A Tory Government could cut Britain's £9bn-a-year overseas aid budget by diverting up to £2bn of it to tackling climate change, aid agencies warned today.
A draft Tory policy statement, leaked to The Independent, reveals that a Tory Government would give the Department for International Development (DFID) a bigger role in helping developing countries meet the cost of combating climate change. But aid groups fear this would be a cover for cutting funds to Africa.
The Tories' green paper, which will be launched on Monday by David Cameron, will reiterate the party's pledge to match Labour's commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on aid by 2013. Aid and National Health Service budgets are the only two budgets which would be protected by an incoming Cameron Government as it sought deep public spending cuts to balance the nation's books.
But the promise on aid has been called into question, with suspicions that the party plans to funnel funds away from aid towards spending to fight global warming. The Tory paper says: "Action to tackle and adapt to climate change will permeate international development policy under a Conservative Government. It requires a multi-faceted approach. We will mainstream adaptation to the impacts of climate change throughout DFID's work by supporting development activities that reflect the changing nature of the climate."
Pressure groups are deeply concerned about the "mainstreaming" policy because the document makes no mention of a ceiling on how much of the DFID budget could be spent on climate change. Gordon Brown has promised a 10 per cent cap if Labour retains power. He has proposed a £100bn climate change adaptation fund as part of the negotiations on a new global deal to be discussed at a summit in Copenhagen in December. There has been persistent speculation in Tory circles that the party would try to spend less on helping the world's poorest countries.
Andrew Mitchell, the shadow Secretary of State for International Development, said: "The Conservative Party is fully committed to tackling both the causes and consequences of climate change, and the Department for International Development has an important role to play in this. Above all we will push for an ambitious international agreement that limits emissions and sees substantial financial resources made available to help developing countries adapt to the changing climate."
Kevin Watkins, a director at UNESCO, said that the spending on climate change could see the amount spent on traditional aid fall below the 2013 target. "The 0.7 per cent commitment is not unequivocal," he said. "The money spent on climate change could take a big chunk of the department's budget, meaning aid will be hit." Another aid agency head said yesterday: "It seems that the Tories would divert a lot of money from aid to climate change, while keeping the headline pledge on aid spending. That would mean a lot less help for Africa."
Aid groups are also worried about a Tory plan to offer "vouchers" to people in poor countries so they could shop around for schools. They fear this could undermine attempts to build up the state education system in developing nations and help "middle class" children rather than the poorest. One aid worker said this would boost private schools, describing it as "as assisted places scheme for Africa." Mr Watkins said that the Tory focus on vouchers was "an absurdity" that would set back progress. "The idea that you can trot around slums and dish out vouchers is so far fetched that it shouldn't be taken seriously."
The Tory paper also suggests a key role for the private sector in improving health care. Pressure groups say this could threaten a global drive towards health care being free at the point of use. "Rather than aiming to replace or eliminate the private sector from healthcare, we will seek to work with governments and the private sector to help them achieve the Millennium Development Goals," the document states. "This could involve regulating providers and creating a framework that allows both private and public provision to grow in a coherent way, until ultimately people have access to affordable healthcare.
"There are many different ways to provide healthcare. All health systems feature a mixture of private and public provision. We will not insist that developing countries follow the exact path that we in Britain have taken—that is a choice for them to make."