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Overseas Aid: Child Health and Education

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 22 February 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered overseas aid, child health and education.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in today’s debate about this important subject. I want to start with a moment’s reflection. All of us here today are lucky to live in the developed world, and in the United Kingdom in particular. So many people around the world face such enormous challenges, and it is important to remember that many of those challenges are getting worse, as far too many people struggle with the effects of the climate emergency, war and natural disaster. It is our responsibility in the developed world to help those who have not had the same opportunities that we have had. Indeed, that is a duty for all of us.

That duty has been thrown into sharp relief by the recent tragic events in Turkey and Syria, and I turn first to the earthquake before addressing longer-term development issues. It has been simply heartbreaking to watch the horrific images of the earthquake in Turkey and northern Syria. The recent quake was the worst for nearly 100 years, and measured 7.8 on the Richter scale. It was, quite simply, an incredibly powerful natural disaster, and sadly the effects seem to have been made worse by what can only be described as apparent shoddy building practices and lax regulation.

I pay tribute to all those taking part in the response to this dreadful disaster—both those in Turkey and Syria, and those across the whole world. The Disasters Emergency Committee in Britain, local branches of charities, local communities and local residents who have taken part in collections are all doing their bit to help those in need at this most awful time. It falls to us to help, both in emergencies such as the earthquake or the recent floods in Pakistan and over the much longer term. I am sure that everyone in the United Kingdom shares those concerns and that commitment to help.

Let me turn to wider development issues, which are the subject of today’s debate. There is no doubt that the world is changing, but although many countries are developing, there is still enormous economic and social inequality across the world. It is truly sobering to consider the scale of this enormous problem. Even today, nearly one in 10 of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, despite considerable steps forward in the last 40 or 50 years. That poverty is found in many countries, and in particular blights the lives of people living in rural areas and many of those who have migrated to the enormous cities that are emerging around the world. There remains extreme inequality in health and education, as I will return to later.

I want to make some broader points and recap the recent direction of Government policy. Turning to recent history, the last Labour Government made real steps forward. They brought in the 0.7% target for aid, so that the proportion of GDP spent on aid matched the amount recommended by the UN—picking up on work that went as far back as the Brundtland commission in the 1980s. It is important that Britain led on that policy, and there were very real results: 1.5 million more people received improved sanitation and water services, and this country helped 40 million children go to school. I also acknowledge the very important work that Cameron’s Conservative Government did in continuing that policy.

Sadly, the 0.7% target was scrapped by more recent Conservative Governments, which has left the UK presiding over a declining aid budget. Worse still, there have been attempts to rebadge other spending as aid, including the deeply mistaken plan to spend £3 billion from the development budget on the cost of housing refugees. That mistaken approach has knocked down the pillars on which the UK’s international leadership was built, and it has damaged Britain’s credibility around the world. Added to that, a botched merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has undermined delivery.

Development spending is not only a force for moral good, as I mentioned earlier, but sensible policy. Aid from the developed world is helpful and important, and although it is not the only answer, it can be a significant force for good. British aid has played an important part in helping those in need around the world. Our contribution has declined, and our influence and ability to be a force for good are in retreat.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for securing this debate; he always brings very important subjects to Westminster Hall and the main Chamber. Does he recognise that, although the Government have a role to play, there are many non-governmental organisations and charities—I think of many church groups in my constituency—that come together to make significant contributions to health, education, job opportunities and ensuring that young girls have an equal opportunity to young boys? I can speak for the Elim church mission in my constituency as one example. We cannot ignore what they do in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Swaziland. They make a contribution alongside Government, and that cannot be forgotten.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his words. Of course, the work of community, voluntary, church and other faith groups is so important and makes an enormous contribution, and in many ways plays a leading role in aid around the world.

As I was saying, I am afraid that our influence is in retreat, as is our ability to be a force for good. That sad reality should be—and I hope will be—a cause for reflection and a much-needed reassessment by the Minister and his colleagues.

I might expand on this point later. I was struck in a conversation I had with someone working in one of our embassies who remarked that, from their perspective, the D in FCDO is currently silent. They were worried about their ability to do other things in that country as a result. Is that similar to conversations the hon. Gentleman has had with others in this space?

The hon. Member makes an excellent point. There is a real risk that the development work of the Government gets downplayed due to the reorganisation. As I said earlier, there are also issues with delivery and capacity in the new merged Department.

