Before we come to the next item of business, I wish to remind the House that, on 7 June, I said:
“the House has not…had an opportunity for a decisive vote on maintaining the UK’s commitment to the statutory target of 0.7%. I expect the Government to find a way to have this important matter debated and to allow the House formally to take an effective decision.”—[Official Report, 7 June 2021; Vol. 696, c. 667.]
The Government have now come forward with today’s motion and the written ministerial statements to which it relates.
The motion before us may not be the preferred way of dealing with the issue for some hon. and right hon. Members, in that the formal procedural consequences of voting against the motion are limited and the motion itself is not amendable. However, it facilitates a dedicated debate on the subject, and the written ministerial statement commits the Government very clearly to a certain course of action in the event of today’s motion being negatived. The Government have assured me that they will not resile from such a commitment, which represents a very significant step forward in the House’s ability to scrutinise the Government’s policy on this important matter.
I personally would like to thank the Government Front Bench for enabling this debate to take place, and I thank them for respecting this House.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Written Ministerial Statement relating to Treasury Update on International Aid, which was made to the House on Monday 12 July.
I believe that, on this vital subject, there is common ground between the Government and hon. Members on both sides of the House, in the sense that we believe in the power of aid to transform millions of lives. That is why we continue to agree that the UK should dedicate 0.7% of our gross national income to official development assistance.
This is not an argument about principle. The only question is when we return to 0.7%. My purpose today is to describe how we propose to achieve this shared goal in an affordable way.
Here we must face the harsh fact that the world is now enduring a catastrophe of a kind that happens only once a century. This pandemic has cast our country into its deepest recession on record, paralysing our national life, threatening the survival of entire sectors of the economy and causing my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to find over £407 billion to safeguard jobs and livelihoods and to support businesses and public services across the United Kingdom. He has managed that task with consummate skill and ingenuity, but everyone will accept that, when we are suddenly compelled to spend £407 billion on sheltering our people from an economic hurricane never experienced in living memory, there must inevitably be consequences for other areas of public spending.
Last year, under the pressure of the emergency, our borrowing increased fivefold to almost £300 billion—more than 14% of GDP, the highest since the second world war. This year, our national debt is climbing towards 100% of GDP, the highest for nearly six decades. The House knows that the Government have been compelled to take wrenching decisions, and the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 expressly provides that fiscal circumstances can allow departure from the 0.7% target.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and the Chancellor for their constructive engagement with those of us who have been profoundly concerned about our departure from the aid target. Will he reconfirm to me and to the House that this is not a fiscal trap, and that the mechanism set out in a written ministerial statement is a genuine and full-hearted attempt to return to our commitment of 0.7% at the very earliest economically sustainable opportunity?
I thank my hon. Friend for his work on and expertise in this matter. I know how deeply he cares about this, in common with many other Members across the House, and I can indeed give him that confirmation. The decision that we made was temporary, to reduce our aid budget to 0.5% of national income.
Will the Prime Minister give way?
With great respect, if the House will allow me, I will make as much progress as I can in this speech, and then allow the, I think, 77 others who wish to contribute to have their say, so I will not take any more interventions.
In the teeth of this crisis, amid all the other calls on our resources, we can take pride in the fact that the UK will still invest at least £10 billion in aid this year—more, as a share of our GDP, than Canada, Japan, Italy and the United States. It would be a travesty if hon. Members were to give the impression that the UK is somehow retreating from the field of international development or lacking in global solidarity. As I speak, this country is playing a vital role in the biggest and fastest global vaccination programme in history. We helped to create COVAX, the coalition to vaccinate the developing world, and we have invested over half a billion pounds in this crucial effort, which has so far distributed more than 100 million doses to 135 countries.
The Government’s agreement with Oxford University and AstraZeneca succeeded in producing the world’s most popular vaccine, with over 500 million doses released to the world, mainly to low and middle-income countries, saving lives every hour of every day. The UK’s expertise and resources have been central to the global response to the emergency, discovering both the vaccine and the first life-saving treatment for covid. We have secured agreement from our friends in the G7 to provide a billion vaccines to protect the world by the end of next year, and 100 million will come from the UK. We are the third biggest sovereign donor to the World Health Organisation, and the top donor to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which vaccinates children against killer diseases.
We are devoting £11.6 billion, double our previous commitment, to helping developing countries to deal with climate change, including by protecting their forests and introducing green energy. I can tell the House that this vital investment will be protected.
When it comes to addressing one of the world’s gravest injustices—the tragedy that millions of girls are denied the chance to go to school—the UK has pledged more than any other country, £430 million, to the Global Partnership for Education, in addition to the £400 million that we will spend on girls’ education this year.
Later this month, I will co-host a summit of the partnership in London with President Kenyatta of Kenya. Wherever civil wars are displacing millions or threatening to inflict famine in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia or elsewhere, the UK is responding with over £900 million of help this year, making our country the third-largest bilateral humanitarian donor in the world. It bears repeating that we are doing this in the midst of a terrible crisis, when our public finances are under greater strain than ever before in peacetime history and every pound we spend in aid has to be borrowed. It represents not our money, but money we are taking from future generations.
Last year, we dissolved the old divide between aid and diplomacy that once ran through the entire Whitehall machine, by creating the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. In doing so, my objective was to ensure that every diplomat in our service was actuated by the mission and vision of our finest development officials, and that our aid was better in tune with our national values and our desire to be a force for good in the world. So I can assure any hon. Member who wishes to make the case for aid that they are, when it comes to me or to anyone in the Government, preaching to the converted. We shall act on that conviction by returning to 0.7% as soon as two vital tests have been satisfied. The first is that the UK is no longer borrowing to cover current or day-to-day expenditure. The second is that public debt, excluding the Bank of England, is falling as a share of GDP.
Will the Prime Minister give way?
I am just coming to the end. The moment the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts show that both of those conditions will sustainably be met, from the point at which they are met we will willingly restore our aid budget to 0.7%.
Will the Prime Minister give way?
Plenty of people want to speak in this debate. The Government will of course review the situation every year and place a statement before this House in accordance with the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015. But as we conduct that annual review, we will fervently wish to find that our conditions have been satisfied. This is one debate where the Government and hon. Members from across the House share the same objective—
Will the Prime Minister give way?
I am sure the right hon. Lady will have plenty of time later on.
As I was saying, we share the same objective and the same fundamental convictions. We all believe in the principle that aid can transform lives, and by voting for this motion, hon. Members will provide certainty for our aid budget and an affordable path back to 0.7%, while also allowing for investment in other priorities, including the NHS, schools and the police. As soon as circumstances allow and the tests are met, we will return to the target that unites us, and I commend this motion to the House.
I start by thanking you, Mr Speaker, and hon. Members from across the House for ensuring that this debate took place today. In particular, I thank the right hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I think they are the “lefty” propagandists that the Prime Minister was talking about a couple of weeks ago. I have to say that if the Prime Minister had confidence in the arguments he is making to this House, he would have given way to them a moment ago so that his arguments could be tested. He does not have confidence in them, otherwise he would have done so—that is obvious already. However, we do welcome the chance to debate this motion.
The motion is broad and, if I may say so, from this Prime Minister it is typically slippery. The House should have had the opportunity for a straight up/down vote on whether to approve or reject the Government’s cut to overseas aid to 0.5%. This motion does not do that. But the Chancellor’s written ministerial statement is clear: if the motion is carried, the cut in overseas aid to 0.5% will effectively carry on indefinitely. I will expand on that point in just a moment—[Interruption.] I will expand on that point and take interventions on it.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
I am going to develop that argument. When I get to it, I will give way so that that argument can be tested, in the usual way. But if the motion is rejected,
“the Government would consequently return to spending 0.7% of GNI on international aid in the next calendar year”.—[Official Report, 12 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 4WS.]
Let me be clear: Labour will vote to reject this motion tonight and to return overseas aid to 0.7% of GNI.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
I am going to summarise my argument—[Interruption.] I am going make my argument, and when I get to the relevant part, I will take interventions.
The case that we make is this: first, that the cut is wrong, because investing 0.7% on international aid is in Britain’s national interest; secondly, because the economic criteria set out by the Chancellor would lead to an indefinite cut that is likely to last beyond this Parliament; and, thirdly, because it matters that this House keeps its word to the voters who elected us. Every Member here—every Member here—was elected on a manifesto to retain the 0.7% target, and it matters that we keep our promises to the world’s poorest, particularly at such a time of global uncertainty.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. I agree with him about keeping promises, and Conservative Members were also elected to keep fiscal promises to reduce our debt and not to borrow for day-to-day spending. I hope in his remarks he will set out, given that he is not going to support this motion, which areas of spending he is going to cut to pay for it or which taxes he is going to raise. If he does not do either of those things, then I am afraid his promises and his vote today are hollow, and no one will believe him.
I have to say that it is a bit rich from someone who may break the manifesto commitment to say that the vote today and the words today are hollow, but just to take that straight on, it is a false economy, I am afraid. Cutting aid will increase costs and have a big impact on our economy. Development aid—we all know this—reduces conflict, disease and people fleeing from their homes. It is a false economy to pretend that this is some sort of cut that does not have consequences.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is making a House of Commons speech, not a partisan speech. Can I ask him what I would have asked the Prime Minister if the Prime Minister had given way? First, will he confirm that the cut we are discussing today is 1% of the borrowing the Prime Minister described that he quite rightly sanctioned last year? Secondly, will he underline the fact that this was an all-party promise made at the general election by every single one of us, and we really should not break our promises to the poorest in this terrible way?
Yes and yes. It was not ambivalent in the manifestos and it was not conditional; it was clear.
On the first part of the argument—the national interest—British aid saves lives, it builds a more secure world, and it promotes democracy and British soft power. For the last 20 years, that has been the political consensus across this House. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown first set the goal of the UK reaching the 0.7% target—[Interruption.] I am making a speech to the House and for the House. David Cameron and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead made it a reality, and we acknowledge that in the right way. It has been supported—[Interruption.] The chuntering is all very well, but this has been a cross-party position for 20 years, and successive Prime Ministers have kept to the commitment. Every other living Prime Minister thinks this is wrong; there is only one Prime Minister who is prepared to do this, and he is sitting there, on the Front Bench. I acknowledge what those on the Benches opposite did in relation to this—the previous Prime Minister is sitting opposite. I am openly acknowledging that, and it has been supported by all parties, and rightly so. As the sixth richest country in the world, Britain has a moral obligation to help the world’s poorest, and our aid budget has done that with fantastic results.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
I will in a moment.
This has been providing education for women and girls; fighting poverty; providing sanitation, healthcare and vaccines; building resilience and infrastructure; and doing incredible post-conflict and reconstruction work, where I think Britain does a better job than anyone else, so it has real results. Let us be clear what these cuts would mean: 1 million girls losing out on schooling; nearly 3 million women and children going without life-saving nutrition; 5.6 million children left unvaccinated; an estimated 100,000 deaths worldwide. [Interruption] The Prime Minister says “Rubbish”; that is the human toll of the choices the Government are making, and it is not rubbish.
The case being made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that the Prime Minister is making a promise he will not keep, but what did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown do? They made a promise but they never, ever spent 0.7% of GDP on aid, and therefore the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s speech lacks all moral force.
They more than doubled it; they set the goal, and then successive Prime Ministers implemented that goal. That is such a weak argument—11 years into this Government that is such a weak argument. When I was Director of Public Prosecutions, which has a five-year term, the very idea that I could turn around four or five years into the role and say it was somebody else’s fault five, 10, 15, 20 years ago—I have always found such an argument particularly weak. This is such a bad argument but it is used all the time. They have been in power for 11 years; either take responsibility for what you are doing or give up.
Our overseas aid budget goes beyond that moral obligation: it also helps build a more stable world and keeps us safer in the UK. In Afghanistan aid has supported improvements in security, in governance, in economic development and in rights for women and girls, yet, despite all the challenges that that country now faces and the security and terrorist threats that that poses to the UK—we know about those, and the previous Prime Minister the right hon. Member for Maidenhead knows about them—UK aid to Afghanistan is being cut from £192.3 million to £38.2 million. That is Afghanistan. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister chunters, but they are actually the Government figures. In Yemen, where there is the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world, UK aid has been cut by nearly 60%; in Syria, the Government are slashing aid by around 50%; and for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh there is a cut of 42%. All of those decisions will create more refugees, more instability and more people having to flee their homes.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the words of General James Mattis, the former United States Defence Secretary? When President Trump proposed cutting overseas aid, General Mattis said, “Fine, cut it, but you will have to give me, the Defence Secretary, more money to buy more bullets.”
I am aware of that, and it exposes the false economy argument in the Prime Minister’s case.
This cut will also reduce UK influence just when it is needed most, and of course it risks leaving a vacuum that other countries—China and Russia, for example—will fill. At a time when Britain will host COP26 and has hosted the G7 we should be using every means at our disposal to create a fairer and safer world, but we are the only G7 country that is cutting our aid budget—the only G7 country. That is not the vision of global Britain that those of us on the Labour Benches want to see, and I do not think it is the vision of global Britain that many on the Benches opposite want to see either.
All of us in this House long to see our aid commitments re-established at 0.7% of national income, but the Leader of the Opposition will nevertheless appreciate that we continue to be one of the most generous foreign aid donors. He is making a good point about the 0.7%, but can he explain why, in all the Labour years of Labour Government, they averaged 0.36% of national income on overseas aid?
They doubled it, actually.
Let me turn to my second point, which has already been debated: the economic argument behind the Government’s position. The Prime Minister and Chancellor say that these cuts are unavoidable because of the pandemic and the economic consequences we now find ourselves in, but the whole point of the 0.7% target is that it is relative to the UK’s economic success or challenges: it rises when we grow and falls when we experience economic shock like the pandemic. Nobody in this House is arguing for overseas aid to be maintained at the pre-pandemic level during the downturn in strict terms. We all recognise that a contracting economy means a relative contraction in our aid budget, but the Chancellor and Prime Minister are asking the House to agree to go beyond that, to impose a new target of 0.5% and to create entirely new criteria for ever returning to 0.7%. In effect, the Chancellor is proposing a double lock against reverting to 0.7%. The written ministerial statement makes it clear that Britain will go back to 0.7% only when public debt is falling as a percentage of GDP and there is a “current budget surplus”.
Will the right hon. and learned Member give way?
Let me make this point, and the Prime Minister can intervene if he wants. On the former point, the Office for Budget Responsibility does not predict public debt falling as a percentage of GDP until 2024 or 2025 at the earliest. If the Prime Minister wants to intervene, I am ready. That would mean returning to 0.7% will not happen in any year in this Parliament. I am clear about that. Does anyone want to intervene? That is the OBR’s prediction.
I thank the Leader of the Opposition for allowing me to intervene. Perhaps he can help in ascertaining when those targets would have been met in the past 20 years.
