23 February 2021

Bond, the UK network for organisations working in international development has revealed that the government has rejected their Freedom of Information request to establish details of the £2.9bn package of reductions in the UK’s planned ODA spend for 2020, including which aid programmes have been identified for cuts and by how much.
    
The rejection comes after numerous public and private requests for the government to disclose the details of cuts to the UK’s humanitarian and development programmes after the initial announcement was made by the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs in July 2020.    

Despite revealing that the government does hold the requested information, the government rejected the FOI request under Section 22 (1) (Information intended for future publication), stating that “FCDO records and publishes detailed information on aid spending by the UK government on an annual basis in our report called Statistics on International Development (SID)” making it exempt from disclosure.   

After receiving expert advice from The Campaign for Freedom of Information, Bond believes this reason is fundamentally flawed. Bond argues that asking for information about the package of aid reductions, including which areas/programmes had been identified for cuts, is different from The Statistics on International Development which provides details of aid spending retrospectively. The Information Commissioner's guidance on section 22 states: A general intention to publish some information will not suffice. It is not enough for the public authority to note that it will identify some, but not all, of the information within the scope of the request for future publication. 
 
The second reason given for the FOI request’s rejection was under Section 43 (2) (Commercial interests) of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) 2000 stating that the disclosure “could have a damaging effect of FCDO’s business reputation and confidence which suppliers and partners” which “would undermine FCDO’s commercial interests and could lead to FCDO incurring greater expense which would consequently undermine our ability to fulfil our role and to achieve value for money in the use of public funds”.   

Bond argues that there is a strong public interest in information about the cuts being made public because transparency provides accountability to British taxpayers and to those who aid is meant to assist, which ultimately helps ensure aid goes to the people who need it the most. The international development community is also one of FCDO’s key supply partners in delivering aid and humanitarian programmes around the world. They believe the Government’s refusal to publish the details of aid cuts made in 2020 risks damaging the FCDO’s reputation as a reliable partner and by failing to live up to their commitments to transparency.  

Simon Starling, Director of Policy, Advocacy and Research said:  

“Having to use an FOI request to get such basic but critical information about where these cuts to humanitarian and development programmes have landed is unfathomable. The fact that it has now been rejected on spurious grounds will make people wonder what the government is trying to hide.  

NGOs have been pushing for this information to be disclosed because these cuts will have a real impact on the lives of millions of people around the world.  The additional planned reduction to 0.5% GNI will be devastating and could result in 5.3m fewer children a year being vaccinated from harmful diseases.   

How can the UK hope to fulfil its global leadership ambitions in the year of the G7 and COP 26, when it is dismantling the very foundations it claims to be building on?”   

The rejection of the FOI comes just weeks after NGOs warned that decisions about the UK aid cuts were being made behind closed doors and without proper scrutiny or consultation. NGOs are concerned that the lack of consultation, and the speed with which these changes are being made, means there is a risk that decisions will cause harm to the world's most marginalised people in the middle of a global pandemic. 

ENDS
 
Notes to editor

  1. FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT 2000 - REQUEST REF: FOI2021/01097 Letter attached 
  2. On the 26 January 2021, Publish What You Fund, Bond and Development Initiatives called for transparency around how the UK government is cutting its aid programmes.
  3. A recent ICAI information note “UK aid spending during COVID-19: management of procurement through suppliers” published in December 2020 stated that from late May to August, government officials were instructed not to provide any information to suppliers, either about the prioritisation process or the implications for individual programmes. 
  4. The UK government’s 2018 Transparency Agenda states: "Transparency matters for sustainable development. When people can see how their governments spend money and what it achieves, and have a say in how their country is run, then trust can be built. With open, accountable and responsive governments, citizens are more likely to pay taxes, vote, and get involved in decision-making. Economies are more likely to grow, and aid dependency can and should end. By shining a light on financial flows and decision-making, transparency also reduces opportunities for corruption."
  5. For further information or interviews please contact Maryam Mohsin on 07555 336029 or [email protected]