The following Statement was made on Tuesday 16 June in the House of Commons.
“Mr Speaker, before I begin, I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the memory of Jo Cox, who was cruelly murdered four years ago today. Her sister, Kim Leadbeater, spoke for us all when she urged everyone to remember Jo by pulling together with ‘compassion and kindness’.
I was concerned to learn that the honourable Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) is now in hospital: we all send her our best wishes.
With permission, I will make a Statement about the ambitions of a global Britain and the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are living through a daily demonstration of how events on the far side of the world influence not only British security and prosperity, but something as elemental as the state of our health, and whether we can go to work or go shopping. This crisis offers vivid proof of the seminal importance of international engagement and exactly why our country must perform its global role. I have begun the biggest review of our foreign, defence and development policy since the end of the Cold War, designed to maximise our influence and integrate all the strands of our international effort. The overriding aim is to bring this country’s strengths and expertise to bear on the world’s biggest problems, seizing the opportunities of Britain’s presidency of the G7 next year and the UN climate change conference—COP 26—which we will host in Glasgow.
The UK possesses the third-biggest aid budget and diplomatic network in the world: we owe it to our people to make best use of these assets, which scarcely any of our peers can match. The British taxpayer has a right to expect that we will achieve the maximum value for every pound that we spend. One cardinal lesson of the pandemic is that distinctions between diplomacy and overseas development are artificial and outdated. For instance, to protect ourselves against another calamity, the UK will need to work alongside our friends to strengthen international bodies such as the World Health Organization, and help vulnerable countries to improve their health systems and achieve greater resilience. It makes no sense to ask whether it amounts to aid or foreign policy: they are one and the same endeavour, designed to achieve the same goals, which are right in themselves and serve our national interest.
On 4 June, I chaired a virtual summit of the global vaccine alliance, which raised enough money to immunise 300 million children. I doubt whether any other occasion will save more lives, avoid more suffering, or produce a better example of the good this country can do by its international engagement, in the true and broad sense, alongside our friends. Yet today, as anybody who has any experience of the matter will know, a dividing line between aid and foreign policy runs through our whole system, with our Department for International Development working independently from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and our aid budget parcelled out between different arms of Whitehall.
DfID outspends the Foreign Office more than four times over, yet no single decision maker in either department is able to unite our efforts or take a comprehensive overview. We give as much aid to Zambia as we do to Ukraine, although the latter is vital for European security, and we give 10 times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the western Balkans, which are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling. Regardless of the merits of those decisions, no single department is currently empowered to judge whether they make sense or not, so we tolerate an inherent risk of our left and right hands working independently.
Faced with the crisis today and the opportunities that lie ahead, we have a responsibility to ask whether our current arrangements, dating back to 1997, still maximise British influence. Those well-intentioned decisions of 23 years ago were right for their time. They paved the way for Britain to meet the UN target of spending 0.7% of national income on aid—a goal that was achieved by the coalition Government in 2013, that has been maintained ever since, including this year, and that remains our commitment. Yet those judgments date from a relatively benign era when China’s economy was still much smaller than Italy’s and the west was buoyed by victory in the cold war.
We must now strengthen our position in an intensely competitive world by making sensible changes, so I have decided to merge DfID with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to create a new department: the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. This will unite our aid with our diplomacy and bring them together in our international effort.
DfID has amassed world-class expertise and all of its people can take pride in how they have helped to transform the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. To select but a few examples, they have striven to protect millions of children across the world from polio, which is now on the verge of global eradication; they have paved the way for millions of girls to attend school for the first time in countries such as Pakistan, as I have seen for myself; they have done their utmost to ease the suffering in Syria; and in Sierra Leone they were central to the defeat of an outbreak of the Ebola virus. All that amounts to the finest demonstration of British values, following in the great tradition of the country that ended the slave trade and resisted totalitarianism.
