Boris Johnson will on Tuesday set out a new “double lock” on the aid budget to head off a rebellion from Conservative MPs concerned that the Prime Minister will never restore spending to 0.7 per cent.
The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) will oversee the lock and will decide when aid spending can increase from the current 0.5 per cent of gross national income, effectively taking the politics out of the decision.
MPs will be given a “take it or leave it” vote on the plans – which are likely to mean that the 0.7 per cent target is not hit for several years – in the House of Commons on Tuesday. If the Government loses the motion, aid spending will return to 0.7 per cent from January.
On Monday night, it was unclear whether Mr Johnson had gone far enough to get the vote through with Andrew Mitchell, the former Government chief whip and leader of the Tory rebels, insisting it could depress aid spending for decades.
Mr Mitchell told The Telegraph: “What is being proposed may not return Britain to that commitment for decades to come. I am urging my colleagues to keep their promise and prevent hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths by voting against tomorrow’s motion.”
The UK has been under a statutory duty to meet the 0.7 per cent target, worth more than £14 billion last year, since 2015.
But citing the economic impact of the pandemic, last November Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, cut the target to 0.5 per cent in 2021 as a “temporary measure”, to save about £4 billion.
Under the plans, aid spending will increase only above 0.5 per cent when the Government is no longer borrowing to fund day-to-day spending, and public sector net debt is falling as a percentage of GBP.
This double lock will be assessed annually by the OBR. Once the threshold has been passed, aid spending will permanently return to 0.7 per cent.
Under current OBR forecasts, the new fiscal tests would mean that the aid budget is unlikely to be restored to 0.7 per cent for about four or five years. However, Treasury officials believe the economy may improve faster once it opens up.
MPs will vote on Tuesday after a three-hour debate. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, confirmed to MPs that if the plan is rejected, the aid budget will return to 0.7 per cent in January next year. He said: “The decision will be binding on Her Majesty’s government. Votes have consequences.”
Separately appealing for MPs to back the new policy on Monday, Mr Sunak told MPs: “This year, we are forecast to borrow the second highest amount on record during peacetime – second only to last year. This is clearly unsustainable, and the economic damage of coronavirus cannot be fixed overnight.”
Ministers felt compelled to act after Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, voiced his frustration earlier this month that MPs had not been given a vote on the decision.
Foreign aid rebellion poll
One Treasury source said the Government was “quietly confident” that they would win the vote: “The motion is not legally binding, but it’s politically binding. It sits within the spirit of what the Speaker wants.”
Writing in The Telegraph, Andrea Leadsom, former Cabinet minister and prospective rebel, said she would back the Government: “Now that we have clarity on the conditions under which we will return to 0.7 per cent, we can unite as a party and a country and be proud of the leadership, in all its forms, that we demonstrate to the world.”
However, Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP, said: “Britain made a promise to the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. Going back on our word would be thoroughly un-British and a stain on our global reputation for decades to come.
“The consequences of this aid cut are devastating: sick children will no longer receive aid, girls will lose their right to go to school, and some of the most essential projects for ending the generational cycle of poverty will be slashed.”
John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, added: “This is another arbitrary aid target taxpayers don’t want. It will lock in wasteful foreign aid projects and ensure the British public are stuck with the 0.7 per cent stipulation for years to come.
“Ministers should scrap the wasteful aid requirement altogether and ensure money is spent on the basis of humanitarian need, not Whitehall targets.”