Well, that is a very good point. I think it is once in 20 years. However, there are two points here and, if there is a contrary argument, the Prime Minister can make it. On the first point, the OBR does not predict a fall in debt as a percentage of GDP until 2024 to 2025. Therefore, anybody voting tonight who is pretending to themselves that the cut is temporary and will be changed in a year or two is not looking at the facts. If anybody wants to say they have better statistics and the OBR has got it completely wrong, please do so—that includes the Prime Minister.
On the second point, the OBR does not forecast a current surplus for its entire forecast period. In fact, there is no expected timeline for that criterion to be met at all. What the Chancellor is setting out is not a temporary cut in overseas aid; it is an indefinite cut. Let me remind the House that only, I think, five times in the past 30 years has a current budget surplus been run—four of them, I might add, were under a Labour Government and one under the Conservatives—so the chances of those criteria being met under a Conservative Chancellor are remote at best. All the more so, because the statement creates an artificial £4.3 billion fiscal penalty for any Chancellor who seeks to rebalance the Budget. So this is an indefinite cut—it is not going to be reversed next year or the year after—and, however much the Prime Minister shakes his head, there is no contrary argument.
This is not just about economic necessity; a political choice is being made. Not only is it against our national interest but it further erodes trust in our politics. That brings me to my third point: trust. There is now a central divide in British politics and across the world between those who value truth, integrity and honesty and those who bask in breaking them. We were all elected on manifestos that committed to the 0.7% target. I am proud to have stood on that commitment and I know that many hon. Members across the House are as well.
Will the right hon. and learned Member give way?
I will in just a moment. Let me quote page 53 of the Conservative manifesto, which says:
“We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development”.
Do not shake your head, Prime Minister—it is there in black and white. As Conservative Members have said, that is not equivocal or conditional. It was a clear promise to voters and it should be honoured. If it is not, where does that leave us? There are already countless examples of the Prime Minister breaking his promises, such as: no hard border in the Irish Sea; no cuts to our armed forces; and an already-prepared plan for social care—the list is endless. That matters. It matters to the British people that they can trust a Prime Minister to honour a clear commitment. It matters to our reputation around the globe that the word of the British Government will hold in good times and bad.
Today, the House has the chance to stand up for a better kind of politics for the national interest, to do what we know is right and to honour our commitments to the world’s poorest. When the Division is called, Labour MPs will do so, and I am sure that others on the Conservative Benches will do so. I urge all Members to do so.
Order. I just remind all Members that there is a three-minute limit.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the Government for enabling this debate today.
I stood on a manifesto commitment to maintain international aid funding at 0.7% of gross national income—and not just that, because we said:
“We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development”.
Early last year, the pandemic hit. It had an immediate negative effect on the economy, yet in September 2020, when that effect on the economy had been seen, when public spending was increasing and when the Government were already borrowing hundreds of billions of pounds, they confirmed in their response to the fourth report of the International Development Committee that they would honour that manifesto commitment, saying:
“a commitment enshrined in law and one to which the new Department”—
the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office—
“will honour its responsibilities.”
The Government went on to say that investing that 0.7% was at the heart of the vision of the Government’s integrated review for the UK
“as an active, internationalist, problem-solving and burden-sharing nation.”
Where is that vision now, as the Government turn their back on some of the poorest in the world?
With GNI falling, our funding for aid was falling in any case. To reduce it from 0.7% to 0.5% is a double blow. This is not about palaces for dictators and vanity projects; it is about what cuts to funding mean: fewer girls will be educated, more girls and boys will become slaves, more children will go hungry and more of the poorest people in the world will die.
The Government have promised what they see as a compromise, and I am grateful to the Chancellor for speaking to me last night. I asked how long it would take before the tests are met and we return to 0.7%. I was told, “Four to five years, but it could be sooner, because the economy is recovering so well.” If the motion is defeated tonight, it will be 0.7% from January next year. The Government appear to be saying to us, “We cannot afford 0.7% next year because the economy is doing so badly, but actually the economy is doing so well that we could very well be able to restore 0.7% very soon”. The Government cannot have it both ways.
I certainly doubt whether the tests will ever be met in five years’ time. Meeting them depends not only on a significant recovery in the economy—the Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting trend growth of less than 2%—but on the Government reining in their inclination to continue to increase public spending. We are told that there will be dire consequences for tax and public spending if this motion is defeated. We have borrowed £400 billion—where are the dire warnings about that? It seems that £4 billion is really bad news; £400 billion—who cares?
Finally, as has been pointed out, the two tests have only been met in one calendar year in the past 20 years. I have been in this House for nearly a quarter of a century. During that time, I have never voted against a three-line Whip from my party. As Prime Minister, I suffered at the hands of rebels. I know what it is like to see party colleagues voting against their Government. We made a promise to the poorest people in the world. The Government have broken that promise. This motion means that promise may be broken for years to come. With deep regret, I will vote against the motion today.
There is not a single nation on the planet that has escaped the devastation of this global pandemic, and there is not a single person who is pretending that the challenge of recovery from covid is easy. We also know that it has been the poorest of our own society who have been hit the hardest over the past 18 months. Tragically, that has been replicated across the globe. Inequality has widened. Millions have been pushed into poverty. Development gains have been reversed, and it is the poorest and most vulnerable in our societies who are dying.
We therefore need a global recovery that builds forward better, creates a fairer, more inclusive and more sustainable world and ultimately honours the millions who have lost or are losing their lives to this terrible pandemic. In order to do that, the wealthiest countries in the world, of which the UK is one, must step up to tackle the great challenges facing humanity, not step away. However, it is with the deepest regret that this UK Government’s callous cut to the aid budget is not only jeopardising those efforts, but will mean that the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world will pay the ultimate price. Make no mistake: these cuts will cost lives.
The UK Government are making a desperate effort to stress the economic necessity of cutting aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI. They are desperate to talk about fiscal tests, borrowing levels and tax receipts, but they do not want to address the questions that put them to shame. How many children will go without an education? How many girls will be forced into unwanted marriages and teenage pregnancies? Ultimately, how many individuals will die needlessly because of this Government’s decision? Those are questions that the Government have run away from, just as they have run away from this debate and this vote for the past six months.
It should simply never have come to this. This Parliament should have had a vote on the aid cut before it was implemented, but instead the Government pressed ahead with international austerity on the backs of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Without consultation with those most in need, without any impact assessment and without any debate in this Parliament, the Government made their decision based on a Treasury spreadsheet. With a stroke of a pen, they signed the death sentence—a policy that will lead to 1 million children’s excess deaths.
Those who are considering voting in favour of the motion should reflect on these questions. Are they building forward and leaving no one behind in a global strategy against covid? Are they honouring the millions who are losing their lives and the many more millions who will lose their livelihoods as a result of the pandemic? Are they happy to sign that death sentence?
Let us look at a few examples of the life-saving aid programmes that have been curtailed or cancelled, with horrifying consequences right now. Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, where 20 million people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition. Many of them face famine after years of war. Despite that, the UK Government have slashed their humanitarian funding to the country by more than 60%. The UN Secretary-General put it bluntly:
“Millions of Yemeni children, women and men desperately need aid to live. Cutting aid is a death sentence.”
Given that 400,000 children under five might starve to death in Yemen alone this year, how on earth can this Government defend themselves?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about Yemen, although it should be acknowledged that the UK gave aid to Yemen well in excess of what we had budgeted for, and that we have a very generous record. Does he agree that it is not only a question of emergency aid? If we are to find peace in that country, we will need to give aid for its reconstruction to keep it out of civil war and famine again, so it is entirely the wrong time not to step up with the money necessary for a lasting peace.
I agree with every point that the hon. Member makes. It is important for our national security and in our national interest to be stepping up at this point, not stepping away.
The UK Government’s funding to the United Nations Population Fund, which provides contraceptives and reproductive health supplies globally, is being cut by a staggering 85%. Yes, Mr Speaker, you heard that correctly: 85%. The UNFPA has stated:
“These cuts will be devastating for women and girls and their families across the world.”
The money being withheld by this Government would have helped to prevent a quarter of a million child and maternal deaths, nearly 15 million unintended pregnancies and more than 4 million unsafe abortions.
A third example, which just shows how ridiculous the cuts are, is that tens of thousands of people are likely to die needlessly because nearly 300 million doses of medicine for the treatment of neglected diseases in Africa are at risk of expiring following the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s announcement that it is almost entirely withdrawing its allocated funding. So far, the UK Government have not confirmed that the expiring medicines will be distributed urgently rather than destroyed. What an utter folly—an absence of simple human decency. Hon. Members voting on the motion must tell their constituents that, because these are the simple facts.
Those are just three examples that cover women’s reproductive rights, disease prevention and urgent humanitarian assistance, but cuts are happening across the board. Programmes to eradicate poverty, to prevent conflict or even to combat climate change—in the year that we will host COP26 in Glasgow—are all suffering a similar fate. Each budget reduced, each project scaled back and each programme cancelled results in a loss of hard-fought progress, a loss of expertise and, fundamentally, a loss of trust. This so-called temporary measure will inflict long-term damage and long-term pain and suffering, which is why the cut must be urgently reversed. The Government are pretending that there is no other option than to cut from 0.7% to 0.5%, but we know that that is not the case. In fact, it is blatantly not the case.
It must have been a complete humiliation for the UK Government when they hosted the G7 summit in Cornwall last month, which should have been a moment of pride in demonstrating our shared collective values. This House may ask why. It is because every other G7 country has recognised the necessity of helping those in urgent need at this time of unprecedented volatility and increased aid spending.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way, but would he acknowledge that those countries may have raised spending from a much lower level and that we shall still be the third highest in the G7?
I thank the hon. Member for his comments. This is not a question of pride that we are still giving very generously—that we will be the third most generous. We are the sixth wealthiest nation. We keep talking about global Britain, but we are actually a shrinking Britain with these cuts. We are actually losing our soft power. You are going against national security. You are going against our collective national interest right across this House, with every party that is here today.
Sadly, because of these brutal cuts by the UK Government, the massive increase in spending—to come back to the hon. Gentleman’s point— by Germany was effectively cancelled out. Within these islands, I should also add, the Scottish Government have increased their international aid budget by 50%. That puts this House, frankly, at shame with this motion.
It is simply a matter of political priorities, and this Chancellor and this Prime Minister have shown where their priorities lie. Let us not kid ourselves that this is being spent on health, welfare and education at home because it clearly is not. The Chancellor chose to take money away from preventing famine and malnutrition, conflict prevention, and protecting our planet and marginalised communities from the devastating effects of climate change. Instead—I am glad to see the Chancellor in his place—he chose to spend the money on enhanced cyberweapons, AI-enabled drones and, the biggest folly of all, increased stockpiles of nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, after he delivered a windfall for the defence budget—in the very same month the cut from 0.7% to 0.5% was announced.
If that is not an act of national shame, let us look at the icing on the cake. The Prime Minister, who is no longer in his place—he should be embarrassed when I read this—believes that spending upwards of £200 million on a shiny brand new royal yacht, Britannia 2.0, is more important than using lifesaving aid to deliver a more just, peaceful and secure world. That is despite the fact of the royal family’s complete displeasure. Mr Speaker, how un-British could that be?
Order. Normally, we do not bring the royal family into our debates. They are outside our debates. Those are the rules of the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I raised it only because it is on the record elsewhere.
Even every former living Prime Minister has opposed this cut and continues to do so. The simple fact is that aid spending has always been in the Prime Minister’s sights, ever since he described it as
“spending huge sums of British taxpayers’ money as though we were some independent Scandinavian NGO”
“shovelling money out the door”.
He has now chosen to go against a decades-long cross-party consensus, breaking his own manifesto promise and that of all his Conservative colleagues as he is dragged far right by the UK Independence party and the Brexit party, and implementing their promises to cut aid instead.
This will likely herald a new decade of austerity. Let us call it austerity 2.0. We all know what the first decade was like. There is nothing temporary about this motion. This is not global Britain; this is a nasty, short, poor, brutish and, most of all, very little Britain. Across this House, we all stood on a manifesto commitment to protect the 0.7% spend on international development. That is, for those who are not very good at maths, 7p in every £10. When I describe that to children in primary schools I visit and to young people in my constituency, they are surprised at how little we spend as the sixth wealthiest nation in the world and they are right to be so.
Today, we have an opportunity to reaffirm our values, rather than be led into voting to balance the imaginary books on the backs of the world’s poorest. We must all keep to our word to deliver on our promises to our fellow global citizens who are the most marginalised and vulnerable people on earth. If covid has taught us anything, it is that we all share in the same struggles and challenges, but also the hopes and dreams of a better future, working together as one planet and one community. Now more than ever before we must step up to support our global community, not step away. There is no honour for those who have suffered as a result of this pandemic in stepping away. There is no meaning in the phrase “building back better” if we turn our backs. For those who decide to vote for this immoral motion today, there is no place for you to hide. When asked the question, “Why did you vote for this?” by your own children, friends and family and, equally importantly, constituents, it will be an indelible mark against your opportunity to do the right thing here today and you will have to live with it for the rest of your time in this House.
I draw the House’s attention to my interests, as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The Government have done the right thing today in ensuring that this House has a vote on this matter, and thank you, Mr Speaker, for standing up for Parliament in that respect. There is a straight choice here, as was outlined by the Leader of the House yesterday in his statement. It is between rejecting this motion, in which case the Government will restore the 0.7% from next year—that was the olive branch that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I suggested—and accepting this so-called “Treasury compromise”. I tell the House that it is no compromise at all; it is a fiscal trap for the unwary.
First, it is quite possible that these conditions will never be met. We do not need to look in the crystal ball—we can read the book. It is indisputably the case that there has been only one occasion in the past two decades—in 2001—when these conditions would have been met. If we look at what the OBR has said, we see that it is incredibly clear that the debt to GDP measure will not fall until 2024-25 and day-to-day debt will not fall until 2025-26. Given that the 0.7% goes up and down with our economic performance, a very important point is that the 0.7% policy protects us in that respect.
Does my right hon. Friend not accept that the OBR has exaggerated the gloom on the debt and deficit, particularly in the last two years? It exaggerated it by £50 billion for last year between November and March, so why on earth does he believe the OBR’s gloomy figures now? I am sure we are going to get the deficit down.
My right hon. Friend is looking in the crystal ball, but I have read in the book: in the past 20 years, this would have happened on just one occasion. So a vote for the Government tonight is a vote to end our 0.7 commitment.