It is precisely that ambition, vision and expertise that will now be at the heart of a new department, taking forward the work of UK aid to reduce poverty, which will remain central to our mission. The Foreign Secretary will be empowered to decide which countries receive or cease to receive British aid, while delivering a single UK strategy for each country, overseen by the National Security Council, which I chair. Those strategies will be implemented on the ground by the relevant UK ambassador, who will lead all the Government’s work in the host country. In that, we are following the examples of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, all of which run their development programmes from their Foreign Ministries. We will align other British assets overseas, including our trade commissioners, who will come under the authority of the UK ambassador, bringing more coherence to our international presence.
Amid this pandemic, the House may ask whether this is the right moment to reorganise Whitehall, but I must say that in reality this crisis has already imposed fundamental changes on the way that we operate. If there is one further lesson, it is that a whole-of-government approach, getting maximum value for the British taxpayer, is just as important abroad as it is at home. This is exactly the moment when we must mobilise every one of our national assets, including our aid budget and expertise, to safeguard British interests and values overseas. The best possible instrument for doing that will be a new department charged with using all the tools of British influence to seize the opportunities ahead. I therefore commend this Statement to the House.”
My Lords, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the life of Dame Vera Lynn, who has died today aged 103—I can see the shock on the face of the noble Baroness the Deputy Speaker at that. In the most difficult of times for this country, she symbolised enormous resilience, optimism and hope. We send our condolences to all her family, friends and fans throughout the country and across the world; she was genuinely a national icon.
Turning to the Statement, the noble Baroness will be aware of the wide distress and anger in response to the Prime Minister’s announcement that DfID is to be merged with the FCO. It is largely because of comments from Mr Johnson and others that this feels more like a hostile takeover then a genuine merger.
I want to deal with the implications but also comment on the timing of this announcement. Looking at the hugely important issues on the Prime Minister’s desk, we see the response to Covid-19, particularly the serious problems with track and trace and how our outcomes compare poorly with so many other countries; the massive rise in unemployment and increased poverty, which has led to a screeching and humiliating, if very welcome, U-turn on free school meals; and the urgency of our trade deal negotiations with the European Union. I therefore find it quite remarkable—not in a good way —that Mr Johnson considers it a priority, now of all times, to reorganise Whitehall departments. I suspect that I am not alone in thinking that this rush to announce is an attempt to distract attention from government failures.
Even when this is viewed as a stand-alone decision, it fails the test of good governance and good policy. To understand the concerns about the change, the Government need to understand why DfID was set up with the status of an independent Whitehall department with a Cabinet-ranking Minister and why, after years of political hokey-cokey, with upgrades and downgrades for the department depending on the colour of the Government, it became widely accepted and built on as the best way to address the issues by all subsequent Governments and Prime Ministers—until now.
Mr Johnson talks about value for public money. That is why DfID was set up in the first place, in the wake of the Pergau Dam scandal, when the Secretary of State was found to have acted illegally in funding an excessively expensive energy project, financed by British taxpayers, to secure a major arms deal. That had a significant impact on the commitment to ensure that trade and aid should not be linked.
Yet on Monday 11 February last year, the Prime Minister said on the BBC’s “Today” programme in relation to the aid budget:
“We could make sure that 0.7% is spent more in line with Britain’s political, commercial”—
and then he added “diplomatic” interests. He even cited Japan as a model, in how it had used the aid budget to promote Japanese railways.
While I am on the issue of value, the transparency index—an independent assessment of the effectiveness of aid spending across the world—praises DfID as being “very good” and in the top three, while the FCO languishes near the bottom of the league with a poor rating. The Foreign Secretary announced in a radio interview this morning that we would get “more bang for the buck”—an embarrassing approach to aid policy. It is why we are concerned and why this proposal has been criticised, including by three former Prime Ministers.
The great benefit of DfID is that it has earned a reputation for integrity and has built up trust that it will provide help and support in the areas of greatest need. We should always confront head on the suffering in our world—whether it is poverty, disease, famine or conflict—not just for sound ethical reasons but because it is in our national, as well as the global, interest to do so. We ignore such suffering at our peril: the dire consequences and greater instability that can follow can pose threats to all across the world. For aid and development to be downgraded in this way when the world is facing a global health crisis shows a deep arrogance about how best to promote British values and interests.
