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House of Lords Hansard
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02 September 2020
Volume 805

Private Notice Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the establishment of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, what plans they have to maintain the requirement to spend 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income on aid.

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My Lords, the commitment to spending 0.7% of our national income on aid is a manifesto commitment and is enshrined in law. As the PM has made clear, the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will maximise the impact of our aid budget to help the world’s poorest, while making sure that we get the best value for money for the UK taxpayer.

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My Lords, in an article in this week’s Sunday Times on the Chancellor’s possible tax rises was this line:

“Treasury officials are also examining ways of siphoning cash from the foreign aid budget.”

Given that £2.9 billion has already been cut from UK aid this year, going further would mean repealing legislation. From the same article was this quote:

“A source said: ‘Foreign aid is being looked at as well’.”

Quite simply, can the Minister say whether such media reports over the last few days are wishful thinking within elements of her party, or is it a precursor to yet another government U-turn, this time on a Conservative manifesto commitment?

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My Lords, rather than focusing on unattributable media reports, I point the noble Baroness to No. 10’s confirmation yesterday that there is no change to the Government’s commitment to maintaining a 0.7% aid target. Also, the Foreign and Development Secretary today confirmed that we will continue to spend 0.7%. That is written into the law. The Prime Minister has said that we want aid capacity and development expertise; that is what we want to be the beating heart of the new department.

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My Lords, I have two questions. When will the first accounts for the new joint department be signed off, as they must be, by the FCO permanent secretary, and published? Secondly, on 19 June, 191 NGOs, think tanks and charities, all working on humanitarian assistance—including of course the current Covid problem—wrote to the Prime Minister protesting about this new arrangement. The doctors wrote, similarly, a couple of days later. All made the point that DfID is one of the most successful and respected aid departments anywhere in the world, and is recognised as such by everywhere else in the world. Has the Prime Minister answered those letters from the 191 NGOs and the doctors? They were written 10 weeks ago. If not, after almost 10 weeks, when will he reply?

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My Lords, departmental accounts will be published in the usual way. I reassure the noble Baroness and, indeed, the NGOs to which she referred, that of course we are listening very closely to what they say to ensure that the new department is greater than the sum of its parts, and what we want it to be. We aim to use all the tools of our influence and expertise to continue our work and development. We are a world leader in international development, as the noble Baroness says, helping to end extreme poverty in developing countries around the world. We are absolutely committed to putting UK aid at the heart of what we do in the new department. We will continue with our 0.7% and will ensure that we continue the good work that we have seen from DfID in the new FCDO.

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Development is global and long term, which is usually different from the aims of other government departments. Given the headlines about raiding the development budget, including from the Treasury, exactly how will her department guard against this?

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My Lords, as I hope I have made clear, we will continue our commitment to 0.7% in the new department, as was said in the Conservative Party manifesto on which we were elected, and we will proudly maintain that commitment. We must ensure that both our diplomacy and development work continues, as it has done in the two separate departments, within the new department. In our new department, we aim to pursue our national interests and project the UK as a force for good in the world, which includes safeguarding UK security, defending our values, reducing poverty and tackling the huge global challenges that we face.

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My Lords, our overseas aid programme is under a triple threat: the questioning of the commitment to 0.7%; the reduced value of the 0.7% because of the post-Covid recession; and the subverting of aid spending into quite different areas, such as defence. Does the Minister accept that an effective aid programme is, in fact, firmly in the UK’s national interest and enhances our reputation globally? Will she reassure me that spending in areas where we are acknowledged world leaders, such as malaria—I declare my interest—which was also specifically mentioned in the Conservative Party manifesto, will be safeguarded going forward?

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I completely agree with the noble Baroness that our work in international development is firmly in the national interest and absolutely enhances our global reputation abroad. We have been a world leader in many things, including malaria. We need to focus, rightly, on the Covid-19 response, but we must not forget or reverse the significant gains that have been made over the years. We have many proud achievements on malaria, and the UK will continue to lead the way on eradicating malaria as part of our work on ending preventable deaths.

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I welcome the Minister’s comprehensive replies and have a simple question for her. On the back of my views that the merger will add greatly to UK influence in global leadership, given that public health is central to all our thinking at the moment internationally, can the Minister reassure me that, from now on, we will use our contribution to the World Health Organization, where we are in fact the largest and most powerful contributor, to the greatest possible extent? That means perhaps not just contributing, but ensuring that the WHO has reorganisation in the centre, or whatever is needed, because it has lagged a little bit, which is why we have lost the United States. Will the Minister reassure me that she will do everything she can to make Britain more powerful in the World Health Organization dimension?

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As my noble friend says, we are a leading donor to the WHO. We have already pledged £75 million to help it to lead international efforts to stop the spread of the virus and then the pandemic. The UK has long been an advocate for reform in the WHO. We want to see the WHO continue to learn lessons on how to improve its response to global health emergencies. The new department will help us in this aim, bringing together our diplomatic engagement with the WHO and other bilateral donors, and also our development funding, for the first time.

