Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the 0.7% official development assistance target.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Mr Speaker, yesterday you made one of the strongest statements that I have heard from the Chair in more than 30 years, and you made it clear that the House should receive from the Government a meaningful vote. Naturally, in accordance with what you have said, we do not seek to divide the House on the motion today. We seek the meaningful vote that will enable the House to decide whether the Government can break our promise and arguably our law.
I see that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I are described as rebels. It is the Government who are rebelling against their clear and indisputable commitments. Who are these so-called rebels? A short perusal of yesterday’s Order Paper shows that we have among our number eight Select Committee Chairs, four distinguished former Select Committee Chairs, 16 former Ministers, 12 Privy Counsellors and four knights of the realm. From the new intake, my hon. Friends the Members for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt), for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) and for Keighley (Robbie Moore), along with others who have recently arrived in this House, have shown great courage and determination in the face of the possibility of being tarred and feathered by the Government Whips Office.
We are also supported by every former Prime Minister and, I believe, by every former leader of all four major political parties. Over the weekend, the Archbishop of Canterbury said:
“The foreign aid cut is indefensible…Let us…pray”
that it is reversed
“and that our unconscionable broken promise to the world’s poorest people is put right.”
All four distinguished current or former Chairs of the Public Accounts Committee who are in the House support our cause. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) describes himself as the last Thatcherite on the Government Benches.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) might possibly wish to disagree there. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said:
“There is no public accounting justification for slashing budgets by 80% in this way. It is like telling the builder before he finishes your garden wall that you won’t pay at the end. Cancelling projects overseas is just a waste of taxpayers’ money when we should be providing long-term stability for schools, clinics and clean water projects.”
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on bringing the matter forward. The House is very much united behind him. It is not just the scale of the aid cuts, but the speed of the enforced shutdown of operations that is hugely harmful. Aid and development are not a tap that we can turn off and on whenever we like. It is time for the Government, on this occasion, to step up to the spot and make sure that they reinforce the aid budget and increase it back to what it was in the past.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Of course, what he says has been reinforced by every single member of his party who serves in the House, and it is the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, a former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, was making: if we turn this expenditure on and off in this way, the taxpayer does not get proper value for money.
Nor is this about party politics. All 650 of us elected to this House at the last election promised to stand by the 0.7%. The Bill enshrining the 0.7% in law was passed unwhipped in this House, with just six dissenters. Outside the House, in every single constituency in the country, there are people taking action as part of Crack the Crises, the growing environment and development group. Each and every one of us is accountable to those constituents, who are taking action in their local schools, colleges, churches, mosques, charity shops, women’s institute branches, congregations and community groups.
Twelve million people—an average of 15,000 per parliamentary constituency—are supporters of the member organisations of that coalition, and they must be heard. The people who sponsor children through development organisations, the members of churches that are twinned with others in the developing world, the people who were there for Jubilee 2000 and for Make Poverty History—they do not forget when we break our promises to them; they organise.
I can assure the House that, were it not for the covid restrictions, the same people who made the human chain around the Birmingham G8 summit and the quarter of a million people who marched on Edinburgh before the Gleneagles G8 would be preparing today to descend on Cornwall to make their views known at this G7 and to protest this unethical and unlawful betrayal. They would be joined by a whole new generation of young people who are watching this Government break our promise to the world’s poorest. They do not like what they see. This weekend, they may not be on the streets, but they will be watching, and they will remember.
For two decades, the UK has been a development leader, not just because that is morally right and accords with our values, but because it is in our own national interest. By making the countries we seek to help safer and more prosperous, we make life for ourselves here in Britain safer and more prosperous.
My right hon. Friend has been courteous and persuasive in trying to get me to join his cause, but I have declined to do so because I think that the Government are doing precisely what he describes but in ways that do not qualify as aid. I have asked the Government to clarify all the other things that we are doing that are contributing to the reduction of global poverty and, indeed, what we will do with the vaccine programmes to contribute to the alleviation of disease and distress in the poorest countries.
I very much hope that my hon. Friend will stay for the whole debate so that he hears the views across the House. I am sure that will be both instructive and interesting for him.
Mr Speaker, the way the Government are behaving strikes at the heart of our Parliament, as you set out from the Chair yesterday. We cannot secure a meaningful vote. Had we been able to do so yesterday, as I intimated to the House, we would definitely have won by nine, and probably by nearer 20. It is precisely because the Government fear that they would lose that they are not calling a vote. That is not democracy. When countries behave like that in Africa, we British say that they have got it wrong. The Government need to remember that the Government and the Executive are accountable to Parliament, not the other way round, and most especially on issues of supply, as the Minister—he is a very good Minister—knows. That applies in all circumstances, whether the Executive are being run by King Charles I or Boris Johnson.
The Government make two key arguments: first, that they are still spending a huge amount of money—I am sure that is what my right hon. Friend the Minister will say this afternoon—and, secondly, that we are living in unprecedented times for our economy and they will bring the 0.7% back. Let me start with the first—that we are still spending a huge amount of money. Of course, that is entirely correct, but we all promised to spend 0.7% of our GNI, not to change the target and spend 0.5%. All of us made that promise—I have seen every single Member’s manifesto at the last election, and every single elected Member made that promise.
It is arguable, at the least, that the action the Government are taking is unlawful. One of the most senior and distinguished lawyers in the country, the warden of Wadham, Oxford, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, has made it clear that the Government are acting unlawfully because they have changed, rather than missed, the target. I argue to the House this afternoon that what the Government are doing is unethical, possibly illegal and certainly breaks our promise.
On the point about the level of expenditure and the £10 billion, it is rather like buying a car and shaking hands on a deal at 15 grand, only to do a runner while the poor fellow is counting the cash after you have legged it, having handed over only 10 grand. It is not proper, it is fundamentally un-British and we should not behave in this way. It is about the girl whose school closed in South Sudan last week after the headteacher read the letter from the Foreign Office explaining that it is only temporary.
The second argument is that we live in unprecedented economic times and that the Government will bring the 0.7% back, but the 0.7% is configured precisely to take account of our economy. When the economy contracts and goes down, so does the amount of money spent under the 0.7%, and when it increases, that amount goes back up. We are talking about 1% of the money that the Treasury quite rightly spent on covid last year to sustain and support jobs, families and employment. This is 1%—it is practically a rounding error in my right hon. Friend’s books.
We offered an olive branch to the Government last night, which the Government could have accepted, and then we could all have cracked on with other things, by asking them to bring the 0.7% back next year. We accept that they are not going to bring it back this year, but we asked them to bring it back next year, when the Governor of the Bank of England says that the economy will have rebounded to pre-covid levels and growth will be strong. If the Government were serious about bringing it back when the economy improved, they would have accepted the olive branch that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I offered.
Everyone knows what this is about. It is not about the 1% rounding error in the Treasury’s books. It is about the red wall seats. The Government think that it is popular in the red wall seats to stop British aid money going overseas. Indeed, one Treasury Minister told me that 81% of people in the red wall seats do not approve of spending British taxpayers’ money overseas. But we have to be careful about the question we ask, because other polling in the red wall seats shows that 92% of people there do not approve of cutting humanitarian aid. It is also a very patronising attitude to people who live in the red wall seats, because when these dreadful famines, disasters and floods take place, it is the people in the red wall seats who are the first to raise money through car boot sales and pub quizzes to try to help those who are caught. In the words of Talleyrand, the French statesman, this is worse than a crime; it is a mistake. What my right hon. and hon. Friends and I—the so-called rebels—are trying to do is to keep the Government straight.
And so we come to this week’s G7 summit, when the leaders of the richest nations will assemble in Cornwall. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be chairing the summit, and he goes into it in the teeth of a global pandemic, when Britain is cutting its support to the poorest. No other country represented at the G7 is doing such a thing. The French have now embraced the 0.7%. The Germans will spend more than 0.7% this year. The Americans—by far the biggest funders in the world—are seeking an increase through Congress of $14 billion in the amount that is spent. We are the only ones going backwards.
Other G7 countries are noticing what the Government are doing. Is it any wonder that, in a letter to President Biden, a dozen Members of Congress have urged him to upbraid Britain for breaking its promise? One sentence in their letter made me wince. It reads as follows:
“Cutting back on foreign assistance during the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation only undermines our collective global response.”
This is what the journalist who used to serve in this House and who probably understands the Conservative party best said at the weekend:
“Try though seasick government whips will to mount one, there is no civilised defence of this cut. This cut looks like what it is: a cheap and brutal gesture, a piece of domestic applause-seeking”.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a brilliant speech. I just want to flush out one point, which I hope will be a point of consensus. It is possible that this weekend we will get agreement on a fresh issue of $650 billion in special drawing rights. The UK will have surplus SDRs and it is possible that they could be recycled to support aid. It would be a regrettable accounting trick if that, in any way, counted towards making good the cut that has been made. Is that a point of consensus across the House?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good and useful point, and the decisions made on the SDRs will be extremely helpful.
We come, finally, to the essence of all of this. Because of the way the development budget is configured, these terrible cuts are falling first and hardest on the humanitarian sectors. Let me just mention four of them. The first is girls’ education. The Prime Minister has rightly said that it is his main aspiration on these international development issues—this is strongly supported by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin)—to ensure that all girls get 12 years of quality education. That is a wonderful and noble British initiative, but what has happened to the funding? It has been cut by 25%. So on the one hand we have the words—the aspiration—and on the other we have the reality of the 25% cut. Worse than that, UNICEF, which has a fantastic reputation and which the British Government judged just a few years ago to be the most effective of all the UN agencies, has had a cut of 60%. On clean water and sanitation, which is pivotal if we are to conquer this pandemic among the poorest of the world, some 10 million people who were expecting to receive British taxpayers’ support will not now get it. Funding to the UN to save the lives of people suffering with HIV/AIDS has been cut by 80%, which is a death sentence for the people who would have been helped. Finally, we are going to end food assistance for 250,000 people. These are not people who have missed eating for a few days; they are people who are starving, and we are going to cut our support for them directly.
I have never forgotten the experience I had as Development Secretary in Karamoja, in northern Uganda, where I stood under a tree next to a football pitch, which was covered by children who were starving. There were about 200 children there and they were waiting in line. They were suffering from acute malnutrition, and British taxpayers’ money and British humanitarian workers were trying to help them. If we catch them early enough, when they are floppy but not actually medically critical, we give them Plumpy’Nut, a biscuity peanut substance that costs about a 5p a head, and they will be recovered in about an hour and probably running around playing football. However, if we miss that point, they have to go to a clinic, have a drip up and it costs about $180 to put them right.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and he puts it enormously eloquently. I end my remarks by saying that that story from Karamoja in northern Uganda has lived with me from the day I saw those things. I will be thinking of those children in this debate and I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to think about them as well.
I thank my friend, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), for his great work in securing this debate, and the many other Members from across this House and the other place with a keen interest in this issue.
It is a great shame that the Government have had to be forced into this debate today when they promised more than six months ago that they would bring legislation to Parliament to ask elected Members of this House whether they supported these cuts to the aid budget. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for your support in allowing this debate.
We clearly have a Government in hiding—a Government who have tried over and again to avoid scrutiny and accountability for the cuts that they have imposed, drip feeding information on where the cuts are falling and refusing to release the impact assessments or rationale behind any of those decisions. We have been given conflicting accounts on whether impact assessments have actually been carried out on the cuts, suggesting either that the Secretary of State failed to ask for any, in which case he is clearly out of his depth, or that he is afraid of the public learning the true impact of the cuts and the lives lost. So, which is it? We are no strangers to hyperbole in this House, but it really is no exaggeration to say that the cuts to the aid budget by this Government have cost people their lives. It is utterly shameful.
Let us not pretend that Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Ministers are not ashamed of the cuts foisted on them by the Chancellor and waved through by a Prime Minister either too weak or too incompetent to impose them. The Secretary of State and his Ministers are the ones who have had to front debates, meet their counterparts and post videos, talking about the importance of clean water and sanitation, while slashing funding by 80%, meaning that 8 million fewer women and girls will have access to the most basic necessity of water. Then there is the life-changing impact on girls’ education—a priority, says the Prime Minister, as he hopes no one notices him cutting the education budget by 40%, meaning that 700,000 fewer girls will receive an education.
The Government say that Britain’s focus should be on human rights, but they have halved the funding to the human rights, democracy, and rules-based international system programme. Why should we or the British public trust a word that this Government say?
Yesterday, Members of Parliament from across the House were ready to show that they did not support this Government’s callous and counterproductive cuts to the aid budget, because the real consequences are already being felt in Britain as well as across the world. The Secretary of State has made a 70% cut in funding to research programmes tracking covid-19 variants of concern around the world, including the Delta variant, making the British public less safe.
Britain has built up a reputation as a global development power, thanks to our aid commitment, our dedicated development workers, our academics, and our researchers and scientists, strengthening our position in the world with both our allies and detractors. This Government are tarnishing our global reputation, and tarnishing our soft power and our national interest. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned, the US Democrats have said:
“Cutting back on foreign assistance during the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation only undermines our collective global response”
to the pandemic. They are right. With days to go until the G7 summit, choosing to continue with this cut would see the Government persist not only in undermining the UK’s credibility on the world stage, but in ignoring their commitment to the world’s poorest and the most vulnerable people on earth. Britain is a proud, generous and caring country, and these cuts are an insult to the British people and our proud tradition of showing humanity and leadership on the world stage. Members of the US Congress and the Biden Administration are already warning the Prime Minister about the impact of these aid cuts.
