger has broken a 20 year cross-party consensus on the nature and purpose of aid. He might feel that he has the mandate to do that, but in that case, those of us who oppose the decision have the mandate to scrutinise it in considerable depth and ask the forceful questions that have been raised on both the Opposition and Government Benches today about the reasons behind it and the implications.
There is a case to be made for aid. Aid works—it saves lives, as we have heard time and again throughout the debate. As the world responds to covid-19, it is needed now more than ever. The SNP opposes the merger full stop. Our manifesto committed us to fighting for the maintenance of the two Departments, despite what the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) seems to think about our position on this matter. The 0.7% commitment must be maintained. In fact, we need to discuss whether the current amount should be frozen in cash terms, because GDP will go down, and therefore the quantity that 0.7% represents will go down. It must be spent according to the OECD definitions. It is not for royal yachts. It is not for trade envoys. It is not for tied deals and investment in the UK. Every penny of aid money that the Government spend on vanity projects like that is aid money not being spent on saving the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable people.
DFID remains one of the most scrutinised Departments and, consequently, one of the most effective and transparent Departments in the global aid index, as opposed to the FCO, which came out as one of the least so. The mechanisms for scrutiny that already exist—a dedicated cross-departmental Select Committee, the ICAI and a dedicated Cabinet-level Minister, not just these country portfolios—must be maintained. As the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale said, these points are being made by international development alliances.
The Minister has to answer the questions that have been raised. What will happen to the legislative framework that is in place for aid? Will there be new Green or White Papers? Will there be a new international development Act? How will the expertise that exists in DFID be safeguarded? My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) raised precisely those points. In 2014, we were told that the jobs in East Kilbride were an argument for the Union, so the Government are undermining their own argument for the Union by scrapping this Department.
Aid and development leadership is needed now more than ever, so the Government have to show us how they will continue to demonstrate that when key opportunities are presented to us. We have 10 years to meet the sustainable development goals, which, of course, were a legacy of the Conservative Government—David Cameron’s Government helped to shape the SDGs, and they have been promptly forgotten about. That kind of iconoclasm seems to suit No. 10. I think they are quite pleased that three former Prime Ministers have opposed this move, because it suits their anti-establishment rhetoric, but it is simply not good enough. Next year Glasgow will host the international climate summit, and we cannot tackle the climate emergency without tackling global poverty at the same time.
The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), was prophetic in saying that I would talk about Malawi, so perhaps his prophecy about the quality of candidates needed to fill the new ministerial positions that will arise from the merger will also prove true. I congratulate the newly elected President and vice-president, Doctors Lazarus Chakwera and Saulos Chilima. I had the pleasure of meeting both of them in Westminster in recent years and have every confidence in their commitment to the development of their country.
The people of Malawi have benefited from DFID support over the years. The use of ODA to meet long-term goals has built an African country that can have a stable, peaceful transfer of power, because that investment is not just about hitting targets and delivering so many mosquito nets, but about long-term development. In turn, people in Scotland and across the UK have benefited from fruitful economic and cultural exchanges and partnerships. The country of Malawi is full of living and breathing examples of everything that can and should be achieved by a dedicated aid budget and development Department, and, sadly, it is full of examples of things that still have to be achieved.
I will end on a cautionary note for the Minister. For all the challenges that Malawi and countries like it face, not once has it considered returning to the bosom of mother Britannia. On Monday, the people of Malawi celebrated 56 years of independence. Countries that become independent from the United Kingdom do not regret the decision. If the UK drifts ever further from the vision that the people of Scotland have of our country as a good global citizen, then one of the first countries that the new FCDO will have to build diplomatic links with, will be its next-door neighbour across the border.
Before I start, I want to reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy). On 16 June, the Prime Minister said that there had been
“massive consultation over a long period.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 678.]
before the decision to axe DFID was made. On 6 July, the Secretary of State for International Development told the International Development Committee that the announcement came first to Parliament, and the permanent secretary said that the first non-governmental organisation steering group meeting was last week. Can the Minister therefore tell the House: did the Prime Minister mislead the House, or did the Secretary of State mislead the Committee? If so, when will they come to apologise to the House and correct the record?
British people are rightly proud of the humanitarian and development work that DFID has done over the past 23 years. We have heard today numerous concrete examples of things that the independent DFID has done for some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham, for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), the hon. Members for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous). They all made excellent points.
However, this fault stretches far across the political spectrum. That reflects much of what has been said both today and in recent years. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier) made some excellent points. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) has been a fierce and outspoken opponent of this decision and I know he has been dismayed by the Prime Minister’s decision. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), previously said that he is
“not a believer that we should regroup Departments”
as DFID plays a critical specialist role. The hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) has said:
“It’s…paramount that DFID remains an independent department.”
due to its global expertise and aid work, its position as one of the world’s most transparent aid donors, and the vital role it plays in
“projecting soft power abroad and in bolstering our prestige on the world stage.”
