James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to an Urgent Question on reductions in the overseas development assistance budget.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on reductions in the overseas development assistance budget.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. The pandemic has resulted in the biggest drop in UK economic output in 300 years, and it has had a major impact on public finances; the deficit this year is projected to be double its peak during the financial crisis. That is why we had to take the tough—but, I assure him, temporary—decision at the end of last year to reduce the official development assistance target from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%.
In spite of that, the UK will spend £10 billion on aid in 2021, making us the third largest donor in the G7 as a percentage of our gross national income. Not only that, but we will be the third largest bilateral humanitarian donor, spending at least £906 million this year, and we will invest at least £400 million bilaterally on girls’ education in over 25 countries. We will deliver £534 million of bilateral spend on climate and biodiversity, a doubling of the average spend between 2016 and 2020. We have committed £548 million to COVAX to provide vaccines for poorer countries, and we are multiplying our impact by integrating our aid spend with our diplomatic network, our science and technology expertise and our economic partnerships.
This Government’s commitment to the UK’s being a leader in development has not changed. The integrated review reaffirmed our pledge to fight against global poverty and to achieve the UN sustainable development goals by 2030, and we reiterate our commitment to return to 0.7% when the fiscal situation allows. This week’s new allocations show that we are following through with the vision that the Prime Minister set out in the integrated review. The way the UK applies our world-leading investment and our expertise must be strategic, in line with the approach defined by the integrated review, it must represent best value for taxpayers’ money, and it must deliver results by tackling poverty and improving people’s lives around the world.
To achieve this, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has conducted a thorough review of aid spending to ensure that we target every penny at the highest-priority global challenges. The Foreign Secretary’s written statement to the House last week set out how this sharpened focus of the FCDO’s aid portfolio lies behind seven strategic priorities for poverty reduction. These are: climate and biodiversity, covid-19 and global health security, girls’ education, humanitarian preparedness and response, science and technology, open societies and conflict resolution, and economic development and trade. We believe that this plan will deliver the greatest impact where it matters most.
When Germany will now exceed the 0.7% target, France is now pledged to hit it and the US is increasing aid spending by $15 billion, why is Britain, chair of the G7, breaking its promises to the poorest and the election manifesto commitment on which we were all elected, and which this country previously has so proudly upheld? Do the Government understand that the aid cut to Syria undermines our key ally in the middle east, Jordan, and will increase the flow of refugees into Europe? Do the Government realise that sending 300 troops to Mali while cutting humanitarian aid to the Sahel is a failure of understanding that puts our troops at greater risk? Why are the Government derailing our Prime Minister’s pledge on girls’ education with cuts that will result in 4 million fewer girls going to school while Britain is simultaneously hosting an international replenishment conference asking others to fund this key British objective?
The 0.7% is not just a commitment to the world’s poorest enshrined in law by this House; it is a reflection of the kind of country we aspire to be and the values that we uphold. Ninety-five per cent. of red wall voters approve of life-saving humanitarian aid, but that is exactly what the Treasury is cutting in their name. We are cutting £500 million in humanitarian aid. This will mean that 3 million women and children will not now receive life-saving support. Is it not clear that the original estimate of 100,000 souls who will die as a result is now a tragic understatement? This dreadful political—not economic—decision shames our country and our Government. It should shame us all.
I completely understand the passion with which my right hon. Friend speaks, but the simple truth is that the UK economy is 11.3% smaller than it was last year and is undergoing the worst economic contraction for 300 years. The coronavirus has put in place a unique set of circumstances to which we are forced to respond. Yet despite these difficulties—despite this economic impact—the UK will remain in both absolute terms and percentage terms one of the largest ODA donor countries in the world, and will remain the third largest ODA donor in the G7.
My right hon. Friend speaks of the areas where the UK wishes to be a force for good in the world. We are still absolutely committed to making sure that we use our ODA spend in areas such as girls’ education, the environment and climate and others, but with our diplomatic efforts as part of the joint Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as a force multiplier to ensure that the money we spend is amplified by our diplomatic efforts both bilaterally and on the world stage. I remind him that when the fiscal circumstances allow, we are committed to returning to the 0.7% of GNI which he, others and indeed this Government are so rightly proud of.
Last week the Foreign Secretary exposed his fear of scrutiny by trying to sneak out a written statement on his callous aid cuts. Today, having been forced to come to face up to his decisions by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), he has once again evaded scrutiny and hidden behind one of his Ministers instead.
Make no mistake, slashing humanitarian support in the middle of a global pandemic is callous and incredibly short-sighted. People will lose their lives as a result of the cuts, and we will all be less safe. As the only G7 nation to cut aid, it is a retreat from our moral duty and will weaken our position on the world stage.