During this deadly pandemic, global leadership and unity are more important than ever, but as the only G7 nation to cut aid and the third lowest donor this year, this signals a retreat—so much for global Britain. If we are to assert ourselves on the world stage, we must be a country that looks outwards—a country that builds relationships outside our borders to tackle the global challenges of the future. This Government have a choice: continue down a path that will cost more lives or listen to colleagues today across Parliament and end this retreat by reinstating our commitment to 0.7% as a matter of urgency.
Let me begin by acknowledging the words and the good intentions of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). He knows as well as I do that decisions such as this are not easy. In short, this is a hugely difficult economic and fiscal situation that requires difficult actions.
Responding to twin health and economic emergencies, the Government have acted on a scale unmatched in recent history to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods and to support businesses and public services, paying out £352 billion in support since the start of the pandemic last year. That is equivalent to 17% of GDP and one of the largest fiscal support packages of any country in the world.
Our plan is working. The economy grew by 2.1% in March alone, and the Bank of England now expects the economy to return to its pre-crisis levels by the end of this year—two quarters earlier than previously expected. At the beginning of the crisis, unemployment was forecast to reach 12% or more. The latest projections show that it is due to peak at 5.5%, meaning that almost 2 million fewer people will lose their jobs than was expected last spring.
As the House will note, however, much of that response has relied on borrowing. Last year saw the highest peacetime levels of borrowing on record—£300 billion of borrowing—and we are forecast to borrow £234 billion more this year and a further £109 billion the following year, so without corrective action, borrowing would continue at untenable levels, leaving underlying debt rising indefinitely. At our higher level of debt, the public finances are more vulnerable to changes in inflation and interest rates. Indeed, a sustained increase in inflation and interest rates of just 1% would increase debt interest level spending by over £25 billion in 2025-26. The goal of any Government should be sustainable finances, and the current level of borrowing is not sustainable.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield used a number of emotive terms around the morality of the context of these changes, but leaving the next generation vulnerable to the degree of fiscal threat that would be entailed with a high debt level is not itself morally sound. At the same time, loading ourselves with more debt now might well damage our ability to spend on aid later. There are some in this House who say that since we are already borrowing to protect jobs and businesses, what is £4 billion more? Indeed, that was the nature of the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine). Crucially, the only reason we were able to act during the pandemic in the way that we did is that we came into the crisis with strong public finances, and we believe it is our duty as the economy recovers to return to a sustainable fiscal position.
I thank the Chief Secretary to the Treasury for giving way and I appreciate his fiscal stance, but can he explain to the House why the only manifesto pledge he has chosen to break is the one that forces the World Food Programme in South Sudan to choose between feeding hungry children and feeding starving children?
The point is that we have made a number of difficult decisions, and I will come on to that, but we are also continuing to spend £10 billion in response to the commitments that we have made. I am sure that my hon. Friend, as a former Treasury Minister, is well aware of the fiscal reality we face.
Strong public finances mean making difficult decisions, such as increasing corporation tax. That is one of the difficult decisions that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made, alongside the decision around overseas aid. Indeed, this is something that the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 explicitly anticipates when it refers to the effects of one or more of the following:
“(a) economic circumstances and, in particular, any substantial change in gross national income;
(b) fiscal circumstances and, in particular, the likely impact of meeting the target on taxation, public spending and public borrowing;
(c) circumstances arising outside the United Kingdom.”
In other words, the 2015 Act clearly envisages situations in which a departure from the target may be necessary. It provides for the Secretary of State’s accountability to Parliament by way of the requirement to lay a statement before Parliament and, if relevant, makes reference to economic and fiscal circumstances, as well as circumstances outside the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary has already committed to doing that, as required by the Act.
The provisional data shows that for the 2020 ODA figures, the 0.7% was met. The point is that the Act allows for the economic and fiscal instance that I just set out—it is in section 2. If the UK were to spend 0.7% of gross national income as ODA, it would cost the country an additional £4.3 billion this year. Given our commitment to fiscal sustainability, we could offset that either by raising taxes or by cutting public spending. [Interruption.] We can come on to that. To put that in context, it means a 1p increase in the basic rate of income tax or about a 1% increase in the standard rate of VAT at a time when taxes are at a historical high.
In the context, it is £5 billion to £6 billion. My right hon. Friend did not set out in his speech how he would address that gap. Which fiscal measures was he suggesting? Was he suggesting a specific tax, in which case I did not hear that in his remarks? Was he suggesting more borrowing, in which case one needs to look at the impact on our stock? Was he, in fact, suggesting spending? [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) mentions Test and Trace. Given that 80% of the Test and Trace budget relates to testing, if she is saying that she wants to get rid of PCR testing or lateral flow testing, she needs to set that out in detail. That speaks to the lack of detail provided; it is strikingly absent from the alternatives put forward.
The fundamental point before the House is that the scale of our overseas aid remains significant. In fact, we continue to lead the world in overseas development. This year we will spend more than £10 million to improve global health, fight poverty and tackle climate change, including £400 million on girls’ education in 25 countries, and we are doubling to £11.6 billion our commitment to international climate finance for the period 2021 to 2026, with at least £3 billion for climate change solutions that will protect and restore nature and biodiversity. According to the OECD, in 2020 we were one of only two G7 countries to actually meet the 0.7% target and the only country to do so each year since 2013. Even after the change we are debating today, we are still the third largest donor in the G7 as a percentage of gross national income, and 0.5% is considerably more than the 29 countries on the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, which average just 0.41%.
Importantly, the Foreign Office makes its aid spending choices based on maximum impact, coherence and value for money. The Integrated Review has reaffirmed our pledge to fight against global poverty and to achieve the UN sustainability development goals by 2030. We are the fifth largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget, the third largest bilateral humanitarian donor, the second largest member state donor to the World Health Organisation, and among the world’s largest donors to the COVAX advance market commitment—the global initiative supporting developing countries with access to vaccines. The funding we will continue to make available to countries all over the world is helping to educate young girls, boosting diversity, tackling climate change, vaccinating the needy against deadly diseases such as Ebola and malaria, and improving the nutrition of staple food crops—millions of lives improved, millions of lives saved.
This is a generous and outward-looking country whose impulse has always been to help others around the world. We do not and we will not shy away from making a determined contribution to addressing the world’s problems. But at the tail end of a huge economic emergency, we also have a responsibility to the British people. We are absolutely clear about our intention to return to 0.7% of our national income on overseas aid when the fiscal situation allows, but cannot do so yet. We will, however, keep the matter under careful and regular review. I know that Members on both sides of the House will make their cases cogently and passionately, but for now, the tough choice is the right choice.
I cannot help but reflect, given what the Minister has delivered, that in the phrase that is often used, he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Let me begin by commending the efforts of all those who have made it possible to have this emergency debate, including those who requested the debate, led by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), and you of course, Mr Speaker, for granting time today.
As we know, it has not been an easy task getting to this point—a point where this Government have finally been held accountable for their actions and made to answer for what is a callous cut to overseas aid. Let us be very clear: this Tory Government have been shamed into coming to the House today. Ever since announcing this disgraceful decision to slash aid for the world’s poorest, the Government have been on the run on this issue. For weeks now they have avoided questions and dodged accountability, but they have been dragged to the Dispatch Box today.
As usual with this Government, the person most responsible for the decision to cut aid is the person first to hide and the last to face accountability. On an issue of this importance and a policy this fundamental, it tells us everything we need to know about this Prime Minister that he does not even have the guts to come before this House to justify his Government’s decision to cut support to those most in need. He is a Prime Minister who casually signs off on these devastating decisions, but a leader who always fails to take any responsibility for the consequences of such decisions.
No damaging decision appears to be off limits for this Government. On overseas aid, living up to our legal responsibilities—our legal responsibilities, Minister—to those most in need should unite various strands of political opinion across this Parliament. Instead, the moral mission of 0.7% spending has been shamefully undermined by a morally bankrupt Government.
It is important to put the decision into a broader context, because cutting the aid budget is not only cruel and counterproductive in its own terms, but an isolated act from a UK Government increasingly alone on the world stage. The UK is virtually the only country that has cut its aid spending. Nearly every other wealthy country has recognised the greater necessity of helping those in need at this unprecedented time of a humanitarian crisis.
The Government’s timing could not be worse. International opinion on these cuts is crystal clear. It is rightly seen as a disgraceful abdication of the UK’s international responsibilities in a year—in a year, Minister —when we should be showing some international leadership at the G7 and COP26. Let us simply take a look at what some G7 countries are doing in comparison with the UK. This year, Canada’s aid budget will see an increase of 28%, France will contribute a 36% increase and, under the Biden Administration, the US will see a 39.4% increase. Yet this Tory Government think it is somehow morally justified to impose these cuts. It is morally and ethically flawed, it is intellectually flawed and it shames all of us that this is done in our name. But I say this to the Minister: it is not done in the name of the majority who have been sent to this House.
The harsh reality is that this decision will cost lives—it will cost lives, Minister. Brexit Britain is rapidly exposing the future it offers of being out of step and out of influence on the world stage, because one thing is for sure: if the Tory Government dig in their heels and slash the aid budget, they are adding insult to injury to those dwindling few who still desperately cling on to the notion of global Britain.
Digging into the details of these cuts reveals what is at stake if they are allowed to continue. The headline figures are stark enough in themselves, with aid spending amounting to £10 billion this year, compared with £14.5 billion in 2020, but it is the impact of where exactly the cuts will fall that tells the real story and exposes the real damage. Almost unbelievably, conflict zones face some of the worst cuts. Syria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Nigeria and Lebanon: all are poised to lose more than half their funding. Is that where we stand? Is that where the Minister stands? Is that where his Government stand?
Children are the next target. The United Nations Children’s Fund faces a cut of 60%. This is harrowing; this is heartbreaking. I ask the Minister: where is the Government’s humanity at a time of need?
Some of the most established and impactful projects are equally at risk, with cuts of £12.5 million to the UN agency that fights AIDS and HIV. That is more than an 80% cut to a programme to fight AIDS, condemning people to an early death that could be avoidable.
Much has already been made of the fact that, by imposing these aid cuts, the Government are brazenly breaking their own manifesto commitment. In particular, I want to draw attention to the fact that they are breaking a very specific commitment that they made to voters about girls’ education right across the globe. It is worth putting that on the record of the House. In 2019, the Conservative party manifesto promised to
“stand up for the right of every girl in the world to have 12 years of quality education”,
and yet that promise has been broken.
Analysis by Save the Children shows that spending on education for girls will be reduced by at least 25%, compared with 2019-20 levels. That is horrific. Not only will these cuts impact now, but the damage will reverberate into the future for those young girls and young women, their hopes and fears crashed on the dogma of the desire to cut UK aid spending. Only this weekend, a letter from 1,700 charities and academics said that families are going hungry and girls are missing school as a direct result of these decisions. I can see that the Minister is nodding. I ask him please to reflect and change the Government’s policy and what they are doing.
Whether the promises are broad or specific, they are apparently all the same to the UK Government, who are telling people that they think their promises are only there to be broken. I acknowledge and give credit to the courage of the many Conservative Back Benchers who have stood against their Prime Minister, who is reneging on the very manifesto that he stood on. Their stance has given us at least a chance to face down the Government on this issue and hopefully force a U-turn.
Frome a Scottish perspective, I cannot hide my genuine disappointment that we cannot count the Scottish Tories among the Conservative Back Benchers with a backbone. For weeks, they have maintained a deafening and shameful silence, but even at this late stage, they have the chance to do the right thing. Whatever our differences, I think they know that cutting international aid during a pandemic does not represent the values of Scotland and our people. That is why the Scottish Government are doing what they can with the powers they have at Holyrood. We have increased international aid spending by 50%—that is what should be done in a pandemic, Minister. The Scottish Conservatives have a choice: either fall in behind their Prime Minister, no matter what he decides, or join us in saying that these cuts to the world’s poorest are not done in our name. If they fail to oppose these cuts, the Scottish Tories should be well warned: it would be not only an inhumane act against the most vulnerable, but an act of sheer hypocrisy.
Today’s debate on aid spending is all the more significant because of the place and the context in which we find ourselves. Morally, we have a responsibility to help protect the most vulnerable around the world. It is also self-evident that if the UK Government were serious about the eradication of covid-19, that must include a commitment to help eradicate covid-19 around the world, because until all of us are safe, none of us is truly safe. These aid cuts are severely undermining that commitment and limit our power in meeting the covid challenge.
There is a broader point, too. As we attempt to emerge from this pandemic, the values we live by and the choices we now make become even more important. Covid has affected every country and every person around the world. We have all faced the same threat; we have all been in it together. If we did not know that before, we should know it now. But the truth is that just because we have experienced the pandemic together does not mean that our challenges are in any way equal. We are privileged. We can live in the hope and expectation that the crisis of the pandemic will pass, but for too many millions in this world, the pandemic is only one more disaster to deal with, in countries that suffer under constant crisis and struggle. Now is not the time to turn our face away from those countries and those people in need. Now is the time to redouble our efforts and our commitment to them.
The World Bank predicts that the pandemic will push an estimated 88 million to 115 million people into extreme poverty, and in the world’s poorest countries, hunger and the causes of malaria are rising. Unless we act now, one crisis will be followed by another, and the cycle will go on—and on, and on. We simply cannot break the poverty cycle by breaking our commitment to overseas aid. This is a choice for the Government; it is the choice for every Member of this House. On these Benches, our choice is clear. It is time to live up to our commitments on aid spending. It is time to live up to our responsibilities to the world’s poorest. It is time to break the cycle.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting permission for this debate.
