[Relevant documents: Written evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s Main Estimate 2021-22, reported to the House on
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with
(1) further resources, not exceeding £2,516,113,000 be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 14 of Session 2021-22,
(2) further resources, not exceeding £739,069,000 be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and
(3) a further sum, not exceeding £3,725,498,000 be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Rebecca Harris.)
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing us this estimates debate on official development assistance, more commonly known as foreign aid, and the British Council. It is clear how much passion and interest there is across parties on this topic.
Over the last two years, there have been considerable and brutal reductions in overseas development aid at a time of unprecedented global need. When other nations across the globe are stepping up, the UK seems to be walking away, and that is why today’s debate is so important. Public and parliamentary interest in aid has never been greater.
I wanted to spend the debate looking in detail at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s spending plans. I wanted to scrutinise how UK aid, cut drastically to 0.5% of GNI at a time when more aid is needed, is being spent in the most effective way possible. However, the information needed to carefully check that spending simply is not being shared by the FCDO.
The Select Committee on International Development has had to fight tooth and nail to extract whatever information it can from the Government. A pattern of behaviour is emerging that demonstrates this Government’s contempt for parliamentary scrutiny. That cannot be allowed to continue.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for the comments that she has made so far and for her work on the Select Committee. In the post-Brexit age, we hear a lot from the British Government on sovereignty and being able to make sovereign decisions, but is not the crux of the matter—as this major issue, the cut to international aid, shows—the fact that we are not making decisions on the basis of parliamentary sovereignty, and that the Government really should be paying more attention to the views of this House?
That is absolutely the nub of my speech. At a time when we ought to be able to scrutinise the detail of the spending of taxpayers’ money—particularly at a time when cuts are being made to it—that is not in the gift of this House. It is in the gift only of a very few Ministers, and that should concern us all.
When my Committee received the main estimate from the FCDO this year, we were genuinely shocked. It looked very different, with considerably less detail than last year’s equivalent. Budget lines had been altered, with the majority of spending from the former Department for International Development lumped together under one heading. That obscures the size and distribution of the cuts to aid spending.
It is customary for the Government to consult with relevant Select Committees prior to making such radical changes to the presentation of estimates. Needless to say, that did not happen. Surely, at a time of increased parliamentary interest in aid spending, we should expect more detail, not less. With such little detail and information, Parliament cannot know exactly what is going on and what it is agreeing to. How can we make an informed decision without a basic breakdown of where the FCDO plans to spend in a particular country or on a particular theme?
Sadly, that is entirely consistent with the lack of information and transparency provided by the FCDO throughout last year. Add that to the lack of willingness to engage with my Committee, and Members’ questions being dodged or simply ignored, and Parliament faces a constant uphill struggle for the most basic details that we should be entitled to.
The Government have said that they will return to spending 0.7% of GNI on aid “when fiscal circumstances allow”. My Committee, and I am sure other Members in the House, have lost track of how many times we have asked the Foreign Secretary to define what is meant by that. We are getting no closer to an answer. We have repeatedly asked for a country-by-country breakdown of funding allocations for this financial year. Instead, we got only a worryingly short list of countries where the UK will spend bilaterally this year, with no figures attached. It is simply impossible to perform proper scrutiny without those figures.
My Committee is being stymied in its efforts to scrutinise, Parliament is being blocked from being able to consider the figures, and many of the organisations that are implementing the UK aid programmes, making the difference on the ground, have had to fight for clarity on whether their programmes will even survive these cuts. The haphazard way in which these cuts to aid programmes have been made has also caused considerable financial waste.
Let us take the cuts to global health, one of the FCDO’s priority areas, as just one example. Donated drugs to treat preventable diseases will be wasted, as there is no one available to distribute or administer them following a 90% cut in funding. In Bangladesh, a programme providing essential healthcare to disadvantaged communities, including a response to covid-19, was given less than a week to close. That story plays out across every area of UK aid.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point on the fact that the more barriers there are to aid, the more difficult it is to deliver. Does she agree therefore that it is a moral and economic imperative that this Government do everything in their diplomatic might to reauthorise and readopt the cross-border crossings in north-east and north-west Syria to relieve the millions of people there at serious risk of loss of life?
I absolutely support my hon. Friend’s calls for that border crossing to be reopened. It is a time-limited ask, and the International Development Committee wrote to the Foreign Secretary over two weeks ago asking for that very thing—to open those borders and keep them open so that aid can get in to help those desperate people—and we still have not received a reply.
In Vietnam, teams clearing land mines are being made redundant, as there is no funding for their project. In the Central African Republic, a project fighting the worst forms of child labour will be forced to close early. How does it make sense to invest in these transformative projects over years and then cut the funding at the very point they are about to realise their goals? It is a waste for those communities and a waste for the UK taxpayer, who has been funding it.
This debate also considers the role of the British Council, an organisation that has experienced huge challenges as a result of the pandemic. Unable to offer its normal range of paid-for educational services, budgets have been squeezed dramatically, impacting upon other programmes and leading to office closures around the world. Indeed, from next week, the British Council is starting the redundancy process for between 15% and 20% of its jobs.
The British Council is one of the best examples of soft power that I know, and the Government are standing by and letting it crumble. That is set against a growth in cultural institutes from other states—namely China’s Confucius Institutes—that are creeping across the planet. That is not exactly the action of an outward-looking, global-focused Great Britain, is it?
The Government say they are proud of the UK’s aid spending, but hiding figures and failing to respond to my Committee’s questions are not the actions of a Government who are proud. They seem like the actions of a Government who are trying to cover up their shocking reductions in funding and the devastating results: the girls who will not go to school, the children who will not be vaccinated and the families who will not have access to clean water. Once again, I ask the Minister for three things: to publish the individual country allocations for this financial year; to provide immediate clarity to organisations implementing UK aid programmes on their funding allocations for this financial year; and, most fundamental of all, for the Government to detail the steps that they will take to return to spending 0.7% of GNI on ODA.
Finally, I want to say thank you to all the FCDO staff and all the aid workers around the world who do an amazing job in the most difficult of circumstances. We stand with them and will continue fighting for the resources that they need to be able to do their job: tackling poverty and inequality around the world. That is the right thing to do; morally it is the right thing to do, but it is also the right thing to do for Britain’s interests.
There will be a seven-minute time limit on Back-Bench contributions, with the clock in the Chamber and on the screen for those participating virtually.
It is a pleasure to follow the very good speech from the Chairman of the Select Committee, Sarah Champion, and I echo her comments in thanking FCDO staff and aid workers around the world for the work that they do, often, as she said, in extremely difficult circumstances. I would also like to say to the Minister that I am grateful to Lord Ahmad for the discussions he is having with me on modern slavery and initiatives on modern slavery, and those discussions are continuing.
Before I come to the specific points I want to make on the estimates, I will make a general point on this debate, because I believe that, in response to my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell last week, the Prime Minister implied that this debate was a vote on 0.7%. Of course, it is a vote on the estimates for the FCDO. It cannot be used as a proxy vote on 0.7%, and I hope the Government will accept that and recognise that the calls for a vote on 0.7% are still there.
There are two issues that I particularly want to raise. The first is that, in the limited information available to us on aid spending from the Government, there seems to be little suggestion from the Government that they are actually paying attention to the important linkages between the different elements of spending in the aid budget. This is often an holistic matter, and these things cannot just be looked at in silos.
To give just one example of this, our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is rightly very keen to encourage girls’ education around the world. It has been a theme of Conservative Governments now for some considerable time. We have taken it up in G7 meetings, and we have encouraged others around the world to take up that theme. Of course, a girl who is educated is less likely to be lured into modern slavery. However, if we cut the programmes for dealing with modern slavery, that girl may not be able to get into education because the slave drivers and the gangs—the criminal gangs—may have got to her first. We have to look at these issues holistically and at the linkages between them.
I hope my right hon. Friend will forgive me for interrupting her, but she is making such an excellent point, and exactly the same argument can be made on tackling gender-based violence. If we want to succeed in getting women through education, then we must tackle gender-based violence. It is a comprehensive package, and that is why we need to be securing the 0.7%.
Indeed. My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I gave just one example, but actually we have to look at aid funding holistically, and look at the linkages between areas and the impact of cuts in one area on another area. There is no evidence, I am afraid, from what I have seen from the Government, that that is what they have done. It does appear that they have just cut in silos. We see, for example, that the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery has an 80% cut in its funding and there is a 25% cut in funding for girls’ education, but these are linked. I urge the Government to look at those links.
I want to note that, in their response to the fourth special report of the Select Committee, in late September —
“The Government’s manifesto made clear that we would proudly maintain our commitment to spending 0.7 percent of our national income on development—a commitment enshrined in law and one to which the new Department will honour its responsibilities. The Integrated Review, which will inform the priorities and direction for this new department, will set an ambitious vision for the future of the UK as an active, internationalist, problem-solving and burden-sharing nation. Investing 0.7 percent of Gross National Income…on international development is at the heart of that vision;
it shows we are an enterprising, outward-looking and truly global Britain that is fully engaged with the world.”
That was at the end of September 2020, and in November 2020 the funding was cut. Either one hand does not know what the other hand is doing in the Government, or they were just trying to calm everybody into a sense that everything was going to be okay before they actually wielded the knife on this particular issue.
The second point I want to make is about the impact on the UK’s presence on the world stage of the decisions that have been taken. This relates not just to ODA spending, but to the spending of the FCDO in general. I note that the Select Committee, in response to the decision to merge DFID into the FCO, said that it had
“significant concerns that the merger may jeopardise the ongoing effectiveness of future UK aid spending… In the long run, the creation of the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office could reduce the UK’s clout on the world stage.”
I fear that it is reducing the UK’s clout on the world stage, and this cut in overseas aid is but one example of that, although we focus, as we have in previous debates on this issue, on the very real impact on the ground of the money being cut from different programmes. The health programme has been mentioned by the Select Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Rotherham, but there are others, including the cut in funding to starving people in Yemen, for example, and all of these are having a real impact on the ground.
The FCDO also needs to look very carefully at the DFID expertise that is now within the FCDO. As it looks across its estimates and at how it is spending its money in the Department, it needs to make very certain that it does not lose that expertise. There have been times in the past when people have rightly questioned the way in which our aid money has been spent, but I have to say that that has changed in recent years, largely due to and initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield when he was the International Development Secretary. We spend our aid differently, and we have developed—and successive International Development Secretaries did this too—real expertise. We are now hitting the needy across the world with a double whammy because they are losing our funding and they are losing our expertise as well.
Does my right hon. Friend realise that the position is far worse than was set out when the so-called merger took place? What has happened is that DFID has been completely dismantled. Even in the days of her predecessor, Lady Thatcher, there was an overseas development administration within the Foreign Office, which was a sort-of department for development with a Minister of State in charge of it. There is nothing like that today. The whole thing has been completely smashed to pieces, as she is saying in her speech.
I thank my right hon. Friend for clarifying that point so well. If we are going to continue to be respected as a country that leads on overseas aid, it is absolutely imperative that we not only spend the money, but that we also have the expertise to ensure that it is being spent properly. Hosting receptions in the British embassy, and getting to know local businessmen and politicians, is a different skillset to knowing how to deliver aid on the ground logistically, so that British taxpayers’ money is spent in the most effective way.
Maintaining that expertise is particularly important if the Government are to be believed, as we hope they are, when they say that they are going to restore the 0.7%. When a programme is cut, we cannot just say, “Well, you are not having that money this year, but next year you are going to have it.” People will no longer be employed to give the aid on the ground. We need the expertise to be able to build the programmes up. We are looking at a perfect storm, where not only has the money gone away but, when the time comes—I hope it will be next year that the Government restore 0.7%—we will find that the people are not in the Department to ensure that that is being done, and being done effectively.
I say to the Minister that I sincerely hope that we can restore the respect that we have had around the world, through our funding and our expertise, restore the 0.7%, look holistically at the aid spending and not lose DFID expertise. If we do that, we might be able to return, as was said in the Government response to the fourth special report, to being
“an enterprising, outward-looking and truly global Britain that is fully engaged with the world.”
Sadly, at the moment, the message is rather different.
It is a pleasure to follow the effective speech by Mrs May. I suspect that we will see a good deal of consensus across the House this afternoon on these points.
The Government’s sudden default on their commitments, enshrined in law, and the way the cuts are being implemented, with minimal information for this House, has damaged plans, partnerships and trust that have built up over many years between the UK Government and international partners. At a stroke, the Government have succeeded in damaging the UK’s reputation as a reliable partner, at a time when they are supposedly developing the UK’s role as a global player. All of this is purportedly to ensure that we can shoulder the burden of their disastrous covid policy, while conveniently playing into the supposed prejudices of their new and possibly fickle supporters.
These cuts have been rushed, with no consideration or assessment of the impact they will have on the people who receive UK aid or the effect on UK-based overseas aid projects, particularly small-scale initiatives without the robust structures or funding to absorb large-scale cuts made by their main or only real source of finance. There has been no real consultation, not least with this House, and there has been a failure, or more likely a refusal, to understand and take into account the likely impacts, or to engage with partners and communities, so as to try to minimise the damage, if that is at all possible.
Throughout this process there has been poor communication with partners. The Government have failed to provide dependable and predictable information, and the repeated failure to deliver on promises of forthcoming decisions and information has left organisations and projects unable to plan or manage the situation.
Let me turn for a moment to small-scale projects in Wales. Hub Cymru Africa reports that the closure of the FCDO’s small charities challenge fund—the most accessible grant scheme up to £50,000 for Welsh NGOs—is hitting, for example, the Teams4u project in Wrexham. The closure of the FCDO’s partnership grants of up to £250,000 is affecting the successful delivery of projects such as Interburns. Perhaps the Minister would like to explain why the partnership grant of £249,000 to Bees for Development Monmouth for its work in Ethiopia is being cut by £102,000, thereby closing the project early. That explanation might be useful for his ministerial colleague at the Wales office, the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, David T. C. Davies. United Purpose in Cardiff has been working in Malawi for 32 years. Its work has been rated A++ for performance and value for money by the FCDO itself. It has had to drastically reduce its work, with only weeks of warning, due to Malawi’s law on staff notices and severance packages. Some Welsh NGOs are considering closing down entirely.
Such cuts stand in clear contrast to the Welsh Government’s aid schemes, such as Wales for Africa. Wales takes international aid seriously; achieving sustainable development is written into the Welsh constitution. The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 commits to a “globally responsible Wales”. This Government are betraying those Welsh values. Even our universities—responsible for so much of the success of the domestic vaccine programme—are affected. UK Research and Innovation has already confirmed that the ODA cuts will lead to a £120 million budget shortfall in 2021-22. That conflicts with the Government’s own ambitions for R and D to reach 2.4% of GDP by 2027. This is disastrous not only for Welsh universities, but for the wider UK research community.
Let me turn to an example of broad-scale effects. Plan International reports that an estimated 20 million women and girls will now not be reached; 700,000 fewer girls will be supported by girls’ education programmes; 2 million fewer women will be supported by humanitarian assistance; 8 million fewer people and girls will be supported by nutrition interventions; and 9 million fewer women will be supported to access clean water and sanitation. This is a disaster.
This is not a deliberate wrecking by a perfidious foreign competitor. It is not an explicit hostile action by an enemy. It is not even the unintended consequence of absent-minded and careless prime ministerial policy making aimed at grabbing a headline or two. It is a deliberate disaster of this Government’s own making, and it will not be forgiven or forgotten by its survivors.
I will not go over the existing point about 0.7% and 0.5%, because I think the House knows my view. I share absolutely the views of Sarah Champion and my right hon. Friend Mrs May, who have made their point—and, in fact, my point—extremely clearly.
Instead, I will focus on the integrated review and the merger of the Departments, and what it actually means according to the statements of Her Majesty’s Government compared with the actions on the ground. I would suggest that there is a slight dissonance between the talk of global Britain engaging directly with nations, and the cuts to bilateral Britain while we are reinforcing multilateral action. Now, I understand why we have taken those decisions: we have legal contracts with multilateral agencies and therefore we have legal obligations with them that are harder to break; so instead we are undermining our own policy and weakening those bilateral ties.
It seems to me—perhaps the Minister will be able to explain why I am wrong—that we are wracked over the small print while others are racking up the newsprint of their achievements, and that is a mistake. It is a mistake because, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead made clear, we need to be demonstrating our place around the world. I support the ambitions of aligning the two Departments, and indeed of bringing the Department for International Trade and perhaps other Departments much closer together with the Foreign Office. My former colleagues in the Ministry of Defence will not like this terribly, but I support the idea of having a Foreign Secretary who is the strategic mind for the British Government overseas, including on the deployment of, for example, carriers. HMS Queen Elizabeth is in port in Cyprus today. Although the Foreign Office should have had a very clear view on her role and deployment, and was absolutely right to support the ships going through international waters—or Ukrainian waters, as they were only the other day—I would never argue that an ambassador should be the admiral of a fleet or that a political councillor should be the captain of a destroyer. The same is true, I am afraid, in respect of aid spending; there is a technical expertise here that is not the same as the strategic oversight of foreign policy, which is why I would like to see some of this coming back and being reinforced as the technical skill it really is.
Let us look at a few examples. Some have said to me that perhaps we are going back to a pre-1930s world, and there is certainly a hint of that. Let us look at the cuts we have seen in Lebanon, a very important historical ally, one in which we have invested heavily, through the Lebanese armed forces and through the relationship of building capability that would fight terrorism, which we all face. This is an organisation that has done more to hold the state of Lebanon together than many of its supposedly civic institutions. We have invested an awful lot and we have a huge amount of good will—having been there and met the Lebanese armed forces chief when I was serving in the armed forces, I can also say that we have also brought back a lot of raki from his personal collection, but that is a separate matter. We have built up a fantastic relationship with a very important strategic partner in the middle east. That is not just good for Lebanon, which is facing the crisis of a quarter or a third of its population being migrants—refugees forced over from the Syrian civil war—and nor is it just a good moment for the middle east, because it creates a link into various forms of support into other countries, but it is brilliant for Britain. It is fundamentally strengthening the UK and our place in the world. It gives us a toehold into one of the most vibrant financial climates in the region and an essential partner for so many of our other operations.
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me to interrupt him, because he makes an excellent point about how our having that relationship with countries promotes Britain. But it is also about the organisations we support, be it the HALO Trust or War Child. These organisations end up being supported by the British Government and then find themselves on active duty promoting our interests—helping save people. That is also integral to delivering the global Britain message.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have spoken to the Mines Advisory Group about its work in Lebanon, which has been so important, not just in promoting our interests. Sadly, it will almost certainly be needed not just in Iraq, where it has operated at some points, but in Syria.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that £6.8 million of the spend by the Foreign Office last year was not “ODA-able”, which is a remarkable thing, as our support, in particular to Lebanese armed forces, has enabled land in Lebanon to be farmed by farmers who have not seen that land for 50-odd years?
My right hon. Friend makes an essential point: the OECD definition of what is “ODA-able” is historically anachronistic. He is right to say that we need to update it and that spending money on the armed forces who keep the peace and allow development is an essential building block of development, and therefore should be ODA-able. That is a slightly separate point to the one I am making, but I am very grateful to him for making it. As a right hon. and gallant Member, he knows well the strength that the armed forces and indeed the royal naval surgeons can bring to any theatre.
My next point is about the change to our footprint in Mali, Niger and Chad, where we have just opened embassies, which I welcome. I am glad that we are extending the Foreign Office’s footprint. Indeed, my hon. Friend James Duddridge is the Minister responsible and has visited or will no doubt soon visit all three of those embassies and missions. When he does so, I hope he will take with him the best wishes of the whole House to the staff there.
Of course, in such areas of the world it is not enough to have just nice words; we also need nice actions. The actions that we need our diplomats to be able to complete are those that promote our interests and values and, indeed, the interests of the people in those areas. Those things are not terribly surprising: they are democracy, the rule of law and the education of women. I have heard the Prime Minister speak about them so often that I can rattle them off not quite in my sleep but pretty much. It is certainly true that we are doing all the right things when we have the capability; the challenge is that for Mali, Niger and Chad there is no budget line. We will therefore see our efforts branded as the work of the World Bank, the World Food Programme and many other organisations. They are fantastic organisations, but that will reduce the impact of global Britain.
I am a little concerned about the cut to our funding for research on tropical diseases—from £150 million to £17 million. As the House may know, the Foreign Affairs Committee is doing an inquiry into global health security, and we have been hearing how that investment is essential to the maintenance of future capabilities against pandemics. We are all aware of the pandemic we face today but, as the House knows, it is not enough to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted; we need to try to predict when the horse might be getting a little jittery. For example, we know the effect we have had in making sure that Ebola never broke out in the UK —although there was a limited incident when one nurse came back with it.
In Nigeria, a country of which I am particularly fond—forgive my bias, but I think it is a quite remarkably vibrant, brilliant and engaging country—we have been cutting our ODA spend again. This leaves me somewhat confused. Health makes up 34% of the current allocation and education about 11%, so a cut of 58% is very likely indeed to cut into those things.
I hope the House can see that although I welcome strategic alignment, I do not think that ambassadors are admirals or that consuls are captains. What I do think, however, is that this House and, indeed, this Prime Minister have set a strategic vision for Britain in the world that seems to have got lost in translation between the Cabinet table and the Foreign Office. I question, very slightly, whether or not a moment of deep thought, alignment and reinvestment might just bring back a bilateral and a multilateral into balance, and perhaps when we get back to 0.7% that will give us the global Britain we have all asked for.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, and the former Prime Minister, Mrs May. I congratulate my hon. Friend Sarah Champion on speaking so powerfully.
This debate has demonstrated the cross-party strength of feeling about what is being done to our aid budget. While every other G7 member state has responded to the pandemic by increasing aid, the UK Government have done the exact opposite, which is deeply frustrating and concerning. They are reducing the budget by £4 billion this year, on top of the almost £3 billion that was cut last year. Reducing aid spending to 0.5% should shame us all. Until this year, there has been a strong cross-party alliance in favour of maintaining the 0.7% commitment, of which we are all proud. The speeches today have demonstrated that strength of feeling.
The pandemic has left the world even more vulnerable, with some of the poorest people in deep trouble and some of the poorest nations in great difficulty. We know that the Government’s cuts are leading to lifesaving water sanitisation and hygiene projects being cut by 80%. Education programmes will be cut by 40%, resulting in 700,000 fewer girls receiving education. They will then be much more vulnerable, as the former Prime Minister said. Essential humanitarian aid programmes, including to Yemen, will be cut by 60%. The Rohingya crisis has led to 1 million displaced people in camps in Bangladesh. Funding to that group has been cut by almost 50%. They are the most vulnerable people in the world. They have faced genocide, and rape has been used systematically against the women. Across the world in conflict zones such as Yemen, many of us have seen women and children suffering the most. Rape and violence against women, whether Syrian refugees or those forced into refuge in Yemen, has been used as a weapon of war. That is what these cuts have meant: women being made more vulnerable when they have already faced trauma and violations. That is why the proposed cuts are so unacceptable and why this Government’s undermining of parliamentary scrutiny and democracy is so concerning.