I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend, but does it say something when every economic and political commentator has said that this new mechanism will not see the 0.7% return in the way that it should and that this is a cop-out of the highest order?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said, this is a trap for the unwary and a tribute to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s silver tongue. So I shall certainly be voting against this motion and against the Government today. I shall do so with absolute conviction and profound disappointment. This is only the third time since I was elected in 1987 that I have voted against the Government, and on one of those occasions I was in the company of the Prime Minister in the Lobby. It is never easy to rebel and I thank those who have stood with us to support our manifesto. We should not be breaking our promise in this way. We should certainly not be seeking to balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world. I am incredibly proud to have been a member of a Conservative Administration who declined to do that even with the austerity that we faced.
For goodness sake, this is 1% of the borrowing that the Chancellor rightly made last year to shore up our country from covid. It is a tiny figure and it is the only cut that he has announced. That will have an enormous impact on our role in the world and, above all, on the huge number of people who will be severely damaged, maimed, blinded, as often happens, or indeed who will die as a result of the cuts. I remind the House that the cuts include a 25% cut to girls’ education, which is a top priority of our Prime Minister and this Administration. For neglected tropical diseases—thank goodness, the philanthropists have stepped in for one year only to protect the British taxpayers’ investment—we have cut aid by 90%. In Yemen, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, we have cut it by 60%, which is literally the equivalent of taking food away from starving people. This is what we are doing to the world’s poorest. This is how we are trashing our international reputation. We are the only country in the G7 that is cutting in the middle of a pandemic. Everyone else is increasing. This is a decision that we do not need to make. Since we started this campaign, there has been a 9% increase in support across our country for the Government’s policies. It is, to coin a phrase, worse than a crime; it is a mistake.
May I say, finally, in humble respect to my own party, that some of us have seen this movie before? It took us 23 years—until 2015—to achieve an overall majority by wiping out the Liberal Democrat seats, and to achieve it we secured the support of decent, internationalist, pro-development spending people, who saw from our time of austerity that we would stand by this promise. The former Brexit Secretary—my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis)—and I visited Chesham and Amersham. May I say that our much-loved former colleague, Cheryl Gillan, would have been voting with us on this issue tonight? Anyone who thinks that this issue is not affecting our party’s reputation is living in cloud cuckoo land. Chesham and Amersham has the biggest Christian Aid group in the country.
There is an unpleasant odour wafting out from under my party’s front door. This is not who we are. This is not what global Britain is. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against this motion.
It does not show respect for the House to ask us to take such a significant decision with little notice, little explanation and no clarity about the consequences of today’s vote. It does not show respect for communities in the poorest parts of the world when this Government are willing to play games with their lives and livelihoods in this way. The Government present the motion as giving Parliament an opportunity to have a say on when and how the UK will return to spending 0.7% of GNI on aid. But today is not really about the 0.7% target, the cuts or the livelihoods that are already being affected by our reduced spending. It is about exerting pressure on Government Back Benchers who have been brave enough to call out what the Government are doing. Basically the Government are saying, “Back this or you will be blamed when taxes rise or spending falls”—things that will likely happen because of the pandemic anyway.
Today is yet another example of this Government’s complete lack of regard for parliamentary scrutiny, and they have form. There is a pattern of this Government withholding information until the last minute and then only making the most basic details available. Let us be clear: the Government have not brought forward a substantive motion for this debate. The motion that they have tabled is made in neutral terms—a device that was intended to allow the House to debate an issue without coming to a view. They claim that this debate is binding. It is not our procedures that make it binding; it is their political choice. This is a knee-jerk reaction dreamt up between last Thursday and yesterday in the face of growing criticism of this Government.
Yesterday’s written ministerial statement talks of returning to 0.7 % only when we are not borrowing for day-to-day spending and underlying debt is falling. On their own, each of those tests is a high hurdle. When combined, these conditions become incredibly strict. Since the 0.7% target was introduced in 2013, these tests have been met only once. They explicitly link ODA spending to policy decisions made by other Government Departments on tax and spending. This double lock could lead to an indefinite cut in aid spending, and, of course, the tests do nothing to prevent the Government from dropping lower than the 0.5%.
The Office for Budget Responsibility has said that the UK’s economy is forecast to return to pre-pandemic levels in the second quarter of 2020—faster than originally thought. If a return to economic normality is getting closer, why the need to introduce these extra tests before returning to 0.7%? They are just added roadblocks artfully placed by the Treasury on the track back to the legally mandated level of 0.7%. Fundamentally, the statement paints aid spending as an either/or choice; we are spending either on domestic public services or on international aid. It is an artificial choice that MPs are being forced to make. This is a breathtakingly cynical manoeuvre and the House must not fall for it.
I consider myself an economic Thatcherite, yet when I come to choose between money and lives, I always choose lives. This House should remember—this should be at the forefront of every Member’s mind today—that this is a vote where we are choosing whether or not to intervene to save lives. That is the key issue, not the monetary issue, which I will return to in a second.
The Government argue that this is a policy the United Kingdom cannot afford, but while we have heard about this being a small fraction of our borrowing, we should remember that it is an even smaller fraction of our spending. We spend, in a non-covid year, at least £800 billion; the £3.5 billion saving we are talking about is less than 0.5% of that. That is what the Treasury tells us is the critical, overwhelming measure that forces us to do something that has such dramatic consequences.
The Chancellor might say, as his press spokesman did in the course of last week, “Well, you find the money from somewhere else”—saying that to a past Public Accounts Committee Chairman is very dangerous for a Chancellor. We were in Chesham and Amersham a week or two ago, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said, and Cheryl Gillan would have said to the Chancellor, “Well why don’t you just cancel HS2?” That is between £100 billion and £200 billion; it would pay for 25 to 50 years of this shortfall. It is really that simple.
So I do not really accept what the Chancellor is saying—that the only place, indeed the best place, for savings to be found is cutting aid, which will cost lives. Such a choice is morally reprehensible. Let us be clear about that—morally reprehensible.
My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly good point, but has he also noticed that, in the Chancellor’s outstanding policy on spending announced last November, the cut that he is referring to—this cut of 1% of the borrowing on covid last year—is the only cut that has been announced?
My right hon. Friend is right. The prioritising of this cut makes it even more morally reprehensible. Indeed, at the same time, as I think the spokesman for the SNP, the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), said, we are increasing spending on defence. I happen to agree with increasing spending on defence, but I do not agree with cutting spending on things that will lead to the need for more defence because of migration, civil wars and the rest of it.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and the Leader of the Opposition have pointed out, the Government’s proposed double lock on returning to 0.7% is deceptive. It is designed to look reasonable. However, in fact, none of the people who have spoken so far has actually stated the full case. Although we say that the condition has been met only once since 1990, under a Conservative Government, and has never been met, really—well, it was once, just about—since the 0.7% policy was put in place, it has actually never been met since 1970, because the wording is not “a current budget surplus” but
“a sustainable current budget surplus”.
All the current budget surpluses we have been talking about so far have been for one year—and frankly, the one under us in 2018 lasted about 10 nanoseconds; it was a very tiny surplus. In practice, we have not had a sustainable current surplus since the 1970s, so I am afraid that, under the actual wording in the statement, we are not looking at 0.7% for a very long time indeed. We heard the Leader of the Opposition say it would be years, possibly decades, possibly never, and I think he is right about that.
Even if the conditions were to be met, the proposal will do nothing to deal with the crises that are caused by the policy already, right now. The Government argue that the cuts are temporary, but death is never temporary—and this will cause deaths.
Order. I call Hilary Benn.
Since Ministers announced that the UK was going to be the only G7 country to cut its aid this year, despite all the other countries facing the same fiscal pressures, there is not one Member of this House who is not now aware of the consequences of the decision that Ministers have taken—a cut of 85% in the support that we give to the United Nations Population Fund to prevent maternal and child death and unwanted pregnancy; a cut of 95% to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, at the very moment when the world is closer than it has ever been to eradicating that dreadful disease; and a cut of 50% in the support we give to the humanitarian mine action programme, which stops people losing their arms, their legs and their lives to unexploded ordnance. It is a very long list, and every one of those things harms our reputation and does not help us to persuade others, because other countries judge us not by what we say, but by what we do.
The choice before the House today is a very stark one: do we act to put this right, or do we accept the double lock that has been proposed? I urge the House to reject it, because there is a principle here. What is it about the level of Government spending on helping the world’s poorest people that means that it alone is going to be subject to these tests? No other area of Government expenditure is: just this one. If this is about protecting the public finances, why is this area of Government expenditure—the money we spend on getting children into school, or on vaccinating children so they do not die of diseases that our children do not die of—being singled out? I have great admiration for the OBR, but determining the level of our international aid spending is not part of its responsibility. It is the Government’s responsibility, it is a political responsibility, and Ministers should not try to pass the buck on to someone else, especially since the latest OBR forecast makes clear that it is exceedingly unlikely that the two tests would be met in the next five years.
Can I just pick the right hon. Gentleman up on that point about other areas of expenditure? The Treasury and the Chancellor have set out these tests—promises that are in our manifesto, and which we mean to keep. The comprehensive spending review is taking place this year, and it seems to me that we will be judging all other areas of Government expenditure by these same measures. I see the Chancellor nodding, so it seems to me that we are being very consistent here, and it is important that we keep our promises about our fiscal responsibilities as well as getting back on track to meet our aid responsibilities.
I am afraid that I take a different view of the Government’s consistency from the right hon. Gentleman’s, because they have chosen quite specifically, knowingly and deliberately to break a cast-iron promise to the world’s poorest people that was also contained in that manifesto. As I said in my last contribution on this subject, most of those people probably have no idea that this House made that commitment together, but the Government have chosen to break it, and the choice we are making today is whether we think that is right or wrong.
The Chancellor might think that the double lock is a way out of this political problem, but I do not think it is, because the issue before us has not gone away. It is just the same as it was on the day when the original cut was announced, and the question before us is whether it is right—morally, practically or politically—to break our word to the world’s poorest people. I would argue that it is not: it is wrong in principle and it is harmful in practice, as we have heard from excellent speeches made by Conservative Members. It is not who we are; it is not the country that we should aspire to be; and I ask the House to reject this motion so that we can restore aid to 0.7% and keep the promise that we made to the people of this country and the people of the world.
I rise really very sadly today, because like everybody else I stood on a manifesto that said that we would honour that 0.7% commitment, and I was there when we voted on it originally. The people we are trying to protect have already been hit, because our economy declined at the beginning of the covid pandemic. They will continue to be hit by this reduction to 0.5%, because 0.7% of a figure is a lot more than 0.5%. The amount has gone down hugely already, and people are suffering.
If we take a random family with two parents and maybe six children, four of whom are boys and two of whom are girls, the girls will be the ones who have less food and who would benefit from the nutritional programmes that we provide, but we will not be providing those programmes. The girls would normally get less food, because boys are prioritised in many families, and the boys would probably go to school, whereas the girls would not be able to go to school because they would not have the funding to enable them to afford it. The Prime Minister has stood so often on the promise that he will educate all girls with 12 years of quality education. Well, no matter how he protests, that is not going to happen now.
I feel that we are letting down the poorest people in the world. We are devastating their futures for £4 billion, which, as we have heard, is 1% of what has already been borrowed. It is not a lot of money. We have borrowed that money and, as has been said by many, the people who we should be benefiting will not benefit. They will not have malaria treatments, they will not have the neglected tropical disease treatments and they will not have all the help they need. Especially, they will have earlier marriages and younger pregnancies because we are cutting the devastating figure of 85% of the family planning budget and the abortion budget. That is going to devastate many girls. Many girls will die in early childbirth because of this decision by the Government.
I find it shocking that this Government are doing this. We are a Conservative Government, and we decided to spend the 0.7%. We legislated for it, and now we are letting the very poorest people down. I do not see how anybody who has heard the speeches today could in all conscience vote to support what the Government want to do with the double lock, because we will never get back to 0.7%.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank Members from across the House for their perseverance on this issue. When the Government announced last summer that the Department for International Development would merge with the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I and my fellow Liberal Democrats warned of the risk to overseas development assistance and funding. I asked an urgent question to the Foreign Secretary I wrote to the Secretary of State for International Development on those very issues. The Secretary of State said at the time:
“We are committed to the 0.7% of GNI commitment…We want the aid budget and the development know-how and expertise that we have in DFID—it has done a fantastic job…at the beating heart of our international decision-making processes.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 947.]
But here we are, just one year later. With the Government having claimed just last week that the opportunity to vote on this cut to ODA spending had been lost by a Division not being called in the recent estimates day debate, I wonder what has caused them to change their mind and bring forward today’s debate at such short notice.
Economic circumstances caused by covid are not the fault of the world’s poorest, and we and the many charities and NGOs that contacted me in advance of today’s debate know that the poorest will be hardest hit by these cuts. The reality of the covid pandemic is that no one is safe until everyone is safe. At the heart of this is the sharing of urgently needed vaccines around the world, but it is not only that. We know that global inequalities and poverty mean that people around the world cannot take precautions to protect themselves. We cannot expect those without access to clean water—785 million at the last count in 2017—to be able to wash their hands for 20 seconds.
Slashing development spending is deeply harmful to the notion of global Britain and to us at home. The cuts to this funding also mean cuts to spending within the UK, a fact that I think is sometimes lost. ODA funding goes to many places, including our universities that are doing research into how best to tackle the entrenched causes of global inequality and how to support developing countries to be self-sufficient. St Andrews University in my constituency is looking at up to 50% cuts to some of its active projects, which will impact on the poorest today. These cuts harm not only those in need around the world but our own research and innovation industries, which are vital to our response to Brexit and to facing the climate crisis.
Turning to the Government’s update, the fiscal tests for development spending presented today are the height of cynicism. They are designed never to be met. As others have said, we have met these tests only once in this century. Conservative MPs must know that supporting today’s motion means not returning to 0.7% in this Parliament, and that means that every one of them who supports the Government today will be breaking their manifesto promise for five years in a row. It is a straight choice: do we return to 0.7%, as we were all elected to this place to do, or do we fail to be the global leader on this issue that the UK has been to this point?
I am delighted to be called, and I pay enormous tribute to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is sitting on the Front Bench today. The Chancellor demonstrated during his career before reaching this place that we can do well by doing good. In working for the Children’s Investment Fund Management, he proved that finance and capitalism can support the world’s poorest and change lives, but he will also recognise that even an impressive fund such as that is built on a stable platform created by Governments and guaranteed by organisations, international bodies and others. I am very sorry but for that reason I will not be able to support him today, because that platform is so important. That confidence and ability to rely on a stable platform for the future is essential. Instead of that continuity and that guarantee of an enduring future, we are sadly going back towards the yo-yo policy. That is not just bad because of the variability; it is bad because it costs more and delivers less. Frankly, it is inefficient, it is an error and it undermines our capability.
Nobody in this House is more passionate about global Britain or Britain’s place in the world than me. Nobody believes more that we should have a place at every table and a voice in every room. But we need to know that we are no longer buying that with gunboats; we are buying it with the aid and the effectiveness that we bring.
