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Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development: Merger

Volume 805: debated on Monday 27 July 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development will enhance the United Kingdom’s ability to help (1) the poorest, and (2) the most vulnerable, communities abroad.

My Lords, the new FCDO will be a force for good in the world. Building shared global prosperity, eradicating poverty, tackling climate change, strengthening the international rule of law and global security and promoting free, open societies are all in our national interest. Development will remain central to the new department’s mission. Our commitment to spending 0.7% of our national income on aid is enshrined in law.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. Given that the Prime Minister has said promoting the UK’s national interest is at the heart of the new department, does the Minister agree that there is a possibility of real clashes between projects that directly support the nation’s interests and those that might do so in a rather more indirect way? For example, there might be a choice between a big, grandiose project supported by the recipient Government on the one hand and supporting poorer and more vulnerable communities, which supports the UK’s national interests only in a rather indirect way. What mechanism will there be in the new department to ensure that the voices of the poorest and most vulnerable communities are heard when these kinds of clashes arise?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made absolutely clear that alleviating poverty and responding to humanitarian crises remains a priority programme in the new FCDO.

My Lords, in this context will the Minister give assurances that the Government will continue to adhere to their stated commitment to poverty reduction, observing both the letter and spirit of domestic development legislation, including not only the matter the Minister has already mentioned—the 0.7% GDP target—but matters such as independent evaluation of impact and gender equality, and that any deviation from the present pattern will be debated and agreed both here and in the other House?

My Lords, I do not doubt for a moment that we will continue to have various debates on the new FCDO. The right reverend Prelate mentioned gender equality. As he will know, the Prime Minister is a strong advocate. Indeed, since he was Foreign Secretary his mantra has consistently been about 12 years of quality education for all girls around the world.

My Lords, in the House of Commons on 30 June, the Foreign Secretary said:

“There has been no sustained pause”—[Official Report, Commons, 30/6/20; col. 144.]

in aid spending. How soon do the Government plan to resume their funding for organisations such as the World Food Programme, which does such vital work to reduce food insecurity in east Africa?

I assure my noble friend, notwithstanding the merger—and I have been directly involved in aligning responsibilities as part of the merger—we continue to retain, sustain and strengthen our commitment to helping the most vulnerable communities around the world and supporting international programmes.

My Lords, will the new FCDO provide funding for projects to combat sexual violence, particularly in Colombia, on a longer-term basis than the one year’s funding generally provided by the Foreign Office now, and with survivors more rigorously involved in programme design? Does the new department plan to host the PSVI conference in 2021, after its cancellation in April this year because of the pandemic?

As the Prime Minister’s PSVI envoy and representative, I assure the noble Baroness that it remains a key priority for Her Majesty’s Government. I am sure she respects the fact that we have to look at the idea of next year for the conference in terms of the coronavirus pandemic and how we can organise any conference effectively. We are already committed to holding the COP 26 conference in November.

My Lords, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact has ensured the highest levels of transparency and aid effectiveness for DfID. Will the Minister give the House a clear undertaking that this will continue in the new department and that it will report to Parliament on the work and effectiveness of the new department?

The FCDO will remain accountable to Parliament in how it spends UK aid. I assure the noble Lord that we remain fully committed to issues of transparency in our aid spending. There will continue to be parliamentary and independent scrutiny of the aid budget.

My Lords, the development community is in the dark about last week’s cuts to ODA. There was no consultation or notice. Will the Minister write to me with details of the process by which decisions were made and the strong case for keeping ICAI and a dedicated ODA committee for it to work through, as the best arrangement if the Government want to be trusted on their aid commitment?

My Lords, parliamentary committees are very much a matter for Parliament. I disagree with the noble Baroness on consultation. As a Human Rights Minister, I have engaged closely with human rights organisations, and my noble friend Lady Sugg and the DfID Permanent Secretary have been meeting with NGO partners on the development programmes.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister gave us a wonderful collection of high-level aims. A neighbour of mine runs a programme through an independent charity in Madagascar, tackling environmental and poverty issues. People at that level want to know whether the Foreign Office will be better able to direct funding down to grass-roots need or whether an even larger proportion of the aid budget will be devoted to international development banks, including the European Development Bank and its like.

My Lords, we remain committed to ensuring that grass-roots organisations, such as the one my noble friend described, continue to be recipients of UK support, because they deliver excellent scope and results on the ground. But the IFIs are also important partners, and we will continue to have their expertise in the new department.

My Lords, I return to the issue of transparency. The fact that a 20% ODA cut was announced on the last day that the Commons sat does not give us confidence about the future of transparency. I ask the noble Lord for a direct personal commitment: is he personally committed to retaining ICAI, which ensures that ODA is effectively spent? Will he personally support an ODA Select Committee that would ensure full parliamentary scrutiny in the future?

My Lords, the new department carries the word “development” for an important reason, because development will continue to be a focus. The Government will remain accountable and transparent in our dealings on ODA, through parliamentary scrutiny and by answering Parliamentary Questions, as I am today. As I have already said to the right reverend Prelate, we will continue to return to the subject when the new department comes online in September.

My Lords, a £2.9 billion aid cut and an inevitably costly merger are bound to hurt the poorest. Can the Minister at least reassure us that—[Inaudible.]

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, contrary to some views that we have heard, the proposed merger will bring together the considerable expertise and resources of both departments concerned with the modern Commonwealth network, greatly enhancing our capacities to support more vulnerable Commonwealth members and peoples, and allowing us to engage far more fully in the deployment of our soft power—or wise power, I prefer to call it—in support of both global security and our trade prospects?

My Lords, why is the Minister being so evasive about the role of ICAI? It has been a huge success. It was introduced by Andrew Mitchell. Working with the International Development Committee—which I had the privilege of chairing for 10 years—it has proved an effective way of demonstrating real accountability for UK aid and giving confidence that we continue to be world leaders. Do the Government not recognise that dismantling that arrangement will not leave them with the trust of the aid community or the poor of the world?

My Lords, I have already answered the issue of scrutiny. I have dealt with ICAI specifically. It has made recommendations on briefs and parts of my portfolio, including PSVI, which we discussed earlier. We continue to respond to all levels of parliamentary scrutiny, as we will with the new department from September.