I oppose the cut from 0.7% in international development funding for three reasons. First, I stood at the election on a manifesto that said:
“We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development”.
Now, the Government will say, as the Chief Secretary has today, that covid has changed the circumstances, but the Government are also taking pride in and responsibility for the fact that our economy will bounce back this year, and covid has also changed the circumstances for the poorest people around the world. For many of them there will be no bounce back, because for some of them it will simply be too late. So I urge the Government to stand by their word and stand by our manifesto commitment on international development funding.
My second reason is the impact, which I have just alluded to, that the cut will have on the poorest people around the world. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), in his thought-provoking and forceful speech, gave us some examples of the impact the cut will have—the damage it will cause to lives; the lives that will be lost. I want to mention just one particular area of interest to me: modern slavery. As one example, the global fund to end modern slavery is having its funding cut by 80%. That means that programmes will be lost, including programmes to work to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children, with all the damaging and devastating impact on young lives that the loss of that programme will have. The global fund will try to restore that money from elsewhere, including from other Governments. The United Kingdom has been the world leader in tackling modern slavery. Now we see organisations having to go cap in hand to other Governments to make up for the shortfall caused by the UK’s decision to cut international development spending.
Aid spending is not just about people in countries far away. Tackling modern slavery has an impact here on the streets of the United Kingdom. Supporting economic development elsewhere will help to cut the number of people who feel they have to migrate to the UK in order to look for work, and cutting ODA spending has an impact on other Departments. I recall in the Home Office that we used ODA spending to fund some of the work we did with refugees. If we cut that funding, either the work will not be done or the Home Office will have to find that money from other parts of its budget.
The third reason I oppose the cut is the impact on the UK’s standing in the world. People have respected us for our commitment to 0.7%; now, as we have heard, we are the only country in the G7 that is cutting aid at this time. People do not listen to the UK because we are the UK; they listen to us because of what we do and how we put our values into practice. Our commitment to that 0.7% has, for example, enabled us to argue the case for different definitions of ODA spending. Cutting this spending will have an impact on our standing.
Will we suddenly see countries cutting us off? No. Will we suddenly be kicked off international tables? No. But the damage it does to our reputation means that it will be far harder for us as a country to argue for the change that we want internationally—and that is across the board, including at COP26 and in respect of our setting out and putting into place the ambitions of the Integrated Review, which does not even mention modern slavery as one of the Government’s development priorities. I only hope that modern slavery is still on the G7 agenda, as it has been in the past.
The cut from 0.7% will have a devastating impact on the poorest in the world and it will damage the UK. I urge the Government to reinstate the 0.7% target: it is what they promised, it will show that we act according to our values and it will save lives.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your assistance in securing this debate. The number of people not only who have campaigned on this issue for the past year but who want to speak today shows the true strength of feeling on this issue and the cross-party support for it.
I wish to talk about hypocrisy, which it is something I just cannot stand. Unfortunately, the Government’s approach to ODA foreign aid spend is dripping in hypocrisy. The Government have stated their seven global priorities, and we know the priorities for the upcoming G7, but unfortunately what the Government actually do does not match up in any way. I wish to use this speech to highlight specific examples of where the Government are failing.
On global health security, we are cutting by 95% our funding for the global polio eradication initiative, at the exact moment when we are about to eradicate polio. Funding for UNAIDS is cut by 83%, impacting the provision of life-saving HIV treatment to the most marginalised. A programme by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine to build stronger, more resilient health systems in low and middle-income countries is cancelled. The King’s Global Health Partnerships programme “Saving Lives”, which was due to improve care for thousands of pregnant women, is cancelled.
Funding for neglected tropical diseases is wiped out. Funding for life-saving water, sanitation and hygiene projects is slashed by 80% in the face of covid-19 and climate change. The Concern Worldwide project to provide healthcare to people living in remote and disadvantaged areas of Bangladesh is terminated. The project was due to reach 2.6 million people, including 140,000 people living with a disability.
The G7 Foreign Ministers have committed to end violence against women and girls, while girls’ education is a key priority for the Government, yet the women’s integrated sexual health programme is cut by £72 million. The International Planned Parenthood Federation described the “brutal cuts” as
“a tragic blow for the world’s poorest and most marginalised women and girls.”
The UK Bangladesh Education Trust project to educate girls forced into domestic labour has been cut entirely. In Tanzania, the projects of Children in Crossfire and EdUKaid to support children, including disabled children, to access education have been cut entirely.
The United Nations Population Fund is cut by 85%, potentially leading to 25,000 unintended pregnancies. STiR Education projects supported marginalised families across Uganda to access education but have been cut entirely. The projects of S.A.L.V.E.—Support and Love Via Education International—to support girls living on the streets to return to school are cut entirely.
The Women for Women International female empowerment projects in Nigeria and Afghanistan are terminated, leaving thousands of marginalised women abandoned. UNICEF’s core funding is cut by 60%, impacting its ability to provide children with access to water, sanitation, education and health services. An International Rescue Committee project in Lebanon to prevent and respond to gender-based violence, and for child protection, has been cut, depriving 107,000 people of those services. In Sierra Leone, the budget for an IRC programme was cut by 60%. It reached more than 3 million people, mostly adolescent girls.
Humanitarian preparedness and response is also a priority, alongside the G7 commitment to supporting developing countries to tackle and prevent humanitarian threats, but aid to support Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh has been cut by 42%. Mines Advisory Group programmes have been cut by almost 50%, with all funding for work in Lebanon withdrawn. Humanity & Inclusion projects providing speech and physiotherapy sessions for disabled Syrian refugees have been cut entirely. The Tomorrow’s Cities project, working to reduce the risk to poor countries of disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and landslides, has been cut by 70%, compromising the ability of vulnerable communities to respond to disasters. Aid to Yemen has been slashed by nearly 60% in the face of catastrophic famine.
I could go on and on; that is only the beginning of the cuts that this Government are bringing about. That wrecks not only our international standing but the security of this country, because we are cutting money not just for humanitarian projects, but for projects that prevent conflict and poverty. What are some of the main drivers of conflict around the world? Unstable Governments, famine and lack of opportunity.
We were the world’s leading country on a number of those projects, which kept us safe and allowed the world to prosper. By cutting them, and by stubbornly refusing to give us the data on when fiscal circumstances will allow us to go back to 0.7%, the Government are undermining this country and the investment made thus far by the taxpayer.
I will be brief. The arguments for the moral case that we are arguing today should be clear to anybody who has listened to the discussions of the last few days, weeks and months. The Government’s arguments on financial grounds are clearly wrong. This is a rounding error in the national accounts. The Treasury cannot forecast the economy to within £4 billion each year, so how can it account on that basis for this judgment?
I heard that the reason is political; that it is a judgment that the working class of the northern red wall seats do not like foreign aid. Well, I have defended a blue brick in that red wall for 33 years, and I can tell the House that that is wrong. The simple truth is that if we said to someone in one of those seats, “Do you want to spend money on the Ethiopian Spice Girls?” they would say that no, they would rather spend it on a local school or on cutting poverty in Barnsley or whatever it may be.
However, if we asked them the proper question—the real question—they would give us the real, British, generous answer. If we said, “Do you want to act to prevent children dying from dirty water?”, 76% would say yes. If we said the same about starvation, about the same number would say yes. If we said, “Do you want to act to prevent an emergency in a crisis?”, 92% would say yes, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) mentioned. Some 92% of all British citizens would want their money spent on that. What would they think of the 60% cut in the contribution to Yemen, the most difficult emergency in the world today? Or South Sudan? Or the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or Syria? These decisions have consequences, and they are just as smart as we are; they will see those consequences, too.
In the Sahel, 270,000 people a year get life-saving medical support, and that is going to be cancelled this year. That is interesting, because we are also sending 200 British soldiers to the Sahel to help suppress terrorism, and what will this do for that? This will be a recruiting sergeant for terrorism in the Sahel. This is actually acting against our interests and against our soldiers’ interests, and we should remember that when we are doing our accounting sums. Bear in mind that this will not just be poverty; it will be poverty that will be blamed on the west by the people acting against us in the Sahel.
The Minister claimed that the actions he has outlined are in our national interest. While in the long run doing the morally right thing is what is always in our national interest, this is not the right thing. It is the morally wrong decision for the world, and it is the practically wrong decision for our country.
Well, this issue is not going to go away, is it? Why? Because it is about the promise, as we heard in the brilliant speech made by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). It is about the promise we made to people who in all likelihood know nothing of its existence, but whose lives have been changed by our generosity. They are people who have drunk clean water or gone to school and mothers who have seen their babies safely delivered or vaccinated, thanks to the immense generosity of the British people. The question is therefore a very simple one: how can it be right or moral to break this particular promise that we gave in good faith to others? The answer is very simple, too: it is not. It is wrong, and, as we have heard, it is damaging our international reputation.
The Prime Minister will sit down opposite the G7 leaders at the end of this week. They are facing exactly the same fiscal pressures as he is, but have the United States, Germany, France, Canada or the other G7 countries cut their aid budgets? No, they have not, because they understand the moral argument.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, that is not the point. We made a promise. I presume he is as committed to keeping promises he makes as the rest of us here in this Chamber.
What of the human cost? We heard from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) in her powerful speech about lives blighted, lives shortened and lives lost. Let me just take one example. How can it be right to cut aid for clean water by 80%? The arguments against doing that are so strong, such as the importance of clean water for hand-washing in a pandemic. There is the fact that the single most important thing we can do if we want to reduce infant mortality, apart from improving immediate postnatal care, is provide clean water, because every day babies and small children die because they drink dirty water. Clean water helps girls to go to school, the very thing that the Government say is a priority.
As International Development Secretary—the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield talked about his experience—I learned that there are moments when those of who have the privilege to do the job have our minds changed. We learn and we understand, and we realise why something is so important. In this example, I came across a well one day with a lot of people standing around it. I was told that the well was closed. I had never come across a closed well before, but it was explained that because demand for water in that part of the city was so high, after the first rush of buckets was drawn from it in the morning, the well had to be closed so that the water table had time to replenish to allow the well to be reopened.
One of the people waiting was a girl of about 13 or 14. The well was here and she was standing there—I can remember it to this day. She told me in a very quiet voice that it was her responsibility in her family to get the water every day, because until she did so, she could not go to school. Because the well was closed not just that day, but many days, she was often late for class. That is what this is about: a lack of plentiful, clean water, which all of us here take for granted, meant a lack of education for her and millions of other girls like her.
Are we really going to say that it is acceptable to cut our support for clean water? Is anyone actually going to argue that these cuts are popular with the British people? I fundamentally disagree; the British people are much more compassionate than that. It is not a competition between charity at home and aid abroad. We can, we should, we must do both.
I want to touch on the two core aspects of this: the political and the humanitarian. Dealing first with the political, we are promoting global Britain, we are told. Once again, we are proudly taking our place on the world stage, we are told, and that is right and good. However, if we are going to do that, we have to be able to hold our heads high, and I cannot see how damaging some of the poorest people in the world will enable us to do that.
Politically as significant is the fact that where we leave a vacuum, others will fill that vacuum. Those others will be China, the Russian Federation and Russia’s client states, Azerbaijan and Belarus. I wonder how many colleagues are prepared to see the emerging democracies turn to communist dictators for assistance, because we have pulled the rug out from under them.
Secondly, the humanitarian effect has been touched on over and over again. In 38 years—tomorrow—in this House of Commons, I have been privileged to travel fairly widely to some of the poorest regions of the world. I assume that the former Foreign Secretary, now the Prime Minister, during his time in his previous office, was able to do that. I am quite sure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is a widely travelled man. I suppose that they, like me, will have seen, smelt and tasted the death that comes from poverty and starvation, and seen the misery of young girls having to walk miles every day to fetch foul water. Now, to see the opportunities taken away from those young people around the world is, I believe, unforgivable.
Yes, of course we have run up a huge debt in the course of the covid crisis, but put that in perspective. We are talking about a cut upon a cut. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said in his opening remarks, this was designed to scale against a reduction in gross national income. By reducing the figure from 0.7% to 0.5%, we are exacerbating that cut. In so doing, we are hitting what used to be known as the bottom billion, the 1 billion people in this world who live on less than $1 a day, a figure that the United Nations believes to be the sign of abject poverty.
I want our Prime Minister to be able to go to the G7 with his head held high. I extol the virtues of our contribution to COVAX, but this cut that has been put forward by the Treasury is unforgivable and it must be reversed next year.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and I thank the House authorities and Mr Speaker for the debate today. I have risen to speak because this decision seems, at one and the same time, to be a decision that dishonours our word, dismays our friends and delights our enemies.
I want to make just three points. The first is simple: this decision defaces and demeans the strategy that was set out in this House by the Prime Minister as long as 69 days ago, when he came to that Dispatch Box to present the Integrated Review to the House. He said that he was determined to build resilience at home and abroad and to tackle risk at source:
“We will be…dynamic abroad”.—[Official Report, 16 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 161.]
He declared that 2021 will set the tone for the UK’s international engagement abroad—let us hope not, because on the eve of the G7 this Prime Minister is leading by retreating. The only dynamism he is showing is in the speed with which he is breaking his promises to the world.
The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), did not make many speeches about foreign policy, but there was a phrase she used often that was good—the notion of the rules-based order. We should have a Government who extol the benefits and the virtues of a rules-based order. However, we now have a Prime Minister who is ordering the breaking of the rules, not just with the nonsense around the international protocols in Northern Ireland, but with our international promises to the world community. One has to ask, why would anybody trust him? The truth is that he will soon discover that unless he is more hard-line about keeping his promises, our influence in the world will diminish. Once upon a time, it was known abroad that our word was our bond. That is not something to surrender lightly.