There is not only a moral imperative to support those who face vulnerability, especially given the pandemic; it is in our economic interests as well. The World Bank estimates that nearly 124 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty since the pandemic began. The World Food Programme estimates that 270 million people are either at risk of becoming or already are acutely food insecure. This is a global economic and health crisis. As we have heard time and again, the virus is not a respecter of international borders. While one country is at risk, all countries are at risk. No one is safe until everyone is safe. Last year, the UN Secretary-General described the covid-19 pandemic as
“menacing the whole of humanity—and so the whole of humanity must fight back.”
To the contrary, our Government are being isolationist. They are not thinking about our interests. If we do not support the poorest countries in the world to protect those who are vulnerable and manage the pandemic through our aid effort and other partnerships, we will not get out of this crisis. We will leave many more people vulnerable. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of dying because of the decision to cut our aid budget.
On the economic dimension, we have to think about the linkages, as the former Prime Minister said in her speech. Others have spoken about the influence that Britain can have on the global stage. If we provide the support to countries that need help, according to the International Monetary Fund the cumulative gain will be $9 trillion by 2025, with $3.6 trillion accruing to the advanced economies, which will recoup $1 trillion in tax revenues. So it is in our economic interest to help countries develop, get out of the pandemic, and survive and thrive. There is not just a moral imperative, albeit that is very important for our country and we are all proud to be a part of what we have done over the last few decades. A country-by-country analysis by Save the Children shows that American and European funding of vaccines will each be repaid 35 times over in increased trade and output.
That link takes me to a wider point about the cuts to the British Council. As we have heard, the linkages between our different institutions, what they do and their presence in developing countries, can create the climate for better trading relationships for our economy to succeed through those partnerships. We are already seeing that in the attempts to get trade agreements with countries outside the European Union. If we cut our funding when they need it most, it does not bode well for strong partnerships, whether on the economic side or in relation to security and development. That is why it is so important that the Government should allow us to vote on the 0.7% in the future, and that they should reconsider this cut in the aid budget, because supporting the vulnerable is in our economic interests as well as a moral imperative in these really difficult times. I call on Ministers to think again and to reverse the cuts.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee and, indeed, the International Development Committee, which is so ably led by Sarah Champion. It is a pleasure to follow Rushanara Ali, who shadowed me for a period of time when I had responsibility for some of these matters. I want to underline what has already been said about our respect for and gratitude to humanitarian workers and others around the world who put themselves in harm’s way for their fellow members of humanity and also, of course, to our brilliant diplomats, who are the subject of these estimates debates.
The Prime Minister, when responding to me last week, mentioned the possibility of a vote on these estimates. Languidly, that ball was tossed to him by the Leader of the House, but it is worth making clear, not least for those outside this place, that there was never any question of having a vote on the estimates. The Leader of the House was merely teasing the House by suggesting that, because he knows perfectly well that it is neither sensible nor serious to vote in that way. I believe he sleeps with “Erskine May” on his nightstand, and he knows that very well. The estimates have never been rejected by this place. They can either be reduced or rejected, but they cannot be increased. Of course, many of us want to see them increased so that we honour our commitment to 0.7%. If we had accepted my right hon. Friend’s invitation on the estimates, and if we had rejected them, the Foreign Office would have needed to send out redundancy notices on Monday in order to meet its legal obligations, like Liverpool in the days of Derek Hatton and the loony left. And they think that we who stand up for the 0.7% are the irresponsible Members of this House!
Let us be absolutely clear on the estimates. To oppose them would have given my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip all his Christmases in one go. No responsible Opposition would support such a thing. What we seek from this Government, who are rebelling against their own promises and manifesto, is a meaningful vote, not a show of force or something that the Government can ignore, and we do this in accordance with Mr Speaker’s specific instructions to the Government at 3.30 on
Why do we care so much about this issue? I would like to make just three points, because the House has probably heard enough from me on much of it. These cuts are hurting our reputation and threatening our foreign policy ambitions. My right hon. Friend Mrs May, who spoke so eloquently today, made the 0.7% her first commitment in the 2017 election, because she understood the importance of standing by the 0.7% in reinforcing our values and our promises. Much worse, these unprecedented cuts in the heart of a pandemic are damaging hundreds of thousands of people’s lives and leading to many avoidable deaths.
There are three examples that I want to mention quickly. The first is education for girls, which the Prime Minister has spoken about so eloquently, and on which British policy has been driven passionately and effectively by my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin. However, we are cutting that investment by 40%, meaning that 700,000 fewer girls will get into education, and we are also cutting by 60% our grant to UNICEF, the agency that is the very engine of getting girls into school. In 2010, the British Government doubled their UNICEF grant. A third of all girls in secondary schools in Africa drop out because they become pregnant, yet we are cutting by 85% our funding of the work of the United Nations family planning agency across the world. That is not, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead indicated, joined-up government.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is often women and girls across the world who face the brunt of climate change in their own communities, and that the cutting back of aid within those countries and communities is not only having a devastating effect over there but, given the interconnected nature of climate change, is impacting on us here? In the year of COP, five months away from it, surely we should expect better from this Government.
The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point. We cannot understand international development unless we see it through the eyes of girls and women.
My second point, which has already been mentioned, is on the 90% cut in funding for work on neglected tropical diseases. That funding is a huge British taxpayer investment. It is also one of the best investments we can make in global health. The Prime Minister, in a superb video earlier this year, promised strongly to support that work, yet it has now been cut by 90%. That means that 74 million schoolchildren will not receive drugs to prevent parasitic worms. It means that huge numbers will be maimed, blinded, debilitated, disabled and killed. The UK was a world leader in this extraordinarily important area, stimulating public and private sector partnerships. As a result of this cut, hundreds of millions of drugs, vaccines and tablets will be wasted and probably burned.
My third point has been very well made by my hon. Friends the Members for Somerton and Frome (David Warburton) and for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). It is about the work of the British Council, the Voluntary Service Overseas and the International Citizen Service, which I had the privilege of setting up some 10 years ago. There is no clarity about the future funding of the International Citizen Service, which has sent thousands and thousands of youngsters overseas, many of them not from well-off families but from families that were on free school meals. They have been brilliant ambassadors for our country as well as doing such a good job in international development. The British Council, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay is going to talk about, is now far more self-sufficient in raising its own money and giving the taxpayer a better deal than ever before, and to let it down in this way is really quite wrong. Is it any wonder that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead rather movingly made the 0.7% her first pledge in 2017 general election?
I want to draw the House’s attention to the words of the deputy Foreign Secretary—the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend James Cleverly—who, as little time ago as
“The Government remain completely committed to the 0.7% of GNI to ODA. That has been called into question a number of times, so I will repeat myself, despite the fact that my time is short: the Government are completely committed to the 0.7% target…That commitment is embedded in law, but we do not spend 0.7% because it is embedded in law—we spend 0.7% because it is the right thing to do.”—[Official Report,
I end on two points. First, when are the Government going to abide by Mr Speaker’s instruction to the House at 3.30 pm on
I do not think I have ever agreed with so many consecutive speeches from the Conservative Benches. I congratulate Mr Mitchell and the Chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion, on securing this debate.
It is great that we are getting to discuss the estimates on estimates day. Not so long ago, Members would have been called to order and dismissed from the Chamber for trying to do that, so this is one arrangement—possibly the only arrangement—that has been a beneficial emergence from the establishment of English votes for English laws in this House. If EVEL is to be done away with, and I hope it is, I hope that this aspect of scrutinising line by line Government expenditure through the estimates is retained. Sadly, as the hon. Member for Rotherham said, we are discussing only one line in today’s estimates documents. What was once an entire Department—the Department for International Development—with its own estimate and all the scrutiny that could accompany that has been reduced to one budget heading in HC14, the estimates document, on page 187, “Strategic priorities and other programme spending”. All the amazing, life-saving work carried out by DFID staff, partners, stakeholders and grassroots organisations around the world has been diminished not only by the savage cuts to the budget, but even by the way it is accounted for and reported in the Government’s spending paperwork.
The hon. Member is making a very good point. Does he agree that we could learn, although perhaps only in this example, from the US Congress, the French Parliament and a few other Parliaments around the world where the Government are required to publish their accounts line by line in a way that can be compared year on year? It is a bit difficult to hold the budget to account if we are not given the details with which to do it.
Absolutely. Indeed, if we had that kind of appropriations process, we could vote to amend the budget lines. I agree again with the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield on that, but at least we should be thankful that it is not just listed as “a giant cash machine in the sky” in the budget. Of all the offensive, dismissive and belittling expressions used by the Prime Minister, both before and since his election to office, that description of the UK’s aid budget and everything that went with it—to dismiss so frivolously and contemptuously the leadership that it showed, the cross-party consensus that it represented, the diplomatic weight that it carried—tells us everything we need to know about the ideology behind the decision to walk away from the 0.7% target and slash spending by over £4 billion. It has nothing to do with the pressures of covid on the economy and everything to do with an ideological distrust of what aid is supposed to achieve.
But aid works. Aid saves lives. The 0.7% was not a magic number; it was agreed by developed countries in the 1970s as the result of working out how much was needed to address global poverty at the time and how much those who could afford it should contribute. It helped to shape the goals of those days that eventually became the millennium development goals and the global goals for sustainable development—goals that the UK helped to devise.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those in Wales and Scotland who believe in an ethical foreign policy and who support humanitarian aid will see this as skewed priorities? When over £200 million is to be spent on a royal yacht and yet there is a cut to international humanitarian aid, what message does that give to the people of Wales and Scotland?
Absolutely. Aid was supposed to be one of the great benefits of the Union. DFID in East Kilbride and the UK’s global leadership were presented to people in Scotland in 2014 as a reason to vote to stay in the United Kingdom, so I do not know what message the Government think they are now sending to people in Scotland by slashing aid. I noticed that a high proportion of Members of Parliament from Scotland and Wales are down to speak in this debate. Perhaps the Government, if they want to protect their precious Union, should reflect on that as well.
Aid is not a cash machine in the sky. It cannot be turned on and off like a tap without consequence. Cuts and closures today simply cannot be undone tomorrow or when the fiscal situation allows, whatever that is supposed to mean. The abrupt end of many projects, not least those supported by the British Council, will do long-term damage that is not easily fixed. Indeed, to undo the damage or restart the programmes will end up costing even more in the long run.
A recent cross-party meeting hosted by the STOPAIDS campaign heard from incredibly brave activists and service providers from Kenya and Indonesia whose projects are at risk from these cuts. That means more people at risk of contracting HIV or going without treatment. The Government’s own Aid Match programme, which they get plaudits for and which allows charities to put the UK aid logo on their publicity, is under threat. Many projects are on hold. Members of the public have donated in good faith to charities such as War Child and Mary’s Meals, thinking that every pound they donate will be matched by another pound from the UK Government, only for those charities to be told that they and their partners delivering projects overseas will have to wait for the money and wonder whether it will arrive at all.
Just today, the former President of Malawi, Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika, who the all-party group on Malawi hosted here in Parliament in 2018, has joined 32 other former Heads of State and Heads of Government from Africa in calling out the very cuts to neglected tropical disease funding that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield spoke about. The WHO said about the cuts that there is no obvious alternative source of funding and that they will literally lead to tens of thousands of otherwise preventable deaths.
In my constituency, at the University of Glasgow, Professor Alison Phipps and her collaborators working to tackle violence against women in Ghana, Palestine and Zimbabwe have had their work paused, again without notice. Professor Phipps said that
“people were in tears…we are being offered advice from people in other countries who have experience of working with governments who are corrupt or cancel contracts with impunity.”
Well, so much for the soft power superpower. In the year that it hosts the G7, the UK is the only G7 country cutting its aid budget. In the year that it hosts the global climate conference, it is stepping back from global leadership, but it can always find money, as my friend Jonathan Edwards says, for a new royal yacht. There is also always money for weapons of mass destruction on the Clyde.
The Government have been boasting of late about vaccine stocks, ventilators, and certain amounts of funding they are making available to developing countries to fight covid. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister today whether this is additional to the aid budget, because if it is not we will diminish the small pot that is there for the aid budget anyway. If it is additional, then will it get classified as ODA, and how does that work in the overall accounting of things? [Interruption.] The Minister can address this in his summing up, but it would be interesting to know exactly what effect this covid assistance will have on the overall aid budget.
As we have said, debating estimates on estimates days is an improvement on the previous scrutiny, but the Government should be relieved that these motions are not amendable. If there were a votable amendment today to recommit the Government to the 0.7% target, everyone knows that it would be carried by the House. Perhaps this is just another example of where the Government do not really want Parliament to take back control after all.
As we have said, this was supposed to be one of the great successes of the Union. It has been a pledge of the SNP ever since the target was set that an independent Scotland would meet, and even seek to exceed, the target of 0.7% GNI for aid. In the recent Holyrood manifesto, the SNP Government have pledged to increase their relatively small, but highly effective, international development budget, which, incidentally, the UK Government then quite merrily account for as overall UK ODA spend.
Even in the face of economic difficulty and the global pandemic, the Scottish Government and we in Scotland recognise our responsibilities to those less fortunate than ourselves. That is the difference between the inward, introspective little Britain attitude that this Government’s aid cuts demonstrate, and the outward, internationalist vision that more and more people in Scotland have of their country as a good, independent global citizen.
May I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting this aspect of today’s debate on the British Council, and, indeed, all those who supported our application?
Parliament will know that, since 1934, the British Council has promoted British culture and education and the English language abroad, and in doing so it has fostered good relations and trust between the British people and people from other countries. It was the first and remains the world’s pre-eminent cultural relations organisation. For example, prior to covid, it directly connected with nearly 800 million people. It is a key reason why the UK is considered a soft power superpower, and on behalf of the British Council all-party group and of Parliament as a whole, I thank all employees, both past and present, for their excellent work. It is both recognised in this place and very much appreciated.
Governments of all persuasions have got it. The Prime Minister has told me personally that he gets it. The Defence Secretary, earlier this year, said that there was not enough British Council in the world, but actions speak louder than words. Our campaign, which has included a letter to the Prime Minister signed by well over 100 colleagues, which still has not been answered, relates to the fact that, despite generous Government support to see the British Council through the pandemic, it is still £10 million short of what it requires to keep or maintain its international network of offices, and this will result in the largest single set of closures in the British Council’s proud 90-year history.
This Government’s support is needed, because in any normal year the British Council is almost self-funding, courtesy of its commercial activities, including, typically, teaching English in China. Last year, these commercial activities dried up. The cash reserves were used and no commercial loan was available, because of the nature of the British Council’s relationship with the Government. Yet the FCDO maintains that it has increased its support to the British Council by around 27% on last year. Last year was an unusual year. A more accurate and fairer comparison is with the last normal year, 2019-20. The 27% increase claimed by the Government actually represents a cut in FCDO support when compared with that last normal year. In addition, a chunk of this year’s support is earmarked solely for restructuring, typically redundancies, and cannot be used for programming or keeping offices open. As the Government will not close this £10 million shortfall, office closures and programme reductions are to follow.
Let us be clear that these closures are not operational matters left to the British Council. As the Foreign Secretary’s letter to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee confirmed, these closures have been required by the FCDO and have been the subject of close ministerial involvement.
Indeed, the FCDO has listed the 20 offices to be closed, as defined by the removal of a country director and staff. They come in three categories: there will be a complete cessation of in-country activities in Namibia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, the United States and Uruguay; there will be a remote presence over the internet or via local third parties, but no British Council staff, in Afghanistan, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Chile and New Zealand; and, finally, there will be hub and spoke operations, directed from London, essentially covering the Balkans but also including Malta and Switzerland. In all 20 countries, a physical, recognisable and distinctive British Council presence will cease.
I briefly draw particular attention to our withdrawal from Afghanistan. As an ex-soldier, I supported the initial well-resourced mission to rid the country of al-Qaeda in 2001, but thereafter I opposed morphing the mission into one of nation building. I believe the British Council’s withdrawal compounds that error. Over the past 20 years, Britain has invested heavily in Afghanistan, in every sense. We made a promise to the Afghan people that we would not abandon them and, almost in one fell swoop, we are withdrawing our military support as well as our British Council offering. This will live long in the memory.
Let us also be clear that, although the FCDO is right that we should be alive to innovations such as remote working and digitalisation, the British Council would not be going down this road on this scale but for the current financial situation. The fact that other countries are increasing their global footprint indicates that they believe there remains great value in having a presence on the ground. China, for example, is planning to open a further 1,000 Confucius Institutes over the coming years. There is no better substitute for a physical presence on the ground, to understand the country in question, and such a presence might have averted some of our foreign intervention errors.
I believe this retreat from the world will be noted by other countries, and it is not compatible with the vision of a global Britain or with the ambitions in the integrated review. I ask the Government to think long and hard about this error, particularly when it comes to the comprehensive spending review.
Yesterday I received an answer to a written parliamentary question confirming there will be no further closures. I ask the Minister, when he speaks at the Dispatch Box, to confirm that remains the case.
Finally, I thank the many colleagues who have supported our campaign to get the Government to think again, including the hundred who signed our letter. I ask the Minister to bear this in mind in future considerations with regard to the British Council.
Like many others, I want to speak because I deplore these cuts in aid, which have been discussed this afternoon with so much analysis and eloquence. These cuts will have consequences; these cuts will cost lives. I like the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, a lot, but I thought he was being almost ridiculously polite about the strategic incoherence that we now confront, because these cuts in aid deface, they demean, they damage the global Britain strategy that was set out just a few weeks ago in the House of Commons. We cannot have a Prime Minister who asks for a rules-based order and then orders the Treasury to break the rules and cut what we actually helped construct—the 0.7% aid target.
As chair of the international Parliamentary Network on the World Bank & International Monetary Fund, I just wanted to throw three points into this debate. First things first: we must reverse these cut because they are damaging the global effort to vaccinate the world. The Prime Minister sallied into the G7 talks in Cornwall with grand talk about getting the world vaccinated by the end of next year, but when the dust had settled on the G7 communiqué, the IMF revealed that we are two-thirds short of the grant finance that we need to vaccinate the world—that is $23 billion. When I asked the Prime Minister a week or two ago where that money was going to come from, he just brushed it off. That is not good enough; we need answers, and reversing the cuts in aid could help us to provide those answers.
The second point is that we need these aid cuts reversed because we need the Foreign Secretary to reacquire some credibility in order to rally the global resources that we need to tackle the pandemic and its aftermath. The World Bank thinks that we need about $200 billion extra to tackle covid-19 around the world, and $250 billion extra to reinvest in climate-friendly infrastructure in poorer countries. This week, we took a big step towards finding those resources. The executive board of the IMF basically signed off on a plan to issue $650 billion of special drawing rights. That would channel about $27 billion in extra resource to the poorest countries. But the real prize is the $623 billion of SDRs that go to richer countries. We need to recycle them; we need to revise the old voluntary agreements that entail half of that money being held back; and we need to maximise the amount of money that goes into grant rather than soft loans. We need Britain to be a force helping to lead those debates.
Furthermore, we have a big decision to make, as a world community, on replenishment of the International Development Association. IDA20 replenishment has been brought forward. The framework that was published last week has significant changes that involve prioritising investment in human capital—absolutely critical when we hear what is happening to education and girls’ education around the world. We need the Foreign Secretary to have credibility in those talks, and reversing this cut would help give him that credibility to rally resources around the world to do what the world needs to do to reverse the first rise in extreme poverty that we have seen this century.
The final point is that we judge a nation’s values by the numbers in its budget. Right now, we are putting up defence spending by something like £24 billion; we are cutting development spending by £4 billion. We are cutting the budget to prevent conflict and increasing the budget to prosecute conflict. We are even cutting aid in places where we drop bombs, like Iraq and Libya. That is just morally wrong.
I know that these things are a balance, but right now we have got the balance wrong. We need the Foreign Secretary to do a better job of fixing that imbalance now, in the comprehensive spending review. If he cannot do that, he needs to hand the task to the House of Commons. Let us have a vote and we will fix it for him.
It is a pleasure to follow Liam Byrne. He is, as he so often is, absolutely on the nail with his speech. It is all well and good our sitting or standing here, talking about the percentage cuts here and the percentage cuts there, but we are all clear on this: these cuts will kill. In Whitehall, the savings that the Government say they will make are rounding errors in their accounts, but in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and the Sahel, these “small savings” are a matter of life and death. It is that simple.
In the horn of Africa, the epicentre of instability may be Ethiopia at the moment, but it threatens to ripple through Eritrea and Somalia into Kenya and Tanzania because the virus and locust plagues have ravaged livestock and livelihoods there—fertile ground for the terrorist organisation al-Shabaab to thrive and recruit and to revive its murderous endeavours. To the west, across the Sahel, droughts in the summer and floods in the winter have already caused conflict over resources, and in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram’s reign of terror persists.
The fact that these events are not on the evening news does not make them any less of a threat to us. The tragedies at home—covid-19 deaths, job losses, loneliness, mental health problems—may be our primary concern, but the fact that something is not happening here does not mean that it is not happening, or that it does not matter here.
In the Sahel, 270,000 people a year get life-saving medical support. That is going to be cancelled this year. In Syria, funding for the International Rescue Committee is being cut by 75%. That means that 100,000 Syrians will be without life-saving services, including health clinics to support women and children traumatised by war. In Nigeria, the International Rescue Committee will see the budget for its programmes fall from £15 million two years ago to just £2.8 million this year, which will leave women, children and disabled people who have fled the conflict with Boko Haram without life-saving support. The UN has told us that in Ethiopia, 350,000 face imminent starvation.
Let us put this in context. The four-year Bosnian war—a brutal, devastating war that saw Europe’s first genocide since world war two—left 100,000 people dead. These cuts will result in a death toll equal to or higher than that war’s. In the words of the Secretary-General of the UN, they are “a death sentence”. He is right. We have arbitrarily and unilaterally turned our back on victims of war in the middle of a global pandemic. It goes against every value that we promote as global Britain, and it is happening against the will of the British people and the British Parliament.
The Government may think that they are appealing to some populist vote on this issue, but even there they are wrong. Polling since the decision now shows that 53% of the public support foreign aid. Let us be clear: a majority of the public support the arguments that we are making today in this Chamber. The public in this country are caring, compassionate and principled, and our foreign aid policy must reflect that. It is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about how aid money is spent, whether or not we should have a fixed target and how big or small it should be, but there is a time and a place to ask those questions. Now is not the time, and this is not the way.
Listening to the debate, I thought that there was a risk for all of us. I think it is asserted that Stalin once said that a single death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic. We have been standing here talking about 100,000 deaths here and 100,000 deaths there, so I will finish by drawing attention to the nature of what we are talking about. We are talking about miserable deaths for babies and children from starvation, diarrhoea and dysentery. We are talking about women dying in childbirth or shortly after. We are talking about the sort of cruelty—although it may be cruelty by neglect—that, if put in front of any ordinary constituent of ours, would draw both their compassion and their generosity. That is what we want from the Government, either today or when they come to make their proper decision on this policy.
It is incredibly moving and, I think, poignant just how much agreement there is across the House. When does it happen like this? It is rare, and so is the absence of dissent from those on the Government Benches. Usually, someone will intervene to bolster the Minister—for whom I have a lot of sympathy for having to defend this stuff—but now the silence is deafening, and the reason is that the Government know this is not the right thing to do. The Government would be defeated in a vote and that is why they do not want to give us one, to put it bluntly.
