The new minister in charge of Britain’s overseas aid budget faced criticism on her first appearance before a Commons committee when she was unable to come up with a figure for the amount of aid that was being “wasted and stolen” – after publicly highlighting it as a significant problem.
Priti Patel, Secretary of State for International Development, told MPs on Wednesday (14 September) that she had already acted in her first seven weeks of office to axe or review Department for International Development (DfID) funding for a number of projects that had been brought to her attention.
Among them, she cited reports that a cult in Malawi had received funding, and spoke of British activists being funded to travel to conferences abroad, an apparent reference to a weekend report that DfID money had enabled members of the UK Black Lives Matter movement to travel to a global forum in Brazil.
Patel told the international development committee that her goal was to reform the global aid system “so that it delivers not just for the world’s poorest but British taxpayers as well”.
“It’s about making sure that we are spending taxpayers’ money in the right way, and that taxpayers have a better understanding and greater insight in terms of what their money is doing in the development space,” added Patel, who said in a piece published in the Daily Mail that both she and taxpayers were “infuriated” by aid money being “stolen or wasted on inappropriate projects”.
However, Patel faced particular criticism from Stephen Doughty, a Labour member of the committee, who repeatedly challenged her to put a percentage figure on the amount of money that she believed was being wasted.
“In terms of percentage they are still a significant share of UK taxpayers’ money,” she replied. “I don’t think we should focus on sum totals and binary figures. This comes back to confidence from UK taxpayers that their money is being spent on need.”
Doughty told her: “It could also be argued that building trust and confidence includes not using very grand statements where you are not able to back up the statistics.”
Speaking afterwards, he said: “She should get back to her very serious job focusing on how we help people facing poverty and conflict in places like Yemen, Syria and South Sudan – and spend less time posturing to burnish her rightwing credentials.”
Members of the committee welcomed Patel’s commitment that the UK would continue to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid, but there were questions about the appointment of Robert Oxley, a vocal critic of the spending target and a former figure in the TaxPayers’ Alliance lobby group, as her special adviser.
Patel responded by saying: “My special adviser’s views that were stated many years previously are not reflective of the day-to-day work that I am undertaking.”