Michelle Lowe: Johnson has secured the Conservatives’ right flank – now we need to secure our left one

11 Feb

Michelle Lowe contested Coventry South at the General Election last year and is the former Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing & Health at Sevenoaks District Council.

The Southend West by-election result does not tell us very much except that UKIP is no longer much of a threat to the Conservatives. They not only lost their deposit but came after “spoilt ballot papers” and the Psychedelic Movement. Locally they have very few if any local councillors left after being spectacularly driven out in 2017. On top of that Reform UK only just about managed to keep their deposit in the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election.

It seems that no matter how unhappy voters are with the Conservative Party, apart from in the opinion polls, there does not seem to be much evidence of them actually switching to Labour in elections. The Lib Dems and Greens are, however, a different story. Not only did the Lib Dems win both the Chesham and Amersham by-election as well as North Shropshire, both parties are capturing more and more council seats in the South East. They will no doubt use their growing local government base to start attempting to capture Westminster seats at the next General Election.

Knowing that they are unlikely to form a Government any time soon, both the Lib Dems and Greens are shamelessly disingenuous in their promises. They claim there is no need for any more house building or large infrastructure projects such as HS2, but somehow they will also manage to find homes for young people and provide greener travel. For a party of government this is the impossible circle that Michael Gove is trying to square. How can he close the generation divide and make sure there are enough homes for young people to buy, while protecting the countryside?

To win in the affluent South East the party not only has to find a solution to the development problem, but it will have to be strong on social justice issues all round. Andrew Mitchell told the House of Commons last July that Chesham and Amersham has the biggest Christian Aid group in the country. The cut in foreign aid spending that is popular in some places probably helped to elect Sarah Green as the MP in Chesham and Amersham.

The Government’s new Levelling Up White Paper is attempting to address some of the social injustices that exist and were no doubt exacerbated by the pandemic. Focusing on infrastructure, schools, the NHS and low income households while empowering local government to deliver for its communities – the white paper is moving in the right direction.

In 2019 we suffered a terrible set of local government election results losing control of 44 councils and 1,330 councillors. In the South East the Lib Dems and Greens built on these results during the county council elections last year, and the Lib Dems and Greens now have a firmer foundation on which to try and win Westminster seats. They are very good at targeting specific seats where they are strong and not competing against each other. Once elected they blame the Government for not being able to deliver on its election pledges. They are leaving a patchwork quilt of rainbow coalitions that often include independents as well – and the glue that holds them together is their hatred of us!

In Sevenoaks, where I was Deputy Leader until I stood down in 2019, we held back the anti-Tory tide that year with a strong local brand that combined fiscal responsibility and efficiency, with compassion. Voters were not going to risk their weekly bin collection and low council tax by voting Green or Lib Dem – especially when their local Conservatives were also building Dementia friendly towns and villages and rolling out social prescribing to help with their wellbeing. So their consciences were clear. Unfortunately, the Town Council and County council brands were not so strong – losing the town council in 2019 and the County seat in 2021. Sevenoaks was by no means the only place where success was achieved – nationally we can learn a lot from these places.

So with local elections this year and next, and a General Election taking place sometime before December 2024 we can relax a bit from UKIP and Reform UK – but we need to prepare to defend our traditional heartlands from the Lib Dems and Greens by making clear they are not up for grabs. We have to find a way to protect our countryside while still building homes for young people, and we have to actively promote social justice and equality of opportunity. We must be seen as fiscally responsible and efficient but we must also make sure people know we care.

Liz Sugg and Ritah Anindo Obonyo: At this week’s Global Education Summit, we need to talk about sex

29 Jul

Baroness Liz Sugg CBE is a Conservative peer and Ritah Anindo Obonyo is a member SheDecides Kenya.

When Boris Johnson co-hosts the Global Partnership for Education summit this week, we want him to talk about sex.

Why? Because comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is absolutely vital to realising the UK’s commitment to ensuring 12 years of quality education for young people everywhere.

The Global Partnership for Education provides a vital opportunity for Boris Johnson and other world-leaders to commit funding to transforming education systems in the world’s poorest countries. That transformation must have CSE at its heart.