The statement published last week was light on detail, so will the Minister tell us whether ambassadors have been informed of their allocated budgets and the date when all FCDO country office budgets for 2021 will be made public? Will impact assessments be conducted for each country? When will they be forthcoming? Will he explain the Foreign Secretary’s comment:
“Nobody is going hungry because we have not signed cheques”?
Sixteen million Yemenis and 12 million Syrian people are on the brink of famine. How does the Minister think the respective 60% and 30% cuts in aid will impact people in those countries?
The impact of the cuts on the Government’s own stated priorities are stark—from education, which has been cut by 40%, to health programmes such as the International Rescue Committee’s Saving Lives in Sierra Leone, which has helped more than 3 million people and has now been cut by 60%. In a year when Britain will be hosting the G7 and COP26, the cuts are a shameful act and part of a pattern of retreat from the world stage by this Conservative Government. Rather than continuing to treat Parliament with contempt, will the Minister commit to putting the cuts to a vote at the earliest opportunity?
The hon. Lady speaks about my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary attempting to avoid scrutiny; that would carry a bit more credibility had it not been for the fact that he specifically put the written ministerial statement in the public domain ahead of his appearance at the International Development Committee so that the Committee could grill him on that statement.
The hon. Lady made a point about our commitment to overseas development and assistance; I remind her of the answer that I gave a few minutes ago: we are facing an unprecedented set of circumstances. I also remind the hon. Lady that this is one of, if not the, most difficult economic years that the country has faced in a number of centuries. Even against that backdrop, we are committed to 2.5% of GNI—a proportion that previous Labour Governments managed to hit only a couple of times in the most benign economic circumstances. I am proud of the fact that this Government remain committed to being one of the most generous aid donors in the world and, as I say, to linking our diplomatic efforts with our development efforts to maximise the force for good in the world that we can bring about.
The British Government first committed to the 0.7% target in the year I first stood for Parliament. They would reach the target when they could; it took 39 years. The Minister’s prepared statement said that the Government intend to get back to 0.7% when circumstances allow. If they said that would be next year, the House would partly understand, but as the Minister has not, we have to assume that it will be more than a year.
A previous Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), said:
“The UK aid strategy sits firmly in our security and defence strategy. The 0.7% spent on international aid and the 2% commitment to NATO are the 2.7% that we spend, in our international interests, on securing a safer, more stable and more prosperous world.”—[Official Report, 13 June 2016; Vol. 611, c. 297WH.]
Will the Minister say how much would be saved by the reduction in the economy—the 11.2% to which he referred? That would be a big cut, but it is provided for in the legislation. Will he kindly read out the words that the current Prime Minister reinforced in our 2019 manifesto, when he added the word “proudly” to the commitment that repeated what was said by two previous Conservative Prime Ministers?
I completely understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. No one could have predicted the once-in-a-generation health and economic event that was covid-19 and we have had to take unprecedented action to respond to that. I can personally attest to the passion of both my right hon. Friends—the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister—for the priorities that we have set out in response to the urgent question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). The reason why we have not set a specific date in respect of the point at which we will get back up to 0.7% is that none of us can predict that—this is a genuinely unprecedented set of circumstances. The quicker we can get the British economy back into shape, the quicker we can get back to committing to development expenditure at the level that we would all want it to be at.
Last week, the Secretary of State admitted not only that 60% cuts would fall on Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, but that no impact assessment had been undertaken. He shamefully hid behind the pitiful excuse of needing to make difficult decisions. Was it a difficult decision to use the money to deliver a windfall for the defence budget and increase spending on nuclear weapons, or was it simply an ideological decision that everyone can see through clearly? The global covid pandemic should not be used as an excuse to cut aid. Indeed, it is our essential duty to increase support to the world’s most vulnerable during this crisis.
While this Government are intent on breaking their manifesto commitment to maintaining the 0.7% target, the SNP has pledged to increase the Scottish Government’s aid budget by 50% if re-elected next week. Indeed, the rest of the G7 have increased their aid spending as a result of covid, and over 200 non-governmental organisations have accused this Government of delivering a “tragic blow” to the world’s poorest people. Does the Minister believe that the G7 and all these NGOs are wrong and that the UK Government are right? Is this not further proof that the reality of global Britain is, indeed, rather little Britain?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the UK remains, in both absolute terms and percentage of GNI terms, one of the most generous ODA-donating countries in the world. He mentions the impact of coronavirus. The UK has donated over half a billion pounds to support COVAX to help to vaccinate the poorest countries in the world. In addition to that, we have commitments both for science and technology and for health preparedness as priorities. The UK Government have had to make—
The hon. Gentleman can shake his head, but the simple fact is that the UK Government have had to deal with an unprecedented, once-in-300-year economic as well as health event, and we have to respond, but we do so in a way that maintains our commitment to the poorest in the world.
