Further questions were raised in Parliament this week (including by me, which you can see here - https://www.facebook.com/JeremyWrightMP/videos/2699076710383888) about overseas aid spending. In 2015, Parliament passed an Act which gave statutory force to the policy commitment to spend 0.7% of our national wealth on aid, in accordance with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. It was a policy, and an Act, I did and do support, though I recognise not everyone reading this will feel the same way. The Government now proposes to spend nearer 0.5% of gross national income (GNI) on aid, which raises questions of procedure and of principle. The procedural questions are important. The purpose of passing the 2015 Act was surely to bind Governments, in good years and bad, to the objective of spending 0.7% of GNI on aid. The Act makes provision for a failure to meet the target, but not for Ministers changing the target without further reference to Parliament. If that is what Ministers are seeking to do here, they will face legal challenge. If this is an admission that the target will not be met this year, due to the exceptional circumstances of global pandemic, it will be important to understand how and when it will be met again.
The questions of principle however are even more important. The reasons I support the 0.7% target for aid spending apply this year as much as in any other. The United Kingdom can and should set a global example in improving standards of living, of healthcare and of education around the world. It is both the right thing to do and in our interests to do it. Our vulnerability to the actions of the world’s radicalised terrorists or the pressure on our immigration system from the world’s dispossessed and economically migrant continue to make that case, and now COVID-19, far from being a reason to reduce aid, shows clearly why it matters. The increasing protection of our population through vaccination will be undermined if vaccine-resistant variants are incubated in other parts of the world. At some point the argument for sending vaccines overseas will become stronger than that for vaccinating every last person here, if we really want to return to a life involving international travel. Setting a target is about what you aspire to do, and setting it as a percentage of your income means that in times of economic difficulty, the aid budget falls anyway as our income does. Failing to meet the target should be exceptional and must be explained. Reducing the target means not just reducing our spend but reducing our aspiration, and I am not persuaded current circumstances make that the right or the sensible thing to do.