Huw Merriman and Simon Clarke: We will restore British aid spending, but must balance the books first

13 Jul

Huw Merriman is Chair of the Transport Select Committee and MP for Bexhill and Battle. Simon Clarke is MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland.

During this pandemic, there have been no easy choices. The country has faced something we hope we will never have to experience again. And while our brilliant vaccine success has provided us with our way out, we will still face tough decisions in order to rebuild back to where we were before.

This could not be truer of our public finances. At a time of unprecedented economic hardship, people from Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland to Bexhill and Battle, have been protected by the Chancellor’s support, receiving grants, loans and tax cuts, furlough and help for the self-employed to keep their businesses afloat and put food on the table.

They also know how much damage has been done to our economy and how we need to start the repair job in order to ensure that we can step in, if there is a next time.

This is the responsible thing to do and, as Conservatives, we have a clear duty to manage the economy sensibly so we do not leave impossible choices to the next generation. We owe it to the young people of this country, who have sacrificed so much in the last 18 months, not to saddle their country with debt which they will then have to repay.

In order for us to do this – to stabilise the economy, allow for it to grow, and pay for the public services we rely on – savings must be made. We accept this to be so and – while this is a difficult choice for us both – we believe this compromise on foreign aid strikes the right balance and is the responsible thing to do for the country.

These tests are fair, they will be arbitrated by the independent OBR and, crucially, they reflect what should be general good practice in managing taxpayers’ money.

Before Covid struck, we stood on a manifesto that committed to several things. One was to maintain our overseas aid commitment. Another was to keep our public finances in shape and ensure government debt is falling. No one predicted a few months later that we would be spending over £400 billion of taxpayers’ money to get us through a pandemic.

But we believe with this compromise, we can stick to both of those commitments if not by letter, at least in spirit. Aid will go back up to 0.7 per cent of GNI – one of the most generous levels of foreign aid in the world – when the economic circumstances allow. But we need a firm fiscal foundation first. Debt falling, and not relying on borrowing for day-to-day spending, will ensure we can build that foundation.

We are Conservatives who believe in the power of British aid. The UK is a moral and humanitarian leader by spending money on causes on top of our ODA budget: defence, diplomacy, trade, peacekeeping, and providing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to billions of the world’s poorest people, without profit. And when managed well, the billions of pounds in aid that we provide to developing countries do real good for the most vulnerable, supports stability, and helps curb population displacement. Our contribution has done so much for so many, and it will continue to do so.

But we are Conservatives who also believe in safeguarding our economy. With this agreement we will be able to look after people at home, paying for our schools, our hospitals and rebuilding our economy, as well as looking out to the world to help those who need us most.

They say to govern is to choose. We have chosen that this is the right thing to do – and we hope our colleagues do too.