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Paul Williams: The UK’s work on overseas aid must not be undone by Brexit

Paul Williams: The UK’s work on overseas aid must not be undone by Brexit
4 min read

As the Brexit negotiations reach a crucial stage, we still have ambiguity from the Government about their plans for international development, writes Dr Paul Williams

On Wednesday, I will be leading a Westminster Hall debate on the UK’s future relationship with the EU on international development.

Before being elected to Parliament, I spent several years working as a doctor in Uganda, providing healthcare to some of the world’s poorest communities. I saw see first-hand the difference that UK aid can make to those who need it the most.

One of the finest achievements of the last Labour Government was its commitment to international aid and overseas development. Millions of people were lifted out of poverty and millions more children into education across the globe. This is something my party should rightly be proud of. Fortunately, and to the Government’s credit, much of that good work has continued since 2010. It is vital that this work is not undone by Brexit.

The UK has a proud history of working with EU partners to help some of the poorest parts of the world. In the face of Brexit, there is considerable uncertainty about the future of our international development work with our European neighbours. 

Since Article 50 was triggered, the Foreign Office has created an additional 50 positions in UK embassies across the EU and will likely spend even more on foreign policy and diplomacy efforts in the coming months.

Recently, some Tory MPs have suggested aid money could be redirected and used instead to secure trade deals. We cannot ask the world’s poorest to carry the burden of this Government’s struggling Brexit diplomacy.

Around 11% of the UK’s aid budget is channelled through the European Commission - through the development part of the EU budget and the European Development Fund.

Given that the UK currently funds 12% of the EU’s external action budget, Brexit also threatens to damage the EU’s development spending at a time when it is looking to expand into new areas to address new challenges. There is a risk that traditional development activities will be de-prioritised in favour of issues such as security and diplomacy.

As the Brexit negotiations reach a crucial stage, we still have ambiguity from the Government about their plans for international development. So far all we have seen is vague non-papers that lack vision and detail on how they intend to continue and strengthen the ‘deep and special partnership’ they talk of. These papers pose more questions than they give answers.

Will we continue to work closely with, or even be part of, the European Development Fund? How will we influence the work of the European Commission? How will we work together with EU-27 partners on the ground in developing countries and avoid expensive duplication of resources?

Wednesday’s debate is one of the first real opportunities to have a meaningful discussion on the future of our relationship with the EU over international development.

There remain questions of how Parliament will have a say on this crucial topic going forwards, and how we will exercise real scrutiny over the Government’s position.

For a number of years, there has been a cross-party consensus on the need to maintain our commitment to spend 0.7% of Gross National Income on overseas aid. We cannot sacrifice this commitment by diverting funds towards diplomacy efforts. Nor can we afford to waste money setting up costly administrative processes and attempting to ‘go it alone’ on aid delivery.

I hope Wednesday’s debate can set aside party politics, and rhetoric about ‘taking back control’ of budgets, to take the opportunity to reinforce our commitment to the world’s poorest communities. We need a serious discussion about the kind of country we want to be moving forward. Too much is at stake and too many lives are at risk if we get it wrong. We simply cannot afford to treat our humanitarian partnership as a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations.


Dr Paul Williams is Labour MP for Stockton South. His Westminster Hall debate will take place on Wednesday 21 March.

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