This also matters because of how ordinary people across the country are seeing the effectiveness of Parliament. They also have genuine concerns about the effectiveness of this Government. My constituents in Oxford West and Abingdon care deeply about this, as one might expect, and many of them work in this area. Keith Hyams, for example, is a researcher and member of the Global Challenges Research Fund’s strategic advisory group, which is UK Research and Innovation’s main funding vehicle for ODA research. He wrote to me to outline the projects that he is involved in. They include youth groups based in slums in six African cities, seeking to understand how covid is affecting life in the slums; a project in Cape Town, with the city’s local government, looking at how climate adaptation can include some of the most vulnerable populations in the city; and a large project tracking the effect of covid on indigenous peoples.
Keith Hyams writes:
“It is difficult to imagine that project partners will be willing to trust UK collaborations again, having invested heavily in existing projects only to have funding pulled out midway through with very significant consequences for organisations reliant on the funding that they receive.”
He says that he does not want to see GCRF funds rescued at the expense of something else, but that
“there are better ways to implement these cuts than abruptly ending” live projects. Why end live projects? Why not let the projects run their course and then look at how we can find savings down the line? The taxpayer value question, which the hon. Member for Rotherham raised, is very important. Why do it this way?
Talking about covid, Oliver Pybus, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, received an email to say that funding for his project is to be cut. His project helps track genomic variants in places such as Brazil—the P.1 variant, which emerged in Brazil, now has its own name; it is known as the gamma variant. How on earth is cutting that funding in our interests, when we know that the biggest strategic threat to our recovery from the pandemic, now that we have hopefully broken the link between covid infections and hospitalisations, is a new variant that will most likely emanate from somewhere where the people have not been vaccinated? How will cutting the funding for such projects help us? It is foolish and pointless.
People out there—our constituents—are beginning to notice. The last time I spoke about this matter in this place was on
One could be forgiven for thinking that those people were just Lib Dem or Labour voters anyway, but they were not. They were angry—an emotion I was also not expecting—because they were Conservative voters who had voted for Boris Johnson in 2019, giving him the benefit of the doubt, and now they felt that their vote was being taken for granted, and that this was as sure a sign as any that the Tory party had moved so far away from what they considered to be their roots that, for the very first time, they were planning to vote Lib Dem.
Perhaps Chesham and Amersham is a little unusual, but certainly that is not the message I am hearing from my constituents in South West Wiltshire. Neither was that the message given to YouGov in its polling of last November, which showed that 66% of the public were in favour of the temporary cut from 0.7% to 0.5%.
Yes, that may certainly be the case, and I will come to polling in a moment, but the right hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that other polling that has been done—the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden referred to it—shows that if we ask the question, “Do you think aid spending should increase or decrease?”, the proportion of people who think it should increase has leapt nine percentage points this year, to 53%. The direction of travel on that question is upwards.
No, I will continue, because this is the important point. To be perfectly honest, as a Lib Dem looking to take seats off the Conservatives in the blue wall, I welcome the Government’s complacency. The Coalition for Global Prosperity has done polling in those seats, and I know that this is not the sole issue—it is not even the top issue—but it is an issue, and it is one that many Conservative voters, especially in those areas but, actually, across the country, care about. When I raised that with the Foreign Secretary the day before the by-election, he said of voters in Chesham and Amersham:
“I do not think that they will be that daft”.—[Official Report,
Well, they did vote Lib Dem, in quite surprising numbers.
The ink will dry on the PhDs that will be written about what happened in that seat, but the point I am trying to get across to the Government is that this matters. This is not just about the spending on one project here or there. It is the moral thing to do and it is the smart thing to do, but it is also the right thing to do, not just for the country but for their seats. People in those areas understand the interplay. They understand the link. They understand that if we want to sit proudly on the world stage and lead at COP26 but say to other countries across the world, “Do as we say, but don’t look at what we do,” then we are going to lose credibility. I urge the Government: please do not be complacent. Give us our vote, or even better, give us the assurance that 0.7% will return next year—no ifs, no buts.
I congratulate Sarah Champion on securing this afternoon’s debate.
Let me start by anticipating some of the things that my hon. Friend the Minister may choose to say at the end of the debate. I have no doubt that, as my excellent successor, he is extremely well briefed on some of the points that he will choose to make in response to the points that have been raised by so many colleagues this afternoon.
I first want to say, in my most understanding mode, that I understand that when we have the sharpest economic contraction for 300 years, it is necessary to review aid spending that is linked to the size of the economy. The £2.9 billion that had to be removed from the budget as a result of that economic contraction is something that I can understand. It is unfortunate, but I can understand it.
I can also understand the defence, which the Minister will no doubt put up, that there is a clause in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 that says that, under extreme circumstances, the Government can come to Parliament and outline an explanation for why they did not meet 0.7% in a particular year.
I anticipate that the Minister will also point to the fact that the UK continues to spend £10 billion this year in overseas development assistance. Any one of us would accept that that is a very large amount of money, and when we are spending a large amount of money, it is always important to review it and see whether we are spending it wisely. A zero-based budget exercise, looking at every line item of expenditure, which is effectively what the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has just gone through, is something that any prudent Government should do from time to time.
However, where I begin to depart from agreeing with what my hon. Friend is likely to say at the conclusion of the debate is around the change to 0.5%—going into a financial year and deliberately changing that percentage—without testing the will of Parliament to agree to it. That is where I think we are getting on to rather difficult legal and constitutional ground, because we all went into the last general election with a pledge to meet 0.7%. It was something that 100% of MPs were elected on. The law does state that 0.7% is what we should be aiming to achieve, apart from when there is an inadvertent inability to meet that due to economic circumstances.
I feel very passionately that those of us who are expressing concerns this afternoon are really expressing the concerns of those who are most affected, who are unable to voice their opposition. Of course, when a party breaks a manifesto pledge, it is usually voters at the next general election who are affected by it who will vote them out, but in this case, those who are most affected will, according to my right hon. Friend Mr Davis, very likely be dead by the time of the next election and not able to lobby a UK Member of Parliament.
As my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison was saying about polling—no doubt the Minister may also allude to this—the fact is that this policy does not poll badly in the United Kingdom, because those affected are not themselves being polled and those being polled are not themselves affected.
There has been lots of backwards and forwards on this, but the simple truth is that the polling depends very much on the question asked. One of the effects of these cuts falls on starvation relief, drought relief and on medical support. If it is put to the public, “Do you want to give emergency aid to people starving to death?”, we get 92% in favour.
Just on the subject of polling, the British Foreign Policy Group, which is hardly a right- wing organisation, polled this issue earlier this year. Some 72% of people would like to see a cessation or reduction in aid until the financial situation is resolved. We are in danger of batting these figures backwards and forwards. We must rely on what we hear on the doorstep. I do not know what my hon. Friend’s doorsteps are like, but mine are quite unequivocal on this matter.
What I would say is that there is one poll I would like to take—it is the one that Mr Speaker has asked us to take in this House—and that is a vote on whether the 0.7% should be changed to 0.5% on a forward-planning basis. That is the poll I would like to take. Last week in Prime Minister’s questions, in response to a question from my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, the Prime Minister indicated that today’s debate on the estimates was that vote.
I have looked into the matter, and I understand that if we voted down today’s estimates, not only would all diplomats stop being paid immediately, but a vote against estimates can only be done to reduce a budget, rather than to increase a budget. That is why I am perfectly happy to support today’s estimates, but I would like to see a separate, stand-alone vote on whether we should go from 0.7% to 0.5%. If this House agrees that, I do not have any problems with the constitutional situation. I think that would override what is in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015. We need to see a test through a poll of the Members of this House.
I am delighted to see that the economy is recovering very fast at the moment here in the UK, which I hope will mean that next year’s budget for overseas development assistance can start to increase once again. I am also delighted that the UK and Kenya are jointly co-hosting the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education at the end of July. I very much welcome the £430 million that the Prime Minister announced at the recent G7 towards global education. It is the single best investment we can make in the future of our planet in terms of making sure that every child gets 12 years of quality education. We all know how much that unlocks in terms of economic prosperity, a better climate and a healthier society, so that is an incredibly important thing to be doing.
Can I suggest to the Minister that, in encouraging a successful replenishment of the $5 billion that the Global Partnership for Education is seeking, we offer, as our economy grows, to match fund contributions from other donor countries around the world? I think that would be a really positive way of saying, “If you’ll put in more money, we’ll put in more money here in the UK.”
I would like to see a reversal of the 85% reduction to the United Nations Population Fund for family planning. I want every girl in the world to be able to access the same choices in family planning as we were all able to access in our lives. Of the countries around the world, one of the most alarming anecdotes I have heard about the impact of this reduction in aid spending is that in South Sudan the World Food Programme is saying it is now having to choose between feeding hungry children and feeding starving children. I would urge the Minister to put that very much at the top of his shopping list for his budget increase next year.
In conclusion, let us not argue about which poll says what. Let us have a poll in this place on this issue. Tonight’s vote is not the vote on that. Let us have a separate one.
I also congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, Sarah Champion, on securing this debate and on an excellent speech, which I very strongly agree with. I am glad to see there is such consensus across the House on this issue, because it is too important for knockabout or Punch and Judy.
Save to say that the SNP has a different world view from that of the United Kingdom Government. We have a very sharp sense of who we are and what we are trying to do. We are a northern European country aspiring to statehood to represent ourselves in the fora of the world that matter—the EU, NATO, the UN, the Council of Europe and others—and to be that good global citizen and that force for change in the world.
Government Members would say that we are already represented in those fora by the UK. We know that; our contention is that we could do it better. I would caution Government Members that doing what the Government are doing at present is making our job easier. I acknowledge that this is something the UK did well, but they are taking something the UK did well and excelled at in international development and international aid, and replacing it with something smaller, meaner, more politicised and less effective on the ground.
What we are seeing post Brexit is breathless rhetoric about global Britain, but the reality on the ground is that we are seeing retreat and diminishing horizons. The cuts to the aid budget, as my hon. Friend Patrick Grady outlined in a very powerful speech, are a betrayal of trust and a breach of trust—a betrayal of a manifesto promise, but worse than that, a betrayal of the poorest in the world. This is at a time when they are dealing with covid too, so to claim covid as the excuse or the political cover for this act of betrayal is a desperate act of cynicism.
The UK does remain a significant donor of aid—of course it does—but on top of the cuts that we oppose, we are equally concerned about the politicisation and diminished effectiveness of the remaining spend, because of the changes of priorities we have seen. We are seeing in greater and greater detail where the cuts are actually falling, and it tends to be on the programmes that do most good and effect most change overseas, so we object to this policy and we oppose this policy. My hon. Friend Chris Law is going to focus on the cuts to aid in his remarks, so I will focus in mine on the British Council.
It may seem counterintuitive for an SNP politician to praise and defend the British Council, but I will, and I will gladly. I am a big fan of the British Council’s work. I have myself used its services over the years in overseas engagement. In Scotland, as an independent state, we will create something along those lines because we take cultural diplomacy seriously, and we will have an opportunity as an independent state to market our presence in the world as well. The British Council is in crisis, partly of course, as we have heard, because of covid, but in a more fundamental way, I believe, because of the political interference that I mentioned earlier.
The British Council has a funding shortfall, and that has been partially addressed by the Government, which is to be welcomed of course, but that support has come at a significant cost to the effectiveness of the organisation. It has concerned us for some time, but in a letter of
Taken together, I cannot see these changes as anything other than a retreat. Hon. Members might disagree, but I cannot see how shutting 20 offices increases the outreach of an organisation. Nothing says “engaging with the world” like closing offices down, closing doors and saying, “We will deal with you by fax or Zoom.” It is a perfect microcosm of post-Brexit Britain: scaling back on the granular, in-country effectiveness of the organisations promoting real change overseas, and focusing instead on gimmicks and baubles for domestic consumption. I am afraid that no amount of prime ministerial planes, royal yachts, or bluster and bombast can disguise the diminishment that is occurring under this UK Government.
It is not our agenda—I think Scotland can do this better—but, as a friendly neighbour of the UK, I do not want to see the UK make a mistake. I do not want to see the UK walk away from the world’s poorest, and I do not want to see Scottish taxes spent on yachts and planes when the global south needs us more than ever, so I hope that the UK Government will change course.
I thank Sarah Champion, who chairs the International Development Committee, for securing this debate. I concur with practically every single speech that we have heard today and agree with almost everything that everybody has said.
I am particularly concerned that, despite girls’ education being a stated priority of the Prime Minister, the overall budget for it is estimated to have been cut by at least 40% in 2021-22 compared with 2019. He wants 12 years of quality education for girls. I am not sure how that is going to happen, because it is estimated that 700,000 fewer girls will be supported by UK aid for education between 2019 and 2022 compared with between 2015 and 2018.
Additionally, in April 2021 the United Nations Population Fund—the UNFPA—announced that the UK Government would be reducing their contributions to the UNFPA supplies programme, which is responsible for 40% of the world’s contraceptives, by 85%. Without contraception, many of those girls will not be able to go to school. UNFPA executive director Dr Natalia Kanem described the cut as
“devastating for women and girls and their families across the world.”
I agree. The funds that the UK has cut would have prevented around 250,000 maternal and child deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies and 4.3 million unsafe abortions. Yesterday in the International Development Committee, we heard that in Pakistan alone more than 30,000 unwanted pregnancies would arise, and more than 8,000 illegal and unsafe abortions would be undertaken—rather than by Marie Stopes, which has been operating in that field for many years.
I feel as if this whole budget process has been flawed. Much of what has happened has been, “Well, I don’t think we need to bother with that”, “No, we won’t worry about that” and “Let’s just reduce this”. To ensure that these cuts to aid do not further impact the world’s most marginalised communities, I urge the Government immediately to confirm that the ODA budget will return to 0.7% of GNI in the next financial year. They also need to publish a gendered equality impact assessment of the cuts to ensure that gender equality is not further reversed.
The decision will equate to about £4 billion of cuts from 2020 aid levels, which is huge for developing countries. Women and girls suffer disproportionately from funding reductions in critical sectors, which will result in an estimated 20 million women and girls who will not be reached by programmes. Some 2 million fewer women will be supported by humanitarian assistance, and 8 million fewer women and girls will be supported by nutrition interventions. We know that nutrition interventions help to stop stunting and help people in developing countries have fewer problems with malnutrition than they have already, so we need to restore funding for nutrition. My hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin talked about nutrition and the fact that agencies have to decide if they are going to feed the starving or the hungry, which is not acceptable in this day and age.
What is really shocking is that in a global pandemic the amount of money being cut means an estimated 9 million fewer women will be supported to access clean water and sanitation. We all know that we have been urged to wash our hands, to be much cleaner and to worry about hygiene, but we are going to prevent 9 million women from accessing clean water and sanitation.
Government officials estimate that bilateral funding for water, sanitation and hygiene programmes will be cut by 80% from the £176 million spent in 2019. A 64% cut in WASH spending overall is predicted. At present, budgeted activities for WASH this year are 47% less than in 2019-20. During a pandemic it is essential that more washing facilities are available and hygiene levels are higher than they have been before. These cuts will put women’s and girls’ lives at risk and threaten to undo progress towards gender equality at a time when the pandemic has already rolled back women’s and girls’ rights by a generation.
We have heard about 12 years of quality education for girls. The recent G7 girls’ education pledge committed to support 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more girls to read by the age of 10 by 2026, but, despite that, aid cuts to education programmes that target gender equality have been higher than to those that do not. The overall aid budget for girls’ education is estimated to have been cut by at least 40% in 2021-22, compared with in 2019. It is estimated that 700,000 fewer girls will be supported by UK aid for education between 2019 and 2022, compared with in 2015 and 2018. Ironically, the first confirmed programme to be cut was a £12.5 million girls’ education programme called “Investing in Adolescent Girls in Rwanda”, a country in which we as the Conservative party have worked extensively. That programme had planned to support 200,000 11-year-olds over eight years.
Girls’ education programmes are vital because investing in girls during adolescence has profound effects on their own future wellbeing, including delaying marriage; reducing the risk of HIV/AIDS; increasing family income; lowering eventual fertility; improving survival rates, health indicators and education outcomes for future children; increasing women’s power in the household and political arenas; and, very importantly, lowering rates of domestic violence. What will happen to the girls and their futures now?
Order. The hon. Lady has significantly exceeded her time. I am afraid I have to stop her. I give quite a lot of leeway, but perhaps the clock is not working on the hon. Lady’s device.
As this is the second time I have spoken on this topic recently, I do not want to repeat everything I said first time around, other than that I still believe that it is morally reprehensible that the Government have reneged on their commitment to spend 0.7% on aid and are prepared to override by backdoor means the will of the House, which voted in 2015 for that commitment to be enshrined in law.
The global pandemic has been used as an excuse for these cuts, but we are the only G7 country that has resorted to such measures. We know that there is an underlying agenda and it is not just because of the pandemic. It has been evident for some years that many on the Government Benches have been trying to undermine the case for aid spending for a long time, either because they do not believe that helping those in extreme poverty around the world should be a priority or because they believe that voters do not believe that. Until now, that agenda has been a matter of some subterfuge, but with the spending review of 2020 it burst out into the open. Of course, not all Government Members think in the way I have described, and I am pleased that by virtue of this estimates debate we have had the second opportunity this month for them—including the former Prime Minister, Mrs May—to make that very clear.
When we talk about reducing 0.7% to 0.5%, it may sound like small numbers, but the reality is that £5 billion has been cut from our aid spending since 2019. The Government have tried to mask the impact of the cuts by combining previous DFID budget subheadings into a single line in the estimates, strategic priorities and other programme spending, but they cannot hide what the headline numbers say: both capital and resource spending under that subheading have been drastically slashed. Although we have not had transparency from the Government, we have heard today and in the debate earlier this month about the impact the cuts will have on our overseas aid programmes in respect of health, education, livelihoods, gender equality, water sanitation and much more. We should be talking about not the impact on programmes but the impact on people. There are real people out there who will not get the healthcare, education or family planning that they need, who will go to bed hungry each day, and who will die, because of the Government’s decision.
Saving people’s lives and lifting them out of extreme poverty, particularly in the wake of a pandemic that has had a huge impact in less-developed countries, absolutely must be a priority, but submissions to the International Development Committee’s inquiry show that aid cuts have also harmed numerous environmental charities. Climate Action Network said that there was a lot of uncertainty, with the organisation not knowing where the cuts to climate and environmental programmes were going to fall. Yet it looks as if CDC Group, with its £700 million fossil fuel portfolio—which Tearfund highlighted in its submission to the Committee—will be unaffected. That shows completely the wrong priorities from the Government in the run-up to COP26.
Another charity, Temwa, had a project ready to go in Malawi to fund more sustainable farming practices, only for the Government to axe a £250,000 grant at the very last minute. I have been to Malawi and seen the long-entrenched poverty there. Of all the countries I have visited, it was the one that it seemed most difficult to help. It is not a country that is rich in natural resources and it does not have many routes out of poverty. I have been to Kenya and Rwanda with the all-party group on agriculture and food for development and seen at first hand just how much difference agricultural programmes can make with even small-scale funding, so £250,000 in Malawi could be absolutely transformative.
MPs have been contacted by the Galapagos Conservation Trust, which says that grants to the trust to conduct research on the prevention and removal of plastic waste were cut by 64% this year, and that funding for future years is not guaranteed. Fifty jobs are now at stake. Each year, 1 million tonnes of plastic waste leak into the ocean from the Pacific coastline of central and south America, and without action that amount will double by 2025, threatening an area where more than 20% of unique marine species live.
I refuse to believe that the people in this country do not want the UK Government to take action to stop plastic pollution on the horrendous scale I just described, or to help Malawi to improve its farming sector. I refuse to believe that people are happy to support cuts that will deny people in developing countries vaccines, maternal healthcare, family planning services and education for all. I just do not believe that this country is like that. I hope the Government will realise that, too, and restore spending to where it should be.
It is a great pleasure and privilege to speak in this debate, but it is actually quite painful as well, because none of us want to see a cut in the assistance that we give to other countries that are less well-favoured than we are.
This debate covers pages 183 to 196 of a meaty document that runs to 680 pages, and we have mainly focused—and correctly so—on international development. Other elements of the document will sadly be glossed over in our enthusiasm to debate this particular issue, but it is right that we should do so.
To those who have contributed so far, who I think have all been critical of the decision to go to 0.5%, I say that we should never make the excellent the enemy of the good. We should celebrate the good that UK aid does. An important point to make is that what the Government are charged to decide upon has real-life consequences, no question about it. If that were not so, we would be wasting billions of pounds every year, and manifestly we are not. The question is: how much should we be spending on international development in the longer term? If we are arguing for a reduction of £4.5 billion for this year but we are doing £4.5 billion of good work, perhaps we should be spending more in the future, rather than less, That point has been made by only one contributor today, from the Scottish National party.
I am not advocating that, because we have to make a judgment about what is a proper amount of our national income to spend on international development. Notwithstanding all the polling data cited today, when I am uncertain I have to listen to my constituents. I did so the last time I significantly rebelled against my own party, which was in 2003, over the Iraq war, and I would do so on an issue such as this. The message I get from my constituents on this issue—perhaps they dramatically differ from those in Chesham and Amersham, but I have no way of telling—is that this is something they are relaxed about, at best, on public spending. I get it in the neck for spending on education, healthcare, law and order, and all of those issues time and again. When I say, “Where are you going to find the money?”, nine times out of 10 the response, “International development” comes back at me. I have to justify this spend, because I do believe, as a former Minister in the then Department for International Development, in what this money is able to achieve. But we have to take the public with us, which is one reason why I was pleased about the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID. As a joint Minister at the time, I was very pleased to see those two Departments joined up because it seemed to me that that was one way of convincing the public that the international development work this Government do also achieves foreign policy goals; I see no problem with that at all, and neither do the overwhelming majority of other countries, particularly European countries, which do not separate the two functions.
I also welcome the fact that this move is temporary. I will be supporting the Government on this, but that is conditional on this being temporary. When that pledge was made, the UK economy and the prospects were not looking very good at all. I am happy to say that they have brightened up significantly since then,
One year is temporary; that is the pledge that has been made. I think that is a perfectly reasonable commitment to hold Ministers to. It could be that there is something else around the corner that can be interpreted as force majeure, as set out in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, but in the absence of that my belief is that this, as a temporary measure—one year—is acceptable. I do not like it—I loathe it and I accept my responsibility for some of the consequences—but it seems to me to be reasonable.
Yes, I do. Anybody who comes here thinking that somehow this is not going to have real-life consequences is delusional, and I made that point in my opening remarks. Otherwise, we would be wasting billions of pounds every year in the money that we have talked about—£4.5 billion in this case. I have never said we waste money on the good works that we do, although others take a different view for some of the fine detail. I believe it is good—it does good things, and we should be proud of and celebrate that. In supporting the Government on this measure, however, I have to accept my part of the responsibility for the fact that it will have real-life consequences.
I also welcome the Government’s focus on their seven priorities outlined in the integrated review, and I very much support its emphasis on Africa, which is absolutely right. Contained within it is an admission that going forward we cannot do everything and that as a middle-ranking country we now need to focus on what we do well. I urge Ministers to be very careful about the Daily Mail test in respect of the reputation of international development. Some legations abroad are tempted, with small pots of money available to ambassadors, to do what they think look like good projects on the ground. It is usually those projects, in my experience, that bring the whole thing into disrepute, and it is not worth the candle because it profoundly influences the views the public take of international development. It completely trashes the undoubtedly fantastic work done with the money that we allocate to international development, and it removes public support for international development, making it very difficult on the doorstep. To ensure that that does not happen, we need to take oversight.
