The arguments for and against cutting foreign aid

Rebel Tories back move to reverse £4bn cut

Yemenis receive humanitarian aid
Yemenis receive humanitarian aid
(Image credit: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

The prime minister is facing a rebellion from dozens of his own MPs over cuts to the UK’s foreign aid budget.

Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell has tabled an amendment to reverse the reduction of the government’s target of 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) to 0.5% - which equates to more than £4bn.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt and former Brexit secretary David Davis are among the senior Conservatives backing the move to restore aid spending to the previous target from next January.

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Arguments for the cuts

The Covid contraction

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said the decision to cut the aid budget, first announced in November, was “extremely difficult” but necessary, owing to the unforeseeable cost of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge last month that Covid had caused “the biggest contraction we’ve seen in the economy for 300 years, a budget deficit double what we saw in the peak of the financial crisis in 2008-2009”.

Temporary measure

Home Office Minister Victoria Atkins told Sky News today that the cuts were a “small temporary reduction”, adding: “No one could have foreseen the extent of the pandemic and the measures we were going to have to take as a country in order to deal with this.”

The UK is still “one of the largest donors of aid in the world”, she noted.

A spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office has previously said that the UK will still spend a total of “more than £10bn this year to fight poverty, tackle climate change and improve global health”.

‘Charity begins at home’

A more general criticism of foreign aid has been that taxpayer money should be used to help disadvantaged people in the UK rather than abroad. The conservative Bow Group think tank has led calls for the government to use state cash to invest in domestic social and health care.

Bow Group chair Ben Harris-Quinney told the Daily Express in September that “regardless the old adage rings true that charity begins at home, as long as British people are going without, the British government’s job is to take care of them first”.

Distribution dilemmas

Critics of international aid also take issue with where and how the money is spent. Analysis findings released by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) in April showed that UK aid to superpower China hit a record £71m in 2019, for example.

Speaking on BBC Newsnight following the publication of the data, Ian Birrell, contributing editor at The Mail on Sunday, argued that the UK aid budget should be cut regardless of the pandemic as it is “propping up some of the worst governments in the world”. A YouGov poll in November suggested that two-thirds of Brits were also in favour of reducing foreign aid.

Arguments against the cuts

Moral obligation

Tory rebel Mitchell said this week that the cuts are already having a “devastating impact on the ground and are leading to unnecessary loss of life”. He has previously warned that up to 5.6 million fewer children will not be vaccinated as a result, potentially resulting in up to 100,000 deaths. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has also described the aid cuts as a “death sentence”.

The BBC reports that the reduction “has meant millions of pounds less is being spent on supporting girls' education, reproductive health, clean water, HIV/Aids, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and Syria, and hundreds of other projects”.

Manifesto pledge

The Conservative manifesto for the 2019 election stated that, if elected, the party would “proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on development”.

Announcing his bid to reverse the cuts, Mitchell said that “every single member of the House of Commons was elected on a very clear manifesto promise to stand by this commitment”.

Global Britain

Cutting aid also undermines Boris Johnson’s vision of Global Britain as a “soft power superpower”, the Financial Times editorial board warned last week. Indeed, the vote on the aid amendment is likely to coincide with the G7 summit being hosted by the PM in Cornwall next week, where he will be the only world leader who is cutting their overseas spending budget.

Amendment supporter Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the Commons Defence Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Retaining that aid budget is absolutely in the spirit of Global Britain.”

Legal obligation

David Cameron enshrined in law the UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GNI on foreign aid in 2015. Johnson has argued that the legislation allows the target to be temporarily missed in exceptional circumstances, but has been criticised for not allowing MPs to vote on the decision.

Conservative former minister Caroline Nokes, another of the amendment signatories, told ITV’s Peston: “It’s taken quite a lot of manoeuvring to find an opportunity to actually have a vote on this.”

Mitchell has tabled his amendment for the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) Bill, which establishes a new research agency. The “technical amendment would oblige the new agency to make up any shortfall in aid spending if the government were to miss the 0.7% target”, explains the BBC.

Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle will decide whether the amendment should be put to a vote.

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