Foreign Office and International Development merger will curb ‘giant cashpoint’ of UK aid, PM pledges

A new government department will be created to run all foreign policy and control billions of pounds of international aid, the prime minister has announced.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is set to be up and running in September.

It will be a merger of the historic Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department For International Development (DFID).

Boris Johnson revealed the significant shakeup to the UK’s worldwide footprint in a speech on “global Britain” in the House of Commons.

“We tolerate an inherent risk of our left and right hands working independently”, he said, lamenting a lack of coordination between the two current departments, whose roles date back to 1997.

“We must strengthen our position in an intensely competitive world by making sensible changes,” he told MPs on Tuesday.

“This will unite our aid with our diplomacy and bring them together in our international effort.”

He added: “For too long frankly UK overseas aid has been treated as some giant cashpoint in the sky that arrives without any reference to UK interest.”

Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer said the announcement was only “tactics of pure distraction” to divert attention away from the government’s free school meals U-turn, news more than 600,000 workers lost their jobs during lockdown and that the UK has one of the highest coronavirus death tolls in the world.

He accused the government of ripping up “cross-party consensus” on international aid.

While former Conservative prime minister David Cameron made a rare public intervention to call the merger “a mistake” that will lead to “less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas”.

Tory MP and former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell also said it is a “quite extraordinary mistake” that will “destroy one of the most effective and respected engines of international development anywhere in the world”.

“Many of the senior figures who are key to Britain’s role as a development superpower will likely leave and go elsewhere in the international system – at a stroke destroying a key aspect of global Britain,” he added.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, will be the minister in charge of the new department.

Anne Marie Trevelyan, the international development secretary, will stay in post for now but is expected to lose her cabinet position once the new ministry opens.

There are not set to be any compulsory redundancies as a result of the merger, though there will only one secretary of state and one permanent secretary.

Discrepancies in salaries between the two departments will also have to be settled. Foreign office staff have long complained that their opposite numbers in DFID are often better paid and have better conditions

Officials say the merger is designed to make UK foreign policy and aid spending more coherent and effective in an increasingly competitive world.

Britain has the third largest international development budget and the third largest diplomatic network.

But the timing of the announcement will raise eyebrows as it is coming ahead of rather than as a result of a major review of foreign, defence and aid policy that has been delayed because of coronavirus – expected to conclude next month.

With national income plunging because of coronavirus, the need to focus UK spending more efficiently appears to have been a factor in the timing of the merger announcement.

It is understood that a commitment to spend 0.7 percent of national income of international aid will not change.

The definition of what the UK counts as aid will for now remain the internationally recognised definition.

Crucially however this will all be considered as part of the review, opening up the possibility of the UK changing that definition and perhaps allowing its aid budget to be spent on more projects that have a greater benefit to UK foreign policy goals than on international humanitarian goals.

Officials say the timing of announcement was also because of the need to have the new department ready before the UN General Assembly in September and ahead of the 75th anniversary of the UN next year.

Another factor is thought to be the need to do the shakeup before the UK hosts a major conference on climate change.

Critics may question the validity of these justifications however.

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