I would like to spell out what this retreat means in real terms on the ground for the very poorest. We now know that bilateral aid on education fell from £789 million in 2019 to just £545 million in 2020. That is a reduction of nearly a third. Final spending in 2021 was just £457 million. That falls way short. The UK’s £430 million pledge for the Global Partnership for Education for 2021-25 was an increase on previous commitments, but lower than many had expected. Further analysis by charities indicates that education programmes were cut by 30% in the first round of cuts in 2020. Those are severe cuts.

Many local and international NGOs have spoken about the impact of cuts on children’s education and health. For example, the Dhaka Ahsania Mission, after seeing 100% of its funding cut, said that 1,250 out-of-school children living in flood prone areas in northern Bangladesh will not have access to quality non-formal primary education. It said,

“Within weeks…our project would have enrolled 700 out-of-school girls (and 560 out-of-school boys) into rural-based, non-formal primary education centres.”

All that has been cut.

In another case, an NGO that preferred to remain anonymous saw a 100% cut to funding for a programme that protected the rights of children and enabled them to grow up healthily. The project improved access to inclusive quality education for 1,700 children marginalised by ethnicity, gender and/or disability in three rural villages in Laos.

Again on health, in 2022 the UK pledged £1 billion to the global fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which is £400 million less than in 2019. I remind colleagues that every minute of the day a child dies of malaria, and hundreds—around 600—are estimated to die every day of TB. I hope I have set out what the current policy means to those who are most in need of help.

I turn to some of the principles that I believe should guide our wider strategy, at a point when, as I said earlier, I hope the Government are able to rethink their recent approach. It is clear that current policy is simply not working, and Ministers should start again. They should think again about how the world has changed, at the same time building on what we know has worked in the recent past.

We need to take a sensible and strategic approach to this important issue. First, the UK should lead by example, not break our word or commitments. That means not reducing our development spending or asking others to do more in our place. It also means not preaching about net zero without a credible plan to get there. Secondly, our strategy should mean rediscovering our core principles, which should always guide us, and our commitment to human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Thirdly, our approach to development needs to reflect the world we live in—a world that, as I said, is quite clearly changing. We should focus on where we really can make a difference, and our approach should be grounded in an understanding of the wider world and of how aid can be delivered in partnership with local communities and developing countries.

There is so much I could say about innovative work in partnership with local community-level initiatives. However, time is pressing and I want to sum up, because I appreciate that many other colleagues want to contribute. As I said earlier, we are responsible for supporting people in need around the world. This is about responding in an emergency, and I thank those who supported people in Turkey and Syria following the recent earthquakes. However, there is a much longer-term need that we need to acknowledge and address properly.

Sadly, I am afraid the current Government are failing, and the cuts have set back vital work around the world. This is having a very real effect on communities and, indeed, on the most vulnerable, and the failure to continue with the 0.7% target is harming the education, health and economic opportunities of the very people who need our support the most. We need to get Britain back on track to meet its commitment to the UN’s 0.7% target as soon as the financial situation allows. What is needed now is a reassessment of the situation and a new strategy, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

We have to start the wind-ups at no later than 10 past 5. I have the names of only two Members who have notified the Chair that they wish to speak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone, and to follow my excellent colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda). In his powerful opening speech, he reminded us why funding for overseas aid is so critical.

I am co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS, and it is good to see one of my fellow co-chairs, the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), present today.

Four decades on from the start of the AIDS crisis, the global HIV response is caught in a perfect storm of waning political and public engagement, diminishing funds and the global shock of covid-19. It is fair to say that the reality is that, in many countries, the AIDS crisis never ceased. Currently, a child dies from an AIDS-related cause every five minutes, and only half of children living with HIV are on life-saving treatments. In 2021, 160,000 children newly acquired HIV. Children accounted for 15% of all AIDS-related deaths, despite the fact that only 4% of the total number of people living with HIV are children. Adolescent girls and young women are disproportionately impacted by HIV—for example, around 4,200 adolescent girls and young women in sub-Saharan Africa acquire HIV every week. This is not right, and it should not be happening in 2023.

