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VSO: Volunteering for Development Programme

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 16 March 2021

Private Notice Question

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the cuts to the overseas aid budget, what plans they have to renew their grant for the Voluntary Service Overseas “Volunteering for Development” programme.

My Lords, the impact of the global pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to take the tough decision to temporarily reduce our aid budget. We are now working through the implications of these changes for individual programmes, including the Volunteering for Development grant. No decisions have yet been made. We understand the need to communicate with VSO in a timely manner regarding this grant.

VSO is the UK’s flagship development agency but, in just two weeks’ time, will be forced to close down its Covid-19 response work in 18 countries if its grant is not renewed. Allowing this vital work to fold would be totally at odds with the UK’s commitment to support Covid recovery globally, not just domestically, and completely out of sync with any definition of global Britain. Will the Minister act urgently to reassure VSO that its grant will be renewed?

My Lords, VSO is a highly valued programme that the FCDO—and DfID, formerly—has been proud to support for many years. I reiterate the earlier point that no decision on the programme has yet been taken. Officials have been working closely with VSO to understand its position and will continue to do so.

My Lords, does the Minister realise that, because the Government could not take a decision before the end of last month, the UK has lost its outstanding youth volunteering programme run through VSO, International Citizen Service? Does he further recognise that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, the only other major volunteering programme that gets to the heart of local communities now in helping them to tackle Covid will go if VSO does not get reassurance within the next two weeks? The knowledge, skills, experience, networks and influence that it brings will be thrown away if the Government cannot come to a decision in just two weeks.

My Lords, the current phase of the V4D programme was originally due to end on 31 March last year, but we extended it for a year principally so that VSO could support vulnerable communities across the globe through the challenges of the pandemic. As I have said, no decision on the next step has been made yet, but it will be made shortly.

My Lords, following the last speaker, can the Minister say why the Government halted the International Citizen Service, which has provided many community, business and political leaders of the future? How can the Government be so negative in funding programmes that support girls’ education, health systems and much else in parts of the world where development and soft power are key to government priorities?

My Lords, despite the changes that were recently announced, our aid budget will continue to serve the primary aim of reducing poverty in developing countries through a number of different means. The new strategic approach to ODA will ensure that every penny we spend goes as far as possible and makes a world-leading difference. The Foreign Secretary has set out how we will deliver better results for the world’s poorest, as well as for the UK, through focusing on the seven global challenges where the UK can make the most difference.

My Lords, I welcome the approach set out in today’s integrated review, but our aid spending and what we can do globally are crucial to soft power. It seems that the large sum of money that has been taken out of the ODA budget has, in one year, potentially impacted, for example, aid programmes in Yemen, research and development programmes on global public health and the funding of LGBT groups. All of this will impact our soft power, just as it does volunteering. Will my noble friend report back the strong views of many of us on this side of the House, as well as others, that the 0.7% target should be restored as soon as possible?

My noble friend is right to value our ODA in the context of the tremendous soft power that it brings the United Kingdom. I will convey his message to the Government. The creation of the FCDO and the strategic oversight of ODA spend by the whole of government means that we will do aid better across government, even if the budget is temporarily smaller. We will ensure that the UK’s aid secures a greater impact across the globe. We will combine our aid with diplomacy to maximise its impact, focusing our efforts on where the UK can make a world-leading difference and ensuring that the UK is a force for good across the globe.

My Lords, unfortunately, there is increased violence and atrocities against women and girls in many developing countries around the world. We are also aware that education and skills training is fundamental to support them to become self-reliant and empowered. Can the Minister tell us what budget the Government have allocated for education and skills training to support such suffering women and girls, and which countries will benefit from it?

The noble Lord is right: no development intervention is more transformational than 12 years of quality education for girls. That is why it is a major priority for the Government. Between 2015 and 2020, the UK supported 15.6 million children to gain a decent education, of which 8.1 million were girls. We will use our G7 presidency this year to rally the international community to step up and support girls’ education and co-host, with Kenya, the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education in July 2021.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, if the cuts to the overseas aid budget lead to cuts to the Voluntary Service Overseas programme, they will negatively impact the international distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, given the involvement of VSO in Covid-19 response programmes in different parts of the world, such as Covid safety training for healthcare workers and rural populations in Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, et cetera?

My Lords, the FCDO and VSO were able to work together to pivot over 80% of programming to pandemic response in just 10 days, including supporting educating girls and children living with disabilities, strengthening healthcare systems, protecting basic livelihoods, and so on. We have shifted much of the focus of our ODA over recent months towards enabling countries to cope with Covid. It is fair to say that the UK is a world leader in doing so, and we will remain so.

