LONDON — The United Kingdom’s NGO network has urged the government to “stop misrepresenting” meetings it has had with charities about the coronavirus response as consultations on the upcoming development department merger.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there had been a "massive consultation" about merging DFID with FCO. Aid groups say if there was, nobody told them.
Bond, which represents over 400 internationally focused U.K. organizations, said there has been no consultation on the merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and that the government has “consistently conflated” discussions about the pandemic response with meetings that have not happened.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the DFID merger last month, he said there had been a “massive consultation over a long period of time” with the development community. That claim led to immediate confusion, as numerous groups denied that any such consultation had taken place.
The issue has since become a sore point among civil society and opposition politicians, who have repeatedly raised it in the House of Commons and in meetings of the International Development Committee, Parliament’s development watchdog.
“We have been clear from the beginning that we were not consulted before the Prime Minister announced the merger.”— Stephanie Draper, chief executive, Bond
During questioning in Parliament on Wednesday, Secretary of State for International Development Anne-Marie Trevelyan was asked if Johnson’s “massive consultation” statement was a lie and if the government would commit to meeting with civil society organizations to discuss the merger.
“The prime minister was clear, as I have been, that any announcement [of a departmental merger] is brought to Parliament first, but the ongoing consultation is now working continuously, and Baroness Sugg is leading that,” Trevelyan replied, referring to Elizabeth Grace Sugg, a government minister.
“Consultation with NGOs was going on before that in relation to all sorts of other issues, and that relationship with NGOs and CSOs is something we take very seriously and will continue to do so,” she added.
But Bond denied that any meetings dedicated to discussing the merger have taken place with the government. Sugg is understood to be leading meetings with NGOs relating to the pandemic response, not the merger.
Stephanie Draper, Bond’s chief executive, said in a statement: “It was wrong for the Secretary of State to say that the sector was consulted on the merger. We have been clear from the beginning that we were not consulted before the Prime Minister announced the merger on 16 June.
“The Government has consistently conflated strategic and technical discussions between DFID and civil society on the UK's global response to COVID-19 with consultation about the merger. … It seems that the Government is using these critical COVID-19 meetings publicly to suggest that wider consultation has happened or is happening on the DFID/FCO merger and on the Integrated Review [of the U.K.’s international policies].
“The Government should stop misrepresenting these meetings,” she continued. “They must urgently commit to separate, meaningful engagement with the sector on the new department and the strategy that defines it so that aid and development expertise informs the new department’s structure and priorities and that poverty reduction and sustainable development remain UK aid's primary objectives.”
A DFID spokesperson said: “As the International Development Secretary said in the House of Commons, like with any government change the announcement came first to Parliament and there is ongoing consultation with UK and international NGOs, including on issues relating to the merger.”