Tom Tugendhat, chairman  of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. Photo by: Niall Carson / PA Images via Reuters

LONDON — The Foreign Affairs Committee’s first evidence session on the Department for International Development’s merger demonstrated the importance of specialized parliamentary scrutiny of aid and development policy, according to aid experts.

DFID merger: FCDO will not house a separate ODA department

Senior DFID officials say it could take years to properly integrate staff in the new Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

The session — held by the parliamentary committee responsible for scrutinizing U.K. foreign policy on Tuesday — heard unchallenged inaccuracies about U.K. development policy, along with “distasteful remarks” about DFID, development observers said. The quality of witnesses, who were not experts in development or DFID, was also criticized.

FAC, chaired by Member of Parliament Tom Tugendhat, currently scrutinizes the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and is already running eight inquiries on issues such as the U.K.’s engagement with Iran and environmental diplomacy.

But FAC could see its remit expanded to cover development policy and official development assistance when DFID is folded into FCO in September, as the International Development Committee, which currently fulfils this role, has been threatened with closure.

That has raised concerns about whether there will be thorough parliamentary scrutiny of U.K. aid going forward. No further FAC sessions dedicated to the merger are currently scheduled.

“What that session really brought home to me was the need for serious engaged expertise on development in the select committee scrutiny structure — that expertise lies in the International Development Select Committee,” said Simon Maxwell, a former specialist adviser to IDC and former director of the Overseas Development Institute.

He continued: “They either need to have an independent committee for development, which is the best option, or they need to change the composition of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.” It would be a “tragedy” if IDC’s expertise and that of its staff were lost, and FAC would have a “a mountain to climb,” Maxwell added.

Mike Gapes, a former Labour MP, also tweeted in favor of retaining specialized scrutiny of development policy Tuesday. He wrote: “I was a member of [FAC]... 92-97 before creation of DFID. Our scrutiny of Development issues was inadequate and superficial. Foreign Affairs Committee had to focus on many other issues.  There is need for separate sub committee or other means to ensure proper scrutiny.”

The FAC session saw inaccurate comments about development policy, including from Conservative MP Bob Seeley, who apparently mistook ODA for “ODE.”

Seeley said: “The frustrations of ODE, the expenditure brackets that we have to fit in, is that it doesn’t include the BBC World Service, it doesn’t include U.K. peacekeeping operations, it would be more credible and more palatable to more people in this country if there was more flexibility in the ODE definition.” 

“It is difficult to imagine how the Foreign Affairs Select Committee could cover all those additional issues without significant restructuring.”

— Kate Ferguson, co-executive director of Protection Approaches

Some costs for both the BBC World Service and peacekeeping operations can be counted toward ODA, but the current guidelines mean that aid spending must be primarily focused on poverty reduction.

Seeley co-authored a 2019 report, endorsed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, advocating for DFID to be merged with FCO.

Maxwell’s concerns about the session were echoed by Kate Ferguson, co-executive director of Protection Approaches, a charity working to end identity-based violence. “It’s so important to remember that international development is more than aid … None of this work can stop, and likewise there must remain spaces where government policy can be properly scrutinized,” she said.

“It is difficult to imagine how the Foreign Affairs Select Committee could cover all those additional issues without significant restructuring. The simplest and preferable option is that the IDC stays,” she said.

FAC’s choice of witnesses, in particular Lord Nick Macpherson, a former permanent secretary at the Treasury, was also criticized for an apparent lack of expertise on DFID’s work. Macpherson admitted “prejudice” against DFID, telling Seeley: “I suspect I’m probably nearer your view than most civil servants.”

Tim Durrant, a machinery of government expert at the Institute for Government, was also asked questions on development policy, such as what priorities the new department should embrace.

Both answered questions about DFID and FCO coordination overseas by referencing second hand information, rather than first-hand experience.

“If the Foreign Affairs Committee is going to be having this discussion about the merger then they really need to hear from some people who understand in-depth about development and DFID,” Maxwell said.

He added: “I thought there were some distasteful remarks about differences in salaries, allowances, and number of children, which I hope were a joke but suspect were not.”

Macpherson and FAC member Alicia Kearns both commented that DFID staff earn more on average than FCO staff, which Kearns described as “bitterly unfair,” though Macpherson suggested someone should look at “the number of children FCO officials have, since the government pays for the school fees of diplomats.”

Stephanie Draper, CEO at Bond, the U.K. network for NGOs, said: “In light of the lack of consultation in advance of the merger, we would urge the Foreign Affairs Committee to invite experts from across the development sector to discuss how the new department will continue to ensure U.K. aid goes to the people who need it the most.

“Any new government department must adhere to aid rules, be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and it must ensure cabinet and National Security Council level representation on development and humanitarian issues — it's important the FAC hears why this is so important from experts.”

Ferguson noted that the packed political schedule of the last four years has seen less time and opportunity for other methods of government oversight, such as debates in the House of Commons, and committees have “grown in importance as essential mechanisms of scrutiny” in U.K. politics.

“In this context, the prospect of losing the IDC is even more alarming; where would scrutiny of the U.K.’s international development decision making come from?” she added.

Tugendhat did say that FAC was in favor of retaining the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, the independent watchdog that is credited with having vastly improved the quality of U.K. aid spending.

The government has said it is in favor of retaining scrutiny over aid but has not provided explicit reassurances on the future of ICAI. It also sent IDC a letter saying the committee would be dissolved, although it later conceded that the decision about that lies with Parliament.

A spokesperson for FAC said: “The theme of this session was the logistics of the machinery of government changes, rather than the fineries of development spending. The witnesses were chosen on that basis. A committee will normally choose its witnesses according to the nature and focus of each oral session and wider inquiry.”

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.