For girls in particular, access to comprehensive sexuality education gives them the tools and knowledge they need to understand their rights and to make decisions about their own bodies. Whether in Kent or Kenya, it helps to prevent gender-based violence and sexual exploitation. In fact, it is key to women’s and girls’ economic empowerment later on in life.

The benefits of CSE cannot be ignored. Girls who don’t receive sex education are more likely to drop out of school due to early marriage and pregnancy. In sub-Saharan Africa, four million girls leave school before finishing due to early pregnancy.

In contrast, when we provide CSE and information on reproductive choices, we can help girls stay in school. We know that girls who complete secondary education are five times more likely to be educated on HIV/AIDS, keeping them safer and giving them the tools they need to make decisions about their bodies.

Growing up in the Korogocho Slum in Kenya, I, Ritah Anindo Obonyo had no sex education. My two friends and I used to talk about what was happening to our bodies – both friends then dropped out of school as a result of early pregnancy.

Without sex education, young people access information from unreliable sources. They have poor reproductive health outcomes. They are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS – in Sub-Saharan Africa six out of seven new HIV infections occur in young women aged 15-24. All of these issues have a profound effect on women’s life chances and equality and have been exacerbated by Covid-19.

We know that women’s economic and social equality is impossible to achieve when women don’t have ownership of their own bodies. Sex education is therefore key to sustainable development.

For many years now, the UK Government championed our belief that CSE is crucial to girls’ empowerment. The UK taxpayer should be proud that, via the international aid budget, we have collectively helped empower vulnerable women and girls around the world.

But when I, Baroness Sugg, resigned as Minister for Sustainable Development and Special Envoy on Girls’ Education last year, I did so because the progress we have made on supporting women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health faced a grave threat with a budget cut that broke both the Conservative Party manifesto promise and international commitments.

Two weeks before the launch of the Global Partnership for Education Summit the UK Parliament approved the fiscal circumstances needed before we return to spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on international development.. This will unequivocally damage the rights of girls and risks rolling back decades of progress.

The cuts will force the closure of sexual and reproductive health services in some of the world’s poorest countries. It will lead to more women and girls being forced to access unsafe abortion. It risks more women dying in childbirth.

Simon Cooke, the Director of MSI Reproductive Choices and also a SheDecides Champion, has warned the cuts will “do more damage … than the global gag rule” – a US policy that denied federal funding to NGOs that offered abortion services or advice that resulted in 20,000 unnecessary maternal deaths and 1.8 million unsafe abortions between 2017 and 2000.

What will the UK Government’s record be?

The cut to international aid will end life-changing and life-saving programmes that deliver information and advice on sexual and reproductive health. We are deeply concerned about the long-term impact a lack of education about sex, respect, consent and bodies will have on girls in the Global South, particularly as they deal with the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Of course, we cannot change the past. But we can look to the future. As ministers prepare for this week’s Global Education summit, we ask them: are we going to leave women and girls behind as the world builds back better from Covid-19? Or are we ready to ensure girls’ rights are protected by investing in CSE?

The Chancellor has promised to work with parliamentarians to ensure the UK’s overseas development aid budget is spent in a way that has maximum impact. We know that ensuring every child has access to CSE will have a huge impact in the years and decades to come. It will create healthier and more equal communities. It will boost women’s economic empowerment. It will reduce maternal deaths, unsafe abortions, and rates of child marriage.

This week’s summit provides the UK with an important opportunity to raise its hand and recommit to quality education. We need to hear from the Prime Minister that he commits to funding education systems to include CSE, for every child in the world, no matter where they live.

So, Prime Minister, are you ready to talk about sex?

Ruth Davidson: The pandemic has been devastating for the world’s poorest girls. We cannot turn our backs on them.

18 Mar

Ruth Davidson is the MSP for Edinburgh Central and Leader of the Conservative Party in the Scottish Parliament. This is a sponsored post by Crack the Crises.

The pandemic has hit harder than I think any of us would have imagined when we first heard of another respiratory virus jumping species and spreading around the world. For over a year, our lives have been turned upside down.

