It is our moral duty to help the world's poor, Mitchell tells Tories

The International Development Secretary will be the most unpopular minister in Manchester. Andrew Grice meets him

Andrew Grice
Saturday 01 October 2011 00:00 BST

Andrew Mitchell will tomorrow tell Conservative activists who want the Government to cut its £8bn-a-year aid budget that it is morally right and patriotic to help poor countries at a time of austerity in Britain.

The International Development Secretary will tell the Tory conference in Manchester he is "proud" of the UK's leading role in combating poverty and disease. Confronting his critics head on, he will hold up a plastic syringe containing a vaccine that protects against severe diarrhoea and declare: "Britain will vaccinate a child every two seconds for the next five years and save a life every two minutes. Lives as important as the lives of our own children."

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Mitchell expanded on his theme: "These children die from diseases which no child in Britain dies from. If three children in my [Sutton Coldfield] constituency died of malaria, it would be a front-page story for weeks in Britain.

"We are dealing with a scale of deprivation and poverty out of all proportion to anything we see in Britain. It is part of being British. We are determined not to balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world."

His unrepentant message to his Tory critics is that aid spending "is the right thing to do, but it is also very much in our national interest". He explained: "Our generation has a chance denied to all previous generations to make a huge impact on the colossal discrepancies in opportunities and wealth which scar our world today.

"If we had tackled the deep causes of poverty and dysfunctionality in Somalia and Afghanistan, we would not have to grapple with the symptoms today. These problems affect us here – terrorism, the drugs trade and illegal migration. If we want to tackle these problems at home, we have to understand and address their root causes abroad. Some people say we can't afford to engage in international development, but we can't afford not to."

It costs four times as much to deal with such problems years later as it does to tackle them "upstream", he said

Surveys of Tory activists and the public show hostility to the decision to raise the Department for International Development's budget to the global target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income by 2013.

But Mr Mitchell travels to Manchester armed with a new statistic. The Tories' latest private polling found that the number of people who agree that "even as we deal with our deficit, we should be proud of our aid commitments" has risen from 48 per cent three months ago to 51 per cent, while 38 per cent disagree.

Mr Mitchell said of his Tory critics: "I understand how they feel." But he believes that the public mood is changing, partly because a revamped DfID is now ensuring better value for money. "The ring-fenced budget imposes on us a double responsibility that every £1 of taxpayers' money gets 100p of results on the ground."

Although the British Chambers of Commerce said the global economic crisis may require aid and NHS spending to take a hit like all other areas, Mr Mitchell is adamant his pledge will remain a cast-iron guarantee. This will anger some Tory activists: to reach the target, aid spending will jump from £8.1bn in the current year to £11.3bn by 2013-14 – a 40 per cent increase – while other Whitehall departments are squeezed. "We are not deviating from our spending plans," he insisted, promising that aid spending would not fall again after 2013. "I could spend the budget twice over," he said.

Mr Mitchell also has to justify where the money is spent. This week he telephoned Imran Khan, the Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician, to rebuke him for saying that Britain's aid to his country, which is being doubled to £400m a year, is "like using aspirin to treat cancer". Mr Mitchell said Mr Khan now accepted he was wrong to suggest the money goes directly to the Pakistani Government, saying it would allow four million children to go to school for the first time in the next four years.

"It is hard to think of a better way to tackle the poverty and illiteracy upon which the terrorist recruiters prey. This is good development and good politics," he said.

David Cameron has championed aid spending as part of his brand of "modern compassionate Conservatism". The International Development Secretary said there is an "authentic centre-right agenda" on aid based on targeting conflict zones and building up the private sector in poor nations. A group, Conservative Friends of International Development, will be launched at the conference to symbolise what Mr Mitchell called "the passion" the party now brings to the issue. Its president will be Lord [Michael] Howard, the former Tory leader.

Not every Tory shares that passion and some Cabinet colleagues envy Mr Mitchell his ring-fenced budget. As an avowed One Nation Conservative, he would be happy, some suspect, to see the Coalition continue after the next election. "I certainly am very comfortable. We work well together. We resolve differences between us in an adult and collegiate way. I think the country quite likes the idea of two parties settling their differences in the national interest," he said. But he is careful to add: "I want us to fight to win the next election as the Conservative Party."

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