It has been four months since the Chancellor announced his intention to change the target for UK aid and reduce it from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent. In a few short weeks, the new financial year will be upon us and the FCDO will be operating under this new budget. But as Lord Ken McDonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, says in his legal opinion in the Sunday Times, this will be an “unlawful budget,” and the government will have acted “illegally”.
It is not too late for the government to change course but the Prime Minster’s assurance last week that we will return to the 0.7 per cent target “when fiscal circumstances allow” has, I am afraid, set him on a collision course.
The Foreign Secretary told Parliament last year that “given the requirements of the Act, the fact that we cannot at this moment predict with certainty when the current fiscal circumstances will have sufficiently improved and our need to plan accordingly, we will need to bring forward legislation in due course.” And yet, no legislation has been forthcoming.
He also told the Parliamentary Select Committee that: “We have taken advice very carefully on this, and it is very clear that if we cannot see a path back to 0.7 per cent in the foreseeable, immediate future, and we cannot plan for that, then the legislation would require us to change it. We would almost certainly face legal challenge if we do not very carefully follow it.” As the government’s lawyers know, it is an open and shut case.
Perhaps more importantly, this is not just a promise broken to the electorate but it is also a bad policy, which has almost no vocal support on the Conservative benches. Former Public Accounts Committee Chairman, Sir Edward Leigh, has said that the government has published “nothing to show that the 0.7 per cent has not delivered value for money.” Another Former Public Accounts Committee Chairman, David Davis, has said that “the less we invest through foreign aid, the more we will see foreign migration.”
Former Immigration Minister, Caroline Nokes, has said that “this looks increasingly like the wrong policy at the worst possible time. We can’t beat Covid anywhere unless we beat it everywhere.” Former Africa Minister, Harriet Baldwin, concurs. She has explained that: “Anyone who has witnessed the invention and then the cold chain deployment of an Ebola vaccine to the furthest reaches of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo knows that this deployment, funded by UK Aid has helped not only to control Ebola but to protect us here at home and help us develop the skills we need today for deploying the Covid-19 vaccine. Vaccines save lives, including our own.”
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Newly elected MPs can also see the folly. Christian Wakeford, who was elected in Bury South has said that: “I know my constituents have a variety of views about the merits of foreign aid… But I think there are very few of them who would look at Yemen, where half of all medical facilities have been destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes, and a child dies every ten minutes from a preventable disease, and say that we should be doing less to help.” Another new MP, former Foreign Office adviser Anthony Mangnall says the 0.7 per cent “is an important link, not just to the world’s poorest people, but a link to Biden, to America and to the UK standing on a platform in which we are indisputably a world leader.”
Foreign Affairs Select Committee member, Bob Seely, explaining why he will vote against, explains: “we cannot allow a new ‘scramble for Africa’ that embeds Chinese companies and capital in a way that dominates private sectors and crushes civil societies.” And former Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith, told the Commons that “as we move away from certain [African] countries, countries like China will move in, and their aid will come with serious, serious problems, as they demand more dictatorial regimes.”
Defence Select Committee Chair, Tobias Elwood, told Channel 4 News that cuts to aid will be welcomed by terrorist recruiting sergeants: “In Syria, Daesh will be delighted we are stepping back. In Lebanon, Hezbollah will be pleased to see that we are no longer participating. In Somalia, Al Shabab will benefit from us being out of the picture. Likewise, in Nigeria, for Book Haram and in Libya, Russia of course will fill that vacuum that we leave.”
Tim Loughton, a passionate Brexiteer, is clear that the 0.7 per cent promise is a British badge of pride. He argues that “its simplicity is built into the formula: our payments go up in times of plenty and fall back when our economy is stretched. It takes the rough with the smooth, and as such, is a quintessential symbol of the British sense of fair play. Cutting it to 0.5 per cent now, as the government proposes, is just not cricket.”
A dozen Conservative MPs, from all wings of the party. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg.
We are the only G7 country cutting aid, yet we are hosting the summit in just a few months’ time. The cuts to aid amount to just 1 per cent of what we are borrowing this year, but they will result in hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths, mainly of children. As David Cameron has said, this is “a promise we do not need to break.” But perhaps worse than that, it is a political own goal and a strategic error that has done nothing so far but lost friends and alienated people.
Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP is a former Development Secretary and Chief Whip.