The UK government has faced a cross-party backlash and international consternation after cutting overseas aid spending from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of national income.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson saw off a potential parliamentary defeat on Monday over the controversial move, which has been openly opposed by more than 30 members of the ruling Conservative party.
A consortium of MPs pushed to amend an upcoming bill related to a new scientific research agency with a new clause that would reverse the cuts.
Citing parliamentary rules, Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle did not allow this to progress to a vote on Monday but invited MPs to debate the issue on Tuesday.
“I expect that the government should find a way to have this important matter debated,” he said, “and allow the House to formally take an effective decision.”
The cuts amount to almost €4.65bn and came despite the fact that the Conservative Party committed to spending 0.7 per cent on overseas development in its 2019 general election manifesto.
The U-turn took place in the wake of unprecedented levels of peacetime borrowing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For its part the government has pointed out it would still be spending more than €11.6bn on foreign aid in 2021 and contends that the move is a popular one.
Health Minister Matt Hancock said the decision was “entirely reasonable” and temporary, adding: “We face a once-in-300-years economic interruption."
Fears for post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ ahead of G7 summit
The clash in parliament came at the start of a week in which Johnson is poised to host world leaders at the G7 summit in Cornwall.
The UK is the only G7 country planning to cut its foreign aid budget in 2021 against the backdrop of the pandemic, which has now affected many of the world’s poorest countries.
If enacted, the move would turn the UK from the third-largest donor in the G7 to the fifth-largest, stoking widespread concerns it could harm the country’s global reputation.
Germany spent more than €23bn on overseas development in 2020, or about 0.73 per cent of gross national income, and has pledged another €1.5 billion this year in response to COVID-19.
France also announced a smaller boost in February 2021, bringing the country’s donations to 19 priority countries to around 0.55 per cent of its total income, in line with legislation approved by French MPs to raise this figure to 0.7 per cent by 2025.
Politicians roundly criticised the proposed cuts to the UK aid budget on Monday. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned the move could "severely damage the UK’s ability to secure agreements at both the G7 and the COP26”: the landmark United Nations climate conference set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland in November.
In an open letter to Boris Johnson, some 1,700 charities including Oxfam and ActionAid UK, academics and business leaders also warned against shelving the higher target.
“Despite ongoing COVID-19 concerns and national response,” they wrote, “economic forecasts by the Bank of England predict we are set to return to pre-pandemic levels of gross domestic product (GDP) by the end of 2021.
“There is, therefore, no justifiable economic need to continue to break our promise to the world’s most marginalised people.
“Without a reversal to this decision, the UK’s credibility and voice on the international stage will be undermined, and its calls to other G7 leaders to do more on critical issues such as vaccine delivery, civic space, education, gender equality, healthcare, climate change and famine prevention risk ringing hollow.”
Charities warn UK aid cuts already biting in war-torn and Covid-ravaged communities
Senior Conservatives warned on Monday that the cuts to foreign aid could cost lives, with former Brexit negotiator David Davis telling the BBC it was “morally devastating”.
He added: "If you're a small child and suddenly you get dirty water, you get an infection from it and you die, temporary doesn't mean much.
"If you're going to kill people with this, which I think is going to be the outcome in many areas, we need to reverse those [cuts] immediately."
In a private letter to the UK’s Foreign Office minister for Asia last week, a group of aid agencies warned the cuts would leave 100,000 mainly Rohingya Muslims at the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, without water before the deadly cyclone season.
Elsewhere organisations including Oxfam GB and Save the Children have warned the cuts will see 78,000 healthcare professionals go untrained in 2021 and more than 700 million donated treatments for tropical diseases go to waste.
Action Aid also said it had shut down seven shelters providing sanctuary for girls escaping domestic violence since the cuts were announced.
Other senior Tories, however, have backed the move, with ex-Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey arguing the UK shouldn't "end up going into deeper debt in order to finance other countries".
She said the UK should instead help poorer countries “trade their way out of poverty", adding: “If more and more aid was the solution, large parts of Africa would have escaped all poverty decades ago.”