Backbench victory could reverse overseas aid budget cut

Rishi Sunak’s £4 billion cut to the overseas aid budget last November was a populist move, playing to the sections of the media that believe most aid is wasted and we should keep the money for ourselves. But the cut of almost a third from the budget is having an impact on relief and development projects, on education for girls and on the UK’s standing in the developing and developed world.

Backbench MPs are angry. So angry that a Conservative amendment to an unrelated bill of Monday looks like being supported, providing it is selected by the Speaker. This would reinstate our nation’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid.

Boris Johnson will perhaps spend the weekend wondering whether it is worth the damage to his reputation ahead of the G7 summit over what one of his ministers calls a “small” cut in overseas aid.

Poorer countries across the world are struggling to maintain their health and economic systems as the pandemic continues to take its toll. That is just one reason why Rishi Sunak’s £4 billion cut to the overseas aid announced in November was so cruel. His manifesto breaking move received widespread condemnation from all parties when the details were announced in April. Two hundred charities condemned the reductions as “a tragic blow for many of the world’s most marginalised people.” Baroness Sugg quit as a minister in the Foreign Office. Save the Children said the projected girls’ education spend of £400m is down by a quarter from 2019. It accused the government of having lost its moral compass.

Regardless of the government’s lack of morality, there is a rising hope that the cuts could be reversed from 2022 and brought back in line with the UK’s legal commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid. The commitment to meet the UN 1970 target for aid spending was enshrined in law in 2015 during the coalition. Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell is leading the rebellion. He has lodged a technical amendment to the advanced research and invention agency bill on Monday. This would oblige the government to meet the 0.7% target in 2022.

Mitchell is joined by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, former Brexit secretary David Davis, former Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley, former immigration minister Caroline Nokes and former prime minister Theresa May. A growing number of Conservatives are reported to be backing the amendment. As many as 30 so far.

The aid spending target was very much a Lib Dem baby born amid the austerity of the coalition. Lib Dems will be backing the amendment on Monday.

The Tory administration is of course kicking back. Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins said the cut was merely a “small temporary reduction”. Ministers have not given a date for reinstating the cut. A cut of £4 billion, nearly 30 per cent of the budget is hardly small.

If Boris Johnson’s political antennae are still functioning, he might want to head off defeat by making a commitment over the weekend, though words may not be enough. Johnson has already misjudged the public mood with his miserly 1% pay rise for the NHS workers he once applauded from the steps of Downing Street. He has put pathetically little into the recovery of school students hit by pandemic restrictions.

Johnson will swagger into next week’s G7 Summit a diminished leader if he tries to block MPs from reinstating cuts that aimed to benefit the world’s richest at the expense of the world’s poorest.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Friday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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32 Comments

  • John Marriott 4th Jun '21 - 9:15am

    I would far rather that the U.K. government swung behind President Biden’s proposal on Corporation Tax liabilities. I’ve made my views clear on Overseas Aid before. OK, if it makes you feel good. For me, charity begins at home; but I’m sure that, as far as LDV contributors are concerned I shall undoubtedly be in the minority. That’s something I’ve got used to in my life.

  • I agree with John Marriott. The nation should have the flexibility to reduce esxternal funding when there is an emergency at home and to increase funding when there are clear needs elsewhere. Aid agencies would obviously prefer a steady stream of funding but sadly this can lead to complacency, wastage and salary inflation. Prioritisation is an essential element when spending other people’s money.

    It is extremely difficult to spend billions wisely. Enshrining a generous spend in law was a terrible mistake leading to massive waste and an increased army of well paid consultants and distributors. This was predicted by many but obviously the self satisfaction of virtue signalling was very persuasive.

  • Katharine Pindar 4th Jun '21 - 9:58am

    Thank you for this article, Andy. To me the cut has been the worst action of the current government, showing its apparently unprincipled and immoral heart. It’s very good to know that it may be cancelled on Monday – and good also to know that so many Tory MPs do have principles that we can relate to in seeking social justice, abroad as at home.

  • @John Marriott. It may well be true that nothing is ever entirely altruistic, as you imply, but finding that an action makes you feel good about yourself isn’t a reason not to do it. There are real people on the end of a decision about foreign aid, and most Liberal Democrats know we inhabit a very rich country in a world full of people less well-off than us. Cutting aid to foreigners is less about what it costs, and more about appealing to the basest motives and desires of the kind of voters who supported our exit from Europe, and who want to see a new kind of self-interested ‘great’ Britain in which foreigners are put in their proper place.