The cut in ODA spending—from 0.7% to 0.5%—and further raids on the ODA budget have come at a critical time for the HIV response. There have been significant cuts across all the UK’s multilateral, bilateral, and research and development funding. As highlighted in a joint report from the APPG on HIV and AIDS, STOPAIDS and Frontline AIDS, the cuts have disproportionately impacted key and vulnerable populations, including children affected by HIV. I hope the Minister will realise that the cuts are damaging our soft power while others are on the rise. UNAIDS estimates that $29 billion will be required in 2025 for the AIDS response in low and middle-income countries, including countries formerly considered to be upper-income countries. This funding is desperately needed to get us back on track and to end AIDS as a global health threat by 2030.

I want to ask the Minister whether the Government’s actions are in line with the UK delivering on its commitments on girls’ education and on ending preventable deaths. What assessment have the Government made of the UNAIDS “Education Plus” initiative? Will they commit to the Global Alliance to End AIDS in children? Will the UK Government give political and financial support to these mechanisms? Britain can and must do so much more.

This is one issue that unites us across the country and across this House. At a time when we are seeing the country and the world facing critical threats and competing challenges, the Government must restore this funding. I urge the Government to rethink these cuts.

It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), who gave a powerful speech on the significant impact of the cuts on the fight against HIV and AIDS. I very much hope that her points are heard and acted on. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for securing the debate and for his opening remarks, rightly praising all those from the UK, in particular, doing their level best to help the peoples of Turkey and Syria to deal with the terrible impact of the earthquakes. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) also rightly praised the many church groups that help to keep all of us in this House focused on these issues—I can think of a number in my constituency that do just that.

I share the views of my hon. Friends the Members for Reading East and for Vauxhall, in that I think we need a timetable to get back on track to 0.7%. I certainly think we need to re-establish an International Development Department as a separate Department, which perhaps reflects the point made by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). Perhaps slightly unfashionably, I also think we should renew support to the World Bank, which saw one of the biggest cuts in multilateral aid as a result of the UK’s cuts in development assistance. I will return to that in a moment.

I have always believed that our first responsibility in this House is to our own citizens. However, there is surely also a moral responsibility for us, as one of the richest nations in the world, to do our bit to help those in the poorest countries and the worst circumstances to access better lives, too. I have also always believed that it was in our self-interest to do so. DFID was a global leader in development throughout its existence, which certainly enhanced UK soft power. Development assistance helps to build up markets, creating job opportunities not just in country but, as a result of trade, that benefit people here in the UK. It helps to reduce the pressures on those in the poorest places to migrate and seek sanctuary in the UK or other developed countries. In the light of covid, better healthcare in developing countries also helps to reduce the threat of diseases that may start in other places having a significant impact on our citizens too. The charity ONE estimated that, as a result of the cuts in development assistance, some 3.7 million girls worldwide would no longer receive a decent education —surely a matter of significant shame for the UK.

The International Development Committee looked particularly at the impacts of the decline in UK aid on specific countries and sectors. It noted that the biggest cut in long-term development assistance would be to Pakistan, where the largest sectoral decrease as a result of the cut to aid spending would be in education, and that there would be

“significant and abrupt cuts to programmes focused on education, economic empowerment, and sexual and reproductive services targeted at women and girls in Pakistan”.

While earthquakes in Turkey and Syria have rightly caught the world’s attention, it has not been that long since the terrible floods in Pakistan were on our television screens. More than a third, at least, of the population in Pakistan were very directly affected by those floods. Surely Pakistan, a fellow Commonwealth country, is worthy of continuing and significant support from the UK. I stress that nearly 23 million Pakistani children aged five to 16 do not attend school, because of teacher shortages, distances and parents’ safety concerns. Surely we have a particular responsibility to provide increased support there.

Another area of development assistance that does not always get the attention that it deserves is the support that we give in the Palestinian territories—particularly support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency with investment in education in the west bank and Gaza. Education is very highly valued by families across the Palestinian territories, and there is very high enrolment in basic education, but there are issues with the quality of education. The protracted nature of the conflict, the significant threat of exposure to violence and the many other humanitarian issues affect the quality of schooling that can be provided. Again, British support to UNRWA has been fundamental in helping to keep the Palestinian education system moving in the right direction. I gently encourage the Minister to take a particular interest in that issue.

As a Palestinian myself, I fully agree with the hon. Member about the value of education to a community that feels completely abandoned and let down. Will he join hon. Members across the House in condemning the fact that schools have been torn down by the Israeli Government illegally, and in saying again to the FCDO that we thank it for its support in saying that that is illegal, but that saying that and then doing nothing more about it is frankly a bit toothless?

