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Official Development Assistance

Volume 812: debated on Thursday 10 June 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they intend to seek parliamentary approval for the proposed cut to the Official Development Assistance budget.

My Lords, the Government are committed to returning to spending 0.7% of GNI on official development assistance when the fiscal situation allows. The 2015 Act envisages situations in which departure from the target may be necessary and provides for the Secretary of State’s accountability to Parliament through the requirement to lay a Statement before Parliament and, if relevant, make reference to economic and fiscal circumstances. The Foreign Secretary has already committed to doing that.

My Lords, the Minister had said that the Government would bring legislation forward to amend the Act that I took through this place, and then the Government said that they would not. The Government said that they would give out more information on the fiscal conditions for restoration, but they have not. They said that they would publish reports and impact assessments, but we have yet to see them. Claims that setting a different and lesser target of 0.5% is in line with the Act are false. Assertions that the law allows for proactive changes to the duty to meet 0.7% are wrong and there is no provision in the Act to do that. I have been patient over the last six months—I sometimes think too patient. The Minister responsible for these cuts disagrees with me, as the Member in charge of the Act and who took it through this House. What is the problem with us both allowing Parliament to decide on this?

My Lords, equally, on the various questions that the noble Lord has asked me, I maintain that the Government remain steadfast. They recognise their obligations under law and their obligations to your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, the Minister repeated the mantra that we have heard many times: that we intend to return to spending 0.7% of our national income on international development when the fiscal situation allows. What specific circumstances will have to be met for the Government to return to 0.7%? Why is it taking six months to define? Give us an answer today.

My Lords, the noble Lord should recognise—I am sure he does—that, as I have said repeatedly, we have been faced with the worst economic contraction for almost 300 years and a budget deficit of close to £400 billion. It is therefore right that we take time to understand fully what the long-term impact of our financial position will be. As the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made clear this week, we have had to look at a range of fiscal measures, including our situation on debt and borrowing. Last year we borrowed over £300 billion and this year we are forecast to borrow a further £234 billion. We will provide details as we move forward. However, I am sure that, if the noble Lord reflects, he will agree that we are facing very challenging times. Notwithstanding that, we are still among the largest providers when it comes to development support across the globe.

My Lords, I draw attention to the fact that I have a daughter who works in overseas development, but my question is not directed to the merits or demerits of the government proposal. Following up the question of the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, how is it consistent with the sovereignty of Parliament, which is, after all, the pre-eminent constitutional principle that all of us in this Chamber embrace, for an unequivocal statutory obligation on the Executive to be postponed without further reference to Parliament, except through a mere Ministerial Statement? At least with Henry VIII provisions we have the notional fig leaf of parliamentary consent, but this is Executive reliance on Section 3 of the Act and it removes that fig leaf. Is not the sight rather unpleasant?

My Lords, when I saw the noble and learned Lord’s name on the speakers’ list, the Henry VIII element came to mind from previous occasions taking legislation through this House. He makes a pertinent point about legislation, but I assure him that we are looking specifically at our obligations under the Act and we are of course taking advice in this respect. I am sure that in due course, we will be able to provide further detail on the return to 0.7%.

My Lords, British taxpayers can take immense pride in the fact that their funds have helped to save the lives of over 1 million people in the last five years alone, most of those children. The fact that this budget is now being reduced means that tens or hundreds of thousands of lives will be lost. It is a life-or-death issue, and I know that my noble friend cares as much as any of the rest of us about the consequences of these difficult decisions which need to be taken. I will mention just one, and in doing so record my interest as co-chair of the All-Party Group on WaSH. Over 50 million people have depended on UK Aid for clean water and sanitation, which are crucial during the current Covid pandemic. Does my noble friend agree that it would be inappropriate if WaSH programmes were disproportionately impacted by the overall reductions in the aid budget?

My Lords, first, I recognise the important role that my noble friend has played and continues to play on the development scene, in particular in a specific number of programmes and through his role as co-chair of the APPG on WaSH. Having visited projects in the field, I know the importance of the WaSH programmes. As I am sure my noble friend recognises, that is why we continue to work with the likes of Unilever and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. I can also assure him that I am working directly, notwithstanding the challenging reductions we have had to make, with all key agencies of the UN to see how we can optimise the work of multilateral organisations through the UN and indeed complement them through our bilateral programmes in country. The WaSH programmes provide a very good example of what can be sustained and retained, and indeed of prevention of the spread of further diseases and viruses, as we have seen throughout the pandemic.

My Lords, exactly how are the Government respecting either the law or this House in the way the Minister said in answer to my noble friend? The Minister knows that the Act allows a reduction in aid spending if the economy contracts, but the Government have gone beyond that. Why, then, do they fear bringing this back to Parliament? He knows the impact this is having on lives—he has just heard an example of that. Does he really think that the British public, when we know of their generosity to Comic Relief, believe that this is the right thing to do? Who ordered that there would be no impact assessments of these cuts, and why?

My Lords, we fully understand and recognise the implications of the challenging decisions we have made, to which I have already alluded not just today but previously. However, I am sure that the noble Baroness recognises that we continue to spend a large proportion of our budget on overseas development aid when compared to other countries, including G7 members. Undoubtedly, the temporary reduction has had an impact on the programmes we are carrying out both through multilateral agencies and in country. On impact assessments, as I said in answer to a previous Question, we have done an equality impact assessment to understand important issues in our programmes relating to girls’ education, for example. As I also said earlier, we are currently considering the publication of that very equality impact assessment.

