“The coalition government has today reaffirmed its commitment to the world’s poorest people by confirming the UK will spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) on international development from 2013.”
Andrew Mitchell, November 29 2011
The development secretary sounds pleased. And why wouldn’t he be? When every other government department is facing cuts, Andrew Mitchell will see his budget rise from £7.8bn in 2010 to £11.5bn by 2015 (that’s more than the Home Office).
The Department for International Development (DfiD) has largely been spared the trimming shears because it will deliver a pledge made by both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in opposition – to increase Britain’s spending on overseas aid to 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) by 2013.
So keen were both parties on the pledge that it was a shoo-in for inclusion in the Coalition Agreement, the manifesto that FactCheck expects ministers to honour.
And George Osborne spelled out in the autumn statement that spending will indeed reach 0.7 per cent of GNI – all the government’s receipts from domestic and foreign revenue – by the year after next.
In fact, the total spend on official aid to foreign countries will now be less than envisaged in cash terms, because the Office for Budget Responsibility has downgraded its forecasts for how quickly the UK economy will grow over the next few years, but that all-important percentage remains as promised.
So what’s the problem?
Well, increasing the amount the government spends on aid was only half of the promise made by both the Tories and Lib Dems. The other thing they were going to do was to enshrine the commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of GNI in law.
Why is that so important? Well, quite simply, it would mean the government wouldn’t be able to change its mind and pull the plug on aid when the commitment proved inconvenient. Say, for example, when there’s a massive budget deficit to be paid off.
After all, the government did a U-turn on other spending promises today, so what’s to stop it leaving poor people in developing countries high and dry if the UK’s growth prospects are worse than expected two years from now?
The importance of the legal basis for the aid commitment has been argued since the idea was first floated in the 1970s.
The Conservatives obviously thought it was a good idea before the election. In their 2010 manifesto they say: “We will legislate in the first session of a new parliament to lock in this level of spending for every year from 2013.”
Clearly, no such legislation has been forthcoming.
Fair enough, that was before the Tories entered into the coalition. But the Lib Dems were keen from the outset too, saying in their manifesto: “Liberal Democrats will increase the UK’s aid budget to reach the UN target of 0.7 per cent of GNI by 2013 and enshrine that target in law.”
The Coalition Agreement repeats the pledge “to enshrine this commitment in law”, although it doesn’t mention a specific timetable.
So when will the government keep its promise to give a legal basis to development spending? A spokesman for the Dfid told FactCheck there were no concrete proposals for a change in the law in the pipeline.
But she assured us: “It remains what we are going to do when parliamentary time allows. The prime minister has said that on a number of occasions and that still stands.”
So that’s okay then. Why is the government dragging its feet on this vital half of the aid commitment?
Could it be the possibility of a rift in Conservative ranks, similar to the one that opened up in May when former defence secretary Liam Fox’s misgivings about the plan became public?
Perhaps ministers are keen to avoid more headlines that question the policy of giving so much to foreign countries at a time of fiscal belt-tightening at home.
Or perhaps the Treasury isn’t keen to cut off the potential for a U-turn if there are even more disappointing growth figures on the horizon.
As things stand, spending on official overseas aid is set to jump from 0.56 per cent in 2011 and 2012 to 0.7 per cent in 2013 and 2014. That’s around £2bn the chancellor will suddenly have to find, however gloomy the economic outlook may be.
We’ll give Mr Mitchell a technical pass on this one. The government has kept its commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI – on paper. But it’s failed to deliver on the promise of protecting it with legislation.
We were promised a change in the law, but all we have at the moment is the coalition’s word of honour.
By Patrick Worrall