While we have all been touched in some way, nobody would suggest that it has affected us all equally. There are dozens of factors that have impacted the way we’ve experienced the last year – in different parts of the UK we’ve faced different restrictions, our jobs have carried varying degrees of risk, and our age, ethnicity, whether or not we have children and our medical histories have shaped the challenges we face.

Following International Women’s Day, and when the safety of women and girls is hitting the headlines back home, it is worth noting that there are few groups for whom this experience has been more damaging than for the poorest girls in the poorest countries.

The UK Government has done much to highlight the inequality they face – the Prime Minister has been a champion for the power of girls’ education as a transformative force in development, and a series of ministers, including the brilliant Baroness Sugg who recently resigned, have driven that agenda forward.

Even before Covid-19 hit us, 130 million girls were out of school, but after the school closures introduced to restrict the spread of the virus, research suggests that ten million more girls are at risk of never returning to school. The immense efforts taken to get girls the opportunity of a better future that education provides are – in millions of cases – being reversed.

For too many girls, being out of school is not just about not learning. It can mean facing abuse, being put to work, being married off or otherwise having their futures snatched away from them. It is estimated that 2.5 million more girls are at risk of child marriage as a result of the pandemic, and one million more girls are at risk of adolescent pregnancy. For the lucky amongst us, this pandemic may have been a tedious intermission in our lives, but that, at base is all it has been. For these girls, it has taken away their ability to shape their own futures.

Over the last ten years, under Conservative Prime Ministers, there have been fewer more powerful forces for the rights of women and girls on the world stage than the UK Government. Projects like the Girls’ Education Challenge have supported millions of girls through school, our progressive leadership in family planning has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives in childbirth and helped women to control their own futures.

When others stepped back, such as in President Trump’s introduction of the Mexico City Policy restricting family planning, the UK stepped up. But Rishi Sunak’s announcement that the Government will break its promise to keep aid spending at 0.7 per cent of our national income puts this role in jeopardy just when it is most necessary. As every other member of the G7 increases its aid in response to the pandemic, the UK is alone in shirking from the task.

The recent reports of cuts in our support to countries like Yemen and Syria are a stark reminder of the practical impact of our broken promise. But It won’t just be in warzones where it’s felt. Girls growing up in extreme poverty, faced by the injustice of gender inequality and the oppression it brings, will have a lifeline withdrawn just when they need it most. I salute MP colleagues who are making it known to the Conservative whips that they will not be party to this abdication of our moral duty on the world stage.

For so many within the party, support of the 0.7 per cent is a cultural shibboleth helping to define the type of Conservatism we practice – and a quick headcount shows our number can tip the scales. So I welcome weekend briefing rolling back a permanent cut to a temporary one. But, frankly, I’d rather the Chancellor reconsidered his decision entirely. The UK shouldn’t balance its books on the backs of the world’s poorest and what a waste it would be to reverse the phenomenal progress towards gender equality of which we have been a part.

There has been much political discussion in recent years about how women succeed, what the barriers are and how we individually and collectively can overcome them. It’d be patronising to suggest that the intervention of others is the decisive factor in this, but it is absolutely undeniable that the context in which women grow up helps to shape their chances.

Millions of the next generation of women will have a tougher start in life, and a slimmer shot at success, because the withdrawal of UK aid will make it harder for them to learn, harder to avoid abuse and child marriage, and harder to take their futures into their own hands.

Mark Garnier: I have never voted against the Government before. But the proposed cut to foreign aid leaves me with no choice.

22 Jan

Mark Garnier is the Conservative MP for Wyre Forest.

In the decade that I have been a Member of Parliament, I have never voted against the Government. There have been times when I have been queasy about my party’s position, but politics is a team sport and a long game. One unpalatable policy is frequently part of a wider, worthwhile agenda. However, and with a heavy heart, I am closer now to breaking the loyalty habit of the last decade than ever before. And the cause of this anguish? The Government’s proposals to abandon our commitment to maintain aid spending at 0.7 per cent of GNI.

My colleagues and I were elected on a promise to uphold our aid commitment. Breaking my word to the electorate, or to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, is a very big deal. So it’s about political principle, but its also about what we wouldn’t be doing.