We need to look again at the OECD straitjacket. I touched on some of this in my intervention on Lebanon. In my first-hand experience, we do great stuff on things that are not currently ODA-able, and we need to ensure that is, in some way, counted.
I praise the Government for their leadership on vaccines and COVAX, which is the issue of the moment, but I also sound a cautionary note. There is no point wheelbarrowing vaccines to countries that do not have adequate healthcare systems to deliver them. I do not want to see our vaccines simply used to vaccinate the elite in capital and regional cities. We need to be careful of that. What will the Minister do to improve those systems and the logistics behind them, perhaps using some of our very good assets such as armed forces medics and logisticians—I refer to my interest, as laid out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—because it seems there is a real role for them to play?
I support the comments made by the British Council. We do not do cultural imperialism, as several hon. and right hon. Members have mentioned. We get very close to it, but we do not have an Institut Français and we do not do Francophonie. We should be robust in defence of our values, as inculcated in the British Council.
I emphasise the importance of the English language, which is one of the best weapons and ambassadors we have. We do not own it. It is not exclusively our language any more, but we are its custodians, and the British Council propagates it in a way that cannot possibly fulfil the demand.
I hope very much that the loans extended to the British Council by the FCDO can become grants, which would be helpful and would enable it to do the great work it does, particularly on the English language.
It is a pleasure to follow Dr Murrison, although I respectfully disagree on some issues, particularly the focus on polling. On an issue this serious, leadership is about doing what is right not just what is popular. There are political points in my speech, because this is a political issue.
Poverty is a political choice, and cutting aid to the world’s poorest at this time is a very poor political choice. The last Labour Government’s commitment to the world’s poorest is one of our proudest achievements. On this side of the House, we have more that unites us than divides us, and this is something on which we can say we are truly united.
What we have is a divided Government who cannot decide whether charity begins at home or they want to build a global Britain. It is a totally incoherent position. I completely agree that we should be doing more to look after the poorest in our own country, so let us never forget that this is the Government who were so embarrassed by their record of increasing child poverty in our own country that they once tried to abolish its very definition in law.
Those pushing this cut tell us that charity begins at home, so why are they content with over 7,000 children living in poverty in Luton North? If charity really begins at home, why was the Conservative party, during the pandemic, okay with sending a single cheese slice, a few bits of ham and a couple of slices of bread and calling it a week’s worth of food for a child? And if charity really begins at home, why are we allowing as many as 3,500 veterans in Britain today, people who fought for our country, to go without a home? Is that really looking after our own?
Let us never forget what looking after our own has looked like under the Conservatives over the past 11 years. Let us never let the Tories forget that that is their record when they say they want to cut aid to the most vulnerable people in our world.
The Government are not just on morally dangerous ground, they have seriously misjudged the British people on this issue. When people in Luton North, and I am sure in all our constituencies, saw that children were going without food, laptops or school uniforms during the covid crisis, they clubbed together. We do not turn our backs on people in their hour of need. The patronising attitude, frankly, of Ministers cutting aid because they think it is popular in Labour heartlands or goes down well with certain media outlets, is completely mismatched with my experience of people in our country. I see people banding together to raise money and giving to people and causes both in our own communities and when disasters happen on the other side of the world.
I wholeheartedly agree with Gordon Brown when he says that the decision to gut the UK aid budget is a life or death situation for so many people across the world. Our collective aim should be to end the wars, the climate change, the poverty and the tyranny that leave people across the world poorer and in search of safety, but when we see the Government failing on our global commitments, taking a step back and lowering our standing on the world stage, our collective aims grow so much more difficult to achieve. Until we have a Prime Minister with a sense of moral and collective responsibility, and until we have a Government who truly live up to the promise of a global Britain—where we are all proud of taking our obligations and responsibilities seriously and standing tall on the world stage again—the least we can do is give our fair share of international aid.
If we are to end the cycle of dangerous new variants entering this country, we need to provide the support and the vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable. None of us is protected until we all are. That applies not just during the pandemic and to vaccines, but to general health, too: sanitation, safety and education, particularly for women and girls. As a country that wants to stand proud at home and abroad, we have a moral obligation to the world’s poorest. We should leave this global pandemic even more connected and even more committed to seeing every corner of this world safe and thriving, not less.
First of all, and rather unusually, I pay tribute to some Members on the Government Benches. They have kept the flame alive, if I can put it that way, of the 0.7% share that should be paid. It is never easy to speak out as a Member of the governing party. I have been in that position. It would be churlish to say that it is down to patronage or threats. Ultimately, it is about loyalty to a cause that you stand by, so I pay tribute to those Members who have spoken out against their own Administration and, in respect of their own principles, have supported what was not just principle but a manifesto commitment. It cannot have been easy, but they have the power to change. We Opposition Members have the power to protest and to hold to account, but the fundamental change required cannot come today. That must come from those on the Government Benches. I encourage them to keep the faith, and I pay tribute to the efforts they have made to date. It is essential for the reasons that others have mentioned: it is a moral necessity; it is an economic imperative; and it is a health and wellbeing requirement, not just for ourselves but for the entire world.
Only a few weeks after the Prime Minister’s trumpeting of this issue at the G7 summit, it appears that we are going into reverse. I accept that there is a logic and a rationale in what the Government argue. The 0.7% commitment is met by only two countries—Denmark and France, if memory serves—but that does not mean that we should seek to follow those other countries. This is a time to take a lead, because it is a necessity not only for others, as has been said by almost every speaker, but for ourselves. I ask the Government to stick to the principles that were stood on and supported by all parties in the last election, and that remain in their manifesto.
Of course, it is in our own economic interest. There are those who trumpet Brexit as part of a new global Britain of free trade around the world. Let us remember that there can only be free trade if we can stimulate demand. If countries are too poor to be able to buy our goods and services, then we cannot generate the work here. We have to use some Keynesian logic and economics to ensure that they have the resource available to acquire things from us; and we must support, as many Members have said, measures to address starvation, flooding and all the dangers that too often blight so many lands. We will benefit economically from giving aid and we will face consequences if we do not, so it is in our own interests.
It is, however, also primarily a moral necessity. It is an unfair world. The opulence in this House, and most especially in the House just along the corridor, confirms the wealth that has been generated over many years. We see it north and south of the border; we see it in every city. We have benefited from it over many years. Of course, in those years, people have worked hard and have shown endeavour and risk, but let us also remember that one reason we have this wealth here—not just in this city, but in Glasgow, Edinburgh and across the whole of this country—is that we have exploited; we have enforced deals on colonies and on other nations. We have taken from them. We made sure that we stripped them of their natural resources and that they had to buy the product that was created from ourselves.
Giving development aid is not simply about charity; it is about taking responsibility for actions that this country participated in, along with others in the developed world. We did it, the French did it, the Dutch did it, the Belgians did it and on it went. The western and developed world accrued their wealth at the expense of what is now the developing world, because we took from them and insisted that we benefited from their natural resources. This is not about giving charity; this is about their right. It is our obligation to give back and to try to provide that fairness.
The Government talk about a levelling-up agenda, and they are right; there has to be a levelling-up agenda not simply in the north of England, but, indeed, across the border between Scotland and England. Fundamentally, though, there has to be a levelling up across this globe between the northern and southern hemispheres. The wrong and the poverty that exist, which manifest themselves in the UK in the north-south divide, exist on planet Earth in a north-south divide and it is our obligation and a necessity that we take action to reverse that.
This is also about health and wellbeing. Some statistics I saw yesterday showed that 85% of shots or vaccinations have been carried out in upper and middle-income tier countries. A total of 0.3%—not even 0.7%—has been carried out in lower-income countries. We have already seen what has happened with the delta variant. If we want to make sure that we do not face a further variant that will not be dealt with by our vaccines—as epidemiologists fear—then we must take steps to ensure that we support the health and welfare within those countries. That is why it is in our own interests to ensure that we provide that 0.7%.
Finally, in the short time that I have left, I want to comment on the position being taken on women and girls. That is fundamental. As a former Justice Secretary, I recall dealing with violence reduction. We made great progress in Scotland in tackling violence reduction. There is still a long way to go, but I say this because it is a microcosm. We were doing youth five-aside football at night to stop young men drinking and participating in gang violence and whatever. The lightbulb moment came for some police officers when they suddenly realised that they were keeping the lads out of trouble, but standing around waiting to speak to the lads were all the young teenage girls. The officers realised that if they did not deal with these teenage girls, they would be dealing with their children in 16 years’ time. Anybody who has seen the Justice Analytical Services’ correlation between youth offending, criminal offending and teenage pregnancies will know that it is stark. That is a microcosm. If we want to make these countries better, we must pour resources into women and children, as we do to make a fairer country in this land. As I have said, it is for these reasons—for our own economic wellbeing, for our moral purpose, and, equally, for our own health and wellbeing—that we have to have 0.7%.
It is a first for me to follow an Alba member in this Parliament. Kenny MacAskill may have changed parties, but he has not changed his passionate delivery, and I thank him for that contribution. I thank, too, Sarah Champion, the Chair of the International Development Committee, for her part in bringing forward today’s important debate, although, as my right hon. Friend Mrs May made clear in her very forceful speech, it will not lead to a vote on the restoration of the 0.7%. I have made it very clear that I want to see that restoration.
It is vital that our aid budget, whatever it is, is spent efficiently and with maximum impact. That is why I find it inconceivable that the rumoured cut of 80% to the nutrition budget can be true. I say “rumoured” because of the difficulty in establishing the facts, as others have already set out.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on nutrition for growth, I have no doubt that the commitments to nutrition to date have achieved a great deal. Nutrition is like rocket fuel for our aid budget. Our interventions in health, education and emergency humanitarian response are all the more impactful when coupled with long-term interventions that improve nutrition. That is because children can develop healthy and robust immune systems only if they get the right nutrition. A strong immune system is the first line of defence against illness. It is essential for a healthy and productive life.
According to the World Health Organisation, 45% of all deaths among the under-fives are linked to malnutrition and, heartbreakingly, as a result of covid-19’s disruption to food systems, an estimated further 433 children are expected to die of malnutrition every single day. Malnutrition not only costs lives; it drives absence from school and reduces concentration, thereby preventing children from learning and reaching their full potential as adults, which perpetuates a cycle of poverty. As well as the impact this has on individuals, malnutrition prevents economic growth and, as a result, puts our own aid budget under even further strain. All of what this Government say they hope to achieve through the aid budget and the seven principles—be it girls’ education, women’s health or economic development—is enabled and enhanced through nutrition.
I recently chaired an APPG meeting with the aid watchdog, ICAI—the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. It reviewed the FCDO’s nutrition work and gave it a green/amber rating. Green ratings are very rare, but it said that the rating was more green than amber. That is because this work represents fantastic value for money, with every £1 invested yielding, on average, a £16 return. Our failure to sufficiently support nutrition comes at a cost of some $3.5 trillion, with some countries losing 11% of GDP each year to otherwise avoidable healthcare costs and reduced workforce productivity. As well as having exceeded its target of reaching 50 million people with nutrition interventions, the FCDO has a strong track record of reaching the most vulnerable people and delivering high-impact interventions based on evidence and science. I do not want to see that success thrown away.
In addition, ICAI praised the FCDO for raising global ambition for improving nutrition. By hosting the nutrition for growth summit in 2013, which mobilised over £17 billion for nutrition, and stepping up as a major donor to nutrition ourselves in the years since, the UK has developed unrivalled convening power and is able to catalyse funds for nutrition from other donors and domestic Governments. We must build on that influence, not take actions that diminish it.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. He has referenced the cuts; it is important that the actions that we take build on our influence and do not diminish it. His point is well made.
I believe that the FCDO’s work to date on nutrition represents global Britain at its best, and that is what I want to see continue. I want the Government’s excellent track record on nutrition to be maintained and therefore, to me, as I have said, it would be inconceivable that the budget could be facing a cut of roughly 80%.
When the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend James Duddridge, winds up the debate, will he confirm that the Government are not going ahead with the rumoured cuts of that level to the budget, for the reasons that I have set out? I also want confirmation that the Government will attend the nutrition for growth summit, hosted by the Japanese Government in Tokyo at the end of 2021. The summit comes at a critical time, midway through the United Nations decade of action on nutrition, but with only five years left to achieve the World Health Assembly targets on maternal, infant and young child nutrition, and 10 years to reach the strategic development goals. Finally, will he assure the House that whoever represents the Government can make a generous pledge at that event, and in so doing, demonstrate to the world that Britain really is a force for good and takes its international obligations seriously?
Sarah Champion reminded us, when she introduced today’s debate, that it was so important to follow the money. It worries me that we still have a lack of transparency on which programmes will be cut. I hope that the Minister will lay out some more details this afternoon. The hon. Lady has a strong reputation for standing up for women and girls, and so much of that has come out in our speeches this afternoon about the impact of this cut to the budget on women and girls throughout the world.
We know also that the UK’s soft power will be severely affected by the proposal to cut back the amount that is spent on overseas aid. The BBC World Service could be at risk. When I was living in Nanjing in China, working as a teacher, I knew the importance of tuning in to listen to the regular news, because it was one of the only things that I could trust, knowing that it was coming essentially from high-quality news sources in London.
I must mention the importance of the British Council in promoting values and promoting the exciting and wonderful offer that the UK has in its university sector. My hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock spoke extensively of his experience in Russia, working for the British Council. It gave him an incredible insight into the importance of culture and the importance of soft power in changing minds and being persuasive.
The importance of the English language has been mentioned during the debate this afternoon. We know that people often have their first encounter with the English language through the English language examination system administered by the British Council. We know also the importance of language learning for our students here in the UK, whether that be community languages, modern foreign languages in secondary schools—the number of students taking them is at an all-time low—or undergraduate and postgraduate language learning promoted by the Erasmus and Horizon schemes. That is all part of the UK’s soft power and contributes to the effectiveness of persuasion in winning arguments in terms of our values, the importance of democracy and the rule of law.
I wanted to devote my last couple of minutes to the importance of the global health research and development elements of ODA funding. Dame Sarah Gilbert received an enormous ovation and applause at Wimbledon yesterday—why? It was because she is one of the inventors of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and she and her whole team have given us a glimpse of freedom. Where did her learning come from? It developed in research to create the malaria vaccine. Research and development is so important because although there may not be a specific application that very day, it will come in very handy in the future.
The idea that we would cut back now on global health security is just nonsense. For example, we know that reducing the price of viral load testing for HIV by 40% in sub-Saharan Africa, as my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty and Lord Herbert in the House of Lords have said, is an important CDC innovative financing approach. Crashing that infrastructure, which has been built up over a number of years, would do immense damage to HIV research.
Furthermore, we know that such cuts will have an impact on our own regional universities; Professor Gilbert is just one very high-profile example. In research around genomic work, we are still in the foothills of understanding the important links in the work done in developing countries on new zoonotic diseases that come through the animal kingdom to human beings. We have excellence, and we must not get rid of our excellent science research and development links with developing countries in a bid to be populist.
Scientists, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa but across Africa and in Asia as well, are working together in a sense that is equal to our British scientists. That is the model of aid that we want to see, where the scientists are on an equal footing and have a collegial approach. British science is at its best where it is not a patronising hand-out, but collegial with other scientists across the globe, particularly in Africa and Asia.
This is an important year for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Malaria eradication is one of its key aims. Prince Charles has just become the president of Malaria No More UK, which is attempting to promote the importance of strengthening health systems across Africa and supporting research and development with a results framework that incorporates progress against malaria and other neglected tropical diseases, as well as improvements in key indicators of community-level service provision, as core metrics of success.
I hope that the Minister will respond to those points. Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
I welcome the chance to speak on the estimates for spending on official development assistance. I wish to take the opportunity, as other hon. Members have done, to question the Government’s decision to cut the aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI. I understand the points raised by the Treasury about the need to make savings, given the financial strain caused by covid-19, and I understand that difficult decisions must be made. However, as has been said in this House, the cut of approximately £4 billion in aid is worth only about 1% of what the Chancellor has borrowed to protect us from covid.
I take issue with any cut to our aid budget, but I take even more issue with where the cuts appear to be falling. If we absolutely must cut aid, we need to investigate very carefully where savings can be made. I question whether the Government should have done more to manage the reduction of the budget without slashing funding for lifesaving programmes. The cut from £15 billion to £10.7 billion is a cut of about 30%, so why have we cut 60% of the UNICEF budget, 85% of the United Nations Population Fund’s, and 80% of our funding for water projects? Clean water is life itself.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. One of the bigger issues is the speed at which the cuts were announced, which did not give time for any of the organisations that saw those cuts to be able to prepare for them—to be able to put in mitigating circumstances to allow them to run programmes on a skeleton staff, or whatever it may have been. We have not given the right amount of lead time for these businesses and organisations to be able to prepare for the cuts. If we wanted to make the cuts, we should have delayed doing it and put them into another year altogether.
I thank my hon. Friend; he is right. There seems to have been very little planning generally in both the speed of the cuts and where they have fallen.
Why have we not looked at the administration costs in this budget? Why have water projects and UNICEF projects, in particular, been cut so drastically? We need to pause and think for a moment. Let us try to rectify much of the damage that has been done, because these things can be brought back into place. I have given just a few examples, but it seems that the most vital programmes have taken a disproportionate hit. Cutting the budget for the UN Population Fund from £154 million to £23 million will have a devastating impact on the ground. Likewise, our commitments to water and sanitation projects will be cut from £176 million to about £35 million. We are not talking about billions of pounds. These are relatively small amounts of cash, especially in the grand scheme of £400 billion that we have borrowed to battle covid-19 and save lives in this country—which I very much support. I therefore question whether the money for these programmes could have been cut in other areas instead.
I have been to Bangladesh and seen for myself the needs of people there. They are people with very little or nothing who cannot rely on a generous welfare state when things go wrong as we can here in the UK. It is easy to forget, as we live in a prosperous country, that there are people in the world who do not have access to clean water. As I said, water is life itself, and so slashing our capacity to provide clean water to the poorest will cost lives. We must ask ourselves what we would do if our children and grandchildren were in that position and reliant on the generosity of foreign Governments to provide clean water. Would we actually stand by and see our children and grandchildren dying for lack of clean water? We would not.
For better or worse, we have a colonial past, and in many cases the poorest nations are former colonies. We cannot turn our back on them now. We must help people in these countries and others who need it who are reliant on aid. This would be true at any time, but in the midst of a pandemic depriving people of clean water when it may be their only defence against the virus is catastrophic. Some people may say that we are doing our bit by supplying vaccines to the developing world as part of COVAX and other schemes, which is true, but mass vaccination programmes are not delivered overnight, and humans need clean water every day to survive. Likewise, cutting funding for family planning is counterproductive when the population in the poorest countries is already greater than their resources, including food and clean water. Preventing access to contraception will cause families to spiral into even greater poverty, putting thousands of lives at risk.
There is a broader problem of the signal that this decision sends to the rest of the world on climate action. The cuts will diminish the ability of the world’s poorest to cope with climate change, and those people are often the hardest hit by it. Taking the water cuts, for example, there is the context of increasing droughts. We need to strengthen the resilience to drought of communities in poor countries, not weaken it. This aid budget cut also means a cut to the UK’s highly effective programme to prevent deforestation in Indonesia. The green economic growth programme focused on providing sustainable livelihoods for local populations who often end up working in harmful environmental practices such as deforestation due to the lack of alternative ways to make a living. The UK programme was changing that; now it has abruptly been cancelled, despite its success.
The Environment Bill is currently going through the Lords, and promises to be world leading on climate change and deforestation. It will be completely undermined if we are cutting funding to tackle deforestation abroad at the same time as making commitments in legislation. There does not appear to be any joined-up thinking—dare I say it—across Government. We are taking strong domestic action on the environment, but these cuts signal that we are not serious enough about tackling the issue globally.
I regret any cuts to our overseas aid budget and cannot see how they deliver tangible benefits to our national finances. I therefore hope that the Government come forward with a method of restoring the budget, whether that is very quickly or more gradually over a longer period of time. In the meantime, these cuts have landed disproportionately and hit the most needed humanitarian programmes. Whatever path the Government choose to take, those programmes must be the first to be restored. I hope that our Ministers can soon bring forward exactly the way in which we are going to reinstate the 0.7% of GNI in the very near future.
It is an honour to speak in this important estimates debate and to follow Neil Parish.
The British Council works with more than 100 countries worldwide, with programmes promoting greater cultural understanding, and wider knowledge of the English language and of the culture of the nations of the UK. Its work in education, arts and local development has changed the lives of millions of people. Its English language teaching and examinations include the International English Language Testing System, which is run jointly by the council with Cambridge Assessment English and IDP Education Ltd, and has allowed hundreds of thousands of international students to pursue a tertiary education in the UK.
We were promised that Brexit would not mean the end of UK engagement with the world, but here we see the UK Government presiding over yet another retreat. Twenty office closures have already been officially announced by the British Council; grant in aid funding for British Council projects in 11 countries will cease altogether, while, in another nine, grant in aid programming will be delivered through offices in other countries. According to the official British Council press release on the subject, job losses across the organisation appear to be “unavoidable”.
Afghanistan is one of the countries affected by the decision. British Council projects there over the last decade have included training thousands of English language teachers and promoting the revival of Afghan arts. Its English for Afghans programme, which fosters training in greater English language skills in schools, the civil service and among religious leaders, was invaluable in furthering Afghan economic self-reliance and combating political extremism. The British Council also runs Active Citizens training packages in Afghan universities that facilitate community engagement, active citizenship and youth exchanges. Young people on these courses develop a wide range of skills in leadership, communication, citizenship and volunteering, and address unique local priorities through social projects in their own communities.
The work of the British Council is therefore critical to building cultural understanding and international partnerships between the people of Afghanistan and the wider world. Given the deep military and political involvement of the UK and our allies in Afghanistan over the past two decades, and historical ties between the UK and Afghanistan going back over an even longer period, this disengagement from British Council activity constitutes nothing short of a betrayal of our commitments to the Afghan people.
Malawi will be greatly impacted by the UK Government’s overseas development cuts. It is a country with which Scotland has long-standing bilateral links, as does Blantyre in my community. If the Government plan to maintain many existing bilateral commitments, there is a specific concern that countries such as Malawi that are small, peaceful and habitually overlooked in UK Government aid policy, may disproportionately bear the brunt of the cuts.
The Prime Minister, in previous remarks in this House, has characterised overseas development aid as a
“giant cashpoint in the sky”.—[Official Report,
That is not the case in Malawi, where overseas development assistance means clear water, primary education and the most basic healthcare provision for millions of the poorest in the world. Water, food and education—this is not a cashpoint, or a tap that can be turned off and on as seems politically opportune 5,000 miles away.
I turn to Sierra Leone, another country where cuts to the British Council will be harshly felt. The British Council, jointly with local NGO AdvocAid, runs Justice Matters, a project supporting vulnerable women and girls in conflict with the law. Justice Matters provides legal aid to women and girls, literacy training and welfare support to women and girls in prison, and information to the wider community about the legal rights of women and girls.