My second point is that the Prime Minister risks a serious imbalance in our foreign policy. In today’s world, defence of the realm entails a mixture of deterrence and development. President Biden has a useful guide. He says, “You talk about values. Show me your budget and I will tell you what your values are.” We now have a situation where defence spending is rising by £24 billion and development spending is falling by £4 billion—a £28 billion gap.
We were proud to set the ambition, and we set a critical path to doing it, because we knew precisely this—that development and deterrence are two sides of the same coin. They are essential to the defence of the realm.
The Prime Minister, when he presented the Integrated Review, boasted that we were about to send the new Queen Elizabeth carrier group on a worldwide tour. In how many of the 100 countries where we are cutting aid will that carrier group come into port? I bet that everywhere it does, we will find that our projection of power is as nothing compared with the power of a project to make poverty history.
Two thirds of the world’s poorest live in fragile, conflict- affected and violent states. It beggars belief that under the Government’s proposals, nations such as Libya and Iraq will no longer receive bilateral aid. There should be a simple rule of policy that we will not drop aid in places where we drop bombs, or where others drop bombs that they bought from us. Investing in places where we can alleviate poverty is one of the biggest investments we can make in safeguarding our security for the years to come.
My final point is simply this. The Chair of the International Development Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), helpfully set out the extraordinary range of cuts that are now being confronted. As chair of the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, I asked the IMF this afternoon for an update on the sheer scale of investment that is needed to get the global community back on its feet. Low-income countries will now need $200 billion extra to step up their covid response, followed by $250 billion extra in accelerated investment as we try to move from the pandemic to the Paris agreement. We are now going to—
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on securing this urgent debate.
The United Kingdom is a nation of islands. Apart from one well-known land border, we are surrounded by sea. If we are surrounded by sea, we have a choice. We can turn our back to the sea and look inwards; we can look only at the people in our own country, our own town or perhaps even our own village. I think that makes us smaller and poorer. Alternatively, we can turn round and face the sea. We can face the world. We can be part of a global nation. I think that makes us wealthier, it gives us a better quality of life, and it makes us better as a country.
Being an outward-looking global Britain means many things. It means taking our seat and playing a full role in global institutions. It means meeting our commitments on defence, which the Government are proud to have done. It means trading and promoting free and fair trade around the world, and it means doing our bit for the world’s poorest.
I wish to make three points. First, I accept that this is an exceptional time. There is nothing that I like about this pandemic. I do not like how empty the House is. I do not like not seeing my loved ones. I do not like anything about it, and I accept that it is an exceptional time, but there are organisations that need certainty about their funding from the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) talked about the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery. I, too, have spoken to the Global Fund, which has seen an 80% cut in its spending. It will get by, by going to other countries, but if it does not know that we in the United Kingdom will meet our commitments, it will have to close programmes, and that will leave thousands and thousands of children at risk of exploitation.
That brings me to my second point, which is about keeping our promises. I proudly stood on a manifesto that talked about “proudly” keeping to 0.7%. There are some who think that this is a ruse to introduce 0.5% by the back door. I really hope that that is not the case. The Minister and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have said that we will revert to 0.7% when the economic situation allows. When will that be? When can we have a vote on this matter? When can we know that we will meet our commitments? The organisations, the programmes and the people who depend on that money need to know that it is coming.
My final point is about how joined-up the world is. If the pandemic has shown us one thing, it is that we cannot isolate ourselves from what happens in the rest of the world. No matter how much we might want to turn our backs on the sea and look inwards, we cannot. Variants that developed in far-flung parts of the world, and a virus that developed in a far-flung part of the world in a city that most people probably had not heard of a year ago, have meant that our way of life has changed fundamentally this year. We cannot isolate ourselves from the rest of the world; we have to take an active role.
A small amount of money, relatively speaking today, helps to stop refugees travelling in boats on the channel. It helps to stop victims of slavery producing the goods that we are buying in our supermarkets and retailers, and it means that girls will get that 12 years of education. In the week of the G7 and in the year of COP26, this is the time for the United Kingdom to stand with our head held high, show that we meet our global commitments and lead the world.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on securing this debate and on his speech. His recollection of starving children in Uganda brought a tear to my eye, and I was reminded of the extreme poverty I saw when I lived in Ethiopia in the late 1980s. He is right: those memories never leave you. It is those children I met—many of them my own age—who are at the front of my mind now, too.
In his remarks, the Minister drew moral equivalence between maintaining our promises to starving children and leaving future generations with extra debt—how shameful. There is no equivalence there, because one is a death sentence and the other is not, especially when our young people, just like the rest of our country, overwhelmingly support 0.7% being spent on aid spending.
To abandon this commitment comes at a real cost, and it is not just a humanitarian cost. It is true that more lives will be lost this year, next year and the year after that, until the day when the Government finally decide to return to 0.7%, and that is notwithstanding the mess that has been caused by cutting off those funding streams so quickly.
There is also a cost to the UK’s global reputation. How on earth are we to convince developing nations at COP26 to trust our leadership at the most pivotal climate change summit in a generation when in the same breath we have undermined our credibility with them? This is a Government who say one thing and do another, who cannot be trusted, and who behave in a way that is so fundamentally un-British that it makes me feel ashamed.
When the Prime Minister stands up at the G7 this weekend, what will our allies and friends think? The Prime Minister will encourage our allies to pledge more to fund girls’ education while he cuts spending by nearly £200 million. He will offer a hand of friendship to Italy, Germany and France while his Brexit negotiator continues to make incendiary comments about the Northern Ireland protocol. He will speak of the importance of promoting democracy around the world and adhering to the rule of law when this Government deny elected representatives the chance of any vote on aid spending, even when lawyers suggest that we are breaking our own law.
If the Prime Minister wants to make a statement about his Government’s global ambitions, the single most meaningful and impactful thing that he could do right now is give us a vote on whether we should reverse these cuts. If a vote is granted, the Liberal Democrats, who introduced the legislation that enshrined the 0.7% in law, will join others from all sides of the House and will vote to keep our promises and hold on to our word.
I said that this Government and their actions make me ashamed. By contrast, this debate and the clear will of colleagues on all sides of the House to do the right thing should make all Britons proud. I look forward to continuing to work with them for as long as it takes until this Government listen.
There have been some very moving speeches today. I could spend the time allotted to me repeating the humanitarian points, which by the way I believe in, that we have a duty to the world’s poorest, but my criticism of the Government’s action is based not so much on that as on the question whether this is the right way of proceeding if we are seriously concerned about running the public accounts in an efficient way.
Leaving to one side the fact that there is a manifesto commitment, which is important, I accept that the situation has changed with the pandemic and our economy has declined. Of course, the Government could have cut £2 billion from the overseas aid budget without any adverse criticism, because it was linked to the 0.7%. As our economy declined, we could very easily have cut the aid budget by £2 billion with no argument, but the Government decided to cut it further. What they should have done at that stage was be completely honest with the House and the people and say, if that was their view, “We don’t actually believe in this commitment to 0.7%”—but no, they said, “We still believe in it—this cut is entirely temporary.” But what does “temporary” mean: six months, a year, two years?
It is worse than that. The Government are, in a sense, hoist by their own petard. They have said that this is only temporary, so they have ordered the civil servants in the Department to go on cutting all these programmes. The one way to build in a lot of waste is cutting too quickly, which is almost as wasteful as increasing spending too quickly—I was often critical of the Labour Government when they increased spending too quickly. A lot of waste has now been caused by these civil servants going around cutting all these budgets.
I will leave aside the terrible humanitarian effects, because the point has already been made very effectively by colleagues, but if we accept the Government’s own logic, in six months’ or a year’s time, the same civil servants will be running around restoring all these programmes. There will be a huge amount of waste, and in the meantime, incidentally, a lot of people will have died, a lot of wells will have run dry and a lot of girls’ education will have been ended. People will have died and there will be a huge amount of waste.
Let me offer this compromise to the Government: just be honest, be transparent, be open with Parliament and accept parliamentary democracy. They could set a date—if they wanted, it could be by the Budget or some time early next year—when they will come honestly to Parliament with a policy. I am prepared to be open-minded about this 0.7% and to accept that although it is a manifesto commitment, there may be occasions where it might cause feast to famine to feast, but let the Government make their argument honestly. After all, this is the law; we are supposed to spend 0.7% of our budget by law. If we no longer believe that, we have to come to Parliament to repeal that Act or come to Parliament in the Budget debate and present an alternative. I am not even asking the Government to commit now in the Budget next year to restoring the 0.7%. I am just reaching out to them, with a compromise, to ask them to announce shortly, to end this debate, now and forever, that there will be a transparent, open debate within the next 12 months, so that we can determine this issue forever. Put Parliament first.
I hope to be brief.
Looking around the world, we see so many problems that need our help—[Inaudible.] It has been a discourtesy to this House and to millions of people up and down the country who voted in 2019 for 0.7%, that this Government tried to cut that without any discussion or debate. I was heartened by the Prime Minister dispatching ventilators and oxygen converters to India, but Nepal is still waiting. India leads the world in vaccine research and production, whereas Nepal has no facilities to produce vaccines. Millions of vulnerable people in Nepal need vaccines, especially second doses. Those are not coming, but we have 500 million doses for 70 million people.
I have visited amazing programmes and met people whose lives were changed and saved by British aid. No one who has seen that work would condone a cut. The cut is barbaric at this time . When I meet people abroad, and online now, I am nothing but proud of our record as a donor to good works, But that work on gender equality, clean water and sanitation, 12 good years of education, ending human trafficking and modern slavery—[Inaudible]. We cannot let this Government waste that work without a fight. We must end this debate and support the return of 0.7% as our commitment to the nation and to the world.
I very much welcome this debate today and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). It will help widen our understanding of how British overseas aid commitments work and also our soft power, which allows us to speak with such authority on the international stage and goes in part to justify our seat on the UN Security Council. It is also plays a pivotal role in supporting our economy and strengthening our national and international security, which is what I wish to focus on today. I will just say that for too long our aid programmes worked in isolation of wider Government strategies, often without a British flag to even acknowledge their origins. We have come some way, but I would be the first to say that taxpayers’ money must be wisely spent. As a former soldier, I was saddened and horrified to see the failure to utilise our aid programmes in both Afghanistan and Iraq; we won the war but we lost the peace. Hard power and soft power are two sides of the same coin, and we will need a lot more of both over the next decade—this is something the G7 summit will doubtless attempt to address. Our world is on a worrying trajectory, with rising authoritarianism, growing extremism and the new challenges of climate change and defeating a brutal pandemic that continues to damage economies and take lives, but the west has become risk averse, with an absence of leadership and resolve to address these issues alongside weakened international institutions that are no longer able to defend our rules-based order.
This G7 summit offers an opportunity for Britain to step forward as we have done in the past when other nations hesitated, but when we step back, we not only cause hardship, as we have heard today; we also leave a worrying vacuum that gets filled either by extremists in such places as Yemen and Somalia or more specifically by Russia and China, who pursue very different bilateral relationships that will most likely ensnare yet more nations into economic programmes they can ill afford. China has weaponised its soft power to extend its influence economically, militarily and technologically across Asia and now Africa. Nations are increasingly obliged to look west or east for assistance, and we are progressively seeing our word splinter into two competing geopolitical spheres of influence. That is the face of the new cold war that looms ahead, and this is not the time to reduce our soft power footprint.
We understand the huge bill of £400 billion that the Treasury faces, but if this is all about the money, why not learn from what we did after the war and ring-fence this debt, rather than using austerity measures to balance the books before the next general election? Our last war debt was finally paid off in Gordon Brown’s era as Prime Minister. We should do this in the same way. We should find a fiscal instrument that allows us to manage the books more sensibly here today. As our history shows, we are that Churchillian nation that steps forward when others hesitate. I say this to the House from a security perspective: the next decade is going to get extremely bumpy indeed. The US is once again keen to play its part on the global stage, so in the spirit of global Britain, let us be that reliable ally, let us stay firm and let us honour our manifesto commitment.
If there was ever a time for humanity to come together, it is now. Millions have lost their lives to covid-19, and millions more will continue to suffer the effects of this global pandemic, so why are this Government choosing to impose devastating cuts to worsen and prolong the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world? Surely the way to honour those who have lost their lives and livelihoods to covid is to ensure that we build forward better across the world. This is the only thing, and the right thing, to do.
The Prime Minister talks about global Britain, but that means nothing when this Government are determined to scale back life-saving assistance to those most in need. He stated that a new royal yacht Britannia would be
“a clear and powerful symbol of our commitment to be an active player on the world stage”.
However, living up to international aid commitments is far more effective in that regard than a flag-waving nostalgia-driven vanity project. If it is financially prudent to spend on a new national flagship and to stockpile even more nuclear weapons, there is simply no excuse not to reverse this devastating cut if we are be an active player on the world stage at the G7 summit this week. Indeed, how can this Government have any credibility whatsoever in calling for others at the G7 to commit to further spending to ensure global recovery when they and they alone are cutting back? The UN has specifically urged Governments to meet the 0.7% commitment, warning that 120 million people have been plunged back into extreme poverty and that the sustainable development goals could be pushed back 10 years due to the pandemic, yet despite all that, this Government have done the exact opposite.
