The Foreign Office and the Department for International Development are to be merged, the prime minister has announced.
In a statement to the House of Commons this afternoon, Boris Johnson said a new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office would "unite our aid with our diplomacy and bring them together in our international effort".
In a move that will give the foreign secretary control of the UK's aid budget, Johnson said the coronavirus crisis had shown "distinctions between diplomacy and overseas development are artificial and outdated".
He said, for example, that it "makes no sense" to ask whether British support for the World Health Organisation and other bodies to help them deal with Covid-19 amounts to aid or foreign policy.
“They are one and the same endeavour, they are designed to achieve the same goals, which are right in themselves and serve our national interest,” he said.
The move comes after months of speculation that the two departments could be merged, and despite warnings by MPs, ex-ministers and former permanent secretaries that a merger was unnecessary and could damage the UK’s standing as a driver of international development.
Johnson said: "A dividing line between aid and foreign policy runs through our entire system with our Department for International Development working independently from our Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our aid budget parcelled out between different departments of Whitehall."
With the new department in place, the foreign secretary will decide which countries receive UK aid and deliver a “single UK strategy for each country overseen by the National Security Strategy”, Johnson said. British ambassadors will oversee all overseas work by UK officials in their host countries, including development civil servants and trade commissioners, he said.
The prime minister, who as foreign secretary in 2018 told the FT he wanted to create a “unified Whitehall voice” for the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy, told MPs that “no single department is currently empowered” to determine whether aid spending in any one country "makes sense or not".
“DfID outspends the Foreign Office more than four times over, and yet no single decision maker in either department is able to unite our efforts or take a comprehensive overview," he added.
“And so we tolerate an inherent risk of our left and right hands working independently. Faced with this crisis today, and the opportunities that lie ahead, we have a responsibility to ask whether our current arrangements, dating back to 1997, still maximise British influence."
He said DfID had amassed "world-class expertise" and that its staff should be proud to have helped transform the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Responding to the announcement, Foreign Affairs Select Committee chair Tom Tugendhat said he was “pleased to see that the foreign secretary will be given more strategic oversight when it comes to key aspects of overseas influence and spending".
“Questions will now be asked, and rightly so, about the new role the FCO will play as the strategic engine of foreign policy and how it aims to incorporate the wide range of technical expertise carried by DFID – an internationally well-respected department which has extensive knowledge and experience in relation to managing a budget of billions of pounds," he added.
But Sarah Champion, chair of the International Development Committee, which last week warned against scrapping the development department, said it was "outrageous" that the Foreign Office had "made a land grab for DfID" without consultation and before the government's planned integrated foreign policy, defence and development review was completed.
"Merging these departments may seem attractive short-term with possible administrative efficiency gains, but in the long run, we will have shot ourselves in the foot on the world stage," she said.
Johnson’s announcement today appears to confirm the belief, widely held among Whitehall watchers, that the appointment of an entirely joint ministerial team spanning the two departments in February was a soft merger, with the abolition of DfID to come later in the year.
Former Foreign Office permanent secretary Lord Ricketts told CSW in April that to “crunch the two departments back together again in Whitehall” would not be “necessary or a good idea” as they served different purposes.
And Lord Patten, who was minister for overseas development at the Foreign Office in the late 1980s, warned that a merger could cause “all kinds of conflicts” over money.
“As soon as you make DfID a part of the foreign service, you’ll get all sorts of leaking of money from what should be developmental purposes... into paying for things like subsidies for security forces in developing countries and political contacts. And I just think that would be wrong,” Patten, who oversaw DfID’s predecessor, the Overseas Development Administration, said.