Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told UK lawmakers on Thursday (26 November) that new laws would be required to enshrine controversial plans to cut development and humanitarian aid by a third.
The plan to cut aid spending from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5% was confirmed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak during his Spending Review of all UK government expenditure.
While Raab told MPs that the move to cut aid spending by around £4 billion was only a “temporary measure” in response to the economic damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, he later conceded that the cuts would not be reversed for the “foreseeable future”. The minister did not indicate where the cuts will be made.
A bill passed by David Cameron’s government in 2015 enshrined the 0.7% aid spending target in UK law, allowing it to be missed only under exceptional “economic pressures”.
Raab admitted yesterday that “If we cannot see a path forward back to the 0.7%, then the legislation…would face a legal challenge” in UK courts.
The 0.7% target will apply in 2020 and see the UK spend £12.9 billion. UK aid spending will total £10 billion in 2021, said Raab.
The new legislation is set to be tabled in January and is likely to prompt a major rebellion from Conservative lawmakers, led by former Development minister Andrew Mitchell.
A former chief whip, Mitchell says that over 30 Conservative MPs will vote against the new law.
“With Joe Biden in the White House, this is a dismal start to the British chairmanship of the G7, and UN climate change conference,” said Mitchell.
Alongside the cuts, Boris Johnson’s government also plans to overhaul the way it allocates development aid in a bid to “drive greater impact”. Development policy will also be expected to dovetail with UK security and diplomatic policy.
The remaining aid budget prioritises tackling the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, girls’ education and poverty alleviation.
Raab also promised that the UK would seek to double international climate finance ahead of the delayed COP26 climate change summit which will be hosted in Glasgow in 2021.
In a letter to Sarah Champion, a Labour lawmaker and chair of the UK parliament’s International Development committee, published on Wednesday, Raab noted that he is “determined to get the best impact for the money we spend.”
“Too often, aid has lacked coherence, oversight or appropriate accountability across Whitehall,” he added.
“This Government has chosen to make the world’s poorest pay for its failures”, said Labour’s spokesperson Preet Kaur Gill, who described the cuts as an “ill-judged and short-sighted decision”.
However, early indications suggest that cutting aid has public support. A poll of 1,002 people by Savanta Comres on Wednesday following Sunak’s announcement found that 61% support the aid cuts, while only 13% oppose them. The poll also found that 55% believe that the 0.7% target is not important.
There are signs that the UK’s plans to cut aid spending and link remaining funds to their own policy priorities are likely to be followed across the EU.
On Wednesday, the European Parliament endorsed a report on “Improving development effectiveness and efficiency of aid” which would make development aid conditional to migration control, one of the EU’s long-term priorities.
“It is an important shift away from the obsolete donor-recipient mentality we used to have”, said Tomas Tobé, a Swedish centre-right lawmaker who chairs the Parliament’s development committee.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]