It does not need to be like this. Other G7 countries are increasing their aid and we in the SNP have called for development spending to be ring-fenced at pre-covid levels. The Scottish Government, like others in the international community, will add to vital aid contributions by increasing our international development fund by 50%. The day Scotland becomes an independent player on the world stage cannot come quickly enough. Let us be clear that these cuts will cost lives. Estimates suggest that a million excess child deaths could occur as a result. These could be any of our children. Are we to turn a blind eye because they are someone else’s children? Aid to Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, has been cut by 60%. Aid to Africa, where 85% of the poorest 1 billion people will live by 2045, will fall by more than two thirds. In the middle of a pandemic, this Government decided that funding that could have provided 10 million people with access to water and sanitation, the most basic defence against covid, should be withdrawn.
Finally, no one has escaped this pandemic, but the poorest have been expected to pay the ultimate price. No one is pretending either that the challenge of recovering from covid is easy, but as the rest of the world is stepping up, the UK should not be stepping away. Indeed, this is not just about political debate or defeating the Government; it is about saving lives. It is about those who rely on the international community to give them support, who have had their livelihoods destroyed, who will die in the hundreds of thousands, and who have little or no voice. The Government can choose to listen to this House and reverse these cuts, or they can abandon the world’s poorest and become an ever smaller and insignificant little Britain of which we want no part.
May I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests?
We have heard some very powerful speeches today. Of course, I pay enormous tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). I respect his impassioned arguments and long-standing commitment to international aid, but, respectfully, I have to offer an alternative view today.
The UK’s commitment to international development is globally recognised. We are proud of our commitment to supporting developing nations, and we have heard that today. From my many years here, I can say that it has not always been this overwhelming a debate in the past. We have to be honest. The unprecedented circumstances of the past 12 months have forced this Government, as it would have done any Government of any complexion, to take some very difficult decisions. Circumstances are exceptional, because so much of our money—probably a globally unprecedented package—was put together to shore up our health service and to shore up our businesses in the face of a global pandemic. I think the Government are right—
Will my right hon. Friend just give me a moment to make my argument?
The Government are right not to put their head in the sand. It is not possible to continue with business as usual. These are not normal times. We have a responsibility as a Parliament to act, and to simply dismiss £4 billion-worth of expenditure as a rounding error is, I think, the first time I have heard such a thing in a debate such as this.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Obviously, she and I do not fully agree on this. Would she like to speculate on why Britain alone of the wealthy nations is cutting its aid when everyone else is either maintaining it or increasing it? Why is our economy so bad that we have to balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world, unlike all the other rich countries?
I think my right hon. Friend is right, and I would speculate—although I would need to look at the figures in more detail—that perhaps our country has put more money into supporting our health service and more money into supporting jobs. Perhaps we will be in a better position to resume our international aid spending when we are on the other side of this pandemic. He is right that we need to look at that in more detail.
We cannot always forecast the future, and that is why the legislation has provisions in it to be able to make the sort of changes that the Government are proposing today. I say to my right hon. Friend that he makes a very strong argument about the importance of international aid, and he knows that I agree with him on that. I do not think that he should be over-simplifying his argument in the way that he started to in his opening statement today. The action that the Government are taking is not simply regular politics. The fiscal crisis the country faces is a result of the pandemic and that speaks to every constituency throughout the country. Nobody would choose to be in the situation that we face today, but to paint this as the UK walking away from its global responsibilities is wrong and it sends a very wrong message from this place to the rest of the world.
I will not give way again, else I will get into trouble with Mr Deputy Speaker.
We remain one of the main funders of international aid around the globe and we need to be proud of that. There has been much talk of reputation in this debate, and I believe that a reputation for fiscal competency is also a key part of our reputation around the world. If we are to remain one of the biggest contributors to international aid, we also need to retain our reputation for fiscal competency. Perhaps some of the fragility of the funding regimes, which a number of right hon. and hon. Members have talked about today, highlights the fragility of what is going on in the international aid sector and indicates the importance of increasing the number of countries investing to the level that we consistently have over a number of years and also of working together more to avoid that fragility in times of crisis.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) is absolutely right: we cannot isolate ourselves, and the pandemic has demonstrated that amply. I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be back here soon to confirm when the UK can return to its normal terms of business on international aid. I also hope that he, or perhaps his colleagues, can talk more about what the Government will be doing to fulfil the promises in their equality strategy, so well set out in 2018, because that will all give certainty for the future. But for now, I believe the approach that he is taking is prudent not just for us, but for future generations as well.
I refer the House my declaration of interests.
The UK is at a crossroads. Our citizens and the international community wait to see which way the Government will take. However, it is not that Ministers cannot pick a route; it is that they have chosen, in the words of the brilliant speech by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), to go backwards—and, I would add, have too frequently chosen to go back on their own word. This Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to retain aid spending. Ministers now seek to break that promise, despite their massive majority and despite the global pandemic, just when we are needed more than ever and when global Britain could mean something to the countries and people we are in a position to help.
As we have heard, no other G7 country is taking this approach—Germany and the US are increasing their help—and the outcome is also known. Ministers back- tracking and breaking their promise will mean avoidable loss of life and the preventable spread of disease, and in one case—the failure to provide clean water in a Yemeni refugee camp—could even mean more refugees trying to reach the UK.
The broken promise also contradicts the great British tradition of not ignoring problems and not walking on by. We are the good Samaritan—we pitch in; we help. We do so because it is the right thing to do, but it is not just altruism. We also do it because covid has proved more than ever that no one is safe until everyone is safe. Our aid prevents other diseases, such as HIV, spreading to our shores, can help to prevent conflict involving UK armed forces and the creation of refugees seeking further help from the UK, and can help to facilitate trade benefiting British business. Ministers seem ready to stand by and abandon all that.
“Global Britain” means nothing to most people, but it will mean even less without the agencies needed to deliver it—all those international aid organisations, which currently have so little faith in Ministers after the deceitful claim that they were consulted on the abolition of the Department for International Development and the devastating £4 billion cut in the help they deliver on the front line.
We all recognise that covid affects things, but the Government need to be more ambitious for our international reach and for our country. Let us compare how this country has recovered from previous crises. The post-war Labour Government achieved house building on a scale never seen before, created a social security system that the whole country has benefited from ever since and delivered an NHS still proving its worth in the face of covid today—a post-crisis Labour legacy that the whole country remains proud of. By contrast, this Government seem to seek no positive post-covid legacy. Ministers are abandoning even their own manifesto promises to the British people, despite the massive majority—promises on aid and cuts to the armed forces, as well as the pledges to overhaul social care and even on free TV licences for some pensioners. It is a truly pathetic agenda.
That said, I respect the noble aims of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield and other Government Back Benchers, including the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I genuinely hope they are successful in overturning the Government’s betrayal of their own manifesto and their wider betrayal of the British people who voted for them.
I have had hundreds of contacts from constituents concerned about the changes being made to our aid programme. Not all of them agree with me, but many do. My judgment is that the people I represent, like their MP, are really proud of the support that we give around the world.
But we should be honest: yesterday’s amendment, which led to today’s debate, was far from perfect. It would not have restored all the projects that we have heard about today. We are still spending £10 billion this year as the Minister rightly said, and we have seen the biggest drop in economic output for 300 years. Therefore, does the 0.7% to 0.5% cut matter? Have we rather pompously overblown our world-leading reputation in this area? My answer to those two questions is: yes, it does matter, and, no, I do not think we have.
I held the international health brief at the Department of Health and Social Care. I have attended G7 and G20 meetings—not at the level of the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), and the former Secretaries of State that we have heard from, but I have been in the room. I hear the talk about it damaging our reputation around the world. Perhaps some think that that is overblown—perhaps they think it is part of our pompous overblowing of this issue—but it does matter. I have seen that in the room: what the UK does matters, and countries follow us. We are in a position to ask them to do so because of our deeds.
I have also seen much of the good work that we do. HIV is one of the many examples that I know about and am particularly worried about. An open letter published today by a wide range of organisations working in this field, plus Lord Fowler, who knows a thing or two, says that they fear that the reductions risk
“setting the stage for a resurgence”
of the AIDS pandemic. That sits at such odds with the domestic progress that we have made on HIV and the recommendations of the HIV Commission, which I was proud to be part of, on ending new HIV transmissions by 2030. What will happen around the world with the HIV reduction programmes is tragic.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about HIV/AIDS. The fact that it has been cut by 80% because of this decision is kicking the can further down the road and making it a bigger problem in the future. Does he agree that this jeopardises everything we have worked for?
Yes, and frankly it does not really matter whether I do. Dozens of organisations working in this field have written an open letter in The Telegraph today setting out why and how this matters. I am really worried about it.
I think back to my early days in this House, and one of the first things that I did in Winchester, which I am so proud to represent, was to hold a session with the former Minister, Stephen O’Brien, who was a very good International Development Minister. It was called “Ask the Minister”, and it was in St Paul’s church in Winchester. Dozens of constituents came to that meeting to listen to the manifesto commitment that we made in 2010 and the way that we were going to legislate for it.
For me, this is not just a manifesto commitment made then and in 2019; it is a personal commitment that I want to stand by. I know that to meet it, we have to make choices, but it was a choice to make the pledge in the first place, and it is a political choice to keep it or not now. Abandoning 21 June, as we may do next week, is also a choice that will have a price tag attached to it. Perhaps there is a correlation there.
Finally, let me give an example from my Winchester constituency that saddens me. It is actually rather personal, given the global health budget that I used to hold. For many years, Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs my local hospital in the University of Winchester, has obtained funding and used it to provide support for overseas projects such as stroke services in west Africa, and paediatric maternity surgery and anaesthetic care in several east African countries. It has been funded thorough the Tropical Health and Education Trust, which receives money through UK Partnerships for Health Systems. It has had its programme cut from 2020 through 2024 as a result of this reduction, so it is not just a one-year hit, as some say. It is devastated about the work it is now not going to be able to do.
If anybody on the Opposition or Government Benches, friend or foe of mine, or any of my colleagues speaking against this proposal today, thinks that we enjoy giving the Government a hard time, let me say, we do not. I am here to say what I think on behalf of the people I represent, and I think this is wrong. Even now, at this late stage, let us not do this. As I always say to constituents who disagree with me on this subject—and there will be many—charity does indeed begin at home; it just does not end there.
It is a pleasure to hear so many Members across the House joining together, looking at the progress that has been made on HIV/AIDS over the years and urging the Government to change their mind on this funding question. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who chairs the all-party group on HIV and AIDS, which is cross-party, has also done an enormous amount of work on this.
I want to talk today about the impact on British science, but before I do I want briefly to mention the many wonderful experiences that we as Members, in different parties, had in, for example, Kenya or Nigeria, where so many children die from malaria. We know that, with the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting this month, we are meant to be showing a very strong sense of leadership and I feel this kind of decision undermines that.
I was very pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) talk about the waste of the in-year cut. When we cut budgets in-year, we may as well not spend the money at all; we just throw it away. So some medication that is being provided through programmes will actually be disposed of because of an in-year cut. It is a really bad way to manage programmes.
On British science, I declare an interest because my other half is a scientist and is very involved in malaria research. I understand that Dr Gilbert, who in Oxford invented the vaccine, invented it because she has a background in trying to find a vaccine for malaria. It is a very different kind of parasite from coronavirus—of course, coronavirus is much simpler, so it is much easier to get a vaccine—but the reason she is a vaccinologist and understands vaccines is that she worked in global health, and the UK is known for its excellence in that area.
These ODA cuts will have a massive impact on our regional universities. Of course, what we are trying to address are the regional inequalities within the UK. We know, for example—and the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned the trust in Hampshire—that there are 500 health facilities across Africa and Asia that work closely with the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. They teach medical science and medical research to Africans and in Asia as well. In particular, the concept is so good—this was one of the special things about many of the DFID programmes: it was a hand up, not a handout. Everybody wants to see these programmes where British scientists work closely with African scientists. They are equal scientists, and they work together and collaborate. It is not just handing out in a kind of philanthropic way to make us feel good; it is working on the global problems that affect each and every one of us. We are so far ahead in our vaccine project because of that background in global health.
This debate is taking place in the context of The Times rich list, where there are 23 more billionaires this year. Our economy has the potential, but we have to make our economy work harder so that we can afford this, because it is inequality that is going to bring down our society, which is going to cause even more problems, and we must tackle that difficult problem. Christine Lagarde has been saying it for years, and the IMF is saying it. Tackle inequality, and the rest will look after itself. We have to find a way for the 23 billionaires to help to pay for the £4 billion that we need to maintain this UK excellence across the world.
This is a very difficult debate for me. It is very difficult because I can genuinely see both sides of this debate. It is difficult because I find myself with a different view from many colleagues on these Benches whom I respect very highly, and it is difficult because I, in my six years in this place, have possibly been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of our overseas aid budget. But we have to make some tough choices at this time, and I am sure that this is going to be the first of many tough choices that this House and this Government are going to have to make in the months and years ahead.
This pandemic started as a health crisis, but the longer- term impact will be an economic and a fiscal challenge. I say that representing one of the most disadvantaged parts of the UK, and it is forecast that the economic impact will be felt deepest and longest there. The money to continue our level of aid spending has to be found from somewhere. I am concerned that one of the effects of the last year is that we seem to have lost a sense of proportion of financial discipline. Colleagues have spoken of £4 billion as a rounding error. I can remember when hundreds of millions of pounds were talked of as a big Government spending item and now we talk of £4 billion as a rounding error. What has happened?
