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International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill — Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:45 am on 27th February 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development 10:45 am, 27th February 2015

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for bringing this amendment before us and welcome the level of attendance in the Chamber.

The noble Lords who have tabled this amendment have a formidable track record in the Civil Service and in government, not least in the Treasury, as the House will recognise, and are supported by very experienced voices. I value enormously their input and insights. It is extremely important that we take what they say very seriously. Nevertheless, I am afraid that, on behalf of the Government, I must resist this amendment. Perhaps I can explain why.

The Bill places a duty on the Secretary of State for International Development to meet the 0.7% GNI ODA target in 2015 and each subsequent year, and to lay a statement before Parliament in the event of it not being met. This proposed amendment in effect places the decision, though not the responsibility, to meet the target first and foremost with the Treasury at each spending round. It therefore provides the possibility for the Treasury to decide that 0.7% is no longer a priority, and for budgets to be accordingly adjusted downwards.

Of course, I am certain that the Treasury will fully scrutinise what DfID does, as, I assure the noble Lord, it does now. The department will, of course, still be subject to scrutiny through the spending review process in terms of how it spends the money. The department is scrutinised not only by the Treasury through the spending review process, as are all departments, but also through the Treasury approval of individual programmes within an agreed regime of delegated authority. I assure noble Lords that this Bill does not affect the role of the Treasury. What it does is send a clear message from this Parliament of its expectations in regard to the aid programme. As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, put it, it would be wrong to interpose the Treasury into this arrangement through writing it into legislation. The Treasury’s role remains unchanged. Therefore, the proposed amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, is not needed either because of the scrutiny I mentioned, and it too should be resisted, if it were put.

The allocation of public expenditure is already a primary Treasury function. The Treasury’s role in the spending review is to ensure that the Government’s limited resources are allocated in the best way possible to DfID and other government departments to deliver government objectives, including enabling the UK to meet the 0.7% target—a commitment which this Parliament has debated and on which it has come to a settled view in the other place, and may yet in this place.

One of the challenges of the ODA level has been its huge variation, dropping sometimes to around 0.2%, and at other times moving up to 0.5% and now to 0.7%. That is not the pattern for other departments. Stability and long-term commitment are required. As the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, pointed out, this Bill enables us to move beyond the quantity to the quality of aid. We would not reach 0.7% if we did not already have formal Treasury approval in the spending round. This amendment proposes an additional legislative requirement to do what the Government are already required to do: tell Parliament how they propose to allocate public expenditure.

The noble Lord, Lord Butler, and other noble Lords expressed concerns that legislation of this nature relieves departments of having to make a case for expenditure. The noble Lord was particularly concerned about the impact that the commitment to 0.7% would have on value for money, as he said in Committee. I reassure him that the commitment to 0.7% is in fact having the opposite effect to that which he fears. It has resulted in a great increase in scrutiny, not a reduction. The Government have stepped up scrutiny and value for money. We have set up the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which enables strong parliamentary oversight. All DfID spend is subject to a rigorous value for money assessment. A recent review by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee said that the scaling up of the UK’s aid budget was planned in a way to ensure that the extra money was well spent and had the greatest possible impact. We are now ranked second in the world in transparency on aid finance.

In conclusion, I am afraid we do not feel that this proposed amendment is in the spirit of the Bill. The Bill allows Parliament to send a clear message to the Government about the spending expected on ODA from year to year. Most accept that the need is there. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Butler, and others for their recognition of that. Most accept that we can be very effective in helping to meet that need, for which I thank them. One day, of course, we all hope that this assistance will not be needed, but we are still very far from that place. Of course, as my noble friend Lord Howell said, we also harness many other means to assist development, including working with very fragile states such as Somalia and Syria.