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.

Desmond Swayne: Nigeria is independent, but it still needs Britain’s help

1 Oct

Sir Desmond Swayne is a former International Development Minister, and is MP for New Forest West.

Today, Thursday October 1, is the 60th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence from British rule. Celebrating Independence Day is important for any nation and it is no less the case for Nigeria which, having moved on from the days of British rule, has become one of the continent’s most prosperous, most populous and fastest growing nations. It is estimated that Nigeria will have a larger population than the United States by 2050 and it is already the largest economy in Africa.

This diamond jubilee of independence is of great national significance as it celebrates Nigeria’s past ties and collaborations, as well as future opportunities to build stronger connections and trading relationships in this post-Brexit new world. There will be many socially distanced celebrations to commemorate this occasion – the International Organisation for Peace and Social Justice will be holding an online thanksgiving prayer event for example.

However, beyond the joy of Nigeria’s Independence Day celebrations, this prayer event has another purpose, a more sombre purpose – and that is to highlight, mourn and campaign for further positive progress in the ongoing battle against the Boko Haram insurgents and other militia groups threatening the peace of the nation and the region. Since the year 2000, it is estimated that there have been almost 100,000 deaths in Nigeria caused by internationally recognised Islamist extremist groups who have been targeting both Christians and Muslims alike. This existential threat could well have wider global implications if we do not pray and act against it in a timely manner.

This continuing tragedy is underrepresented in the UK media and the scale of the crisis is sadly not fully recognised by all. I commend the hard work of organisations such as OpenDoors, HART, PSJ UK, CSW and others working to raise awareness of the situation in Nigeria.

There has also been some good news recently in this respect from the UK government. I fully support Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent announcement that he is considering diverting billions of pounds of foreign aid to bolster security. This would be a welcome early benefit from the new FCO and DFID merger and a step forward for many of us, who have been looking for an official recognition of the links between aid, security and development.

It is my hope that the UK government will move forward with this and use the aid that we give to Nigeria – almost £300m in 2018 – to ensure that Nigeria does more to safeguard human rights and protect lives. This strategy to help the millions of innocent citizens in Nigeria, trapped between some of the deadliest terrorist organisations, Islamic State West Africa and Boko Haram, as well as unidentified militias and bandits has broad public support. For example, a recent ComRes poll showed that requiring foreign aid to Nigeria be targeted on measures that safeguard human rights received over 50 per cent approval and rose to almost 60 per cent support for sanctions on individuals found responsible for these human rights abuses.

Of course, our foreign aid can do great work in countries like Nigeria, building schools, revamping hospitals and updating agricultural equipment. However, we must also continue to ensure that this funding does indeed go to those in need and does not disappear into a labyrinth of wasteful bureaucratic machines. Moreover, without support for persecuted and targeted groups much of our aid projects could simply be destroyed or rendered useless by attacks.

If the UK government embraces this bolder approach to foreign aid we will be able to genuinely use our position on the world stage to make life better for those in need all around the globe.

With the world still in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, today’s series of celebratory events in Nigeria and in the UK will be slightly muted with its citizens looking to governments in both nations to do more and follow through on its verbal commitments. Governments have a responsibility to protect their people and I hope to be raising more celebratory glasses to toast when this is fully achieved in Nigeria.