08:36, November 26 84 0 theguardian.com

2020-11-26 08:36:04
Dominic Raab says legislation is needed to cut UK aid spending

The foreign secretary has decided legislation is required to cut the aid budget since the current fiscal uncertainty means the government may feel obliged to miss the commitment to spend 0.7% on gross national income on overseas aid for longer than a year.

Legislation would be laid, Dominic Raab told MPs in an oral statement, but did not give a date for doing so.

The requirement to pass fresh legislation could give Tory MPs an opportunity to mount a rebellion, and force a government retreat on plans to cut the aid budget to 0.5% of gross national income (GNI) as laid out by the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in the spending review on Wednesday.

The cut will mean the aid budget being slashed by about a third down to £10bn next year. The plan has led to a storm of protest from former prime ministers, aid groups and Tory MPs worried that the UK’s reputation as a global player will be threatened just as it takes on the chairmanship of the G7 and hosts the UN climate change conference.

Raab told MPs: “The International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, the bill that enshrines meeting the target of 0.7% in law, envisages circumstances in which the target may not be met, in particular in the context of economic pressures.”

He added: “Given that we cannot at this moment predict with certainty when the current fiscal circumstances will have sufficiently improved, and our need to plan accordingly, we will bring forward legislation in due course.”

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday, Sunak emphasised the existing law entrenching the 0.7% target passed in 2015 allowed for ministers to temporarily shelve the target. But the act arguably only gives ministers leeway to miss the 0.7 % target for one year.

He said: “The existing legislation that we have for the aid target specifically allows for the fact it may not be possible in certain circumstances to meet the aid target and that is contained in the existing legislation as it is.”

The act asserts that if the secretary of state is unable to reach the 0.7 % target, he or she is required to report to parliament and explain why the target has not been met, and if relevant refer to the economic circumstances and any change in gross national income, fiscal circumstances in particular the likely impact of meeting the target on taxation, public spending and borrowing.

The secretary of state is then required to set out what steps they will take to meet the target in the next year. Sunak on the BBC refused to set a date by which the target would be restored, saying only that the change was not permanent and spending would rise back to 0.7% “when fiscal circumstances allow”.

Since the act requires a commitment to return to 0.7% within a year, and ministers do not feel able to make that commitment, legislation revising the 2015 act may be required.

The act stresses that the minister’s accountability is solely to parliament,blocking off some legal options such as judicial review.

Raab said the aid budget would be dedicated to tackling the climate crisis, Covid, girls’ education and poverty alleviation. He did not specify any areas where the aid budget would be cut.

Reflecting public support for the aid cut, Sunak said: “We made a choice yesterday to prioritise people’s jobs, public services and helping the country get through coronavirus. I think it is a choice the British people will support.”

Press releases setting out the main implications of the 2015 bill at the time of its royal assent gave the impression of a stronger duty than the act’s wording provides.

The then Department for International Development said: “The act places a duty on the secretary of state to ensure that the 0.7% target is met by the UK in the year 2015 and each subsequent calendar year.

The secretary of state must make arrangements for the independent evaluation of the extent to which UK ODA [official development assistance] represents value for money. The secretary of state must include in each annual report a statement as to how he or she has complied with this duty.”

Raab defended the cuts by saying the economic emergency meant every penny of public spending rightly had to come under intense scrutiny.