By Patrick Wintour
Wednesday March 3, 2021
MPs say Commons vote is needed as funding budget has dropped below 0.7% of UK gross national income
The former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said ‘cutting aid is a death sentence’. Photograph: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA
Aid agencies say they are being forced to prepare to suspend health clinics in Somalia serving as many as 2,000 women and children a month, after they have been warned they may face cuts as high as 40% in their UK funding.
Action Against Hunger’s East Africa regional director, Hajir Maalim, said: “We have been told to make no financial commitments into the next financial year, only a month away, and this makes it very difficult to plan. We are facing the further threat of food shortages and the spread of Covid. Our scenario planning is for likely 40% cuts, and that will mean the closure of frontline health clinics in Mogadishu. If those cuts go ahead it will be like taking the bandages off the wounded. What we need as much as anything is certainty.”
The UK is the second largest provider of aid to Somalia, giving £147m in 2019-20.The government announced on Monday that it was cutting the aid programme to Yemen by more than 50% despite UN warnings of an imminent famine. The scale of the cuts to such a high-profile programme has shocked MPs, even though the UK remains the fifth largest donor to the country.
Asking an urgent question in the Commons on Tuesday, the former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell described the Yemen decision as “a harbinger of terrible cuts to come”, and urged ministers to let MPs vote on the planned cuts as soon as possible, saying they “were a strategic mistake with deadly consequences”.
He added: “This is not who we are. This is not what Global Britain means. Cutting aid is a death sentence. Cutting it by 50% is unconscionable.”
Conservative opponents of the cuts and shadow ministers fear government whips are planning to delay a vote as long as possible to give them time to impose the cuts, so presenting a fait accompli.
Former cabinet ministers David Davis and Damian Green joined Mitchell in trying to box ministers into staging an early Commons vote, arguing the government is legally required to hold one since it has deliberately decided to end the statutory commitment to spend at least 0.7% of UK gross national income on aid, taking it down to 0.5%. The 0.7% target is enshrined in the 2015 International Development Act. A reduction to 0.5% frees ministers to make an extra £2.5bn of cuts this year.
Green said legislation permitted the government to miss the 0.7% target during an emergency “but not to plan to miss it for an indefinite number of years ahead”.
He asked ministers to commit that further cuts won’t be made until changes to the legislation had been put to a vote.
The Foreign Office minister James Cleverly was evasive: “The Foreign Office is looking carefully at the requirements of the legislation and I can assure him from this position at the dispatch box that the government is well able to listen to the mood of the house without the need for legislation on this issue.”
On 26 November, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was less equivocal, telling MPs that the legal advice was “very clear that if we cannot see a path back to 0.7% in the foreseeable, immediate future, and we cannot plan for that, then the legislation would require us to change it. We would almost certainly face legal challenges if we do not very carefully follow it.” But he gave no commitment on timing.
Labour frontbenchers said ministers are now trying to avoid a vote because they know they will lose. “They want to impose the cuts, currently being discussed in embassies, and leave MPs in the dark,” one shadow minister said.
MPs have also accused ministers of trying to avoid spelling out where the cuts are going to fall this year, partly to avoid further bad publicity ahead of the government’s chairmanship of the G7 in Cornwall in June.
The total two-year cut in UK aid spending from 2019 to 2021 is £5bn with aid spending fixed at £10bn this year, down from £15bn two years ago. In July last year the government agreed to £2.9bn in cuts due to the Covid-induced fall in growth, and in September in the spending review ministers announced the cut in spending in relation to gross national income.
The majority of the cuts in 2020 were achieved by delaying contributions to multilateral organisations, but it appears that option is not available this year, making bilateral aid programmes more vulnerable. The scale of the aid cuts to Yemen had to be disclosed relatively early due to the UN holding an international donor conference.
Raab said on Tuesday that UK spending allocations for each country will be released in the autumn in the normal way.