Reduction in UK Development Aid – debate

Apr 28, 2021 | Featured parliamentary activity

Reduction in UK development aid and its impact on achieving the objectives outlined in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy

Lord Alton’s opening
House of Lords Debate on the Reduction in UK development aid and its impact on achieving the objectives outlined in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy

Motion to Take Note2.33pm

Moved byLord Alton of Liverpool 

That the Grand Committee takes note of the reduction in United Kingdom development aid and its impact on achieving the objectives outlined in the Integrated Review of national security and international policy.Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)

My Lords, I express my thanks to colleagues on the Cross Benches for choosing this Motion for debate, but also to the many Members from all parts of the House participating today. They all bring significant expertise and knowledge to our proceedings, including the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, the sponsor of the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, and former Ministers, including my long-standing friends the noble Baronesses, Lady Chalker and Lady Northover, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, who with great principle and honour resigned her post in protest at the abnegation of the Act. I also thank the Library for the excellent note prepared in advance of the debate, and draw attention to my role as an officer of several relevant all-party parliamentary groups.

In 1970, as a student, I campaigned for the implementation of Resolution 2626 of the United Nations, urging developed nations to raise their aid contribution to 0.7%, and in seven parliamentary elections which I contested in Liverpool always committed myself to voting in Parliament to support that target. The Motion enables us to reiterate our commitment to what is, after all, a long way short of the injunction to tithe; to drill down into the integrated review’s objective for the UK to be

“a force for good in the world”;

and to ask how that claim can be squared with a precipitous cut in development aid from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether he agrees that the estimate of a £4 billion cut in real terms is correct.

In response to today’s debate, the Minister will be pressed on the central question: whether the Government intend to introduce legislation to reduce ODA funding this year and, if not, how they intend to ensure that they are acting lawfully and in accordance with their statutory obligations. I particularly look forward to the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, who will address that point further.

Yesterday, Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, appeared before the International Relations and Defence Select Committee. He has previously said that

“we will need to bring forward legislation in due course.”

Does that remain the case? If the Government’s position is now that legislation will not be necessary because 0.7% will be restored when fiscal circumstances allow, can the Minister describe the fiscal criteria that will be used to permit a restoration to 0.7%? By sleight of hand the temporary could, as we all know, so easily become permanent.

The immediate fiscal criteria do not look very promising. The Office for National Statistics says that in 2020 we recorded our worst economic performance in more than 300 years, with the economy contracting by 9.9%. But if times are tough and require draconian cuts, how do we square these cuts in aid with the cost of increasing the number of nuclear warheads—also announced in the review and in contravention of our non-proliferation commitments?

Even before these drastic cuts in ODA, we were confronted by the reality of a smaller cake, but our spending priorities and life-and-death decisions should have been shaped by parliamentary scrutiny and informed by a review—not, as with the merger of DfID and the FCO or swingeing cuts to ODA, retrospectively justified by one. As my noble friend Lord Hannay said last week, the cart has preceded the horse.

Circumventing legislation, avoiding scrutiny, curtailing debate and upending due process and good governance lead to bad decisions. Many of us are jealous of the role of Parliament and object when we see it diminished. The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, chair of the International Relations Committee, on which I serve, specifically points to what she calls the review’s

“lack of consistency in the approach to relations with countries in Africa”—[Official Report, 22/4/21; col. 1986.]

and the failure to provide details of the effects on individual countries. Today, I hope the Minister can rectify that lack of detail—cut by cut, sector by sector, country by country. Concealing these details from Parliament is simply unacceptable.

In a curious, largely undefined, phrase the review says:

“We will be active in Africa”.

What will this mean in Tigray, in anglophone Cameroon, in ravaged Mozambique, in South Sudan, in northern Nigeria and in combating the rise of Jihadist ideology? What is the review’s justification for switching emasculated resources from west Africa and the Sahel? Ahead of this debate I drew the Minister’s attention to UN estimates that, in the Horn of Africa, some 4.5 million Tigrayans urgently require emergency and life-saving assistance and that over 2.5 million children are malnourished. People are being starved to death and, in terrible massacres reminiscent of Darfur and Rwanda, there have been brutal killings and an estimated 10,000 women raped. Unbelievably, some Tigrayans have fled to Yemen, believing that they will be safer.

As the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, will no doubt remind us, development is impossible without conflict resolution. Is it the case that the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund has been cut by a staggering £363 million —by 50%? That will merely add to the 70 million people displaced worldwide, making no sense in terms of our security, let alone our humanitarian duties.

Consider Yemen, where the FCDO’s Chris Bold says that aid has been cut by 50%. Millions are facing starvation and food insecurity. Around half of all children under five in Yemen—2.3 million—are projected to face acute malnutrition in 2021. Nearly 400,000 are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition and could die if they do not receive urgent treatment. No impact assessment was made of the effect of the cuts on vulnerable groups such as women, children, people with disabilities or displaced people. Why not? This is downright irresponsible. In an excoriating remark, Mark Lowcock, the UK’s first special envoy for famine prevention, said that we are trying to

“balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen”.