Any school being torn down, particularly in a developing country and particularly in the circumstances that the hon. Member describes, is devastating for the communities affected. We need to support the people of the Palestinian territories to get those schools back up, because education gives hope—it gives a route out of poverty and hope of a better future. Surely that is something that the whole House could row in behind.

I am privileged to have a very large Indian community in my constituency. India has seen huge growth and development over the past 20 years, with massive progress on access to education along the way, but there are still significant issues with access to the necessary quality of education on occasion. British development assistance can help to provide support to address some of those issues, in particular by providing the ideas to improve them. Clearly that is done in partnership with the Indian authorities and other multilateral players.

The World Bank developed what is called the learning poverty indicator, which flags, as a key statistic for each country to be measured against, the proportion of 10-year-old children who are unable to read and understand a short, age-appropriate text. The World Bank’s ambition is that the number who cannot read and understand a short, age-appropriate text by the age of 10 should halve by 2030. That is a significant target that the UK should get behind. I suspect we will need an increase in development assistance to the World Bank to support that. I urge the Minister to look again at reversing the cut in funding to the World Bank as another way of addressing the challenges of access to education in developing countries.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I start by declaring an interest. Last week, I went to Kenya with STOPAIDS and Unitaid to look at public health projects in and around Nairobi. The details are submitted and will appear on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as soon as they can be processed.

I thank the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for securing this incredibly important debate. Liberal Democrats have always made the case for the UK to meet its commitments to the world’s poorest: it was we who proudly introduced, during the coalition Government, the private Member’s Bill that was adopted by the Conservative-led Government of the time to enshrine 0.7% in law.

Helping those most in need not only changes lives, but ensures that we build a stronger, safer and more sustainable world for us all. It is in our self-interest as much as theirs. That point seems to be missed constantly by this iteration of a Conservative Government, who have reneged on a promise in their own manifesto. They seemed to be very happy to keep others, but this one they were very happy to lose.

The scale of the cuts has been utterly eye-watering. In Lebanon, aid has been cut from £85 million to £13 million; in Ethiopia, a country dear to my heart—my family lived there for three years—aid has been cut from £350 million to £100 million; in Yemen, one of the most war-torn areas of crisis across the world, aid has been cut from £240 million to £100 million. These are huge sums. It is impossible to talk about these millions and billions of pounds that are being slashed.

What gets lost in debates is the stories of the individual people who are affected. Development is about helping the poorest and the most vulnerable around the world. Sometimes it is the smallest of actions that make the biggest impact—something as simple as providing a mug of porridge before school can help a young person to stay in school and receive a better education, and can transform their life. We are campaigning for that for children here, but it applies even more elsewhere, where the children have even less.

I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about the impact of the cuts, particularly on children’s health and education. I will start with a country-specific example, in Malawi. Cuts to BRACED—the building resilience and adaptation to climate extremes and disaster programme —meant that budgets plummeted from £25 million in 2019 to just £5 million in 2022. Water Witness International, which also works in Malawi, reported that early warning systems funded by BRACED had failed in the run-up to Tropical Storm Ana in January 2022. In the wake of that storm, 84,000 people were displaced. The flooding exacerbated the outbreak of cholera; 1,160 children contracted the disease and 184 died. These cuts have had a real, tangible and mortal effect.

As I mentioned, I was in Nairobi last week and the power of education, particularly for women and girls, was plain to see. We visited a Government-run healthcare facility on the outskirts of the city and met women carrying their babies. All those women were miracles in their own right, because they were living with HIV. It was very moving.

One mother came over to talk to us. She could not wait to tell us her story. She said that she had received little education about HIV in school. She had got HIV from her second husband, after three children. She did not understand that the treatment was now so sophisticated that the viral load could be suppressed sufficiently to save her fourth child from getting HIV in the first place—she had no idea. It was possible only because of healthcare professionals, trained with money that we give via the Global Fund and the money put in by the Kenyan Government to fund community health workers and peers who were able to get that message across. It was really amazing.

Is the hon. Member aware that the UK was sadly one of the only countries to reduce its funding to the Global Fund, so the excellent work that she has just highlighted could be impacted further?

The hon. Member is absolutely right. We want to celebrate the fact that we are a big donor. It is vital work that is literally saving lives, and it is such a shame that the funding is being cut.

