Leading Article: Sweetener hides a bitter truth

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The Independent Online
AGOVERNMENT that portrays itself as a believer in basic values is increasingly being shown to be a ruthless practitioner of realpolitik. The Scott inquiry is revealing the extent to which ministers and officials have been prepared to bend the rules to boost British exports to Iraq, despite their military potential. To that can now be added the linking of a large slice of Britain's development aid budget to a big arms deal with Malaysia.

The project involved was an uneconomic dam. The Prime Minister himself insisted that the funding should go ahead as a sweetener. His own officials said it would be a waste of taxpayers' money. For years ministers denied that there was any link with the weapons deal. Finally, this week, the truth emerged at the Commons Public Accounts Committee hearings into Britain's funding of the hydroelectric project in Pergau, Malaysia.

The arms deal was worth pounds 1.3bn, while the aid given will eventually amount to pounds 234m. This is a huge sum. The total annual British aid budget is just pounds 1.9bn, and only India receives more than pounds 100m a year.

This week's disclosure throws into doubt frequent ministerial assertions that the motive of Britain's aid effort is to reduce poverty and suffering in the poorest countries. It has long been recognised that aid is intended to boost British exports. But the sale of weapons was never supposed to be linked to humanitarian help.

The revelation would be less damaging were British aid substantial. It is not. Relative to GDP, this country is one of the least generous donors among industrial nations. A sweetener paid to one country could be seen as food not given to the starving of another. The Malaysian project certainly means that many useful and much-needed capital projects will not materialise because of lack of funds.

Yesterday Mr Major defended his behaviour. He told the House of Commons that the Malaysian policy was justified because it helped to promote billions of pounds of British exports and created many jobs here. No doubt he is right that the sweetener achieved its intended outcome. But if the Government wishes to bolster the sale of British arms abroad, it should not pilfer the little cash set aside for the world's poor.

And if Mr Major was so proud of his policy, why was the link between arms and aid denied for so long? Why is he still withholding papers from MPs on the matter? Perhaps because he has realised that the public is not prepared to accept that the end always justifies the means. The Government evidently has felt the need to draw a veil over an aid policy that was proclaimed as highly moral but has in fact been perverted to support the sale of weapons to a far from impoverished industrialising nation.

The Malaysian affair is yet another instance of ministers hiding the truth from Parliament and the electorate. The evasions and the perversions are characteristic of a government that fails to adhere to the moral code it preaches.