Civil servants react with shock and anger after decision to merge DfID with Foreign Office

The Independent understands that the PM, who acted alone in authorising merger, provided no instructions on how to facilitate restructuring

Samuel Lovett
Thursday 18 June 2020 10:45 BST
Boris Johnson announces disbanding of DFID as Starmer accuses him of 'distractions'

Civil servants have reacted with shock and anger after Boris Johnson announced that the Department for International Development (DfID) will be merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) – having found out about the move via news reports.

The government has been accused of putting politics ahead of the needs of the world’s poorest by bringing together the two departments, in a move that is likely to see financial aid cut from a number of developing countries.

The FDA union, which represents senior civil servants, told The Independent it had not been consulted over the merger and found out about the decision via the media.

“The staff were really upset and despondent yesterday afternoon, made worse by the fact we only found about this through the media before the employer told them,” said Allan Sampson, who represents members in DfID.

An all-staff meeting was not held until 3.30pm, Mr Sampson said, despite the prime minister announcing the merger in the Commons at 1.45pm, and news of the upcoming announcement having been reported by the BBC since midday.

Mr Johnson announced the creation of the new foreign, commonwealth and development office to “unite our aid with our diplomacy” – but The Independent has been told by one civil servant in DfID that the PM’s decision was grounded in “pure political ideology” and sought to “quell rumblings” among Tory backbenchers who object to the amount of money being spent on international development.

Work will begin immediately on shaping the new department, which is expected to be established by September.

However, The Independent understands that the PM, who acted alone in authorising the merger, has provided no instructions on how to facilitate this restructuring.

Instead, teams of civil servants working in both the FCO and DfID will be expected to formulate and deliver plans for the merger, at a time when these departments are already facing immense pressure to build post-Brexit relations, tackle humanitarian emergencies in countries such as Syria and Yemen and contribute to worldwide efforts to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We don’t know the size of the new department, we don’t know whether it’ll be the size of DfID and FCO combined, or whether it’ll be something smaller,” Mr Sampson said, adding that there was “uncertainty” for the 600 DfID staff based in East Kilbride in Scotland.

“They’ve been given some initial assurances about keeping East Kilbride open within the new department’s estate,” he said. “But it’s another unknown at this point.

“Staff have a fear for initial security in the usual way, but beyond that, there’s a fear that their new work will be quite different from what they’re doing now. They have a strong professional commitment to poverty reduction, and that’s why they’re in the department; they have decades’ worth of experience in that field. There’s a real concern any work they’re deployed to now will be very different.”

In a letter sent to senior management at DfID, and seen by The Independent, the FDA says “it will be important to embed key DFID values and aims into the new department”.

“We must be involved from the very outset and not simply informed when key decisions affecting our members have been taken,” it adds.

For now, the government’s financial commitment to foreign aid remains at 0.7 per cent of GDP, but those in DfID have expressed concern that this figure might be cut in the near future.

Mr Johnson hinted at cuts to aid budgets on Tuesday, saying Dominic Raab, who will head the new Whitehall department, “will be empowered to decide which countries receive – or cease to receive – British aid”.

The PM also questioned why countries like Zambia and Tanzania received more funding than Ukraine and the Western Balkans, which are strategically important to the UK.

He added that overseas aid provided through DfID had been treated for too long like a “cashpoint in the sky”.

Civil servants in the department said the criticism smarted – especially after then receiving an internal letter from the PM in which he praised their contributions to Britain’s work abroad, The Independent understands.

Some civil servants in DfID are now considering taking voluntary redundancies or pushing to work in other departments, rather than aligning themselves with the FCO, The Independent understands.

Sources in Whitehall and charity experts have noted that while DfID is recognised internationally for its expertise in development, the Foreign Office lacks the same experience, transparency and progressive outlooks as its counterpart.

Mark Sheard, the CEO of World Vision UK, said that giving the foreign secretary oversight of aid would mean less effectiveness and accountability, “and risk money being diverted to address UK foreign policy interests rather than alleviating poverty”.

“The definition of aid must not be diluted, and it must not become a weapon of foreign policy,” he added.

Three former prime ministers have all condemned Tuesday’s announcement, with David Cameron notably joining Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to criticise Mr Johnson.

“The decision to merge the departments is a mistake,” Mr Cameron said, in his first public rebuke of the PM.

“More could and should be done to coordinate aid and foreign policy, including through the National Security Council, but the end of DfID will mean less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas.”

Justine Greening, a former Tory international development secretary, told The Independent that the government “should be totally focused on steering our country through the huge challenges we face right now – the health impact of Covid, getting our kids back into school and preventing the worst unemployment crisis in a generation that will hit young people and the lowest paid the hardest.

“People will find it hard to see why it’s a priority to have a departmental reorganisation when ministers are so clearly already stretched.”

Mr Blair, who created the department in 1997, said he was “utterly dismayed by the decision to abolish DfID”.

“It is a leader in both programmes and thought in development, helping millions of the world’s most vulnerable to be relieved of poverty and killer diseases,” he added.

“The strategic aims of alignment with diplomacy and focus on new areas of strategic interest to Britain could be accomplished without its abolition. Wrong and regressive move.”

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