The Government appear to ignore the incalculable diplomatic influence of soft power and our reputation across the world. Have they given any consideration at all to the ramifications for the UK’s diplomatic programmes, as well as our developmental work? The FCO’s core diplomatic funding is already at its lowest level in 20 years, and Professor Malcolm Chalmers of RUSI has observed that consular activity and diplomacy could become increasingly underfunded sidelines. The UK’s diplomatic influence was once the envy of the international community. At a time in history when we most need to build allies, support and credibility across the world, the Government have created uncertainty about their commitment to do so.
I have a few questions on this for the noble Baroness. First, can she give a commitment that the Government will maintain diplomatic and consulate funding at at least present levels after the takeover? Secondly, is it true that the Secretary of State for International Development was not involved in the decision-making process and was told of the announcement only on the day it was made? Thirdly, will the Cabinet retain a Minister with overall responsibility for international aid? Fourthly, what reassurance can she give the staff at DfID? Can she confirm that the Permanent Secretary has told staff that he cannot guarantee the jobs of the 200 EU nationals currently employed? Fifthly, can she guarantee that the Government will not seek to change OECD rules on what is classified as aid, nor amend the 2002 legislation in a way contrary to those rules? Finally, DfID has a well-established global network and core development expertise. The dilution of these stakeholder-focused skills within the FCO will be a cause for concern. Therefore, what guarantees can the noble Baroness give that that essential work will continue at the same high standard that we see now?
We have had many debates in this House about Britain’s place in the world. We take enormous pride in wanting the UK to take an international lead as a force for good. With this decision, and the explanation of the rationale behind it, the Prime Minister has just made achieving that ambition so much harder.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for answering questions on the Statement. To me, the Statement raises three principal questions. First, why is this change happening at all? Secondly, why is it happening now? Thirdly, is it a good idea?
On the first point, the Statement and the Prime Minister’s comments on Tuesday make it very clear why this move is being made. First, he and many in the Conservative Party believe that DfID has simply too much money, or, as the Prime Minister disparagingly put it, that it acts like a “giant cashpoint in the sky”. He also believes that it spends it badly, as the disgraceful and wilfully inaccurate anti-DfID briefings put out by the Government and faithfully repeated in some of yesterday’s newspapers made clear.
Secondly, the Prime Minister wants to use the money for something other than DfID’s core aims of extreme poverty reduction and the fight against disease. He says in the Statement:
“We give ten times as much aid to Tanzania as we do to the six countries of the Western Balkans, who are acutely vulnerable to Russian meddling”,
with the clear implication that this was the wrong set of priorities. Yet income per head in Tanzania is under $4,000 while that in Montenegro, one of the six west Balkan countries, is $22,000—over five times as much. Even the poorest western Balkan country, Kosovo, is more than three times as prosperous as Tanzania.
If you are worried about poverty, the current priorities make absolute sense, but they make no sense at all if you want the money to gain diplomatic leverage against Russia. This may well be desirable, but it is not what DfID was established for and it is not what development aid should be used for. From now on, poverty and disease are not to be the hallmarks of our development policy. The priorities are to be—I quote from the Prime Minister’s letter to parliamentarians on Tuesday—“driven by the overarching strategy set by the National Security Council.” What expertise does the National Security Council have in poverty reduction and combating disease, and will it now be strengthened to include people who do have such expertise?
Why is this move being made now? As Justine Greening pointed out, the Government should be concentrating their efforts on fighting coronavirus rather than tinkering with departmental boundaries. It is not as though the Government are making such a good fist of dealing with coronavirus that they have extra capacity on their hands and are looking for other things to do. There are other big problems as well, not least Brexit, where things are not exactly going swimmingly. Indeed, cynics have argued that the only reason the decision has been announced now is to throw some red meat to the Government’s critics on their own Back Benches regarding their handling of the coronavirus crisis. If that is not the reason, what is it? Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us.
