BISHOPS, campaigners, and MPs berated the Government this week for its refusal to put its cutting of international aid from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of national income to a parliamentary vote.
An emergency debate was held in the House of 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 (ARIA) 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.
The former Prime Minister Theresa May spoke in the emergency debate, saying that the aid cut would cost lives and damage the UK’s global reputation.
She 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 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, mentioned 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.”
Furthermore, he said, there was a growing coalition out in the constituencies which opposed the the cut. “Twelve million people are supporters of the member organisations of this coalition . . . and they must be heard.”
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. But Mr Mitchell referred to polling, 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.”
He continued: “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.”
Bond, a network of more than 400 NGOs working in development, expressed regret that the decision had been taken not to put the amendment to the ARIA Bill to a vote on Monday. “The Government’s continued attempts to prevent Parliament from having a meaningful and effective say on whether the aid cuts should be reversed is nothing short of shameful,” a statement said
It continued: “How can the UK expect other G7 nations to step forward, when we ourselves are stepping back, despite knowing there is no economic need for us to balance our books on the backs of the world’s poorest people? The Government should live up to its manifesto commitment and reverse cuts to the aid budget urgently or give Parliament a say.”
As the parliamentary campaign against the aid cut gathered pace over the weekend, Bishops wrote to MPs whose constituencies are in their dioceses, urging them to back the amendment. Among those doing this were the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, and the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher. The latter wrote on Twitter: “As we host the G7 now is the time to show moral leadership & renew the manifesto commitment made to the electorate.”
The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, said that it was the first time that he had ever asked his MPs to vote in a particular way.
After the amendment was not put to a vote on Monday, the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, wrote on Twitter that reversing the aid cut “means £4bn to the poorest of the Earth. Thank you to all who conscientiously and courageously oppose it. Shame, deep shame, on all who support it, or remain silent for the sake of a quiet life.”
Read more on the story from Paul Vallely