According to AdvocAid, in 2014, a third of the female inmates in Sierra Leone said they had never been to school, while 83% had a salary of less than $1 a day. Poverty and lack of education leads women and girls to conflict with the law, admitting guilt inadvertently or being forced to pay bribes because they do not understand their rights. Very few can afford lawyers, minors are rarely treated differently from adults by the courts, and the reasons behind crimes are rarely taken into account in the legal process.
In that light, the work of the British Council in Sierra Leone is invaluable. The Prime Minister has asserted many times that he considers the education of women and girls a personal priority for international aid in developing countries, but it is precisely that education on their legal rights that these cuts will affect.
Aid should not be a tool in the Foreign Secretary’s toolbox as he looks to influence other countries to take actions that benefit our own wealth, security and political ends. In that light, it would be good if the Minister would clarify that he understands the severity of these decisions. Will he say by how much the overseas development budget will be cut in Malawi, where those cuts will fall, and what impact the UK Government foresee them having? How are the Government mitigating the impact of the 20 British Council closures around the world?
I rise to address the priorities of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office over the coming year. However, in this debate, we must all be cognisant of the fact that the unparalleled support provided by the Government during the coronavirus pandemic has come at an immense cost to the taxpayer. We have set a record for peacetime borrowing—a grim statistic. That high rate of borrowing means that, unfortunately, savings have to be made somewhere.
Let me make this clear: as the Member of Parliament for Rother Valley, I do not want any budget cuts to affect my constituents. I have been vocal about the need to level up left-behind and disadvantaged communities such as my towns of Dinnington, Maltby, Thurcroft, Swallownest and all the rest. My constituents have been ignored for far too long over the decades, but things are now starting to change for the better because of the election of this Conservative Government.
That is why the official development assistance budget must be reduced. We should not be sending vast sums of borrowed money abroad to foreign powers at a time when we can least afford it. I am firmly of the view that we must always look after our own first and foremost. My constituents have endured real hardship during the pandemic, not to mention that Rother Valley already had some of the deepest pockets of deprivation in the country. That is where our aid money should be going during this national emergency.
We are forced to cut aid because of the prevailing circumstances caused by the covid pandemic. Nevertheless, the UK remains a world leader in international aid, delivering more than £10 billion this year alone, which places it as one of the G7’s biggest donors. Britain’s heroic contributions to the global coronavirus vaccination effort are a testament to our status.
In the light of that, we must think carefully about where to direct the Foreign Office and aid expenditure for the year ahead. The Government have been proactive in co-ordinating our diplomatic, defence, trade and aid networks as part of an overarching global Britain strategy. That is vital if we are to maximise our soft power and ensure value for every penny of taxpayers’ money.
We must complement our new approach by taking full advantage of our exit from the European Union and pivoting back towards the Commonwealth. I am incredibly passionate about Britain’s re-engagement with the Commonwealth. The Foreign Office must spend our money on re-establishing deep links with the countries with which we have long and meaningful ties by way of language, shared values, legal systems, governance and traditions. One of the many crimes of our entry into the Common Market was our move away from the Commonwealth, which has stayed by our side in times of war and difficulty over the centuries. We abandoned and subsequently neglected the Commonwealth for more than 40 years. Now is the time for us to reignite the flame and retake our position as a committed and equal partner to our brothers and friends.
Of course, what the left will not tell people about the Commonwealth is that we have far more in common with Singapore than Slovenia, with Australia than Austria and with Ghana than Germany. Contrary to the little Englander narrative, our embracing the Commonwealth embodies a truly global vision—one that is ethnically and religiously diverse and includes developing countries. Unlike the failed French Community, which existed for all the wrong reasons, the Commonwealth of nations is not an anachronistic throwback but a balanced and fair organisation in which every country has a voice, regardless of its size or wealth. Other Commonwealth countries are enthusiastic about their membership, and it is great to see countries such as Rwanda and Mozambique take advantage of the opportunities presented by the political association of 54 diverse countries by joining us. Many other territories are desperate to join this great unity of nations, with Somaliland and South Sudan having also applied.
I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend reassert the values of the Commonwealth, and I totally agree, but perhaps I should point out to him the fact that these cuts are going to hit our Commonwealth friends—that is where the money is being spent. He started off by saying that we were making cuts because we had incurred such great costs; perhaps he might tell the House where else cuts have been made. The only cut that has been made in the past 13 months is to the foreign aid budget.
It is always a pleasure to take an intervention from my hon. Friend. He made two points. First, where should the cuts go? I say that the very first place cuts should be made is to foreign aid and the last place they should be made is anywhere that affects the people of Rother Valley and the people of all our seats. So, in the first place, it is correct that that is where the cuts should go.
On my hon. Friend’s point about the Commonwealth, I completely agree. It is right that we are giving aid, and we should direct more of that in a better way to deepen our ties with the Commonwealth. For me, this debate should not just be about 0.5%, 0.7% or perhaps 0.3%; it should be more about where that percentage is actually going. I argue that it should go towards our friends in countries with which we have deep historical links—to the Commonwealth; to those who have stood by us in good times and bad through hundreds of years, rather than to a political union that was brought about post the second world war in Europe.
It is clear to me that the best use of Foreign Office expenditure is investment in the Commonwealth rather than aid spending in countries outside the Commonwealth. This will allow Britain to maintain its place in the world, grow its footprint in the economies of the future and turbocharge global Britain post Brexit. Even more importantly, in the context of aid, our engagement with the Commonwealth can make the greatest difference to the most people in developing nations. Let me be clear about aid: by engaging with the Commonwealth we can help more people and more of the poorest people. That is very important.
The Commonwealth citizens with whom we have so much in common need our support, and we must now prioritise them. Our neglect of the Commonwealth—and we have neglected the Commonwealth—has unfortunately seen us abdicate responsibility for encouraging good governance and high standards in much of the world. If we reconnect now, it will allow us to speak up for the persecuted anglophone community in what was formerly the Southern Cameroons; to assist in the fight against Islamic extremists in east and west Africa; and to provide comprehensive support to the millions of British nationals in Hong Kong. Such issues must be front and centre as we pivot back towards the Commonwealth.
As I draw my remarks to a close, I emphasise that a cut in the aid budget does not mean a smaller, less influential Britain; it is simply fiscal common sense, allowing us to reduce our borrowing while protecting our constituents from the impact of the cuts. We are still left with a huge Foreign Office and aid budget, which should be redirected to fully embrace the Commonwealth of nations. If we do that, we can spread the benefits of global Britain from Barbados to Botswana, from India to Fiji and from Kenya to Malaysia. That will be a better world for us all.
The decision by this Government to take essential, life-saving money away from the world’s poorest people is absolutely shameful. The fact that the Government of one of the richest countries in the world have decided arbitrarily to reduce the help that they give to the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet, particularly in the middle of a global health pandemic, simply beggars belief. It must be the final abandonment of what little was left of the UK’s reputation for moral leadership.
The Government know, and any Member, such as Alexander Stafford, who intends to support these cuts should know, that this is not a consequence-free decision. Taking away more than £4 billion of life-saving aid guarantees that tens of thousands of the world’s poorest people are going to die. Everyone should also be aware of the consequences of what they are signing up to, because this is not like pulling the plug on the building of a new school. This is not putting off the construction of a new bypass because money is tight. This is not suspending the restoration of the Palace of Westminster because we can no longer justify the cost. This is a decision that will kill people. People are going to die as a direct result of this decision, and there is absolutely no running away from that reality.
This is also the ultimate betrayal of the thousands of people who work in our NGOs and our charity sector—people who strive day in and day out to alleviate suffering and to deliver food and bring comfort to the world’s most marginalised communities. At a time when charities such as the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, Compassion UK, the wonderful Mary’s Meals from my Argyll and Bute constituency, Oxfam, Plan International and so many others are being asked to do so much more with so much less, this is a kick in the teeth that they neither needed nor deserved.
I still find it utterly bewildering that the confirmation of slashing aid for the world’s poorest was in the integrated review of security. The idea that by making the world’s poorest people even poorer we will somehow make ourselves safer is an absolute nonsense. Are this Government really asking us to believe that the best way to make the people of the United Kingdom safer and more secure is to slash vital humanitarian aid, particularly to parts of the world that are already riven by conflict, war and famine, thereby forcing tens of millions of desperate people to uproot themselves and their families and go in search of a better, more secure future? It is a ridiculous notion, and they know that it is a ridiculous notion. But what makes this betrayal of the world’s poorest utterly grotesque is that, having announced that they were taking away billions from those poor communities, the Government announced that they are to spend it on increasing their stockpile of nuclear warheads. We all know that they will always find the cash for their weapons of mass destruction.
Some might not like it, but the country has a fundamental moral obligation to help those in what we now call the developing world, not just because we can afford to help them, which is reason enough in itself, but primarily because this country is in no small way responsible for the situation in which many now find themselves. For more than a century, the United Kingdom grew rich and powerful on the back of the world’s poor. The British empire invaded, conquered, divided and plundered half the world and very often left behind it an impoverished wasteland, so it is about time that this country woke up to the fact that it has a moral responsibility to assist those abandoned to live with the consequences of British imperialism. It should not be running away from that responsibility.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating this debate, and I echo the point made by Mrs May at the start of the debate that this is not the vote that we were promised on the specific issue of the cuts to 0.7% foreign aid spending. I sincerely hope that the Government do not try to spin that it is, because we know that it is not.
We must have a vote on the cut to the foreign aid budget, because every Member of this House must have the opportunity to register his or her approval, or otherwise, of that decision. Members cannot be allowed to hide behind crocodile tears or meaningless words of regret, and no longer can they hope that, by choosing to stay silent, they will not be asked to come off the fence.
Everyone in this House must have the opportunity to go on the record and say yes or no to cutting the overseas aid budget; to say yes or no to the stark humanitarian costs of the decisions they make. When that vote does come, no one in this House will be able to pretend that they did not know or understand the consequences of their actions.
Finally, this Government love to talk about global Britain and the role that they see for the UK on the world stage. If the UK decides to cut overseas aid, we have to assume that global Britain has, in reality, become drawbridge Britain.
Foreign aid spend has frequently been a way for politicians to compete for moral righteousness in the public eye. My Dudley residents care not for this type of posturing.
My right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell—he is no longer in the Chamber—who is a near neighbour of mine, referred in his closing remarks to his electorate, implying that they agree with his stance on foreign aid. I would make two points on that. First, my constituency is literally just down the road from his, and I can categorically assert that a significant majority of my residents do not agree with him. Secondly, I gently point out to him that, on average, two thirds of all people polled in this country very recently did not agree with him either. Just the other day, on GB News, he used the majority view argument to support assisted dying, so perhaps he might consider being consistent with his rationale, instead of imposing his moral virtues on the country’s majority view.
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend. It is fine if that is his argument, but surely he believes that it is right for this House to have a vote on the issue, because we are all representatives of our constituencies, and of the views of our constituents. Forget the polling and allow this place to have its say. Does he not agree with that sentiment?
I might refer my hon. Friend to votes on Brexit in previous years, when a significant number of elected Members did not represent their constituents and voted the opposite way to them.
Labour will always oppose what the Government do, even if they tripled foreign aid. Having only ever averaged a maximum spend under 0.4% of national income when it was in office, compared with the 0.7% that we achieved, Labour’s protestations are somewhat shallow, if not risible. People will see Labour for what it is: out of touch with working-class people and totally clueless about their priorities.
I am concerned about some of my colleagues. They are being so generous with other people’s money—a notable socialist behaviour, I might add. Perhaps they can explain to my Dudley North taxpayers why we should spend £15 billion overseas when my residents cannot find council houses and when we still have homeless people on our streets, some of them brave veterans.
I would like to make progress, please.
Covid has given rise to exceptional circumstances, and the Government were entirely right to reduce aid and focus on rebuilding our country. Charity begins at home. That said, I do not agree with reducing the foreign aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income; I would scrap the target altogether. Foreign aid should be and needs to be completely reformed. A fluctuating number each year that bears no real link with need, priorities or actual outcomes is no way to plan or act strategically. It is not how a household would budget, it is not how a business would budget, and it should not be how a Government budget. Which other Government Department do we fund as a percentage of national income?
Order. Before the hon. Member for Dudley North responds to that intervention, it might be helpful for the House to know that so many colleagues have decided at the last minute not to take part in this debate, having originally asked to do so, that there is actually plenty of time. It is quite historic for me to say that; I would normally be saying, “I urge the hon. Gentleman not to take time on interventions”, but he is at liberty to do so.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I will respond by saying it is not the way we fund policing, education or health here at home. Surely a more sophisticated approach that is outcome-focused and delivers measurable change in very poor countries by employing some of our own local and UK-based companies is a far better approach than the arbitrary and unaccountable system that we continue to virtue-signal about.
I would ask two things of colleagues wanting to reinstate the 0.7%: let us focus efforts on achieving much better outcomes by reforming foreign aid, and, while we are at it, focus on challenging the EU and other wealthy countries that consistently fail to meet their own targets and do not measure up to what the UK is certainly doing.
No thank you.
By any measure, the UK already does far more than most, both in cash terms and in areas not captured by our foreign aid spending. Certainly my constituents know that very well.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was taken slightly on the hop; I was expecting another colleague to be called before me. May I start by congratulating Sarah Champion on securing this important debate?
In her opening remarks, my right hon. Friend Mrs May reminded the House that this is a debate about FCDO estimates; it is not a proxy vote for a reduction in overseas aid. We do not, as my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell reminded us, normally vote on estimates, because to do so would simply be disruptive in parliamentary terms, but we still need a meaningful vote. To try to suggest that this is somehow a vote on the overseas aid issue is simply disingenuous, and it will not wash.
In breach of an Act of Parliament, the Government are seeking to reduce our overseas aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5%. That in itself is significant, but that figure is based on gross national income. The net effect of that is that because gross national income has also fallen, it is a cut upon a cut. It is a cut in provision for some of the poorest people in the world. I listened with sadness to the comments of a couple of my younger friends in the House, who seem to think only that charity begins at home and that because of the pandemic we cannot afford to fund overseas aid at the legal rate. We are and remain, thank God, one of the richest countries in the world.
In the context of the national budget, the amount of money spent on overseas aid is pitiful. I would ask my hon. Friends to think again about whether we should in fact be reducing the money that we spend on, for example, the education of young women, which the Prime Minister hailed triumphantly at the G7; whether we should cut funding for the provision of clean water, particularly for young people who sometimes have to walk for miles to draw such water as is available from infected streams; or whether we should cut the funding for sanitation of a kind that no Member in this House would wish their children to experience.
My hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, reminded the House that we are cutting the funding of our tropical diseases programme from £115 million to just £17 million. That tropical diseases programme, that life-saving programme, that potentially pandemic-preventing programme was—I think the expression is—world class, and that is what we are about to cut.
We are also going to reduce the funding for the British Council, a source of soft power that enhances our reputation around the world, and for Voluntary Service Overseas, which provides so much opportunity for British volunteers who wish to help those in developing countries. We are going to cut the international community service programme—a programme involving very many young people from the United Kingdom who have been going around the world—which was instigated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield when he was the Secretary of State. That is going to go.
These programmes are trailblazers for global Britain—or were. They are not projects that can be turned on and off like a tap. They involve real people, real expertise, real time and real effort. By cutting the funding for this year, we are probably setting back each one of those programmes, even if the money is reinstated next year, by five, six or seven years, because it will take time to rebuild from the rubble that is left and to get those programmes up and running again, if ever. Is this global Britain? Is this really what we want? Do we really want to break the trust that we have built up internationally for fair dealing, generosity and an understanding of what our place in the world really is? As my right hon. Friend Mr Davis said in a very powerful speech, these cuts are about real people. They are about life and death, and what we are choosing to do means death for some of those people.
I hope that the Government will either implement the Speaker’s instruction and allow this House of Commons to have a vote—a meaningful vote—on a substantive motion on the reduction of our overseas aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI, or give an absolute cast-iron guarantee from the Front Bench today that the money will be reinstated in full next year.
I would like to begin by paying tribute to Sarah Champion and to Mr Mitchell for keeping the pressure on this matter with the Government. I thank Mr Speaker for recognising the importance of this debate.
I respectfully disagree with Alyn Smith and his remarks about how we would do things differently in Scotland. We may have aspirations to do things differently, but judging by this debate and its tone, I would suggest that this place speaks strongly and in unison on this matter. As Dr Murrison so eloquently illustrated, it is the Prime Minister and his Government who are the isolated outliers forcing this matter through. They clearly fear a meaningful vote in this House.
The importance of meeting a 0.7% GNI target has been accepted by successive UK Governments since the UN target was established in 1970. It was first achieved in the UK in 2013 and the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 established a statutory duty to meet this target. That is something the Government are prepared to break. It is an effective cut of up to £10 billion.
Significant portions of the funding cuts are targeted against sexual and reproductive health and rights programmes globally, resulting in the closure of services and a disruption to supplies and programmes. The president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Mr Edward Morris, called the cuts
“an unconscionable attack on…women and girls”.
The impact of these cuts is immediate. Funding for healthcare that was providing critical, life-saving support has already been terminated, often with little explanation to local government and NGO partners. The cuts will inevitably lead to an increase in maternal and newborn mortality and morbidity.
At a time when the most disadvantaged across the world face the peril of poverty and covid, many countries are expanding their support, such as Canada, France, the United States of America and others. During the emergency debate on
Sadly, this is well understood in my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency and by people who rely on foodbanks; I echo the words of Sarah Owen on this point. This is coupled with the questionable achievement of the Prime Minister in the chair of the G7 summit, where less than a tenth of the support needed is being provided in covid vaccines and financial support.
The disparity was highlighted powerfully by my hon. Friend Kenny MacAskill. Eleven billion vaccines are needed; 1 billion have been promised. Fifty billion dollars is needed; $5 billion has been promised. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury was able to point to the paragraph of policy that facilitates this cut, but can the Prime Minister, or anyone in this Government, set out the moral justification? Failure to do so reads like a dismissive ignorance of the human cost.
From the protection of women and girls to global infection control of covid, neglect of tropical diseases, and clean water and hygiene across the conflict zones of Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all are losing over half their aid funding. It is not a question or an issue that exists over there. Global health is now a shared responsibility. It is both a moral imperative and in the national interest, something I would ask Marco Longhi to ponder on, rather than put forward narrow and dangerous populist views.
This Parliament is speaking clearly. A meaningful vote is of urgent importance. This is an investment in tackling conflict, building prosperity, promoting good governance and reducing poverty, and will secure our own health into the future.
I express my gratitude to my hon. Friend Sarah Champion and Mr Mitchell for campaigning on this important issue. I also pay tribute to all the organisations and individuals who have provided support to countries across the globe, including Save the Children, the Red Cross, Oxfam, Global Justice Now and others.
I draw the House’s attention to the British Council, which works hard to encourage cultural, scientific, technological and educational co-operation with Britain. This week its CEO wrote to its Public and Commercial Services Union representative, warning that it intends to make 15% to 20% job cuts over the next two years. This is a disgrace. The programmes that the British Council undertakes internationally ensure global friendship with the United Kingdom. The Government must urgently intervene to save jobs and make funding available to plug the shortfall in the organisation.
The world has faced a catastrophic pandemic and, unless we take an internationalist view, we will never overcome this tragedy. Pulling up the drawbridge and hiding away from the rest of the world is never the answer, but that is exactly what the Government did when they made the political choice to abolish the Department for International Development and merge it with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the height of this pandemic. DFID was an international leader on development issues, and one of the best examples of global Britain.
During these pandemic times it is often said that no one is safe until everyone is safe, but the Government’s actions speak louder than words. They have cut vital coronavirus research, including a project tackling the variant in India, by 70%, and recent media reports have informed us that the Treasury delayed plans to send surplus PPE to India over a dispute regarding its allocation towards overall aid spending.
The hon. Gentleman mentions so-called cuts, but will he acknowledge the vital role this Government have played in delivering vaccines and oxygen to countries like India? Actually, this country has given a lot to many other countries during the pandemic.
This Government were one of the few to oppose the proposal from the South African and Indian Governments for a TRIPS waiver that would have resulted in vaccines, medical equipment and medicines related to covid being produced licence free. That would have led to much more vaccine being available, so I urge the hon. Gentleman to lobby his Front-Bench team to make sure the UK reverses its position on this important issue. We know that President Biden of the United States has reversed his position, having initially blocked the waiver proposed by India and South Africa. The unnecessary delays to PPE going to India have deeply negative consequences. Cutting aid will have almost no impact on the UK’s finances, but it will heighten poverty in some parts of the world.
In addition, there has been a £48 million cut to the NHS overseas training scheme, which trains medical staff in some of the poorest countries. The scheme works with 500 health facilities across Africa and Asia, in places that suffer a deficit of medical staff. The Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine would have seen NHS staff provide training to 78,000 healthcare workers in Nepal, Uganda, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Myanmar. The UK has 820 Bangladeshis, 118 Ethiopians, 572 Ugandans and 1,988 Nepalis working in our NHS.
The CDC Group, which promotes privatisation and unaffordable private hospitals in the global south, is due to receive £779 million this year. It seems that cuts apply only to projects that support development. Disgracefully, aid spending targeted at meeting strategic priorities will be cut by only 37%, and funding for the much-criticised conflict, stability and security fund, which last year was found to have supported brutal police squads in Nigeria, has fallen by only 19%.
This multibillion pound cut to overseas development assistance has a momentous human cost. There is no question but that these cuts will result in thousands of unnecessary deaths. Cutting programmes including humanitarian aid, global health, girls’ education, water and sanitation, food insecurity and malnutrition, and sexual and reproductive health have real consequences. The UK must return to 0.7% of GNI on ODA, under the internationally agreed definition, and the Government must bring a meaningful vote to the House on this important decision.
Finally, I echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham thanking all aid workers across the world and the excellent FCDO staff. They do an important job in extremely challenging circumstances, and they deserve our support and gratitude.
I should like to begin by saying that although I may disagree with my hon. Friends the Members for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) and for Dudley North (Marco Longhi), it is welcome to see a debate taking place in this Chamber. This is a small step forward to returning to normal, when we can look beyond these pandemic measures and have proper, right and rigorous discussion about how we can reform and improve things in this country and across the world. As we have a bit of time, I thought I could start with a bit of rebuttal. I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley talk about how we should focus our spending in the Commonwealth, but I respectfully say to him that aid goes where it is most needed. If he wants to have value for money, it cannot be directed specifically to a cultural, historical, political trading organisation. That is why we must make sure we have an aid programme that delivers for the people, be it in Syria or any Commonwealth country.
My hon. Friend is already making a brilliant speech. Does he agree that vast amounts of our humanitarian support and development aid do go to Commonwealth countries, because British aid goes above all to the places where we have a historical connection?
I totally agree. The point I am trying to make is that although we should use aid to support the Commonwealth and to enhance our ties, allowing them to see it directed as something that benefits because of our history, it is also an opportunity for us to look beyond that.