Bilateral programmes in Yemen, Syria and Sudan will be disproportionately affected as it is harder to extricate the UK from multilateral programmes, so funding is lost merely because it is allocated through the wrong line. Yet in yesterday’s welcome session with the Foreign Secretary, he said that the Government were not salami slicing. He was asked about his seven strategic criteria for the FCDO: climate change, Covid, girls’ education, science and technology, open societies, humanitarian assistance and trade.

Measure the criteria against resources and the random way in which it has been done. Girls’ education, an FCDO priority, will be cut by 25%. Save the Children says that humanitarian preparedness and response will be cut by 44%, despite 200 NGOs warning that more than 34 million vulnerable people will face famine or famine-like conditions.

CSW says that

“spending on the newly formed Open Societies and Human Rights directorate”

is set

“to fall by as much as 80%.”

The FCDO priorities of promoting freedom of religion or belief and media freedom no longer specifically appear in the criteria. Will their programmes be reduced? How will the John Bunyan fund and the Magna Carta fund be affected?

This morning, Sky News reported that a memo prepared for Minister Wendy Morton estimates that bilateral funding for water projects in developing nations will be cut by 80%. Clean water, handwashing and good hygiene are critical defences in the fight against coronavirus, which has claimed 3 million lives globally, and today we think especially of our friends in India. Since 2015, the UK has helped over 62.6 million people gain access to safe water and sanitation. That is something to be incredibly proud of, not to curtail.

Ahead of Glasgow’s COP 26 summit on climate change, we must not lose focus on water security. My noble friend Lady Hayman will doubtless remind us of this and how our ODA contributes to the defence of the planet. The Royal Society says that we are weakening those defences, with global programmes in science cut by—in its figures—well over £500 million and the UK no longer regarded as a reliable partner.

Meanwhile, Devex reported yesterday that funding for polio eradication will be cut by a catastrophic 95%. David Salisbury from Chatham House also warned that the slashed funding

“could threaten the eradication initiative.”

In 2019, the former International Development Secretary Alok Sharma rightly said:

“If we were to pull back on immunisations, we could see 200,000 new cases each year in a decade. This would not only be a tragedy for the children affected and their families, but also for the world. We cannot let this happen.”

So, why are we now letting it happen? In Questions earlier this week, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked for details of how much ODA will be dedicated to the polio eradication programme, the Gavi vaccine alliance, the Global Fund and nutrition programmes. I hope he will be answered today. The race to buy up vaccines has merely underlined gross inequalities worthy of Lazarus and Dives.

My noble friend Lord Crisp, a former Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health, will remind us that many British clinicians voluntarily provide support to their colleagues in low and middle-income countries such as Myanmar. It is essential that the FCDO holds to its commitment to support this vital work at this awful time in a country where, following the coup, medical staff are themselves targets for assassination. In addition, we should significantly improve arrangements for diaspora to send remittances from the UK to developing countries.

Voluntary giving is personified by our flagship Voluntary Service Overseas, which, thanks in part to the efforts of my noble friend Lady Coussins and an intervention by the Select Committee, will receive a welcome extension of the V4D grant. However, it will still sustain a 45% cut in funding with, as it states, over 4 million people losing access to VSO services and with no ability to plan for the future of international youth volunteering and its International Citizen Service.

There are other extraordinary UK flagships, such as the increasingly emasculated British Council and the courageous BBC World Service, whose journalists are persecuted and vilified in Iran and driven out of China for exposing genocide against the Uighurs and breaking information blockades in North Korea and Myanmar. BBC World and the British Council, like VSO and our championing of the rule of law—which the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, will doubtless speak about—combine our values with global reach. They are fine examples of soft power, or what Joseph Nye dubbed “smart power”.

The review describes the UK’s soft power as

“rooted in who we are as a country”

and

“central to our international identity as an open, trustworthy and innovative country”.

The review also states:

“It helps to build positive perceptions of the UK”

and to

“create strong people-to-people links”.

Yes, but how will we be perceived if we break commitments and carefully nurtured relationships, are seen to disregard our own laws and foolishly allow other actors, such as the CCP, to replace a country committed to the rule of law, human rights and democracy with its authoritarian economic coercion and its use of debt bondage, suborning countries and multilateral institutions through its $770 billion belt and road projects?

While I welcome the Government’s decision finally to cut aid to the regime of the Chinese Communist Party by 95%, I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to today’s report from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. It says that, last year, opaque arrangements and pockets of public money in multiple departments, described as a “complex mosaic”, led to a record £68.4 million being used as aid to China, up from £44.7 million in 2015. Why have we been doing this, not least while the CCP is identified in the review as a “systemic” threat to the UK and its interests?