My hon. and gallant Friend is making an impressive speech. He talks about global Britain; the point of global Britain is diplomacy, trade, aid and defence. Those four things are interconnected with one another: if we reduce one, that has an impact on all. That will be detrimental to everything from the integrated review to our outside approach.
My hon. Friend is completely correct. Of course, the reality is that we are not living in a vacuum—we are not taking these decisions with nobody watching. Our friends are watching and our rivals are watching. As we make this decision, as we change our policy on Afghanistan, and as we buy different seats at various UN tables through our diplomacy in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and South America, we know that we are changing the rules by which we live. We are literally changing the standards of our modern world through how we buy support, develop allies and partner around the world.
As Members have said, this debate is of course about the world’s poorest, but it is not just about the world’s poorest. Fundamentally, it is about Britain and how we protect ourselves. How do we shape this world? How do we get the standards that make sure that British businesses succeed, British finance shapes the world and British rules are those that the world lives by? We do that by making sure that we win the votes at the UN by making sure that we have the voices around the table—the voices of the Foreign Ministers of countries around the world. We can do it; I know that because we have done it. For 20 years we have won debates, shaped arguments and defended our position. We have done it by doing well and by doing good—exactly as the Chancellor demonstrated in his pre-political career.
I can understand why the Government might say that these targets—these ambitions—are too high and that they wish to set a different spending limit, but that is not the argument they are making. The argument that the Government are making is the Augustinian argument: “Lord, make me chaste—but not just yet.” If you wish to be holy, choose sanctity; if you wish not to be, be frank with what you are choosing.
That was a great speech and it is a pleasure to follow it.
The House does not need a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury to lay out how today’s motion is a con job, but I shall explain it anyway. The Red Book published at the most recent Budget shows that public sector net debt will not fall until 2024 at the earliest, but there is no way that a Chancellor or Chief Secretary would ever make a judgment about whether it was falling sustainably on one year alone, which means that this cut is now forecast to stretch way into the next Parliament. Yet the sums we are talking about are just 0.14% of the national debt stock. This comes at a time when we are putting up defence spending by £24 billion yet cutting aid spending by £4 billion. We are boasting about our soft power superpower status and then slashing into the budget that delivers that soft power. A country’s values are judged by its budget, and this aid cut tells us everything we need to know about this Government’s priorities.
The second point is that this aid cut will cost lives and it will cost livelihoods. The Prime Minister sailed into the G7 very proud of his declaration that he wanted to jab the world and make sure that, by the end of next year, the world would be safe from covid. However, by the end of the G7, the IMF said that we were about $23 billion short of what we needed for a global vaccination programme. This aid cut will not help that; it will hurt that effort to jab the world.
Moreover, we have a significant problem now getting the world back on its feet after this pandemic. The IMF thinks that we need about $200 billion extra in spending to protect the world against covid and $250 billion of extra investment—climate-friendly investment—to help safeguard the recovery. How will this aid cut help with that great global project that we must attend to in the years ahead? It will not; it will damage the world’s efforts to get there and it will damage our efforts to help persuade others to get to that big target.
It is 36 years to the day since we celebrated Live Aid, an example of how we in this country set out to lead the world to help the world’s poorest. On this day of all days the Government are set to surrender that leadership. We cannot have a rules-based order if we have a Prime Minister who continues to shred the rules. This is a renegade act by a renegade Government and I will be voting against the motion tonight.
There are, I think, two primary arguments for opposing the Government this afternoon. The first is that the 0.7% overseas aid target was a manifesto commitment. That is a serious point, though the electorate will appreciate that the expectations on which those manifestos were based have changed substantially since covid-19.
The second is that the target is in statute in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015. That is true, but the Act also envisages and allows for circumstances in which the Government might not meet the target in any given year, including the impact on public borrowing, and Parliament cannot stop the Government doing so. The Act, at section 3(1), is very clear about that. We have the right only to be informed of how and why the target is to be missed. As far as I can tell, nobody is proposing to amend the 2015 Act, so it will remain unchanged whatever the vote this afternoon.
I welcome the Government’s clarification that they are not seeking unilaterally to change the statutory target, but rather to miss it. Those are different things, and the former would, in my view, be both wrong and unlawful, but we either trust the Government or we do not. If we do not trust the Government—and we are here because a large number of Members do not—why would we trust them to keep the 0.7% commitment beyond next year when the Act so clearly allows them to decide not to? Transparent, externally judged criteria, arguably at least, would leave those of us who want to see the preservation of aid spending in a stronger position than under the 2015 Act alone, which applies what are in truth fairly loose shackles to Government on aid spending and leaves it entirely to Government to decide when to escape them, and that cannot help provide the certainty that the aid sector rightly seeks.
I believe in the merits of overseas aid spending and I have used many of the arguments made so eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who deserves huge credit for extracting the compromises that the Government have already made. Those arguments, though, must in the end persuade the public whose money we are spending. As Conservatives, we also argue that high public debt is bad for our long-term capacity to support the vulnerable everywhere. Enduring public support for aid spending may well depend on the public recognising that we have apportioned the financial burden of the covid crisis fairly, and not protected aid spending to the detriment of other areas of spending that they may find at least as deserving. I think the Government are now trying to strike that balance. Recognising though I do the strength of the arguments made by many on both sides of this House in the course of this debate, it is important and necessary to give the Government credit for that effort.
The Government’s decision to renege on their international obligations rides roughshod over those ring-fenced commitments and puts at risk the lives of millions across the globe. That is not in our national interest, and it is certainly not in our national security interest, and that is before taking into consideration our moral duty as a nation to alleviate global poverty.
Damningly, several former Prime Ministers, who proudly upheld our country’s aid commitments, have voiced their concerns about this Government’s handling of their international aid obligations. Indeed, we heard earlier that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) has committed to voting against a three-line Conservative Whip for the first time ever, so powerfully does she feel about this issue.
When the right hon. Lady spoke in this debate, she was crystal clear on what the aid cuts would mean, “fewer girls will be educated, more girls and boys will become slaves, more children will go hungry and more of the poorest people in the world will die.” A damning indictment from a former Conservative Prime Minister.
The UK has a long and proud track record of stepping up to support those in need. We cannot abandon our responsibilities to those around the world who are most poverty-stricken, least of all in a global pandemic. The UK is currently the only G7 country to commit in legislation to spending 0.7% of gross national income on international development, a target set by the United Nations, and it is the second largest international development donor behind only the US. That is right and proper, and it is a fact.
The extended families of many of my Ilford South constituents directly benefit from UK aid, lifting millions out of illiteracy and poverty and providing so much support to some of the poorest communities around the globe, including in Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka.
However, instead of leading by example, this Government are now, shamefully, the only G7 Government to cut their aid budget this year. There can be no clearer argument against cutting aid than the devastating impact on the covid response. In April this year, when the delta variant was ravaging India, vital coronavirus research centres—including a project tracking variants in India—had their funding reduced by up to 70%, prompting the project lead to say that the cut would not only make vital projects unviable but would, in effect, kill them dead.
In May, the Tropical Health and Education Trust criticised the UK Government for slashing £48 million in global healthcare funding as part of their wider cuts. Indeed, the NHS’s plans to donate 6 million items of personal protective equipment to healthcare workers fighting new variants across the world were held up, yet again preventing the containment of the virus.
We have a duty to act, and we must do so now before it is too late for millions who rely on direct aid. This is not about giving a man a fish to feed himself but about giving him a net to provide for himself. It is about our historic obligation to lift up the global south using our nation’s far greater resources.
I welcome the actions of Conservative Members who will join us today in voting against this callous and awful manoeuvre by the Government.
This is a very difficult debate, because all of us, on both sides of the House, know what good UK aid spending does. We are all proud of what we have been able to achieve with our aid spending. It does not just help in and of itself; it also helps the British taxpayer and British people because, by investing in areas like education, vaccination and supporting local economies, we stop some of those problems washing up on British shores.
We understand that but, when we get underneath all this, it is really about competing political necessities and competing political choices. On the one hand, as we come out of the covid pandemic—we know how many hundreds of billions of pounds have been spent—we have a real need, as a responsible Government in fiscal terms, to get our day-to-day spending back in balance and to ensure that our debt ends up falling as a percentage of GDP. That will enable the public spending to support all the vulnerable people in this country—all British taxpayers everywhere—as well as the poorest people in the world through aid spending. At the same time, there is a need to help the poorest people in the world. That is the balance that we are trying to strike, and I believe that the Government have struck the right one.
Some hon. Members have talked about the fiscal tests the Government have set, and they somehow suggest that the tests have been met only once in the past 20 years. I have looked at it, and both tests were met in 2000-01, 2001-02 and 2018-19. If I am right, although the Chancellor may correct me if I am wrong, underlying debt fell for four years in a row before the pandemic, so it is not true that, somehow, these are impossible tests.
Even if hon. Members do not believe me, the key thing, and this is why I respect and accept this compromise position, is that these are transparent and clear criteria. Everybody knows what they are. We can judge them independently, and the OBR, which we all know and trust, is perfectly capable of doing so. Finally, what is important is not just how much money is spent but how we spend it. What I would like to see in our aid budget is more of that money, not just with multinationals, which do a lot of good work, but for smaller charities working on the ground such as Harpenden Spotlight on Africa, which is based in my constituency and does fantastic work in rural Uganda. Having seen the work that it does on the ground, working with bigger multinationals and the Ugandan Government, I know that such charities can do fantastic things, and I would like to see the spend that we have, at 0.5% temporarily, go more towards some of those grassroots organisations so that we can spend our money even more effectively and get more for what we are doing.
I would like to say that it is a pleasure to speak in this debate, but that would not be true. I am appalled that we are having to vote on this proposal at all. This cut to our international aid budget reflects badly on all of us, not just the Government, and portrays the UK as inward-looking and self-serving.
This is a Tory manifesto promise that will be broken, and broken very publicly, as the whole world is watching. I wonder how the Prime Minister can have the bottle to attend COP26 and call on other countries to raise finances for climate action, given that he is in charge of a Government who are cutting their own contribution—surely the ultimate act of hypocrisy.
If overseas aid funding was going to finance vanity projects, trips to the moon or high-flying, cutting-edge dodgy ventures, I could begin to understand the reasoning behind the decision, but none of the projects fall into those categories. They are basic health and social care projects that benefit millions of people across poorer countries on our planet. It funds basic projects such as polio eradication, sexual health advice, the clearing of landmines, education programmes, the provision of clean water and sanitation, and the prevention of sexual exploitation of women and girls. The money funds training programmes such as the NHS overseas training scheme, which trains 78,000 healthcare workers in Nepal, Uganda, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
Many projects will now come to an end, affecting lives in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria, Somaliland, Nigeria and many more. By cutting funding to those numerous projects the Government will cause many unnecessary deaths, which is a scandal. We must highlight that callous approach today. Before Government Members say, “Oh, it is just Labour Members whingeing again”, let us have a look at the people who are calling for a reversal of the cuts: Tory Ministers such as Ruth Davidson; Baroness Sugg, who resigned from the Government in November over the cuts; and the right hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma).
World leaders have condemned the cuts, including Samantha Power, head of the United States Agency for International Development, and Malala, who calls on the Prime Minister to keep his promise of helping 40 million girls go to school, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who describes the Chancellor’s decision as “shameful and wrong”. Interestingly, every living former Prime Minister is opposed to the plan. These are big hitters, and their condemnation is clear. I therefore urge the current Prime Minister and the Chancellor to think again, go back to the drawing board, and plan a different route that does not disadvantage millions of people in countries less affluent than our own. This is not fair and it is not right. I want to be very clear: I will vote against the Government’s plan to cut the overseas aid budget by £4 billion this year, and I urge Government Members to do the same, because the world is watching.
I am pleased that the House has an opportunity both to debate and to determine this question. I have always defended our aid budget, and I do not think that we should search for economies at the expense of the most vulnerable globally and at the expense of our own reputation and influence globally.
I do not need to rehearse the case for ODA spending, which funds the vaccination of 55 million people; saves an incredible 10 million children from hunger; and helps to provide 50 million people with the means to climb out of poverty. I do not need to describe its soft-power benefits: the influence for Britain culturally, diplomatically, and politically; its symbolic significance; and its demonstration of leadership. I could not, therefore, support the reduction of that spending when the return to 0.7% is effectively at the whim or under the control of the Government. No matter how strong the intention to raise it again, events are always likely to overtake and overcome good intentions.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for the conversations that we have had in recent days. Given the uncertainty in the economy, I entirely understand his reluctance to offer a date for the restoration of the 0.7%. However, a set of conditions would provide a pathway, governed by objective circumstances, to a solution. Ceding control of the mechanism to the OBR and basing it on conditions that were met as recently as 2018-19—and forecasted by the OBR in 2018-19 and in 2020 to be met in the following financial year—would provide that pathway back to our manifesto commitment and our duty to the world.
The Treasury is effectively outsourcing its spending decisions to the OBR and the state of the public finances. I do not believe that that has happened before and it provides us with the certainty we need that the cut is temporary and that our commitment to 0.7% will be upheld. It also ensures that our public finances are protected. That not only gives us a route back, but ensures that the current position is transitory, so I will support the motion. The worth of a commitment is whether it is upheld in the face of challenges, and the motion allows us to meet our challenges and our commitments.
There is no economic or moral justification for cutting overseas aid from the richest to the poorest at this most desperate time in the eye of the pandemic storm, which spreads death, disease and hunger like a wildfire through developing nations. Let us imagine looking at our children starving in front of us, huddled in a tent in the blistering heat of Afghanistan, Yemen or Syria, as we think about the cars, houses, fridges and Netflix that people have in the west. Let us imagine looking at our daughters who could help create a better world with an education but will not get one, or our parents who have just died from covid. We can help alleviate such poverty, ignorance and disease by reinstating the aid budget. As host of the G7 and COP26, we should take moral leadership.
Let us be clear: we can afford to help those in greatest need more, not less because the cost of UK borrowing is down, not up, since the pandemic. Why? Global interest rates are down, so our borrowing costs are down—from £37 billion in 2019-20 to £23 billion in 2020-21. That is a saving of £14 billion in spending on debt interest for the UK, but aid spending is still being cut by £4.4 billion. The Prime Minister has just said that every pound we spend on aid has to be borrowed. We can afford more aid now because our borrowing and debt interest costs are massively down. Now is the time to invest and to build back better out of the pandemic in the developing world, and to invest in climate change adaptation, with new green industries that will help all our environments.
In a low interest world, now is the time to borrow and invest. A cut of £1 million in aid could be reinstated and service a debt of £100 million in investment. Only the G7 can borrow at such low interest rates; developing nations cannot. It is no use saying that we cannot afford it this year due to the pandemic and that maybe we will reinstate money in future years. We can afford it this year, and now is when the money is needed most. If savings were needed—and they are not—they should be made after the pandemic, when the poorest are back on their feet, not in their darkest hour of need.
