Attacks on DfID officials are "insulting and inaccurate", says Andrew Mitchell

Written by Civil Service World on 6 February 2017 in News

DfID's first Conservative secretary of state warns of "unprecedented attack from elements of the media" on the department's work to help the world's poorest

Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell has sought to defend his old department from a string of recent attacks, dismissing the suggestion that DfID officials seek to "shovel cash out of the door".

DfID has found itself at the centre of a political storm in recent months, with media criticism of the knighthood awarded to its long-serving permanent secretary Mark Lowcock; a row over its handling of a project to build a new airport on the island of St Helena; and attacks from MPs over the department's use of direct cash transfers to poorer countries, despite evidence from the UK's independent aid watchdog that such schemes are highly effective in cutting poverty.

Last month, former DfID minister Grant Shapps accused the department of “out of control” spending “regardless of Britain’s other national objectives”, and said it should be abolished as a standalone ministry and folded back into the Foreign Office.

DfID’s under-fire cash transfer scheme delivers “strong value for money”, aid watchdog finds
DfID "evasive" on blame for St Helena airport "white elephant", say MPs
Mark Lowcock interview

But, writing in the Sunday Times, Mitchell – who served as DfID's first Conservative secretary of state from 2010-12 – pushed back against several of the claims made by Shapps.

"The idea that civil servants 'shovel cash out of the door' is insulting and inaccurate," Mitchell wrote.

"Above all, Shapps’s suggestion that civil servants could regard it as 'a badge of honour not to promote British interests' is offensive. Every penny of our aid budget is supposed to be spent in Britain’s national interest.

"This funding has a life-saving effect for millions of the world’s most wretched citizens. While it contributes, I hope, to their security and prosperity, it specifically contributes to ours as well."

The former international development secretary rejected the suggestion that DfID and the Foreign Office pursue opposing policy objectives, pointing out that the National Security Council established under the coalition government explicitly aims to tie up defence, diplomacy and development objectives.

That coordination between the different parts of Whitehall responsible for international policy was also reemphasised in 2015's Aid Strategy, which set out a greater role for the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office in spending the UK's aid budget.

But Mitchell warned that there was now an "unprecedented attack from elements of the media" on Britain's pledge, enshrined in law, to spend 0.7% of its Gross National Income every year on Official Development Assistance (ODA), and warned that attempts to "belittle and trivialise" the department's work risked undermining Britain's standing in the world.

He also rejected suggestions that DfID was unaccountable for its spending, highlighting the 2010 decision to set up the Independent Commission on Aid Impact to act as the watchdog of the department's projects, a move he said had ensured that "independent supervision on behalf of the British taxpayer" was now "embedded in the system".

"Money is not 'shovelled out of the door' at the end of the financial year: we invest in programmes and activities that deliver results and drive forward the aims and objectives set down by the government," he wrote.

"If, as the financial year ends, the economy is doing better than projected, then the opportunity of investing more in advancing these worthwhile objectives becomes available."

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