To conclude, yesterday, the Foreign Secretary emphasised the importance of transparency, an integrated approach and value for money. Transparency will be assisted by a commitment today from the Minister to publish all planned spending of UK aid in 2021-22 and to resist the usual default that we will learn more in due course. Programmes cannot be planned and implemented on that haphazard and erratic basis.

The integrated review insists that we are

“one of the world’s leading development actors, committed to the global fight against poverty, to achieving the SDGs by 2030 and to maintaining the highest standards of evidence and transparency for all our investments.”

It promises a “new international development strategy” that, from next year, will realign UK aid with what it calls a strategic framework, about which we will hope to hear more. To achieve all that, it will be crucial to restore the commitment to 0.7%. We should do this because it is in our national interest but also because it is morally the right thing to do. Generous altruism and self-interest are two sides of one coin. All five of the UK’s living former Prime Ministers have called on the Government to think again. I hope that this debate, with such an impressive array of formidable speakers, will reinforce that call. I beg to move.2.48pm

Full debate may be read at this link:

https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2021-04-28/debates/E12D0881-6C04-45F2-A200-E3153C195938/IntegratedReviewDevelopmentAid

5.16pmLord Alton of Liverpool (CB)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, for his response to a debate marked by well-informed and wise speeches—many rooted in personal and first-hand experiences. In the absence of government time, the Cross Benches have performed an important service in facilitating this debate. The Minister has just told us what we are doing using our overseas development aid; indeed, it was a compelling speech about the importance of ODA. But he did not address what we will no longer be able to do—which is the point of this debate.

During the debate many noble Lords rightly paid tribute to Lord Judd. He was widely admired and respected. In the Commons, we overlapped by literally a few days—I was elected in a by-election just before the 1979 general election—but a friend put me in touch with him as someone whose brains I should pick. It was a privilege to meet him and subsequently, during my time in your Lordships’ House, we frequently found ourselves on the same side of the argument—as we would have been today. All sides of the House have rightly remembered him today with respect and affection.

Anyone who doubts the purpose or point of your Lordships’ House should read today’s debate. I thought that the arguments deployed, from wherever they came, were arguments that need to be addressed over the long term in the way we think about our development aid programmes. I hope that the Hansard report of the debate will be circulated widely to people who either disparage or do not understand the point of your Lordships’ House.

It is sometimes said that politics is the religion of priorities. In this instance, we have chosen the wrong priorities; we have made the wrong choice. We cannot say that we will be a force for good in the world—which is what I want this country to be—and then take this kind of decision.

These are just some of the headlines from the debate. Noble Lords have succinctly said things like: “This cut shames our country”; “There has been no risk assessment”; “It has been dog-whistle politics”; “We need to be more transparent”; “We can’t turn it on and turn it off”; “It’s a very serious mistake”; “These are deeply misguided proposals”; “We should be leading the world”; “War zones are poor zones” and “It’s particularly short-sighted and politically indefensible”. Another Peer said, “Sustainable development is in everyone’s interest.” We are told to be a “science superpower” and a “superpower in soft power” but these cuts will threaten our ability to influence either. Of course, we were also reminded of what the Minister himself said in a previous incarnation: that foreign aid benefits us all.

We have a clear legal obligation. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and many others made that clear during the course of the debate. I did not feel that we had an answer from the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, to that central question. I hope that a letter will be sent following the debate to those who participated, setting out the Government’s response on the legality and constitutionality of the decision that has been taken. Even though the Minister has tried to address a lot of the remarks that have been made, I hope he will not feel that is the end of this process. Prorogation is about to be on us, but I hope that he and his officials will sit and read Hansard, and respond to that central question and others that have not been answered.

There is a story about two Pre-Raphaelite painters, Rossetti and Morris. Whenever Rossetti saw someone in need, he would pour out everything in his pockets, walk away and never think about that person again. Morris, on the other hand, never gave a penny to anyone, but he said that he would work for a world in which there would be no more need. One was all heart and the other all head. In our debate today, we have heard a combination of those things. Martin Luther King put it well when he said:

“One day we will learn that the heart can never be totally right if the head is totally wrong. Only through the bringing together of head and heart, intelligence and goodness, shall man rise to a fulfilment of his true nature.”

Being a force for good, combining heart with head, surely lies at the heart of what we have been debating. I renew my thanks to everyone who has taken part in this excellent debate and I hope we will not walk away from this Room and forget the commitments the country has rightly entered into and which it must persist with. I thank all who have participated.

Motion agreed.

1983 With Merseyside MPs, Lynda Chalker and Frank Field (now Baroness Chalker and Lord Field) along with Archbishop Derek Worlock and Bishop David Sheppard – urging an increased commitment to development aid.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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