I congratulate Sarah Champion, as it is always a pleasure to follow her in her debates and to listen to her speak on a host of different issues. We have heard a number of hugely impressive speeches, including from my right hon. Friends the Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and for Maidenhead (Mrs May), and the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, to mention just a few. They have all stood up and spoken about the value of international aid from this country to others and what it does to motivate, save and assist. The point was made at the beginning that the International Development Committee has not been given the true and accurate figures it deserves. I stood up and spoke on retaining that Committee, as I believe it has a value in scrutinising our foreign aid budgets and it must be secured. If it is not getting the correct information, I hope we might hear more about this, because it is essential that the Committee is given the tools to do its job.
The problem with estimates debates is that they take away from the reality of what we are actually talking about. We are standing in this Chamber talking about the vaccinations donated, the school books gifted, the sexual violence perpetrators brought to justice, the deradicalisation of terrorist organisations, all of which happens through our aid budget—it all happens through that 0.7% budget. So to talk about estimates takes away from the reality of the extraordinary work that we do across the country. Members may disagree with that and suggest that their constituents are not supportive of it, but when we stop polling and start asking them about international security, women’s education, vaccinations and justice for those who have committed rape in conflict zones across the world, we get a very different answer from that given in the polls that are put out.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, as he always does, on an issue of importance, and I agree with what he says about what happens when we ask residents about sexual violence in conflict—people do want answers. But when I speak to people in Rother Valley about these issues, they say, “What about the sexual violence in Maltby? What about the conflicts in Dinnington—the gangs and the knifings?” We have to be realistic; there is only so much money in the budget. If the budget is not cut here, it will be cut somewhere else, and residents of Rother Valley do not want it cut there.
With the greatest respect, the policing budget is not being cut. In addition, my hon. Friend is trying to make the point that by cutting the international aid budget he is going to see that money in Rother Valley—he is not. That money will go back into the Treasury. I go back to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield about how small this is in terms of Treasury percentages and spending.
I asked my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison earlier what temporary would look like and he said a year. I respectfully say to the Government that if they come to the Dispatch Box and say that it is a year I will acquiesce, I will sit down, and I will accept that a year’s cut is what needs to be done. I would argue that many other Members would do so, too. Unfortunately, we have found ourselves in something of a predicament. The announcement of the cut from 0.7% to 0.5% was made off the cuff at such rapid speed that organisations such as War Child and the HALO Trust, to name just two out of many hundreds, had their budgets cut and their international programmes jeopardised.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the speed of the cuts announcement, which is compounded by the cut due to the decrease in GNI. This has been a tremendous cut affecting the most needy across the entire globe. Like he said, if we can have a commitment that this is for one year and one year only, many, including Members from the 2019 intake, will sit down and back off.
That is incredibly welcome to hear. My hon. Friend is right: there has been a double whammy in the reduction. International organisations have to deal with not only the cut itself but the overall GNI reduction. It is in place to make sure that in good years more money is available and in bad years less, thereby making the argument that we take stock of the economic situation. The point was also made by my hon. Friend Neil Parish, who made the suggestion about the WaterAid programmes.
I am not against reform. I believe that we should be able to reform the ODA rules. I would love to see it spent in different ways that are more transparent and accountable. Many Members have made that point. Let us not take it down to 0.5%, but look at how we can reform it. Taking it from a single calendar year to a multi-year funding period of three or four years would give us the opportunity to look at different options so we can justify it to our constituents.
I believe that global Britain is about four things: defence, diplomacy, trade and development. All four are integrated. Failure to act and to work on one impacts the other. Our two aircraft carriers sailing around the world are hopefully unlikely to see conflict, but there is a humanitarian assistance vessel right there that could be used within our ODA budget. We must look at the impact on those different areas. Our aid pays for our security, as I have already mentioned. It is what stops terrorist organisations from across the world being able to flourish unencumbered.
We heard many from across the House say that if we led on this issue others would follow. They did. Many European countries have followed and are now reaching 0.7% targets. Canada has increased its target. America has increased its spending by £16 billion. We were leading. I ask about the message it sends to the world. In a year in which we host the G7 and COP26, and will have a good presence at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, we have the opportunity to lead by example.
My hon. Friend asks what message it will send, but what message does it send to my constituents that overseas lives are more valuable than lives in this country? We have to be realistic about this—[Interruption.] It is not shameful. We are talking about messages and I ask him: what message does it send?
I would respectfully say to all of my hon. Friend’s constituents—I am happy to speak at any association event in the future—that their lives are no less valuable. What we are doing here is taking money from Peter to pay Paul. We must be honest about the value.
I cannot speak for the people of Rother Valley, but to me going back to the people of Bury South and saying we support this says that we are compassionate and kind, and that we keep our promises. That is something I am proud of. That is something I want to stick up for. I want to go home and be able to tell my daughter that I did the right thing.
Quite right. If I had children I would be going back to say exactly the same thing—all to come, I am sure.
The debate is also about the British Council. I have lived in Singapore and I have worked in Nigeria. I have seen the value of these organisations. I have seen the value of soft power for the United Kingdom. I look back on 2012, a moment in which the UK exhibited its global superpower soft power. We were able to show that we were leading across the world. I hate that we are going down this route and reducing the two things that promote us in the best way.
Does the hon. Member agree that using an us and them attitude is not helpful? The UK is one of the richest countries in the world and has a proud record of supporting projects across the world, and dividing people into us and them is not helpful at all in this debate.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fantastic point, and it is one that I will end on. If we are uncomfortable with how people view 0.7%, it is down to this House and to us as Members to explain it properly and show them the true value of what Britain does in a globalised world.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall for the passion that he displayed in making his argument just now. I imagine that he will not be terribly happy with the comments I am about to make, but I have the greatest amount of respect for what he has just articulated. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, who made a powerful speech earlier. He was the individual who got me to Africa in the first place. I remember us talking in 2008—he probably does not remember—when we were in the eastern province of Rwanda on Project Umubano. Although I am not particularly loud on this subject, it is of interest to me, and it has been so ever since he had the courtesy to take me there a number of years ago.
I also pay tribute to Sarah Champion, one of my near neighbours. She speaks with such force on this, and I have such respect for the work that she is doing in her Select Committee—
But. The hon. Lady anticipates me, but perhaps I can start with some shared principles.
I shall start my contribution today by reaffirming some of the things that have already been spoken about with some eloquence—namely, that support for those in need is part of what makes us human, that aid has the most enormous transformative power for those who are less fortunate than us, and that the UK has a proud history of offering other countries a hand up. I do not doubt the resolve of the many Members who have argued the case for higher aid spending with energy and clarity—and with repetitiveness, based on the last few weeks of discussions in this place. I also accept the challenge from some of them today that we do not always simply accept polls, we do not always accept what people tell us and we do not always work towards certain instincts that may be out there, but by the same token, we would be wise to heed them at certain points. The debate is, if I may say so, running the risk of projecting a uniform consensus that there is some kind of mandatory, almost quasi-religious, commitment to a single venerated number.
I want to make two points. The first is that we all have a manifesto pledge to 0.7%. The second is that the most recent polling shows that 53% of the population support our commitment to UK aid. That is the evidence.
On the hon. Lady’s second point, I hope she will accept that different polls are saying different things. I may just leave that one there. On her first point, I absolutely accept that I stood on a manifesto commitment. There is a broad philosophical discussion to be had with every Member of Parliament within and without this building about the manifestos that they stood on, some of which have been discarded more extensively by other Members on other Benches than the particular principle that we are talking about now, on a temporary basis. As politicians, we always seek to agree to the manifesto on which we have the greatest consensus and with which we have the greatest affinity, but that does not mean that we cannot accept challenges to it or that changes will not be appropriate or necessary in extraordinary circumstances.
My concern—I say this gently and with caution—is that this place is becoming fixated on a single number, and while the consensus may be in place here, I hope that even if people disagree with it they will accept that that is not the case outside these walls. It is the duty of any Government to make decisions on spending based not simply on the transient allure of consensus from this usually fractured body, but also with regard to the much less exuberant considerations of our national finances, or perhaps even to the views of those who put us in this place. That is before we even reference the millions of people who have never, ever been reconciled to a single arbitrary figure.
My hon. Friend is making an interesting speech. I am not absolutely certain that he absorbed all the lessons from our visit to Rwanda, on which I remember that he was a tremendous colleague to have along. We are not delegates here; we are representatives. Our constituents send us here on the fine Burkean principle of exercising our judgment. When my hon. Friend says that the whole House seems to agree on this point, he is right: very large numbers of people in the House agree about it and the Government would not win a vote, I assert. Will he join me, at the very least, in saying that the House should have an opportunity to vote on this important matter, on which he and I both stood in the general election?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point, which I know he has pursued relentlessly; I am sure that he will continue to do so beyond the confines of my very limited contribution to today’s debate. I am sure that he can take the point up with a representative of the Executive, and I hope that he is successful in his course.
If I may, I will make some progress, but I would be delighted to give way to my hon. Friend in a moment.
Probably what makes today’s debate so frustrating for people out there who may be watching and who do not share the consensus that is generally coming across is that in certain speeches—none of which was recent, I might add—it was as if we were arguing about whether to end aid in its entirety. Effectively, we are arguing today about whether we are going to spend an extraordinary amount of money on international aid or an incredible amount of money on international aid. We are allowing a debate to become skewed by a skirmish over an arbitrary percentage that was agreed back in the 1950s by the World Council of Churches on a basis of which I am still not 100% sure.
My hon. Friend is making a tremendous speech, although I happen to disagree with all of it. He is showing his true parliamentary skills, but the point is that we have arbitrary numbers all over the shop when it comes to politics, from the 2% in NATO to the 2.7% R&D commitment. It is a misnomer to suggest that we have them only in foreign aid. They are therefore not something that we should shy from introducing.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have arbitrary targets everywhere; I do not doubt that. One reason that I sought election to this place was to try to get under the skin of those arbitrary targets. Some of the shibboleths that have not been challenged for a number of years have aspects that we should perhaps look at. We might wish to retain them, but we should never be shy of reviewing them again.
I am not saying this to be sharp with hon. Members, but it cannot be that the only approved manifestation of compassion is via a single monetary figure, free from the realities of any vague financial responsibility or even a semblance of fiscal rectitude. That is before we even get into the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes quite rightly brought up about value for money. I sat on the Public Accounts Committee a couple of years ago and some very interesting reports came through on value for money in this area. I accept that it is a very difficult issue to judge, but we may wish to turn to it with as much frequency and as much depth as we talk about this single percentage.
If my hon. Friend does not mind, I will try to make a little more progress.
I do not think that righteousness should be outsourced to an international sector that I have been really disappointed in in recent weeks as regards this debate. All the emails coming into my inbox, far from acknowledging the UK’s continuing commitment to those in need across the world, seem to be trying to create a frame that turns the UK’s huge generosity against itself and seeks almost to sting us into immotive or silent acquiescence.
It really must not be that virtue can be found only in criticism of one number owned by one country, when that country will still spend proportionately more this year than Switzerland, Belgium, Finland, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Austria, Iceland, Hungary, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia, Poland, Slovakia, South Korea, the Czech Republic, Greece, Australia or the United States did in the previous year. I say that not just to make a rhetorical point, but because it is important that we understand the context within which we are debating this important point.
I absolutely acknowledge the strength of feeling in today’s debate from those who take a different view from mine. I hope and am sure that hon. Members who do not take my view will acknowledge that people who, like me, do not necessarily speak as loudly or as frequently on the subject, but who also feel strongly about it, also look to such signals as what people think around the country. I am afraid that in my view this debate is moving a little away from the people who placed us here. It is our job, or the job of some of us, to bring it back into balance. We all want to help lift up our fellow man, and it is not disproportionate that some of us want to do that in a way that increases the likelihood of our being able to continue to do so in the future.
I pay a warm tribute to Sarah Champion, who is doing a superb job as Chair of the International Development Committee. I agreed with much of what she said this afternoon. I also pay a warm tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell for the way that he is leading his campaign on international aid.
I find myself in some difficulty this afternoon, because the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend James Duddridge who is responding to the debate, happens to be my parliamentary neighbour and a good friend of mine. I also backed his boss, the Foreign Secretary, to be leader of the Conservative party. I do not want to fall out with either of them.
Other colleagues have been far more eloquent on international aid than I could be, so I really want to talk about the British Council, which is absolutely fantastic. Wherever I go throughout the world, I always ask to see the British Council contact. The British Council deals with overseas trade and it is marvellous. It is the oldest cultural relations organisation in the world, and the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary have both given their support to the excellent work that it does. I very much support the efforts of my hon. Friend Mr Baron as chairman of the British Council all-party group. I was very pleased to sign a cross-party letter to the Prime Minister on that issue.
There are so many reasons to be proud to be British—my goodness, I was proud to be British last night when we beat the Germans—and one of them is our soft power and how we use that to help those internationally who are less able to help themselves. The British Council represents the best of Britain overseas through educational and cultural successes. However, it is a two-sided relationship; it works both ways. Before the coronavirus pandemic, as chairman of the all-party group on the Philippines, I attended a Philippines independence day event in Southend. There I met a talented artist who wanted to have her work displayed in the Philippines, and thanks to the British Council that was made possible. That is one small example of how the British Council helps to facilitate a sharing of the culture and history between our two countries. It was also fantastic to have a local Southend artist have her work displayed internationally, and just one further reason why Southend should be the next city of culture and a city.
I and my team have also contacted the British Council over the years about educational links with the United Kingdom. One of the most important things that this historic institution does is connect the United Kingdom with the rest of the world through the teaching of English. As a result, it provides a lifeline for people to advance their career and to continue doing what they are passionate about.
I went on a wonderful trip to the Philippines to assist the Philippine Nurses Association and saw at first hand how the British Council and the Voluntary Service Overseas have helped many Filipino nurses by providing affordable education. British institutions such as Voluntary Service Overseas have offered young people opportunities to volunteer overseas—I was not that young when I did it, but anyway I really enjoyed it—so I ask the Government to commit to the reinstatement of international youth volunteering, so that, once conditions allow for safe international travel, young Brits can benefit from the same opportunities as their predecessors.
In 2014, on a trip to Egypt organised by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I met young people involved in a British Council project to learn about their opportunities to develop the skills that they need for the future. They were especially appreciative of the opportunities to learn English, participate in our workshops, and visit the United Kingdom.
As chairman of the all-party group on Qatar, I welcome the strong bilateral ties that we have with Qatar, especially in terms of energy, our cultural links and our economic partnership. Those ties demonstrate what a true partner we are with that country, and I hope that its World Cup next year will be very successful.
I mentioned the Maldives, and I have declared my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Maldives economy is effectively based on two things: tourism and tuna. The coronavirus pandemic has ruined the tourism industry and the 20% import tariffs that we impose on tuna are harshly damaging the economy—I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister might mention that, but if he does not have time, perhaps he could write to me about it. As chair of the all-party British-Maldives parliamentary group, I think we should be helping the sustainable line and rod-caught tuna industry by significantly reducing tariffs, especially as we hosted the G7 and will be hosting COP26 in Glasgow later this year.
We must protect the British Council in order to follow the Government’s global Britain agenda. Soft power is a vital component of that plan. Soft power should be at the heart of our policy making, with a focus on international trade deals and tackling climate change. It therefore comes as a great surprise and disappointment that the British Council has been forced to close in 20 countries including Australia, after agreeing the provisional terms of the UK-Australia free trade agreement and after the UK hosted the G7 summit in Cornwall, which was attended by world leaders from countries affected by the British Council closures, including the United States of America.
It is obvious that the British Council does not have enough funding to run programmes in every country in which it is currently present. The cuts will prove to be a false economy. I therefore urge the Government to rethink the allocation of resources to enable as many countries as possible to benefit from the irreplaceable services that the British Council provides, and to give others internationally the opportunities to learn, share and succeed.
May I start by referring to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I congratulate Sarah Champion on securing this debate and my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell on the fantastic contributions that he has made to this debate over many, many years. I have to confess that I was not expecting a full seven minutes. I have three points to make, although I will pad them out slightly more than I might have done in the three minutes that I was expecting.
My first point is about the way in which we conduct foreign policy in this country. My hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, referred to this issue earlier. If the UK wants to have a policy-based foreign policy that is led by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is now the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, it needs to include within that the trade policy and defence policy. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was a very good policy Department; it was excellent at policy. The old Department for International Development was an excellent delivery Department, as are the Department for International Trade and the Ministry of Defence.
I can well understand why a Prime Minister would wish to restructure our approach to foreign policy; having a Foreign Secretary who is responsible for all areas of foreign policy makes an enormous amount of sense. But government works by having Ministers with different responsibilities and having tension between those Ministers. A Minister—particularly a Minister at Cabinet—responsible for international development focuses their efforts on that, and the Foreign Secretary could consider the whole range of foreign policy with the Secretary of State for Defence, the Secretary of State for International Trade and that Secretary of State for International Development. Not having that seat at the Cabinet table, not having that dedicated Department and not even having a dedicated Minister within the Department is a mistake from the point of view of the United Kingdom, because that political tension makes for better decision making.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for the point that she is making. Does she agree that there is also a trickle-down of that tension, in that we now have ambassadors who are having to make cuts to programmes in the very countries where they are trying to negotiate the trade deals, diplomatic relationships and complex human rights issues that this country is so good at trying to navigate?
I absolutely agree; that is my point. If our ambassadors are responsible merely for diplomatic relations, that is one thing, but if they are to be responsible for making decisions around international development, they should also be responsible for decisions around defence and trade, because it is all part of one policy area. It is actually much healthier for government—[Interruption.] The Minister looks like he wants me to give way. Does he wish me to sit down? I will.
My hon. Friend, who is one of my oldest friends in this place, makes a very important point. However, the hon. Member for Rotherham also makes the point that if ambassadors are having to make decisions on cutting programmes at the same time as developing diplomatic relations and representing every bit of HMG, that will make their jobs that much harder.
My second point is about the 0.7%. I listened to my hon. Friend, and I have great sympathy with the fact that he feels that he is in a den of people who disagree with him. I do not actually disagree with him that much. I think he would be surprised to discover that I accept that we are in the most extraordinary times. I do not like anything about this pandemic: I do not like the fact that this House is empty, I do not like the fact that I cannot see my loved ones, and I really do not like the fact that we do not have the money that we should have and would like to have. I would much, much rather we did have that money, but I accept that we do not.
However, the programmes and the organisations that rely on British aid need to know that the money will be restored next year. I have spent significant time talking to the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery. The programmes it will need to cut if it does not have certainty about spending next year will really damage the work that it and the organisations that it supports have spent years doing. The problem is that someone else will move in and take that space. Someone else that we may disagree with will start to move in those circles and take on projects, and years and years of building up relationships will be wasted. It is all part of soft power: the power that being a permanent member of the Security Council gives us; the power that being a country that meets our NATO commitments gives us; and the power that meeting the 0.7% commitment gives us. It may be an arbitrary target and there may be a debate to be had about whether it is the right target, but that is not what we are debating today. We are debating whether we meet the manifesto commitment and whether we are going to return to that manifesto commitment. I ask my hon. Friend, who, as I say, is one of the greatest men that I know—he has whipped me and then I have whipped him in the past—please to confirm that he will return to the 0.7% commitment next year so that we can hold our heads up high in the world. It is imperative that, if the Government cannot give that commitment, this House has a vote on the matter.
A small amount of money spent at source makes an enormous amount of difference to the people at home. We have heard talk about whether we choose between people at home or people elsewhere. There is no such choice. The migrants crossing the channel from Calais are getting on those unsafe boats because organised criminals have told them that there is a route to get to the United Kingdom if they do so. In spending overseas development money, I suspect that not as much money needs to be spent at source to try to deal with that organised criminality as we are spending trying to send those dinghies back. I say to my hon. Friend: let us think about how we can make sure that we spend that money in the right places and do what we need to do.
On the right hon. Lady’s point about the migrants in the channel, the director of the World Food Programme said to me, “You are removing money from the areas in Africa where the terrorists are recruiting. Do you not think that they will be using the exact same routes to get into the UK that the migrants looking for work are using?” I agree with him.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. This is not an either/or. Money spent there will save money upstream. I know that the Treasury scorecard is very difficult to comprehend and that this is not necessarily how it works, but that relatively small amount of money will save enormous amounts of money at home and will make the world a better place for all of us.
My final point is on the British Council. I am disappointed by the situation that we have arrived at. I know that the Government have put an enormous amount of money into the British Council. The British Council is normally pretty much self-sustaining. Its language schools and language business mean that it pays for about 85% of its costs in normal times—but, as I have said, we are not in normal times. Like so many other organisations, the British Council has not been able to deliver the services that it would have delivered and therefore make the income that can and needs to make. We are talking about money for two years so that it can get back on its feet. The price that we will pay for not meeting that request by the British Council is that we will see the closure of offices around the world, including in the US, Afghanistan and other places.
I said in respect of international aid that other countries will move in; there can be no doubt about the significance of the British Council and its offices, and about the idea of another power moving into those offices where the British Council has been. Yes, the British Council sells language services to the public, but the service it provides to the United Kingdom is about far more than just language services. The British Council is about Britain’s place in the world and is perhaps the most visible part of our soft power that anyone sees in any country they have visited. I was able to travel the world as a Minister at many levels and as a Select Committee member, and the British Council was always present, promoting Britain, British values and British interests. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister: please try to find a way to support the British Council so that we do not have to see the closure of posts. Once we have moved out and those relationships are lost, they will never be regained; someone else will move in and we will be a poorer country for it.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley and to have watched her whip the Minister into submission even before he has given his speech, which I look forward to hearing because he is a most effective Minister.
From a right-wing point of view, the point that my right hon. Friend made was very effective. My constituents in Lincolnshire are absolutely grinding their teeth at what is happening at the channel and want the Home Office to be far more proactive. This is not the right place to talk about what the Home Office should be doing, but why are people coming here? These are not nasty people; they are desperate people fleeing the most appalling war, poverty and deprivation. The channel is proving completely ineffective. In the second world war, we held back the Nazi hordes with the RAF—we stopped them, but we cannot hold people back. We are one world. If there is dire misery and poverty in the world, it will wash up on our shores.
My right hon. Friend says that comments about Dover are not applicable to this debate, but I argue that they absolutely are. We do not explain to the British people how this money can be spent and that it does affect them directly. If we did, we would have more support for confirming the 0.7% commitment, rather than old-fashioned views about where the money has been spent—and I agree that some of it has been spent badly in the past. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on this issue, because when international development money is spent correctly, it will be supported by the British people.
I am sure that is right. I accept that if we took an opinion poll in the Gainsborough constituency, a majority—perhaps even a strong majority— would be in favour of these cuts. I accept that, but if for a moment the Government explained what the money is spent on, they would find that the British people are kind and humanitarian. People in Lincolnshire often say to me, “Why are we giving money to India? They have aircraft carriers and a space programme.” I shall leave aside the utter poverty of hundreds of millions of people in Uttar Pradesh; why are we living through this horrible lockdown? Why are we spying on Ministers with cameras and having a complete moral void? Because of the delta variant, which has come from where? India. Whether it is the pandemic or migrants, we cannot insulate ourselves from the world. That is why we have an overseas aid programme.
A point that I wanted to make—I ran out of time despite the fact that I had more than three minutes—is that actually, for many people 0.5% is the wrong percentage as well; the amount of aid that they wish to be spent is zero. So actually the Government, by going from 0.7% to 0.5%, are not achieving anything in terms of popularity.
That is precisely the point that I wanted to make.