Finally, is the abolition of DfID and the refocusing of its priorities a good thing? Outside one wing of the Tory party, the move has no supporters. Three Prime Ministers, including David Cameron, have condemned it, and so too have at least three former Conservative International Development Secretaries. The Prime Minister’s claim that the decision reflects
“a massive consultation over a long period of time”
is simply belied by the fact that of the 400-plus NGOs working with DfID, none was consulted at all.
All those with experience in this field are concerned that the focus of development aid will shift away from the reduction of extreme poverty and disease. All are concerned that the transparency and accountability of the development programme will be reduced. And all are concerned that as a result, far from enhancing the concept of global Britain, this will diminish it.
The Prime Minister makes a habit of claiming that his policies and initiatives are world class when they are anything but. However, in the case of DfID, he has done the opposite. Here, we do have a world-class institution and set of policies—and he has disparaged it. But this Prime Minister has long wanted to get his hands on DfID funds to promote other foreign policy goals. He will now indeed have his hands on the money, but he is devoid of any articulated foreign policy on which to spend it. “Global Britain” seems to mean “anywhere but Europe”, but beyond that phrase, the policy is completely vacuous. The decision is, as Andrew Mitchell has said, an “extraordinary mistake” by a Prime Minister for whom extraordinary mistakes are becoming a hallmark of his tenure. The poorest will suffer most, but the Prime Minister simply does not care.
I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their questions and comments. First, I fully endorse the tribute paid by the noble Baroness to the remarkable life of Dame Vera Lynn. I thank her for making those statements at the Dispatch Box.
Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about the timing of this announcement. While the arrangements for two separate departments were right in their time, things have changed. In particular, the coronavirus has imposed a fundamental change in the way that we operate. It has shown that a whole-of-government effort is as important abroad as it is at home. That is why we believe that the time is right to integrate diplomacy and overseas development. The merger of DfID and the FCO will unite development and diplomacy in one department, which will bring together Britain’s international effort. It is about bringing together the best of both and putting the ambition, vision and expertise of our world-leading development experts at the heart of our international policy.
The noble Baroness asked about discussions. The Prime Minister did of course discuss this merger with both Secretaries of State affected. Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord are right that programmes funded by UK aid are consistently rated as some of the most transparent and effective in the world. It is that very expertise that will now be at the heart of the new department. I assure the noble Lord that our commitment to the world’s poorest remains as strong as ever. Tackling extreme poverty around the world remains a government priority and we believe that bringing these two departments together will enable us to use all our levers in a comprehensive approach to achieve that goal. Reducing poverty remains central to the new department’s mission.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lord talked about the broader context of foreign and international policy; I refer to the review that is being undertaken of our foreign, defence and development policy. This merger of the two departments—and it is a merger—is within the context of that review, which will define the Government’s ambition for the UK’s role within the world, and its outcomes, which will shape the objectives of the new department. The review will establish the strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy, determining the capabilities and structural reforms needed and how we will work with international partners and organisations to promote the UK’s interests around the world. Both this review and the merger are evidence of the Prime Minister’s commitment to a unified British foreign policy as we go forward.
The noble Baroness rightly asked about staff. There will be no compulsory redundancies, although some roles and responsibilities will change. Staff will be worked with very closely throughout this process and full details, including the structure of the department, will be set out in due course. As I have repeatedly stressed, we want this merger to bring out the best of what we do in aid and diplomacy, and we believe it will also create new work and travel opportunities for staff. The majority of DfID and FCO staff working overseas are already collocated and work together very closely. This will build on work that is ongoing. I can confirm to the noble Baroness that we will continue to spend ODA money according to legal requirements and continue to abide by the OECD and DAC rules for aid.
My Lords, I am glad that the Prime Minister paid tribute to the staff of DfID in his Statement; that was well deserved. Of course, foreign policy and aid, and FCO and DfID staff at home and abroad, need to be closely aligned, but a merger between the FCO and DfID is somewhere between a distraction and a mistake. Does the Leader of the House agree that Britain’s influence in the world is greatly enhanced by an aid programme focused on the world’s poorest countries and the poorest people within them? Will she confirm that the long-term focus of aid on those countries, and on the people who really need help, will continue?
