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Government accused of using aid money 'to plug defence funding gaps' over plan for new hospital ship

New international development secretary is said to have ordered officials to look at use of the aid budget

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 03 March 2020 19:26 GMT

Labour has accused the government of using aid money to "plug funding gaps" in defence spending over proposals to use the foreign aid budget to buy a multi-million pound hospital ship.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the new international development secretary, is said to have ordered officials to look at use of the aid budget, which includes an option for a vessel to bolster humanitarian efforts abroad, and to assist with military operations.

Officials are considering a ship similar to US Mercy class vessels, which provides disaster relief and medical care for American forces overseas. Each ship costs around £550m and contains some 1,000 patient beds.

Under the plans, revealed by the Financial Times, a potential new medical vessel would be paid for by the Department for International Development (DfID) but operated by the Royal Navy.

The navy currently operates the RFA Argus, a 100-bed floating hospital, but it is expected to retire from service in 2024.

The news sparked concern from Labour that the government was seeking to chip away at the foreign aid budget, which is ring fenced at 0.7 per cent of GDP.

“Using aid money to plug funding gaps in the MOD is a clear abuse of our aid budget," the shadow international development secretary Dan Carden told The Independent.

“UK aid is money that has been set aside to alleviate global poverty, and that is the only thing it should be spent on.

“If the government does try to spend aid on military assets, they will need to explain how this complies with international rules governing aid spending.”

It comes after the department escaped the axe in Boris Johnson's latest reshuffle, following widespread speculation that it would be merged into the Foreign Office.

Dominic Cummings, the PM's powerful aide, had spoken openly about slimming down Whitehall in the run up to the February cabinet shake-up - with DfiD among the departments in his sights.

While the department emerged unscathed, Ms Trevelyan is the fifth international development secretary in five years.

The staunch Brexiteer, who resigned from Theresa May's government over Brexit, has also been critical in the past about aid spending.

A DFID spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring UK aid reaches the world’s poorest people, achieves value for money for the taxpayer and works in our national interest.”

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