Tories accuse DFID of trying to usurp powers of Foreign Office

Conservatives would rein in aspirations of international development department

The Department for International Development has usurped the power of the Foreign Office and would be reined under a Conservative government, The Independent has been told.

The shadow International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, said DFID had begun to encroach on the work of other departments and to come "perilously close" to setting its own foreign policy, a role he said should be reserved for the Foreign Office. He said the Foreign Office will be given much greater influence over the use of overseas aid should the Tories win the next election. The department has proved difficult for the Government to manage since it was created by Tony Blair in 1997, with relations between DFID officials and those from other departments said to be strained. A government minister told The Independent that it had been "a nightmare" to control since its inception under the leadership of Clare Short.

The Tories will stop short of abolishing an independent DFID, but both William Hague, as Foreign Secretary, and Liam Fox, as Defence Secretary, would exercise more influence over the direction of the department through a new national security council.

"There are times when DFID comes perilously close to pursuing its own foreign policy and that is not right," Mr Mitchell said. "Foreign policy is decided by the government and the Cabinet, led by the Foreign Office, and DFID should not be an alternative to this. We are very committed to DFID continuing as an independent department of state. But we would make it more of a specialised development department and a little less like an aid agency," he said.

Plans by the Conservatives to hand power for international development back to the Foreign Office were rumoured under the leadership of Michael Howard, but support for an independent DFID has been a central theme in David Cameron's rebranding of the party.

On Monday, he named it as one of only four departments to be spared from any spending cuts and reaffirmed his party's commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid by 2013.

Using its new national security council to bring DFID in line would allow the party to deal with concerns on the right wing over the department's performance while allowing it to retain its independence. "The way in which you make sure that DFID does not encroach on foreign affairs is to improve relations in Whitehall, which have been sub-optimal between DFID, the MoD and the Foreign Office in the past, and ensure everyone is properly wired in," Mr Mitchell said. "Decisions about priorities would be hammered out there [in the council]. That, in my view, is the right approach in getting the best out of DFID."

A Tory government would also work in much closer partnership with the private sector on development projects, Mr Mitchell said, to ensure that "private sector discipline informs the work that DFID is supporting".

"There have been times when DFID has not clearly understood why the private sector is so important in lifting people out of poverty," he said. "We would make it more friendly towards the business community."