Official Development Assistance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:17 pm on 9th July 2020.

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Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury 2:17 pm, 9th July 2020

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank and congratulate Sarah Champion on securing this debate and on her comprehensive speech. A year ago, I led the very same debate; we did not know about the merger then, but we did discuss whether DFID should continue as a separate Department at that point, and I think the view was pretty overwhelming in the House that it should continue.

I have to say that I have rather mixed feelings about the announcement. I understand where the Government are coming from, and they do indeed want to make sure that British interests are best served with the aid we provide. However, as I said to the Prime Minister when he announced the merger, I would argue that poverty reduction programmes across the world are just that. It is in the United Kingdom’s interests to alleviate poverty across the world, for a number of reasons. It does reduce economic migration, and it does offer increasing export markets for us, all of which is in British interests. I would also argue that, from a humanitarian point of view, it is right that we have poverty reduction programmes across the world, particularly involving education—especially girls’ education—and health projects. All of that is in the world’s interests. All of that is in our own British interests.

When the Prime Minister made his statement, he said:

“it is no use a British diplomat one day going in to see the leader of a country and urging him not to cut the head off his opponent and to do something for democracy in his country, if the next day another emanation of the British Government is going to arrive with a cheque for £250 million.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2020;
Vol. 677, c. 675.]

I think everybody would agree with those sentiments, but as the hon. Member for Rotherham pointed out, the provision of aid is not quite that simple. Quite often, we give aid to charities and non-government organisations working in countries. I do not think we provide budget support to countries anymore—if I am wrong on that, I will be corrected, but it is certainly very small if we do. The bilateral aid we give amounts to only 63% of our whole budget. The remaining 37% is multilateral aid going to things such as the World Food Programme. We do not have the ability to influence evil dictators in the way that we might want to, because our focus, quite rightly, is on poverty reduction. As has been pointed out, not all the aid is spent by DFID. In fact, if we add up DFID and Foreign Office aid, it comes to something like 80%, with the remainder being spent by other Departments. Merging DFID and the Foreign Office does not necessarily mean that we have full control over all that money.

An important point I want to make is that countries with the worst types of Government often house the world’s poorest people. The people in those countries are the neediest, and we must not lose sight of that fact. I understand where we are coming from. We want to provide opportunities for British companies via our aid programmes. We want to try to bring about better government across the world, and if our aid can do that, it is well spent. But we must ensure that each Department retains the focus that it has had for many years—for the FCO, diplomacy and its very useful work in other areas, and for DFID, aid and development. I hope that that focus is not lost, because people a lot less fortunate than ourselves depend on us.