My Lords, today’s integrated review claims that the Government want to

“shape the world of the future.”

The failure to renew the volunteering for development grant in a timely manner, combined with the closure of the International Citizen Service, shows that there is a yawning chasm between the Government’s words and their actions. I hope that the Minister will today personally commit to expedite matters so that the FCDO renews the grant in a timely manner, and so that when international travel resumes, the International Citizen Service will restart.

My Lords, it is in all our interests that this decision is taken quickly, and I will convey the noble Lord’s message to the FCDO. If I may make a broader point, despite the changes that have been brought in temporarily—it is our intention to return to 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows—we remain a world-leading donor. We will spend over £10 billion in ODA this year; I believe that makes us the second biggest donor of the G7.

My Lords, the decision to leave VSO hanging on a cliff is beyond belief; this is no way to make decisions. Slashing humanitarian aid, development assistance and now VSO sends a signal of disappointment and delusion. Are the Government trading the reality of soft power for some of the delusions of hard power? Will the Government now immediately—today—commit the funding needed for VSO?

My Lords, I am afraid that that is not an announcement I am at liberty to make. However, as I said, it is in all our interests that the decision is taken as quickly as possible.

My Lords, it seems that unless it gets a decision in the next few weeks, VSO may be an early casualty of the aid cuts. The current law allows the Government to miss the 0.7% by accident or in an emergency; it does not allow the Government to plan and do this with intent for an indefinite number of years. It has now been nearly four months since the announcement, and we are seeing the real-world, distressing impacts of this policy. Can my noble friend the Minister tell me when we will see the legislation to make this policy lawful, and confirm that a vote will be held in both Houses?

As my noble friend said, the legislation allows for the 0.7% target to not be met in a particular year in light of economic and fiscal circumstances. The Foreign Secretary is currently looking carefully at what is required by law. The legislation envisages that the 0.7% target may not be met in a particular year as a consequence of circumstances with which we are all too familiar.

My Lords, I speak as a former VSO volunteer; I believe that VSO has created a large cohort of outward-facing, global citizens connected by a belief in what UK aid can achieve overseas. The Government like to talk about “global Britain”, but is the Minister aware that unless a positive decision to renew the grant for VSO is made by the end of the month, the organisation will have to notify 180 national and other partners that the UK Government have withdrawn funding? Will the Minister confirm that funding will be in place for VSO? When will the Government inform it of the decision?

My Lords, I am not able to provide that announcement—that declaration—unilaterally. However, the noble Baroness is absolutely right that ICS volunteers like her have made a lasting impact in some of the world’s poorest communities, while building up their own skills, confidence and job prospects. It is a cherished part of the programme and the funding that we have provided over the years—a source of pride for this country. As I say, the decision will be delivered as soon as possible.

My Lords, the Government have form on this: they announced the cuts to the ODA budget this year on the day after the last Summer Recess. The Chancellor avoided referencing the ODA cuts in his Budget speech last week, and I suspect that this announcement might be coming at the end of next week, to avoid parliamentary scrutiny during the Easter Recess—just as the cuts start to bite. Can the Government guarantee that there will be an announcement before the Easter Recess? In making that announcement, will they understand that the VSO, as much as any other organisation, has changed its strategic purpose to build partnerships on the ground and develop volunteering that makes a real difference inside partner countries, rather than simply supporting children and older people from this country going to volunteer on a temporary basis? It is a strategic approach by VSO that is making a real difference.

My Lords, I will not take issue with anything that the noble Lord said in the second part of his question, although I question the cynicism that he has shown on the timing of government decisions. I will convey his powerfully delivered message to the FCDO, and, as I have said before, I and other colleagues will do what we can to ensure that we have the quickest possible resolution.

My Lords, the Minister talks about VSO without relating it to its political position in the world. He talks about officials considering its future, but it is a decision for politicians; it is they who must decide whether or not we continue it. Will he bear in mind that, unlike much of our aid, VSO is very difficult to corrupt or divert, so it should survive in spite of a cut, and that it is for politicians—the Minister himself—to make the decision?

My Lords, volunteers make a uniquely valuable contribution to sustainable development, including empowering women and girls across the globe. During the Covid response, our volunteering for development programme demonstrated the ability of local community and national volunteers, who can mobilise as first responders even when national and international travel is restricted. I strongly agree with my noble friend on the importance of the volunteering process—both UK nationals volunteering elsewhere and volunteers in situ. As I have said to previous speakers, I will convey his message, but I do not doubt that this is a decision that will be taken by Ministers, not officials, and I do not think anyone has pretended otherwise.

My Lords, the time allowed for the Private Notice Question has now elapsed. Apologies to the noble Baroness, Lady Watkins of Tavistock.