Can the Prime Minister get away with legal gymnastics on cuts to the aid budget?
Conservative MPs and international development charities are concerned about how long the cut to the UK aid budget may last | Alamy
While cutting international development spending may be unpopular with parts of the Tory backbenches and charities, without concerted public pressure the government may be able to avoid legislative action
The publication of the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy this week marks a significant moment in Boris Johnson’s so-called Global Britain plans, providing a new blueprint for the UK’s post-Brexit role on the world stage for the next decade. But while it was crammed full of ambition and detail on a range of issues from nuclear warheads to counter-terrorism strategies, the document has done nothing to ease concerns about the government’s commitment to international development spending.
Aid and development organisations were horrified when the Chancellor announced in November that the UK would be temporarily reducing its overseas aid spending to 0.5 per cent of gross national income from the legal duty to spend at least 0.7 per cent – equivalent to an estimated cut of about £5bn this year compared to 2019 – due to the unprecedented fiscal demands of the Covid crisis.
The UK enshrined its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on aid in law in 2015, with the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, making it the first Group of Seven country to meet the UN target.
Aid organisations and NGOs, and many MPs from across the political spectrum, were eager for guidance in the Integrated Review on when the temporary cut might be reversed. However, the document only offered the following open-ended assurance to return “when the fiscal situation allows.”
Even after the temporary cut, the UK will still be a generous provider of overseas aid. The government has said it will spend more than £10bn this year fighting poverty, climate change and improving global health, including £548m towards the WHO’s COVAX programme to provide Covid vaccines for poorer countries.
However, the consequences of the aid cut are already becoming apparent, with spending reducing by over 50 per cent to Yemen, a country gripped by famine and conflict. Johnson told parliament earlier this month that British people could be “hugely proud” of the humanitarian assistance the UK has provided to Yemen.
Before Johnson’s controversial move to merge it with the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development was heralded as one of the most transparent Whitehall departments, meeting the highest standards of reporting with regular official development assistance spending reports.
Since the merger, stakeholders say they have not been consulted on major policy decisions and have little information about future overseas development spending cuts. Although the government guaranteed the future of the International Development Committee, its members argue that without clarity on aid cuts it is unable to effectively scrutinize and assess value for money.
The Integrated Review did commit to publishing a new international development strategy for 2022 onwards which would build on current priorities including climate, global health security, open societies and conflict resolution, and humanitarian response. But the government has not said when it might introduce the legislation promised to override the 0.7 per cent aid spending commitment.
New legislation could be amended with a sunset clause or allow MPs an important opportunity to scrutinize and request impact assessments, and the government are concerned about sizeable rebellions on the issue – but avoiding a vote would set a dangerous precedent. Although the 2015 Act acknowledges there may be circumstances where the aid spending commitment may be missed, the legislation does not say the government can premeditatedly break it.
During the parliamentary debate on the Integrated Review on Tuesday, the Prime Minister said the former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt was right when he asked, “because the 0.7 per cent cut is strictly temporary, relating to the pandemic, there is no need to amend legislation?”
Cutting aid spending without giving MPs a say may require some legal gymnastics on the part of the government and would likely further sow distrust and discontent amongst already critical groups of civil society. MPs like Andrew Mitchell are already threatening the government with judicial review if it attempts to unilaterally break a commitment enshrined in primary legislation, which may prove more high profile and damaging than a backbench rebellion in the voting lobby.
However, the more important factor for the government may be how the issue plays out among voters, and that remains to be seen. Former Prime Ministers and NGOs may argue that reducing aid spending diminishes Britain’s standing, but there is likely to be sympathy for reduction when public funds are tight.
Laura Hutchinson is Dods head of UK business and political intelligence
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