A minister has resigned and a furious backlash is brewing among Conservative MPs over the Government’s decision to cut billions from the overseas aid budget.
Foreign Office Minister Baroness (Liz) Sugg quit in protest at the plan to slash the budget to 0.5% of gross national income in 2021, in spite of promises not to reduce it in the Tory manifesto.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the move in the Spending Review on Wednesday, but said the Government’s “intention” is to return to spending 0.7% on foreign aid when the fiscal situation allows.
However, Baroness Sugg, whose brief included sustainable development, said pledges should be kept in the “tough times as well as the good” and branded the plan “fundamentally wrong”.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, she warned: “Cutting UK aid risks undermining your efforts to promote a Global Britain and will diminish our power to influence other nations to do what is right.”
Boris Johnson said he was “very sorry” to receive her resignation, writing in reply that he was “extremely grateful” for her service as a minister.
Baroness Sugg previously served as director of operations and campaigns at Downing Street under then-prime minister David Cameron before she became a Conservative life peer in 2016.
Mr Cameron, who was responsible for enshrining the 0.7% commitment in law, said the Government’s decision was a “very sad moment”.
I deeply regret today’s decision to break our promise to spend 0.7% of GNI on development. Here’s why: pic.twitter.com/Yv9XDhPCNs
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) November 25, 2020
“It said something great about Britain, not just that we care about tackling global poverty or tackling climate change or helping those who don’t have what we have in this country,” he said.
“It was that we were actually going to do something about it, we were going to lead, we were going to show the rest of the world.”
Tory MPs also criticised the plans, with former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell warning that cutting the budget risks causing 100,000 otherwise preventable deaths.
Mr Mitchell led Conservative opposition to the policy in the Commons, and it now looks likely to face a parliamentary showdown when the expected legislation to implement the change is brought forward by the Government.
Tory Tobias Ellwood, the Defence Committee chairman, warned China and Russia are likely to extend their “authoritarian influence” as a result of the “vacuum” created by the UK “downgrading” its soft power programmes.
Conservative Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) also suggested the cut will hit education for girls and result in “more child marriages, more instances of early child birth, more FGM, more domestic violence”.
The UK will be “poorer in the eyes of the world” due to the aid cuts, Tory former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt added.
But some on the Conservative backbenches were supportive, with Philip Davies (Shipley) insisting people in the “real world” will back the cut.
The cut in the aid budget – made worse by no set date for restoration – is shameful and wrong. It’s contrary to numerous Government promises and its manifesto.
I join others in urging MPs to reject it for the good of the poorest, and the UK’s own reputation and interest.
— Archbishop of Canterbury (@JustinWelby) November 25, 2020
Mr Sunak said he believes the UK can “still make a difference” to the world’s poorest countries under the Government’s plans.
Baroness Anelay, a former Foreign Office minister who chairs the Lords’ International Relations and Defence Committee, also opposed the plan.
She said: “The UK’s aid has already been reduced by £2.9 billion this year as a result of the decrease in Gross National Income resulting from the Covid-19 crisis.
“A further cut from 0.7% to 0.5% of GNI from 2021 would result in a significant further decrease in ODA at a time when this budget is already strained.”
Outside Parliament, the Archbishop of Canterbury attacked the Government for its “shameful and wrong” cuts.
Justin Welby tweeted: “The cut in the aid budget – made worse by no set date for restoration – is shameful and wrong.
“It’s contrary to numerous Government promises and its manifesto.
“I join others in urging MPs to reject it for the good of the poorest, and the UK’s own reputation and interest.”
Environmental and aid campaigners warned the move puts the UK’s global climate leadership at risk ahead of the United Nations Cop26 summit next year.
Funding to help poorer countries cope with climate change and development cleanly is always a key issue at the international talks.
Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, Rebecca Newsom, said: “It will hinder poorer countries’ ability to tackle and adapt to the climate emergency, and sour the UK’s diplomatic relationships in the run-up to the crucial Glasgow climate conference next year.”
The Foreign Secretary is expected to make a Commons statement on Thursday setting out how the reduced aid budget will be used.
Whitehall sources insisted that by exercising rigorous control over the budget, now within the Foreign Office after DfID was scrapped, the Government will be able to deliver more with less.
But officials acknowledged that there was unrest on the Tory benches and the legislation could face a battle in Parliament.