The integrated review identifies the United Kingdom as a “soft power superpower”, citing as one of the reasons our contribution to international development. Exactly how is that position going to be enhanced by the action of cutting aid to the world’s poorest, including those in slavery? I note that slavery was not even referred to in the written statement issued by the Foreign Secretary last week.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the UK is viewed globally as a soft power superpower. The conversations I have had since the announcements have been made demonstrate that the international community still very much sees the UK as a soft power superpower. Our development expenditure is an important part of that, and that is why we are committed to getting back to 0.7% when the fiscal situation allows. We will continue to work with partners, and to lobby, co-ordinate and convene our international friends and partners to support the poorest in the world. We will not step back from that just because of the temporary financial situation we find ourselves in. I can assure her that she and I and, as I say, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are as one, in that we aspire to be a global leader in soft power and in development, and we will recover back up to 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows.
Over the last 12 months, this Government have asset-stripped our foreign aid programme, and along with it done serious damage to the UK’s global standing, security and soft power. All this was done without consultation or scrutiny by this House or the aid sector. To be quite honest, I am staggered that the Secretary of State tries to justify there being scrutiny of this House by sneaking out a statement last Wednesday before my Committee met the following morning. Can the Minister please tell us the date when this House will be told the funding allocation for aid projects by countries, and when will he publish the impact assessment that should have been done alongside the decision?
The written ministerial statement was put out so that the hon. Lady’s Committee would be able to scrutinise the Foreign Secretary. It is unusual, perhaps even unprecedented, to set out thematic allocations at the beginning of the financial year, as the Foreign Secretary has done via his written ministerial statement last week and in his IDC evidence. Detailed information about how we will spend ODA is usually set out in the “Statistics on International Development” process in the year following the spend, and programme-by-programme information is also published on the Development Tracker. We have tried to be as open and as transparent as we are able to be. Clearly we are still in the process of making detailed decisions. We have informed the House and her Committee of as much detail as we are able to at this point. As we go through country by country and theme by theme, more details will be forthcoming.
I am intrigued to hear the comment that it is a challenge that we will return to the 0.7% as soon as possible, because the Minister realises, like everybody else in this House, that the rest of the world is not standing still. Others are filling the gaps that we leave, and votes in the United Nations and different support elements are going according to those power dynamics.
Can the Minister assure me that the decisions being taken will be in keeping with the other decisions that the Foreign Office is taking in reinforcing our bilateral interests, defending British people abroad and making sure that things such as covid do not have pools of disease around the world in which they can develop further? Of course, aid spending is not actually about foreigners; it is about us and supporting the world we live in and making sure we are able to communicate, to travel and to operate around the world. Will he assure me that that in that integration, although we are committed legally to multilaterals we will not forget the bilateral commitments we have made, which are so much more easily dropped?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The UK is proud of the role it plays in multilateral forums around the world, and we are a leading player in many of them, but we are very conscious that we have incredibly important long-standing bilateral relationships around the world. I am very proud of the fact that we have maintained not only our commitments to multilaterals, but, through ODA and our diplomatic channels, our very strong set of bilateral relationships. He is right to highlight that both matter. Both are incredibly important to our partners around the world, and also, as he says, to the interests of people here in the UK.
Announcing these deep, potentially unlawful aid cuts through a written statement was cowardly, but in the context of coronavirus, the cuts are also incredibly short-sighted. Chile, Brazil, India, here—we have seen what happens when new variants emerge and countries become overwhelmed. Every time it happens, the virus then mutates even faster.
Last week, the all-party group on coronavirus heard that the cuts are likely to result in hurting scientists’ ability to catch the new variants abroad—variants that may well threaten our own recovery here. Although £1.3 billion has been allocated to coronavirus and global health, there has been no detail on the country-specific allocations. Can the Minister provide that clarity now? Can he assure the House that he understands that no one is safe until everyone is safe?
The UK has been a leading country in funding COVAX to ensure that poorer countries in the world have vaccinations as part of their arsenal to defend against coronavirus. We have a globally enviable ability to analyse and sequence mutations—information that we share with the world. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that no one is safe until everyone is safe, and that is why we are so very proud of the research that has happened here in the UK, which is being shared globally through the COVAX and Gavi processes. We are also proud that we are committing to a significant investment in science and technology and research as part of our ODA expenditure, for the very reasons that she outlines.