I hope that my answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, provided that reassurance. As I said, our commitment to helping the world’s poorest remains as strong as ever, and we believe that by merging these two departments, and using the fantastic expertise that the noble Lord, Lord Jay, rightly pointed out, we will enhance our ability to do that, not diminish it.
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for answering questions on this matter. On these Benches, we affirm the Government’s right to organise themselves as they think best for the common good. We look forward to greater integration between foreign and development policy and values, and we warmly commend the continued 0.7% commitment. I am grateful to have heard the noble Baroness’s assurance that the Government will remain committed to the OECD DAC rules—it would be lovely to have that repeated. Can we have another assurance that the Government will preserve the primary focus of UK aid as poverty reduction?
My Lords, I am happy to confirm that we will continue to abide by the OECD DAC rules for aid, and I have said a couple of times now that tackling poverty remains as important to us as ever. We also believe that the bringing together of the expertise in both departments will mean that we can achieve more. Having quality staff from DfID and the FCO come together, with a coherent vision of a global Britain, and joined-up approaches to countries and issues, will mean that we will be able to play our leading role—as, for instance, the Gavi summit that took place only a week or so ago showed. We can bring these aims together and make a real difference.
My Lords, disease and instability on a global scale are the greatest threat to our country’s security. Can the noble Baroness confirm that in this relocation of roles and responsibilities, as she put it, there will be no reduction in the overall headcount of development-related staff deployed overseas, or those in crucial functions in London and Scotland, who are focused on reducing poverty and global disease, and on promoting safety and security, rather than instability? That has been the focus of so much of DfID’s work. It is different and distinct from diplomacy. Will that distinction be maintained and respected, and will the headcount be kept up?
I said in answer to the noble Baroness that there will be no compulsory redundancies, although some roles and responsibilities will change. There are certainly no plans to close the DfID office in Scotland, where staff play a vital role in ensuring that UK aid delivers results for the world’s poorest. The opportunity to work at Abercrombie House in East Kilbride will be open to staff from across the reconfigured department. We will be working closely with staff as the programme goes ahead and the two departments merge, to ensure that we get the best out of the fantastic people who work in both departments.
My Lords, DfID is held in high regard, in large part due to its openness and accountability—the result of a carefully constructed governance structure, at the heart of which sits the International Development Committee and ICAI. Will the Leader, in Cabinet, argue to retain that crucial oversight of how 0.7% of taxpayers’ money is spent, especially when it comes to the prioritisation process currently under way? Otherwise, this is nothing more than a cynical move by a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
As I said in a previous answer, I am very happy to say on the record, again, that we absolutely recognise that programmes funded by UK aid are consistently rated as some of the most transparent and effective in the world, and we want to bring that expertise to the heart of the new department. We remain of course absolutely committed to full transparency in our aid spending, and there will continue to be independent and parliamentary scrutiny of the aid budget.
My Lords, the British taxpayer is less likely to be concerned with which department spends their hard-earned money on humanitarian work and alleviating poverty than they are with ensuring that the money is spent wisely. To that end, with the planned abolition of the Select Committee and its important oversight role, the scrutinising work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, ICAI, will be more crucial than ever. Can my noble friend confirm that ICAI’s work ensuring that aid is spent effectively and delivers value will continue, or possibly even be enhanced?
As I said in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, we remain committed to transparency and we will continue parliamentary and independent scrutiny of the aid budget. The form that this takes following the merger will be set out in due course.
I worked for Judith Hart and with Clare Short, and I admired the work of Andrew Mitchell. What made them great Development Secretaries was not just the independence of the ministries, but their passion for development and the support they got from No. 10. I am not reassured by the Prime Minister’s continuing to parrot the false dichotomy of national interest versus helping the poorest. It is poverty abroad that breeds disease, disorder, migration and terrorism. The noble Baroness assures us that the fact that the Statement made no reference to the primacy of the poverty criterion is not sinister. I hope she is right. Will she please disassociate herself from the totally unworthy slur on a professional department of calling it a great cashpoint in the sky?