Many have spoken about our breaking of a manifesto promise. I remind colleagues that our manifesto also promised that we would reduce the debt over this Parliament—that the debt at the end of this Parliament would be smaller than at the beginning. We are having to break that promise—we all understand why—but let us not pretend that cutting our aid budget at this time is the only manifesto promise we are going to have to break because of the very difficult situation in which we find ourselves. I find it very uncomfortable that we have to make this cut in our aid spending, but I also feel very uncomfortable adding to the debt that my grandchildren will probably have to pay back for this country. That is a tough choice that we have to make.
We will remain one of the largest contributors in the world. The way some hon. Members are talking here today, it is as though we are completely cutting our aid budget and will never spend another pound. We are still contributing £10 billion—the third highest amount in the G7. Several Members have made comments about providing leadership and losing our influence, but in all the years that we stuck to our 0.7% aid target, how many followed us? Not very many. So let us not overplay our global influence in that regard.
It has been common to trail through tweets this week. I have been quite surprised that some people on these Benches who have been the most enthusiastically in favour of 0.7% today were putting out tweets just a short while ago saying that it was the wrong decision for the Government to make. So I think we need to look at the wider picture.
I simply say two things to the Government. I do not find it easy, but I do understand, in the current context, why the decision has to be made to start making those tough decisions to restore financial discipline. That is something that we on these Benches, in this party, should stand for.
In concluding, I ask the Minister two things. Can we please ensure that the cut to overseas aid is done in a way that minimises the impact on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable? I think there are savings that can be made, but let us make sure that they are made in the right way. With a heavy heart, I support this, but can we please make sure that we return our international aid budget to 0.7% as soon as we possibly can?
I thank Mr Speaker for allowing this emergency debate.
The decision to abandon the Government’s own manifesto commitment was not just morally regrettable but, like a disturbing number of actions by this Government in this term, it was unlawful, too. The Government have again bypassed Parliament and demonstrated contempt, in that it has taken until today, in an emergency debate, to address this matter. I commend those Conservative Members who have secured this debate for their articulation of our shared norms of global interdependence and of democratic norms.
Although I appreciate that nobody who has spoken is relishing this change, we have heard from cheerleaders of the policy that we need to help our own instead. That false binary might just ring true if those same voices were not actively advocating against meaningful pay for healthcare workers and against funding catch-up education, and if they were not actively misrepresenting, with tabloid myths that insult the intelligence of the public, the real achievements that the UK has made through aid. Nobody credible denies the serious economic contraction in the situation that we are in, but we are advocating that a principled choice be made, and that this Government and nearly all Members of the House keep a promise that they made.
Last November, speaking about the security and defence review, the Prime Minister said:
“Britain must…stand alongside our allies, sharing the burden”—[Official Report, 19 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 487-488.]
But this retreat does the opposite. For the first time in many years, development progress around the world is going backwards. Reports estimate that 200 million people will be pushed back into extreme poverty because of the pandemic. Decades of practice and evidence under- score the truth that long-term development investment, the like of which UK aid successfully supports, creates resilience that helps the poorest and the most vulnerable to withstand the economic and environmental shocks that are becoming more frequent, which in very large part is due to our actions and our consumption.
This cut is, at the very best, penny wise and pound foolish, because economic investment in aid is far-sighted. Well-nourished children will learn well in school; empowered and informed women will see their children survive and thrive; innovative, invested farmers will be able to feed their family and have more for market. Aid also creates a more secure world. Draining the reservoirs of poverty guards against extremism taking hold and creates a safer future for us all.
The UK’s development record of being a generous aid supporter has been something to be really proud of. Like many hon. Members, I have seen the effect of that money in practice many times, having worked for over a decade in the aid sector. As an Irish MP in the UK Parliament, I think it fair to say that some of the rhetoric and symbolism that I hear around sovereignty, militarism and flags does not move me politically, but like many others, I have been deeply proud of the UK’s record on spending and effectiveness in aid. It is the mark of a serious global actor and an inclusive, modern, progressive union of people.
Whoever policy decisions like this are designed to appeal to, please let us not forget that there is a mainstream of public opinion that believes in multilateralism and generosity—we exist as well. The UK’s aid spend saves lives around the world, but it enriches all our lives here as well, and it should be protected.
Mr Deputy Speaker, may I thank you and Mr Speaker for allowing today’s emergency debate and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on securing it?
I have had the privilege of representing the UK as a Minister in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development and of seeing, around the world, the good that our aid budget does. Whether from our work in the midst of the Ebola outbreak in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo—where the fact that the UK had invested in vaccines and their cold chain deployment meant that we were able to contain that deadly disease—or from the work that we put into neglected tropical diseases, which has meant that we have been able to contain and control other diseases from reaching the UK, surely we should have learned how important it is for the UK for us to work on such shared global challenges for humanity.
I have had the privilege of going to Goma, near where the volcano is erupting, and seeing how we have brought fresh water there. It was UK expertise and UK firms that won the contract to do that, which benefits our economy here and those exporters as well. It is a win-win for the UK public and for the world. I feel very strongly that it was a great privilege to say that we were—as we used to be—the only G20 country that met its NATO 2% target and the 0.7% UN target for aid. Surely if global Britain means anything, it means that, and being able to say that so proudly.
I was particularly proud to stand on a manifesto that again committed to those metrics for our position in the world. Politicians hesitate to break manifesto pledges because they know that the electorate will punish them at the next election if they do, whether they are George H. W. Bush saying “Read my lips: no new taxes” or Nick Clegg with his tuition fees. People realise that they should not break manifesto pledges because the electorate dislike it, but in this case I feel that the people who benefit from our aid budget the most are the ones who have no voice in this place. I have met them, and I need to articulate on their behalf how important this spending is.
There is another reason why I feel particularly passionate about the subject: the fact that we have enshrined the 0.7% in law. I know that there is a get-out in section 2 of the 2015 Act, under which a Secretary of State who inadvertently does not meet the 0.7% target can come to Parliament, explain why and state how they will get back to it. However, actually targeting 0.5% is absolutely a contentious legal issue and something that I think may well be challenged in the courts. The Government have a large majority, so the simplest thing to do, if it is such a good idea, would be to come to Parliament for that consent. The power that the Executive have is derived through us in Parliament; therefore they need to show respect for Parliament by coming and asking us, and giving us a vote, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) put it so powerfully.
I could expatiate at length about how passionately I feel that we are making the wrong decision, but in this week, when we are hosting the G7, when we need to vaccinate the world and when cases are really beginning to grow exponentially across many African and Asian countries, and when we heard last week from every country at the 142nd Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly that they need the vaccines, let us get out of this hole by giving our vaccines to the world.
I congratulate the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), the former Minister, on her speech. She speaks very powerfully from her own experience of visiting projects. When I was first elected back in 2005, the first overseas visit I was invited to go on was when Oxfam took me to the camps for internally displaced people in the north of Uganda. I had never seen poverty on that scale. It was very much like the sorts of images that we would have seen during the Live Aid broadcasts. That made a huge impact on me, and I have seen on other overseas trips—for example, to look at our disaster relief effort after the earthquake in Kashmir—how much good we can do on the ground, often with very small but much-needed amounts of money.
Many of us sometimes get criticism for travelling abroad as MPs, but it really brings home to us the importance of such pledges. It is frankly shameful that during a global pandemic, when the need for international leadership and support for poorer countries is greater than ever, the Government would renege on their commitment to support the poorest people of the world without bringing it to the House for a vote.
The pandemic has fuelled an increase in gender-based violence, disrupted children’s education, increased food insecurity and threatens access to crucial healthcare. And yet, as we have heard, the UK aid budget for education has been slashed by 40%. UNICEF has lost 60% of its core funding, and the United Nations Population Fund has lost 85%, which it says could mean 250,000—a quarter of a million—more mother and baby deaths. In Yemen, home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, we are cutting funding by nearly 60%, while refusing to suspend arms sales. The International Trade Secretary has said in response to letters that I have written to her that current arms exports are legal and match the consolidated criteria, but we cannot simultaneously be peacemaker and arms dealer.
I want to make a special plea today, though, for the Government to recognise, ahead of COP26, our obligations towards climate-vulnerable countries. These countries bear very little responsibility for our changing climate, yet are most affected by its consequences, be they rising sea levels, changing temperatures, droughts, declining crop yields or extreme weather events, which are becoming ever more frequent and more severe. There is an urgent need for more funding for climate adaptation, as well as aid to help to address the deepening inequality linked to climate change; and, as we play host to the G7, we should be leading on debt relief for the poorest countries, too. We cannot carry on giving less with one hand and taking away with the other.
I also want to flag up the plight of the small island developing states, as chair of the new all-party group. Although the UN has recognised SIDS as having particular social, economic and environmental vulnerabilities, the common metrics used to determine vulnerability and need when it comes to ODA do not take that into account. As a result, many SIDS do not qualify for aid, yet work by the United Nations Development Programme on a multidimensional vulnerability index shows that the majority of SIDS are far more economically vulnerable than their income level would suggest. SIDS are not only facing some of the very worst consequences of climate change; they have also been devastated financially by the pandemic because of the collapse in tourism and are particularly prone to extreme weather events and other natural disasters. The recent volcanic eruption could cost Saint Vincent and the Grenadines up to 50% of GDP. Other SIDS are trapped in a vicious cycle of debt, including Belize, which has defaulted on or restructured its debt five times in the last 14 years.
To conclude, we are facing the biggest global challenges in our history, with a pandemic that has devastated the global economy and a rapidly changing climate. We know that some nations are more prepared than others for these challenges, and we cannot turn our backs on the vulnerable now.
The last year has had unprecedented effects on our economy, our public services and the world, and it has left us facing some profound choices this autumn. For all the reasons that numerous Members have mentioned in the debate, none of us wants to have to make these changes to international aid spending, but if we look at the promises we have made, we will see that we face some very difficult choices this autumn. We have promised to help children catch up on their education, and tomorrow we will have a debate in which numerous Members will say that they want to spend more on that. We have promised to catch up on the NHS backlog, which has inevitably built up during a year in which nurses, doctors and everyone working in the NHS have worked overtime and worked their socks off. They have been under an unprecedented level of strain, which has caused a large backlog in NHS demand.
We also face long-standing questions such as the crisis in social care in local government. Again and again in my surgeries, people come to me to complain about squalid conditions, the difficulty of accessing care and the impossible burdens of paying for care. Last but not least—and I declare an interest here—there is the whole question of levelling up and the many things that we promised to do to change the grotesque inequalities in life expectancy and the grotesque differences in income levels and opportunity around this country.
We have many, many promises to keep. Over the last year, we have done unprecedented things to save jobs and livelihoods—we have spent like never before—and because of that, we now face some very difficult choices. I am not somebody who decries the value of aid. I can see that it does much good around the world, and we will continue to be one of the world’s biggest spenders. None the less, I think that to be in government is to make choices. We face difficult choices, and we have many promises to keep on lots of fronts.
Ultimately, all of us are elected to serve the people and to be servants of the people. It is clear to me from every poll I see and every conversation I have that the public know that we have to make choices. They know that we have to prioritise, and the things that they tell me they want to prioritise the most are our health service and giving opportunities and jobs to the places that need them. These are horrible choices to have to make. I salute all colleagues on the other side of this argument who have come to a different view from mine. None the less, with a heavy heart, I think that this is the right thing to do because of the difficult choices that we face.
We have a moral duty and, currently, a legal obligation to help those in need. Whether it is securing girls’ education or responding to humanitarian crises in conflict zones, aid can be the first and last hope of improving lives. Britain is the only G7 nation to cut aid during this global crisis, and now its allies are taking note. With the G7 summit set to begin later this week, the Government’s stubborn refusal to reverse this decision will weaken the country’s position considerably. The US Congress has already written a letter urging the UK to reconsider its position.
For aid to be truly effective, the recipient must have consistency and reliability, and that is currently at risk under this Government. My constituent Nicola Sansom is the CEO and co-founder of SALVE International, a small international development charity that has been supporting street-connected children in Uganda since 2008 to have a brighter future through education and family reunification. She had been awarded a grant worth £50,000 from the small charities challenge fund but then received the devastating news that it had suddenly been cut. Nicola’s case is just one of many. Given the last-minute decision to cut funding for SALVE, can that funding be reinstated, so that the hard work done by the organisation does not go to waste and it can make a genuine difference to girls’ education in Uganda? Can the Minister confirm his commitment to get 40 million girls into school by 2025, in the light of an estimated 25% cut to girls’ education funding? How does he expect to fulfil this commitment without adequate funding to ensure that girls are not subjected to violence, abuse and harassment?
In the light of the recent events in Palestine that saw complete disregard for international law by Israeli forces, United Nations Relief and Works Agency funding provides much-needed aid, vital help and educational programming, and helps to strengthen co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians. Given the ongoing blockade of Gaza and the devastating human rights violations, can the Minister guarantee that the UK funding commitment to UNRWA will not be involved in this Government’s discriminatory cut to the UK’s aid budget?
There is an undeniable case that UK aid helps the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. During this difficult time, it is even more important that we continue to empower the powerless.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on everything that he has done to get this debate, and the team behind him on their extraordinary job in helping to run this campaign.
It is, of course, no easy thing to go against the grain of one’s party—although given the amount of times I have rebelled, I am not sure the Whips are going to believe that of me—but I do not do it lightly. I do it with the consideration of why I was sent here, what I believe in, and what, given their views, people who support this party would expect us to do.
