Exclusive: Senior UK MPs back new parliamentary committee to scrutinize ODA

Sir Bernard Jenkin (right), chairman of the Liaison Committee. Photo by: Sir Bernard Jenkin via Facebook

LONDON — A cross-party group of influential U.K. parliamentarians has voiced its support for the creation of a new committee dedicated to monitoring official development assistance, in a major win for development insiders fighting for strong parliamentary scrutiny of aid.

In a letter seen by Devex, the chair of the powerful Liaison Committee of politicians, Sir Bernard Jenkin, wrote to Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg last week, backing the creation of a new Official Development Assistance Committee, which would be responsible for scrutinizing ODA spending across government.

An ODA Committee offers “substantial advantages for the effective scrutiny of UK aid in the new context and is our preferred option,” Jenkin wrote.

Since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office last month, the future of the International Development Committee — which monitors DFID and ODA spending on behalf of Parliament — has been in doubt. Just hours after Johnson’s announcement, the government told the committee it would be closed, although it later conceded that this was for Parliament to decide.

Many in the sector see IDC as a highly valuable watchdog of government development policy and ODA spending, and a key aspect of ensuring that money is spent effectively and within the rules.

The letter from the Liaison Committee — the only parliamentary committee able to question the prime minister directly — backs a proposal from IDC for a new committee which would examine ODA spending, administration, and policy across government departments, and take responsibility for the Independent Commission on Aid Impact, another crucial aid watchdog whose future is up in the air. ICAI currently reports to a sub-committee of IDC.

The new committee would have 11 members of Parliament — the same as IDC — and hold similar powers to request witnesses and appoint specialist advisers.

Jenkin said the government’s position “appears to be” that select committees should generally mirror government departments and that IDC “should dissolve while the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) should adapt” to cover ODA after the merger.

“In our view, the Government’s preferred option is unlikely to be straightforward,” he wrote, noting that IDC has a “substantial body of work, with eight or more reviews a year,” and that the government’s current approach would alter the party balance of select committee chairs.

The letter cited “the sheer scale and complexity of DFID’s budget and operational responsibilities,” the distinct nature of DFID’s spending which requires different skills from FCO, and the role of ICAI. Others have pointed to FAC’s heavy existing workload and lack of development expertise.

The letter also noted “the presence of a ‘development dimension’ within existing scrutiny structures where the IDC has a role, such as the Committees on Arms Export Controls (CAEC) and via the ex-officio membership of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy that falls to the IDC Chair.”

The Liaison Committee, which is made up of the chairs of all other select committees, “agreed that any new arrangements should not detract from the scrutiny of ODA or the resourcing of that scrutiny,” Jenkin added.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.