Could I just put the Minister right? The Foreign Secretary put out the statement at gone 5 o’clock the night before we met at 9 o’clock the following morning, so he did not give much time for anybody to digest what was in it and there was not much in it to start with.
I am deeply saddened and very upset that we are going to be balancing the books in this country on the backs of the poorest in the world. When are the Government going to come clean and be honest about where these cuts to lifesaving humanitarian aid will fall? How many women and children will die as a result? Is it more or is it fewer than the 100,000 estimated by the leading think-tanks and NGOs?
Just before the Minister answers the question, I must make a plea. It would be good if I could manage to call everyone who is on the call list for this statement, but I cannot allow it to go on for more than an hour because we have several other pieces of business. It might be helpful for Members to know that, as things stand at the moment, the calculation is that the House will sit till about 1 am or 2 am tomorrow morning. I realise that that will not matter to the people who are sitting comfortably at home, but it does matter to the people who keep this Chamber and this building running. I am not criticising the Minister, who has been giving thorough answers—that is what the Chamber is looking for—but now that he has given thorough answers, perhaps he might be inclined to give shorter ones.
Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker.
There is always a balance between the earliest points at which information, and the detail of that information, can be shared. We are not yet in a position where we can share the granularity of either thematic programmes or country programmes. We did not want to delay giving any information to the House in order to do that. That process is going forward, but at the moment it is not possible for either the Government or anyone else to predict with any accuracy the impact that global situations have. However, we are absolutely committed to being and remaining one of the most generous ODA-donating countries in the world.
The Minister will be in no doubt whatever where I and others stand on this issue. Indeed, in my own debate at the end of March I flagged the dreadful decision to cut our aid. Will he outline to me and others in this House how we can possibly fulfil our moral obligation to nations who rely on our support, in particular those in the Commonwealth, at a time of the greatest insecurity since the war years? Will he and the Department not rethink this decision, which is tantamount to a death sentence to so many people?
I completely understand the passion with which the hon. Gentleman speaks. He speaks on international affairs issues with great authority and passion. I remind him that while of course the totality of ODA expenditure matters, this is one of the most difficult economic circumstances that this country has faced in many centuries. Yet even in these circumstances, I assure him that we are still committed to more than has been the historic norm for this country under Governments of other political persuasions. I also assure him that as soon as the fiscal situation allows, we will be returning to 0.7%.
The awful scenes we are seeing in India are obviously having a deeply personal and human impact there, but they are for many here too. People are dying right now and, as we know from our experience, rising case numbers can mean only one thing. They cannot breathe. The UK may have committed £330 million per year to Gavi through to 2025, which is good, but it is a drop in the ocean. What more can we do, through the Minister’s good offices, to export our vaccine miracle to our historical good friends in India who really need us right now?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. India remains a long-standing and close friend of the United Kingdom. It has come to our aid in times of difficulty and it is absolutely right that we reciprocate that now. I am very proud of the fact that the UK Government have moved quickly to help to supply oxygen-related technologies. We are also committed to ensuring that the scientific breakthroughs that the teams at Oxford University have created, alongside AstraZeneca, will be shared globally around the world. We are assessing what more we can do to support one of our very longstanding friends around the world.
The Minister says that Britain has a huge commitment to the poorest around the world. If we do, this is a strange way of showing it: we are cutting aid budgets while at the same time increasing arms expenditure. More than 2 billion people around the world have no access to safe, clean water. Many more have even less access to sewerage or any other kind of facilities. For many around the world, security is something to eat, clean water, a health service and the ability to have their children educated. What kind of message to the world is it that we cut aid expenditure while at the same time we increase the defence budget by £24 billion and massively increase the number of nuclear warheads? Instead, should we not give a message to the covid-dominated world that we are committed to bringing good, decent water and healthcare around the world as our absolute priority to bring about security for the whole planet?
More often than not, security and the alleviation of pain and suffering go hand in hand. All around the world, the prevention and resolution of conflict is the most significant positive move that could be taken to alleviate pain and suffering. That is exactly why the integrated review looks across the gamut of international affairs, including defence and security, as well as diplomacy and development. It is right that we think of these things hand in hand.
Is the UK now stopping making overseas aid payments through the EU, given the way it has been spending money on a country such as China, which has $3.2 trillion in reserves? Is this not an opportunity for the UK to express its own moral priorities, and secure better value for money by making more of its own direct choices and payments? Can that include being very generous in response to the current Indian crisis?
