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Official Development Assistance

Volume 808: debated on Thursday 26 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of their statutory obligation to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on official development assistance.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and draw attention to my entry in the register of interests.

My Lords, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on our economy, which has fallen by 11% this year. This has forced Her Majesty’s Government to take a tough decision to spend 0.5% of our national income next year on official development assistance to help the poorest countries, rather than the usual 0.7%. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will shortly set out in the other place the future plan on how the aid budget will be managed to deliver better results for every penny spent, and to ensure that it is focused on strategic global priorities, which are vital as we recover from the pandemic and prepare for our presidencies of both the G7 and COP 26 next year.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, for her honourable decision to resign from the Government yesterday in protest at the decision to cut aid, which she clearly stated she could not defend. She achieved a great deal in her role, and she was a pleasure to work with. I wrote yesterday that the decision was “unconscionable and mean-spirited”. It is all the more shameful because the Government fought two elections in quick succession committed to 0.7%, and this guarantee was repeated by the Foreign Secretary, and by the Prime Minister in a letter to me, when DfID was absorbed into the Foreign Office a few short months ago. The 0.7% is enshrined in law. Do the Government intend to disregard the law again, or will they seek to amend it? Will legislation come before this House? Is the Minister aware that the law allows for a legitimate retrospective shortfall, but not for a planned cut in the 0.7%?

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in his tribute to my noble friend Lady Sugg. She was not only a noble friend but a friend within the FCDO, and will be sorely missed both by the department and, I am sure, by your Lordships’ House in this role. As I have said, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will lay out some details on the issue of legislation. The noble Lord has raised two important points, and I can assure him that we are very cognisant of our obligations both in terms of the Act and to the House. As for the cut that has been announced, as my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer laid out only yesterday, it was a difficult decision, but it was necessary on the basis of the challenges we face. None the less, in real terms we will still spend £10 billion to fight poverty and climate change, among other key priorities in overseas development.

My Lords, the Minister has paid tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg. I too want to pay tribute to her for her honourable decision to resign when the Government broke their manifesto commitment on development assistance. She said that was fundamentally wrong. Does the Minister agree with this, and with her letter to the Prime Minister, which said:

“Cutting UK aid risks undermining your efforts to promote a global Britain and will diminish our power to influence other nations to do what is right”?

In answering that question, perhaps he would also indicate when the Government intend to restore development assistance to 0.7% of GNI.

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s first point, I have already mentioned my long support of and friendship with the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg. Of course, she discussed her decision with both the Prime Minister and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. I pay tribute to her efforts and her work in both DfID and the FCDO. As the Chancellor said only yesterday, the cut is temporary and we will return to the 0.7% when the fiscal situation so allows.

I too pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, who was an outstanding Minister, and who acted with integrity yesterday. The £2.9 billion cut in the aid budget already announced for this year represents a cut of more than 19%—far more than the projected 11.3% drop in GNI. Will the Minister support the Government if they choose to break the law and knowingly undershoot the 0.7% target?

My Lords, in the current year we will meet the 0.7% target. On our obligation to your Lordships’ House to uphold the laws on the statute book, I have already alluded to the fact that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will lay out further detail shortly in the other place.

My Lords, the gang of five Prime Ministers, in objecting to a temporary reduction in our aid budget, surely protest too much. Is it not the case that, despite our enduring the worst economic crisis in 300 years, the UK provision of international aid, at 0.5% of GNI, will still be one of the highest in the world, and the second highest in the G7 group of industrialised countries?

My Lords, my noble friend is right: we will remain one of the most generous G7 donors, spending more of our national income, in percentage terms, than the United States, Japan, Canada or Italy. I further assure my noble friend that we stand very firmly in ensuring that, when we look at poverty alleviation, fighting famine, our commitment through the various vaccine summits we have held and the importance of our COP 26 presidency —with the commitment we have made on climate finance —we stand ready to continue to meet our obligations both domestically and internationally.

My Lords, this cut is short-sighted and mean-spirited; it will damage our national interests and scar the lives of millions. Disturbingly, there is no end point. We are all aware of the financial situation, but what other options were considered? The UK will spend billions on vaccines from its aid budget and elsewhere for people in low and middle incomes as well as its own citizens. Could it not have made a virtue of this by using the aid budget to commit to vaccinations for all, not just making a cut but demonstrating UK leadership on the protection of the world’s health and providing a welcome boost for UK science and technology? Was this considered, and why was it not done? If the Minister does not know the answer, I would be grateful for a letter.

I do not agree with the noble Lord. On the specific issue of the vaccine, he will recall that, when my right honourable friend the Prime Minister returned from his own challenge with Covid-19, the first summit he chaired was the Gavi summit, which committed £330 million per year to other vaccines. As the Minister responsible for south Asia, I know that issues of polio still impact vulnerable communities in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Equally, we have led from the front on the importance of the Covid-19 vaccine, with a commitment of £571 million to the COVAX Facility. The Covid-19 challenge, along with climate finance, are arguably the two biggest challenges facing the world today and through 2021, and we have shown leadership on both and will continue to do so.

My Lords, I, too, praise the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, and hope that we can work on a cross-party basis to oppose this move by the Government. The Minister said that there would be £10 billion of ODA in 2021-22, but this represents a cut of £5.1 billion compared to 2019. Yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, said that the Foreign Secretary’s savings for this financial year to maintain the budget within 0.7%—and we should not forget that that has meant real cuts—

“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.”—[Official Report, 25/11/20; col. 249.]

Will the Minister tell us which of these priorities will now be cut to meet the Chancellor’s breach of the law and the Conservative manifesto?

My Lords, the short answer to the noble Lord is that they remain, and will continue to be, priorities, and I note the additional support that we have announced within the defence budget, for example. As Minister for the UN, I am sure that all noble Lords acknowledge the vital role our Armed Forces play in the delivery of aid, bringing peace and resolving conflict. We will ensure that the priorities my noble friend listed only yesterday will continue to be sustained and strengthened through 2021.

Have the Government been in touch with the new incoming regime in the USA? It seems that President-elect Biden will be far more ready to co-operate with us on these massive problems in relation to overseas aid.

My Lords, my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have both been in touch with incoming Biden Administration on these important priorities.

My Lords, I, too, add my dismay about the resignation of the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg. Does the Minister agree with the World Bank that the provision of sexual and reproductive health and family planning services alongside girls’ education is the most effective intervention we can make in developing countries? Will he, therefore, ensure that, despite the reduction in overseas aid, the money currently donated for those services will remain unchanged and will not be reduced proportionately?

My Lords, on that very issue, as the noble Baroness will know, I articulated very strongly for us to sustain our support for this important priority. As the noble Baroness may be aware, between April 2015 and March 2020, we reached an average of 25.3 million women and girls accessing modern methods of family planning per year. This remains an important priority, and, as the lead on PSVI in particular, I say that this remains very much in my policy and planning.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. I apologise to the noble Baronesses, Lady Nicholson and Lady Armstrong, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, who were unable to put their questions.