Foreign aid backlash: UK slashes budget as Minister resigns

25 November 2020, 13:59 | Updated: 25 November 2020, 17:25

By Ewan Somerville

Britain will slash its foreign aid budget below the UN target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income for the first time in five years, the chancellor has announced.

Rishi Sunak told the Commons in his first Spending Review that the UK would give 0.5 per cent of GNI to poorer countries in 2021, a total of £10 billion.

He said sticking to the United Nations target, enshrined in law in 2015, “is difficult to justify to the British people” at a time of “domestic fiscal emergency” with the highest peacetime levels of borrowing on record.

The move prompted Foreign Office minister Baroness Sugg to resign, branding it "fundamentally wrong".

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In her resignation letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Baroness Sugg said it had been a privilege to work as a Minister for Sustainable Development but said she "did not believe we should reduce our support further at a time of unprecedented global crises."

The Chancellor told MPs that "at a time of unprecedented crisis, Government must make tough choices," adding it was his “intention” to return to 0.7 per cent “when the fiscal situation allows”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson added: “I think this country can be incredibly proud of what we have delivered for the poorest and neediest people in the world, that will continue.”

But the move was met with an immediate backlash, with charities, religious leaders and senior politicians warning it will harm the world's poor and diminish Britain's global status.

Opposition MPs cried “shame” and “terrible” in the Commons chamber as Mr Sunak made the announcement.

It comes after five former prime ministers called on the Prime Minister to rethink eating into the aid budget - Sir John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Theresa May and David Cameron, who hailed the UN target as a key part of his premiership.

Read more: Foreign Office minister Baroness Sugg resigns after foreign aid cut

Archbishop of Canterbury 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."

Danny Sriskandarajah, Oxfam GB chief executive, said the cut in spending "will lead to tens of thousands of otherwise preventable deaths".

“At a time when hundreds of millions of people are hungry and decades of progress against poverty is under threat, today’s decision is a false economy which diverts money for clean water and medicines to pay for bombs and bullets," he said.

He added: “Breaking our aid promise risks significantly undermining one of the UK’s genuine claims to global leadership at a time when it will need all the moral authority it can muster as host of next year’s G7 summit and UN Climate Change negotiations.

“Instead of global Britain, we risk looking like little Britain. The Prime Minister should reverse the cut at the first possible opportunity.”

Conservative MPs also condemned the decision, which reneges on a 2019 manifesto commitment. Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs committee, compared the cost of foreign aid to that of fighting slavery, while former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell told MPs the cut would cause "100,000 preventable deaths, mainly among children".

Girls' education advocate Malala Yousafzai urged the politicians to think again, tagging both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the chancellor in her tweet. 

Former Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron said the cut to foreign aid budgets was “morally repugnant”.

He tweeted: “No Chancellor, cutting aid to the world’s poorest is not a ‘difficult choice’ it’s an extremely easy one. Politically it will cost you nothing. It is morally repugnant, and an act of extreme political cowardice, but it will shift no votes so I guess it was a no-brainer for you…”

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford tweeted: “Protecting the foreign aid budget has long been a source of agreement across every major party. 0.7% of spending is the right thing to do, this commitment must continue. It not only supports some of the worlds poorest countries but also helps to protect ourselves as well.”

Labour MP Sarah Champion, chair of the Commons international development select committee, added: “Fastest u-turn in Tory history? Moments after PM says he's ”incredibly proud“ of his commitment to 0.7% GNI to Foreign Aid, the Chancellor cuts it!”

Others backed the move. Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage tweeted: “At last we have a Conservative Chancellor that understands Conservative voters on foreign aid.”

In 2019 the total aid budget hit a record £15.2bn, representing about 1.7 per cent of total public spending.