The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) has written:
“We all want taxpayers money to be spent well, and that’s why we must keep an independent DFID”
because it ranks as
“one of the world’s most effective and transparent aid donors.”
The Secretary of State for International Development said:
“the effectiveness with which DFID is able to deliver aid is because the Department has decades of honed experience in understanding the most effective and targeted ways of spending taxpayers’ money”—[Official Report, 10 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 276.]
It is astonishing then, that the Prime Minister has, in the middle of a global pandemic, decided not only to ignore voices from people in the global south, Opposition Members and UK-based international charities, but to totally disregard Members of his own party who have, time and again, laid out the compelling case for an independent Department for International Development. Instead, he has chosen to engage in a very expensive Whitehall restructure. Even before any of the waste of taxpayers’ money from overseas development aid being spent by other Government Departments that have consistently displayed poor value for money when compared to DFID’s spend, the cost of the merger will be at least £50 million. When people are facing the prospect of an economy in dire straits, does the Minister support his Prime Minister throwing £50 million of British taxpayers’ money to boost his own ego?
The Secretary of State herself acknowledged how difficult the process would be and that her Government would not be ready for a fully functioning Department to exist by September. With no organisational plan yet in place, the Institute for Government estimates that it will take at least two years for the new Department to be properly bedded in. Does the Minister agree that it would have made more sense to focus on the issues at hand: the global pandemic, the upcoming G7 chair, hosting COP26 as part of tackling the climate disaster, global poverty, inequality and conflict?
In 1997, the Labour Government established the Department as a standalone, independent Department to move away from the scandals that had occurred when it was part of the Foreign Office and aid was used to oil the wheels of trade deals. The Pergau dam scandal happened because the British Government under Margaret Thatcher used UK aid to fund a costly dam in Malaysia in exchange for a major arms deal. Although those responsible for aid were against the deal, the Department that they were part of—namely, the Foreign Office—ignored their protestations. I hope that the timing of the Prime Minister’s decision, in the midst of the UK’s attempts to negotiate numerous trade deals, is merely a coincidence. I urge the Government to resist returning to those times.
I thank everyone who has today made the positive moral case for the work that DFID has done over the last 23 years. I know that the British public are incredibly proud of the important poverty reduction work that our money has supported in recent decades. According to the World Bank, the pandemic will erase all the poverty alleviation progress that has been made over the past 3 years, and it will push into poverty 176 million people who live at the $3.20 poverty line. It reveals and exacerbates inequalities that already existed for people in precarious positions. The answer lies not just in short-term projects and programmes, but in longer-term support from the UK to help those countries to develop public health, education and social protections.
Yesterday, the Chancellor acknowledged that we expect the deepest global recession since records began. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Government have so far disbursed a fraction of the funding that they have committed to using to support the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people in the face of the worst global pandemic for over a century. The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that none of us is safe until we are all safe. With cuts of at least £2 billion due to the aid budget because of the collapse of the UK economy, will the Minister ensure that any cuts are made to aid that is given to middle and upper-income countries, and that aid spending is removed first from projects and programmes that have scored red or amber-red in Independent Commission for Aid Impact evaluations? The Secretary of State told the International Development Committee on Monday that the 0.7% figure would, sadly, be smaller this year and probably next. Does the Minister agree, and would the Government like the cash figure of UK ODA to be higher?
Many of my colleagues have touched on the key decisions that will be necessary to ensure transparency, accountability and value for money in the new Department. The Chair of the International Development Committee has laid out a clear set of measures, including the commitment to 0.7% with a poverty focus. Other Departments are not bound to the International Development Act 2002, so can the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State is planning any amendments or appropriate legislation to ensure that we retain ICAI and resource it; that we have an ODA scrutiny committee, given that 30% of ODA is spent by other Departments; and that there is no tying of aid? Will the Minister commit to accepting those reasonable measures to guarantee scrutiny for UK development work? I remind the Government that the easiest and cheapest way to do that would be to retain a Department that has consistently been rated a world leader in all of the above.
I want to point to the positives that the UK can achieve in pushing for change at an international level. Following intensive lobbying from the Opposition, the UK was able to use some of its leverage to get the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution concerning a global ceasefire. It is a shame that that did not come sooner, but it is an important springboard to ensure that countries focus on tackling the primary and secondary impacts of covid-19.
This takeover is a distraction—a distraction from a Prime Minister who has failed to step up domestically or internationally. The UK has failed to play a serious role in promoting global collaboration and co-operation, and the Government have not used the UK’s privileged position on the world stage to bring together parties to overcome the pandemic. The distraction of a rushed Whitehall restructure has further weakened our capacity to respond.
Even with a reduced ODA budget, there are things that I urge the Government to commit to. I encourage them to use their influence to urge the cancellation of debt repayments for low-income countries and attach conditions to UK public money to guarantee equitable access to diagnostics and vaccines. I urge them to commit to actively supporting universal healthcare around the world and pledge to build back better with the principles of climate justice, human rights and gender equality at the core of what they do.