  • Nigel Jones 4th Jun '21 - 10:46am

    John Marriott and Peter are both completely missing the point. With all government spending there are complex issues of ensuring it is well spent and a need for prioritisation, so there is little that is special to overseas aid on that argument. Yes, charity begins at home, but it does not stay there and if we are meant to prioritise, then there is no doubt on the world scene that both people’s needs, our ability to help and our proper relationship with other nations demands that international aid is a priority normally and even more so in the current circumstances.
    Too many people have still not got the full implications of the message that noone is safe until we are all safe; that applies not only to the virus and our health, but to financial security and peace.
    It is wrong to call it “self-satisfaction of virtue signalling”, because it is about doing what we can (and we definitely can) to improve the world for everyone, including ourselves. Our international aid should set an example to other nations that sharing and caring across national boundaries is essential to all our lives because it is part of our task to deal with worldwide inequality and world peace. It starts with basic humane actions and hence with those nearest to us, but restricting it to home when we have so many wealthy people in our homeland is not only very selfish and inhumane, it is yet again to blind us to the need for good international relations on which our nation’s livelihood depends.

  • John Marriott 4th Jun '21 - 10:47am

    @Andy Dare
    I don’t go in for what I think they call ‘virtue signalling’ and I am pleased you know what “most Liberal Democrats” think. That may be true in the activist circles in which you may move. However that might not be the case at places like the proverbial Dog and Duck, which I occasionally have visited when given the green light.

  • Nonconformistradical 4th Jun '21 - 12:41pm

    “Too many people have still not got the full implications of the message that noone is safe until we are all safe; that applies not only to the virus and our health, but to financial security and peace.”
    On the financial security aspect – I wonder how many of the so-called ‘economic migrants’ resorting to people smugglers would not try to come to the UK if they had a better chance of earning enough in their own country to put roof over head and food on the table.

    And of those struggling to earn the basics of a living in their own country – if that country has problems with terrorism, how many of these people, if they didn’t try to go elsewhere, might become (maybe unwilling) ‘footsoldiers’ of a terrorist organisation simply because that organisation might pay them…?

  • It has taken several decades to get to the UN recommended 0.7% of national income for overseas development aid and such aid is of vital importance to the poorest countries and peoples around the world. Aid programs have long been politicised and subject to endemic corruption in target countries. They do require efficient administration on the ground to be effective in reaching their intended targets, as does any social security/welfare program.
    Theresa May has joined the Tory Rebels as have former Tory ministers Johnny Mercer and Damian Green https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/theresa-may-joins-growing-tory-rebellion-on-overseas-aid_uk_60b8a6c9e4b00a70313c9d89

  • Peter Chambers 4th Jun '21 - 1:14pm

    When the aid cut was announced, the UK research community noticed that their activities would suffer as they were part funded by the aid budget. This was around the time that the PM used the term “scientific superpower” when he was feeling the vaccine bounce. Between the research cuts due to leaving the EU and the foreign aid cuts, more research spend was lost than would be gained from Cummings ARIA project. So much for world beating research. Other areas of foreign aid lead to the spend landing in the UK, so as to provide goods for delivery as aid. Charity beginning at home indeed.
    The end benefit splits between effect on the ground and UK soft power. It is an investment that pays off very well, whatever people say about virtue signalling.

  • William Francis 4th Jun '21 - 1:16pm

    @John Marriott

    Charity already begins, middles, and ends at home. The department of transport consumes a greater chunk of GDP than foreign aid (twice as much before the cuts).

    From a purely hard-nosed realist perspective, foreign aid is a useful tool to project hard and soft power (given the good publicity it generates). That is especially needed given our governments desire to blow up so many bridges with Europe.

  • john oundle 4th Jun '21 - 1:21pm

    John Marriott

    As the National Audit office found there has been an appalling waste of taxpayers money and until this is properly administered & controlled,public confidence will remain very low.Interesting that the most vociferous advocates for keeping the 0.7% level are the likes of Mitchell & May that presided over the massive waste.

    In terms of our revised contribution why not meet the average contribution rate of the G7 countries.

  • @john oundle – “an appalling waste of taxpayers’ money”. Absolutely right. When getting rid of huge sums by a certain date became compulsory they were almost throwing it away. What a disgrace and now some people want to return to that.

  • Global Britain? Not! More like populist Nimbyism and where would the funds come from to Vaccinate the world, as has to be done.

  • John Marriott 4th Jun '21 - 3:17pm

    First, my apologies to Andy DAER for misspelling his surname. I typed it on a small mobile phone and my fingers are rather large for the keys! Also I really do need to check my stuff before I press ‘send’.

    As for those of you, who are clearly appalled at my stance, as I wrote earlier, I accept that most people (or at least the majority, who opine on LDV) will not agree with me. However, it’s not me you need to convince of the need to keep overseas aid up to 0.7% of GDP.

    If it’s REAL money you are talking about, why not have a go at these multinationals, which are getting away with murder when it comes to taxation? Back Joe and let’s start sorting THEM out!