Over the course of my time in Parliament, we have had numerous debates about global Britain. For me, it is quite simple: the definition of global Britain and what it embodies is defence, diplomacy, trade and, of course, development. Each one of those pillars relies heavily on the other. Our trade ambitions, our defence operations, our diplomatic networks and our development programmes all peak and trough depending on one another’s successes. Whatever the variation, that quartet of sectors helps to promote Britain on the world stage. They represent a Britain that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) pointed out, does not step back but steps forward. In trade, we are striking many new positive free trade agreements; we are being ambitious, global and outward-looking. In defence, we are sending our aircraft carriers around the world. Our diplomatic network is still viewed as one of the finest in the world. Up until last year, I would have maintained that our commitment to 0.7% was not just the correct thing to do but an act of global leadership that benefits our trade, defence and diplomatic missions, all of which are truly reflective of global Britain. In committing to the 0.7% target, we offered not just warm words but firm action for those most in need.
I have listened carefully to the words of colleagues during this debate and over the course of the past year. I have heard all too often that we simply cannot afford to pay for the 0.7% development budget given the pandemic and the economic climate. Leaving aside the fact that the 0.7% target fluctuates depending on the strength of our economy, ensuring that in good times there is more money and in bad times there is less, I humbly remind everyone in this House that we brought it in in the wake of the financial crisis, when our economic growth was possibly at its lowest, with no forecast to boost it.
That is incredibly generous of my right hon. Friend and I appreciate it.
We stood up just post the 2010 election because it was the right thing to do and because it demonstrated our global leadership and encouraged others to follow suit. It is simply not the case that other countries have not followed suit, with France and Germany now hitting the 0.7% target and America doing likewise, reflecting the fact that our leadership has encouraged them to do so. With a new President in the United States who is reaffirming the rules-based order, we can truly say that we have a global group that will support 0.7%, but not if we do not stick to our guns on this. We have been able to assist in humanitarian crises and conflict zones around the world. We have been able to address the health issues, sanitation issues and education issues, but all that has been put into jeopardy. As has already been mentioned, with this cut from 0.7% to 0.5%, we are cutting global health budgets —down by 14%; girls’ education—down by 25%; clean water—down by 80%; the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids—down by 80%. All these budgets are being cut during a pandemic where the problems are exacerbated as opposed to diminished. No impact assessment has been undertaken and no review has been done of what those cuts would mean to the different organisations. It is a simple stroke of the pen, no vote in Parliament and absolutely no consideration for the consequences.
It is a staggering miscalculation to ignore our international obligations and moral duties, because we cannot protect ourselves at home if we do so. Many have argued that that money should not be spent abroad, but if we wish to tackle terrorism, asylum and climate change, we have to be out there. We have to be co-operating on an international scale to ensure that each of these points is addressed and that we live in a truly globalised world.
We have been told that tough fiscal decisions will have to be made, and I accept that. I recognise the extensive cost of the Government’s very generous support packages, but as of today, the only area in which the Government have cut funding has been the 0.7%, minus of course the public sector pay freeze. Perhaps the Minister —when he returns to the Chamber—might answer why that is. The party committed to 0.7% in 2019, 2017, 2015 and 2010. We all won those elections on the basis of promising that to our electorate. It would be a shame if we could not stand up for the promise to the world’s poorest people that we made to our electorate and deliver on all the programmes depending on UK funding.
I thank the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for his persistence in bringing this issue to the House today. I am deeply concerned by the UK stepping back from its responsibilities to the world’s poorest and abandoning its commitment by cutting aid, and so are many of my Vauxhall constituents who have contacted me.
Six years ago in 2015, we were the first G7 nation to enshrine in law our commitment to the UN’s target of 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid. As we prepare to host the G7 summit at the end of this week, the UK is breaking its promise, while other G7 countries such as France and the USA are maintaining or increasing their aid commitments. This is not the global Britain we want the world to see. The aid budget should be used to tackle the global challenges facing us all: the pandemic, the climate crisis and rising poverty and inequality.
A few months ago on 8 March, we celebrated International Women’s Day, and men and women across the UK spoke out against violence against women and girls. We can choose to challenge and call out the inequality we know that so many women continue to face. I am sure that Members across the House would agree that one of the best ways to help address that inequality is to ensure that women and girls have access to vital education —not only at home here in the UK, but right across the world.
The UK’s ambitious targets of getting 40 million more girls into school and 20 million girls reading by the age of 10 by 2026 have been adopted by the G7. Indeed, the Prime Minister said a few weeks ago on 12 May:
“Supporting girls to get 12 years of quality education is one of the smartest investments we can make as the world recovers from Covid-19. Otherwise we risk creating a lost pandemic generation…I’m going to be working throughout the UK’s G7 presidency to ensure leaders invest in those girls and boost children’s life chances around the world.”
Reducing the aid budget is in direct contradiction to the rhetoric from the Prime Minister a few weeks ago and the reality faced by millions of people working across the world to support women or girls and many others across the aid sector. The cuts will have far-reaching consequences for some of the world’s most marginalised and vulnerable people. Projects such as the International Rescue Committee’s Girls’ Education Challenge—the UK’s key programme for supporting girls’ education in Africa and Asia—could now be at risk because of this cut. I am concerned by the UK’s sudden role—[Inaudible.]
Thank you for calling me, Mr Deputy Speaker, a little earlier than I anticipated.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) on securing this debate—sad though it is that we have to have it—and thank Mr Speaker and the Deputy Speakers for allowing us to go ahead. The saddest part is that we will not be allowed a vote on the issue. We will not be able to decide democratically what this House wants to do. It has been decided for us.
I am very disappointed that the Minister is not in his place at the moment, because I wanted to paint a picture of the things that I have seen when travelling with the International Development Committee. I want everyone in the Chamber to imagine that their daughter has got married young, too young, and that there is now no contraception for that daughter, so she has a child early. However, we have not managed to help that future mother with nutrition, so when she has her baby—if she survives it—she will have a child who is stunted. That could be in any country that we help, because those are the poorest people in the world.
The child will never get the brain power it deserves, because it has been starved during the gestation period, but we are cutting the amount of money for nutrition, so he or she will never catch up—can never catch up, because once someone’s brain is stunted, it can never do so. None of us in this Chamber wants to see that happen, but that is the reality of it. The mother could die because there is no contraception, the child will not reach its potential because it is stunted, and the child might never have a job and so afford to send its own children to school. The cycle goes on and on.
The problem is that we will be partly responsible, because we are cutting our aid budget so much. I have seen some of the figures, and the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) listed a lot of the cuts, which seem totally random and not thought through—“Oh, we’ll just cut that!”, or, “Yes, we’ll do that!” I think that the problem with some of the Ministers who have made the decisions is that they have not been to see for themselves the devastation of the impact on those poor people, the poorest people in the world, whom we as a very rich nation by comparison should be helping.
I have spent 11 years in this place, sitting on the International Development Committee, so I have seen the good that our aid has done. It is not perfect; we do not always get everything right, but we get a hell of a lot right to help those poorest people. We have saved lives—but we will lose lives.
The Minister is not a callous man or a cold man, and I am sure that when he made his speech, it was not one that he wanted to give. I am sure that he will do what he is told and give the speech he has been given at the end of this debate, but I am disappointed. I hope—now he has returned to the Chamber—that he will read what I have said about what we are doing to the poorest people in the world. He should go back to the Treasury and to the Prime Minister to say, “We are wrong.” It is as simple as that. Let us change our policy and go back to 0.7%.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for securing the debate. I admire the authentic passion that he brings to this subject.
I oppose these unjustified and unwise cuts to aid. The Government are said to be motivated by a wish not only to balance the books and manage public spending, but to court popularity in the red wall seats. I can tell the Minister that opinion in Wales is very much against the Government on this and it will do them no good. When we get that long-overdue by-election in the north-east of Wales, they will see that for themselves.
From a Welsh perspective, I note that smaller European countries—Denmark, Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway—have met their 0.7% of GDP targets. Indeed, Sweden has provided not 0.7% but 1.14% of its GDP in aid. Sweden and the others can do this, and they achieve the 0.7% and more. Unfortunately, the UK can but chooses not to do so.
Leading figures in Welsh public life and local constituents alike have expressed their dismay, describing this cut as a double blow to the world’s poorest communities at the time of a pandemic. The Welsh Government themselves, in their policy documents on international matters—their agenda—say that they are
“committed to promoting social justice, fairness and equality”.
What value have those fair words from the Welsh Labour Government when we are tied to and overruled by this mean-spirited, short-sighted policy from the Westminster Government?
The United Nations Population Fund is to be cut by 85%, UNICEF’s core funding to support children by 60%, and total funding by £4.5 billion. Those figures would be a disgrace to any country, but given this Government’s pretensions to be a leading global power and an example to others, they are not only a disgrace but a major self-inflicted blow to the UK’s international standing.
I referred a moment ago to the United Nations Population Fund. What does that cut mean in real terms? Funding is to reduce from £154 million to £23 million, which will lead, it says, to up to 7 million unintended pregnancies, 2 million unsafe abortions and 23,000 maternal deaths. UNICEF says that it is “too soon” to judge effects, but
“children…in some of the world’s worst crises and conflicts will suffer”
as a consequence—as a deliberate effect, unfortunately—of this policy. Lastly, Save the Children says:
“These cuts will trim UK borrowing by a fraction, but devastate lives across many of the world’s poorest countries.”
Because of all that, I join others in appealing to the Minister and the Government to withdraw these cuts.
As host of this year’s G7 summit, which takes place later this week, the Government should be leading by example. Instead, they are abandoning their responsibilities to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. The Government’s plan to cut UK aid to developing countries will have devastating consequences.
The Government’s decisions will mean a cut of nearly 60% in humanitarian funding to Yemen, in the face of what is considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis; a cut of 40% in aid going to education, resulting in 700,000 fewer girls receiving an education; and a cut of more than 80% in aid for water, sanitation and hygiene projects in developing nations. The Government should be ashamed.
Save the Children has highlighted that
“areas critical for children like basic nutrition, family planning and reproductive healthcare are all set to see substantial cuts”.
Several constituents have emailed me in recent days to echo that. They have raised concerns that the cuts will have far-reaching consequences for the world’s most marginalised children, especially girls, at a time when they most need our support. In their view and mine, Ministers have turned their back on the world’s most vulnerable children.
How can the Government claim that the UK remains a world leader in international development? In cutting aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income, the UK will drop from the third largest donor in the G7 to third from last, damaging our reputation and credibility on the world stage. The Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto stated:
“We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development, and do more to help countries receiving aid become self-sufficient.”
So much for election promises.
The 0.7% overseas aid target is enshrined in law. Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, has made it clear that the Government’s decision to cut foreign aid without passing new legislation is “unlawful”. The Government have said that
“we will return to our commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on development when the fiscal situation allows.”
That is to ignore the immense suffering that the cuts will cause right now. One Wirral West resident who wrote to me with her concerns said:
“There is a danger that, once reduced, it will not return to 0.7%. Other excuses will be found.”
Numerous charities that work in climate and international development—including Greenpeace, Christian Aid and WaterAid—have said that the cuts will make it harder for countries to respond to climate change, and that they
“will inevitably harm the most vulnerable in society, pushing huge numbers back into poverty”.
Ministers should consider the long-lasting damage that their callous, short-sighted and counterproductive cuts to the aid budget will do to the UK’s reputation globally. There is significant opposition in this House and right throughout the country to the Government’s decision to cut overseas aid. The Government must think again, and they must maintain the commitment to 0.7% for international development.
I, too, oppose the cut in official development assistance spending from 0.7% to 0.5%. As we have heard, the fact that the percentage is based on the economy means that there is a reduction anyway, so the cut can be described only as what used to be known as a double whammy—a hit on some very poor people in the world.
In preparation for this debate, I asked the Ethiopian embassy to give me some thoughts on what the cut means to Ethiopia, which is the second-largest beneficiary of UK aid. As the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Ethiopia and Djibouti, I am very proud of that fact and of what we have achieved in Ethiopia. The embassy told me that we have improved access to education, to primary healthcare and to clean water, and resilience to crises such as famine. There we have it: education, health, clean water and food—things that we in this country take for granted.
As many people are, I am from a very ordinary working-class background, but I never had any problems with food, water, education or healthcare. I was very lucky—we were all very lucky—to be born in this country. We did nothing to deserve to be born in this country, where we have all those privileges. We were extremely lucky: millions of people in the world do not have that good fortune. I want us to continue to provide those benefits to countries such as Ethiopia and to many other countries.
It is important that we retain the 0.7% target, because it is not just about cash or money; it is a totemic policy that was put in place as a guide and an encouragement to countries around the world so that they, too, may meet that target. We cannot do it all on our own; we need other countries to help. We cannot tackle climate change all on our own; we need other countries to help.
I am of course very proud of this country and very proud to be British, but we have to recognise that over the past 200 or 300 years we have enjoyed the fruits of the industrial revolution, which all started where I come from in the north-west of England. We have enjoyed the prosperity that came from that; other countries have not enjoyed that prosperity. If, to tackle climate change, we say to those countries, “You can’t do the same as we did”—understandably, because we have a world crisis with climate change—we have to help them to get over it. That is another reason why we should continue with the 0.7% target.
I supported the coalition Government in their attempts to reduce the massive deficit that we had between 2010 and 2015, but nobody in this country will benefit from cutting this £4.5 billion. We have spent upwards of £300 billion on rescuing the economy because of the covid pandemic. That is nobody’s fault—we had to do it. Nobody in this country will benefit from our saving £4.5 billion, but many, many people around the world will suffer if we save that £4.5 billion. I cannot support that policy.
Supporting correctly targeted and transparent international development aid was one of the reasons I wanted to come to this place. There would be no shame on the Government if they were to turn round now and accept that they have got it wrong and reverse this policy, and I ask them to do that.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson).