By the way, I am proud of the work that we did on the Public Accounts Committee to get an estimates day debate that actually discusses estimates. In the past, before our successful campaign, the one thing we were not allowed to discuss was estimates. Indeed when one of my colleagues, the then MP for Southport, stood up and tried to discuss estimates he was ruled out of order by your predecessor, Mr Deputy Speaker. So we are talking today about money, and this is precisely the point I want to come to.
I am No. 39 on the call list. I could devote my entire speech to the humanitarian arguments, but I have listened to previous speeches and I associate myself with them entirely. I just cannot for a moment understand why we are cutting aid to Yemen by 50%. The scenes there were appalling. The Chancellor very kindly paid me in the summer to go to Doddington Hall and have a very nice meal with my family under Eat Out to Help Out. Was that money well spent? Then I look at what is happening in Yemen, where some poor boy goes out and his leg is blown off, or the father goes out and he is never seen again. This is dire poverty, war, deprivation. Leaving aside whether this problem washes up on our shores or not, do we not have a duty to these people?
I so well remember talking to a woman in northern Iraq. That very thing had happened to her—one day her husband had gone out and he was never seen again. So of course we have very serious problems in Lincolnshire, but not compared to what is happening in Yemen. We just cannot turn our back; we cannot walk down the other side of the road.
My right hon. Friend mentioned his constituency, where he has been and is much loved for many, many years, and he says that he thinks that his advocacy may or may not convince his constituents. I have to tell him that he is the last Thatcherite—or possibly one of two—left in this House, a point that the House will award him, and I have to tell him that what he says in his constituency on this matter, and what he says to Ministers on this matter, is having a very significant effect.
My right hon. Friend is very kind. I suppose being the last Thatcherite is better than being the last Majorite.
Actually, funnily enough, according to the latest opinion polls, opinion is changing, because people are waking up to the fact that in the middle of a global pandemic it is probably not a very good time to cut aid—all these problems are now coming back to bite us.
The UK does have a role, and I fully accept the point about the Commonwealth. We have heard that we should prioritise the Commonwealth, but as we have also heard, where are these cuts falling? On the Commonwealth. But we cannot just direct our aid to the Commonwealth; we have to direct it where it is most needed.
On the Thatcherite point—and this is not the humanitarian point, because many people have made the humanitarian point, which I associate myself with—I remember, in my first Parliament, listening to Enoch Powell. He sat over there on the Opposition Back Bench. In fact, my first rebellion was to force the Government into requiring workplace trade unions to hold postal ballots, while the Minister defended workplace ballots; but I leave that to one side.
Now, what would Enoch Powell have said on this subject? He would not have liked the 0.7%, but he would have said it was ridiculous to have an arbitrary limit of 0.7%, to reduce it to another arbitrary limit of 0.5% and then to promise to increase it back to 0.7%. As he would have said—I cannot do the Birmingham accent, unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield—“It is a logical absurdity. It is a nonsense built on stilts. It makes no sense” that all these civil servants, in the middle of a global pandemic, are running around cutting all these programmes, and next year, if we believe the Government—and of course the Government would never tell an untruth to the House, would they, so this is only a temporary cut—all these programmes, after this pandemic, are going to be restored. [Interruption.] The Minister is shaking his head. So are they not going to be restored?
When, we ask—what does “temporary” mean? Surely temporary only means temporary.
Being helpful, I want to give the Government a way out. We have the Budget coming up before the end of the year. Why cannot the Chancellor of the Exchequer address this issue and explain how he is going to restore the 0.7%? We live in a parliamentary democracy. I will leave aside the point about the manifesto. I know that circumstances change, and I know that we are strapped for cash, but I follow the point that this is a relatively small amount of the total budget. However, the Minister has now confirmed that we are going to return to 0.7%.
Here is one way out—I am trying to help the Prime Minister. When it comes to vaccines or tropical medicine, where there is a real problem, he could, week by week or month by month, release more money for a particular programme in addition to the 0.5%. He would get enormous public credit, there would be good publicity for him, and gradually we could restore what is being cut.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer could then announce, in the Budget, “We have now come out of the pandemic, the country is fully vaccinated, the economy is growing very well again, and I can now increase this back to 0.7%.” Or he could do the honest thing, if that is not his view, and say, “I believe this 0.7% target in a year is arbitrary; I think it should be phased in over three years,” or “I believe that we should preserve it in real terms.” He can make any argument he wants and we will listen to it, and then we should have a vote on it and either approve what he suggests or deny him.
Surely, what is completely unacceptable in a parliamentary democracy is for a Government to make a manifesto commitment, to make a cut and say it is temporary, but to avoid any vote—to prevaricate—just because they think they might lose the vote and, worse, just because they think it is popular. Is it so popular? Is it the right thing to do, or should we not do the right thing?
I support the Government’s estimate and I look forward to its passage. I also back the Government’s judgment at this very difficult time, when so many economies, including our own, have been badly damaged by responses to the pandemic. But I also understand the mood of the House and I understand that a number of my hon. and right hon. Friends whom I respect have misgivings about all this. I would just like to make a few remarks in the spirit of trying to build some bridges between the Government and their critics, who have been very wide-ranging in this debate.
The first point I make is that I do not trust the figures. I think that the Government understate just how much we already do and how much we already spend. We are much more cautious about what we regard as aid expenditure than some other countries we are compared against, even though we usually spend more than they do as a percentage.
Let us take, for example, an area that colleagues have already mentioned. This country has received a very large number of economic migrants and asylum seekers in recent years. In the year to March 2020, the last for which we have official figures, 715,000 people came to live in our country, and many of them came from poor countries that have qualified for overseas aid. We do not fully account, in the way that one might, for the first-year set-up costs—the housing, the public service provision, the top-up benefits and the other assistance that people are rightfully given when they come to live with us and we wish them to live to a reasonable standard. Surely, helping people who wish to come here because they find their own countries so disadvantageous is a very important part of our overseas aid.
We are also too cautious about all the expenditure we make through the Ministry of Defence. Why were we in Afghanistan? Afghanistan is one of the main recipients of our aid, and in recent years we have been spending considerable sums of money on support through our military and the advice we offer. Those things should also be taken into account to get a realistic picture of just how much the Government are spending on necessary assistance abroad.
The second issue that has been raised in the debate is that colleagues fear a loss of influence. I would like to reassure them that surely this year, of all years, is when we have seen a major advance in British influence. We have just taken our full seat with a vote on the World Trade Organisation, and we are busily signing off a number of trade agreements around the world that we could not have done in previous years. The Prime Minister has just very successfully chaired the G7 and has helped to bring together the seven most powerful western democracies in terms of economic strength to reach important agreements to improve the world outlook. We have COP26 coming up, when I trust that British chairmanship will be astute and helpful in order to agree something that many Governments in the world talk a lot about, though not all of them do as much as we do to try and see things through. We are very much the second most important member of NATO in terms of contribution after the United States of America, and we are a force within NATO to make sure that it is used for the good, as a force for peace.
On the 0.7% target, I make no secret of the fact that I do not like targets like that. I did not feel at the time it went through that there was any point in trying to persuade Parliament because Parliament was very hooked on such a target. The difficulty with a target like that is, as we have seen, that national income can change quite rapidly in ways that people did not predict—if something like a pandemic strikes, in particular—and it is not always possible, when we get the recovery, to build up the spending as quickly as the GNI, and it would be silly to have to spend money when we do not have really good projects.
Nor do I like the idea of Governments passing legislation to bind themselves. It seems to me completely pointless. What matters is the word of the Government. If circumstances change, they may have to change, and all the time that the Government control a majority, the fact that it is in legislation does not make any difference. The Government still have to decide whether to keep their word or whether force majeure or force of circumstance requires some temporary or permanent change.
In this debate, I think lots of colleagues have all decided to duplicate and replicate one another’s speeches by saying how much they dislike any kind of cut in our immediate aid programme. I would like to have heard, from all those who are understandably enthusiastic about the good that aid could do, rather more discussion of what works best when we have limited money—as we always will, whether the limit is 0.5% or 0.7% of our GDP—so that we can do the most good with it. We have had several years of 0.7% but we still have the same list of main countries needing aid, so we know that this is not a simple fix, that we are one of many and that we need to work with other partners around the world. We need to harness the private sector and the charitable sector; it does not all have to come from British taxpayers.
When we are looking at progress, we first need to establish a peace. Quite a lot of the countries that need a lot of aid still do not have a peace; they have a civil war going on. That means that any particular projects may just be damaged or wasted because of the lack of that fundamental condition. It is best if there is a decent Government who can deliver and who are not corrupt. To what extent are we allowed to try to influence Governments in the right direction, because we do not wish to become a neo-colonial power?
We need to harness the private sector more so that the money that our taxpayers and other advanced countries’ taxpayers put in is multiplied several times by getting that investment in the water systems, the communications systems or the food systems that are needed, which should come more from commercial work. Above all, I think our message should be that trade is often more effective as a means of promoting economic growth and prosperity than aid. We, above all, should believe that, now that we are leading advocates of freer trade around the world and back there in the WTO. Is it not much better that we help to offer contracts to people who can organise economic activity, which creates better-paid jobs and things to do, rather than just having one-off amounts of aid to ease the particular problems of not having a decent economy?
This year, above all, surely is the year when Britain can be truly proud of its achievements in this area, because, thanks to our scientists, the NHS and the Government, we are giving to the world the cheapest vaccine, the one non-profit vaccine—often a free vaccine, because our taxpayers are standing behind that offer. This surely sums up the generosity of spirit of the British people, and the success of the British economy and our world influence: that it will be a British vaccine that is so often deployed, and that it was a British vaccine at the heart of the Prime Minister’s successful negotiations at the G7 to get other rich countries to get on with the task of vaccinating the world.
The Government would have us believe that the backdrop to this debate is the impact of covid, with the knock-on financial pressures requiring departmental budgets to be cut or correspondingly slimmed. There are indeed unprecedented financial pressures, but the overseas aid budget has a built-in mechanism to cater for any financial challenge, as we all know, because it reflects the GNI of the day. Yet here we are, the only G7 country to cut its aid budget, with dire consequences for programmes across the world and, as a P5 nation, a huge hit to our soft power credentials. We will be leaving vacuums to be filled by nations with very different agendas, or indeed by extremist groups exploiting the lack of governance.
The messaging has already been touched on, but I will just repeat the point that the Government should lead the narrative, not follow a populist and dated view of ODA spending. Let us explain to the British people what this is all about. This is what we are good at—we excel at it—and when we do well, other nations follow.
Part of the problem with judging by a poll is the language used. If it asks, “Do you want a cut in international aid?”, people will say yes. However, if it asks, “Do you want to feed the world’s hungriest and support those most in need?”, I am sure that, being a generous and kind country, we would also say yes.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and indeed I would go further and say that not only is that what we do, but it is required.
I come to this debate today to add a defence and security perspective. Hard power and soft power cannot be seen in isolation; they are two sides of the same coin. If our failure in Afghanistan, where we are now essentially giving up and going home, should teach us anything, it is that we cannot build and maintain peace by military means alone.
My right hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech on the link between defence and development. In the case of Yemen, we have a very complicated relationship, because of course we are part of the coalition that is bombing that country back to the stone age, but we are also trying to help those caught up in the conflict. Does he not think that the one thing we ought to be able to agree on is that we should not, at this stage, be taking food from starving people there?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I congratulate him on the work that he is doing. There is a great example of where British leadership can be seen on the international stage. Yemen requires leadership. We have been there for some time and have not utilised our relationship with the Saudis to prevent them from doing what they have been doing. We could have better harnessed our friendships and capabilities in order to bring a conclusion to that particular challenge.
I worked as a Minister in both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as it then was—I was Minister for the Middle East and North Africa—and the Ministry of Defence, and I can confirm how siloed our Whitehall Departments still are. I concede that things are definitely getting better, but if global Britain is to have meaning, exhibiting increased resolve to play a role on the international stage, it will require greater cohesion between our internationalist-facing Departments, which even today remain too siloed.
I would go further than the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and introduce the role of a Deputy Prime Minister, with the arc of responsibility to co-ordinate the MOD, DFID, FCO and trade initiatives, so that we can develop grand strategies to tackle some of the global hotspots that we are engaged in. We do need to expand our Whitehall bandwidth.
My biggest criticism about that is what is done in practice to the Department and the important voice at the Cabinet table and at the National Security Council. Now we have only the Foreign Secretary there, not another voice, and that is what we have lost.
We absolutely need to expand our Whitehall bandwidth to be able to recognise the current challenges to which we could provide solutions and also the looming ones that are coming over the horizon. This is the point I hope the Minister will listen to. The real backdrop to this debate that we must all recognise is where our complex and dangerous world is heading. If there was one welcome outcome of the G7 summit, it is the realisation that unless the west becomes less risk-averse, regroups and reunites, the next decade will get very bumpy indeed.
I have been consistent in my clear message to this House: over the next five years, the world is getting more dangerous, not less, and more complex, not less. Authoritarianism is on the rise, new power bases are emerging, and states are starting to rearm at an alarming rate. To compound matters, we now have the growing challenge of climate change, which is already having an impact on security and governance in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions. Storms, floods and droughts will affect agricultural productivity, damage economies and lead to mass migration, most notably from Africa to Europe. This goes back to the point about where the challenge is: it is not in Dover; it is actually in Africa. Simply put, global security in our ever complex and confusing world is on a worrying glide path, and right now there is no grand plan to alter the current trajectory. The threat picture is greater and more complex than during the cold war, and it requires addressing.
The political scientist Joe Nye introduced the term “soft power” a decade ago. It is the ability to influence the behaviour of others to get the outcomes we want by attracting and co-opting their support. However, in the spirit of Sun Tzu, who said:
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”,
I argue here today that a new global soft power war or soft war is already at play, but we in the west have yet to wake up to its reality.
China is weaponising its immense soft power to significantly advance its influence and reach, and to promote its own interpretation of the international rules-based order. We are seeing this gathering apace across Africa and Asia through its one belt, one road infrastructure programmes and its gifting of 5G networks and military support to ensnare dozens and dozens of countries into its sphere of influence. It is also securing senior leadership positions in international organisations such as the United Nations to neutralise any criticism of its errant behaviour, and is now contributing ever more significant Chinese military forces to UN peacekeeping missions. As we have heard today, it is using its Confucius centres—now over 600 across the globe—to advance its message.
This will be China’s century, as it eventually overshadows and overtakes America as the dominant military, economic and technological superpower, yet here we are in Britain still failing to put two and two together. For a nation that usually prides itself on its place and influence in the world and its grasp of global situational awareness, I am genuinely baffled to understand why it is not reading and responding to this bigger picture. China is offering a competing authoritarian ideology and is leveraging its colossal economic growth to undercut western competition. On this current glide path, the world will splinter into two spheres of competing influence. Now is not the time to cut our defence budgets or our aid budgets as these threats increase, yet here we are doing both.
There is a phenomenal opportunity for British leadership here, made all the easier with the new US Administration, to craft a post-Brexit international role at the very moment the west is required to regroup. I urge this Government to listen to the voices here today in this Parliament and see the bigger picture, recognise the scale of the threat we face, invest in the statecraft and the hard and soft power tools we need, and expand Whitehall’s international bandwidth, for the actions we the west choose to take over the next few years could have implications for how the next few decades play out.
Like my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, I anticipated having three minutes and, somehow, I now have eight minutes. Unlike her, I have since written more notes and now have the difficulty of trying to read my own writing.
I rise to recognise the UK’s global reputation for delivering life-saving aid, to warn of the risks resulting from a reduction to the 0.7% target and to offer ideas for maximising the UK’s support for the world’s most vulnerable through the next decade and beyond. However, I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall, who made the important point that it is about the four aspects of defence, trade, development and diplomacy all working together. Like four wheels on a car, we cannot get to our destination without all four working at the same time.
We need to consider the impact of development on trade, the impact of development on defence and the impact of development on diplomacy, and likewise in reverse. There needs to be a more holistic view of what we can do to be a truly global Britain.
Aid is a British success story. We are recognised as global experts and have achieved incredible results. Since 2015, we have helped 14 million children access education, and we have helped 6 million girls. When leadership was needed to address covid-19 in poorer countries, the UK stepped forward, committing over half a billion pounds and 100 million vaccine doses to the COVAX initiative. We have led the world in tackling violence against women and girls, by launching the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative—again, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes—and funding innovative new programmes.
Aid spending is also an investment in our global reputation. It establishes us as respected and trusted international partners, which can only help in our mission to secure trade deals that will benefit the constituents of every Member in this House, including mine in Bury South.
With generous and effective aid spending and a global diplomatic presence comes our soft power and soft influence, which places the UK at the heart of critical debates and gives us the legitimacy and ability to guide international action on key global challenges such as climate change. When the UK speaks on such issues, the world listens.
It is with concern, therefore, that we witness the slashing of aid budgets, eroding this proud legacy and, ultimately, costing lives. We have made a commitment to ensuring 12 years of quality education for girls and, as a founding member of the International Parliamentary Network for Education, this is something of which I am immensely proud, yet our aid cuts leave 700,000 girls without access to education.
We have pledged to prevent 20 million people from experiencing catastrophic famine, but we have cut our funding to Yemen, a country on the brink of famine, by nearly 60%.
The cuts are not going unnoticed by our friends or, more importantly, our adversaries. The UN Secretary-General has described the aid cuts as a “death sentence”. My right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood said that the recruiting sergeants of Hezbollah, al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, ISIS and other armed militia across the globe will be the immediate beneficiaries of the cuts to the UK’s humanitarian programmes. China and Russia are watching, and they will not hesitate to fill the vacuum we are creating and destabilise more regions across the globe.
With an eye on the development of the UK’s new international development strategy, I will finish with three recommendations. First, let us use the strategy to announce a return to spending 0.7% of GNI on aid and to signal to our G7 and G20 allies that Britain can be a force for good and a trusted international partner.
Secondly, let us focus our aid on where it is needed most. The International Rescue Committee’s analysis shows that 20 countries, mostly conflict-afflicted, currently host 85% of the 235 million people in need of humanitarian assistance globally. Maintaining our commitment to spending 50% of ODA in fragile and conflict-afflicted countries provides the greatest opportunity to drive down humanitarian need and ensure value for taxpayers’ money.
Finally, let us unleash the power of integrating diplomacy and development. We are permanent members of the UN Security Council, NATO, the G7, the G20 and Five Eyes. We have a global diplomatic network. In short, we have clout. When we speak, the world rightly listens, but our world-leading diplomacy should lead efforts to reduce suffering, to foster peace in conflicts like Yemen, to remove barriers that deny humanitarian aid to those who need it, and to hold to account those who attack civilians and violate international law.
I am proud of Britain, and I am proud of a global Britain, especially in a post-Brexit world. I am proud of the values we stand for and the progress that we have made through our aid spending, and I am sure I will be proud of what we achieve in future years, too, as soon as we go back to 0.7%. As we recover from covid, the next big thing to focus on is climate change. Again, 0.7% is fundamental to addressing climate change.
These results will come only if we retain our aid spending. Restoring the budget is not just the right thing to do morally, it is the right thing to do for the UK’s national interest. Let us return to 0.7% and return to doing what we do best.
I close by saying that Britain keeps its promises; let us do so again. In this House we often say anecdotally that it is country, constituency and then party. This may not be the popular thing in the country, in my constituency or in my party, but it is the right thing to do.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank Sarah Champion for bringing this important debate to the House. She is a colleague on the International Development Committee and I also consider her to be a friend. I have listened carefully to the debate over the course of today and the direction seems to be going in one way, which is that these cuts are abominable.
For millions of people throughout the world, the issues that we have discussed are not a matter of political debate. They are a matter of life and death. After a year of immense hardship, suffering and death in these islands and across the world, it is deplorable that this Government are selfishly intent on abandoning their responsibilities to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.
The world’s most comprehensive study on increased demand for aid since the pandemic revealed that 19 million more people are now in need of humanitarian aid and the gap on reaching the sustainable development goals is widening. Now is the time to be stepping up, not stepping away. Yet, unlike other nations throughout the world and against all logic, this UK Government believe that the correct response to this global crisis is to prematurely end life-saving projects with their £4 billion plus-cuts to the aid budget.
Mr Deputy Speaker, make no mistake: these cuts are a death sentence to millions of our fellow global citizens. Estimates suggest that more than a million excess child deaths alone could occur as a result. We have all been children and many of us have children—this is a truly horrifying figure and one we should all reflect upon.
It should shame the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and this Government, but as their behaviour has demonstrated since they began their assault on international development by abolishing the Department last year, they have scant regard for the facts and the consequences of their actions. They are determined to pursue this callous policy, even if that means running scared of a parliamentary vote and, of course, breaking the law.
The FCDO spending plans give barely any detail on where these cuts are falling and how spending compares to previous years. They are trying their very best to make scrutiny almost impossible and hide these cuts. Charities are still in limbo as to whether their immediate and future programmes can even go ahead. Unable to plan properly, domestic and international NGO recruitment has been paused and skilled and experienced staff are being laid off, losing decades of institutional memory. This is an appalling way to conduct Government and an unsustainable state of affairs. The NGO sector is a success story for Scotland and the UK more widely, but the UK Government are intent on trashing that. As news emerges of each project either cut or cancelled, the devastating reality of this Government’s decision becomes clearer.
Let us begin with the most basic of needs: food. Malnutrition contributes to nearly half of all deaths in children under 5 globally, and yet this Government have opted to undermine recent G7 initiatives to prevent famine and laid waste to years of UK expertise by imposing cuts to nutrition programmes—wait for it, Mr Deputy Speaker—by up to 80%.
Another obscene example of this Government’s little Britain approach to the world is that despite the past year being a stark reminder of the need to prevent disease, nearly 300 million doses of medicine for the treatment of neglected diseases in Africa are at risk of expiring and being destroyed because the FCDO has announced that it is withdrawing nearly all its funding. The UK Government could not confirm that expiring medicines will be distributed urgently, rather than destroyed, and the World Health Organisation has warned that because of these cuts 30,000 individuals are likely to die needlessly.
Furthermore, these cuts are not only needless, but they are completely incoherent. For example, there will be almost £1 billion of cuts to the UK Government’s work on preventing conflict—conflict being the very source of many of the crises happening at any one time across the world—yet in Yemen, where the world’s worst humanitarian disaster continues, we see a cut in aid of nearly three quarters compared with 2019. In addition, the Government have decided to slash aid to Syria and, for the first time since 1991, will provide no bilateral aid whatever to Iraq.
If I needed to drive the point home harder, let us return to Scotland, where COP26 will be hosted. I was shocked to learn that just weeks after the UK’s COP26 President, Alok Sharma visited Indonesia and called upon it to “move forward” with plans to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the Foreign Office cancelled with immediate effect a green growth programme designed to prevent deforestation, three years into a five-year programme. If that is not bonkers, I do not know what is.
This UK Government are fooling no one when they pretend that they have no other option but to reduce spending due to economic restraints. It was a political choice that shows exactly where their political priorities lie. Covid is affecting every single nation on Earth, and it is now that we should be pulling together through this awful pandemic.
