Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a private meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a private meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak in his office at No10 Downing Street. Andrew Parsons / No10 Downing Street - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Rebels fail to thwart government on aid cuts

The government have won a parliamentary vote which confirms the government’s plan to reduce UK aid to 0.5% of GNI, until a set of fiscal conditions allow a return to 0.7% in the future.

Oppostion parties and Conservative rebels failed in their bid to vote down the government’s motion and return to the 0.7% of GNI Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget in January.

In what was sold as a compromise for rebels to support, prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak tabled a motion to “double-lock aid spending” tying a return to the 0.7% commitment, which they said they in principle support, to the amount of borrowing for day-to-day spending.

The “compromise” was enough for some potential rebels, as the government won the vote by 35 votes following a debate that was announced with less than 24 hours’ notice.

Muddying the waters, not a compromise

The motion that passed through the house states that the ODA budget of 0.5% of GNI will remain in place unless “the independent Office for Budget Responsibility‘s fiscal forecast confirms that, on a sustainable basis, we are not borrowing for day-to-day spending and underlying debt is falling”.

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This was framed as a compromise and a way to return to 0.7% under “responsible fiscal circumstances“.

These conditions, however, have only been met once in the last 25 years. or even, as David Davis pointed out, not at all since the 1970’s, depending on how “sustainable current budget surplus” is interpreted.

This is likely to mean that 0.5% is not a temporary cut, as suggested by Rishi Sunak, but one that is virtually permanent, as the fiscal bar has been set so high for the conditions to be met.

A strong reaction

Many prominent politicians, journalists and sector leaders have called this a way of scrapping the 0.7% commitment, on which all MPs were elected, by the backdoor.

During the Commons debate, former prime minister Theresa May said “We made a promise to the poorest people in the world. The Government has broken that promise, and this motion means it may be broken for years to come.”

She became the first former Conservative prime minister to vote against a three-line whip in 25 years.

Other members of the Conservative party spoke passionately and eloquently against the motion. Andrew Mitchell, the defacto leader of the rebels, said “This is not who we are. This is not what global Britain is.” And member of the International Development Committee Pauline Latham said “I don’t see how anybody who has heard the speeches today could vote in all conscious to support what the government want to do”.

The chair of the Commons Defense Committee, Tobias Elwood, said “We claim to be a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective. It is simply not a good look to promote a Global Britain agenda emphasising leadership, responsibility and resolve but then cut our aid budget.” And the Chair of IDC Sarah Champion wrote in statement “If Parliament accepts these criteria, then we are accepting an almost impossible test for aid spending and an end to the 0.7% United Nations target by the back door.”

But it was, sadly, not enough, with the promise of the “compromise” swaying a number of former rebels to the government’s cause.

The response from the sector

Bond CEO Stephanie Draper said:

“Today MPs broke their promise to the electorate to address global challenges and turned their backs on those in need. It means that children can no longer go to school, vaccines are left to expire and marginalised communities are left to face hunger, malnutrition and disease. The aid budget is already linked to economic performance and therefore affordable. These additional measures are unnecessary and draconian. They are a death-knell for the government’s ‘Global Britain’ agenda and leadership in international development.

“This was a political choice, not an economic one, which will do little other than hurt the world’s most marginalised women, men and children and damage Britain’s reputation in the world.”

Romilly Greenhill, UK director of The ONE Campaign, said:

“Today’s result is a needless retreat from the world stage, enforced by the Treasury, at the exact moment the UK should be showing leadership and stepping up to the greatest global crises in our lifetimes. It’s akin to cutting the RAF during the Battle of Britain.

“This so-called compromise effectively means the end of the 0.7 commitment, and will diminish Britain’s global standing. The real losers of this vote are the 3 million children who will no longer be able to go to school, the half a million children who will die from preventable diseases, and the 3 million women and children who will go hungry.

And executive director of Concern Worldwide, Danny Harvey, said:

“The UK has had a strong legacy on international development, but today’s result represents a bleak and inward-looking vision for Global Britain.”

What happens next

It remains to be seen how Peers in the House of Lords will react, as today was a general debate and not one focused on amending the primary legislation that protects UK aid and the 0.7% target.

As the debate was happening, the Lord Speaker granted Lord Fowler an urgent question in the chamber tomorrow to try and clear up some of the ambiguity as to what happens next. Many peers have been vocal in opposition to the cuts to aid, and were not pleased with the speed in which this vote was brought upon the house.

With the aid cuts having already caused significant damage to people and projects in lower-income countries, this motion is likely to cause even more suffering in the long term.


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