Prime Minister Boris Johnson has confirmed to the UK parliament that his government is planning on pressing ahead with its planned £4.5 billion worth of cuts to the overseas aid budget, yet has no plans at the moment to bring a vote to parliament.
That potentially means that MPs from across the House of Commons and peers sitting in the House of Lords will not be able to scrutinise, amend, or vote down the policy while it goes ahead — despite aid spending levels being protected by UK law.
UK aid is a budget administered by the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) to fund development projects that reduce extreme poverty in low- and middle-income countries.
So far, emerging details of the cuts have included an announcement that the UK is reducing humanitarian aid to Yemen by over half, a country on the brink of the most devastating famine the world has seen in decades following years of civil war.
Keeping the aid budget at 0.7% of the country's gross national income (GNI) is enshrined in UK law and would need a vote in the House of Commons to be repealed or changed permanently.
Following Johnson’s clarification on March 16 that there would be no vote on the aid cuts to 0.5% of GNI, the Guardian asked whether the decision was a clear commitment that the cut would be temporary.
Johnson’s spokesperson said the government still intended to set out to MPs how the spending would be reviewed, the Guardian reported. “We’re looking at this carefully, and the foreign secretary will set out to the house how we intend to proceed in due course,” they said.
In an exchange in parliament, Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative MP and former international development secretary, warned on Tuesday that the government was in danger of setting “an unlawful budget,” that was in “breach of our Conservative party manifesto commitment.”
“Is he [Johnson] not concerned that our position as chair of the G7 is undermined by Britain being the only country in the G7 that is cutting its development budget in breach of our Conservative party manifesto commitment?” he said.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, has previously told MPs that a new law would be needed for the reduction to be legal in an ongoing way.
He said: “We have taken advice very carefully on this, and it is very clear that if we cannot see a path back to 0.7% in the foreseeable, immediate future and we cannot plan for that, then the legislation would require us to change it."
Now, faced with the possibility of not receiving the required number of votes from Conversative MPs to push such a change through parliament, it has been reported that the government has considered only making the cut in this financial year, and returning to a 0.7% of GNI level budget in 2022, a report in Daily Mail claimed.
What are the UK aid cuts?
When the Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the UK aid cuts in his budget last November, the government argued the change was necessary because of the impact COVID-19 has had on the economy. They have also said the unusual circumstances of the global pandemic mean that they can.
However, NGOs, cross-party MPs, and former prime ministers Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Tony Blair, and Theresa May have all argued that choosing to drastically reduce this support to poorer countries during the COVID-19 pandemic will have dire consequences for the global pandemic recovery and beyond.
Brown wrote in the Guardian in February that Sunak was paying COVID-19 bills “off the backs of the poor.”
Brown added, using calculations from the Center for Global Development, that the cuts mean 100,000 children’s lives will be lost due to pauses in health and vaccination programmes, and 4.5 million fewer children will receive an education.
Meanwhile May, writing in the Daily Mail, accused the government of “abandoning Britain’s global moral leadership” by cutting aid during a crisis.
While the headline statistic is of an overall cut of approximately 30%, the amounts will vary across different projects and commitments.
Information from leaked documents published by openDemocracy on March 5 showed much more severe cuts to aid are planned for some of the world’s poorest regions, including those seeing conflict.
They include a 93% cut to Sahel — the northern region of Africa that encompasses 10 countries including Senegal, Mali, and Sudan — and reductions to countries that the UK has had recent military involvement in, such as 67% from funding going to Syria and 63% from Libya.
Dominic Raab, the UK's foreign secretary, has previously said that Britain should be a "force for good in the world." But these aid cuts do exactly the opposite. Help us call on Boris Johnson to reverse these catastrophic decisions immediately by sending an email to your MP right here.