The appointment of a joint ministerial team across the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development has sparked speculation over the aid department's future, despite the prime minister Boris Johnson stopping short of a rumoured merger in last week's cabinet reshuffle.
Last week’s reshuffle saw seven junior ministers appointed across DfID and the FCO, all with joint portfolios. Previously the two departments shared four ministers – positions that were introduced under former prime minister Theresa May.
The installation of a joint ministerial team came as DfID gained its fourth secretary of state in the space of a year. Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who has been a defence minister since last summer, was promoted to replace Alok Sharma, who became business secretary after less than a year at DfID. Sharma’s predecessor, Rory Stewart, was in the post for just two months.
The appointments have raised questions about how the two departments will work together, and whether the Foreign Office is set to gain more influence over UK aid spending or development policy.
Before Christmas, it had been reported that the prime minister was planning to merge the two departments as part of a series of machinery of government changes. No such changes materialised in last week’s reshuffle, but some commentators and politicians have questioned whether the combined ministerial roles indicate a merger could still happen in future.
Wendy Chamberlain, Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for North East Fife, said on Twitter: “There have been rumours about the future of DdID for some time – is this the beginning of an FCO takeover?”
Sir Simon McDonald, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, confirmed the portfolios of each of the ministers in a series of statements on Twitter. Lord Tariq Ahmad is minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth; Wendy Morton for Europe and the Americas; Liz Sugg for overseas territories and sustainable development; James Duddridge for Africa; Nigel Adams for Asia; and James Cleverly for Middle East and North Africa.
Lord Zac Goldsmith is the only minister whose brief spans three departments – including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in his role as minister for pacific and the environment.
Welcoming the new ministers, DfID perm sec Matthew Rycroft said the seven joint roles had been agreed by the two departments’ secretaries of state.
Catherine Haddon, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, said that the posts are “not the usual joint ministers we see”, adding that the move “suggests a fuller merger at later date”.
Haddon added that there would now be questions over how the two secretaries of state would work together. “Will Trevelyan be attending any FCO ministerial meets, or will all her junior ministerial team be regularly meeting [foreign secretary Dominic] Raab without her? Combined regular meets would be far more sensible,” she said on Twitter.
Simon Starling, director of policy, advocacy and research for Bond, a network of UK-based non-governmental organisations, said: “We hope the increase in the number of joint ministers results in improved policy coherence across an aid and development agenda which prioritises the world’s poorest people and sustainable economic development.”
Bond coordinated a joint letter by more than 100 humanitarian charities in December, urging the government to keep DfID and the Foreign Office separate – warning that a merger would “risk dismantling the UK’s leadership on international development and humanitarian aid”.
“UK aid risks becoming a vehicle for UK foreign policy, commercial and political objectives, when it first and foremost should be invested to alleviate poverty,” the letter warned.
But while Starling told CSW it was encouraging to see DfID remain an independent department, he warned that the high turnover at the top of the department had “inevitably caused instability”.
He added: “DfID needs to be able to get on with the job of helping to make the world a safer, healthier and more sustainable place for us all, rather than living in constant fear of a guillotine above its head.”
When she was appointed international development secretary last week, Trevelyan said her policy priorities would include girls’ education, climate change and helping countries that receive UK aid become self sufficient.
“I want to show the British public we are delivering the best results for their aid, transforming the lives of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, while promoting Britain’s economic and security interests,” she said.
Spokespeople for DfID and the Foreign Office confirmed the appointments but declined to say what the changes meant for the operation of the two departments.