We know the politics of popular nationalism. We know that 7.6 million people in the UK are in hunger, so of course people are saying that charity begins at home. But that hunger is unnecessary too and we should not give other G7 nations an excuse to cut their aid. We need more aid, not less. Britain is better than this. Let us make the world better. Let us reinstate our aid budget now.
I am glad to see the Chancellor in his place; I have a couple of specific questions for him on science policy.
First, in the context of this debate, I am very proud of our leadership and our contribution to supporting people right across the world. I voted enthusiastically for the Act of Parliament that brought the 0.7% commitment into law. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for his work on that Act, but, in so doing, he will know that it specifically anticipated circumstances in which, temporarily, the 0.7% target may not be met, including
“any substantial change in gross national income”
“fiscal circumstances…in particular, the likely impact of…the target on taxation, public spending and public borrowing”.
It is hard not to consider that the circumstances that we are experiencing fall plumb into line with what the framers of the legislation and those who supported it had in mind.
I was involved in the drafting of the Act and I do not believe that that is what we intended with those clauses. Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the Governor of the Bank of England has said that the economy will have been restored to pre-covid levels by next month? Does he not think that that is a very significant indicator of why we should not be doing what the Government would like us to do today?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I quite agree that that is an encouraging assessment, not least for the prospects of our returning to the 0.7%.
I studied very carefully the Hansard transcripts of the debate, and some of the criticism was that the criteria might be insufficiently precise, so the innovation of establishing in advance and giving to the Office for Budget Responsibility the trigger for the return is a sensible course. Indeed, this mirrors, more or less, the fiscal rules that were once called the fiscal mandate that were in place at the time that the Act was originally adopted. I want the target back, and I hope, as the Governor does, that that will be sooner rather than later, and that the Chancellor will be able to confirm that it is his firm intention, as I think is clear from what he said in the written statement.
My questions on science are twofold. First, the science budget is, very importantly, increasing from about £9 billion a year in 2017 to £22 billion a year from 2024-25. That includes, as it always has done, official development assistance. Will the Chancellor specifically reiterate the commitment to achieving that £22 billion by 2024-25? Secondly, will he reassure me on a report I read that the 0.5% limit on ODA could somehow prevent us from engaging in international scientific research projects that we were perfectly willing to fund because they are excellent and are justified as part of the budget that is rising to £22 billion? We all know that science is inherently international. The best science is global and the best teams are often international teams, so it would be a great concern if the 0.5% target would in any way be a cap on international collaboration. Knowing my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s commitment to science and technology, I cannot believe that that is his intention. His commitment to the £22 billion budget and his reassurance that the target will not be a cap will be very important in establishing that the science aspect can continue, and that this is, in effect, the removal of a ring-fence rather than a limitation on international scientific research.
The Prime Minister told the House earlier that there was common ground in the House. I think he is right, but I suspect, having listened to contributions from the Conservative Benches, that he is not standing on that common ground. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for the courage that he and other Conservative Members have shown in standing up for this issue consistently, and also standing up for their manifesto, along with the rest of us. The Government have a good story to tell on this issue if they wanted to—on Gavi, for example, and on their support for education for women and girls. I wonder why they do not want to tell this story to the country. I think it is because too many of them are ashamed of it and because, as the right hon. Gentleman said, they are playing to a gallery but playing to the wrong gallery. It is a dangerous game that they are playing.
The proposals before the House today are myopic and mean-minded. They are mean-minded because we can see that this is a trick—a fiscal trap. We were promised a straight up-and-down vote but we were not given one; instead we were given this little twisting mechanism. It is mean-minded, too, because, as we have heard, it will cost lives to make these cuts, and because they are already a cut to what would have been a smaller cake anyway. The money had already gone down and to cut it further is simply mean. With any of these programmes we cannot simply turn the taps on, then off and then back on again. The damage that will be done to British overseas aid programmes will carry on long after we restore the 0.7%, if, under this proposed mechanism, we ever do restore it.
This cut will set programmes back. It will set research and development back, including for my constituents. I have a constituent who works in water purification and another who works in localised energy matters. These cuts will have an effect overseas, but let us be clear: they will have effects in this country as well, in terms of innovation and our ability to take technologies across the world. They will have effects in areas such as the polio eradication programme. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) has said, cuts of 95% will set that programme back. The cut is myopic, for the reasons already set out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat): it will damage British soft power, with the British Council telling me that it will lose 15% to 20% of staff and will be unable to carry out programmes in the countries where we need to be influencing; and it will affect our strategic position, as the Leader of the Opposition has said.
Overseas aid is a moral issue, but if we cannot look at it like that, let us be clear: our adversaries, Russia and China, and our enemies, al-Qaeda and Islamic State, will fill the gap if we do not, and this will simply make matters worse in the long run. This is a short-sighted, short-termist cut. It is mean-minded. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield for his leadership, and I will not be accepting this motion tonight.
I start by acknowledging the excellent speeches made by a number of hon. Members who have so passionately set out the case for official development assistance. In particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) eloquently and characteristically passionately made the case for the ODA budget. In normal times I would be with him in this debate, but today I support the Government’s decision.
I am a big believer in the role of international aid and how it shows the world what we stand for as a nation. Our role on the global stage is amplified by our magnanimity through international aid, and in a world with ever-increasing threats our ODA budget represents a tool through which the UK can demonstrate its generosity, moral strength, friendship and nobility. When considering this, one can understand why it evokes so much passion from Members in all parts of the House, Indeed, many of my constituents have spoken to me about the importance they attach to the ODA budget, but time and time again they have said to me, “We know it has been a difficult time. We know we must manage the economy. We know we must pay the bills.” As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already said, we cannot ignore the state our economy is in, after the worst crisis since the last two world wars. Having borrowed more than £300 billion, the equivalent of 14.3% of our GDP, it is clear that difficult decisions have to be made.
In that context, I understand why the Government have had to make this temporary cut, but it must be temporary. With the clarity offered by the Treasury, I believe it will be. Of course we must repair our economy—that is not a controversial thing; it is simply what is expected of us by the British people. We will also continue to spend almost £10 billion as part of the ODA budget if this cut is to go through. The British people also expect strong public services and efficiency from government, so difficult decisions are inevitable and they obviously have to be made. We also continue to demonstrate our soft power through other means, with the distribution of the vaccine being an excellent example. The Government’s investment meant that there were 500 million doses available to 168 countries, all distributed at no profit. By the end of the year, we will have distributed 3 billion doses—this is British ingenuity and British generosity.
Finally, in a world of finite resources and increasing strains on our economy, we must make sure that our ODA is being deployed effectively, and projects should be subject to the highest levels of scrutiny. In other words, not just how much we spend, but how we spend that money should be important—outcomes matter. The effectiveness of the budget should not be measured purely in monetary terms; we should measure it against robust targets, which are set to achieve our objectives and ultimately make the world a better place.
I am enormously proud of our record of supporting the most vulnerable and using aid to make our people and those around the world safer, but we have suffered the biggest recession in 300 years. That is not a situation that we could have predicted when I fought the election on our manifesto promises, yet the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 explicitly anticipated this sort of crisis where a departure from targets is necessary.
If I had been asked during the election whether I would reconsider the 0.7% commitment, I would have said, “Yes, but only in the very darkest of times,” and if the last year or so has not been the darkest of times, then what is? Since my election, we have faced an enormous number of difficult choices. In Rutland and Melton those difficult choices and dark times have looked like this: the Government having to support 17,900 jobs through furlough and 4,500 individuals, and underwrite nearly £123 million in loans—that is almost half of all employee jobs in Rutland and Melton that we had to save. That support was necessary, but the costs pose real risks for the future, too.
Even with the reduction in UK aid, we remain the second largest donor in the G7. The taxes of residents of Rutland and Melton will continue to go towards saving lives, disaster relief, peacekeeping, and tackling climate change. We should be proud of that, and I hope that the reorganisation of the FCDO can augment our capacity to respond to crises outside of the ODA budget through the new conflict centre.
But today in the Chamber hon. Members have criticised the Government by arguing that other G7 countries are not temporarily reducing their ODA budgets, yet in 2020 we were one of only two G7 countries to meet that target and we are the only one to do it every year since 2013. Perhaps it is because those countries have not met their commitments in normal times that they do not now need to make a temporary reduction; indeed, they had no plans in the first place to meet the 0.7% they promised.
With this temporary reduction, we will still exceed the funding provided by every country bar one; we will remain one the most generous countries in the world. This is a temporary measure that recognises the fiscal duty we have to our children. It recognises that we will still stand by those most in need, and the Government have defined the fiscal circumstances in which we will return to 0.7%. This does not diminish our country, and, while this is a difficult decision, it is the right one for now because we have faced the darkest of times.
The Scottish National party opposes these cuts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) eloquently outlined. We are committed to our 0.7% manifesto commitment. Some 98.2% of the votes cast in the Sterling election in 2019 went to parties committed to the 0.7%, so I am representing my party and my constituency in the stance we have taken.
I pay tribute to and warmly praise a number of Members on the Government Benches; we have heard some refreshing blasts of integrity throughout this discussion. This is too important for Punch and Judy politics.
There are just three points I would make, because this is a well-trodden path at this point in the debate. First, the 0.7% figure is a Government manifesto commitment made barely 18 months ago. Secondly, yes, covid has changed everything of course, but it has changed everything for everybody else as well, and to use covid as a pretext for this cut when the developing world is also dealing with covid and the effects of the economic impact is reprehensible.
Thirdly, the cut is out of step with the rest of the world. The UK is the outlier in this; other countries are increasing, not decreasing, their aid spending. The UK remains, as we have heard, a significant donor of international aid—I applaud that, I welcome that, I acknowledge that—but this is a broken promise to the poorest people in the world at the worst possible time, and it flies in the face of the global consensus. Canada is increasing its spend by 28% while the UK is decreasing its by 25%, and France is increasing its spend by 36%, Italy by 13%, the US by 39.4% and Germany by 6%. It is the UK that is out of step.
Global Britain is clearly not the SNP’s project, but we are engaged in this because we do not want to see the poorest in the world let down. We want to try to rectify a mistake and to see Scottish taxes—or, more realistically, Scottish debt—go to effective purposes rather than where this Government might take them. We are entirely unconvinced by the Government’s compromise proposal; we think that to present this as an arithmetic formula is to misrepresent this issue entirely. Estimates and numbers are arguable of course, but, as has been acknowledged throughout this debate, only once in the last 20 years have the criteria foreseen within the Government’s mechanism been met. We fear this is a formula to entrench the cuts, not to bring the spending back.
Now, of course the books need to be balanced, and I feel for the Government in that task, but the difference between 0.5% and 0.7% is barely 1% of the global sum. For a Government who have spent money on increasing defence spending and nuclear capacity, blown £1.3 billion on a needless stamp duty freeze and yet—worse—are talking about a royal yacht, I think the priorities are wrong. I do hope that a significant number of Conservative Members will join the coalition to put this right.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith).
I have been speaking to my constituents in Derbyshire Dales who are, by and large, generous and kind-spirited people. I have listened carefully to their views and, following those discussions, I will be voting for the motion as it provides certainty and a clearly outlined path for our international spending to get back to our 0.7% manifesto commitment while delivering responsible public finances and allowing us to maintain a high level of spending on other priorities at home such as the NHS, schools and the police. It also delivers on our manifesto promises for responsible public finances.
At 0.5%, the UK is spending more than £10 billion on overseas aid this year. That is a phenomenal amount of money. Let us not forget that we are one of the most generous, kindest and biggest spenders in the world. I remind those who wish unfairly to characterise the Government as somehow mean or uncaring that Conservative Governments have consistently spent more on international aid than Labour. Under Labour Governments between 1997 and 2009, the average spend on overseas aid was just 0.36% The Opposition are therefore hardly in a position to lecture the Government on overseas spending. The Leader of the Opposition may find those arguments helpful in court, but they do not work here. Once again, the Opposition are totally out of tune with the British population.
We believe that, given the unusual time that the Government have had with the covid pandemic, we must balance spending. The Government have spent more than £400 billion on keeping the nation safe, keeping our families secure and preserving jobs and livelihoods. That has given the people of my constituency a way forward in frightening and worrying times. On behalf of the people of Derbyshire Dales, I thank the Government for their support. They are kind, not mean.
We must not forget that, as my adult sons remind me regularly, every pound we spend on international aid is borrowed from our future generations. As a mother of four adult children, and representing many families in Derbyshire Dales, I have a duty to help restore the public finances to some sort of responsible level. For those reasons, I have no hesitation in supporting this sound motion.
We had a 20-year cross-party consensus that we should meet the UN’s target of 0.7% of GNI on aid. I very much regret that that consensus has been lost. Of course, when GDP goes down, our aid budget will go down, but the pandemic is no justification for reducing the proportion of national income committed to international aid.
In a fine speech, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) referred to the strength of Christian Aid in Chesham and Amersham. As a Treasury Minister in the late 1990s, I saw the churches play the key role in securing that cross-party consensus. They were the instigators of Jubilee 2000 ahead of the millennium and the key supporters of Make Poverty History afterwards. Those campaigns led to the historic 2005 Gleneagles deal in which $40 billion of debts owed by 18 highly indebted poor countries were written off. The idea of cancelling unpayable debts inspired people and drew them together. Rooted in teaching in the Bible, it had a dramatic impact on Government policy and on the lives of millions.
Last month, I joined MPs on a virtual trip to Togo organised by the Christian charity Compassion UK. We “visited” its UK aid-funded child survival project. The situation in Togo is desperate. Under-five mortality is among the worst in the world, one in 25 babies does not reach the age of one, and women have a one-in-58 chance of dying in pregnancy or childbirth. Compassion UK’s work, supported by UK aid, is starting to change things: in the first year, the project reached more than 4,000 people in extreme poverty and the number of full-term healthy babies delivered was 24% above target. UK development aid helps to save lives among the world’s poorest people.
We met somebody called Ama, who registered in the programme when she was seven months pregnant. She was struggling to feed her children. When she reached full term, her husband left suddenly. She also had malaria. Her baby and her own life were at risk. The child survival project provided food and hygiene support. Her expenses were paid, she gave birth to a son and she has since been able to set up a business of her own.
Even a small amount of aid saves lives. The cuts to UK aid put thousands of projects like those run by Compassion UK in Togo at risk. I really hope that Parliament will reject the motion.