The good work is not just in Kenya. The charity STiR Education does fantastic work in India and Uganda by supporting education systems through training and development for teachers. One teacher, Juliet, said after taking part in its programme:

“I have now fallen back in love with my job, and believe in helping my learners perform beyond their limits!”

But in March 2021, STiR was given just three weeks’ notice that the entire remainder of its FCDO grant was to be cut. It lost £828,000 with three weeks’ notice. It was forced to make a number of redundancies, cut back on its programme spending, move to smaller officers and postpone all salary increments and promotions. That all meant fewer resources available to help people like Juliet. The fundraising team worked hard, but that was just to keep STiR afloat—imagine what it could have done if it had that funding basis and could spend the fundraising money on doing even more work.

It is not just delivery of projects but research that is affected. Research and innovation is a vital part of the international development landscape and helps us to understand what kinds of interventions work, thereby making sure that projects deliver value for money, which I am sure the Government are very keen on.

The hon. Member is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that the cuts have a terrible impact because there is not only the immediate impact on the specific project, but often a multiplier effect? The cuts are made very abruptly and, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, they affect other agencies, which may come from a faith or other background, as well as local groups. There is a dreadful multiplier effect that cascades through the aid and development provision in countries that often have a very great need to develop.

When NGOs that are based here have had to make cuts, the in-country staff have usually faced the deepest and quickest cuts. That is a real shame, because it takes expertise out of that ecosystem.

The Government are clearly worried about value for money, and they should be, because our constituents are, too. The Institute of Development Studies, which is based in Sussex, carried out research into projects that work to support teachers, students and school communities in crisis-affected areas. The research found a measurable and sharp increase in the number of students in schools where ODA funding kept education free. Even research projects of that kind are now under threat. The Institute of Development Studies here in the UK has had its budget cut by 50%.

What does this all mean? The United Kingdom used to be an international development superpower, but the D in FCDO is silent. We hear it nowhere unless a debate such as this one is initiated by Back Benchers. It is clearly not a priority for this Government. The aid cuts continue to hit budgets in terms of research and project delivery.

The bottom line is that this is not just the moral, compassionate thing to do, but the smart thing to do. At a time when we should be more muscular on the world stage, we are retracting in all areas. The Liberal Democrats are proud of our record of championing international development and will continue to call for an immediate reinstatement of the 0.7% target that would deliver so much more that is appreciated around the world.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which I am pleased the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) secured.

The speech that the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) has just made demonstrates the importance of MPs going on visits to see for themselves what is happening around the world. Although we are often criticised for such trips, they are really important so that we can get a grip on what is happening.

I recently benefited from a trip to Washington, where, as the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) will be pleased to know, I visited the World Bank and had a very good conversation with its representatives. I made the point to them that they must do better on selling their own message and making clear the outcomes from what the World Bank does. We have to acknowledge that the public have moved away from the view that large global organisations are automatically a force for good. Many people have formed the view that actually they just gobble up money and do not achieve outcomes. I do not think that that is the case in relation to the World Bank, but it has to sell the outcomes that it achieves much more clearly, and we have a role in that.

I think Members of all parties actually did a very good job in relation to the Global Fund. I fully appreciate that hon. Members may think that the sum given was not enough, but let us be honest: it could have been less if it had not been for the active lobbying of many Members from all parties. I certainly believe that the Global Fund is the best way to deliver across the world in relation to malaria, HIV and TB, but we have to make the positive case for it.

As the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) mentioned, I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS; I am also co-chair of the APPG on nutrition for development, which is the successor to the APPG on nutrition for growth. That APPG and others lobbied very effectively to ensure that the UK made a pledge to the nutrition for growth summit; it came right at the final hour, but the UK made a £1.5 billion pledge. That pledge, for which I will hold the Minister and indeed all FCDO Ministers to account, needs to be delivered, because, as the hon. Member for Vauxhall said, nutrition is at the heart of everything we deliver for young people and women. The statistics are very clear that if children are undernourished, they will not benefit from the school experience to the extent that they could. Nutrition has an impact on every aspect of what they are doing, and on every aspect of the support and development that we can provide.

I fully concur with what the hon. Lady said about HIV and AIDS. The battle is not over. The situation in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly among women and children, is very concerning, and we must play our part in addressing it. I am very much looking forward to the opportunity to visit South Africa and see the situation on the ground, although I know that it is not positive.

Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern about the impact of these cuts, particularly on the LGBT community? We know that there are Governments in sub-Saharan Africa who have moved politically in a direction that suggests that they will not be as open to funding programmes as they might previously have been, particularly with respect to men who have sex with men. I met a man who said that he had been taught at school that it was not possible to get AIDS, because they did not talk about men having sex with men. Surely this is an area in which our Government should be able to step in where other Governments may feel that politically they cannot?

I think our Government have a very good record on championing LGBT rights internationally. The most significant thing, as the APPG has recognised, is decriminalisation. The criminalisation of gay sex with men, and of sex workers, is the single biggest impediment to people getting the support that they need. I think this Government are taking forward as many measures as they can, but we have to continue to lobby in that regard to ensure that more is done, because the hon. Lady is right that this is a serious issue.

I am sure hon. Members welcome the fact that the International Development Committee is about to produce a report on ODA budget spending on refugees in the UK. The current situation is not acceptable: every £1 that is spent on a hotel for a refugee is £1 less for HIV, for nutrition or even for the World Bank. That is not a situation that we can tolerate. As hon. Members, we must highlight it so that people fully understand the link between that budget and the international budget.

Finally, I commend what other hon. Members have said about the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. There is so much to be done, and we must play our full part.

It is nice to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I thank the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for securing this important debate.

The cumulative impact of covid-19, conflict, the climate crisis and poverty means that more children around the world need humanitarian assistance than at any time since the second world war. UNICEF recently provided an overview of the situation:

“Across the globe, children are facing a historic confluence of crises—from conflict and displacement to infectious disease outbreaks and soaring rates of malnutrition…Meanwhile, climate change is compounding the severity of these crises and unleashing new ones.”

In 2022 alone, children across the world have been affected by war and conflict in Ukraine, in Palestine, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in Tigray, in Afghanistan, in Myanmar and in Yemen. Then there are the climate-induced natural disasters: the floods in Pakistan, the drought in east Africa and the Sahel, the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, and the extreme tropical storms in the Philippines and in Latin and North America. It is children who are bearing the brunt of a planet in crisis, with millions struggling to survive.

Rather than rising to meet the challenges head on, the UK Government continue to oversee devastating cuts to the UK’s overseas aid budgets. This Conservative Government like to portray themselves as a compassionate force helping the world’s most vulnerable communities, but the reality is that they are falling far short of the image that they like to project. As we have heard, the Conservative party vowed in its 2019 manifesto to maintain official development assistance spending at 0.7% of gross national income, but in 2021 the Government cut their international aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5%—an overall cut of between £4 billion and £5 billion.

The effects on children’s health and education of those cuts are extremely stark: 7.1 million children, including 3.7 million girls, are losing out on education, 5.3 million women and girls are losing access to modern family planning methods, and more than 11 million children, girls and women are losing out on nutritional support. Those examples are just a snapshot of the damage that these aid cuts have caused to children across the globe.

The FCDO’s international development Minister, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), wants the UK to become a “development superpower”. His Department could achieve that very easily just by standing by the very Tory manifesto funding pledge on which the Government were elected. To spare even more children from being left behind in education and healthcare, the UK Government must urgently restore their aid budget to a 0.7% level. The SNP believes that that is a bare minimum requirement.

SNP Members wholeheartedly support increased funding for refugees and asylum seekers here in the UK, but it is completely unacceptable to divert money from ODA budgets for that purpose. Our unwavering support in Scotland and across the UK for those who are fleeing war and persecution in Ukraine, Afghanistan and elsewhere should not come at the expense of international development efforts. Instead, the ODA budget should be ringfenced for spending abroad, and the Home Office should be given increased funding to drastically improve its asylum processes.

We know that the system is broken. It needs to be fixed, and it needs the finance to fix it. The UK Government have already cut international health and medical funding during a global pandemic, cut food programmes during a global food security crisis, slashed environmental projects in the midst of a climate crisis, and reduced conflict resolution projects at a time of renewed war.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his point about the current food crisis. One of the background points that are so important to today’s debate is the dramatic increase in the cost of food, which is having a huge effect in many countries that have been mentioned today, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa and the middle east. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should be more mindful of the huge crisis that is facing so many people living in poverty around the world?

I thank the hon. Member for his excellent intervention.

I agree wholeheartedly. The cost of food crisis is impacting on people in this country, let alone those in less developed countries across the world. He makes an excellent point.

The cuts to conflict resolution projects come at a time when the world has renewed war, as in the invasion of Ukraine. Those cuts have cost lives. The Government should not wait any longer before they reverse that devastating policy direction.