    Surely the ‘aid’ that poorer third world countries really need more than anything at the moment should be coming in the form of vaccines against Covid and the means to get them into people’s arms ASAP.

  • The NAO report found that “Overseas aid spending ‘rushed’ due to lack of staff” https://www.itv.com/news/2017-07-18/national-audit-office-report-on-overseas-aid
    “The government is struggling to spend its overseas aid budget because it doesn’t have the staff and systems in place to deal with the increased in money it is handling.”
    Sir Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “The government has decided that departments and cross-government funds other than DfID should have responsibility for expenditure which makes up the 0.7% aid target.
    “This means that meeting the target has become a more complex undertaking and the resulting gaps in accountability and responsibility require more effort to manage.”

  • @ Joe – your NAO link says it all. I was making the same point. It would be irresponsible madness to increase the funding at a time when we know that a substantial amount would be wasted. It doesn’t get much clearer than that.

  • A gentle word to my friend John M. There’s no mutual exclusivity between 0.7 % aid and supplying vaccines.

    I don’t give a ……. what they think at the Dog andDuck……

    ……..after a few beers with loosened tongues.

  • John Marriott 4th Jun '21 - 5:44pm

    @David Raw
    Yes, I take your point. However, I personally want to see as near to 100% as possible of the world to get vaccinated sooner rather than later. Until that happens we really cannot effectively unlock. So, if getting the vaccine out costs money, that’s where, at least at the moment, I would like my taxes spent.

  • This discussion thread is losing its way. It is a debate about overseas aid and whether or not the compulsory, higher level should be restored. This is a long term issue that will matter long after the pandemic and its vaccination policy has hopefully become ancient history. The need to vaccinate the world should be discussed separately.

    Before the decision to fix compulsory expenditure at 0.7% of GDP was taken, I was very concerned about the level of waste and in particular, outright fraud. The situation has deteriorated since then and the NAO confirms that neither the Government, its legions of agents, consultants and third parties can get rid of such huge sums of money on a regular basis with any guarantee that it is not being wasted or diverted to private gain, crime, propping up political regimes or anything else.

    Enshrining in law that a prescribed amount of money will be spent by a certain date has turned this wasteful process into a recipe for madness. It is a scramble to get rid of the money.
    I believe that the UK public is generous and warm hearted and will readily respond to any crisis or well defined need where our contributions will save lives or reduce suffering.
    I also believe that the public rejects the idea that our politicians should have an arbitrary levy on taxpayers to raise huge sums that then get wasted by civil servants employing expensive consultants to get rid of large sums before arbitrary deadlines.
    It is a case of ideology leading to madness. If you want to give away masses of taxpayers’ money, it is a good idea to have a scheme that meets their approval. The current proposal does not.

  • Neil Hickman 4th Jun '21 - 9:32pm

    Part of the problem, surely, is this fatuous requirement that money must be SPENT, not merely budgeted or allocated, by an arbitrary date. This has long seemed to me to be a standing invitation to unwise (because rushed) spending decisions.

  • I am a great believer in what I call the “hip thigh bone theory of world affairs” which basically means that every thing is connected in some way in today’s interconnected world. In the case of Britain’s overseas aid budget, it plays a vital role in projecting Britain’s excellent soft diplomacy strategy by creating goodwill which in turn creates trade which in turn creates jobs in Britain. In the post-Brexit era of “Global Britain” such a policy is not just common sense. It is vital for the people of the developing world and the people of Britain.

  • Some 45 years ago I recall a lecturer in accounting explaining budgeting to us students. He advised that government departments (central and local) worked off fixed budgets that were normally tightly managed for 11 months of the year but as the last months of the budget year approached the fear that a forecast underspend would result in a departmental budget cut in the next fiscal year engendered an upsurge in spending in the final quarter of the year. Not much has changed and I am delivering the same lecture to accountancy students today.
    The budget for foreign aid can be set based on OBR forecasts of GDP for the fiscal year. There will always be more projects requiring funding than there are funds available for disbursements. The problems lie in making available adequate levels of trained staff capable of assessing and monitoring projects in accordance with DFiD objectives and conducting due diligence to minimise fraud and corruption. It is a sector beset with operational and transparency difficulties. Poverty alleviation is not a neat and tidy process and to some degree an element of uncertainty with respect to compliance with conditions has to be accepted as inevitable in the areas of the world where the aid is most needed.

  • Joe Bourke and others make good points about spending to a budget. Many of us are familiar with scrambles to unload cash at the year end, but that argument applies whether the budget is 0.7% of GDP or a lower percentage. There is already evidence that things like the education of girls in countries where women have traditionally been second-class citizens is being cancelled as funds are withdrawn. The cut is having real effects on people’s lives, whereas the benefit to the UK tax-payer is intangible, and to me difficult to imagine. This may not apply to Lib Dem LDV readers, but many supporters of Brexit Britain would argue that we’ve earned our wealth, and if people in poor countries are suffering, well tough, it’s a dog eat dog world. Some respondents to Andy’s article make valid criticisms about giving aid, but the reason the government thought it could get away with this spending cut is the assumption that their supporters hate or fear foreigners, and are basically selfish.