I am very grateful indeed to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing this debate on an incredibly important issue at an important time. There were a number of contributions, from Members from all parts of the House, which were thoughtful and constructive. I made extensive notes. Unfortunately, because of the time constraints, I will not be able to deal in this closing speech with all the points raised, but I can assure the House that I and my parliamentary colleagues will have made notes of any if I am not able to cover them.
I was struck by the tone of a number of the contributions from Opposition Members. They spoke in glowing terms of DFID, and they are absolutely right to do so. We are incredibly proud of the people in the Department and the work that it does. However, tonally, a number of Members spoke about DFID as if it was an NGO or some independent body. It is not. It is a Department of Government, and has, for over a decade, been part of a Conservative-led Government. I completely understand Labour Members who are passionate about the creation of DFID as an independent Department 20 years ago, and who maintain a romantic attachment to the structure—the machinery of government—but I can assure Members on both sides of the House that it is the function of DFID, the output of DFID and the positive impact that DFID has on some of the poorest people around the world that are the things that we should value. We do value them, and we will protect them—they will be protected and enhanced through and beyond the merger that takes place.
The Government remain completely committed to the 0.7% of GNI to ODA. That has been called into question a number of times, so I will repeat myself, despite the fact that my time is short: the Government are completely committed to the 0.7% target.
Members were right to highlight the fact that ODA is spent by a number of Government Departments. Again, because time is tight, I will not comment too widely and I will limit myself to the spending of ODA through DFID, the FCO and the future FCDO. However, certain things are clearly close to the hearts of many Members. One that came up over and over again is the importance of safeguarding. I am the Minister with responsibility for safeguarding, and I can assure the House that it is and will remain an absolute cornerstone of the work of the FCDO. The UK is a global leader in safeguarding in the development space, and we intend to retain that position.
A number of my predecessors who were joint Ministers have highlighted—indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) highlighted—the impossibility of disaggregating the functions of our international-facing work where both the FCO and DFID work closely together. The GAVI summit was highlighted as an example of that, and the UK should be incredibly proud of the work we did convening the international community to commit to $8.8 billion to fight global disease. However, when I and my ministerial colleagues made telephone calls to our interlocutors around the world encouraging them to engage and commit, they did not once ask any of us whether we were speaking to them with our DFID hat or our FCO hat on. The relationships that I and my ministerial colleagues have built with interlocutors around the world were used to ensure that that GAVI summit was a success. That is an example of the close, integrated work of the FCO function and the DFID function, and it is a model that will be replicated when DFID and the FCO merge.
The Department for International Development was responsible last year for three quarters of aid spending and has strong systems to make sure that that spending is effective. Those systems will be replicated—they will be embedded—in the new FCDA. A number of Members on both sides of the House spoke about scrutiny, and I agree. Scrutiny, for a Minister, is a bit like a trip to the dentist: it is sometimes painful, but it is absolutely necessary, and it is for the greater good. We welcome scrutiny. I have no doubt that our ODA spend in the future will be scrutinised effectively, and we welcome that scrutiny because we are proud of the work that we do.
A number of people asked about our commitment to the poorest people in the world—the bottom billion. The Center for Global Development rates the UK’s commitment to development as one of the highest in the world; we are among the most transparent donors. Our existing commitment to use at least 50% of aid in fragile and conflict-affected states will be an enduring commitment. I remind all Members that the UK is one of the few countries in the world that spends 0.7% or more; we are the only country in the G7 that does that. That commitment is embedded in law, but we do not spend 0.7% because it is embedded in law—we spend 0.7% because it is the right thing to do. Being a global force for good will absolutely be at the heart of the UK’s foreign policy and that will be displayed both through the FCO work and the ODA work.
A number of colleagues asked about the timing of this change, implying that because coronavirus brings about uncertainty around the world, this is the wrong time. The sad truth of the matter is that I do not envisage a point in time when there will be no major significant challenges around the world to give us the breathing space and headroom to make changes. We make changes when it is the right time. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he feels that now is right for the bringing together of ODA spending and wider diplomatic functions, as has been the case in a number of other very effective donors around the world. That is why we are doing it.
Both Departments have been learning to do things very differently through the coronavirus crisis and have displayed an admirable level of agility, innovation and adaptability. I have no doubt that those attributes will ensure the merger of the two Departments, and it is a merger—my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) implied that if anything, it might be a reverse takeover by DFID of the FCO. I assure him and those colleagues and civil servants in the FCO who might be fearful that the ravenous beast that is DFID is coming to gobble them up that that is not the case. This is a merger—a bringing together of equals.
Unfortunately, the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) is no longer in her place, but I assure her that just as we love, respect and wish to remain intimately connected with the whole of Scotland, that is our view of our people in Abercrombie House. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that their expertise, and that of other members within DFID, is retained.
We should be Bauhausian in our thoughts—form should follow function. Our Government are committed to 0.7% of GNI. We will protect the poorest and most dispossessed in the world and we will ensure that we can always be proud of this country’s development spend.
Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54).