The international development secretary Priti Patel has rejected suggestions of a “Foreign Office takeover” of her department.
She told MPs that she didn’t recognise the speculation of a “creeping merger” between FCO and the Department for International Development and that it was government policy for her department to remain independent.
“DfID is a standalone independent government department,” Patel said. “That is government policy, and there has been no suggestion from my department or from the government that that is going to change.”
Patel and top officials, speaking at a parliamentary International Development Committee hearing yesterday, also insisted that the DfID was spearheading transparency standards that are being adopted across the civil service.
Asked by committee members about the speculation around a “creeping merger” between FCO and DfID, Patel said: “I don’t actually recognise this suggestion of an FCO takeover and I reject that premise completely.”
Her comments came after Boris Johnson called it “a colossal mistake in the 1990s to divide the Department for International Development from the Foreign Office”, prompting speculation of a merger.
But Patel insisted that while the introduction of joint junior ministers, who answer to both Patel and Johnson, was working well, there were no plans to join up the departments further.
She also insisted that her department was pioneering transparency standards in government.
“One of the things that I think is not recognised widely enough is the fact that we actually work across other government departments to up their standards… and ways of working in being accountable and transparent to taxpayers,” she said.
Speaking to the committee earlier in the day, Nick Dyer, DfID’s acting permanent secretary, also pointed to the department’s work addressing waste and prioritising value for money.
“The secretary of state insisted that last year we do a line by line review of every single programme in our portfolio to assess whether it fitted our departmental objectives and that it had value for money,” he said, adding that some projects had been abandoned altogether as a result.
“She is quite rightly calling on other government departments to do something similar.”
Joy Hutcheon, DfID’s director general for finance and corporate performance, added that the department’s tough new code of conduct for suppliers – the only one across government that is “legally enforceable” – was “informing some of the wider things that the government commercial operation is doing across all departments now”.
She also confirmed that the department’s headcount had grown by 20% over the past six years.
The select committee in March published a report which warned that headcount in the department had “fallen below what is required”, stating that the budget had increased by 35% between 2009-10 and 2015-16 but staff numbers had increased just 15%.
Asked whether the department now has the capacity to deliver the substantially increased aid budget, Hutcheon said that despite reductions in headcount across the civil service, the Treasury had allowed DfID to ringfence money for frontline delivery staff.
“The department has grown substantially since [the government committed to spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid],” she said. “It’s actually increased by about 20% since 2011. That has been what has enabled us to maintain and improve our oversight over our spend.”
She added that more staff had been recruited across a range of capabilities, including advisors and policy specialists, programme managers, and functional specialists – particularly in finance, commercial and IT.
She said a new communications director had been recruited at the beginning of the year, and that the department was expanding its digital team in a drive to counter misinformation and negative attitudes towards international aid.