The cuts proposed amount to roughly a third of the aid budget. If applied across the board, it’d mean a third fewer children immunised each year, saving about 100,000 fewer lives; it’d mean nearly a million fewer children per year supported through education; and two million fewer people reached with emergency assistance in crisis.

The devastating impact that such a cut would have is a reminder of the phenomenal impact that our aid makes. As the world deals with a pandemic that is the biggest humanitarian crisis of my lifetime, and its myriad secondary impacts that hit the most vulnerable hardest, there couldn’t be a worse time to withdraw this support.

The Conservative-led government that took office when I was first elected to Parliament in 2010 was faced with a long list of difficult decisions in the aftermath of the financial crash. One of them was, in the words of Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development at the time, not to “balance the books on the backs of the world’s poorest”, and not to cut aid.

Ten years on, another global crisis and another Conservative government has taken the opposite view. Yet this cut would do little to balance the books. In the bigger picture of government spending its but a drop in the ocean, but for the impact we can achieve in the toughest places in the world it’s a colossal difference.

I’m also concerned about what this move would say about the role the United Kingdom seeks to play in the world – our “Global Britain” agenda. We look to the Biden administration to re-engage the United States with the world and, newly out of the European Union, we seek to present ourselves as their partner of choice.

In May, Samantha Power, appointed by the incoming President to lead the US Agency for International Development, in evidence to the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, said “Your development commitment speaks for itself really. The way in which that has been sustained over successive administrations speaks to a desire to change the world for the better”.

High praise for our Global Britain aspiration. Yet this will no longer be the case if the proposed cuts are carried through. Instead of seeing a country intent on changing the world for the better, our most important ally will see our country stepping back when it should be stepping up.

I don’t think I could reasonably be described as a habitual thorn in the Government’s side. I’m proud of what Conservative prime ministers have achieved over the last ten years, proud to have served as a minister and proud of the agenda that this Government has set out. But if it is intent on a U-turn on our party’s commitment to international development, then what choice will I have?

The campaign to oppose the 0.7 per cent aid cut will gain very little support from Party members

10 Jan

Here is a ConservativeHome members’ panel result that is unsurprising (so much so as perhaps to explain why it missed out on publication last month), but which it is nonetheless important to record.

The Government is in no place simply to suspend the target.  It was enshrined in law during the Coalition years, and Ministers seem to accept that, while the legislation allows the target to be missed unintentionally (and for the Government then to explain what it will do in future to hit it), it doesn’t allow it to be missed intentionally.

That will mean a Bill, to be debated before Covid-19 has fully receded, and with an unknown number of Tory MPs opposed.  Harriet Baldwin gave a preview of the arguments they will deploy on this site recently.

We will be surprised if the number of dissenters hits over 40, at which point the Government risks losing part or all of the Bill, though sources within their camp are bullish.  What’s clear if our survey is correct is that they will have very little support indeed from Tory members.

Harriet Baldwin: Cutting foreign aid is a blatant breach of our manifesto pledge – and I will not vote for it

31 Dec

Harriett Baldwin MP was a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development Minister of State.

When politicians break manifesto pledges they pay an electoral price. Think George HW Bush and “read my lips: no new taxes” followed by tax hikes and a single term as president. Think Nick Clegg and “no tuition fees” followed by tripled tuition fees and the loss of 85 per cent of Liberal Democrat parliamentary seats. But break a manifesto pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of your national income on helping the world’s extreme poor and those who suffer can’t answer back at the ballot box. It will even be seen as a good thing by many readers of these pages.

That’s why it’s so important for those of us who have had the privilege of seeing the good that UK Aid does to speak up on behalf of those who will lose out from the decision in the Spending Review to cut the aid budget to 0.5 per cent.

First and foremost, it’s not a good idea to break any manifesto pledge, but to break only one and to pick on the most vulnerable people in the world is deeply shameful.

Anyone who has seen the nutrition being given to babies in Ethiopia or Somalia appreciates that aid for nutrition saves babies’ lives. Fewer babies will survive without UK Aid.

Anyone who has witnessed the invention and then the cold chain deployment of an Ebola vaccine to the furthest reaches of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo knows that this deployment, funded by UK Aid has helped not only to control Ebola but to protect us here at home and help us develop the skills we need today for deploying the Covid-19 vaccine. Vaccines save lives, including our own.