In September, The Times reported that the Chancellor was looking to defer billions of pounds from foreign aid to pay for upgrades to British intelligence and defence capabilities. Without any attempt to disguise it, in the same month that the cut from 0.7% to 0.5% was announced, a windfall was delivered for the defence budget. Money that should have been spent on preventing famine, malnutrition and needless loss of life is now being spent on enhanced cyber-weapons. Money that should have been spent on conflict prevention is now being spent on AI-enabled drones. Money that should have been spent on protecting our planet and marginalised communities from the devastating effects of climate change is now being spent on increasing stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
Last month, the Prime Minister then confirmed that while the fiscal situation does not allow him to maintain international development spending, somehow he does deem it financially prudent to waste £200 million on a new royal yacht Britannia, despite the royal family’s displeasure. Despite my writing to the Prime Minister, he has still given no assurance that he will not try to claim that money from spending and on the backs of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, as MPs and Ministers have previously suggested.
Despite the bluster of global Britain, the facts speak for themselves. This is a UK Government who would rather spend money on nostalgia-driven vanity projects and weapons of mass destruction than on saving human lives. This is cold, hard and brutish. During my Spirit of Independence campaign in 2014, I often argued that voting for Scottish independence was paradoxically a vote to protect what many understood as traditional British values: fairness, justice and inclusion.
As successive UK Governments have moved away from or abandoned those principles, the case for Scottish independence to protect them has only become stronger. That becomes even more apparent as the UK becomes increasingly insular and diminishes its role in the world. Indeed, in 2014, the Better Together campaign told voters in Scotland that being part of the UK ensured their place at the top table as a global leader, yet since then we have seen the UK leave the EU and break international law. Now, during a pandemic, and when every other G7 country has increased its aid contributions, they have broken their promises on international support.
While the UK Government are abruptly ending deforestation prevention projects vital to global climate change efforts, the Scottish Government are doubling their world-leading climate justice fund. While the UK Government are alone in slashing their international development spend by a third at this critical juncture for the world, the Scottish Government are working with their partners worldwide and increasing their international development fund by 50%. While the Scottish Government fulfil their role as a good global citizen, this little Britain approach of the UK Government does not even blush at the evidence that millions of lives will be lost by their incoherent, unnecessary and, frankly, callous cuts.
Finally, when the people of Scotland have the choice on their future, as they have democratically demanded in the recent Scottish election this year, I have no doubt which option they will choose.
I thank my hon. Friend Sarah Champion, who chairs the International Development Committee, and the Backbench Business Committee for securing this debate, and all Members across the House who supported the application. It has been a very good debate, with some powerful contributions from across the House. It has been good to be back in this place actually having a proper debate, with people engaging and asking questions. We hope to see more of that in this place as we go forward.
We heard powerful comments from the Chair of the Committee about the lack of transparency over these cuts, their public financial illiteracy and their impact.
The former Prime Minister, Mrs May, spoke powerfully about not looking at things in silos, how things such as modern slavery and girls’ education are intimately connected, and the impact of these cuts on the UK’s clout on the world stage.
My hon. Friend Rushanara Ali spoke about the impact of the cuts on food insecurity when famine is on the rise, and on the joint economic and health crises that the world faces. I will return to that point.
The former International Development Secretary, Mr Mitchell, made an extraordinarily powerful and persuasive speech. He was absolutely right to say that the Government are, in fact, the ones rebelling—against their own manifesto commitments. He spoke about the absurdity of cutting organisations such as UNICEF and UNFPA, and the work on neglected tropical diseases, at a time when that work is more crucial than ever.
Mr Baron made a powerful case about the absurd closures that the British Council now faces, leaving it £10 million short; my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock spoke powerfully about that issue the other day.
My right hon. Friend Liam Byrne talked about the incoherence of the cuts, and Mr Davis spoke about their stark impact on our fellow human beings in some of the worst humanitarian catastrophes, and said that polling shows that the British public want us to support action in those circumstances.
Harriett Baldwin, who is a former Minister, said that the most powerful poll that would matter in this place would be having a meaningful vote, as Mr Speaker and as so many Members across the House have requested. That meaningful vote is not tonight, despite what the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House tried to suggest the other day.
Mrs Latham spoke about the powerful and damaging impact that the cuts will have on women, family planning, water and sanitation, and my hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy said that the cuts were morally reprehensible.
I was proud to have my hon. Friend Sarah Owen in my team for a while. She made a powerful and passionate speech, making it clear that poverty is political and this is about political choices—not party political choices, but choices that this House should be making on issues of such national and international importance.
The former Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, spoke about the impact of the cuts on nutrition—the 80% cuts to malnutrition programmes. In the other place, my noble Friend Lord Collins has been speaking passionately about this issue for so long, and I know that he works with the right hon. Gentleman on it.
My hon. Friend Catherine West talked about the impact on global health research. How absurd to be cutting global health research, given the benefits not just of finding a vaccine for covid, but also of the work on malaria, HIV and neglected tropical diseases. The role that British universities and British health science are playing in that research is now being put at risk again, and that is absolutely absurd.
Neil Parish spoke about the tiny amount that this money represents compared with the total borrowing that we have seen, for example, to deal with the covid pandemic. He said that we have to look at wider health systems globally to deliver beyond vaccines, including on issues such as clean water.
Again, another Government Member, Sir Roger Gale, spoke incredibly powerful. He asked why on earth we are cutting pandemic-preventing programmes and spoke about the literally life or death decisions that are now being made.
My hon. Friend Navendu Mishra made a typically strong speech about the job cuts at the British Council, and Anthony Mangnall gave a fantastic and incredibly well informed speech about the practical implications of the cuts. He rightly challenged some of his colleagues, including Alexander Stafford, on the impact that the will have on the Commonwealth; these cuts are going to have an impact on Commonwealth countries and on countries that want to join the Commonwealth, such as South Sudan. They will have an impact on places such as Rwanda, on which the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield ran a fantastic programme over many years, which many of his colleagues attended.
Sir David Amess rightly said that the British Council represents some of the best of Britain—why on earth are we cutting it? And Sir Edward Leigh absolutely nailed it on the head: British people are kind and humanitarian. Why on earth we would want to make cuts when we see the scenes from places such as Yemen? I have friends working out there at the moment for the United Nations and Médecins Sans Frontières—British citizens out there on the frontlines, taking that action. How on earth are we cutting such provision at this time? It is unbelievable.
The Chair of the Defence Committee, Mr Ellwood, gave a very powerful speech. He rightly pointed out the damage to Britain’s strategic interests in the world. That is space that will be taken by others—our adversaries, those who wish this country ill and have a very different vision of how this world should be. Why on earth we are retreating when they are advancing is beyond me.
Christian Wakeford gave an absolutely excellent speech.
I intend to be helpful, but also to correct my own record: although I paid tribute to my hon. Friend Anthony Mangnall, I failed to pay tribute to Sarah Champion, not only for introducing this important debate, but for all the work that she has been doing on preventing sexual violence against women across the globe.
I completely concur. Drawing on what the hon. Gentleman said, I want to be absolutely clear that the Opposition believe that global Britain can and must be a force for good in this world, doing our fair share and our moral duty but also acting in our common and national interest, particularly given the rapidly changing and volatile global power dynamics.
I am proud to have worked at the former Department for International Development and with some of our leading British humanitarian organisations. I have seen the incredible work that our aid and our organisations have done around the world; I pay tribute to all of them. I am deeply saddened that they are now having to scrabble around to deal with the cuts, which are being introduced in such an irresponsible way. I will give two contrasting examples.
We have done incredibly positive work on vaccines. I welcome the incredible work of our Oxford and AstraZeneca teams in developing that vaccine and the fact that we are delivering vaccines around the world, although far more are needed, as we said at the time of the G7. However, those vaccines can be delivered effectively only when they have strong health systems behind them—when we have surveillance, when we are looking at genomic sequencing, and when we are supporting nurses, doctors and those who put those vaccines in arms around the world. Doing the one without the other is not enough.
We have just done fantastic work supporting the elections in Somaliland, which was mentioned earlier. The Minister knows of my strong connections with Somaliland; I declare my interests. There is fantastic work supporting democracy and development there, but I want to see it go further—I want to see a British Council office opened in Hargeisa. That seems pretty unlikely, given the cuts to the British Council across the world at a time when we should be increasing our influence in countries where we have strong historical ties that are also of key strategic importance.
The impact of the pandemic is absolutely immense, in this country and globally. Let us be clear: not just poverty is on the rise, but all the other misery associated with it. The World Health Organisation reports that 70% of surveyed countries have had significant decreases in the number of routine immunisations other than for covid. Some 80 million infants are at risk of missing vaccinations for measles, polio and diphtheria. We will see 6.3 million more cases of TB, adding 1.4 million deaths from that terrible disease. It is likely that 50 million children in Pakistan and Afghanistan will now not receive a polio vaccine. STOPAIDS has stated that 11.5 million people have now had inconsistent access to crucial antiretroviral treatments and therapies, which has put their lives at risk—as you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I do much work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS.
Gender-based violence is on the rise, with an additional 31 million cases predicted. Some 9.7 million students are at risk of dropping out of school, and 11 million girls are at risk of not coming back to school because of covid. The UN estimates that 132 million people could fall into food insecurity and famine. That will only be exacerbated by the climate crisis that we already know is having an impact and is coming.
For those reasons, not one of the other G7 nations has decreased its official development assistance. In fact, most are increasing their spending, including France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Finland. Lee Rowley gave a long list of countries; I could give a long list of countries that are doing the exact opposite of what we are doing at the moment and that look aghast at it.
Let us look at one of the situations we face. The Minister knows of the very serious situation in Ethiopia, which I have raised with him. There have been some very volatile developments in the past few days. Millions are at risk from famine and conflict and there are some truly horrific reports, yet we do not have clarity on what is happening with UK funding to Ethiopia at this critical time. The Minister spoke the other day about diversion of funds, but we are not clear whether UK funding will be increasing in response to the demand or decreasing. I hope that he can clarify that.
I note that the Minister has a Ghanaian flag on his mask. What will happen to programmes in Ghana? An organisation called Tools for Self Reliance has told us that it is losing a three-year programme that would have helped 1,000 women in Ghana, because of the cuts being introduced by the Minister’s Department. We see the LGBT+ community under attack in Ghana. What will happen to our human rights programmes supporting marginalised communities across the world? What will happen, for example, to the crucial replenishments on global slavery that the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, mentioned? I will also mention the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Will we keep our commitments going forward?
We have heard again and again from those on both sides of the House about the damage that these cuts will bring, and I want to commend those who have spoken out. It is always difficult to speak out against your own Government and your own party. I have not been afraid to do that when I think we have got things wrong, as the Minister will know. But it is right to do that, and this is Parliament at its best. That is why we need to have a vote on these issues: these voices need to be heard.
I want to talk briefly about the public financial illiteracy of this. The Independent Commission for Aid Impact, set up by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, has rightly pointed out the absurd way in which the cuts were brought about. One paragraph from its report paints a perfect picture. It states:
“Value for money risks were further exacerbated by the speed at which the Star Chambers process took place…aid-spending departments were given five to seven working days to prepare proposals for the 30% budget cuts. The proposals were reviewed, revised and approved by ministers over four virtual meetings totalling just seven hours. One of the officials we interviewed described it as ‘like doing a handbrake turn with an oil tanker’.”
That is not a sensible way to be handling hard-earned taxpayers’ money or the public finances of this country. Whatever we think about the amounts, that is not the way we should be doing things. It is simply absurd.
We have also heard about the contradictions relating to other areas of international policy, including defence, trade and diplomacy. It seems absolutely absurd, at a time when British troops are on the frontline in the Sahel working with our allies to defeat jihadist extremists, that we would cut aid from that region, which will only fall into further crisis in the months and years to come. That is absolutely absurd.
Lastly, I want to turn to the British Council. It has rightly been referred to as one of the most vital components of UK soft power, working in over 100 countries and reaching 80 million people a year with arts, culture and education programmes. For much of the world, the British Council provides the first direct relationship with this country and with our values, our culture and our language. It attracts students, workers, future business leaders and even future leaders. That represents incredible soft power, and incredible relationships and partnerships. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay spoke powerfully about this, and he has also said in the media that reducing the British Council’s international presence and retreating on the global stage will do damage to our soft power, which is not compatible with the Government’s foreign policy priorities as set out in the integrated review. I urge the Government to think again.
I want to conclude by asking the Minister a few crucial questions. He says that we are going to reverse this and go back to 0.7%. Well, when are we going to do that? Answer that question, Minister. When will we get transparency on the individual cuts to individual programmes in individual countries? We have put down parliamentary question after parliamentary question, but they have been completely blocked by Ministers refusing to answer and refusing to give clarity. Many countries and organisations are unable to plan or to think forward because the Government are not clear about what is happening.
My hon. Friend Preet Kaur Gill, the shadow International Trade Secretary, has written today to the Foreign Secretary asking for clarity on a whole series of measures and on when that information will be made available to the House. When will we have that meaningful vote that the Speaker rightly called for and that Members across the House have called for today? It is crucial that we have that vote so that the House can have its say.
In conclusion, let us be clear that this is a double whammy. Our aid would have gone down anyway because it is a percentage, so, as the economy shrank, the amount we were giving would have been reduced. But the Government have doubled down on that; they want to go even further and do even more damage. This is morally wrong, and it is financially illiterate. It is damaging to our soft power reputation while others are on the rise. It is reversing at a critical time for the world, and it is out of step with the House, with those on the Government’s own side and with the public, according to the most recent polls. Britain is and can be so much better than this. This is one of the things that could unite us in this House and unite us as a country at a time when critical threats and challenges are facing the world and facing all human beings, whether they are British or from other countries. I urge the Government to think again on these cuts.
This has been a passionate and informed debate with more than 38 Members speaking. I am grateful to Sarah Champion for introducing the debate and for her work with the Backbench Business Committee and the Liaison Committee to attach all the right documents. I know that many Members of the House are passionate about development and passionate about 0.7%—myself included, which Members may find surprising, given the defence that I will go on to make. I think we are all extremely proud of the UK’s leadership historically on development and on everything we have done.
I started my career as a lending banker in the developing world. I have done two tours of duty, if we can call them that, on the DFID Committee, coming back for more. I have served on these issues in a non-integrated FCO across a number of areas, and in an integrated FCO-DFID, where I had an office at one end of Whitehall to do part of the job and another at the other end of Whitehall to do the other part of the job, and spent most of the time wandering between the two or in the House of Commons for votes. Now I have seen the FCDO together, and it is a model I prefer, because I can draw on all the issues and complexity and make the tough decisions. They are incredibly tough and serious decisions that are not taken lightly and take an immense amount of time. A number of colleagues mentioned the time process being too small or too quick. None of the timescales I saw, or the flippancy with which they indicated decisions were taken, reflects the way we took decisions in Whitehall, let alone in-country and thematically.
The UK, looking back, has met the target of 0.7% of GNI on ODA every year since 2013, so it is with great caution that we fall short of that target now, but no other country can match that record. I am proud of that. I know there has been some debate over whether 0.7% or 0.5% is right, what is ODA-able or what is DAC-able, but the Government are committed to getting back to 0.7%. There has been debate over how many times one can have hypothecated expenditure or a percentage limit. The default, clearly, should be not to run everything on a percentage basis, but we have made a commitment that helps to encourage our compatriots around the world to get to that point. We should be proud of the fact that in the G7, comparing GNI, we are in the top three. We are doing much better than our American colleagues, by way of example.
Right at the outset, before I get into the meat of my speech, I would like to talk about when more information is on the way. There has been some criticism of the Government for not giving more information, although recognition that it is good that we are now debating estimates on estimates day. The annual report for the integrated Department will come out in September. That will have all the financial information up to the end of March. In addition, it will give a forward look to 2021-22. I was a little disappointed that the hon. Member for Rotherham felt that we had not given her all the information in her Committee. I am more than happy to come to the Committee again. I know the Foreign Secretary and a number of other Ministers have been at the Committee.
It is always a delight to have the Minister at the Committee, but what we are actually looking for is the hard data. We want a proper breakdown of where the money is being spent: the countries, the projects, the priorities. Can he give me assurances that the document coming out in September will have that very granular detail? We are all charged to scrutinise it, but we are unable to do that with the data that is being given.
I will look over that document carefully. Clearly, I am not writing it myself. I always find the annual report to be very fulsome and would intend that it is fulsome, if not more fulsome, given the transition of the two Departments. I am very open to that.
We should also remember the numbers. A couple of Members referred to £4.5 billion as a rounding error. I understand the point they are making in relation to the deficit of £300 billion that we are running. It is a smaller number, but it is a massively significant number.
There have been a number of comments on polling. We are not led by polling. I was unaware of some of the polling that Members have talked about. Governments should not be led by polling, but I am conscious that as Members of Parliament we should be in touch with our constituents. A number of Members have said unpopular things on both sides of the argument, although surprisingly one said we should not be populist. I thought that was rather electorally successful, but people on both sides of the argument described their points of view as being populist. We are ahead of the US, Japan, Canada and Italy, so we should hold our head high, although I appreciate that most speakers in the House want us to do even more.
As Minister for Africa, I am glad to say we will be spending over half our bilateral aid budget in the African continent, focusing on key issues. Rather than going to just Africa, I thought it would be useful to explain the process the Foreign Secretary and his Ministers took. The Foreign Secretary outlined seven priorities to the House on
I understand that. The Minister was bringing us back to the point I made in my speech about the Government’s expenditure on covid-related activities. The Prime Minister has said that some of the vaccine donations and so on are additional to current aid flows. If the Minister cannot answer at the Dispatch Box now, I would appreciate a detailed response on exactly how money or in-kind support that is being provided to tackle covid in developing countries is to be accounted for. Will it be counted as ODA towards the target or not?
The early announcements were part of existing ODA—they are repurposing. The 100 million doses are classified as ODA and will be in addition to the £10 billion ODA point that we had. So the most recent money is additionality, although my right hon. Friend John Redwood made the strong point that there are a lot of areas that we do not count, partly because of the rules.
My hon. Friend Mrs Latham talked of girls’ education, and we are increasing our pledge to the Global Partnership for Education by 15%, to £430 million, which is our largest pledge ever. Our G7 partners promised £2.7 billion to this cause, and the Prime Minister is hosting the global education summit with Kenyatta here in the UK in July.
Our fourth priority is humanitarian preparedness and response, where we will spend more than £900 million, although my opposite number, Stephen Doughty rightly raises concerns about places such as Ethiopia and working out where we spend the money. Yes, we should get humanitarian access and we need to deliver that access—I made reference to that in an earlier debate in this place —but bringing peace and security to that country is the most critical thing, which helps the fusion with diplomacy.
I am not going to give way yet, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman if there is time.
Our fifth priority was science and technology. The sixth one was open societies and conflict resolution, which drives some of these problems. All too often we spend our money on problems that could have been solved early on. The final priority is economic development and growing GDP per capita in the developing world so that they pay tax and get functioning systems as we would have. In that light, we are supporting the continental free trade area, which will drive growth in countries, and we are expanding our diplomatic network.
My hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, mentioned Niger, Chad and Djibouti, all of which I will be hoping to visit in the near future, and a number of people mentioned the large number of multilateral bodies we are and will continue to be pre-eminent in.
The British Council is the second leg of this debate. We are strongly committed to the British Council. We have allocated more than £600 million since the pandemic to secure its future, which includes a 27% increase on funding this year. I know hon. Members wanted more, but in the context of an aid cut the British Council has done incredibly well out of the settlement, because of the value people see in it—we have seen that across the board.
Let me address some more specific comments. My right hon. Friend Mrs May talked about the linkages. One thing an integrated Department allows is for us to look at the linkages between modern slavery and girls’ education, which is the example she chose. She criticised us for operating in silos, but, again, bringing together the Departments has helped. A number of Members expressed concerns about a loss of expertise; actually, changes to the total operating costs ratio—a bit of a technicality—mean that we can do more in-house, which should help.
An hon. Member asked about our staff in Abercrombie House; we will be increasing the number of staff in Abercrombie House and in Scotland.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling criticised us for making admirals ambassadors and honourable consuls captains. I get his point, but we are not merging with the Ministry of Defence. I could talk about some of the best people in my team—for example, the director general, Africa was an economist, focused on aid, was an ambassador and is now back here doing a cross-Whitehall job. I could go on with many examples of people across Whitehall.
Liam Byrne asked us to support the special drawing rights. I have spoken to the right hon. Gentleman about the matter and I have said openly that we are lobbying for that at World Bank-IMF meetings. We support the recycling of SDRs to the developing world. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned IDA replenishment, which we support and are working on.
Layla Moran, who is no longer in her place, mentioned funding for a specific project and felt there would be adverse effects if it was cancelled because of a new variant. I would very much like more information on that from her.
My right hon. Friend Dr Murrison is an ex-Minister and clearly understands the dynamics of having to make difficult decisions, particularly in respect of balancing aid issues with education and law and order. He asked about the logistics of COVAX; I would love to draw on his resource, but we are also working with Africa CDC.
My hon. Friend Alexander Stafford offered an equally passionate but slightly different view from that expressed by the hon. Member for Rotherham, but it was good to see them both get praise.
My hon. Friend Lee Rowley made a very thoughtful speech that challenged everyone.
As ever, my hon. Friend Sir David Amess made very good points. Given his penchant for publicity and flair, I have no doubt that he will be on the front page of the Southend Echo tomorrow, not me.
The least said about the speech by my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley the better, really; certain things should stay in private.
My right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood made a deeply thoughtful speech that he said was from the defence perspective but actually ranged much more widely beyond that.
I heard an impressive speech from my hon. Friend Christian Wakeford, whom I have not heard speak before. He went from 10 minutes to eight minutes to three minutes and back to eight minutes.
I heard my first speech from an Alba Member of Parliament. I noted down initially that the speech from Kenny MacAskill was kind, thoughtful and well informed; by the end I put “ranting”. But it was all the better for it and when in future I see his name on the annunciator, I am going to rush into the Chamber.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker; it is always wonderful to have the last word.
I thank everybody for their passionate contributions to this debate. This is truly a cross-party issue and I hope the Government are listening very clearly to the loud plea that we are making.
This debate is not actually about 0.7%; it is about how we see ourselves and how we present Britain to the world. I am proud that we have a strong history of development in this country and it pains me that, piece by piece, that is crumbling away with the decisions the Government are making. It is not the Government who are facing the repercussions—although one could look at the results of recent by-elections—but the very poorest in the world. We should not be doing this.
We need to provide clarity. We need clarity for the NGOs that have received FCDO funding in the past. Contrary to what the Minister said, they are being told by webinars and by junior Ministers, and they are being given a week to wrap up their projects. Many of the examples are on the public record, so I am more than happy to share them with the Minister, because it is shocking.
This House needs clarity on what the Government’s priorities really are, because we understand the seven priorities but unfortunately the Government keep going against them. As many Members have argued passionately, we need the Government to understand that defence, diplomacy, development and trade are all interlinked, and that weakening development weakens all those things.
I end by saying that there are threats to this country, unfortunately, but a threat such as terrorism is resolved not by bullets but by full tummies and economic potential. That is what concerns me: by weakening development we are weakening this country’s security.
As a former member of the International Development Committee, may I say that it was some of the most valuable work that I have done over my 29 years as a Member of Parliament? I have really enjoyed the debate this evening.
Question deferred (
The Deputy Speaker put the deferred Questions (