I am grateful to be called to speak in this debate. I recognise that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has probably the most difficult job in the Government, bar none, and perhaps in the whole country. He is the only person employed to say no and make difficult choices about the spending demands that we all present at the door of the Treasury. Nevertheless, I share the concerns, fears and doubts expressed by colleagues this afternoon about whether the cuts that we are debating will become permanent. I share their fear that 0.5% will become the default setting for our overseas aid spending and that the cuts will become locked in—a permanent withdrawal and a permanent stepping back from the level of commitment that Britain has given overseas among the poorest countries on earth. I share those fears not only for reasons that hon. Members have already outlined, but because I think we are in danger of overlooking just how enormous the effort was that got us to the point where the House of Commons was united on making the commitment to 0.7%, as the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) has just reminded us.
I am perhaps one of the few Members present who was in the House in 2005. I recall the enormous lobbying efforts made not just by churches, but by trade unions, women’s institutes and groups in all our constituencies. There was demand for that commitment. It required Opposition Front Benchers to work with Government Front Benchers; it required Opposition Back Benchers to work with Government Back Benchers. For me, it represented a high water mark of what can be achieved in this House of Commons when people choose to bury some of their political differences and work together for a cause much bigger than our most immediate political needs.
My right hon. Friend is making a wonderful speech. He refers to his longevity in the House. Does he remember how Make Poverty History galvanised national opinion? Crack the Crises is the current successor to that generation, and it is reinforced by younger people. Does he accept that once covid is over and they are able to show what they feel, they will make very clear their opposition to this foolish decision that the Government have made?
My right hon. Friend makes a very strong point, and he is right that there was a popular movement behind the commitment. Nevertheless, it was not universally popular. There were staunch critics inside and outside the House, sections of the press absolutely hated it, and as we went through the financial crisis in 2009 and 2010, the criticism became louder.
As the ripples from that crisis have moved through our politics over the past 11 years, it has become increasingly difficult to keep making the case for investing 0.7% of our GNI in helping the world’s poorest people, but I am proud that we chose to stick to it. Even when we were making very difficult decisions and choices about other aspects of public spending, we took a decision that spending more on the people with the very least, globally, was the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do then in the wake of the last financial crisis, and I believe it is still the right thing to do now as we are going through this awful pandemic. Yes, we face a moment in our politics when we have enormous pressures on our public finances—and I made those remarks about the Chancellor of the Exchequer very sincerely at the start—but what is a difficult moment for us fiscally and politically is an absolutely tragic, devastating moment for the poorest people around the world for whom the pandemic has been the cause of another wave of dire poverty and suffering, and that is what we are really debating here this afternoon.
These are difficult issues, and sincere speeches have been made on either side of the argument, but I am very sad that I will not be able to support my Government this afternoon. As I have said, I think the 0.7% commitment we made all those years ago was the right thing to do—I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for the role he played—and sticking to it now is still the right thing to do.
The Prime Minister brought a very sombre tone to the Dispatch Box this afternoon, trying to convince us that this decision was all a regrettable consequence of the economic impact of the pandemic, but that rings hollow when we remember the glee with which he stood at the Dispatch Box this time last year and announced the abolition of the Department for International Development, when he described aid and DFID as a
“giant cashpoint in the sky”.—[Official Report, 16 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 670.]
We also remember that, as Foreign Secretary, he quoted Kipling in a Buddhist temple in Myanmar and, when he was a journalist, used the language of “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles”.
This is a Prime Minister and a Government who know little and care less about the struggles of poverty, whether at home or abroad, or about the life-saving, life-changing difference that aid can and does make around the world. A bit like the English votes for English laws Standing Orders that we will be debating later today, the aid budget to them is just another part of David Cameron’s legacy that they seem so keen to bury. I think the Prime Minister likes the fact that he is the only living Prime Minister who supports the cut in the aid budget. It is part of this year zero, hard rain approach to the UK consensus that has existed for so long.
That consensus saw every single Member of this House, as has been said, elected on the commitment of 0.7%. It is a consensus that has existed for 20 years, with a target that has been met consistently since 2013. The 0.5% figure is completely arbitrary; 0.7% was calculated by international organisations when it was set in the 1970s. As I have said, the 0.5% figure is completely arbitrary, and we have not heard why it is not 0.4%, 0.6% or 0.3%. It is simply that it sounds good and sounds as though the Government are taking decisive action. That seems to be their attitude to so many aspects of government just now, never mind the impact or the feasibility.
The hon. Member is making some very serious points, but does he accept the fact that the UK has set out 0.7% in law? Many countries around the world also commit to 0.7%, but always fall short and do not bother to have a discussion about it.
But the UK is now resiling from that. The Government are resiling from it, and they will not even give us a legally binding vote on the decision to resile from the commitment agreed by the entire House. What we consistently hear from the Dispatch Box is about being a soft power superpower and about global leadership, and in a year when the UK should be taking the lead, it is taking a step backwards.
Of course, the decision to cut aid has been shown to be doubly problematic because aid was due to fall anyway. GNI has been falling as a result of the pandemic-related economic contraction anyway, and there would have been tough decisions and funding squeezes, but those would have been predictable and manageable. There is this notion that it is all being paid for by debt, but we could say that about all kinds of aspects of Government spending. All Governments around the world run debts and deficits, and they invest for the future. Aid is an investment in all of our collective futures, but what is happening now in real time is that drastic, sweeping cuts have already been made to get down to this completely arbitrary target of 0.5%, and these will be massively difficult to undo.
Despite today’s attempt to bounce the House into a decision and all these other shenanigans, the Government’s own rhetoric does not add up. The Prime Minister repeatedly says that the covid investment they are making is going to be additional. Well, if it is going to be additional, how can the Government spend 0.5%—they must be spending more than 0.5%—and if it is not additional, then what else is going to be cut? It does not make any sense.
I did not get an answer in the last debate about the concerns raised about UK Aid Match. The public have been donating £1 to certain charities in good faith on the basis that the UK Government would match that, but charities such as Mary’s Meals have now been told that this funding will be delayed, and they will be wondering whether it will ever appear at all. Hundreds of constituents in Glasgow North have contacted me about that since the cut was first announced. That speaks to thousands of activists and organisations across the country.
Aid works best when it is stable and predictable in the long term. There will be no undoing some of the damage caused by the UK Government’s cuts. They have been hastily and, in some cases, disastrously implemented. A return to 0.7% as soon as possible will at least mitigate some of that damage. I hope that some of the Tories who have been opposed to the Government’s decision so far will continue to show resilience and vote tonight to restore our aid commitment to our poorest brothers and sisters around the world.
I did not come to this House to reduce overseas aid, but then I also did not come here to tell people that they cannot see their parents or their grandchildren, that they had to close the business they have spent years building up, or that they could not get married with their friends and family there to support them. Those are just some of the soul-searching choices that covid has forced on all of us in the past 18 months.
Today’s choice is no different. Voting for the Government’s motion will take £5 billion out of the overseas aid budget. Voting against it will cut £5 billion out of our public services here in the UK or necessitate tax rises on our constituents, many of whom have been living on restrained incomes over the pandemic. It is important that we are honest with our constituents, especially at a time when the NHS has a huge task to get a backlog of millions of operations and treatments down, when so many children have had their education so badly disrupted, and when the police are dealing with a chilling rise in crimes such as domestic violence.
There have been some suggestions in the debate today. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) suggested cutting HS2. That would no doubt be very popular in some places, but business leaders throughout the east midlands have made it clear that that would significantly degrade the ability to grow the economy there. The hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law) suggested degrading our cyber-capabilities at a time when our public services, businesses and society are increasingly reliant on digital infrastructure and digital services. There are no easy choices here. There are no cost-free options.
The second point I want to make is that the definition of ODA is very narrow. It excludes much of the support the UK provides overseas from being included in it: £85 million invested to help to develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is now being distributed without profit across the world; we are the largest donor to Gavi, immunising 300 million children against infectious diseases; and we provide £350 million a year to the UN’s peacekeeping budget on top of our ODA contributions.
Finally, even with the reduction to 0.5%, the UK will spend more as a percentage of GNI than almost any other major economy—more than the US, Canada and Japan, and well above the OECD average. We will still be the third-largest bilateral humanitarian donor in the world. So to talk about Britain as if it is withdrawing from the world or turning its back on people is, in my view, divorced from reality.
First, like others, I wish to pay tribute to individuals on the Government Benches who have brought us here because of their tenacity. They have shown the courage of their convictions, convictions the Government claimed to hold but, despite the obfuscation of the Prime Minister, are seeking to renege on. That is why this debate is so welcome. It is an opportunity to rehearse the arguments we have had before. As others have said today, they remain—the principles still remain and the arguments still apply. It is still in our own economic self-interest to ensure that we remain committed to 0.7%. It is environmentally necessary, especially with the spectre of COP26 arising. It is also the case that international aid is a right, not a charity given by us. It is something we need to repay for historical acts.
There are two primary arguments, twin imperatives, that I think apply and those are the arguments that I wish to make. First, there is a moral imperative. This is for humanity. We are all part of the human race and we are required to look after our sisters and brothers wherever they are, whatever nationality or passport they hold—even whatever colour that passport may be. Equally, and as a corollary of that, it is a necessity of public health, because it is in our own self-interest that we carry out these actions.
I will deal first with the moral argument. Many others have quite eloquently made it clear that these cuts will be catastrophic. It is not enough for the Prime Minister to say that the pandemic is a once-in-a-century event. It will be repeated, as we have seen with the variants. Indeed, we will face other health challenges if the third world continues to face the problems that it does. That is why we have to address the issue. Those in the third world are unable to deal with these things as we are, notwithstanding the challenges we are already facing. We have seen what happened in Africa with AIDS; the consequences for Africa from coronavirus are horrendous. There is therefore a moral imperative that we take actions to ensure that we protect them, as well as us.
That brings me to the public health argument, because if we do not address the issue there, it will come here. As others have mentioned and as I said earlier, we have had the delta variant. We have had other variants, and we will have other variants still, from which our vaccinations will not be capable of protecting us. If it is not the coronavirus outbreak, it will be some other form of ill health that will challenge humanity, and therefore we must take every step possible to ensure that we not only protect ourselves, but protect everybody: by protecting everybody we protect ourselves.
People will march. People will come. People will fall ill and people will be infected. If Border Force cannot keep out drugs, it will not be able to keep out individuals and an illness. It is therefore in our own interest to ensure that we carry out that moral imperative, which is right for the benefit of society and us all. Equally, for our own benefit in our own land and, indeed, individually, we must protect the public health of the country.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), who speaks with passion. I do not accept his arguments, but I accept that those people who will vote against the Government tonight do so with genuine concern. I welcome the fact that we have a lot of SNP Members here, we have the Democratic Unionist party here and we have the Liberal Democrats— ah, but only two Labour Back Benchers have bothered to stay in the debate, and one has just arrived, so I am not so sure about the concerns expressed by those on the Labour Benches.
I welcome one thing that the hon. Gentleman mentioned: the fact that this Parliament is having a vote and a debate on this issue, and that is to the great credit of the Government. They are bringing forward a motion that they may well lose tonight, and that is to their credit. They are letting this Parliament decide on this very important issue.
I think this debate is not particularly about the merits of overseas aid and 0.7%; it is about the state that the economy is in. I cannot tell from sitting here whether the Chancellor is his happy self. He is very popular at the moment because he has been giving money away and helping people, but there is an economic crisis coming down the line, and certainly on these Benches, we should recognise that. That is the reason we should support the cut of £4 billion in overseas aid. If we do not do that, the Chancellor either has to borrow £4 billion more, or he has to tax more, or he has to cut public expenditure. That is actually what the issue is about, and that is why I will be supporting the Government tonight.
I will just touch on what I think is more important with overseas aid: it is the outcome, not the amount of money we are spending. Labour Governments used to say, “We are spending record amounts of money”, but that did not mean they were having record outcomes. When I was chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking, it was often the small charities without state money that were having the best outcomes.
The great thing about this Government is what they have done with the vaccine and AstraZeneca. The fact that we have given this to the world and that there will be 3 billion doses across the world by the end of next year is tremendous testament to this Government. That is world-leading and it is changing the world, and it is saving millions of people from being seriously ill and dying. That is the sort of thing we should be proud about. We should not be worried about a figure.
Many right hon. and hon. Members have already spoken about the different areas that will be impacted by the proposed cut to the international aid budget, and I will focus my remarks on a subject that is really important. Last month marked 40 years since the first reported AIDS case and the subsequent discovery of HIV, and although we have made big progress in fighting HIV in the UK and across the world, AIDS remains a leading cause of death for women of reproductive age. Although it is preventable, over 1.5 million people acquired HIV last year, and 690,000 people lost their lives to an AIDS-related illness. The HIV epidemic continues to devastate communities right across the world, yet screening has fallen by 40% in Africa and Asia over the past year.
Ending new HIV transmissions in the UK is a global effort, yet shamefully, our funding of the UN AIDS budget has been reduced by a staggering 83%. As we know only too well, pandemics can only be beaten together. Up until now, the UK has been instrumental in reducing the stigma around this terrible disease and helping to save the lives of millions of people, and I pay tribute to the Terrence Higgins Trust for its new campaign launched today, called “Life really changed”, celebrating people who live with HIV.
I represent Vauxhall, a constituency with a large migrant population and one of the highest rates of HIV prevalence in the country. Now more than ever, if we are truly committed to global Britain, it is so important to step up and meet our responsibilities, not step back. The UK should take a leading global step to help reverse the devastating spread of HIV and AIDS, otherwise how are we supposed to meet our target of zero transmissions by 2030? I hope that Members will reflect on that, and the fact that this is about issues not just in our country, but right across the world. I hope that they will join me in voting against this motion.
I welcome the fact that this Government have brought this motion before the House today, but I am afraid that I am going to vote against it, and to restore the 0.7% commitment. I am worried that the new criteria would only have been met in one of the past seven years, and goodness knows when it will be met again. Effectively, we are locking in 0.5% for the foreseeable future. I absolutely acknowledge the huge generosity of the UK taxpayer and the contribution by COVAX and others, but we cannot stop now.
I voted and campaigned for that 0.7% commitment, and was really proud that a Conservative-led Government enshrined it in law. I proudly stood on a manifesto to keep it in 2015, 2017, and 2019. Our 2019 manifesto said that
“We are proud of our peace-building and humanitarian efforts around the world, particularly in war-torn or divided societies, and of our record in helping to reduce global poverty”
“We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development”.
There were no riders that that was dependent on the state of finances, on whether debt was going up or down, or on how much revenue the Treasury was bringing in. There was no small print, no ifs and no buts, and I believe in standing by manifesto pledges. It would have been even more unsatisfactory if we had not at least had this vote today.
Everyone has talked about difficult decisions. It was specifically to avoid short-term difficult decisions that we enshrined that commitment in law, and crafted a careful formula so that the money went up in good times and down in bad times, as is happening. However, this will be a double whammy, as has been said: funding is going to go down because the economy has contracted, and it is going to go down further because the formula is being changed as well. Covid has impacted severely on many countries whose health systems are far less resilient than ours at dealing with the pandemic, and as we know, global pandemics need globally co-ordinated action, including us all facing the challenges posed by the new strains mutating in far-flung corners of the world. The UK plays a key part in that and must continue to do so, not just with vaccines.
