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The future of the International Development Committee is uncertain, but it has never been needed more. We propose the Committee remit shifts to cover all official development assistance spend across Government
On 16th June, the Prime Minister unexpectedly announced the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development (DFID).
Within hours, I receive a joint letter from Foreign Secretary and Development Secretary informing me that the International Development select committee (IDC) was also being wound up. It is of course within the Prime Minister’s gift how he organises his Government, but the formation, or abolition, of select committees is the gift of the House. As such, we are still in business.
With the creation of the newly merged Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, many have wondered what this means for parliamentary scrutiny of official development assistance (ODA).
Does the remit of the IDC get swallowed up in the Foreign Affairs Committee, mirroring the departmental make-up? If media reports are to be believed, could we see ODA reduced to such an extent that any scrutiny becomes fruitless?
Frankly, I’ve never been so sure of the need for the IDC, regardless of my position chairing it.
Why is the scrutiny of development assistance so important?
It is our role as Parliamentarians to make sure Government policy is being targeted properly and efficiently. After all, the annual aid budget is substantial at 0.7% of GNI, which this year looks likely to be £13 billion.
Parliamentarians all have a role in demonstrating that UK aid projects offer value for money to the UK taxpayer and to challenge weaknesses in UK development policy and safeguarding. A cross-party select committee is the most effective way of doing that.
Is it realistic that issues IDC has championed will be picked up by a Committee that already has its hands full with the diplomatic issues of the day?
Having a dedicated committee to take on this role remains imperative. Take the past work of the Committee as examples.
A previous inquiry identified the need for a global education strategy – that was duly implemented by Government – and lifts some of the world’s poorest out of poverty. The successive inquiries on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Aid Sector continues to raise awareness of the horrendous experiences many vulnerable people are subjected to at the hands of those there to help them. Over the summer, IDC successfully highlighted again construction failings with DFID funded schools in Pakistan, which are still to be remedied, leaving children being taught in tents.
It seems the Government is advocating that the Foreign Affairs Committee will create a few additional seats to accommodate development. But is it realistic that issues IDC has championed will be picked up by a Committee that already has its hands full with the diplomatic issues of the day?
Will parliamentary scrutiny for humanitarian issues be side-lined as the new world order sees the threats of Russia and China becoming increasingly dominant? Let’s also be realistic, much of the work for select committees is actually done by remarkable staff teams – and if the Government has its way, none of those will continue with a sole focus on international development.
The Government will have us believe that the new FCDO will champion diplomacy and development together. But they are two monster remits in their own right, and it will be incredibly challenging to ensure justice is being done to both.
ODA spend also reaches across many departments, so is it realistic that the Foreign Affairs Committee will have the appetite to scrutinise the aid expenditure of BEIS, DEFRA, Home Office, Health and others?
The IDC is proposing that we shift our remit to cover all ODA spend across Government. There has been such a committee since 1969. The Government should not be afraid of the Committee, we can help steer the ship through what is the most significant Government policy change in aid since Tony Blair established DFID in 1997.
If the Government’s assertion is to be believed, then we are all on the same side. We can all work together to ensure the life chances of some of the world’s poorest are improved, that weak economies can become self-sufficient, and that the growing threat of disease and famine faced by millions is mitigated.
Parliamentary scrutiny strengthens Government, even if it sometimes seems unpalatable at the time.
Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham and chair of the International Development Committee.