The overseas aid budget is very, very important, so this debate is incredibly welcome, as it will allow Parliament —not Government—to have its say about the importance of this issue. Unfortunately, the Government’s stance has managed to offend every single church group and charity group that I know of in my constituency. They are appalled by the fact that the Government have sought to undermine the aid budget in this way and to break a solemn promise that they made to the electorate. In fact, it is a promise that they appear to have made on behalf of the whole House, not just their own party.
UK charities have been impacted on unfairly by this decision. The Government need to look at that particular. When charities go out there, make their stand, lobby, and say that they are going to achieve things, their credibility goes on the line. In this case, it has been snatched away from them, not by something that they have done but by something that the Government have done.
I am sure that the Government did not think that, tonight, they would be able to unite the Labour party, members of their own party, the SNP, the Democratic Unionist party and the Liberal Democrats, but they have succeeded in doing so, ensuring that the opposition to what they are planning to do with the aid budget is voiced.
Her Majesty’s Government are breaking their promise made not just on behalf of themselves, but on behalf of everyone in the UK. People voted at the last election with an expectation that this would be done. All the parties were committed to this. It became the law, and now that promise will be breached by the Government. In doing that, they damage the reputation of this Parliament, and they damage the reputation of all parties here. This is a solemn breach, and they must mend it.
The overseas aid budget is our soft diplomacy around the world. We have heard many speak about that and about how other countries engage in much harsher and harder diplomacy—currency-led diplomacy. This is a soft diplomacy that shows that we care, that we are a passionate people. Removing and reducing it says more about who we are as a nation than it does about anyone else. I implore the Government to reconsider this matter urgently.
The Government have set out all their excuses from the Front Bench, but none of them add up economically, morally, or politically. I therefore say to them that they need to revisit this and revisit it fast. If they try to repair the damage, it will just cost them more money. They should just reverse the decision and put it right—just fix it. This is something that we as a nation can afford and that we want to pay for. This is taxpayers’ money and the taxpayers say that they want this to be done. We recognise that the UK economy is in a better place than we had expected, and so it can afford this. Let us keep our word as a Parliament. Let us keep our word as a nation. I implore the Government to keep their word and to deliver on their promise.
This should not be about political advantage. It is about hundreds of millions of people around the globe whose lives, already fragile existences, are made more vulnerable now by the political calculations, as we have heard, of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. That is their decision. It is a choice for them to claim that this nation is now free to forge its own future, but they are demeaning our international stature by this decision—a reputation reduced at a stroke, as is so often the case under this Government.
This comes at a time when the world would ordinarily be hoping for greater leadership, as we host the G7 as well as COP26 later this year. As we have heard, we are the only G7 country to cut its ODA budget, while others, such as the US, Germany and France, are increasing theirs. I am afraid that cutting the ODA budget at a time when less developed nations are the most vulnerable globally to the pandemic will be seen as one of the most callous choices made by a Chancellor in our lifetime.
It is telling that so many across this House concur with former Prime Ministers of all hues. As we have heard, we are talking about a humanitarian aid cut of 70%. That includes funding to Yemen, considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, cut by 60%; life-saving water sanitation and hygiene projects in developing nations cut by 80%; aid going to education cut by 40%, which will result in 700,000 fewer girls receiving education according Save the Children’s analysis; and funding for the global polio eradication initiative cut by 95%. On the micro scale, the small British charity Dhaka Ahsania Mission UK has had its FCDO grant for work in northern Bangladesh cut by 100%. That programme was to bring basic education to some of the poorest and hardest-to-reach rural children in Bangladesh, whose families live and work on some of the most marginal land within the flood areas of the north of the country.
The Government’s drastic cut to overseas aid also risk damaging the world’s ability to fight the next global health disaster, which in turn, in self-interest, would keep Britain safe. In an open letter, 3,000 UK academics and global health experts highlighted how critical our interdependencies are across our world. The health risks and vulnerabilities are shared globally, and so should be the solutions if we are to address the emerging health threats. Just over 2% of Africans have been vaccinated, whereas more than 75% of all vaccines have been administered in just 10 countries.
The decision to cut official development assistance funding means that UK Research and Innovation needs to find savings of £120 million in allocated funds in 2021-22, hitting more than 800 Global Challenges Research Fund projects—for example, Warwick Medical School’s work in Africa on digital health and the introduction of remote consulting. In response to the pandemic, clinics have been contacting patients by phone, rather than offering in-person visits, for the first time in the continent. There is also the example of Newcastle University—perhaps the hardest-hit of all—which is doing leading work on water security and resilience to climate change, and on river deltas, flooding and rainwater. It is working with 90 partners in 20 countries, helping them and stemming migration.
Those projects have shown Britain at its best. They have shown it as reasonable and reliable—but no longer, due to the cuts. We are happy to see an aircraft carrier travel around the world, but at the same time cut projects to the most deserving. Perhaps the most depressing thing was hearing from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who said that this is something of a political gambit to win votes.
The Prime Minister has declared his aim to secure an agreement of the G7 to vaccinate the world against covid by the end of next year, but it is hard to see how he will have the brass neck to push such a proposal when the UK will be the only one in the room cutting overseas aid. The overall budget is being cut by a third, but covid funding masks the drastic cuts to core projects, including on the health and education of women and girls, which the Government claimed was a key policy, as well as those delivering humanitarian aid and addressing HIV/AIDS, conflict zones, famine relief, refugees and child education. It is hard to believe that the Government think it is remotely reasonable to slash funding for water and sanitation in the middle of a pandemic.
Even if funding is restored in a couple of years, the staff, researchers, experience, knowledge, networks and infrastructure of many of those projects will have been lost. The Chancellor has justified the cuts by highlighting the cost of the pandemic, but what does he think it has been like for low-income countries that were struggling even before they were hit by covid?
The UK is also hosting COP26, but any promises by the Minister responsible, the COP26 President, the right hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), will have little credibility, because when he was International Development Minister he made commitments that the UK has now abandoned. In 2019, he promised more than £100 million a year for the global polio eradication initiative, only for the funding now to be cut by an eye-watering 95%. The World Health Organisation has estimated that 80 million children are at risk from infectious diseases such as diphtheria, polio and measles owing to the disruption of immunisation caused by the covid pandemic, so vaccination projects should not face cuts. They need extra support to fund the necessary catch-up programmes. We must not allow the re-emergence of polio and other infectious diseases to take a toll on the children of low-income countries.
Covid is a global crisis and it calls for a global response. So far, the international community has struggled to live up to its warm words of last spring, but the UK is alone in cutting aid at such a critical time. Low-income countries have received less than 0.5% of all covid vaccines delivered so far, and the UK is one of those blocking the sharing of intellectual property and technology. This will prolong the pandemic for all of us and delay the economic recovery of low-income countries, and the UK Government must not compound the problem by removing support from some of the most vulnerable in the world. I support the call to restore overseas funding, and I do not believe that it can wait until next year. The covid crisis is now.
I rise today to make a simple yet resounding contribution to the debate on behalf of the people of Rother Valley, who wholeheartedly support the Government’s decision temporarily to reduce foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of our GNI. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in the most severe economic situation in 300 years, and residents across my constituency are experiencing great hardship, from losing their jobs to struggling with their mental health. My position is clear. I was elected to look after the people of Rother Valley first and foremost, and I shall do exactly that.
I cannot support proposals to allocate 0.7% of our GNI to foreign aid when there is deep-rooted poverty in my own constituency. Across Rother Valley, the claimant rate is about 5.5% and youth unemployment stands at about 10%. This has massively increased because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it is far too high. For example, in Maltby a staggering 8% of all the residents are unemployed. In fact, Maltby in Rother Valley is one of the most deprived wards in the country, and this situation is mirrored in other pockets throughout Rother Valley, such as Swallownest and Dinnington. That is where our aid money should be going. That is where the support should be going during this national emergency. It should go towards helping to level up Rother Valley for the British people.
But more importantly for this debate is the fact that we are not donating our own money. We are not donating taxpayers’ money for foreign aid, although that in itself would warrant examination; instead, we are sending abroad money that the Government and the state are borrowing. That’s right: we are borrowing money when we can least afford it so that we can send it abroad to foreign powers. How ridiculous that sounds! We are in debt, and getting further in debt because of the coronavirus pandemic, yet we are borrowing more money so that we can send it abroad. This is not our money; we are borrowing this money, and we are getting our own country into more and more debt. Surely we cannot afford to do that at this point.
On top of that, we should be careful about where some of this money is going. We are sending vast sums to dictatorships, to countries with space programmes and nuclear programmes, and to nations that have been receiving aid for decades with little change or positive results. It is a disgrace that we are sending aid to the People’s Republic of China—a hostile state with advanced military and industrial programmes led by a communist regime that threatens the rules-based world order and British interests across the globe—while we still have homeless veterans sleeping on our streets. That is not acceptable.
My hon. Friend mentions China, and that is a very good point because we should not be spending any aid in China. It was cancelled on my first day in office 10 years ago, unless it was legally required, and I am afraid that, in my view, the aid is being spent wrongly by the Foreign Office.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that clarification, but owing to the time I will move forward and end my speech shortly.
Of course we should donate money to the most vulnerable, and my right hon. Friend the Minister has mentioned those who most need it. We should never forget that the UK is the third largest donor in the G7, donating more than £10 billion this year alone, and that we have led the world in providing vaccines to poorer countries, but what seems to have been lost in the noise is that the Government have committed to returning the aid budget to 0.7% of GNI when fiscal circumstances allow. There is no doubt that this will be the case. In fact, the Conservatives are the only party to have ensured that we have met the 0.7% target—Labour has consistently missed it. That sums up the difference between the Conservatives and Labour: we are honest with people about the difficult choices that protect the British people. We are not flip-flopping; we are trying to make difficult choices at a difficult time, in this difficult situation.
The decision by this Government to take essential, life-saving money from the world’s poorest people is absolutely shameful and it has confirmed, once and for all, that the idea of “global Britain” has already lost its moral compass. For this idea to have been confirmed at April’s integrated security review simply beggars belief; the idea that by making the world’s poorest people even poorer we somehow make ourselves safer is absolute nonsense and it takes gaslighting to new extremes.
Do the Government really expect us to believe that the best way to make the people of the UK more safe and secure is to slash vital humanitarian aid to parts of the world that are already ravaged by conflict, war and famine, and thereby to force tens of millions of people to uproot their families and go in search of a better, more secure future? It was breathtaking insensitivity, adding insult to injury, that that same Integrated Review announced that money that could and should have gone to help underprivileged and poor people across the world will instead be spent on increasing the UK’s stockpile of nuclear weapons—it is utterly abhorrent. This country has a historical moral obligation to those countries that are now in the developing world. We have to help them because we are responsible for where they are now. For more than a century the UK grew rich and powerful on the backs of the poor. The countries we invaded, conquered, divided and plundered need our help now and we cannot cut it off like this—it is abhorrent.
I shall try to sum up, Madam Deputy Speaker, by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for the debate, and by suggesting a compromise.
I am happy to sign up to 0.7%, but I think we need to work to change the definition, because the one we use is a technical, official one, and we can do better. I suggest broadening the definition of “aid”, so that it includes peacekeeping operations, and the BBC World Service and TV. If I were the Government, I would seek a compromise here to say that we will get back to the 0.7%, but let us work on a longer-term definition that broadens the definition of “aid” from purely economic development—that is what the current OECD Development Assistance Committee ODA definition is—to one that encompasses peacekeeping at the beginning of the developmental process and goes all the way up to the BBC World Service and radio and the support of civilisational values at the other end. That is a longer-term solution, rather than the stale and dry argument between “0.7% good, not 0.7% bad”.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I thank you and Mr Speaker for granting this Standing Order No. 24 debate today. I urge the Minister here today, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to hear the voice of the House. He is a decent and understanding fellow, and I hope he will reflect on what he has heard this afternoon. I believe that only four of the very many people who have spoken supported the Government’s cuts, and I very much hope he will reflect on the innate decency of the British people in what he has heard from Members from all parts of the House this afternoon. The House is not with the Government on this and they should hear that. They should also hear the voices of their loyal Friends on these Benches; we want the Government to get it right. We are genuinely hugely concerned. We know that the cuts will lead inevitably to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths, and we are worried about the trashing of our international reputation. These concerns are shared across the House, by the Government’s friends, as well as by the people who are not warm towards this Government. I urge the Chief Secretary to consider what he has heard this afternoon and to reflect upon it in the discussions that he is having in the Treasury.
I note that my colleagues and I were referred to in a normally very wise national newspaper as the sort of people who, “Attend left-wing dinner parties in north London.” I confess that when I am London and not in my constituency of the royal town of Sutton Coldfield, I do live in Islington, but I should make it clear that most of my hon. Friends who have joined me today would not be seen dead at a left-wing dinner party, let alone one in north London.
I am extremely grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for chairing the debate and giving the House the chance to consider these matters, influence the thinking of the Treasury and its Chief Secretary, and try to ensure that we get this right.
Three hours having elapsed since the start of proceedings, the motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 24).
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Yesterday, Mr Speaker said that the Government should come forward with a vote in this House; he was pretty insistent on it, in fact. Today, I see that the press officer of No. 10 has suggested that there will be no vote on the 0.7% because the Government feel that they do not have to have one. Could you provide some guidance on whether that is in keeping with what Mr Speaker said?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point of order, but I am afraid it is rather a continuation of the debate that we have had. I do not think there is much else to add to what Mr Speaker said yesterday, but I am sure that Members on the Treasury Bench will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s views.