Official Development Assistance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:15 pm on 9th July 2020.

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Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Secretary of State for International Development 3:15 pm, 9th July 2020

Before I start, I want to reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend Mary Kelly Foy. On 16 June, the Prime Minister said that there had been

“massive consultation over a long period.”—[Official Report, 16 June 2020;
Vol. 677, c. 678.]

before the decision to axe DFID was made. On 6 July, the Secretary of State for International Development told the International Development Committee that the announcement came first to Parliament, and the permanent secretary said that the first non-governmental organisation steering group meeting was last week. Can the Minister therefore tell the House: did the Prime Minister mislead the House, or did the Secretary of State mislead the Committee? If so, when will they come to apologise to the House and correct the record?

British people are rightly proud of the humanitarian and development work that DFID has done over the past 23 years. We have heard today numerous concrete examples of things that the independent DFID has done for some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham, for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), the hon. Members for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) and for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), my hon. Friends the Members for Blaydon (Liz Twist), for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous). They all made excellent points.

However, this fault stretches far across the political spectrum. That reflects much of what has been said both today and in recent years. Mark Garnier made some excellent points. Mr Mitchell has been a fierce and outspoken opponent of this decision and I know he has been dismayed by the Prime Minister’s decision. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, previously said that he is

“not a believer that we should regroup Departments” as DFID plays a critical specialist role. Theo Clarke has said:

“It’s…paramount that DFID remains an independent department.” due to its global expertise and aid work, its position as one of the world’s most transparent aid donors, and the vital role it plays in

“projecting soft power abroad and in bolstering our prestige on the world stage.”

Huw Merriman has written:

“We all want taxpayers money to be spent well, and that’s why we must keep an independent DFID” because it ranks as

“one of the world’s most effective and transparent aid donors.”

The Secretary of State for International Development said:

“the effectiveness with which DFID is able to deliver aid is because the Department has decades of honed experience in understanding the most effective and targeted ways of spending taxpayers’
money”—[Official Report, 10 June 2020;
Vol. 677, c. 276.]

It is astonishing then, that the Prime Minister has, in the middle of a global pandemic, decided not only to ignore voices from people in the global south, Opposition Members and UK-based international charities, but to totally disregard Members of his own party who have, time and again, laid out the compelling case for an independent Department for International Development. Instead, he has chosen to engage in a very expensive Whitehall restructure. Even before any of the waste of taxpayers’ money from overseas development aid being spent by other Government Departments that have consistently displayed poor value for money when compared to DFID’s spend, the cost of the merger will be at least £50 million. When people are facing the prospect of an economy in dire straits, does the Minister support his Prime Minister throwing £50 million of British taxpayers’ money to boost his own ego?

The Secretary of State herself acknowledged how difficult the process would be and that her Government would not be ready for a fully functioning Department to exist by September. With no organisational plan yet in place, the Institute for Government estimates that it will take at least two years for the new Department to be properly bedded in. Does the Minister agree that it would have made more sense to focus on the issues at hand: the global pandemic, the upcoming G7 chair, hosting COP26 as part of tackling the climate disaster, global poverty, inequality and conflict?

In 1997, the Labour Government established the Department as a standalone, independent Department to move away from the scandals that had occurred when it was part of the Foreign Office and aid was used to oil the wheels of trade deals. The Pergau dam scandal happened because the British Government under Margaret Thatcher used UK aid to fund a costly dam in Malaysia in exchange for a major arms deal. Although those responsible for aid were against the deal, the Department that they were part of—namely, the Foreign Office—ignored their protestations. I hope that the timing of the Prime Minister’s decision, in the midst of the UK’s attempts to negotiate numerous trade deals, is merely a coincidence. I urge the Government to resist returning to those times.

I thank everyone who has today made the positive moral case for the work that DFID has done over the last 23 years. I know that the British public are incredibly proud of the important poverty reduction work that our money has supported in recent decades. According to the World Bank, the pandemic will erase all the poverty alleviation progress that has been made over the past 3 years, and it will push into poverty 176 million people who live at the $3.20 poverty line. It reveals and exacerbates inequalities that already existed for people in precarious positions. The answer lies not just in short-term projects and programmes, but in longer-term support from the UK to help those countries to develop public health, education and social protections.

Yesterday, the Chancellor acknowledged that we expect the deepest global recession since records began. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Government have so far disbursed a fraction of the funding that they have committed to using to support the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people in the face of the worst global pandemic for over a century. The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that none of us is safe until we are all safe. With cuts of at least £2 billion due to the aid budget because of the collapse of the UK economy, will the Minister ensure that any cuts are made to aid that is given to middle and upper-income countries, and that aid spending is removed first from projects and programmes that have scored red or amber-red in Independent Commission for Aid Impact evaluations? The Secretary of State told the International Development Committee on Monday that the 0.7% figure would, sadly, be smaller this year and probably next. Does the Minister agree, and would the Government like the cash figure of UK ODA to be higher?

Many of my colleagues have touched on the key decisions that will be necessary to ensure transparency, accountability and value for money in the new Department. The Chair of the International Development Committee has laid out a clear set of measures, including the commitment to 0.7% with a poverty focus. Other Departments are not bound to the International Development Act 2002, so can the Minister confirm whether the Secretary of State is planning any amendments or appropriate legislation to ensure that we retain ICAI and resource it; that we have an ODA scrutiny committee, given that 30% of ODA is spent by other Departments; and that there is no tying of aid? Will the Minister commit to accepting those reasonable measures to guarantee scrutiny for UK development work? I remind the Government that the easiest and cheapest way to do that would be to retain a Department that has consistently been rated a world leader in all of the above.

I want to point to the positives that the UK can achieve in pushing for change at an international level. Following intensive lobbying from the Opposition, the UK was able to use some of its leverage to get the United Nations Security Council to adopt a resolution concerning a global ceasefire. It is a shame that that did not come sooner, but it is an important springboard to ensure that countries focus on tackling the primary and secondary impacts of covid-19.

This takeover is a distraction—a distraction from a Prime Minister who has failed to step up domestically or internationally. The UK has failed to play a serious role in promoting global collaboration and co-operation, and the Government have not used the UK’s privileged position on the world stage to bring together parties to overcome the pandemic. The distraction of a rushed Whitehall restructure has further weakened our capacity to respond.

Even with a reduced ODA budget, there are things that I urge the Government to commit to. I encourage them to use their influence to urge the cancellation of debt repayments for low-income countries and attach conditions to UK public money to guarantee equitable access to diagnostics and vaccines. I urge them to commit to actively supporting universal healthcare around the world and pledge to build back better with the principles of climate justice, human rights and gender equality at the core of what they do.