Cameron grilled over ODA cut and merger that created FCDO

Foreign secretary says new leadership structures are making the department “work better than it was”
David Cameron appears before MPs yesterday Photo: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

10 Jan 2024

David Cameron has told MPs he can live with the government’s decision to pare back official development assistance and the merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – both policies he opposed before his surprise return to government in November.

In his first grilling in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee in his new role as foreign secretary, Lord Cameron acknowledged that he had been “disappointed” by 2021’s decision to cut ODA from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5% and the creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office months before.

Cameron, who was prime minister for just over six years when he quit in the wake of the EU referendum result in 2016, said he had assured current PM Rishi Sunak that he would “fully accept” cabinet collective responsibility when he was offered the chance to return to government.

“I will work with what we have now and try to make sure that we have the best possible joined-up policy of diplomacy and aid. And try and make sure we make the very most of the 0.5% that we have,” he said.

“Politics is a team enterprise. You can’t always get everything you want. You have to work out whether you can accept the situation and whether you can accept that cabinet collective responsibility, and I can.

“I’ll defend what we’re doing now to make the FCDO work effectively and I’ll defend the 0.5% – it’s not as much as it was, but we’re still an aid superpower.”

Cameron did not give an answer to a question from committee member Fabian Hamilton, who asked whether he would be lobbying for the UK to return to designating 0.7% of GNI for aid spending – an aspiration that G8 leaders signed up to at the Gleneagles summit in 2005.

Asked whether there was anything he would change about the FCDO at present, Cameron said he was keen to see how the department’s two-permanent-secretaries system bedded in – and also praised the work of development minister Andrew Mitchell, who has a seat at cabinet.

Cameron said having a second perm sec responsible for development-related work in FCDO and a cabinet-level voice in Mitchell “has helped”.

“We’re making the merger work better than it was. I’d like that to take a bit of time, to see how it’s bedding down, see how it’s working, and try and make the most of it that way,” the foreign secretary said.

“We’re trying to make it work. It’s not going back to what happened under Margaret Thatcher, when ODA was a separate department within the Foreign Office. It’s not that. It’s trying to make a merged entity work, but with this slight distinction.”

Cameron added that it was “quite nice being foreign secretary with a £12bn budget”, spending power that he did not have directly at No.10.

He told MPs that one of his priorities as foreign secretary would be to forge closer working with the Home Office on immigration issues.

“Too much in the past, and I blame my own government for this, the Home Office is going in one direction and the Foreign Office is going in another,” he said.

Cameron said he wanted to get both departments working together “on things like stopping migration upstream and helping stabilise countries and using all the tools you’ve got in the toolbox”.

The foreign secretary said the No.1 priority he had set for the FCDO was supporting Ukraine, followed by working towards securing a more stable Middle East. His other priorities were: enhancing UK security, international development, and delivering prosperity and jobs.

“Obviously trade isn’t in the department in the way that it used to be but I want to help the Department of Trade deliver these important trade deals,” Cameron said.  

“I want to help colleagues to get inward investment into the UK and all the rest of it. So that’s the focus. It’s very straightforward and down to earth.”

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