By William James
LONDON, June 16 (Reuters) - Britain will merge its diplomatic and aid departments, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Tuesday, promising that a combined department would better promote British interests without cutting spending on overseas projects.
Johnson said it was removing a false divide between two overlapping departments - the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development - and would allow for spending in line with foreign policy aims.
"This will unite our aid with our diplomacy and bring them together in our international effort," he told parliament. "We already punch above our weight, this will help us to punch even harder."
The new ministry will be called the Foreign, Commonweath and Development Office and will launch in September.
The decision was immediately criticised by opponents who said it was a deliberate distraction from the government's coronavirus response and would diminish Britain's overseas influence.
"The prime minister should stop these distractions and get on with the job of tackling the health and economic crisis we currently face," opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer said.
Britain spent 15.2 billion pounds ($19.1 billion) on "Official Development Assistance" in 2019, of which almost three-quarters came from the DFID budget, official statistics showed. The Institute for Government think tank said the DFID budget was five times that of the foreign office.
That has long been in the sights of lawmakers on the right of Johnson's Conservative Party, who argue that money has been wasted on frivolous projects and should either be spent in a more controlled way or spent at home.
Johnson echoed those concerns, saying overseas aid had been treated for too long as "some giant cashpoint in the sky."
Former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, whose coalition government wrote the pledge to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid into law in 2015, said it would mean "less expertise, less voice for development at the top table and ultimately less respect for the UK overseas." (Additional reporting by Costas Pitas; editing by Stephen Addison and Kate Holton)
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