Raab pledges to tackle Covid-influenced famine with new controversial department

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Permanent Under Secretary Philip Barton arrive at the newly named Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office in Westminster. Credit: PA

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has launched his controversial new department with a pledge to tackle famine created by the coronavirus pandemic in countries such as Sudan.

He announced a £119 million package to tackle extreme hunger in developing nations as he took the helm of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) on Wednesday after the axing of the Department for International Development.

The merger with the Foreign Office provoked widespread criticism, including from charities and three former prime ministers, that it would harm the world’s poorest people.

But Mr Raab is pledging to use diplomacy and the aid budget to alleviate the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, conflict and climate change.

He said, as the leader of the new department, that he is "absolutely committed to helping the bottom billion".

"The first thing we'll do on day one, given the impact of covid creating famine and the risk of famine, everywhere from the Sunan through to Yemen, we're providing £190 million extra pounds to famine relief."

“Global Britain, as a force for good in the world, is leading by example and bringing the international community together to tackle these deadly threats, because it’s the right thing to do and it protects British interests,” he said in a statement.

“We can only tackle these global challenges by combining our diplomatic strength with our world-leading aid expertise.”

He pledged that the £119 million package, to come from the existing aid budget, would help alleviate extreme hunger for over six million people in Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Central African Republic, the Sahel, South Sudan and Sudan.

Mr Raab made no mention of the aid budget in his statement after reports the Government is considering cuts.

When asked about reports that foreign aid will be cut to facilitate spending elsewhere, Mr Raab said: "There's a load of tittle-tattle, rather colourful the in the media, and I'm not going to prejudice the comprehensive spending review but we're absolutely committed to to helping the bottom billion."

Some Tory MPs have reacted angrily to suggestions that ministers could axe the commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid.

Downing Street on Tuesday, however, dismissed the reports as “speculation”.

“There is no change with regard to the commitment on 0.7%,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

The Times also reported on Wednesday that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is seeking to divert billions of pounds from foreign aid to pay for upgrades to the UK’s intelligence and defence capabilities. One Treasury source dismissed the report as “speculation”.

But there have been concerns among Conservatives nonetheless.

Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said: “With the ink hardly dry on our manifesto, I don’t think the House of Commons would easily agree to balance the books on the backs of the poorest women and children in the world.”

Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee Tobias Ellwood said the cut would be “shortsighted in failing to appreciate how well-targeted aid can strengthen relationships and open up new markets – thus helping the Treasury”.

The merger means the former international development secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan has returned to the backbenches.

No 10 confirmed she would be entitled to a pay-off because of the closure of her department.

Conservative former prime minister David Cameron previously warned the merger was a “mistake” and that it would result in the UK commanding “less respect” on the global stage.

Tony Blair, the Labour former prime minister whose administration created the department in 1997, said he was “utterly dismayed” by Boris Johnson’s decision.