£2m of aid money was used to fund Pope's visit

  • @oliver_wright

Nearly £2 million intended to be spent helping development in the world's poorest countries was diverted to pay for the Pope's visit to Britain. The Department for International Development gave £1.85m to the Foreign Office to help to pay for the costs of Pope Benedict's visit to England and Scotland last September.

DFID insisted that the money for the visit did not come from ring-fenced funds used for overseas aid. However, it admitted it would come out of central funds – used to support DFID projects around the world.

The revelation emerged in a report from the House of Commons international development select committee.

The "somewhat surprising" transfer to the Foreign Office was queried following a detailed investigation of DFID's annual accounts.

Initial figures published in November put the cost to Whitehall departments of the four-day state visit in November at £10m.

The committee called on ministers to explain how diverting development cash to subsidise the trip met global aid rules.

Malcolm Bruce, who chairs the international development select committee, said voters would struggle to understand why DFID money was involved. "Many people will be as surprised as we were to discover that UK aid money was used to fund the Pope's visit last year," he said. "Ministers need to explain exactly what this was spent on and how it tallies with our commitments on overseas aid."

DFID said it was one of a number of government departments that part- funded the Pope's visit.

"Our contribution recognised the Catholic Church's role as a major provider of health and education services in developing countries. This money does not constitute official development assistance and is therefore additional to the Coalition Government's historic commitment to meet the 0.7 per cent UN aid target from 2013."

The committee also warned that the higher priority being given in aid spending to war zones and other fragile states would make it harder to be sure taxpayers' cash was being well spent.

The committee welcomed the concentration on fragile states – generally the most poverty-stricken – but cautioned that it would lead to "severe difficulties in ensuring every pound is well spent in war-torn environments with corrupt and incompetent governments".

Well-run countries where the money might prove more effective were also bound to lose out, it said.

The committee also warned against being over-zealous in cutting administrative costs.

"The savings set out in the spending review should make it one of the most efficient development organisations in the world – with fewer back office and more frontline staff – provided they do not undermine DFID's ability to do its work effectively," Mr Bruce said.