Department for International Development

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development) 7:00 pm, 1st July 2019

I thank all those who have made such huge and valuable contributions today.

As we heard from Stephen Twigg, who is my esteemed colleague on the International Development Committee, from Stephen Kerr, and not least from my hon. Friend Patrick Grady, who is not in his place at the moment, back in 1970 the UN General Assembly adopted the 0.7% GNI aid target for donor countries to contribute to overseas development assistance. The original proposal envisaged that the target would be met by 1980 at the latest, and that the need for such aid would no longer be required by the end of the century. Sadly, as we know, that was not to be the case: only a handful of countries have ever met and maintained that level of aid spending. The UK is one of those countries, having first endorsed the target in 1974, having met it for the first time in 2013, and having enshrined it in law in 2015. The UK has taken great strides ever since, as we have heard from many great examples, not least from Maggie Throup.

I reiterate the obvious: the Scottish National party’s support for the 0.7% spending commitment is absolutely resolute and clear. Although a number of questions have been asked today about how the money is spent, what concerns me the most is the legally binding commitment, which seems highly likely to come under threat. All Members present are here for one reason, which is to support 0.7% spending on aid, but that is not the case for every Member in this House, as I shall come to later. It is imperative that we use this opportunity to defend the 0.7% target vigorously; to highlight the need for the spending to be part of a focused strategy, aligned with Departments across Government to achieve the sustainable development goals; and to stress that we cannot allow the commitment to be put in jeopardy by the hard right of the Conservative party and to be compounded by the desire for a disastrous Brexit.

The SNP has always been clear that development spending must be focused on helping the poorest and most vulnerable, and on alleviating global poverty. In addition to maintaining the 0.7% ODA spending commitment, we want the entirety of that amount to be spent by the Department for International Development, not spread among other Departments. The proportion of aid spending in other Departments has been steadily increasing over recent years. Currently, some 27.5% of ODA funds is spent in other Departments, such as the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence—a 9.2% increase since 2016. This is worrying, because other Departments do not report their aid spending with the same level of detail and do not necessarily have poverty reduction as their main focus. A recent National Audit Office report concluded that aid spending outside DFID was not transparent enough.

Let me give just one example of how spending in other Departments brings the system into disrepute. The International Development Committee heard that in 2016 some £46.9 million of UK ODA allocated funds had been spent by the Foreign Office on diplomatic activities in China. That is absurd; such abuse of funds must end. Similarly, the Select Committee’s subsequent report found that aid delivered through the cross-Government prosperity fund was

“insufficiently focused on the poorest”.

This appears to be common in other instances of ODA funds being spread across several Departments. For example, just last month the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s report on the current state of UK aid suggested that the UK needed

“a stronger strategic direction for its conflict-reduction work, and a more integrated approach across humanitarian, peacebuilding, development and international influencing efforts, especially in protracted crises.”

At the same time, the estimates show that DFID’s allocation from the cross-Government conflict stability and security fund will see a reduction of 45% from last year. The current situation is clearly not working. How on earth can we expect to meet the objectives of strengthening peace, responding to crises and helping the world’s most vulnerable when the Department that is meant to be responsible is not taking the lead and being held to account on ODA spending?

DFID’s strategic ability to deliver on its aims is further threatened and undermined by the Brexit shambles that is unfolding. Public money has already been taken away from Departments and public services to prepare the country for the disastrous prospect of leaving the EU, and the Department for International Development has been unable to avoid this. DFID has already sent more than 50 staff to other Government Departments in preparation for a no-deal Brexit, and could deploy another 170, according to a letter to the International Development Committee from the then Secretary of State, Penny Mordaunt, in March. It has since been reported that officials at DFID were told that up to 600 of just 3,000—that is, 20% of their numbers—may have to be redeployed to Departments that are suffering from staff shortages because of their Brexit workloads.

It is unacceptable that public money that is committed to vital priorities that the UK has subscribed to under international agreements is already being used to pay DFID staff to manage the chaos of a hard Tory Brexit. Let us not forget that this money saves people’s lives and alleviates the worst aspects of poverty, vulnerability and chaos in some of the most hard-pressed countries in the world.

In two weeks, the UK will present its voluntary national review of the sustainable development goals to the UN at the high-level political forum on sustainable development. At a time when we should be using our aid funding and resources to ensure high-quality education around the world, reduce inequality and tackle the climate emergency, it beggars belief that the UK Government are wasting resources attempting to manage and mitigate the needless damage of Brexit. It is something we simply cannot allow to happen, so I am pleased to have added my name on behalf of the SNP in support of the amendment, tabled by Margaret Beckett and Mr Grieve, that would have stopped the mobilisation of departmental spending to facilitate a no-deal Brexit.

Worryingly, it is not just Brexit that threatens the UK’s international development work. The commitment to 0.7% ODA spending is under threat from the right wing of the Tory party, which believes that aid spending should be slashed, and would heartlessly endanger the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.