My right hon. Friend makes the important point that, having left the European Union, the United Kingdom can now make its own decisions. In many instances—not in all cases—the positions that we take now are similar to those that we took as members of the European Union. He will note that we have significantly—almost completely—reduced our aid support to China; the only expenditure now is in support of human rights and open societies. As I said in response to an earlier question, we will be focused very much on how we can support our friends around the world in their times of need.
I have great regard for the Minister. I think he is an honourable man. But I am sorry, the Prime Minister who he has been defending today is a moral vacuum—a “vacuum of integrity”, as one of his colleagues said today. We have a Prime Minister who does not believe at all in international aid. That is the fact of the matter. Friends of mine are working on the frontline in Delhi, in India, and it is a tragedy. It is a tsunami. We should have been at the front with a massive aid package. Please can we have a vote in the House because this was not in the Conservative party manifesto at the last election and I do not think this aid cut would carry a majority?
I can assure the House that the Prime Minister is absolutely committed to supporting the poor and suffering people around the world. Through the priorities that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary outlined, including climate change, biodiversity and girls’ education—something the Prime Minister is particularly focused on—we have seen that we are absolutely committed to these things. I will say again: the circumstances in which we find ourselves are unique; they are unprecedented: the biggest economic contraction this country has seen in 300 years. It is right that the Government respond to that, but I remind the House that, even in the midst of this response, in percentage and absolute terms, we remain one of the most generous aid donor countries in the world.
The Office for Budget Responsibility says that the economy will return to pre-pandemic levels of activity in quarter 2 of next year, so why do the Government not commit to returning to 0.7% at that point? It is the fact that they will not do that that makes people worry that this is a conscious political choice, not force of circumstance caused by the pandemic. According to Save the Children, 400,000 children in Yemen will not be fed because of this cut in British aid. I know that the Minister has to defend decisions that he has not personally made, but is this not defending the indefensible?
My right hon. Friend knows that we make decisions collectively in Government. I defend the decisions that I am part of making and I am not going to imply that I am passing the buck to anyone else. These are difficult decisions that we had to make. He has sat in that seat and knows how difficult decisions are made—how difficult decisions can be. We all hope that the UK economy will recover as quickly and completely as he suggests. If that is the case, it may well be that we are able to return to 0.7% sooner rather than later, but it would be wrong and foolhardy of me or indeed anyone else at the Dispatch Box to give a date when the circumstances are still so unknown and unpredictable. I can assure him, however, that, as soon as the fiscal situation allows, we will return to 0.7%.
Order. I have to say that it is not fair to the Minister if people ask the same question over and again, so he feels obliged to give the same answer again and again. I can now say to the Minister that he has given many answers very strongly and emphatically and he does not have to feel bad about saying to Members now, “I refer them to the answer I gave a few moments ago,” because at this rate not everyone will get in.
Yemen, we believe, will suffer some 60% cuts in our development assistance, yet it is a country where the world’s failure to stop a brutal war means that children are dying of preventable disease and now of starvation. Would the Minister seriously say to a mother or father nursing a dying child that this is all about the economy and the economic recovery of this country?
The UK remains one of the largest aid donors to Yemen. But alongside that, we are also giving support to Martin Griffiths, the United Nations envoy. We are liaising directly with the Houthis, the Government of Yemen and other parties in the region to try to bring about a resolution to that conflict. The best gift we can give to the people of Yemen is peace and that is what we are pursuing. While pursuing that, we are also maintaining our commitment to support people, feed people and try to keep them alive until peace comes to that country.
Instability in Afghanistan and the growing confidence of the Taliban are a threat to international security and will impact us here in the UK. Can the Minister give me some assurance that an assessment has been made of withdrawing support to Afghanistan, especially the impact that will have on Afghan women and girls who rely on us for education and basic healthcare?
I can assure my hon. Friend that we think carefully about the implications of all the decisions we make and indeed the decisions made by other countries around the world. We remain committed to women, peace and security as an agenda and the education of women and girls in particular. We will absolutely continue to pursue both those agendas.
We have heard a succession of senior Conservatives condemn this decision as “shameful”. As well as the humanitarian costs, the ODA cuts have a direct impact on UK research and development. The Royal Society tells us that its programmes are being cut by around 70%. Can the Minister tell me whether the Government were aware of those consequences when the decision was made and whether he has seen or carried out any impact assessment?
It is the normal process of this Department and its predecessor Department to speak regularly with our delivery partners and opinion formers in the sectors with which we work. The decisions we made are difficult, and they are driven by the economic circumstances. As I have said a number of times, we will get back up to the 0.7% to reinforce the sectors that the hon. Member speaks about as soon as the fiscal situation allows.
Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the pivot away from UK taxpayers’ money being used in aid to totalitarian countries such as China towards more open and democratic parts of the world?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. The UK is committed to supporting democracy and political stability around the world. He will have seen in the written ministerial statement the commitment that the Foreign Secretary made to reducing our ODA expenditure in China and focusing it exclusively on human rights and open societies.
To paraphrase the journalist Ben Taub, radicalisation lies in a shallow grave. Can the Minister advise the House how reducing refugee support in Syria from the £137 million pledged last year to £45 million this year will not play a part in resurrecting radicalisation in Syria and the wider middle east?
We completely understand that instability and failed economies are drivers of terrorism and radicalisation. That is why the UK remains committed to supporting Governments around the world in both maintaining their economic stability and alleviating the suffering of displaced people, and we will continue to do so.
From covid to Ebola to malaria, we have all seen how important international scientific research is, and we are proud to be a world leader in this. If we are to continue that progress, it does not make sense to cut those international budgets just when their importance is so clear. Will the Minister meet with scientists and find a way to ensure that these vital research programmes can continue uninterrupted?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. The FCDO has committed £253 million on R&D this year across the seven themes. Of course, we are always keen to hear from expert voices. I cannot make a commitment that we can necessarily respond in the way that they would want us to, because of the fiscal situation that I have discussed, but we absolutely recognise that science and technology in so many areas—for example, in covid—is the key that unlocks many of the world’s challenges.
The Government’s reductions in the overseas development aid budget, FCDO research spending cuts and now other departmental cuts, according to the research profession, amount to more than half a billion pounds lost to research. Does the Minister agree that, while we battle a once-in-a-generation pandemic, the effects of which across the world we see every night on our TV screens, science is at the heart of many of the solutions we desperately need and that the Government need to continue to invest in and grow science talent and champions of evidence around the globe, not step back in this way?
The work that the science community around the world has done in bringing vaccines to bear as quickly as it has is a testament to how important this sector is. The UK absolutely remains committed to being a global leader in science, technology and research, and we will do that both domestically in the UK and internationally through our ODA expenditure.
I am no pinko leftie and I sometimes pointed out distortions caused by the 0.7% commitment at the end of the financial year, but I am completely mystified from a public accounts point of view about what is going on here. Is it not a fact that, because of the contraction of the economy, the aid budget would have declined by some £2.9 billion anyway? The Minister is now imposing another £4 billion cut on that. We are causing complete chaos, with international development staff all running around trying to cut the budget. Now, by the Minister’s own logic, he is going to revert to 0.7%. We know the economy is going to bounce back, so having cut all this money, they are going to have to put it all back again. What is the logic from a public accounts perspective in what we are doing? Why are we causing such incompetence and chaos in the Department?
As I said, the economic situation has been forced on us by coronavirus. May I suggest that my right hon. Friend has misrepresented the situation in the FCDO in terms of the actions our officials have taken? I have been deeply impressed by the professionalism and the speed with which FCDO officials have responded to this once-in-a-generation—once-in-a-lifetime—situation. We are keen to get back up to the 0.7% as soon as the situation allows. Our officials will look very carefully at what programmes we are not able to continue with and what programmes we will be able, or would choose, to either restart or start anew once the financial situation improves.
In 2019, the UK pledged £400 million to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative between 2020 and 2023—£100 million per year. Last week, it was confirmed that the UK will contribute only £5 million to GPEI this year—a 95% cut. Will the Minister explain how his Government will make up for 2021’s shortfall in a subsequent year, and deliver on the £400 million commitment by 2023?
I am not able to make commitments for future years. The economic situation is probably more unpredictable now than it has been in our lifetimes. What I can say is that we will seek to get the UK’s ODA target back up to 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for asking this urgent question. The Government have claimed that improving the education of girls globally is their priority, but Save the Children estimates that the Foreign Secretary’s decision will result in a 25% cut in spending on girls’ education worldwide. The funding slash is detrimental to girls in developing countries. In the light of the cuts, does the FCDO expect to fulfil the Government’s manifesto promise?
The economic situation we find ourselves in is unprecedented and not one that any of us could have predicted when generating the manifesto. The hon. Lady will have heard our commitment to get back up 0.7%. Girls’ education remains a priority for the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Government as a whole. I am pleased that the Prime Minister has appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) to be his special envoy for girls’ education, and I have seen the energy that she has already applied, with alacrity, to that incredibly important work.
