Fears over DfID and Foreign Office merger to be raised in Commons

Speaker grants urgent question to Lib Dem MP after PM’s surprise announcement

Fears that hundreds of jobs at the Department for International Development (DfID) are at risk as part of the merger with the Foreign Office will be raised in the Commons on Thursday.

A campaign was also launched among aid groups to try to persuade the government to rethink the surprise decision announced by the prime minister on Tuesday.

The Speaker has granted an urgent question to Wendy Chamberlain, the Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife, only 48 hours after the prime minister had come to the Commons to announce the merger. It is unusual for the Speaker to grant a statement so quickly and reflects the lack of staff consultation prior to the merger. Nearly 600 staff work at the DfID headquarters in East Kilbride.

Staff were given less than an hour’s notice of the long rumoured merger.

Their union, the FDA, wrote to the government on Wednesday to seek details of how the merger is to take place and what salary alignment is planned with the relatively less well paid Foreign Office.

Allan Sampson, FDA national officer, demanded formal consultation over the plans along with the PCS union in the letter to the Foreign Office.

“We believe that no current DfID staff member should suffer any detriment to their pay, terms or conditions as a consequence of the merger, and we agree the department should implement urgent wellbeing support for staff who may be struggling emotionally at this difficult time. We also take the view it will be important to embed key DfID values and aims into the new department.”

Commitments have been given that there will be no compulsory redundancies, but it is clear the Foreign Office will now be in control of merged budgets and a degree of salary alignment between departments is now expected.

The degree of secrecy surrounding the decision was underlined when Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the decision had never been referred to cabinet.

Chamberlain said: “Dissolving the department could also have serious repercussions at home. Hundreds of employees and their families in the East Kilbride area will be left worried about the security or location of their jobs.

“These jobs must stay put. We cannot afford to lose specialist expertise or put people’s jobs in jeopardy in the midst of a pandemic.”

Insiders said there was anger when Johnson said DfID staff handed out aid to authoritarian leaders willing to execute their political opponents, undermining the work of diplomats trying to stop human rights abuses. One DfID member said: “I think the records will show that it was the Foreign Office that advocated selling arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, not DfID.”

Johnson also angered DfID staff by saying its budget had been treated as a “great cashpoint in a sky”, implying it is DfID staff’s view that cash can be dispensed at random.

One DfID member said: “Staff are shocked and upset, even though this has been a possibility for a long time … The government’s messaging totally undermines their expertise and achievements.”

James Cowan, chief executive of the Halo Trust, one of the few aid charities supporting the merger, said: “What is interesting and what the prime minister is really trying to drive at is there is a sub-culture within DfID which is different from the rest of Whitehall, a sense that they are not crown servants, a sense that they are not necessarily there to serve the national interest. I think he wants to address that.” He added an integrated approach between defence, aid and foreign is needed, saying: “It is very siloed, tribalised and needs to be broken down”.

David Miliband, who as Tony Blair’s chief policy adviser in 1997 first proposed separating the diplomatic and overseas aid wings of government, said he feared that if the merger was handled badly lives would be lost.

He said: “The danger is that Britain spends the next six months re-arranging its institutional furniture when we are in the middle of the biggest humanitarian pandemic for 100 years, and British aid policy could be a genuine leader. My plea to Dominic Raab is to make sure there is not a six-month hiatus. If there is people will literally pay with their lives. British aid money and influence needs to be out there getting money to the frontline in this Covid crisis.”

Former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind said: “However much leftwingers might complain, the decision to fold DfID into the Foreign Office is perfectly sensible. Having two departments covering UK foreign policy has long been a recipe for incoherence and confusion. Nor should we be shy about focussing our aid spending on countries with whom we have the strongest connection.”


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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