  • John Marriott 5th Jun '21 - 10:54am

    The main article in the Journal section of today’s Guardian states; “It would only cost $50bn to ensure 40% of the world’s population is vaccinated by the end of the year, and 60% by the first half of 2022”. I assume that leaves another 40%, unless my maths are really that bad.

    So, instead of cutting the Overseas Aid budget by 0.02%, why not donate that cash towards getting more jabs into more arms both here and around the world? We really HAVE got to get this virus under some sort of control. If we fail to protect more vulnerable nations we simply create more wells of infection where the virus can continue to mutate at will. I reckon that even the regulars at the Dog and Duck might understand that logic.

  • The Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment (COVAX AMC) has received close to $10 billion in funding pledges to date https://www.gavi.org/news/media-room/world-leaders-unite-commit-global-equitable-access-covid-19-vaccines
    The UK is one of Gavi’s six original donors and one of two donor countries that support Gavi through all four funding channels (direct grants, IFFIm, PCV AMC and COVAX AMC).
    The UK hosted Gavi’s June 2020 replenishment conference, the Global Vaccine Summit, where the Prime Minister pledged £1.65bn to Gavi over 5 years, of which £290m is 2021-2025 IFFIm proceeds. At the same event, the Secretary of State pledged $60.6m of remaining PCV AMC funds to the COVAX AMC. At UNGA in September 2020, the Foreign Secretary pledged a further £500m to the COVAX AMC. I believe this last pledge may be in addition to ODA funding.
    Covax recently reported that it needs an additional $2 billion to lock in supplies now so that doses can be delivered through 2021, and into early 2022 https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/covax-says-needs-2-bilion-addition-funding-by-june-for-poor-countries-2450799

  • The Independent asks Can Boris Johnson avoid being blamed for post-pandemic ‘austerity’?
    https://www.independent.co.uk/independentpremium/voices/boris-johnson-pandemic-austerity-b1859056.html?r=59705
    “The austerity line against David Cameron and George Osborne did not end well for Ed Miliband, and it is not clear how it played in the 2017 election except that it helped the Labour Party to have Theresa May as its opponent.

    Big-spender Johnson is a trickier proposition, and it was notable yesterday that Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, responded to the government’s schools catch-up plans – one-tenth of what Sir Kevan had asked for – by saying: “It’s not all about money.” It is clear that Keir Starmer is wary of being seen to promise more public spending than the government as Labour’s default response.

    We have not yet heard from Rachel Reeves, Starmer’s new shadow chancellor. The outcome of the next election might depend on what she says next.”

  • David Evershed 7th Jun '21 - 11:48am

    Even Lib Dem supporters are in favour of cutting foreign aid (By 49% to 35%).

    The country as a whole is in favour of the cut by 66% to 18%

    See https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2020/11/25/two-thirds-britons-support-cutting-foreign-aid-bud

  • Our former M.P., Michael Moore, got the 0.7% principle accepted when the party was Coalition. IMHO this was the greatest single Lib Dem achievement in Coalition whatever people like Mr Evershed may say.

  • David Evershed 7th Jun ’21 – 11:48am…………Even Lib Dem supporters are in favour of cutting foreign aid (By 49% to 35%)…The country as a whole is in favour of the cut by 66% to 18%………..

    Lib Dem supporters support harsher sentences for criminals (62% to 18%)..The country as a whole is in favour of harsher sentences by 70% to 14%…

    However, blindly following such simplistic answers are raely a good thing.

  • David Evershed 7th Jun '21 - 2:48pm

    David Raw

    I did not express an opinion.

  • Public support for increased overseas aid has long been absent. The 2018 British Social Survey reported that support for more tax & spend was at a fifteen-year high https://natcen.ac.uk/news-media/press-releases/2018/september/support-for-more-tax-spend-at-fifteen-year-high/. However, that is for health (54%),followed by education (26%) and housing (7%). Social security (2%), public transport (1%) and overseas aid (0%) were least popular.
    NatCen’s Head of Public Attitudes, Roger Harding, said: “Since 2010 the proportion of people who want more tax and spend has nearly doubled and shows the country is clearly tiring of austerity. The question for the government is whether their recent spending announcements have done enough to meet public demand for more public investment, including now from a majority of their own voters. The question for Labour is whether they can win over the many older people who support more spending but currently do not support the party.”

  • @ David Evershed Don’t be so coy, Mr Evershed. What is your opinion ?

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