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Aid Budget Reduction: Humanitarian Impact

Volume 697: debated on Tuesday 15 June 2021

What assessment he has made of the potential effect of reductions in the UK aid budget on UK humanitarian work overseas. (901224)

What assessment he has made of the potential effect of reductions in the UK aid budget on UK humanitarian work overseas. (901226)

What assessment he has made of the potential effect of reductions in the UK aid budget on UK humanitarian work overseas. (901228)

The UK will spend £10 billion in official development assistance in 2021, making us the third highest bilateral humanitarian donor country based on the OECD data.

Let me start by saying that I understand full well that this is a policy imposed by an unintelligent Treasury edict. Nevertheless, it has, potentially, the fatal consequences of a medium-sized war. The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa could not tell us whether the 60% cut to Yemen meant more or less than 260,000 deaths of women and children as a result. On Ethiopia, where the UN told us that 350,000 faced imminent starvation, the Minister for Africa—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge)—yesterday could not tell the House the size of the cut in our aid. I understand from impeccable sources that we propose to cut that aid by £58 million—more than half. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm the size of that cut and tell the House what we intend to do to reduce the hundreds of thousands of deaths arising from our policy?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I do not accept the proposition that he has put forward. As a global leader in ODA—and we continue to be a global leader in ODA—we stretch to put as much in as we possibly can. Of course, we have temporary financial exceptional circumstances, but we will get back to 0.7% as soon as we can. He raised, in particular, the issue of Yemen. We have committed at least £87 million in 2021—that is more than £1 billion since the conflict began. He asked about the firm statistics. They are sent out in the normal way through Development Tracker and the final returns that are made annually.

Last week, the Prime Minister casually dismissed protests against billions of pounds-worth of aid cuts as “lefty propaganda”. Analysis by Save the Children estimates that at least 3 million people in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance right now will not receive it because of this Government’s decision. Can the Foreign Secretary not see that this is not about left or right? It is about right and wrong. Does he recognise that this is not propaganda? This is about life and death for the most vulnerable people, so will he now U-turn on this decision before it is too late for them?

What I recognise is that we remain the third largest donor in the G7, based on GNI. What I recognise is that we have made the biggest ever donation to the Global Partnership for Education, pursuing our goal of 40 million girls receiving 12 years of education. As a result of that, we raised at the G7 billions of pounds from other partners towards that goal. What I recognise is that we have doubled bilateral spending on international climate finance and we secured, through our donation of 100 million surplus vaccines, a contribution of a billion more by the middle of next year, which means that we will be able to vaccinate the world not at the end of 2024, which is the current trajectory, but by the mid-point of next year. That is what global Britain is about. That is what we achieved at the G7.

Two aspects of the recent integrated review that jumped out at me were the explicit wish to integrate diplomacy and development and the so-called Indo-Pacific tilt, which stated the desire to see the UK’s ODA more effective in the region. As a member of the Defence Committee, I am always interested to know how one can make the so-called region that is home to three of the five largest states in the world, and which is named after the first and third largest oceans on the planet, any sort of effective domain for UK foreign policy, so can the Foreign Secretary, while his Government cut aid to many of the poorest in the world, advise the House which areas or countries of the Indo-Pacific they will be prioritising to maintain their investment with this new-style of integrated development and diplomacy?

As I mentioned to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), the final figures, as has historically always been the case, come out not just through DevTracker, but in the international development statistics.

Let me give the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) the example that I think he is searching for. At the weekend, we made a £430 million contribution to the Global Partnership for Education—a 15% increase on last year that will affect many of the countries and regions that he describes. Above all, we used not just our aid spend, but our diplomatic convening power, to get others to make billions of pounds’ worth of contributions. Not only will that encourage 40 million more girls back into education, but it will help to deliver our second goal of getting 20 million more girls literate by the age of 10.

The real question is: do this Tory Government even care? At a time when the poorest nations of the world need support, humanity and compassion, this UK Tory Government are turning their back. Even one of their own Back Benchers has admitted that these cuts will kill. The other G7 countries have stepped up their aid budget; the UK is the only one to cut it. It is utterly shameful. Do you know what I really want to know, Mr Speaker? I want to know how the Foreign Secretary and his Tory Government sleep at night, knowing that they have the blood on their hands of some of the poorest people in the world.