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My Lords, I have personally seen through the Anglican Communion’s worldwide partnerships the positive impact that the UK’s overseas aid has made to alleviating poverty. I share the concerns of other Peers about the reports of the Government’s intent to overturn the legal commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid. At the risk of tedium, I hope that the Minister will continue to give this House assurances that the Government have no such plans, which would reduce the UK’s impact under the UN sustainable development goals.

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I thank the right reverend Prelate for her question. Like her, I have seen at first hand the incredible work that church and faith groups do around the world. I assure her that we will continue to be guided by our responsibilities under the International Development Act, which of course includes a commitment to poverty reduction.

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My Lords, as we have heard, there has already been a substantial reduction in real aid spending due to the contraction of our own economy. Where is the strategy? Which country programmes have been identified for closure and cuts? Does the Minister agree with the Prime Minister that we should be diverting aid from partners in countries such as Zambia and Tanzania? If so, why?

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As the noble Lord said, given the expected fall in gross national income this year, our commitments to aid spending have been reviewed across all departments. The strategy behind that was to ensure that there is continued support for the five priorities for overseas development assistance: the Bottom Billion support, poverty reduction, climate change, girls’ education and, of course, Covid-19. We want to ensure that Britain continues to play its role as a force for good in the world. That implementation is happening as we speak, and we are discussing that with suppliers. As usual, there will continue to be adjustments in year to individual departmental overspend to meet the 0.7% target, but we are absolutely focused on making sure that we continue to fund the priorities that I have outlined.

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My Lords, is not the problem for the Minister that whatever she says in good faith is being undermined by persistent and detailed leaking, not least in today’s edition of the Times? The aid budget is a jewel in a very jaded foreign policy. Why should it be put at risk?

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My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it should not be put at risk. It is not at risk. I point to the comments from No. 10, from the Foreign Secretary today and, indeed, from the Prime Minister when he made his announcement to Parliament on the merger. We should be incredibly proud of the changes that 0.7% has made and continues to make in people’s lives around the world, from girls’ education to eradicating wild polio in Africa. We continue to be proud of that and to be absolutely committed to carrying on the good work of 0.7% in the new FCDO.

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My Lords, nothing, I suspect, could prick our collective conscience a moment more than the terrible suffering in Yemen. Can the Minister tell me how we are managing to extend some sort of help to the agencies working in that area?

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My Lords, we continue to be incredibly concerned about the situation in Yemen. In fact, we have an announcement today, given the impact of Covid-19 heightening the risk of famine in countries from Sudan through to Yemen. We are providing an extra £190 million of famine relief. At the same time, in order to leverage our diplomatic network and bring countries together, we have appointed a new envoy for famine relief and we will continue to ensure that we are giving the support to the people of Yemen that they need.

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Can the Minister give us more assistance in developing public health training, because it is the lack of public health training in many of the countries concerned with Covid-19 that is putting them at even greater risk than they are already? Will she also discuss with the Foreign and Development Secretary the whole question of training officials from the two participating departments, perhaps with some help from those of us who have experienced working in both departments? That way we can show the diplomats exactly why foreign aid is so critical to what they do, and help the development specialists to understand the problems faced by the diplomats.

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As my noble friend said, it is incredibly important that we think carefully about how we spend our 0.7% budget. Of course, Covid-19 has changed our perception of what we should be doing. I agree with her that we need to invest more in health training and health systems in the developing world to make sure that they are strong enough to cope with this pandemic and any others that might come in the future. I also agree with my noble friend about the importance of sharing the expertise from DfID and the FCO with the new department. There will, of course, be learnings for everybody, and I would very much like to take her up on her offer of help on that, because I know that she has many years of experience in this. I am sure that the new department would benefit from that.

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My Lords, I welcome the Government’s reassurance on the matter of 0.7% and I should mention my entry in the register of interests. However, I do not think that the announcement at the end of July of the cuts in the budget as a result of the contraction in the economy was a good start for transparency in the new department. To announce £2.9 billion of cuts without any detail or criteria was a significant problem, so I would like the Minister to give us some assurance, first, that there will be a detailed announcement about these cuts and, secondly, that the criteria used to make the cuts will be properly announced to Parliament in due course.

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My Lords, the Foreign Secretary explained in letters to the Select Committees and placed in the Libraries of both Houses the priorities on how these decisions were made. We remain firmly committed to transparency in our aid spending. I hope noble Lords will welcome the announcement that we will continue in the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.

On the prioritisation decisions, at a minimum our DevTracker website is being updated at the end of every month. If, by the end of August, amended programmes and projects have been uploaded on to that, provisional international development statistics will be published in the usual way. Then, of course, the final international development statistics in autumn next year will include country-level data.

We do not know what the current GNI figure is, so this is an iterative process as we go, but we are absolutely determined to ensure that we are using the aid money that we have to deal with the many issues that the world faces.

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My Lords, the time allowed for this Private Notice Question has now elapsed.