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Welby doubts aid cuts will be reversed by Chancellor

04 December 2020

PA

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed doubt over the Government’s assertion that its cut to the budget for international aid will be only temporary.

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced during his Spending Review last week that the UK would reduce temporarily the amount that it spent on overseas aid from 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) to 0.5 per cent (News, 27 November).

Speaking in the House of Commons a day later, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “Let me reassure the House that this is a temporary measure. It is a measure we have taken as a matter of necessity, and we will return to 0.7 per cent when the fiscal situation permits.”

In an article in the Financial Times on Saturday, Archbishop Welby described “temporary” as “a slippery word”.

“Income tax was introduced by William Pitt the Younger in the 18th century as temporary. Waiting for a better time to be virtuous reminds me of St Augustine’s prayer for God to make him chaste, but not yet.”

Archbishop Welby went on to urge the Government to rethink its decision: “If it insists on making this cut, then I urge that this be time-limited to one year.”

He took issue with the Government’s argument that the costs of the pandemic justified the decision to abandon its manifesto pledge to channel 0.7 per cent of GNI into aid. The Prime Minister had promised that 0.7 per cent “remains our commitment” as late as June, when “the economic impact of the virus was clear. We now know, too, that the saving of roughly £4bn will be dwarfed by spending in other areas.”

Neither was Archbishop Welby persuaded by Mr Raab’s argument that the UK was still giving a great deal in aid. “Perhaps, but to those whose projects are cut off — and to our reputation as trustworthy — that is not the point. . . We have made a promise to the world’s poorest people. In their interest — and our own — we must keep it.”

A former International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, said in the Commons, on Thursday of last week, that the aid cut would “drive a horse and cart through many of the plans that the British Government has so strongly supported for eliminating poverty”. This would include the withdrawal of seven million women’s access to family planning and contraception; the deaths of 100,000 children from preventable diseases; and “probably a million girls will not be able to go to school.”

Mr Raab replied that the Government would not “take a salami-slicing approach” to cutting the budget, but “a strategic approach”.

He said: “We’ll safeguard those areas that we regard as an absolute priority, including many of the things that he mentioned, particularly on international public health, alongside Covid, alongside climate change, and girls’ education.”

Mr Raab also said that the the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, which enshrined the 0.7-per-cent commitment in law, “envisages circumstances in which the 0.7 per cent target may not be met, in particular in the context of economic pressures”.

It is not yet clear when new legislation will be brought before Parliament, although campaigners expect it to be some time in the New Year.

New legislation is likely to face opposition in both Houses. Campaigners who are lobbying MPs estimate that between 35 and 60 MPs may be willing to vote with the Opposition to defeat the legislation. The Daily Telegraph reported last week that a party source had identified 30 Conservative MPs prepared to rebel.

The Father of the House, Sir Peter Bottomley, said last week: “I will work with anyone across the House to make sure that the change to the percentage does not happen. . . I fight to maintain the pledge the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Foreign Secretary, and I made at the last General Election.”

Speaking to Times Radio on Wednesday of last week, Mr Mitchell said: “The Government needs to be confronted about what it’s done in breaking its promise. I hope he [Mr Sunak] will think again, and, if necessary, I hope the House of Commons will assist him to think again.”

In the Act, which Mr Mitchell helped to draft, “the requirement to say if you’re unable to reach the 0.7 is not retrospective. . . You can’t plan to break it,” he said. “It wasn’t a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for government and ministers. It was the start of a process by which Parliament would express its view if the Government had failed to live up to the Act, which Parliament had passed, which said that we would make this contribution.”

Christian Aid’s Head of UK Advocacy, Pete Moorey, said on Tuesday: “We’re continuing to work with NGOs across the sector to make the case to the Government and parliamentarians about this. Christian Aid will continue to work with the sector to help maintain cross-party momentum in support of 0.7.”

On the day when the cut was announced, the Minister for Overseas Territories and Sustainable Development, Baroness Sugg, resigned. She said in her resignation letter that it was “fundamentally wrong” to abandon the 0.7-per-cent commitment. “This promise should be kept in the tough times as well as the good.”

In the House of Lords in September, Lady Sugg offered assurances to the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, that the Government would “continue to be guided by our responsibilities under the International Development Act, which, of course, includes a commitment to poverty reduction” (News, 11 September).

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