I think that that was pretty unsavoury from the hon. Lady, but I will tell her how we sleep at night. We sleep at night because we are the third biggest ODA budget contributor in the G7. We sleep at night because we have just made the biggest global commitment on girls’ education ever, of any Government ever in the UK. We sleep at night because we are doubling the average annual spend on international climate finance. We sleep at night because we led the way with the 100 million doses that we are providing from excess surplus because of the money that we spent on the AstraZeneca vaccine: of the doses that the poorest countries have so far received via COVAX, 95% have come from AZ. In relation to humanitarian spend, bilaterally, we are the third biggest as well. We continue to be a global leader, but I think that our constituents would be asking some pretty serious questions if, at a time when we face the biggest contraction in our economy for 300 years, we were not also making or finding savings from the international as well as the domestic budget.

COVAX aimed to deliver 2 billion doses of vaccine to countries around the world in 2021. Six months in, less than 5% of that total has been shipped. To rapidly vaccinate health workers and older people in low-income countries, we must address global shortages with a global plan to increase production of vaccines and equitable access. Instead, what we got this weekend from a Prime Minister who has been in perennial retreat from the world stage was a commitment to 5 million doses by the end of September, and a vague commitment to more at some point over the next 12 months. Does the Secretary of State agree that cutting the aid budget while most of his counterparts were increasing theirs made it harder for the Prime Minister to play a leadership role at the G7, and that the cuts are a key reason for the Prime Minister’s abject failure to deliver a comprehensive strategy that accelerates global vaccine access so that we can achieve at least 70% coverage in all countries and end the pandemic as quickly as possible?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady is just mistaken and clearly did not pay attention to what the G7 agreed. We agreed 100 million doses on the UK’s part by the middle of next year. That was not some kind of loose commitment; it was a very clear one, and comes on top of the 1 billion doses that we secured through our financial commitment to COVAX. As a result of our commitment, we have now raised the ability, through the G7 and the other contributions, to secure 1 billion extra doses, so there are new doses. What that will mean in practice is that rather than the world being vaccinated by 2024, as in the current trajectory, it will happen by the middle of next year. I would have thought that if the hon. Lady really cared about the issue, she would recognise that that is a massive step forward.

It is apparent that no matter how many examples we give of why the aid cuts should be reversed, the Foreign Secretary is either unwilling or unable to answer, so let us try this another way.

It is estimated that these cuts will result in the deaths of more than 1 million children throughout the world—1 million more than already die as a result of being the poorest and most vulnerable. Many of us have children of our own and would never neglect their fundamental needs, yet with no consent and with widespread opposition both inside and outside this Parliament, this Government are determined to inflict death and suffering on those with no voice. Thinking of those children, will the Foreign Secretary finally commit to reversing the decision, or is he willing to let the ink dry on the death sentences on these innocent lives?

I have to say that using language like that reflects more on the hon. Gentleman than on the approach of the Government or any Ministers. Of course we take seriously the financial predicament we are in and the difficult choices we have made, but we remain the third biggest G7 donor, and I have given the House the positive effects that we will achieve with our £10 billion. Of course, if we were right at the bottom and donating only £1 billion a year, and we increased it by 20%, according to his moral paradigm we would be doing better than if we were giving £10 billion this year. That is a totally clueless approach to take.

I welcome the G7’s call for unimpeded access for aid workers to the Tigray region of Ethiopia, as a potentially catastrophic man-made famine is unfolding. The UN estimates that more than 350,000 people are currently living in famine conditions and that 2 million are just one step away. There are reports of crops being destroyed, farmers being prevented from cultivating land and food aid being stolen. Endemic sexual violence means that women and girls are staying in hiding, unable to seek the little food that is available. How much humanitarian aid is the FCDO providing to support this response, and how much of it has already been distributed? What action is the FCDO taking to secure and safeguard the distribution of emergency food aid to communities in Tigray, and what steps is it taking to work with partners to prevent a catastrophic famine?

The hon. Lady, like me, cares passionately about that appalling situation. I can tell her that we have provided £22 million of badly needed support to the people in Tigray. At the G7, under the UK presidency, we issued a statement on 2 April and on 5 May expressing deep concern. Following my visit in January and my conversation with Prime Minister Abiy, humanitarian access went from consent to notification, but we know that humanitarian workers still cannot reach the places they need to reach. We need to work on that, and we need to get Eritrean forces to withdraw. In relation to accountability for some of the appalling human rights abuses we have seen, we certainly support the High Commissioner for Human Rights in her planned investigations in conjunction with the Ethiopian human rights commission.