The original 1958 aid target was 1% and covered public and private aid flows. In 2013, the OECD said that we were getting 1.21% in total. Will the Minister make sure that in the future private as well as public aid flows are recorded, so that we have an up-to-date picture of total aid spending?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. I do not have at my fingertips the figures for private donations from the United Kingdom, but I think we all know not only that, through the UK Government, we remain one of the most generous ODA-donating countries in the world, but that the British people are incredibly generous. We can all be proud of the way the British people step up whenever there are international challenges. My hon. Friend is completely right that Government ODA spending is incredibly important, but so is the huge amount of money donated by private individuals in the UK.
The Indian community in my constituency is traumatised by the scenes that we are seeing of the covid crisis in India. I welcome the UK’s emergency package of ventilators and oxygen concentrators, but the Minister earlier acknowledged that no country is safe until the virus is under control in every country. Is this therefore not the worst year to cut the aid budget, because by doing so he is endangering lives not only overseas but here in the UK too?
I have already said how proud we all should be of our support to India. This is part of a long-standing bilateral relationship, perhaps one of the strongest in our history. All I can say in response to the hon. Gentleman’s broader question about ODA is that it is driven by circumstances and that we will get back up to the 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows.
Will my right hon. Friend explain—if not now, perhaps in writing—why the Government seek to change the 0.7% target set out in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, rather than to utilise the provisions of the Act to explain why they are unable to meet it at this time? If indeed the Government are seeking to change the target and believe that they may do so without further legislation or parliamentary sanction, what does he believe that the 2015 Act was intended to do, if not to stop Governments doing exactly that?
The 2015 Act envisaged that there might be circumstances in which a Government would be unable to meet the 0.7% target. As I said, this is a truly unique and unprecedented set of economic circumstances. We will look to get back up to 0.7% as soon as the situation allows. We will look at the situation with regard to legislation.
Will the Minister confirm—he has yet to do so—whether any impact assessment was made of the cuts, in particular to Yemen of 60%, Syria two thirds, Libya 63% and South Sudan 40%? Does he not recognise that the feeling of the House is such that those serious measures, those damaging cuts, should go to a vote of the whole House?
Of course the whole process that we are going through is to balance the decisions that have been forced on us by economic circumstances and the impact that they would have. The whole job of the Department is to make those incredibly difficult decisions. That is the job that we do each and every year. Those decisions have perhaps come into sharper focus this year because the economic situation has forced the reduction in our ODA expenditure, but this is what the Department does: it balances the expenditure that we have at our disposal and assesses the best way in which we can maximise the positive impact of that money.
I ask the Minister a simple question: does he think that the world will be safer or more dangerous over the next five to 10 years? We know the answer to that: authoritarianism is on the rise, power bases are shifting, and international institutions are struggling as we enter a profound and dangerous era of change. Our soft power counts, and reducing our support will leave vacuums to be filled either by countries such as Russia and China pursuing a very different agenda, or by extremism, taking advantage of poor governance and insecurity. I ask the Government not to jeopardise our seat on the UN Security Council by cutting our soft power in this way.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and the work of his Committee. He and I have discussed the integrated review, and the unpredictability and potential dangers that the future might have in store for us. That is why the integrated review is such an important document to assess our development expenditure. I absolutely hear the point that he makes about how such expenditure has an influence on our soft power standing, but he will also recognise that integrating our defence, security and diplomatic efforts is incredibly important. We enjoy a huge amount of soft power, notwithstanding this temporary reduction in our ODA expenditure. I have no doubt that once we can get back up to 0.7%, we will be able to reinforce further still the important work that we do on the international stage.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, I am deeply disturbed that 60 African researchers on the Royal Society’s future leaders programme have been left without funding without warning because of these cuts. As MP for Newcastle University, I am deeply disturbed that funding for its global challenges hub has been cut by 70% without warning, making researchers redundant unless the university steps in. Will the Minister at least agree to remove the cap on carrying over previous years’ underspends on UK Research and Innovation ODA-funded research to help save research and jobs in Africa and the UK?
The Government absolutely recognise the importance of Africa, in terms of the challenges it faces and the opportunities that it presents itself with. We will spend around 50% of our bilateral ODA in Africa. I am not able to give commitments on the granularity of how programmes will be funded or, indeed, with regard to carry-overs, but as I have already said, we absolutely recognise the importance of research and development as a theme and Africa as a continent.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was absolutely correct in pointing out that this represents a double cut: it is a cut from 0.7% to 0.5%, but it is also, of course, 0.5% of a lower figure, because gross national income has fallen. Can my right hon. Friend the Minister tell the House what effect that is going to have on the Ascend programme, what effect it will have on research into the treatment and prevention of malaria, and how many young women around the world will not receive education as a result of what I am afraid I have to regard as a breach of faith?
