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Overseas Development Assistance

Volume 812: debated on Wednesday 26 May 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards legislation to reduce Overseas Development Assistance funding.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary is looking very carefully at this issue. We will act in line with the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, which explicitly envisages that there may be circumstances in which the 0.7% target is not met and provides for reporting to Parliament in that event. We have been clear that we intend to return to spending 0.7% of our national income on international development when the fiscal situation allows.

My Lords, the UK aid cuts are not only having devastating consequences for millions of people around the world but are also severely damaging our international reputation. This is all ahead of the Prime Minister hosting the G7 in just a few weeks’ time. Of all the countries attending that meeting, we are the only one cutting our spending on aid in the midst of the global pandemic. The self-imposed ceiling of 0.5% is stopping us contributing our fair share on global vaccines. Given that the most recent Bank of England forecast is that the economy will return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year, does my noble friend agree that now, ahead of the G7, would be the ideal time for the Prime Minister to confirm that the UK will return to 0.7% next year?

My Lords, the UK economy has undergone the worst shock for 300 years, and it is against that backdrop that we were forced to prioritise public spending, including the temporary cut of ODA to 0.5%. We will return to spending 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows, as confirmed in the integrated review. I hope that that is as soon as it possibly can be, but the UK remains a development superpower and will spend £10 billion on ODA. We are among the most generous countries in the world.

Setting aside the long-term benefit of development spending, does the Minister recognise that these cuts are having an immediate impact on vital research projects that the Medical Research Council is having to cut back on in-year, in areas such as genomic research involving UK institutions? Will he undertake to work urgently with his colleagues in the health department to ensure that these areas of funding do not suffer long-term detriment?

My Lords, the UK is, and remains, one of the most generous funders in the health sector, in terms of delivery of urgent care—particularly in the context of Covid—and of research and development. My colleagues and I are determined that that should remain the case and that any fallout in that area as a consequence of the cut is mitigated to the largest possible extent.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. The Government position themselves as global leaders in combating gender-based violence but have repeatedly cut funding in this area and neglected proactive programmes such as the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative. What funding allocation has been made to that initiative, and to the What Works to Prevent Violence programme? Can my noble friend assure the House that, having been cut to the bone already before this year, funding for these programmes will not be reduced even further?

My Lords, the Prime Minister has always put quality education for girls alongside climate change and the environment as top priorities, and that remains the case. This year, the FCDO will invest £400 million on girls’ education in over 25 countries, advancing our leadership position on the global target to get 40 million more girls into education by 2025. I am afraid that I am not in a position to make comments on specific programmes, but the department will be in a position to do so soon.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an ambassador for UNAIDS, which has had its grant cut by over 80%. Is the point not this: few noble Lords who spoke on, and voted for, the original legislation had any concept that it could be reversed by the decision of Ministers alone? If the Government want to pursue this policy, surely they should have the political courage to put it to Parliament in the proper way.

My Lords, even with the reduction in funding, the UK remains a major donor to the UN. The UK is currently the fifth biggest contributor towards the UN’s regular and peacekeeping budgets. We will be maintaining all our assessed contributions to Vienna, including upholding our share of the UN regular budget. It may be the case that noble Lords did not foresee such a situation, but I suggest that, equally, most did not foresee the economic fallout that we have seen over the last 18 months as a consequence of the completely unexpected pandemic.

My Lords, please note my entry in the Lords register and the interests noted there. The speed and scale of these cutbacks is having a catastrophic impact on the reputation of the United Kingdom. The cutbacks and closure of programmes in health, education and other areas are dangerous and costing lives. We learned just yesterday that a programme initiated by War Child—an organisation that helps children in war—to which the United Kingdom Government promised £0.5 million of match funding, has now been delayed for a further year in Afghanistan. That leaves older children there with probably no option but to head in this direction, over the English Channel, and to try and migrate to the United Kingdom and western Europe. Will the Government reconsider this decision and ensure that these programmes, which have been cut with such speed, are allowed to continue for the next year or two until 0.7% returns?

My Lords, we are continuing to support Afghanistan, with £145 million of investment next year. Since 2001, we have provided £3 billion in development and government assistance to Afghanistan. Our aid has helped significant improvements in that country. Life expectancy has increased from 50 in 1990 to 64 just two years ago. Some 8.2 million more children have been to school; 39% of them are girls. We have insulated our programmes in Afghanistan as much as we possibly can, in most part, from the effect of the reduction to 0.5%. Covid has obviously changed the balance of calculations and forced us to focus on tackling this additional threat to Afghans’ health and livelihoods, but the programmes have, by and large, been protected.

Before the Minister and his colleagues halved aid to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable women and children in malaria-plagued and war-scarred Yemen, which the UN Secretary-General described as “a death sentence”, why was no humanitarian impact assessment carried out?

My Lords, the UK remains one of the largest humanitarian donors to Yemen as well, providing over £1 billion in aid since the conflict began, supporting millions of vulnerable Yemenis with food, clean water and healthcare. We are pushing for a lasting political resolution to the conflict. The new UK aid pledge of £87 million will, we believe, feed 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month, support 400 healthcare clinics and provide clean water for 1.6 million people. Our support for Yemen has been at the top level, in terms of other countries, and will remain so.

My Lords, these cuts are resulting in many small organisations doing life-changing work at grass roots being badly hit. Can my noble friend reassure the House that, where possible, the cuts will fall on big, multilateral programmes that are not solely dependent on UK aid?

My Lords, I am sorry, but I did not hear the main part of that question. I heard the comment on multilateral commitments and, if it helps, I can say that we are honouring those. We are maintaining our major pledges to IDA, the Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and more besides. The cross-cutting budget is made up of our contributions to over 30 multilateral institutions and we are protecting them.

My Lords, let us get one thing straight. Maintaining 0.7% would have resulted in substantial cuts to ODA. It is the speed and additional cuts that are having such a damaging effect on Britain’s reputation. Is the Minister aware that nutrition projects, which help maintain the efficacy of vaccines and help in the fight against the pandemic, have been cut by 80%? How can he justify that?

My Lords, as I and colleagues have said, cutting aid from 0.7% to 0.5% is not a choice that was made easily and was not what any of us wanted to do. However, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor are all in agreement that they want the UK to return to 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows, as confirmed in the integrated review. We do, of course, hope that that happens as soon as possible.

My Lords, how does the Minister respond to this week’s Sunday Times report that hundreds of millions of doses of medicines for treating neglected tropical diseases, donated by pharmaceutical companies, will go to waste as funding cuts will leave these life-saving medicines in warehouses, undelivered? What is his assessment of the impact of the ODA cuts on the Government’s ability to meet the 2019 manifesto commitment to “lead the way” in eradicating malaria?

My Lords, I am afraid that I am not aware of that report, but I will ensure that whichever colleague in the department in whose portfolio this sits will respond to the noble Lord. On global health more broadly, we have, for instance, pledged up to £1.65 billion to Gavi to support routine immunisations. We have also made new public commitments of up to £1.3 billion of ODA to counter the wider health, socioeconomic and humanitarian impacts of the pandemic. Of course, we have had to prioritise our Covid response because Covid is the dominant health issue today, but it not the only health issue, of course. We remain one of the world’s biggest funders of health globally.