I have very happily talked on record several times already during this Statement about the fantastic work of the department and the fact that we want this to be at the centre of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Foreign and development policy will be fully integrated in Ministers’ portfolios in the new department, and we want to bring the best of overseas development and diplomacy together, to make sure that we have a coherent and strong international strategy that means we can play our part in the world in the way that we want to, and show leadership, as we have done in so many areas already.
My Lords, I very much regret the subordination of international aid to the United Kingdom’s foreign policy considerations, for all the reasons that have been given by former Prime Ministers and many others. I would like an undertaking from the Leader on poverty, girls’ education and dealing with peacekeeping on the ground, which was done by DfID previously. Why was this done ahead of the full review? We had an earlier undertaking that the reviews of the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and DfID would be done together. Why, in particular, was this done early, with no contact with the staff? Staff did not know until some of us knew.
I set out in my opening comments why this is happening now. I talked about the challenges of the pandemic and the way that that has shaped our view that these things need to be brought together internationally. I can certainly reassure the noble Baroness that girls’ education will remain a priority. I also point out that we are currently one of the few OECD donors that still has a separate development ministry. Other countries, such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have merged their functions effectively, and we will look to learn from them. We are extremely lucky to have a very high-quality Foreign Office and Department for International Development, which we can bring together to ensure that our expertise remains unparalleled in all areas.
My Lords, I will follow up the comments from my noble friend Lord Newby. Why do the Government seem to regard support to countries such as Ukraine and those in the western Balkans as an alternative to support for the poorest countries in Africa? The UK currently supports those EU-aspirant countries through its own funding programmes, so all the UK will be doing is spending some of the much-vaunted so-called savings on EU contributions in a less efficient way. There is no need to deprive Zambia and Tanzania to do it. If we are to continue to operate under the OECD DAC rules, as the Government pledge, can the Minister explain what we are prevented from doing at the moment that this move will allow the UK Government to do?
My Lords, as I have said repeatedly, our view is that bringing diplomacy and international development together makes sense in our new complex global world. For instance, to protect ourselves against another pandemic, the UK will have to work alongside our friends to strengthen international bodies like the WHO, and help vulnerable countries come together to improve their health systems and achieve greater resilience. Therefore, it does not make sense to have a dichotomy and say that the two should be separate in our complex international world, with the challenges that we face.
My Lords, we are entering a period of much harsher international relations. That is what Sir John Sawers told us on the “Today” programme this morning, and I agree. I can see the argument for a more strategic approach to our international relations in the round—although I am slightly sceptical about the timing of this announcement—but since the noble Baroness has mentioned Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other allies, all of which have their international trade departments as well as international development within the ambit of their foreign services, I ask why we are not doing that. Can she say a little more about the part of the Prime Minister’s Statement where he says that the Government will align international trade with the Foreign Office?
The decision that has been made in this announcement is obviously about those two departments, but we believe that we need single cross-government strategies on the ground in each country headed up by the ambassador or high commissioner. Trade envoys will work within that, so there will be very close working between DIT and the new department. We feel that this is the right move at this point.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s decision. Can my noble friend the Leader of the House reassure us that this will enhance not only our ability to drive the UK’s interests globally but also our ability to help protect the most vulnerable around the world? Next year, Britain takes the presidency of the G7 and hosts the UN Climate Change Conference. Does she agree that this is an opportunity to play a leading role in international bodies such as the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization?
I entirely agree with my noble friend. She is absolutely right that next year we take on the presidency of the G7; we also have the delayed COP 26. This is an ideal time for us to lead the world in so many ways, building on the great work that we do already. We believe that this merger—this bringing together of the two departments—will help us to continue to be the world leaders that we all want to be.