Anyone who has seen the enthusiasm with which girls in Sierra Leone study their lessons knows that the best chance poor countries have to move beyond aid is through universal access to quality education. Fewer children will finish school if we give less in aid.

The aid budget has already shrunk naturally due to the link to national income, with cuts of £2.9 billion this year. Not only that but other Western countries which link their aid to their economic progress will be cutting as well.

Our economy, our health and our wellbeing have suffered terribly this year and we certainly need to recover both our health and our finances. But the shock to the most vulnerable countries is much worse. Famine, which has not been seen on our planet since 2011 is now stalking 10 countries according to the Nobel prize-winning World Food Programme. How will we feel about cutting aid if we see the kind of shocking scenes of starvation that started Live Aid in the 1980s?

With the UK hosting the 26th Climate Conference of the Parties in Glasgow in November we will rightly want to contribute even more to help the poorest countries adapt to climate change. Cyclones like Idai which hit Mozambique in 2019 will continue to ravage poor countries with increasing frequency.

At the peak of the pandemic, almost one billion children were missing school and when the UK co- hosts the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education this year with Kenya we will rightly want to be a leading donor.

Oxford University has developed a cheap vaccine. If approved, we should increase our vaccine commitment to the GAVI vaccine alliance to make sure that this vaccine reaches every poor country, proudly marked with the Union Jack UK Aid logo. In short, the lower aid budget will be spent fast.

The timing could not be worse. We have always proudly stated to our friends around the world that we are the only G20 country to spend the NATO target of two per cent on defence and the UN target of 0.7 per cent on overseas development assistance. We will begin our post EU future by dropping our soft power budget just as China’s economy recovers and they can increase their soft power projection. This will prove exceptionally short-sighted geopolitics.

For moral, diplomatic, humanitarian, educational and even for entirely selfish reasons about the kind of world I want to pass on to the next generation, I will certainly not be voting to break this manifesto pledge.

Stephen Crabb: The UK has a huge role in global disease prevention. We must not step back from our commitments.

2 Dec

Stephen Crabb is Member of Parliament for Preseli Pembrokeshire.

As the world continues to battle Coronavirus, the UK’s leadership in global health has never been more important. Investment in strengthening health systems, developing vaccines, and preventing global disease saves hundreds of thousands of lives every year and helps build the very infrastructure that will protect us all from future pandemics.

Cutting back our overseas aid at this time of global crisis raises questions about our ability to maintain these crucial programmes at their current scale. Not just in terms of our obligations to the most vulnerable in the world, but also in terms of our fundamental duty to protect our own citizens at home.

And we know that investing in global disease prevention has the firm backing of the British public. According to recent polling by YouGov, over half of the British public said they are now more aware of the importance of preventing global disease than they were last year and 82 per cent now think the UK should play a role. Furthermore, 88 per cent see this investment is important for the UK’s security, and this figure was even higher among Conservative voters at 91 per cent.

The UK has a strong track record in fighting global disease under successive Conservative governments. Take malaria for example: over the past decade, British political leadership, investment, and world-leading scientific research have been at the forefront of the global efforts which have seen a 60 per cent reduction in deaths since 2000, and seven million lives saved. The investments in tackling malaria have been incredibly cost effective, too, delivering £36 in economic and social benefits for every £1 spent.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a clear reminder of the fragility of progress against malaria, and the potential for the disease to surge in times of crisis. While many countries, governments and partners are showing incredible commitment, acting quickly, efficiently, and safely to move ahead with essential anti-malaria programmes, the full impact of Covid-19 on malaria responses may not be known for some time and cases and deaths are expected to rise.

Yet the current pandemic has also highlighted how tackling diseases like Covid-19 and malaria, and strengthening the resilience of frontline health services, go hand-in-hand. So much of the infrastructure needed to tackle malaria is the same as that needed to tackle Covid-19 and prevent future pandemics. Things like investing in data and surveillance systems that can provide early warnings and direct help to where it’s needed as fast as possible, and in supporting health workers who can diagnose and treat diseases accordingly.