However, this decision is also a false economy. Abruptly pulling projects part way through—pulling funding for the malaria programme in Nigeria, which is supposed to go on until 2024; cutting £48 million from the NHS overseas training scheme, when people are being trained in important posts in developing countries; the £80 million cut to water sanitation in the middle of a pandemic; and the circumstances in Yemen that I mentioned earlier—makes no financial sense and increases uncertainty.
Global Britain is not just about projecting military and diplomatic influence, or pursuing new trading and investment partnerships beyond this continent. Complementary to global Britain is the exercise of soft power, which is hugely important and has proved highly influential and effective for UK plc. Our world-leading commitment to 0.7%, enshrined in law, is an important and, I have to say, very cost-effective part of that. Climate change is a major focus of it—we are chairing COP, for goodness’ sake. What message does this reduction to 0.5% send to the rest of the world? This is a false economy at the wrong time.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
The choice that we face today is clear: are we global Britain or little Britain? This is a trap for the unwary. In fact, it goes further than that. This is a deliberate cut in aid, which the Conservative party has been wanting to do for a long time. I share the concern of many Government Members who do not want to be seen as the nasty party. We are the only G7 country to be cutting our aid, so it simply does not have to be done. We do not have to shrug our shoulders and say, “We are in the middle of a pandemic. This is another cost of covid. We just have to get on and do this”. No, this is a deliberate choice about what we do to retain our promises to the world’s poorest people at a time when we are all suffering around the world together. This is not only about how much we are cutting, but how the cuts are being made: not very strategically; very fast for many of the smallest projects which have the best outcomes; and without any impact assessment being done. The figure of 0.7% is not some arbitrary number dreamt up by a Treasury civil servant.
One of the most memorable days of my life was standing on a stage in Edinburgh, introducing Eddie Izzard to a massive crowd of people. Why am I bringing that up now? It is because it was a Make Poverty History rally. People had got up the night before and travelled overnight in coaches from communities across the whole country. They were of all ages and all backgrounds, and had one mission: to make poverty history and see the 0.7% prescribed in law. That happened many years after; there were many years of campaigning that brought the 0.7% into reality. It is not something that we can lose so easily. I share the concerns of many Members that if we lose it today, it will be many years—if ever—until we see the return to 0.7%, which the British public want.
People from across my constituency have written to me saying that they do not agree with the aid cuts. It is a small amount in the whole scale of Government spending—just 1% of our borrowing—and it is very good value for money. It is a false economy and it is wrong to cut the South Sudanese peace project, which has been built up over many years and is based in trust. This cut will result in devastating results in South Sudan. It has been called a “crushing blow” to the people of South Sudan. Today is an opportunity to restore the cross-party agreement on aid, to restore our ambition and our own influential place in the world, to do the right thing and to vote against these cuts.
I call Catherine West—[Interruption.] We do not seem to have any audio, so let us go to Tobias Ellwood and come back to Catherine West.
This is a vote about our soft power; a vote on the definition of global Britain; and a test of our political courage to see the bigger international picture and stay committed to our international obligations even when we face difficulties at home. I will not tire of telling the House just how dangerous and complex our world is becoming. A simple question that I put to the Prime Minister, the National Security Adviser, the Defence Secretary and all the respective heads of the armed forces was this: is global instability over the next five to 10 years going to increase or decrease? In every single case, the answer was increase.
We face an unpredictable, uncertain decade, with growing authoritarianism and extremism on the rise, an ever assertive China and Russia, and, of course, climate change increasingly wreaking havoc across the world. The Government acknowledge that in their own integrated review, but hard and soft power are two sides of the same coin, as we learnt to our peril in Afghanistan. Cutting our soft power will have operational, strategic and reputational consequences. The sheer scale of global challenges was acknowledged at the G7 summit, yet here we are debating the reduction in our soft power profile—the only G7 nation to do so. In contrast, China is using its aid programmes as part of a long-term strategy to advance its own global reach. Look at what is happening across Africa and Asia. A new global soft power war is taking place. This, to me, is the face of a cold war that is slowly emerging, but we in the west have yet to wake up to its reality. China is weaponising its immense soft power to significantly advance its influence and reach and to promote its own interpretation of the international rules-based order, and it ensnares dozens and dozens of countries into its sphere of influence. That is why we should not be diminishing our own soft power.
I suspect the Government may succeed in winning the argument today, but they will lose the moral high ground. We claim to be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective. It is simply not a good look to promote a global Britain agenda, emphasising leadership, responsibility and resolve, but then to cut our overseas aid budget.
I urge the Government to ask what Churchill might say to the House now, given the 1930s feel to the world. Why not articulate to the nation the wider geopolitical uncertainty that we face, the urgency for the west to regroup, and the influential role that Britain could play if we retain our soft power commitments so we can begin to address the progressively dangerous trajectory our world is now on? I have no doubt that, if the Government did that, the nation would be fully in support.
May I begin by saying how pleased I am that the Government have finally bowed to pressure and that we in this House are having the vote that we were promised on cutting money to the world’s poorest people? It is absolutely right that we have that vote because every Member of this House must declare his or her position. I fear that, without a meaningful vote, Members on the Government Benches could continue to hide behind crocodile tears or meaningless words of regret, without ever having to display the courage of their convictions and stand up and tell this Government that the decision to take £5 billion away from the world’s poorest people is fundamentally wrong and morally repugnant.
At the end of this debate, we will all have to declare where we stand, and no one can continue in the hope that, by choosing to stay silent, he or she will not be asked to come off the fence. Although this vote has been a long time coming, it does mean that we are all in this House well rehearsed in the arguments. Absolutely no one can pretend that he or she does not know what they are voting for this evening, or that they do not understand the consequences of their actions when they vote. They now know that, if they support the motion, that money is not coming back.
I find it utterly incomprehensible that the Government of one of the richest countries in the world appear hellbent on making the poorest people on this planet even poorer and more susceptible and vulnerable to disease, hunger and the lack of clean water. For them to push this as vigorously as they have, despite every single analysis telling them and us that millions of people will die, simply beggars belief. It is shameful that, if the motion is agreed tonight, it will mark a new low point for a country that pretends or boasts about being a beacon for tolerance, decency and humanity. This is the test of that vote.
As I have said before, this country has a moral obligation to help those in what we now call the developing world, not least because this country is in no small way responsible for the situation in which they now find themselves. The UK—Great Britain—grew rich and powerful on the backs of the world’s poor. We invaded, conquered, divided and plundered, leaving behind an impoverished wasteland. It is about time that this country woke up to its moral responsibility to assist those we abandoned to live with the consequences of British imperialism. We should not be running away from that responsibility. Those on the Government Benches have to accept that that is the consequence of their action tonight.
We now go back to Catherine West.
What a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara), who is wearing a navy suit and a navy tie with white dots, just like our favourite football manager, Mr Southgate.
I am very proud to stand on my promise today, which was laid out in the manifesto of each of the political parties in the House, for the UK Government to spend 0.7% of gross national income on the world’s poorest. The UK’s economy and health have been ravaged by covid. In my local authority area alone, covid has led to many, many deaths and the loss of jobs. Haringey borough has one of the highest numbers of workers on furlough and at risk of joblessness in the autumn, and child poverty is on the increase. However, my constituents care deeply about the work that the UK does around the globe, especially in Africa. They do not wish to see so many girls lacking in education; they do not wish to see more infants die from malaria; and they do not wish to see Daesh prosper from the withdrawal of important civil society programmes that promote stability throughout north Africa.
The decision we take today will affect the UK’s regional universities as well. For example, it could inhibit the important work that is done to strengthen health systems around the globe by doctors and nurses working through the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, or the important scientific research by Durham University on the making of insecticide-treated anti-malarial bed nets. The Prime Minister claimed to support British science but the motion suggests the opposite.
In 2021, 23 more billionaires reached The Sunday Times rich list. Inequality is worsening day by day and the Government’s proposal fails to address the grotesque inequality around the globe. If I thought that, if I agreed with the Government today, they would instead fund summer schools for children in my constituency, reinstate the 5,000 mental health beds that have been withdrawn since 2010, or fund the capital needed for social homes and housing services for those in housing need, I would change my mind. Instead, the motion is the beginning of more austerity, along with the £20 cut to universal credit recipients, the potential breaking of the triple lock for pensioners and further cuts to local government.
The past 10 years brought the country to its knees and weakened health systems and society, so when covid reached our shores, we fell like flies. When will we learn that the Government must act to protect and build defences, or we will suffer even more?
I thank the Government for being courteous in having the Prime Minister present and the Chancellor respond to this debate. They have been courteous in holding a vote at long last, but I am afraid that is where my thanks end.
As we have heard in the course of this debate, the 0.7% target was not only a manifesto commitment made by every political party in this place but a commitment to the world’s poorest. It was a commitment to join in force with other nations around the world. Many Members have said, “We didn’t do anything—no other country followed us” but Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Luxembourg all now fulfil the 0.7% target, France is set to hit the 0.7% target next year, and the United States of America has uplifted its spending by $16 billion. We say that we did not have influence; I beg to differ.
Today’s debate is really about the fight for parliamentary engagement. In 2015, this House voted for the International Development Act, which enshrined the right to make sure that we did not make short-term decisions and that when the years were good the spending went up and when the years were bad the spending went down. That is something we should have kept in mind before we made today’s decision. Instead, we have been offered a mirage. What looks like a compromise is something that will never be reached. Despite the arbiters of the OBR, the spending decisions on the issue will still be made by the Treasury. This announcement comes before a spending review, so we do not know how much is going to be spent on social care, health or education. We do not know what the Government’s financial commitments will be in the years to come. We are therefore being led down the garden path, and by that I am appalled. Just as with Gordon Brown’s checklist to join the euro, we will never meet these targets.
The Government’s proposal is a short-termist approach. Like many Members, I have seen the value of what we spend in foreign aid, whether that is on women’s education, AIDS programmes, deradicalisation or climate change. I believe passionately that the UK leads by example in those policy areas, so I will not apologise for voting against the Government tonight. I will not apologise for the fact that I will be standing up on behalf of the NGOs and experts who are based in the UK but operate around the world and who lead by example and help other organisations to follow suit. For that, I offer no apology, but I remind Members of this House that we make an extraordinary impact in the world and to shirk from it for a short-term decision is something that we should all be appalled by.
I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) for an excellent speech.
Twenty-two years ago I visited a hospital in sub-Saharan Africa where a woman, who was about the same age as I was then, was being treated for AIDS. When I say “treated”, I stretch the definition to breaking point. She was receiving aspirin, and I felt totally helpless. That visit was part of a professional trip to write about the work being done by an international Christian charity, but it was part of a much more important journey for me.
My once carefully protected eyes had long been opened to the poverty in the world, but on that trip and others I came to realise the significance of the international aid that the UK Government provide, both in creating a stable international community and in making a real difference to the lives of people who need it most.
The Prime Minister highlighted the work this Government are doing as part of the global response to the pandemic, and yes they are, but these cuts are being made at a time when Ministers have often said that no country is safe until the virus is under control in every country. The same applies to international aid.
The world is in the grip of insecurity and democracies are under threat. Long-term strategic support is key to building resilience and capacity in places such as Myanmar. By reducing our support, power vacuums will be filled by countries, such as Russia and China, with very different agendas from our own. China has 500 Confucius Institutes across 140 countries, with plans for 1,000 more, and it is increasing its global presence through education and culture as part of a strategy of having boots on the ground, education and soft power.
And where are we? Withdrawing from the international stage. Cutting our international aid budget leaves the British Council some £10 million short, which has led to 20 offices being closed. How do we have a global Britain if we blunt the very tool that delivers and embodies that ideal?
Instead of saying, “Look at what we’re doing. Isn’t it great?”, what we see in the world around us should drive us to do more, underlining how important it is. It should make us determined to fight to save children from starvation and girls from being abused. It should drive us to help protect and enhance their health, their rights and their democracies, because we have the ability.
The Government reassure us that this is a temporary measure, but their definition is, frankly, the height of cynicism and heartlessness.
My hon. Friend will have spent time knocking on doors in Chesham and Amersham, as I did. Is not her characterisation of the new Tory party exactly why many of those voters said they were turning away from the Tories in that election and voting Lib Dem instead?
Yes, it is, as we have heard other hon. Members say today. Those same people will know that more than 2 billion people in this world do not have access to clean water, and cutting aid will make it more difficult to change that. The rate of HIV infection across the world remained at 1.7 million people in 2019 alone. The leading killer of women of reproductive age is AIDS.
When I visited that hospital 22 years ago, I felt helpless. I feel the same today, but my Government can help. This Government can help, and this afternoon I will be voting to remind them that they should.
I have listened very carefully to the speeches in this debate, and many of them focused on our manifesto promise on aid spending. That is entirely correct but, as I said in one of my interventions, we also made a commitment not to borrow money for day-to-day spending and to reduce our debt burden. All those commitments have been made more challenging by the global pandemic we have faced. The Treasury’s motion, which I will support, as I hope all my colleagues will, is an attempt to deal with the challenge of the pandemic and deliver on all our manifesto commitments in a way that reflects the reality of what has happened over the past year.
I have also heard many Members talk about the borrowing that we have had to make over the last year. I know the Chancellor and I am very proud of that borrowing, because it has helped us get through an incredibly difficult year, but one-off borrowing for a crisis is not the same as ongoing day-to-day spending. I am surprised by many of my colleagues who talk about the £5 billion a year that it would cost to replace this spending as if £5 billion was not a lot of money.
I can remember many difficult conversations when I was a Minister, and indeed when I was Government Chief Whip, about far smaller sums of money, sometimes involving many of the colleagues I have heard talk about £5 billion as if it were nothing. I am afraid that we are going to have to get used to the fact that there are certain realities in the world—that money we spend has to be paid for, and it either has to be borrowed or financed from taxation.
One of the problems we now have with the borrowing we have had to make over the last year is that we are very vulnerable to increases in inflation or interest rates. I heard someone say we are living in an era of low interest rates. We do not know how long that is going to last, and a 1% rise in inflation and interest rates would cost us twenty-five thousand million pounds, five times the amount we are arguing about today. Those are the realities that not just the Chancellor but all of us in this Parliament, and particularly those of us in the governing party, have to grapple with.
My final point is just to say to my colleagues that I fear that this debate is going to be repeated many times as we move through the comprehensive spending review. We are all going to have to face very difficult challenges. Governing is about choosing. It is about setting priorities for what we think is important. This is important, but so is keeping the fiscal measures on balance. All of them are important, and I am glad that the Chancellor has brought forward the measures that he has today.
