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International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015

Volume 808: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to amend the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015.

My Lords, I cannot speculate ahead of the Chancellor’s Statement, which I believe he is currently giving in another place. The Government remain firmly committed to helping the world’s poorest people. We are always looking at how the aid budget is spent to ensure that it serves the UK’s priorities and represents value for money.

My Lords, whatever the outcome of the Chancellor’s statement, the target of 0.7% of GNI to help the world’s poorest is a proud Lib Dem achievement in coalition, spearheaded in your Lordships’ House very ably, if I may say so, by my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed. It serves moral, economic and political imperatives. Polling shows that it is not the British people pushing for cuts to the aid budget; it is ideologues within the governing party and a weak Prime Minister who seems unable to deny them anything.

I have two questions. First, does the Minister agree that, if there is a willingness to break international law, as set out in Part 5 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, coupled with a willingness to break a manifesto pledge on international aid, this is not a good look for global Britain as a “force for good”? Secondly, how does he think that the £4 billion cut to the aid budget, scrutinised to within an inch of its life, compares to the £12 billion haemorrhaged over the last five months by the Government’s test and trace programme, which is tainted by failure and mired in fraud and corruption?

The noble Baroness is right to pay tribute to her noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed, who took this Bill through your Lordships’ House. She is right to say that it is a proud achievement of the coalition Government, composed of both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. This is an issue on which all parties have worked over many years. I believe the target was first adopted by a British Government in the year in which the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, was born—it took us a long time to reach it.

I am afraid the noble Baroness’s two questions are both hypothetical, and I cannot pre-empt what my right honourable friend the Chancellor is saying at the moment.

My Lords, in 2020, we have been informed by a virus that did not start in this country and will not end in this country of just how interdependent our world is in the 21st century. What possible justification could there be, in such a world and at such a time, to reduce by two-sevenths, or £2 in every £7, the budget that we spend—that we invest—around the world in tackling climate change, extreme poverty and preventing conflict and ill health?

The noble Lord is right to point to the current circumstances of the pandemic as a forcible reminder of the importance of assisting people around the world: these are global problems. That is why the United Kingdom is one of the largest donors to the international Covid-19 response. We have already committed up to £1.3 billion to combat the pandemic and to reinforce the global effort to find and equitably distribute a vaccine.

My Lords, the Act in which I had a role—the Minister kindly referred to it—was as a result of consensus. Now, as the Chancellor has finished his Statement and it has been released, the Minister no longer needs to speculate; he can read from his brief what the reality is to the House. That reality could well be the biggest reduction in UK overseas assistance in a generation. Can the Minister look me—the sponsor of the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act in this House—in the eye? There is no provision in this Act for a Secretary of State to proactively and deliberately miss the 0.7% target; it is the law and a duty. Will the Government uphold the law, and can the Minister confirm to me, personally and directly, that Secretaries of State will continue to uphold their legal duty under that Act?

The noble Lord has an advantage over me in knowing what the Chancellor has said; he had not risen to his feet when I came into the Chamber. His Statement, like all Statements on fiscal events, will be released when he has sat down. There is a Topical Question in your Lordships’ House tomorrow, when all of us will be able to debate these matters, having acquainted ourselves with what my right honourable friend has said or is saying.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that a cut in aid spending would risk undermining the leadership the UK has shown in supporting the H2H Network, which allows dozens of small independent groups to provide vital technical help, such as logistics, security and language services, in refugee camps, disaster zones and conflict areas? Will the Minister agree to persuade the Government to protect the budget for these organisations through the H2H network?

My Lords, the Government rely heavily on the capacity, expertise, resilience and flexibility of a number of organisations, such as the ones that the noble Baroness cites. We certainly pay tribute to them for their work and will, I am sure, be engaging with them as they see what my right honourable friend the Chancellor is saying today.

My Lords, if the newspapers are right, it is a sad day. I believe that, having supported and worked with the Liberal coalition to put the 0.7% commitment on the statute book, there is now a proposal from the Conservative Government that this might be changed. As noble Lords will know, I go back a very long way in this area. When I think of what could be done with that amount of money—particularly now, with the spreading of Covid, the continued spread of malaria and the spread of so many other diseases in Africa, which might well end up coming to Europe even if they are contained in Africa, the far east and South America at the present time—it seems to me madness; that is the only word I can use for it. I hope the noble Lord, who is quite newly facing the Front-Bench duties, will explain in words of one syllable just how bad this is, not only for the Government but for the country, which will have been seen to have let down the developing world.

My Lords, I hope my noble friend understands that I cannot comment on speculation in newspapers. Tomorrow, we will have an opportunity for an informed discussion after noble Lords have heard what my right honourable friend the Chancellor has said. I certainly pay tribute to my noble friend’s work as a Minister and the work she has done since in forcefully making the case for the increase in spending. I believe that when she left her role as Minister, we were spending 0.2% of GNI or thereabouts. It is to the great credit of successive Governments and all parties that that amount has since been increased.

