The government found itself in a tight spot this week, and one of its own making.
Several years ago the House of Commons passed – with wide cross-party support – a law change requiring 0.7% of national income to be spent on overseas aid.
0.7% really isn’t that much. But it makes a huge difference to communities and countries that received the support. And it shows that the UK cares about our place in the world and cares about alleviating poverty.
Yet the government took the mean decision to break the law and reduce that amount to 0.5% of national income. Which again sounds negligible but it’s a decision that has already caused many aid projects to be cancelled in the world’s poorest countries.
And it has an effect back home too. This week I spoke to a constituent in Chester who has a proud record of innovating and inventing products that make a real difference in developing countries, in the areas of water purification and small energy generation. His business here is now under threat.
In fact it was a double whammy of meanness by the government. The economy has shrunk because of Brexit and the pandemic, so 0.7% this year is already a lot less than 0.7% in previous years. Like making slices of smaller cake, the slices themselves are smaller.
This week an amendment was tabled to a bill in the Commons by a cross party group, including rebel Conservative MPs, to force the government to maintain the 0.7%. I would have supported it and I imagine a majority of MPs would have helped to pass it. But the Speaker ruled that the amendment had nothing to do with the Bill it was seeking to amend, which was a bill to establish an Advanced Research and Innovation Agency.
He was right. If a bill is about, say, giraffes, you can’t put in an amendment about potatoes – it has to refer to the main text of the bill. But Mr Speaker also made clear to the government that they can’t keep running from the subject and have to respect the Commons.
Overseas aid matters. It saves lives, it helps countries to develop so we can trade with them on equal terms. It eliminates poverty. It supports education and stops children, especially girls, being exploited.
And here is the thing: if we don’t support developing countries, you can be sure our adversaries, like Russia and China, will do so, with strings attached. Or worse, our enemies like Al Qaida or Daesh/IS who will spread their poisonous philosophy of hate.
The government must reverse this mean minded, nasty policy, so that the UK can once again support the World’s poorest.