The year ahead: former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell on DfID's future

Written by Andrew Mitchell on 13 January 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

In our January issue, CSW asks experts to give their thoughts on the new government’s policy priorities. In this first entry, Andrew Mitchell MP sets out why the government must keep the Department for International Development in the looming machinery of government changes

Separate portfolios: Andrew Mitchell with foreign secretary William Hague during the coalition government. Photo: Anthony Devlin/PA Archive/PA Images

Ever since the Northcote-Trevelyan report in 1854, the British civil service has been a benchmark around the world for international integrity and public service.

As we move through Brexit both domestically and internationally, I am certain the civil service will rise to the challenge to deliver the public services their political masters desire. The new challenges certainly require more sectoral and specific expertise by dint of the fact that we are no longer part of a larger whole, and because of the ever-increasing sophistication of public service technology, which requires ever-increasing levels of human skill.

Different parts of the civil service will need to adapt in different ways.


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Paradoxically, when I arrived at the Department for International Development in 2010 as its first Conservative secretary of state, I found the department largely full of experts and impressive specialists in their own areas but somewhat lacking in generalist civil service skills. So, I set about increasing the classic civil service DNA to bring DfID more within the Whitehall constellation and help this new organisation become more of a department of state within the government structure. It remains a huge bonus for Britain that the Foreign Office is still able to attract such an extraordinary quality of talent. This will be greatly needed as we craft the role and policies upon which “Global Britain” depend. 

I am sure the civil service will embrace the changes that Downing Street is seeking. There has been some public comment about the future of DfID and the possibility that it might cohere with the Foreign Office.

It is obviously sensible for the Cabinet Office, and political advisers, to look at all options for delivering better government and meeting the aims of ministers and elected politicians. But I doubt this reform will be sensible – and happily it now appears such a move is not in DfID's immediate future. The coordination that those who support this idea believe would result from a Foreign Office takeover is already available through the mechanism of the National Security Council – in my view, one of the Cameron government’s most brilliant reforms. This removes the need for any takeover by any other department because defence, development and diplomacy are seamlessly welded together through the NSC.

Such a move would also destroy the most highly respected and effective international development organisation in the world, since the very specialist and talented people who run it will quickly be poached by International organisations and bodies. This would be the very reverse of what I think Dominic Cummings is trying to achieve.

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Andrew Mitchell
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Andrew Mitchell is MP for Sutton Coldfield and was the first Conservative international development secretary from 2010 to 2012.

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