Shaun Bailey is the MP for West Bromwich West.
The 2019 election feels like a very long time ago, and a lot has changed since then. Our lives have been turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic, and it has been a time of incredible hardship for many of my constituents.
I’m proud that the Government has been there to provide support during this time, through measures like the furlough scheme and Bounce Back Loans. But the impact has been global, even if it has not affected us all equally.
The manifesto that my colleagues and I were elected on at that election could not have foreseen this turmoil, but it made one principled promise that should have withstood it – that our commitment to supporting the poorest countries would always be proportionate to our income.
I was sad to hear that promise abandoned in November, and this week has given us the first illustration of what it means in practice, which the announcement that our aid to Yemen is to be cut by 60 per cent.
Yemen is one of the poorest countries on earth, it has been ravaged by conflict for five years, and 80 per cent of its population rely on humanitarian aid to survive. The UN has warned that four hundred thousand Yemeni children are at risk of dying of starvation.
I may be naïve, but when I heard that the aid budget would be cut I expected support for crises of this magnitude to protected. I know my constituents have a variety of views about the merits of foreign aid in general, and some of them will be pleased to see our spending reduced. But I think there are very few of them who would look at Yemen, where half of all medical facilities have been destroyed, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes, and a child dies every ten minutes from a preventable disease, and say that we should be doing less to help.
At the Urgent Question on the cut in Parliament, there wasn’t a single voice from any party in support of the move. MPs can see what the public see – that even when we have to tighten our belts, we shouldn’t do so at the expense of people who are on the brink of famine. Indeed no other member of the G7 is cutting aid in response to the pandemic: all six are increasing their contributions while we reduce ours.
Ministers are clearly aware that they do not have the support of the House in cutting support to Yemen, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that they may not have sufficient support for the wider proposal to reduce the aid budget to 0.5 per cent of GNI. They must give Parliament a say though, if they are going to avoid the same level of fury every time a new area of aid spending is reduced.
Whenever that choice comes, I will vote to keep the promise on which I was elected, because I refuse to accept that as a country we are stepping back when the world’s most vulnerable people need us to step up.