Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)

Although this is a relatively straightforward Bill, which I had hoped would have the support of all Members of the House, it is worth examining some aspects of the strategic background to our DFID commitments.

I associate myself wholeheartedly with the wise and experienced words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) when they touched on the transformation of the CDC’s work over the past half-decade or so. I must confess that I did not recognise some of the rather more jaundiced views of its work, as set out in the rather long contribution from the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty).

Fiona Bruce

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the selective quoting of the NAO report by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, who is no longer in his place, did not do justice to its conclusion that, overall, DFID’s grip on the CDC is strong and that the CDC has made radical improvements since the NAO’s last report in 2008?

Mark Field

I agree with everything my hon. Friend has to say.

I am glad that the Secretary of State is now back in her place, and I wholeheartedly support her somewhat expansive approach, which has been criticised in certain quarters during the debate. She appears determined to ensure that the UK utilises all its assets, including the DFID budget, to secure an optimal deal for the nation, not just as we extricate ourselves from the EU, but in the years to come.

That must mean extending DFID’s reach beyond the traditional aid referred to in the debate to broader development and infrastructure and to things such as security, but also to community sustainability and resilience across the globe. That change is long overdue, and I should like briefly to set out some of the somewhat negative ways in which DFID’s culture has developed since the Department was established in 1997, which I sincerely trust the Bill will help to address.

DFID was originally seen as a key component of an ethical foreign policy, centralising in a single Department overseas aid moneys that were previously in the budgets of the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office. ​The result was that those major Departments of State were left at that time with little or no financial autonomy on key international projects—regrettably, in my view.

Instead, a new culture of programming took hold in DFID, which managed out what was seen as inappropriate spending that could cause presentational problems for the Government of the day. Cautious mandarins became more risk averse, and DFID project money was routinely awarded to known international bodies, such as the World Bank or UNICEF, rather than to smaller, nimbler UK organisations and businesses.

That ensured that the Government would not be seen to be promoting corporate Britain abroad under the cloak of humanitarian assistance, but it also left those recognised brands to deal with any fallout, should questions be raised about the success of particular programmes. Indeed, the very respectability of those organisations tended to mute any testing questioning about the effectiveness and impact of what has become an ever-larger amount of British aid money. That shift, I fear, went hand in hand with the emergence of increasingly professional bidders, who learned to speak the language of DFID programmers to win contracts.

Too often, the result has been ponderous, expensive and wasteful programming, and I know that that culture is very much in the sights of the Secretary of State, who wants to eradicate it. In part, DFID programmers have often been overloaded with cash, which has been increasingly bundled off to the international bodies I mentioned. I am therefore absolutely delighted that the Bill increases the scope for money to be used by domestic bodies that are within the Government’s control and able to enact the Government’s priorities in the new world rapidly unfolding before us.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield laid out the way in which the CDC rightly operates. There is rightly oversight from not just the Government but a range of Select Committees, but we ultimately leave the organisation to get on and do the job that it is best able to achieve.

We need, above all, to ensure that DFID is not as process driven as it has perhaps been in the past, which has reduced our agility in this field and risked the benchmark for the success of our development aid being simply the amount spent, rather than the added value delivered, as has been referred to. That does not make our ongoing 0.7% commitment to overseas aid wrong—some of my right hon. and hon. Friends would probably disagree with that— and I am absolutely supportive of it, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East. Indeed, the case for extending Britain’s reach in this field grows stronger every day as we are confronted domestically with problems whose roots start many thousands of miles away.

I do, though, question whether, particularly as we leave the EU, large parts of DFID’s budget should not now be made available to the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence or the Department for International Trade, all of which should, necessarily and rightly, come under some scrutiny and oversight from DFID, but there should, none the less, be that sense of joined-up co-operation within Government. That would enable and authorise those on the ground, whether in overseas embassies, military bases, or part and parcel of our intelligence services, to spend sensibly, carefully and locally against agreed objectives rather than within the rather ham-fisted DFID programming process.

Sir Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con)

I am listening very carefully to my right hon. Friend and agree with everything he has said so far. Does he agree that there are still some savings to be made by bringing all those agents and representatives of Her Majesty’s Government abroad under one umbrella? Too often we see competing officials from the different Departments who, in order to save money, should all come under the umbrella of, probably, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Mark Field

You can take the boy out of the Foreign Office but obviously, when it comes down to it, you can’t take the Foreign Office out of the boy. I suspect that this will be a live debate going forward. I know that my right hon. Friend feels very strongly about such matters.

Mr Mitchell

My right hon. Friend is quite right to slap down the former Foreign Office Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire), on his implied suggestion that we should go back rather than forwards and put DFID under the Foreign Office: that is basically what he was saying. We have long ago said that that is the wrong way to proceed. Let me point out that there are already pooled funds of the type that he describes. In my day at DFID—I have every reason to believe that this continues—whenever there was eligible funding under the ODA rules that the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office wanted to spend, they would always have access to those funds. The huge amount of DFID money that goes through the Foreign Office now bears testament to that.

Mark Field

I would like to think that I am much too diplomatic to slap anyone down, although he knows where we are all coming from.

Sir Hugo Swire

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mark Field

One last time, yes.

Sir Hugo Swire

Just to clarify this, I am not sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) was correct in saying what I was proposing. I was certainly not suggesting that the Department should come back within the Foreign Office. I was merely saying that I saw huge synergies to be achieved overseas where we have representatives from many Departments, including the Ministry of Defence, DFID and the former Department of Energy and Climate Change, and that we should look towards making greater savings so that we can spend the money where it is needed.

Mark Field

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield was not wilfully misleading anyone on these matters. I am going to be slapped down myself by the Whips if I am not careful, because I need to make a little progress.

I hope that in further empowering the CDC, which, as has been pointed out, is 100% owned by Her Majesty’s Government, we are now making way for a more cross-departmental approach, with the DIT and indeed the FCO able to access CDC funds for projects within the key Commonwealth states, particularly in Africa and South Asia.​
In this very dangerous and uncertain world, the importance of integrating our foreign aid with military, diplomatic and trade commitments cannot be overstated. To prevent crime, to curb new waves of immigration, and to stop the spread of disease, our efforts can be made more effective by concentrating on the source of an issue. Hunger relief and health programmes may of course be laudable in their own right, but British people want urgently to understand how DFID money benefits them personally, and so there will no doubt be widespread support for more money being channelled through bodies such as the CDC rather than—dare I say it?—virtually unaccountable international organisations that have previously received millions of pounds in UK aid. We should also, as a matter of course, communicate how strengthening our ties with developing countries will be of huge benefit in terms of our trade, energy and security interests in this post-Brexit era. By moving away from a situation where too much of DFID’s budget and powers has been placed in the hands of international non-governmental organisations, I firmly believe that we will be able better to fulfil many more of our nation’s broader strategic interests.