I am sorry that we have not been able to get more speakers in, but we now have to move to the wind-ups. I call the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rachel Reeves.
The Government say that global Britain is at the heart of how we engage with the world, but this move to unilaterally cut overseas aid is a direct attack on what it means to be global Britain. It is a decision that will reduce our power, reduce our influence in the world and undermine our security here at home. At this moment perhaps more than any other, we should be looking to project our power and influence for good around the world, to create change in our national interest but in the global interest, too.
I am proud—we should all be proud, in this House and across our great nations—of what we have achieved together through overseas aid. Together, we have pushed polio to the verge of eradication. Together, we have improved water and sanitation for more than 1.5 million people. Together, we have reduced maternal and infant mortality, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) spoke about. And together, we have ensured that girls in the poorest places in the world can go to school, as we all take it for granted that our daughters and granddaughters can go to school.
Yet today the Government seek to undo that great progress. Instead of being a global leader, this Government seek to retreat on the international stage. I can see the understandable discomfort that that is causing hon. and right hon. Members on the Government Benches, who know the consequences of this decision and the short-sightedness of what the Prime Minister has said and what I fear the Chancellor will go on to say.
I commend in particular the contributions of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who advised colleagues to beware the traps set for the unwary; my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who said that this motion is just not who we are as a people; and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who said, “When it is a choice between lives and money, I choose lives.”
The reason there has been a consensus from five previous Prime Ministers across both parties, including the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), on the importance of the 0.7% commitment is that the case for overseas aid both expresses the moral responsibilities that we have and is firmly in the national interest.
One of the NGOs that I would be involved with is the HALO Trust, the organisation that clears mines, unexploded ordnance and improvised explosive devices. If it comes to giving money to one group, there is a group that saves lives, as the hon. Lady refers to.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and he speaks powerfully of what he has seen. What has guided former Prime Ministers and Ministers is a moral compass, and I ask the Chancellor what moral compass guides the Prime Minister and Ministers today, as we cut the lifelines of support, and in the midst of a global pandemic as well. For several decades, we have recognised that the world is increasingly interdependent, and that overseas aid helps tackle poverty, infectious diseases and climate change, and reduces conflict, terrorism and the need for people to flee their own countries and seek refuge elsewhere. The Chancellor himself made that point in 2015, arguing that
“this Government’s commitment on international aid is a tangible example of…leadership”.—[Official Report, 20 October 2015; Vol. 600, c. 793.]
Where is that leadership today?
Crucially, overseas aid helps us respond to pandemics. Covid cannot be eliminated anywhere if it is not eliminated everywhere. These cuts will impede the ability of some of the poorest countries in the world to mobilise their public health systems and roll out this vaccine effectively. What good does that do any of us here? Until covid is under control globally, the risk is that this virus mutates and comes back to Britain and threatens all of us, including those who have already been double vaccinated. The Chancellor knows full well that our country’s commitments are as a proportion of our gross national income, and that is right; it means that as our economy grows our generosity as a country grows, but as our economy shrinks so does our generosity to those in the poorest parts of the world. That is right and it happens automatically, without the cuts being proposed on top. As the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) puts it, the “simplicity” of the 0.7% commitment is
“built into the formula: our payments go up in times of plenty and fall back when our economy is stretched.”
But with a 30% reduction—that is what we are talking about today—in just one year, never has our aid budget been cut so savagely, so suddenly and by so much.
Let us be very clear about the tests for returning to 0.7% of GNI spent on overseas aid. The second test the Chancellor set out is on our debt to GDP ratio falling. The OBR has forecast that that will not be met next year or the year after; at the very earliest it will be met in the financial year 2024-25. Let us look at the first test. In the past 30 years, the current budget balance test being proposed by the Chancellor today has been met only five times, and only for one year under a Conservative Government. But the test proposed by the Chancellor goes further than that, because it does not just refer to a “current budget balance”; it refers to a “sustainable current budget balance”. In the past 30 years , that has been met only under a Labour Government.
So if the Chancellor’s small-print conditions are applied to the latest OBR forecasts, we will not be achieving a current budget surplus in the whole of the forecast period. These are not tests to go back to 0.7% of GNI spent on overseas aid; they are tests to stop that ever happening under a Conservative Government again. So let us be clear about what we are voting for. If we vote for the Chancellor’s proposal today, this will not just be for a year; it will hang over us for as long as the Conservatives are in government.
If the Chancellor is serious about saving money—and I believe in value for money in every pound of taxpayers’ money spent—why did he happily sign off cheques for £2.6 million on a media briefing room that will not properly used and £200 million on a vanity yacht project to sell global Britain around the world—why not invest that money on overseas aid instead? There was £37 billion on a test and trace system that does not even work, and £2 billion on crony contracts for friends and donors of the Conservative party. What exactly does it say about the priorities of this Government? Why is the overseas aid budget being singled out for cuts by this Government? It is because this is ideological; it is not about value for money.
If this cut goes through this evening and the House votes for it, it will diminish Britain. It will reduce our power and influence for good in the world, and it will undermine our security here at home too. This is not just about how much aid we give overseas. It is about the country that we are and the country that we want to be. Whether a Government or a football team, when someone is on the world stage, how they conduct themselves and whether they lead by example really matters. Many hon. and right hon. Members on the Opposition Benches—and on the Government Benches too—know in their heart and in their head that what the Government propose is profoundly wrong. They know full well that it breaks the proud promises that we all made at the election only 18 months ago, not just during crisis but for as long as the Conservatives are in government, so I urge hon. and right hon. Members to reject the motion and do what they know is right for the poorest people in the world, and to honour the proud commitments that we all made in the national interest.
I am grateful to Members in all parts of the House for their passionate and principled contributions to today’s debate. Given the short time available, I shall highlight some of the powerful speeches that we have heard in support of the Government’s motion, including by my hon. Friends the Members for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton), for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami), for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines), for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). Of course, I am disappointed that not all my colleagues feel able to support the Government today, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). No one can doubt the sincere commitment to this cause of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) for his kind words about my career before I came to the House.
There were particularly thoughtful speeches from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), both of whom highlighted the explicit provisions in the 2015 Act that envisaged these circumstances arising. I can give my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells my commitment to the £22 billion, in which I believe very strongly, as does the Prime Minister. We are determined to create a science superpower in this country.
As ever, my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) made a powerful speech about our promises—all our promises, not just some. While the Opposition might not be concerned with promises about managing the public finances and looking after people’s money responsibly, Government Members always will be.
May I pay tribute to the Members who have worked with the Government? I am grateful for their constructive co-operation over the past few weeks in finding what I believe is a genuine compromise to bring the House together so that we can support a policy that commands, I think, the broad acceptance not just of this place but of the British people. Those right hon. and hon. Members include my hon. Friends the Members for Stafford (Theo Clarke), for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and for Milton Keynes North (Ben Everitt), my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). I am very grateful to them for all their engagement.
What we are asking the House to vote for today is a road map for returning to 0.7%. That road map reaffirms our values while recognising the reality that covid has caused severe damage to our public finances. It puts beyond doubt the fact that the reduction in the aid budget is temporary; it defines a reasonable set of tests for when we will return to 0.7%; and it makes those tests objective and verifiable, based on data, not dates, measured not by the Government ourselves, but by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility.
Does the Chancellor accept that in areas of instability and potential social decline, if we withdraw aid and support people are more likely to end up needing the support of our military? We know that for a fact, because we have had to give that support a lot in the past. Does he not accept the principle that in areas that are extremely volatile it is much, much cheaper to the British purse to provide support via aid workers than to send the military in with hardware and put our soldiers on the frontline, often in danger?
It is not an either/or. This Government are doing both. We are one of the largest donors to the UN peacekeeping operations and that is why we are making a difference in countries across the globe, not just through our ODA budget but through all the other ways we express global leadership.
The Chancellor is right to say that the countries with big hearts also need clear heads, so will he confirm that, with the roadmap he has set out today and the proposals before the House, we will still be spending 20% more on overseas aid than we were when Labour was last in government?
If my numbers are right, as a percentage of GDP we were for the last few years spending double what Labour ever spent when it was in office, and my right hon. Friend is right about what we will be doing even at this reduced level.
Today’s approach is a pragmatic approach to meeting our commitments to the world’s poorest today and to have the secure fiscal foundations we need to meet those commitments for decades to come. We should be proud of what UK overseas aid means to millions of the world’s poorest people. It means tens of millions of girls around the world getting a better education. It means food parcels stamped with a Union Jack arriving in famine stricken countries such as Syria and Somalia. It means wind turbines, solar panels and hydroelectric dams generating clean energy in developing countries. I am proud, as I know the whole House will be proud, of the extraordinary good this country is doing around the world.
I am looking forward to this answer. Will the Chancellor remind the House, given that we are rightly keen to save as many lives as possible, that this country has given a great gift to the world with many free vaccines and pioneered the cheapest and one of the best vaccines to save lives all around the world?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend, and I will come on to that in a minute.
I am proud, too, of our response to last year’s economic crisis—the deepest recession this country has ever seen. In total, we have provided hundreds of billions of pounds to protect jobs, keep businesses afloat and help families to get by. That was the right approach, but we should be clear-eyed: covid has severely damaged our public finances. We have the highest level of borrowing since world war two, national debt of £2 trillion and rising, and debt expected to peak at 100% of GDP. If we want to continue to meet our commitments in the future, both at home and overseas, we must act now to rebuild our fiscal resilience.
This is all well and good, but the Government had already taken the decision to scrap the Department for International Development before covid came along. That is how committed they were to international aid.
On the contrary; this Government have brought a coherence and a strategic symmetry to our approach to international development and foreign policy, which is improving how we project our influence and effectiveness around the world.
I have heard that this is the only difficult thing that we are doing, but that is simply not true. We have had to build fiscal resilience and have asked businesses to pay more tax. We have frozen the personal income tax allowance, taken a targeted approach to public sector pay and, yes, we also had to take the difficult decision to temporarily reduce our aid budget. This decision follows a path that Parliament explicitly envisaged when it enshrined the 0.7% target in law. Section 2(3) of the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 clearly foresaw the fiscal circumstances that might mean the target could not be met. And let us be honest: if that test is not being met in the aftermath of the worst economic shock in 300 years, surely it never will.
This decision is categorically not a rejection of our global responsibilities. The UK will spend over £10 billion this year on overseas development. According to the latest figures, that is more as a proportion of national income than all but two of the G7 countries—more than Japan, Canada, Italy and the United States, and much more than the average of the 29 countries in the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee.
Our spending on humanitarian causes goes far beyond just our ODA budget. We have the fourth biggest defence and security budget in the world and the third largest diplomatic network. On average, we contribute nearly £500 million a year to the United Nations peacekeeping budget. We use our trade policy to reduce poverty, with developing countries benefiting from tariff savings of up to £1 billion a year. It is why we are working with the G7 to deliver the clean and green infrastructure financing initiative. With UK Government support, this year 1.5 billion people around the world will be vaccinated with the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab, provided at no profit whatsoever.
There is no question about our commitment to overseas aid. The only question is when we return to the 0.7% target. The motion puts beyond all doubt that we will do so once two clear objective tests have been met: our national debt is falling and we are no longer borrowing for day-to-day spending. Those tests are in line with the approach set out in our manifesto and at the Budget. They are practical and realistic.
If the House votes against the motion today, it is an effective vote. We will return, irrespective of the circumstances, to 0.7% next year. Instead of voting for responsibility, the House would in effect be voting to say that no circumstances could ever justify a move.
I know that a deep sense of conscience underpins the view that the amount we spend on overseas aid is a moral issue. Many hon. Members will know the words:
“Charity is patient, is kind.”
I think of those words and I share that sense of conscience. That is why we are maintaining the target, not abolishing it; why we are setting out the conditions, not obscuring them, and why we are basing the conditions independently—
Three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Speaker put the Question (Order, this day).
That this House has considered the Written Ministerial Statement relating to Treasury Update on International Aid, which was made to the House on Monday 12 July.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I recognise the passion and conviction with which Members who voted both for and against the Government’s motion spoke in favour of the 0.7% target. To me, that is the salient point. While not every Member felt able to vote for the Government’s compromise, the substantive matter of whether we remain committed to the 0.7% target not just now but for decades to come is clearly one of significant unity in this House. Today’s vote has made that commitment more secure for the long term while helping the Government to fix the problems with our public finances and continue to deliver for our constituents.
I commit to the House that I, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will continue to work with all hon. Members on how we can continue to be a global leader in helping the world’s poorest and on how we can improve our aid spending, targeting it most effectively and ensuring that it gets to those who need it most. Having now provided the House with an effective vote on this matter, the Government will move forward with the planned approach.
I now suspend the House for two minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope you can help us. In the debate after the next one, we are discussing the regulations that the Government have brought forward that will deprive thousands of people who work in our care homes of the right to work and not give them any compensation. The Government said on 22 June that alongside the statutory instrument they were laying an explanatory memorandum together with an impact assessment. The impact assessment has not been laid. Yesterday I raised this issue and referred to the fact that the Department of Health and Social Care had written to the Library to say, “The impact assessment has not been laid yet. We will be laying it at the earliest opportunity.” That was at midday yesterday. I have recently spoken to people in the Vote Office and they say that they have now been informed by the Department that this impact assessment will not be laid before the debate. So either it does not exist and there was a fault when it was asserted that it did, or it has been suppressed because it does not fit in with the Government’s agenda. In any event, is it open to you to put pressure on the Government to withdraw that item of business until we have an impact assessment?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and for giving me advance notice of it. No, I cannot ask the Government to withdraw the motion and the business statement that has been agreed to, but I do share his disappointment that the document has not been made available before the debate after next. I hope that it will be fed back from those on the Treasury Bench that the Minister should address the issue in her opening remarks in the debate.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have recently been on a four-colleague call with the Care Minister where she confirmed to us that the said impact assessment would not be made available until after the debate. That strikes me as a rather back-to-front approach. I just provide that clarity to the House.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that clarity. It is what we rather suspected, and what I was trying to hint at, in that it was not going to be ready but the Minister would address that in her remarks when she opens the debate.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given what my hon. Friend has said, it is available and it could be made available immediately, but the Government are choosing not to make it available until after the event.
The hon. Gentleman has reinforced his point that if it is available it could be made available before the debate. We understand that it is not going to be, but, as I say, we will pass back the very strong feeling that the Minister should address why that is the case in her opening remarks.
Armed Forces Bill (Programme) (No. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the Order of 23 June 2021 (Armed Forces Bill: Programme (No. 2)) be varied as follows:
(1) Paragraphs 5 and 6 of the Order shall be omitted.
(2) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.—(David T. C. Davies.)
Question agreed to.