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Government has “pattern of trying to hide foreign aid cuts”

23 June 2021

The Chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion MP, has called on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to show more respect for her Parliamentary Committee by providing better detail about departmental plans and spending.

The call was prompted by a change in the way that crucial information about foreign aid is presented - a change which Sarah Champion said meant her Committee could not properly fulfill its democratic role of scrutinising aid spending.

The International Development Committee Chair said the change in presentation was part of a pattern by the government of trying to hide cuts to programmes that help people in poorer countries.

As just one example of these cuts, the United Nations World Health Organisation (WHO) has told the International Development Committee in a written submission that hundreds of millions of people are at risk of painful, debilitating tropical diseases because of cuts to a UK programme to fight these diseases.

In addition, the WHO said that “a consequence of the aid cuts” would be that “20,000 – 30,000 individuals are likely to die, with the uncertainly in that estimate related to expected recent increases in disease due to Covid-19-related programmatic delays”.

Sarah Champion’s call for more respect for her Committee was prompted by a change in the way the Foreign Office presents its proposed spending plans (known officially as ‘Main Estimates’) on foreign aid. The change was discussed in an exchange of letters between the top official in the Foreign Office, the Permanent Secretary, Sir Phillip Barton KCMG OBE, and Ms Champion.

Correspondence with Committee

Sir Phillip explained in a letter to Sarah Champion on June 8, that most of the proposed spending plans incorporating the foreign aid budget for 2021-22 would now come under a single budget line called ‘Strategic priorities and other programme spending’. In previous years, this spending on foreign aid would have been broken down into several categories which would have given more detail on whether aid money was spent on, for example, emergency humanitarian aid or assistance to international organisations (such as the World Health Organisation).

Sir Phillip said the change was a ‘technical rationalisation’ resulting from the recent merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Department for International Development (creating the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office).

But Sarah Champion, in a reply said the lack of detail in the proposed spending plans fell short of what her Committee expected to see. She added that this was particularly the case given the rapid reductions in foreign aid (formally known as ‘Official Development Assistance’) ) and the high level of public interest in these cuts.

It was announced in 2020 that UK foreign aid would be reduced from 0.7 % of total UK earnings (‘Gross National Income’) to 0.5%. There has been considerable opposition in Parliament to this cut, from Conservative as well as opposition MPs.

Transparency

Other recent examples of a lack of transparency from the Foreign Office include:

  • In early May Sarah Champion asked the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab MP, for a breakdown over time of how UK foreign aid was being spent in countries and regions around the world. Mr Raab’s reply contained only a list of countries receiving aid – with no dates or numbers at all. Sarah Champion described this at the time as “a ridiculous way to inform Parliament.”
  • In late May the Foreign Office announced that it was slashing the budget of an independent body which analyses aid spending – the Independent Commission on Aid Impact. Sarah Champion said on this occasion; “Cutting the budget of the very body that helps UK taxpayers get value for money from the aid budget is a worrying new development that must be robustly challenged.”

In her letter following the latest development, the Chair of the International Development Committee called on the Foreign Office to liaise with her Committee so that spending plans “can be changed to better reflect the interests of the Committee and to improve transparency.”

Sarah Champion MP, the Chair of the International Development Committee, said:

“This is not the first time the Foreign Office has tried to fob us off with dodgy information on what it is up to. Lumping spending plans together, rather breaking down the detail, may seem like a technical issue, but it is not. The tactic makes it almost impossible to scrutinize, meaning my Committee cannot see where the priorities should be when it comes to supporting the poorest parts of the world and helping the UK taxpayer get the best value for money from the aid budget.

“Quite frankly, this pattern of behaviour is arrogant. It is bordering on showing contempt for my Committee - and by extension towards the democratic Parliamentary tradition of holding the government to account for its actions.

“We oppose the cuts to foreign aid because we know aid helps people in poorer countries. The tragedy of the cuts detailed by the World Health Organisation is just one example.

“We oppose these cuts and we will keep calling out the government every time it tries to hide them.”

Further information

Image: Crown Copyright