MPs have “blood on their hands” after backing a government plan that indefinitely extends a £4bn-a-year cut to the UK’s international aid to the world’s poorest people, international development charities have said.
One anti-poverty campaign said that maintaining the reduction in aid spending from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of national income at a time of the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation was “a retreat from British values” akin to “cutting the RAF during the Battle of Britain”.
And others warned that the UK’s standing on the international stage would be damaged, making a mockery of Boris Johnson’s claims to be delivering a “global Britain” agenda.
Theresa May was among 24 Conservative MPs to rebel against Mr Johnson’s plans, accusing the government of “turning its back on some of the poorest people in the world”.
The former prime minister defied a three-line whip for the first time in 24 years as an MP, telling the Commons: “We made a promise to the poorest people in the world. The government has broken that promise. This motion means that promise may be broken for years to come.”
Also voting to restore the 0.7 per cent commitment – signed into law by David Cameron and repeated in Mr Johnson’s 2019 election manifesto – were former cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt, David Davis, Damian Green, Karen Bradley, Stephen Crabb and Andrew Mitchell, along with the chairs of the Commons foreign affairs and defence committees, Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood.
But hopes of a revolt of 50 or more failed to materialise, with a number of vocal opponents of the cuts melting away following the offer of a compromise from the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, allowing a comfortable government victory by 333 votes to 298.
Mr Sunak’s plan will trigger a return to the United Nations target for overseas aid spending only when underlying debt is falling and day-to-day spending can be met without unsustainable borrowing. He warned that if it was rejected by MPs, tax rises and cuts to domestic spending would be needed to restore the commitment from January 2022.
Mr Johnson said that the plan would “provide certainty for our aid budget and an affordable path back to 0.7 per cent, while also allowing investment in other priorities, including the NHS, schools and the police”.
But Mr Mitchell denounced the plan as a “fiscal trap” that could put off a return to the UN target forever. Mr Sunak’s conditions had been met only once in the past 20 years, he told MPs.
The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, said that cutting aid for the world’s poorest during a pandemic was “callous and not in our national interest” and would damage the UK’s image around the world.
And the Liberal Democrats’ Sir Ed Davey said the Conservative government had “lost touch with the values of our country”, predicting that traditional Tory voters in Blue Wall seats of southern England would desert the party “in droves” as a result.
Former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson said the rebellion was not big enough, tweeting: “For colleagues who stood on manifesto after manifesto committed to this, it’s a bloody disgrace.”
Speaking after the vote, Mr Sunak said that the outcome had made the 0.7 per cent commitment “more secure for the long-term” while helping the government to “fix the problems with our public finances and continue to deliver for our constituents today” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Oxfam GB chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah described it as “a disaster for the world’s poorest people”.
“With more people in need of humanitarian assistance than at any time since the Second World War, aid is needed more than ever,” Mr Sriskandarajah said.
“We are seeing a yawning gap between the rhetoric of ‘Global Britain’ and the reality of a government breaking its promises to the world’s poorest and further undermining the UK’s credibility on the international stage. These cuts won’t balance the books; the government is putting politics above the lives of world’s most vulnerable communities.”
Kirsty O’Neill of Save the Children said that the outcome of the vote made an indefinite reduction to UK aid spending almost certain.
“Children will die as a result,” she warned.
“We have seen already the immense damage caused in some of the world’s poorest and most fragile countries – from 40 per cent cuts in aid for Yemen to 85 per cent cuts in British support for family planning.
“The vote today means that the cuts will not stop there. Faced by the biggest humanitarian crisis in a generation, the UK has stepped back when it needed to step up, and the consequences will be felt for years to come.”
Daniel Willis, campaigns and policy manager at Global Justice Now, said that government claims that aid cuts were needed to help pay down the £400bn cost of the pandemic failed to take into account the fact that the 0.7 per cent commitment already provided for automatically reduced spending in difficult economic times.
“When the inevitable death and suffering from aid cuts hits the news, each and every MP who has voted to sever the UK’s 0.7 per cent commitment should know that blood is on their hands,” he said. “Today, claims of Global Britain ring hollow.”
The UK director of the anti-poverty One Campaign, Romilly Greenhill, said: “Today’s result is a needless retreat from the world stage, enforced by the Treasury, at the exact moment the UK should be showing leadership and stepping up to the greatest global crises in our lifetimes.
“It’s akin to cutting the RAF during the Battle of Britain.
“This so-called compromise effectively means the end of the 0.7 per cent commitment and will diminish Britain’s global standing.”
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