In recent weeks we have also seen the importance of British science in the race to beat deadly diseases, with promising news about a new Covid-19 vaccine. Pioneering British science is also pushing the boundaries of knowledge to deliver practical solutions to help tackle malaria – from the development of life saving mosquito control tools supported by the Innovative Vector Control Consortium in Liverpool, to British companies like GSK which are leaders in development of a malaria vaccine. Again, this is an area where public support is very strong – with 79 per cent of people agreeing that the UK should invest in science and innovation to combat malaria specifically.

By continuing to channel not only British aid, but also British science, innovation, and technology to tackle diseases such as malaria, this government can proudly deliver on its 2019 manifesto pledges to end the preventable deaths of mothers, new-born babies and children by 2030 and lead the way in eradicating malaria – helping to save millions of children’s lives and countries to be much stronger in the face of future threats, for the benefit of us all.

That is why it is crucial that we do not step back from our international commitments now. We have a moral duty to the world’s vulnerable and a fundamental duty to protect our citizens at home. For both reasons, the UK must maintain its current financial commitments to tackling global diseases like malaria for the years to come, as a central pillar of British efforts to bolster future pandemic preparedness.

As we look ahead to next year, the UK-hosted G7 Summit and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda present key opportunities for our government to use its diplomatic muscle to encourage other countries to take action to improve their defences against future diseases, and continue the fight against existing ones. But being able to do so must be contingent on leading by our own example of maintaining our commitments in this vital field.

John O’Connell: To ensure efficient government spending, we need a new Parliamentary Budget Committee

24 Nov

John O’Connell is the Chief Executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Although the Comprehensive Spending Review will only set out plans for one year, rather than three, it’s still an important moment for the Government. It was of course elected on a Conservative manifesto pledging to spend more money, so no one should be surprised by a big overall boost on Wednesday. All eyes will be on exactly what the Chancellor spends more money on, and where the benefits will accrue.

While there will be a deluge of important data, it will be quite difficult for taxpayers to gauge whether the relationship between spending and outcomes is as efficient as it could be. In one sense, that seems like an unfair barb – after all, spending data is pretty transparent these days. But one thing is missing: government spending plans are not robustly scrutinised for economy and efficiency. That’s why the TaxPayers’ Alliance supports the creation of a new Parliamentary Budget Committee. Parliament could and should play a greater role in focusing government attention on efficient spending.

The detailed reports of the OBR allow taxpayers to assess the big picture. The Treasury Select Committee also does admirable work scrutinising public sector spending in terms of fiscal aggregates. So for example, it may flag up the dire long-term spending implications of continued low productivity growth in the NHS, but it does not scrutinise the causes, or compare performance with alternative healthcare models. It has neither the mandate nor the expertise to conduct such scrutiny. Departmental select committees are preoccupied. The fantastic Public Accounts Committee only looks at spending after it happens, not before.

Far better than stretching the remits and resources of these bodies, we should instead accept the central recommendations of the Leigh-Pugh report and implement a dedicated committee focused on scrutinising the economy, effectiveness and efficiency aspects of future spending plans. Australia and New Zealand already have similar models to examine and take lessons from.

There is always a difficulty in measuring the value of public service outputs provided free at the point of use. But much work has already been done both within Whitehall and outside (for example the Office for National Statistics’ work on public sector productivity). And the committee’s key purpose would be less about coming up with a definitive single measure of overall efficiency, than focussing departmental attention on improving efficiency as part of the routine planning and budgeting process – with a long-term view, in place whoever is in government.

Getting maximum value for every pound of taxpayers’ money is always important, in and of itself. But the imperative is perhaps even greater now. Even before Covid, the pressure on public spending was intensifying. An ageing population meant that spending forecasts were already gloomy. The 2017 Fiscal Sustainability Report from the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that spending on healthcare would be £88 billion higher, in real terms, by 2066. The same report found that annual spending on the state pension would be 6.9 per cent of GDP by 2070.

Add to that the Conservatives’ manifesto pledges, such as 50,000 more nurses, maintenance of the pension triple lock and 250,000 extra childcare places, which will not come cheap. Then, pile on the enormous sums of money spent in response to the pandemic – the latest OBR estimate is that spending decisions will amount to almost £180 billion. It’s not hard to conclude that we face a serious fiscal crunch.

