I congratulate Sarah Champion on securing this debate. I wonder whether the title of “estimates day debate” has ever been so appropriate, given the uncertainty around official development assistance over the next two years.
The Secretary of State for International Development said on Monday there would be £2 billion of cuts, but we do not know where they will fall, and I know from my engagement that there is huge concern across the sector about what criteria are being used to make the cuts. And this is playing out at a time when, according to the Secretary of State herself, coronavirus could undo 30 years of the UK’s international development work. We are only as covid-secure here in the UK as the most affected country globally. The failure to ring-fence the programmes that protect the most vulnerable in this moment of crisis should be a legacy that no member of the Government can take pride in.
I am afraid that this lack of clarity typifies the Government’s approach to this deeply misguided merger. There is so little consistency in their rhetoric. The Foreign Secretary tells us that we are committed to DAC rules, while the Prime Minister says we are giving too much aid to Tanzania and Zambia. We are told that poverty reduction will remain a central focus, but the Government will not rule out making changes to the primary legislation that underpins the direction of ODA spending. They make noises in favour of transparency yet will not commit to ICAI, and the hon. Member for Rotherham is informed that her Committee will shut down in September. My worry is that the Government’s manner in conducting the merger typifies how they will seek to direct ODA in the future: little transparency and no accountability, departments unable to articulate how their ODA spend is allocated, decisions taken by a tiny executive with no consultation.
This really matters. The 0.7%, enshrined in law by a Liberal Democrat private Member’s Bill, represents a huge commitment of taxpayers’ money, and it is vital that it is spent properly, because that means value for money for people in the UK, and it means that where our aid is delivered, we know it actually delivers. The Prime Minister chose to denigrate DFID as a “cashpoint in the sky”, but that talk is cheap and betrays a total lack of understanding of the expertise within DFID and of what Professor Myles Wickstead called
“the thought, effort and commitment that has gone into aid and development programmes”.
That expertise must be maintained.
Of course, ensuring our aid spending is effective is about more than just value for money; there are real concerns about safeguarding, and we have heard nothing about what that will look like. We are rightly appalled at the lapses in behaviour from senior people in NGOs, and we need to be reassured that such things will not reoccur. These are exactly the kind of things that disengage taxpayers from aid in the first place.
I have spoken about the frameworks that need to be in place in order to ensure that our aid spending is world leading—that it is transparent, subject to scrutiny, driven by expertise, and with safeguarding at its heart—but there is also the question of what we choose to prioritise within our aid budget. Poverty reduction is crucial. Will the Government commit to spending at least 50% of aid in the most vulnerable countries? As my recent urgent question made clear, I think this merger is totally unnecessary. There are a number of commitments that the Government have yet to make, and I hope that the Minister will offer some further assurances.