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Overseas Development Assistance: Budgets and Awards

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 22 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will publish a list of the reductions in Overseas Development Assistance budgets and awards for (1) 2019/20, and (2) 2020/21.

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

My Lords, UK official development assistance—ODA—in 2019 and 2020 was: £15.2 billion, of which £11.8 billion was spent by the FCDO; and £14.5 billion, with £10.7 billion spent by the FCDO respectively. The full detailed breakdown of ODA spend for 2019 was published on 24 September in the Statistics on International Development. The final 2020 spend will be published in the same final UK aid spend statistics in the autumn of this year and will contain detailed breakdowns of the UK’s ODA spend for 2020, including an activity-level dataset.

My Lords, the Government have today published their planned expenditure for 2021-22. This Conservative Government won the 2019 election and their manifesto said:

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

Today they are breaking that promise and breaking the law of the land. As a result, fewer girls will go to school, fewer vaccinations will cost lives and the UK will cut its support for conflict prevention by more than half. This cruel and callous plan shames our country. Will the Government do the right thing and put it to a vote?

My Lords, I first put on record that I note the sentiments of the noble Lord and the excellent work that he does in this area. However, I am sure that he, equally, will recognise that the UK economy is today 11.3% smaller than it was last year and undergoing its worst contraction for 300 years. The deficit this year is projected to be double its peak during the financial crisis. This does require difficult decisions, they have been taken and the Government have committed to restore the 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows.

My Lords, many see the announcement of quite major cuts to the overseas development assistance budget as a tragic blow to the poorest and most marginalised people in the world. It seems that the Government have not even spared countries that have been ravaged by disease, war and poverty. How does the Minister answer these charges, at such a critical time of pandemic? Is not this investment in such countries money well spent?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord’s final point. Any money spent in respect of alleviating the suffering of humanity, wherever that may be, is money well spent. On his challenge to me to justify this, I can point no further than to the support we have given throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to helping countries directly. We are also the people who put the architecture in place for the COVAX facility, which is now helping people with vaccinations globally, through a contribution of £548 million made by the UK.

My Lords, is it not an irony that the ODA budget was one of the most scrutinised in government, where outcomes are actually tracked by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact? Would that other government programmes had such scrutiny. Is it not a further irony that this budget has been subject to cuts, with the harsh effects that we have now seen, when it would already have fallen because of the contraction in the size of the economy? Will my noble friend confirm that that is the case, and by how much the budget would have fallen anyway before this action was taken?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend’s final point. As I said in my original Answer in response to the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, we saw a contraction in last year’s budget, where there was a real drop in the actual spend on ODA resulting from the economy contracting in the manner that it did. I also agree with my noble friend on the importance of scrutiny of ODA. That is why the Government have committed to working with ICAI on its valuable work, and that will continue to be the case.

My Lords, I declare my registered interests in malaria and neglected tropical diseases. Both these areas are already feeling the devastating effects of cuts in UK funding, for example the cessation of drug treatments as part of the highly successful Ascend NTD programme and the cut to UKRI funding for research at Imperial College into infectious diseases such as malaria. Where exactly does this leave the Government’s other manifesto commitment to

“lead the way in eradicating … malaria”?

My Lords, first, I know how much work the noble Baroness has put into fighting malaria. The noble Baroness and I have worked together, particularly on issues in this area that relate to the Commonwealth. We remain very much committed to research and technology. Indeed, there are specific allocations as well as allocations across the piece. On the issue of fighting various diseases, we remain very much committed to Gavi, CEPI and supporting the work of the World Health Organization in fighting any kind of disease, anywhere around the world.

My Lords, some of the relevant reductions in ODA are already available and are alarming. For example, Yemen has the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today and one would expect it to be spared the full effect of the cuts—but no. We know that in the year 2021-22 the UK plans to provide “at least £87 million”. Last year, 2020-21, £164 million was pledged and £207 million was dispersed. It is little wonder that Sir Mark Lowcock of the UN accused the Government of having decided to

“balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen”.

My Lords, I know Sir Mark Lowcock well. I do not share his opinion. As the noble Lord himself has said, we remain very much committed to Yemen, both in terms of political settlement and the support we are providing through the UK aid pledge of £87 million for 2021-22.

What are the fiscal conditions that would allow a return to 0.7%? The Minister said the economy has shrunk by 11%. Why are the Government cutting bilateral aid by 50%?

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord would acknowledge the contributions the Government have made to various challenges that we face domestically. That has called for hard decisions, including looking at ODA. As I said earlier, we will look to restore 0.7% at the earliest opportunity.

My Lords, through our aid budget we are able to insure ourselves against mass migration, terrorism, pandemics and environmental destruction, as well as standing by our commitment to the world’s poor. Our cut to 0.5% from 0.7% is, as others have said, a double whammy alongside a shrinking economy. It also means that when we return to 0.7%, as the Government have committed, when the fiscal outlook improves there will be a windfall. What will the Minister spend that windfall on? Is it to go to many of the programmes that we are going to cut today, and does that not speak to short-termism at the expense of the British national interest?

My Lords, let me assure my noble friend that, while have had to make reductions in ODA, we will remain very much focused— as the WMS that we laid last night indicates—on key priorities, including the issues of humanitarian preparedness and climate change. Priorities for the future will be determined at that time, but there are projects that we are invested in for the long term and that will continue.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned scrutiny of the budget. The chair of the IDC, Sarah Champion, said yesterday:

“To say the statement”—

on planned spending—

“is scant on detail is an understatement.”

We are still awaiting guidance on country-by-country allocations. Can the Minister confirm exactly how much the cuts will affect the FCDO’s bilateral nutrition portfolios? If he is unable to answer, can he confirm when the House can expect a precise figure?

My Lords, we will be announcing the particular detail that the noble Lord has requested in the very near future.

My Lords, like so many others I was taken aback to learn that the cuts were to be across the board and would include very recently established programmes. A careful assessment of priority programmes is of course time consuming, but does this mean that cutting assistance for starving and wounded Yemeni children is to be equated with, let us say, cuts to training videos? Do the cuts have to be so unthinking?

[Inaudible.]—the specific application of funding for a Covid response by sitting this as part of the now much-reduced health allocation. Is it, in effect, a double hit against basic health and survival nutrition programmes? Can my noble friend explain why the Covid response does not sit outside this allocation, as an exceptional response to a particular and exceptional humanitarian issue?

My Lords, I am sure that my noble friend will recognise that all countries, not just the United Kingdom but globally, have readjusted their own spend in-country to respond to Covid. It is a pandemic like no other that has gripped the modern world. It is therefore right that, when we look at our health outcomes and indeed our health spending, the Covid challenge cannot be ignored and is part and parcel of the integrated perspective in tackling health issues around the world.