It is an absolute honour to serve under your chairship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) for securing this important debate and for his absolutely excellent speech.

The past two years have shown us just how damaging and dangerous a short-term approach to aid can be. So many Government decisions have caused havoc with children’s lives, including slashing the aid budget, suspending so-called “non-essential” aid payments just last July, allowing the Home Office to consume £1 billion in aid in 2021—£1 billion going to the Home Office—and, let us not forget, the badly managed merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development.

All those decisions will continue to cause catastrophic damage to children’s lives in some of the poorest parts of the world. The cuts have let down children in Yemen, where there are regular outbreaks of cholera and more than 9 million children lack access to safe water. They have let down millions of children in Bangladesh, where floods and cyclones cause devastation year in, year out. There have been impacts in so many other countries across the world, but I am the shadow Minister for Africa, so it will be no surprise that today I want to focus on that beautiful continent that has so much to offer.

Africa is home to 60% of the poorest people in the world, but aid budgets for the continent have been cut dramatically. African countries experience climate disaster, poverty, child malnutrition and conflict, but they were not spared from those cuts—and we know it is children who pay the biggest price.

Only this month, we have seen reports that the funding cut to a climate disasters response programme has contributed to a major cholera epidemic in Malawi. The epidemic has so far killed more than 1,000 people, including 184 children, but it gets worse. Funding to prevent catastrophic levels of death by starvation has also been slashed. In 2017, UK funding to support people in Somalia and the wider region during the famine was £861 million. Late last year, one person was dying of hunger every 36 seconds in the horn of Africa due to drought. We now expect a sixth failed rainy season—the region’s longest drought in four decades. Millions of young children are badly malnourished, but I fear that the Government’s response has been truly abysmal: they are providing only a fifth of the support that they gave in 2017.

Hunger has an especially damaging impact on children. It is likely that thousands of children died of hunger last year in Somalia. It is not an easy death. Parents had to watch their malnourished babies die in agony, and then the exhausted mothers buried their children at the side of the road as they continued a frantic search for food and water. Even when children survive malnutrition, it marks them for life, causing permanent, widespread damage to their health and development. Hunger makes children more vulnerable to a raft of illnesses and diseases and can cause permanent blindness. Malnutrition affects brain development, and even when children manage to get to school in areas of mass hunger, hungry children simply cannot learn. A desperately hungry child is far more vulnerable to recruitment by armed gangs if those groups can offer them food, and much more vulnerable to child marriage—and we know where that can lead.

We have a moral argument for wealthier northern countries to help developing nations. Now, let us take that moral argument away, just for a while. It is so short-sighted not to understand that our prosperity as a nation and our ability to tackle climate damage are reliant on the economic growth of the African continent and on our partnerships with it. By 2030, nearly half of the world’s young will be living in Africa. African children will shape our future. Labour recognises that when we talk about development support. We know that overseas aid has to happen within a long-term and sustainable plan if it is to be effective. There is no room for opaque decisions or last-minute announcements, and no room for wasteful spending by the Home Office. It needs to get a grip. Labour will put an end to this chaos.

Order. The shadow Minister knows that she has only five minutes. She has already run over to six, which reduces the time for the Minister. I am afraid that it is now the turn of the Minister.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Bone, and I am sorry that the shadow Minister was cut off in her prime. I have a huge amount of respect for her, and our friendship extends outside this room as well, so I am sure that our conversation will continue. She makes important points. Indeed, everyone has made important points. This is an important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) on securing it. It is unusual for me to debate with him on this subject; just a few months ago we had quite a few exchanges on the Floor of the House on matters related to the Department for Work and Pensions. It is good to see him in what I consider an unfamiliar setting, but this is clearly, for him, a subject close to his heart. He made his points incredibly well.

Those who know the subject area well will know that our Minister for Development and Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), would normally respond to this debate. He is in country, travelling on his ministerial duties, not the least of which was a recent visit to Turkey, where he thanked international partners and UK responders for their amazing work in response to the terrible tragedy in Turkey and Syria. We all thank them. Tomorrow there is another debate on that, which I think some of us will look forward to. It will highlight the important work that has gone on.