I am not able to provide my right hon. Friend with the level of detail that he has asked for at this stage. The thematic programmes that were set out in my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s written ministerial statement will now be worked out in more detail, and we will provide detail to our delivery partners as soon as we are able to, but I am not able to furnish the House with those figures at the moment.
The rate of HIV infection remains stubbornly high—1.7 million people acquired HIV in 2019—and AIDS remains the leading killer of women of reproductive age. These are all preventable deaths. The UK’s most recent pledge to the Global Fund, in 2019, saved 2 million lives. The proposed cut to global health spending is 40%; if passed on to HIV funding, that is 800,000 lives. Can the Minister confirm that there will be no cuts to the Robert Carr Fund, the Global Fund, UNAIDS or HIV research—including on a vaccine, which we are now very close to—and that we will renew and fully meet, without delay, all those pledges that we have made to save those lives?
The hon. Gentleman makes the important point that while the attention of the world is rightly focused on coronavirus, that is not the only significant health issue facing the world. Unfortunately, as I said in my previous answer, I am not able to give assurances on individual programmes at this stage. The detail that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out in his written ministerial statement is available to Members online, and we will be providing further details as our teams, both in country and thematically, work through the next stages of the programme.
We have almost run out of time, but I will try to get in the six people who are left. Can we please have really short questions and really short answers? I think the Minister has answered every conceivable question.
My right hon. Friend is fully aware of the excellent work undertaken by arm’s length bodies such as the British Council in fostering better understanding and relations with other countries. We are indeed a soft power superpower. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that these ODA reductions do not lead to decisions that will damage those bodies’ long-term effectiveness?
We are conscious of the potential long-term impacts of what we believe to be a one-off and hopefully short-term situation with regard to the economic impact of coronavirus. We will look carefully at the best use of taxpayers’ money to ensure that important delivery mechanisms can continue into the future.
The pandemic has set back progress in healthcare and education for many years, at a time when the Government are cutting aid for reasons that, again, have not been justified. The medical supplies that the UK is sending to India are welcome and vital, but the evidence is clear: long-term strategic support is key to building resilience and capacity, and to preventing future problems from doing the type of harm that we are now witnessing in India. Does the Minister recognise that aid cuts now—even if restored at some point in the future—are, at best, penny wise and pound foolish?
I have answered the broader question about our budget situation a number of times. The hon. Member is right that the resilience of our partner countries is an important factor, which we consider when we make the decisions that we have made.
I know, through my work as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Angola and Zambia, of the excellent work of TradeMark East Africa in upgrading borders so that trade can take place more easily, thereby helping developing countries to move from aid to trade much more quickly. Will the Government therefore protect the budget of TradeMark East Africa for this excellent work?
Although I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s broader point about helping countries move to economic self-sufficiency, I cannot give assurances for individual projects at this time.
UNICEF says that we are facing a children’s rights crisis, so will the Minister tell us what steps he has taken to ensure that children are protected from the impact of these cuts and that the UK continues to support children who find themselves living in desperate situations?
As I have said before, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Government as a whole take the plight of children around the world incredibly seriously. That is why we are so committed to education, particularly of girls, which has been prioritised in our planning of this process.
I have visited many successful UK aid-funded programmes, so I am disappointed by the proposed cuts to our aid budget. The Minister has confirmed that economic development is a priority for the Foreign Secretary, so does he agree that in order to help countries trade out of poverty and to deliver a truly global Britain, we must continue to fund aid for trade ODA programmes that help the poorest people in the world and enhance our mutual prosperity.
Although humanitarian issues will always remain a priority, the Government have ensured that we still spend some ODA money on the resilience and strengthening of the underlying economies of a number of countries around the world, addressing the very point that my hon. Friend makes.
The Scottish National party has committed to increase aid spending by 50% next year if back in government, despite the constraints imposed by Westminster. With the worldwide pandemic, COP26 to come and loss and damage to be discussed, it is ridiculous that the UK Government are cutting aid. Did the Minister fight his corner to protect the ODA budget, or does he not care enough about the poorest and most vulnerable?
I, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister, every Minister in this Government, and, I have no doubt, every Conservative Member, are absolutely passionate about support for the poorest people in the world. I am glad that the hon. Member’s party has chosen to be so generous. It is Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland working together—as a globally renowned Union—that enables his Government to be generous overseas. I am proud of the fact that our strong Union relationship allows them to do so.