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Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Volume 805: debated on Thursday 3 September 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given on Wednesday 2 September in the House of Commons.

“The creation of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office today is a key moment: a key moment for our vision of a truly global Britain, and a key moment for our integration of our international efforts in order to maximise their impact abroad. With this innovation, we are drawing on the example of many of our allies, such as Australia and Canada and, indeed, the vast majority of OECD countries, by putting our world-class aid programme at the beating heart of our wider foreign policy decision-making, and doing it in a way that works best for the United Kingdom.

We are integrating and aligning the UK’s expertise as a development superpower with the reach and clout of our diplomatic network in order to ensure that their impact internationally is bigger than the sum of their parts. We have paved the way for this approach during Covid, bringing together all the relevant strands of our international activity. For example, we joined our research efforts to find a vaccine at home with our international leadership in raising the funding to ensure equitable access for the most vulnerable countries, culminating in the Prime Minister hosting the Gavi summit and smashing the target by raising $8.8 billion in global vaccine funding. That amply demonstrates how our moral and national interests are inextricably intertwined.

We continue to bolster health systems in the most vulnerable countries, not just out of a sense of moral responsibility—although there is that—but to safeguard the people of this country from a second wave of this deadly virus. It is in that spirit, as the new FCDO comes into operation today, that I can announce that the UK will commit a further £119 million to tackle the combined threat of coronavirus and famine, so that we can do our bit to alleviate extreme hunger for over 6 million people from Yemen through to Sudan. In tandem with that, to leverage the impact of our national contribution, I have also today appointed Nick Dyer as the UK’s special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs, again as we combine our aid impact with our diplomatic leadership to focus the world’s attention and rally international support to help tackle this looming disaster and threat.

The new department reflects the drive towards a more effective and more joined-up foreign policy, and I pay tribute to the brilliant work of my right honourable friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) and all her support directly in driving this merger forward. My team of Ministers has already been holding joint Department for International Development and Foreign and Commonwealth Office portfolios for some time now, so we will have continuity as we bed in the organisation of the new department. Sir Philip Barton—the brilliant diplomat who co-ordinated the United Kingdom’s response to the Salisbury nerve agent attack back in 2018—becomes the new Permanent Under-Secretary at FCDO. We have also broadened the senior departmental leadership to achieve a more diverse range of expertise and experience at the top. So, as well as FCO and DfID experience, the board of directors-general brings together those with wider experience from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Cabinet Office, not to mention from the private sector and the voluntary sector.

Abroad, we will operate with one voice and one line of reporting, so that all civil servants operating abroad, including our trade commissioners, will work to the relevant ambassador or high commissioner in post. Training the cadre of the new department will be essential too, so the new International Academy launched today will train and improve the skills of all our dedicated civil servants across government who are working internationally. To boost this excellent team, I believe it is important to bring in additional insights from outside government. Therefore, I have also appointed Stefan Dercon, professor of economic policy at Oxford University, as my senior adviser on aid and development policy.

With the support of my tireless ministerial team, we continue to consult outside government to test our thinking and glean new ideas for the successful operation of FCDO. I am grateful for the input we have received over the summer from honourable and right honourable Members across the House. In particular, my thanks go to the chairs of the Foreign Affairs, International Development, and Defence Committees. I am also grateful for the advice I have had from non-governmental organisations, foundations and international organisations —from Bill Gates to David Malpass, the president of the World Bank, with whom I discussed matters yesterday.

We will reinforce that external scrutiny not just by maintaining ICAI—the Independent Commission for Aid Impact—but by strengthening its focus on the impact of our aid and the value added to our policy agenda, and by broadening its mandate to provide policy recommendations alongside its critical analysis. I am particularly grateful to my right honourable friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for all his advice on this matter.

In this way, and informed in due course by the integrated review, the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will deliver on this Government’s mission to forge a truly global Britain to defend all aspects of the British national interest and to project this country as an even stronger force for good in the world.”

From its formation in 1997, the Department for International Development supported the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, and built Britain’s reputation as a world leader in aid and development. It is clear already that these principles are an afterthought for the new FCDO, with recent reports that the Government will abolish the 0.7% target in an attempt to blur the lines over what constitutes aid. Can the Minister commit today that there will be no revocation of the provisions of the International Development Act 2002, which guarantees that all aid spending must combat poverty?

My Lords, I regret that I totally disagree with the noble Lord. The coming together of the two departments as a merger will strengthen the global reach of our development capacity and capabilities. Yes, I can confirm our continued commitment to the 0.7% target. It was a Conservative-led coalition Government who brought that into law.

I urge the Government to make an early statement of coherent development policy objectives for the new department. I am glad that the Minister has reaffirmed the 0.7% but the Government have given conflicting messages on this issue, implying that the already slashed budget may be diverted elsewhere. The Secretary of State gave an evasive answer to my colleague Layla Moran yesterday, so I am glad that the Minister here has given a straight answer today. The workload of monitoring development and working with ICAI is surely beyond the effective capacity of one committee, so will the Government recognise that we need a dedicated committee to deal with this, which happened when the ODA was within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the time of the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker?

Parliamentary committees are very much a much a matter for Parliament, but certainly my right honourable friend the Prime Minister’s view is that they should reflect departments. The noble Lord mentioned ICAI and that will continue, although this provides an opportunity to review its governance and ensure that it is fully aligned with the new department.

