The pressure is mounting on aid cuts

A woman prepares to send a shipment of suppoprt provided by UK aid
Image: BBC News / PA Media

Yesterday, MPs held an emergency debate on the cuts to the UK aid budget. Here’s a rundown of why the debate took place and why it matters.

In November last year, the government broke their manifesto commitment when they announced they would reduce the aid budget from 0.7% Gross National Income (GNI), to 0.5%. This might not sound like a lot but it actually equates to around £4 billion in lost funding for vital aid programmes delivering live-saving and life-changing support to vulnerable communities. Coming in the midst of a global pandemic, while several countries are on the brink of famine, this decision is devastating.

The cuts have completely ended two of our important programmes in Bangladesh and Malawi that were delivering essential services to the poorest and most marginalised communities.

The government initially said they would bring forward new legislation, as the commitment to spend 0.7% GNI on aid has been enshrined in law since 2015. However, they later said a temporary change in the aid budget was permitted under exceptional circumstances (such as the economic downturn during this pandemic) within the current law.

This means MPs have not been able to vote on the decision. And as thousands of the UK public have been writing to their MPs, it is widely thought that a vote in Parliament to restore the UK’s 0.7% aid commitment would be successful, with more and more MPs speaking on the issue.

MPs from all parties have spoken out to protest the aid cuts and to demand they are given a say on the decision. But in the absence of the government allowing a vote, MPs had to get creative.

Last week, Andrew Mitchell MP tabled an amendment to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) Bill which aimed to force the government back to spending 0.7% Gross National Income (GNI) on aid, by obliging the ARIA to make up the shortfall of not meeting 0.7 in any given year.

Awaale is 1 1/2 years old. He's one of the lucky children who has access to this local medical centre. Photo: Gavin Douglas
Awaale is 1 1/2 years old. He's one of the lucky children who has access to this local medical centre. Photo: Gavin Douglas

63 MPs, including several former cabinet ministers and former Prime Minister, Theresa May, backed the amendment. If put to a vote, Andrew Mitchell MP said he was confident of winning the amendment, even though the government currently holds a large majority in parliament.

But on Monday, just before the ARIA bill was due to be debated, the Speaker of the House of Commons ruled that the amendment could not be put to a vote, as it fell out of scope of the bill.

In another twist, however, he said he would allow an emergency debate to take place the following day. He also chastised the government for not allowing MPs to have a say on the changes to the aid budget and said he hoped the government would make arrangements for a meaningful vote soon.

The debate, which took place last night and lasted over three hours, saw MPs speak passionately about the importance of UK aid.

All 650 of us elected to this House at the last election promised to stand by the 0.7%.

Andrew Mitchell MP

I argue to the House this afternoon that what the Government are doing is unethical, possibly illegal and certainly breaks our promise.

Andrew Mitchell MP

Almost unbelievably, conflict zones face some of the worst cuts. Syria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Nigeria and Lebanon: all are poised to lose more than half their funding. The United Nations Children’s Fund faces a cut of 60%. This is harrowing; this is heartbreaking.

Ian Blackford MP

Sarah Champion MP also highlighted the impact of cuts, citing Concern Worldwide’s programme in Bangladesh

The Concern Worldwide project to provide healthcare to people living in remote and disadvantaged areas of Bangladesh is terminated. The project was due to reach 2.6 million people, including 140,000 people living with a disability.

Sarah Champion MP

Other MPs talked of the impact on the UK’s global standing. Layla Moran MP said:

There is also a cost to the UK’s global reputation. How on earth are we to convince developing nations at COP26 to trust our leadership at the most pivotal climate change summit in a generation when in the same breath we have undermined our credibility with them? When the Prime Minister stands up at the G7 this weekend, what will our allies and friends think? The Prime Minister will encourage our allies to pledge more to fund girls’ education while he cuts spending by nearly £200 million.

Layla Moran MP

While Preet Kaur Gill MP talked about how these cuts go against British values.

Britain is a proud, generous and caring country, and these cuts are an insult to the British people and our proud tradition of showing humanity and leadership on the world stage.

Preet Kaur Gill MP

The strength of feeling shown by MPs on this issue shows that it’s not going away any time soon. And as the government gears up to host the G7 this weekend, scrutiny will only increase.

In response to the debate and developments over the past few days, Concern Worldwide UK Executive Director, Danny Harvey said:

"We are heartened to see MPs stand up for what is right by voicing their support for oversees aid in parliament today. Right now, the world is at the brink of multiple famines in the midst of the worst health crisis in recent history, while millions in fragile countries are grappling with conflict and the devastating consequences of climate change. We hope that the UK government will keep its promise and return to spending 0.7% of GNI on aid as quickly as possible. The UK’s aid commitment has the potential to save millions of lives if the government allocates these funds wisely. We need an aid budget that is focused on famine prevention, addressing hunger and improving nutrition, and that builds on the UK’s track record of promoting gender equality in order to end extreme poverty. As hosts of the G7 this year, now is not the time for the UK to turn its back on the world’s poorest."

We will continue to highlight the impact the cuts are having in the places where we work. And we will continue to join forces with supporters and MPs to advocate for a return to 0.7% as soon as possible.

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