9 July 2020
James Cleverly responds to a debate on the FCO/DFID merger

James Cleverly responds to a debate on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development merger

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

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.