My Lords, there is a case to be made for a better alignment of diplomacy and development and the empowerment of UK ambassadors. However, would not good governance suggest that we should have heard that case put to the Government’s own major integrated review of foreign policy, defence and development that people have mentioned, rather than pre-empting the review and its conclusions? Given that the size of the ODA cake will inevitably shrink as GNI shrinks, what new measures will be put in place to at least ensure that fraudulent and corrupt misuse of ODA is combated more effectively in the future?
The noble Lord is absolutely right. We need to focus on corruption and will continue to do that. As I said, for a variety of reasons we believe that the time is now right for this merger of the departments to take place. He is also right to point out that it needs to be seen in the context of our ongoing broader integrated review, which will help to shape the priorities and focus of the department and our overall international policy.
Does not the very fact that the Prime Minister made such a point of mentioning Ukraine and the western Balkans in his Statement demonstrate that the Government intend to deprioritise poverty relief as one of their overseas aid objectives? Does not the noble Baroness feel a sense of regret, perhaps even a sense of shame, that this Government are tearing up a political consensus that has lasted for 23 years and has seen the level of overseas aid spent on poverty rise from 0.23% of GDP in 1997 to 0.7% today? Does she not accept that this measure tears up that consensus? Finally, is this not just a demonstration of how the Conservative Party is rapidly becoming the party of populist English nationalism?
I am afraid that I disagree completely with the noble Lord. I am happy to put on record once again that the work of UK aid to reduce poverty will remain central in the new department’s mission. We are incredibly proud of the work we have done. Since 2015 we have supported more than 51.8 million people in accessing clean water or better sanitation; we have supported 14.3 million children, including nearly 6 million girls, in gaining a decent education; we have committed £3.1 billion in response to the Syrian crisis; and we have committed £970 million to the humanitarian crisis. In June, we hosted the extremely successful Gavi summit, raising $8.8 billion for Gavi to immunise 300 million more children. This is work that we are all incredibly proud of. This is work that the UK is a leader on. This is work that we will continue and which we believe can be enhanced by taking this action.
The Statement says that the current crisis
“offers vivid proof of the seminal importance of international engagement and exactly why our country must perform its global role.”
Yet in the other place on Tuesday, in a debate on UK-EU negotiations, my right honourable friend Mr Gove stated that any settlement with the EU must reflect our “regained sovereignty” and “independence”. Since all engagements or agreements involve some sharing of sovereignty, does my noble friend see any contradictions in those aspirations?
The departmental changes are due to come into effect on 1 September. Is it wise to have a major change at a time when the EU negotiations remain unresolved and before the crack unit of Taskforce Europe, which is drawn from across our resources in government, returns to its respective departments? Are we not in danger of getting a brand-new, glitzy front door while at the same time leaving the back door unattended, giving short-cut access to our close friends and neighbours?
I am afraid that I disagree with my noble friend. He is absolutely right that the merger will take place in September. The work to implement it is being led by a team in the Cabinet Office, working closely with teams from the FCO and DfID. That work is being overseen by the Cabinet Secretary, who reports to the Prime Minister, so it can go on at this time. We believe that it will enhance our ability to play a leading role in the global world.
As part of the shadow ministerial team in the 1990s behind the policy of ODA/Foreign Office separation, and having heard the questions up to now, I say to the Minister, in summary, that this decision will kill DfID morale; it will distort DfID’s current poverty alleviation priorities; it will leak resources from development into other Foreign Office activities; and it will downgrade the roles played and positions held by DfID officials. It was precisely to deal with those problems that Labour set up DfID under Clare Short as a separate department in the 1990s. Is this not the third time that the Conservatives have wound up the department? They did so in 1970 under Ted Heath, in 1979 under Thatcher and now in 2020 under Johnson. It is madness, and it is the work of development aid bigots.
Obviously, I fully respect the work that the noble Lord has done and he is, as ever, entitled to his views. I am afraid that I cannot agree with him and certainly do not accept being called a development bigot. As I have said, we believe that this is the right move at the right time. We want to take the best of the departments, both of which are a credit to our Civil Service, and bring them together to enhance the work that they do. We believe that this will be a positive, strong move. We will be involving staff in this decision and making sure that this department is at the vanguard of our international policy efforts.