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MPs berate Government over aid cuts, but still no vote is in prospect

09 June 2021


Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons, on Tuesday, during an emergency debate on the cut to the international aid budget

Theresa May speaks in the House of Commons, on Tuesday, during an emergency debate on the cut to the international aid budget

THE Government’s cutting of international aid from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of national income will cost lives and damage the UK’s standing in the world, the former Prime Minister Theresa May has said.

Mrs May was speaking during an emergency debate in the Commons on Tuesday afternoon, during which more than 30 MPs of all parties spoke — all but four of them voicing fierce opposition to the reduction.

The emergency debate was granted after parliamentary campaigners against the cut failed to force a vote on Monday, having planned to use an amendment to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill. The Speaker of the Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, said that the amendment fell outside the scope of the Bill; but he challenged the Government to show “due respect” to the Commons and give it an “effective” vote on the matter.

On Tuesday afternoon, however, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said that the Government had “no plans” to offer MPs a vote.

Mrs May said that she, like other Conservative MPs, had stood at the 2019 General Election on a manifesto that promised to maintain the 0.7 per cent target.

“The Government will say . . . that Covid has changed the circumstances; but the Government is also taking pride and responsibility for the fact that our economy will bounce back this year,” she said. “And Covid has also changed the circumstances for the poorest people around the world. And for many of them there will be no bounce back, because, for some of them, it will simply be too late.”

Cuts to the aid budget would result in lives being lost, and would also significantly damage the UK’s fight against modern slavery, she said.

The UK’s Global Fund to End Modern Slavery was having its funding cut by 80 per cent as a result of the aid cut. “That means that programmes will be lost, including programmes to work to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children.” The UK had been the world leader in tackling modern slavery she said, but now the Global Fund would have “to go cap in hand to other governments to make up for the shortfall caused by the UK’s decision to cut international development spending”.

Mrs May continued: “Aid spending isn’t just about people in countries far away. Tackling modern slavery has an impact here on the streets of the United Kingdom. Supporting economic development elsewhere will help to cut the number of people who feel they have to migrate to the UK in order to look for work.”

The UK was the only country in the G7 cutting aid at this time, Mrs May said. “People don’t listen to the UK because we are the UK: they listen to us because of what we do, they listen to us because of how we put our values into practice.”

In his opening speech, the former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, who secured the emergency debate, cited the Archbishop of Canterbury’s description on Sunday evening of the aid cut as “indefensible” and “unconscionable”.

Opposition to the aid cut was “not about party politics”, Mr Mitchell said. “All 650 of us in this House elected at the last election promised to stand by the 0.7. The Bill enshrining the 0.7 in law was passed unwhipped in this House with just six dissenters.”

He continued: “Outside of this House, in every single constituency in this country, there are people taking action as part of this growing environment and development group called Crack the Crises. Each and every one of us is accountable to these constituents who are taking action in their local schools, colleges, churches, mosques, charity shops, Women’s Institute branches, congregations, and community groups. Twelve million people are supporters of the member organisations of this coalition . . . and they must be heard.

“And the people who sponsor children through development organisations, the members of churches who are twinned with others in the developing world, the people who were there for Jubilee 2000, for Make Poverty History, they don’t forget when we break our promises to them — they organise.”

Were it not for Covid restrictions, Mr Mitchell said, the same people who made a human chain around the Birmingham G8 summit in 1998 and the quarter-of-a-million who marched in Edinburgh before the 2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles “would be preparing today to descend on Cornwall to make their views known at this G7, and to protest this unethical and unlawful betrayal”.

He maintained that, had the so-called “rebels” been able to secure a meaningful vote on Monday, “we would definitely have won by nine and probably by nearer 20. And it is precisely because the Government fears they would lose that they are not calling one. That is not democracy.”

The rebels had offered an “olive branch” to the Government the previous evening, offering it the chance to pledge to reinstate the 0.7 per cent target next year, when the economy was expected to have rebounded to pre-Covid levels and growth would be strong. “So if the Government was serious about bringing it back when the economy improved, they would have accepted the olive branch that I and my right honourable and honourable friends offered.”

The Government was not principally concerned with saving money, Mr Mitchell said. “The Government thinks that it’s popular in the Red Wall seats to stop British aid money going overseas.” He had been told by a Treasury minister that 81 per cent of people in Red Wall seats did not approve of spending taxpayers money overseas. Mr Mitchell referred to polling, however, which, he said, showed that 92 per cent of people in Red Wall seats did not approve of cutting humanitarian aid.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Barclay, offered a defence of the aid cut: namely, that “a hugely difficult economic and fiscal situation . . . requires, in turn, difficult actions”. The Government had borrowed £300 billion last year, the highest level of peace-time borrowing, and was scheduled to borrow another £234 billion this year. “Without corrective action, borrowing will continue at untenable levels, leaving underlying debt rising indefinitely.”

The 2015 International Development Act “clearly envisages situations in which departure from the target may indeed be necessary”, he said.

“The fundamental point . . . is that the scale of our overseas aid remains significant. In fact, we continue to lead the world in overseas development. This year, we will spend more than £10 billion to improve global health, fight poverty, and tackle climate change.”

Another former International Development Secretary, Hilary Benn, said, however, that the other G7 leaders whom the Prime Minister would meet in Cornwall this week “are facing exactly the same fiscal pressures as he is. But has the United States or Germany or France or Canada or the other G7 countries cut their aid budgets? No they haven’t, because they understand the moral argument. . .

“It’s about the promise we made to people who, in all likelihood, know nothing of its existence but whose lives have been changed by our generosity. People who’ve drunk clean water, people who’ve gone to school, mothers who’ve seen their babies safely delivered or been vaccinated thanks to the immense generosity of the British people.”

The Shadow International Development Secretary, Preet Kaur Gill, said: “It is a great shame that the Government has had to be forced into this debate today when they promised they would bring legislation to Parliament to ask elected members of this House whether they supported these cuts to the aid budget more than six months ago.”

She continued: “It really is no exaggeration to say that the cuts to the aid budget by this Government has cost people their lives. It is utterly shameful.”

The Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh said that the Government could legitimately have cut the aid budget by £2 billion, since that would still have met the 0.7 per cent target of an economy shrunk by the pandemic. “But the Government decided to cut it further.”

The Government had said that the cut was “entirely temporary”, Sir Edward said. “But what does ‘temporary’ mean? Is ‘temporary’ six months, a year, two years?” The Government had ordered civil servants to cut funding for aid programmes, but, if the aid cut was temporary, they would be restored “in six months’ time or a year’s time”.

This would generate “a huge amount of waste, and, incidentally, a lot of people will have died in the mean time, a lot of wells will have run dry, a lot of girls’ education will have ended. People will have died and there will be a huge amount of waste.”

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