My Lords, the 2019 Conservative general election manifesto said:

“We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on development”.

That was before Covid, of course. On 16 June, the Prime Minister said in the other place that spending 0.7% remained the Government’s commitment. On 18 June, the Leader of the House reassured the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough of the Government’s continued commitment to the 0.7% target. In this House on 2 September, the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, reassured the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol, with these words:

“I assure her that we will continue to be guided by our responsibilities under the International Development Act”.—[Official Report, 2/9/20; col. 354.]

In a letter to the Prime Minister last week, I drew attention to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words:

“A promise to the poor is particularly sacred.”

Does the Minister agree with him?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate mentioned a large number of things said in Parliament in recent months. As I speak, my right honourable friend is saying something further; we will all have the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with it. The right reverend Prelate is also right to point to the fact that this pandemic has hit us since the last manifesto was written.

My Lords, this year, we have seen £2.9 billion cut from the ODA budget, so whatever the Chancellor announces this afternoon will be on top of that—and could be as much as £4.8 billion. In September, only a short while ago, Dominic Raab told an FCDO staff meeting that

“the prime minister has been clear he wants aid to be at the beating heart of our foreign policy”

and that his “good pal” the Chancellor would not be cutting it. Can the Minister tell the House what the Foreign Secretary may be saying to his good pal this afternoon?

The noble Lord will understand that I cannot speculate on what my right honourable friends may be saying to one another. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary led a thorough process to identify a package of necessary savings for this financial year, as the noble Lord said. That package prioritised the UK’s global response to the Covid-19 pandemic, including on poverty reduction for the bottom billion, climate change and reversing biodiversity loss, championing girls’ education and protecting our operational capacity. That work speaks for itself.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, said yesterday that she was proud of the United Kingdom, with its commitment to 0.7%, as a “development superpower”. Last night, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said that reaching 0.7% was one of the

“great moral achievements in this country of the past 20 years.”

I am proud to have been the Minister who took my noble friend Lord Purvis’s Bill through the House of Lords with cross-party support. I can tell the Minister that it has been announced that aid has been cut from 0.7% to 0.5%. Is he proud of that?

I share the noble Baroness’s pride. I was an adviser in the coalition Government and worked with my noble friend Lady Sugg; in that capacity, I shared the words that she said in your Lordships’ House yesterday. Unlike the noble Baroness, I have not had the opportunity to hear what my right honourable friend the Chancellor has said. His speech, like all fiscal events, will be released later; I will listen to what he says. Your Lordships’ House will have an opportunity to debate the Topical Question tomorrow.

My Lords, I appreciate that my noble friend can say little or nothing today, but I put on record my support for the current spending level. Can my noble friend confirm that, whatever the result of the review, the department will continue to prioritise gender equality, especially girls’ education and family planning, which is the most effective way of raising women, families, communities and countries out of poverty?

I am very happy to give that reassurance to my noble friend. Since 2015, the UK has supported more than 15.5 million children in gaining a decent education; over 8 million of them were girls, to whom that is so important. On sexual and reproductive health and family planning, between 2015 and 2020, DfID reached a yearly average of 25.3 million women and girls with modern methods of family planning.

Does the House accept that the influence that the United Kingdom can exert in the post-Brexit world will come largely through the integration of our hard power—our defence capabilities—with our soft power, which is the combination of our diplomatic skills and the focused use of our international development budget? Does the Minister therefore accept that the potential reduction in our international development budget that has apparently just been announced will significantly reduce our soft power and thereby reduce the impact of so-called global Britain? Will the Minister ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to think again before flouting the 0.7% figure, which is part of the law?

The noble Lord raises important issues about the interconnectedness of these things, which is part of the integrated review that the Government are considering. He will have seen the announcements on defence spending, and I will certainly read with interest what my right honourable friend has said in another place.

What the Chancellor has said has now been made public, so will the Minister confirm for the House whether new legislation will be introduced to repeal the Act that we have been discussing, which commits us to 0.7%? If not, who will be prosecuted: the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State for International Development?

My Lords, my brief does not contain a copy of my right honourable friend’s speech. As is normal with fiscal events, that will be made available to Members in another place and your Lordships after he has sat down, which he may or may not have done. That will be the right opportunity for noble Lords to acquaint themselves with it.

I hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to answer my question today. A 2019 National Audit Office report highlighted that the FCO had failed to match DfID’s transparency when it came to reporting on its ODA spending, and that it had spent a disproportionate portion of its aid transfers on administrative costs. With the formation of the FCDO, how do Her Majesty’s Government plan to improve transparency on the allocation of development spending and work bilaterally with developing nations to build capacity and complement domestic development programmes?

I hope that I can answer my noble friend’s question. The Government are certainly committed to ensuring the robust scrutiny of our aid. In August, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary announced the continuation of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and plans to conduct a review, to be concluded by the end of this year. That will ensure that the ICAI’s remit, focus and methods are most effectively scrutinising the impact of UK aid and the good that it can do for the world’s poorest people.