I am grateful for the contributions to the debate, and I will endeavour to respond to the points that have been made. Given the economic impacts of the pandemic and Russia’s barbaric attack on Ukraine, the UK’s aid budget currently sits at around 0.5% of gross national income. That equated to over £11 billion in 2021, and we are proud to remain one of the world’s biggest aid donors. Over the last 18 months, the UK has provided enormous support to people fleeing Afghanistan and Ukraine and seeking sanctuary in the UK. Across the House, people will recognise that those are huge priorities. However, it has not come across so loudly in the debate—I understand that there will be political differences—that that support has without a doubt placed significant pressure on the aid budget. It has placed significant pressure on some of our communities. I think any right-minded person would recognise that these are incredibly challenging circumstances. Among those challenging points, the good news is that the Treasury has provided an extra £2.5 billion of official development assistance over two years—£1 billion in 2022-23 and £1.5 billion in 2023-24.

Does the Minister accept that the point about a percentage is that as the economy shrank, the amount of money was always going to shrink?  The issue with taking it down to 0.5% is that it was an even greater cut, but it is wrong to say that the money was not always going to decrease to recognise the pressures on our communities as well.

We have been through the pandemic, which has conveniently not been talked about in this debate. That has had a huge impact on public finances. Some really difficult choices had to be made; it would have been the same for whoever was in government at the time. I think we can all recognise that. Even with this extra money, we are having to make difficult decisions. That was the point I was making in response to the contributions today.

Our decisions and approach to spending are guided by the international development strategy. That means focusing our work on the priorities set out in the strategy, including, as many hon. Members have highlighted, women and girls and global health. We will do that in a way that maximises the positive impact of the available resources and our ability to respond to emerging issues, which is important. As the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) highlighted, it has meant that we have been able to respond to the cholera outbreak in Malawi with £500,000 of funding and an emergency medical team. We want to be agile; we have that support available in Turkey and Syria as well.

We continue to support work through multilateral organisations, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. That point was raised by my colleague—my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) —and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi). We want to make sure that we can empower UK development experts across the world to recommend which bilateral programmes to prioritise.

There has been a lot of talk in this debate about 0.7%. That was an important contribution from the Conservative-led coalition with the Liberal Democrats. We remain absolutely committed to protecting the most vulnerable and to returning to spending 0.7% of GNI on ODA as soon as the fiscal situation allows. Those conditions have been set out by the Government. In terms of the reductions of the ODA budget, we will ensure that we focus on the poorest and most vulnerable, the humanitarian programmes and supporting women and girls, which fits neatly with many of the priorities that have been raised today.

Our work around the world is helping to improve children’s health and delivering on our commitment to end preventable deaths of mothers, babies and children by 2030. Health remains a key priority for our development assistance. Through our £340 million core voluntary commitment to the World Health Organisation, we are strengthening primary healthcare services, which are the first port of call when a child becomes sick.

As part of the Nutrition for Growth summit in December 2021, we pledged to spend at least £1.5 billion between 2022 and 2030 to improve the nutrition of mothers, babies and children. In recognising that immunisation is one of the most effective ways to protect a child’s health, we have committed £1.65 billion to support Gavi’s core mission between 2021 and 2025—the biggest contribution by any donor. We have heard about the important Global Fund. We pledged a further £1usb billion to that fund, which will protect children and families from HIV, tuberculosis and malaria and prevent over 28 million new infections. We remain the third largest ever public donor to the Global Fund—a point made by my right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale.

We use our position on the global stage and work with our partners to support innovative approaches to ending preventable child deaths and ensuring that children can thrive. We co-led a landmark joint statement with 71 signatories at the UN General Assembly, committing to protect and promote sexual and reproductive health and rights and bodily autonomy.

A key priority is our work on global education, and we continue to stand up for the right of every girl everywhere to access 12 years of quality learning. Although we have had to make difficult decisions, we have prioritised programmes giving direct support to children’s learning. We have mitigated the impacts of budget reductions by reprofiling or delaying spend where possible, rather than cancelling education programmes, with a view to scaling them up in future years if further funds become available.

We are committed to improving health and education for the poorest children in the world. We remain a world leader not only through our financial support, but through our partnerships, expertise and, of course, civil society, such as Churches, faith groups and others that have been highlighted today. It is a comprehensive approach that helps to improve the lives of millions of people around the world.

Once again, it has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank Members across the House for taking part in what has been an important and detailed debate covering a wide range of aspects of this issue. I hope the Minister will take back the messages from today to his colleagues and will think about how we can get back on track with the 0.7% target.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).