Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee — the parliamentary body that scrutinizes U.K. aid spending — received a letter informing her that the committee would be closed down just hours after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a merger between DFID and FCO on Tuesday, forming a new Foreign, Commonwealth,and Development Office.
After some politicians noted that the government does not have the power to dissolve committees, Foreign Secretary Dominc Raab clarified on Thursday the government’s view was that select committees should mirror departments, but it was ultimately a matter for parliament — where the Conservatives hold a majority — to decide.
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The prime minister's speech raised several red flags about how official development assistance will be used by the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Champion told Devex that if closed, the IDC should be replaced by another independent committee that has cross-departmental oversight of ODA spending, a critical aspect of the U.K.’s international policy. Official development assistance is, for now, primarily spent by DFID but also by departments across Whitehall.
“ODA spend cuts across many different departments and it is clearly too much to be an add on to the Foreign Affairs Committee [which monitors FCO]. It needs to maintain an independent committee to scrutinize that,” Champion said.
She added: “The ODA spend is underpinned by four different [parliamentary] acts, it’s very clear that it needs to [be spent] on alleviating poverty, so there really does need to be independent scrutiny of this by a standalone committee.”
The Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Tom Tugendhat, is already working on six inquiries. Champion said that monitoring ODA spending was a “specialized” activity, meaning FAC would need to have new elections for members with the required skills.
It could also lead to a situation where FAC scrutinizes the ODA-spending of the Home Office or Ministry of Defence which could be a “conflict of interest,” Champion added.
She denied her committee had become toothless and said it was continuing with its inquiries, including one which will examine sexual abuse in the aid sector, “which becomes even more of a concern when ... aid isn’t being spent in just one department,” she said.
The Independent Commission for Aid Impact, an independent body that is also tasked with scrutinizing U.K. aid and reports to parliament via IDC, plans to continue its work.
“ICAI is responsible for scrutinising UK aid regardless of which department it is spent by, and since 2011, our reports and reviews have directly contributed to improvements in the way aid is spent. In the current climate, and with the aid landscape changing, it is clear that robust, independent scrutiny is more important than ever,” said ICAI chief commissioner, Tamsyn Barton.
“Although the details of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office are a matter for the government, we will work closely with departmental and parliamentary colleagues to ensure that scrutiny continues,” she added.
In Parliament on Thursday, however, Foreign Secretary Raab failed to address repeated questions about ICAI's future.
There has been some speculation in U.K. development circles that the government could decide not to adhere to the rules of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Development Assistance Committee — which sets the boundaries on aid spending for most major donors — and may try to overturn some of the laws upholding the country’s development commitments.
Champion said she believed it would be a “big mistake” for the government to abandon the OECD-DAC rules that would harm the U.K.’s international reputation, but acknowledged it was a possibility. However, she did not think there was sufficient political will to overturn the laws protecting the U.K.’s ODA commitments.
“The biggest concern for me is the 3,600 DFID staff who do an amazing job … with the biggest challenge of their careers [the coronavirus pandemic] … I feel hugely for them — they have at best a merger, and at worst potential redundancies hanging over their heads,” Champion said.
IDC will raise the issues of redundancy with DFID Secretary of State Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, she added.