There is also a dangerous narrative developing, at least in Westminster and media circles. The culture of Covid seems to dictate that enormous sums of money are actually just “rounding errors”.

Well, as for these rounding errors, it was recently reported that the Government may reduce foreign aid spending such that it is 0.5 per cent of national income, down from 0.7 per cent. In pounds and pence, that is a saving of £4 billion. It was called a rounding error by some – but £4 billion is close to the equivalent of a 1p increase or decrease in the basic rate of tax; it is more than a quarter of the police budget; it’s 10 per cent of the tax hikes that the Resolution Foundation seems to have convinced the Government we must have

In other words, it’s a lot of money. What’s more, the logic suggests that we approve every single pet project or scheme that gets enough retweets – what does it matter, they’re all rounding errors.

We know Rishi Sunak is going to spend more money, Covid or no Covid. But for the long-term health of the public finances, our system must ensure that we work to get value for every single pound before it is spent. A Parliamentary Budget Committee can help root out waste before it happens.

The proposed foreign aid cut. Many Tories are against it. But Sunak has limited options as he tries to salvage the economy.

18 Nov

Given the Coronavirus crisis is estimated to have cost the UK £210 billion and counting, the Government is under enormous pressure to explain how it will pay its debt back. One of the ways Rishi Sunak is reportedly planning to do this is by cutting foreign aid, which he is expected to announce in a spending review next week.

Currently, the UK spends 0.7 per cent of gross national income on foreign aid, a target that is recommended by the United Nations and was written into law when David Cameron was in office. But the Chancellor apparently wants to bring this down to 0.5 per cent. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said of the idea: “we are looking at how the aid budget is spent, ensuring it serves the UK’s priorities and represents value for money. It is legitimate to consider where savings can be made when the public finances are under huge strain.” 

Several prominent Conservatives have opposed the move. Tobias Ellwood, Tory chairman of the Commons defence committee, said: “The damage would be we are retreating from the global stage at the very time when we should be doing exactly the opposite.” Jeremy Hunt and Bob Neill are also against it, as is Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, apparently, who previously dismissed reports it would be cut as “tittle tattle”. Cameron’s disapproval has been made known in several newspapers.

One concern is that a reduction would harm international relations. Andrew Mitchell, former international development secretary, said: “It would be an extraordinary decision at the very point at which Britain is about to take over the chairmanship of the G7, with a new administration in the White House which will strongly champion the international system”, and Anthony Mangnall, the Tory MP for Totnes, echoed these concerns.

Others point out the moral case for keeping foreign aid as it is, given that the pandemic is when the world’s poorest people need help the most. Even before the cut was suggested, the Government was due to spend less than its anticipated £15.8 billion this year, due to a contraction in the economy. When Conservatives have spent tremendous sums on the flawed contact tracing app, PPE, and other Covid projects, some might call foreign aid a drop in the ocean.

And yet, others will say the cut is necessary at a time of intense national need. Given the Conservatives won last year’s election with a manifesto based on “levelling up” the UK, by way of domestic investment and infrastructure, the Government no doubt believes voters want this to be reflected when the Chancellor plans the economic recovery.

If there is a cut to 0.5 per cent, it’s also worth remembering that the UK will still be one of the biggest global contributors to foreign aid. In 2019 and 2018, it was one of only five countries to hit the UN’s 0.7 per cent aid target (level with Denmark, but below Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden), and there’s an argument that other countries need to increase their spending. New Zealand, Canada, Japan and the USA have not reached 0.5 per cent, never mind 0.7 per cent. 

Furthermore, it is understood that Boris Johnson wants this to be a time-limited measure, with a return to 0.7 per cent. In the interim, the UK can make a sizeable difference is by helping to facilitate the global supply of vaccines.

Either way, this is just the beginning of Sunak having to make some incredibly unpopular decisions about how to salvage the economy. Having become one of the most popular politicians in a staggeringly short period of time, he is now going to deliver policies that illicit completely the opposite response to Eat Out to Help Out. There is no painless way out of this. The next few months are going to be testing for the Chancellor to say the least.