My Lords, I deeply regret that the Government were not able to compromise on what is clearly the will of the democratically elected other place. I hope that they are reflecting carefully on Mr Speaker’s words about an effective and meaningful vote, as this issue is not going away. One of the consequences of the aid cuts and the ceiling of 0.5% is the limits it places on our response to Covid-19. For example, we have not been able to make a contribution to COVAX since the cuts were announced. I welcome the Prime Minister’s focus on global vaccinations at this weekend’s G7 summit. However, can the Minister tell me whether any UK donations will be over and above the 0.5%, or will there have to be further cuts to UK aid to pay for them?

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, the 0.5% reductions that we have made were carried out on a one-year settlement. As a Minister responsible for multilateral agencies in a number of country projects where development assistance plays an important role, we are now working very much with country partners on the basis of the budgets agreed. We stand by the more than £0.5 billion contribution that we have made to the COVAX facility, and I know that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is looking to further announcements that may be made in the aftermath of the G7 meeting.

My Lords, I salute the commitment of the Minister to development, which is much appreciated. However, I was disappointed to hear him say again that we remain among the largest givers in the G7. Surely, that is not the point. The point is that a manifesto commitment of which the Conservative Party could be proud has been broken. The argument marshalled for breaking that promise is the fiscal situation, but it is surely a matter of priorities. Eye-watering amounts of money have been spent on other things; this is a relatively small part of UK expenditure. Furthermore, is that spending not in our own interests? Jesus tells us to love our neighbour as ourself. The implication is that by loving our neighbours we will actually love ourselves better. At the moment, we need to commit more to overseas aid and fighting this terrible pandemic, which, as we all know, is global and not confined just to this country. Other countries are suffering much worse. Surely this matter should be debated by Parliament soon.

My Lords, on the right reverend Prelate’s final point, the debates continue, as has been demonstrated today. As the Minister responsible for the business of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, I fully expect that we will return to this matter again. However, I should say to the right reverend Prelate that I, as a person of faith myself, appreciate that it is right to recognise the importance of the role that development assistance has played around the world in standing up for the most vulnerable and in providing people with an opportunity to better their lives. That remains a key priority for this Government. We have had to make some challenging decisions over the past year because of the domestic situation, and I am sure that he recognises the increased level of support that we have given citizens across the UK. Nevertheless, the Government, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the Chancellor remain resolute that we will return to the 0.7% at the earliest opportunity that the surrounding economic situation allows.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. In response to my noble friend Lord Judge, the Minister said that the department was taking legal advice. Can he give a little more detail on that? Does it reflect a view within the department that it is quite possible that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, is correct to say that what the Executive is doing is, in fact, illegal? Given that and the strength of feeling on this issue, not least from every living ex-Prime Minister, do not the Government need to respect Parliament and give it a meaningful vote on this issue?

My Lords, I cannot agree with the premise of what the noble Baroness is suggesting. What I can say to her is to reiterate the point. Of course, the Government take legal advice on a range of issues to ensure that our obligations under the law and to Parliament are being met. As I have said on a number of occasions—and I repeat again—we are fully cognisant of our obligations on both those fronts.

My Lords, how will the plethora of cut programmes be reinstated once the temporary cuts to the aid budget are restored—or are they lost in perpetuity?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to ask a practical question. I assure her that the approach that we have been taking— I can share this with her directly—looks at the core of projects to ensure that our equities on the ground with multilateral and key partners in delivery are sustained to allow for the ability to scale up as and when the circumstances allow.

My Lords, Britain will contribute £10 billion this year to the European Union, which is roughly the same sum as the Government propose to spend on overseas aid. Can my noble friend give an undertaking that, if there is to be a vote on the overseas aid budget in this House, it could be accompanied by a vote on our contributions to the European Union, so that priorities for overseas disbursements could be considered in the round?

My noble friend presents an interesting proposition. What I will say in response is that, as part of the withdrawal agreement, which was ratified back in January 2020, a financial settlement was agreed on the UK’s past obligations as a departing member state from the EU and that, by definition, this does not relate to any future arrangements. The EU and the UK both recognise our financial commitments to each other in this respect.

My Lords, perhaps I may take the Minister to questions of parliamentary sovereignty, legality and trust. If Governments are permitted to break laws, politicians to break manifesto promises, parliamentarians to break commitments to the destitute and starving, why should anyone take the blindest bit of notice when the United Kingdom proclaims the rule of law and the primacy of Parliament? Before the Prime Minister travels to the G7 summit, I ask the Minister to take the message to him—it is the one he has heard today during these exchanges, but it is from many in your Lordships’ House—that this country’s word should be its bond, even when that is difficult or inconvenient, and urgently to put right this deeply troubling and, arguably, illegal decision.

My Lords, as the noble Lord is fully aware, I respect greatly his commitment and passion and, of course, his principles for the issues around our support of the most vulnerable communities around the world, as well as his advocacy for human rights. On a lighter note, he has suggested that I should talk to the Prime Minister before he departs for the G7 summit. The Prime Minister is already in Cornwall, so I cannot promise that I will be able to do that in practical terms. What I will say to the noble Lord is that, as I have said before, I recognise, as do the Government, the important role that Parliament plays, its sovereignty and the importance of standing up for the rule of law. Indeed, as the Minister responsible for standing up for the rule of law, I can assure the noble Lord of my engagement in that directly—as was demonstrated in our support for recent candidatures for the International Criminal Court, for example. That demonstrated the strength and respect for the United Kingdom as a state that stands up for its international obligations and for the international rule of law, and long may that continue.