Robbing the aid budget to pay for the pandemic

Public support for the move conceals deep divisions

Say it quickly and a cut in foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of the UK’s GDP, or national income, in these difficult Covid-19 dominated days, does not sound too severe and to some extent, even understandable. But look more closely at the details of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the Government’s decision and the picture is different – one that many claim is unprecedented and extremely disturbing. In cold cash terms, the figures mean that aid to the world’s poorest nations for the period 2019 to 2021 is cut by £5bn. But aid organisations and some MPs estimate it will mean huge reductions in multiple areas, including humanitarian and Covid-19 projects, girls’ education, society-building projects, and health spending, with countries such as Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, Lebanon and others set to lose more than half their funding.

In Parliament, the Government has broken its pledge to give MPs a vote on the cut to foreign aid and has been told by an ex-director of public prosecutions, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, that without passing new legislation it is breaking the law. But as with other controversial issues during this Parliament, this government has ploughed on, with the Chancellor claiming the move was necessary to save money during the pandemic and would be “temporary”.

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has been accused of “hiding” the full extent of the cuts by issuing a statement that gives details of what the Government will be funding but fails to mention what the cuts are or where they will be made. Former Conservative International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, said the statement hides the most “draconian cuts ever made by Britain.” And Sarah Champion, chair of the Commons international development committee, said it showed “a lack of respect” for frontline aid groups, which would be hard hit. Labour’s Preet Kaur Gill, said cutting the aid budget would “strip life-saving support from millions of people, leaving them to die.”

And Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children, said that while every other G7 nation is stepping up to increase their support for the poorest and most vulnerable people in the face of a global pandemic, the UK is alone in choosing to step back. “These cuts will trim UK borrowing by a fraction,” he said, “but will devastate lives across many of the world’s poorest countries.”

What our surveys show

When the Chancellor announced his plan to slash the foreign aid budget to 0.5% GDP back in November, our survey then showed that a majority of the public, around 55%, were in favour of the cut. Other polls then showed similar results. Our latest survey demonstrates that, if anything, support has only increased since then, with 65% saying this time that the Chancellor’s decision to cut foreign aid is the right one. Just 26% said it was the wrong decision and 9% said they don’t know.

But although those critical of the cut include both senior Tory and Labour figures as well as charities, as with so many current issues, when the replies were split between Leave or Remain voters, a very clear picture of a Brexit divided nation emerged once again. A whopping 91% of Leave voters said the Chancellor’s decision is correct, with only 4% of Leavers saying it was wrong and 5% answering “don’t know”.

Amongst Remainers, though, almost half, 49%, said reducing foreign aid to poorer countries during the pandemic was the wrong decision, while 38% said it was right and 13% answered “don’t know”.

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