My Lords, I wish to draw attention to the issue of the United Kingdom’s contribution to international development and, in doing so, to express serious concern to the Government about the absence of any detailed reference to it in the gracious Speech. In so doing, I find myself repeating the concerns already expressed in this debate by, among others, my noble and right reverend friend the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds and the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury.
Back in 2010, the Government made a strong and welcome commitment to give priority to international development. This would be achieved, we were told, by protection for the overseas aid budget by pledging to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid from 2013 and, most important of all, by cementing that commitment in legislation. The welcome that such intentions received from many sources indicated, if evidence were required, the widespread willingness to support international aid. That support came from across the political arena, from voluntary aid societies such as Christian Aid, humanitarian aid agencies, the churches and many others.
In this year’s Budget, the United Kingdom finally reached the target of 0.7%. Is it any wonder that there has been genuine and widespread disappointment that a Bill to enshrine that target has been omitted from the Queen’s Speech? Those promises issued in 2010 were one thing. A failure to move ahead on legislation which would have overwhelming support in this House, in the other place and in the country, is difficult to understand.
We are told that there are such economic pressures at present—pressures which were not fully understood in 2010 and which have arisen since—that it is dangerous to translate intentions into law and that 0.7% must remain the aspiration only. In the light of economic recession, such arguments spring easily to our mind, yet the temptation to reallocate resources across the board in times of economic hardship raises serious dangers for such matters as overseas aid.
However, legislation which would allow long-term reassurance—a long-term basis for planning and long-term reassurance for the voluntary sector—is vital. Such legislation would underscore the effectiveness of the United Kingdom’s overseas aid. As we approach the G8 conference in Fermanagh, such legislation would show the world that the United Kingdom can provide global leadership in attempts to reduce world poverty and to reduce the desperate plight of the hungry. Such legislation would demonstrate to the world that Britain had the courage to back up good intentions even in difficult economic situations.
In the complex tapestry of challenge in our current economic climate, the issue of overseas aid stands high on our list of priorities on moral grounds. One can think of numerous examples where effective aid programmes save lives, lift communities out of poverty and—of equal importance—empower people to take control of their own lives. Hardly a day passes without vivid and tragic evidence in the media of such needs. As one who has often found himself visiting areas of such desperate human need, I have a sense of pride in recognising how much our contribution as a nation has made to the amelioration of such suffering.
Our nation has so often demonstrated that generosity, that compassion, and we have seen ourselves rise steadily in the global estimate of those who are willing to provide aid. Surely, by enshrining those intentions in legislation we would have done much to raise the morale of so many involved.
I remind the House of the words of the Prime Minister when he said,
“We will not balance the books on the backs of the poorest”.
By placing a legal duty on the Government by allocating 0.7% of GNI in years to come, we would become the first country in the world to provide a permanent guarantee to those who need it most that we will live up to promises that we have made.
My final point comes from connections with the ongoing tragic situation in Syria. Words fail us in the face of the relentless suffering of the people of Syria. We commend the strong leadership of the United Nations in the international humanitarian response. We commend the Secretary of State for International development on her efforts in support of the UN initiative, but we must not forget the ongoing work of humanitarian aid agencies in our country, and their workers who face such danger in Syria and elsewhere at this time. However, there is the question of co-ordination. Is the Minister satisfied that sufficient effort is being made to co-ordinate the efforts of the voluntary agencies involved in the Syrian situation, and co-ordinate them well with those of government and international humanitarian aid at this time?
Overseas aid has long been a sign of our compassion as a people. In a world order where humanitarian need is now the most critical reality, surely we have a moral duty as well as a political duty to give urgent consideration to this question.