My Lords, there is a lot in the Statement about global Britain. Does the Minister agree that in the eyes of both the developed and the developing worlds, the success of global Britain will depend on the maintenance of a high-quality global aid programme? Will he once again scotch rumours of a raid on the 0.7% target by other departments?

My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord, a former PUS to what was the Foreign Office, that I have already given a commitment to the 0.7% target. Yes, global Britain is about our development leadership and our diplomacy, and the FCDO brings the two together.

My Lords, poverty and hunger are fuelled by instability and conflict. Will the Minister give the House the assurance that the new department will work closely with the Ministry of Defence in addressing those issues, that there will be adequate funding—indeed, an increase in funding—for that, and that it will be subject to scrutiny by this House and the other place to ensure aid effectiveness?

One of the great and obvious advantages of our parliamentary system is the scrutiny that the noble Lord alludes to, and I am sure that that will continue through Statements, Questions, Urgent Questions and so on. However, I assure him that, not just through the creation of the new department but through the integrated review, our international capabilities will be very much aligned through the FCDO and the Ministry of Defence.

On 16 June, the Prime Minister said that the guiding principle of the new department would be promoting the UK’s national interest overseas. Does the Minister agree that, at least in theory, there could be the possibility of a clash between promoting that national interest—for example, by supporting a prestigious project which has been much wanted by the beneficiary Government—and supporting the most vulnerable communities in that country? If there is the possibility of this clash, what monitoring process will be in place to really ensure that those most vulnerable communities are not pushed aside?

My Lords, the noble and right reverend Lord has talked to two sides of the same coin. I think that our national interest reflects the importance of investing in the interests of the most vulnerable communities, of looking at responding to humanitarian challenges as we see them, and of alleviating poverty and famine. Those will very much remain priorities for this new department.

Do the Government recognise that one reason that this country has done well internationally is precisely that DfID has been outside the FCO? Four out of five of the fastest-growing economies last year were in Africa, and many of those countries really appreciated that we had moved from the department that they associated with colonialism to one that was focused on their needs and on working in partnership with them. What criteria for success will the Government have for development in the new department?

My Lords, in advance of the announcement of the new merged department but also during the current pandemic, this Government have repeatedly outlined, and put money behind, their priority of standing up for the most vulnerable. The Gavi summit, led by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, was a very good example of that. I assure the noble Baroness that the work that DfID has done over many years is recognised, and we are now leveraging the full potential and strength of our development leadership alongside the strength of our diplomatic network.

My Lords, the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative was given an amber/red score in the latest review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which raised concerns about the lack of funding, strategic planning and long-term programming. Will the Government ensure that the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative is put at the heart of the work of the new department and that the initiative receives all necessary support so that the United Kingdom meets the commitments that we made at the 2014 global summit?

My Lords, as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, I assure my noble friend that this remains very much at the heart of our work. As I have mentioned to her previously, I am keen to ensure that there is a long-term, three-year rolling strategy that ensures that we build on what we have achieved on this important agenda.

My Lords, I echo the words of the noble Baronesses, Lady Armstrong and Lady Helic; I agree with them entirely. The Minister will be aware that Bangladesh is struggling in dealing with the Rohingya refugees. I hope that commitment from the new department will continue. Is he also aware of the work of University College Hospital? Its CPAP campaign is working with Bangladesh, preparing to provide, immediately, very cost-effective ventilators, which Bangladesh very much needs. Would the Minister consider meeting with me and the team at UCL to discuss this and find a way to support this programme?

My Lords, let me assure the noble Baroness that I would be happy to meet with her and the team. Let me add to this the reassurance that during the current pandemic, as the Minister responsible for south Asia, I have been working very proactively with both the Government of Bangladesh, as well as other Governments across south Asia—as my colleagues have in other parts of the world—to ensure that our response to the Covid pandemic does reflect the needs the most vulnerable around the world. I look forward to meeting with the noble Baroness in due course, and I have received her correspondence in this respect.

My Lords, I declare my interests as stated in the register.

The Statement concludes that the new FCDO will project the UK as an ever-stronger force for good in the world. “Good” would mean supporting our US allies in extending the arms embargo on the terror-sponsoring Iranian regime. “Good” would mean not only wholeheartedly and unconditionally welcoming the UAE-Israel agreement but also helping to build on it. “Good” would also mean consistently voting in the right camp at the United Nations, and ensuring that our generous aid to the Palestinians is rechannelled directly to the Palestinian people, because we know that so much of it is being misused and misappropriated. Can I therefore ask the Minister whether the new department will acknowledge where mistakes have been made and correct them? Then, we can indeed project the UK as an even stronger force for good in the world.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend, that it is important that we talk about our role as a force for good. As Minister for Human Rights, I believe that the merger of the Foreign Commonwealth Office with the Department of International Development allows us to directly align our values agenda with the important support we give to the most vulnerable communities around the world. The noble Lord mentioned, in particular, the recent agreement reached between the UAE and Israel. He knows that I welcome that, and I know the UK Government have welcomed that, as forward progress in reaching out and ensuring that we see lasting peace in the Middle East. It is an important step forward. On the issue of the UN and the United Kingdom’s consistency of statements, as he will be aware, we have, for example, strengthened our position on the Human Rights Council. I agree with my noble friend: not only the Palestinian people but any recipient of aid, anywhere in the world, must be the direct beneficiary. Where there are shortcomings, and things need to improve, we will do just that.

House adjourned at 6.33 pm.