Andrew Mitchell – 2022 Speech on a Strategy for International Development

The speech made by Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield, in the House of Commons on 6 July 2022.

It is wonderful not to be on a four-minute time limit for a debate as important as this. I draw the House’s attention to my interests as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The Foreign Secretary has inherited a complete mess on development, and I have great sympathy for her in trying to bring some order to things. We are, of course, still spending a very substantial sum on ODA as part of our development budget. However, that sum has reduced from 0.7% to 0.5%, and I want to say a word or two about that.

If someone was looking for the least good time to reduce this expenditure, they would definitely have chosen the date and the day upon which the Prime Minister made that decision. It was in the foothills of Britain chairing the G7 and at the time of an international global pandemic. Development leadership was really needed, and Britain was in a position to provide it. Britain was acknowledged around the world as an international development superpower and was really in a position to move the dial on these things. But what happened? The Prime Minister reduced ODA from 0.7% to 0.5%, at the very time when British leadership was really needed. Of course, the Prime Minister had also dismantled the Department for International Development, and I will come on to that in a moment, but the point I am seeking to make is that, at a time when Britain could have given real leadership—in one of the few areas where it is acknowledged, post empire, that we are a superpower and have real leadership and skills to impart—the money was reduced.

Following the pandemic, we see the scourge of famine affecting parts of our world such as the horn of Africa and all the way down the rest of the eastern side of Africa. The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who is a former Secretary of State for International Development, will remember the acute leadership that DFID gave, leading other countries to stop famines and starvation in the horn of Africa. That skill has never been more needed than it is today, as we stand before a real threat to people’s lives and livelihoods, but Britain is not in a position to give that leadership.

I will make two further points on the money. I do not think I will carry the Chair of the Select Committee with me here, although I pay tribute to her leadership of her Committee and the very good work that the Committee is doing, but my advice to the Foreign Secretary, given the complete mess on Britain’s development policy, was to find the money from the multilateral programmes and not from the bilateral programmes. If she is forced to make that decision, a decision she should never have had to make, it is clearly right to take the money from the multilateral programmes, for the same reason that Bonnie and Clyde robbed banks: that is where the money is.

The big multilateral programmes such as the World Bank are where the money is, and the Foreign Secretary is therefore in my view right to take it from there, but that is not a decision she should have had to make.

Liam Byrne rose—

Mr Mitchell

The effects of taking money from the World Bank are very severe, as I suspect my friend the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) is about to make clear.

Liam Byrne

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, but I disagree with him on this point. With the International Monetary Fund, for example, where we have collectively issued $650 billion of special drawing rights, it would have been sensible for the UK to have stepped up and provided some leadership, sharing a much bigger fraction of the £19 billion we have been given. That would have encouraged the rest of the G7 to follow suit, and the G7 is about one third of the SDR issuance.

Mr Mitchell

On that point I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Although I do not want to put words into the Minister’s mouth, I suspect that the Foreign Office wanted to do precisely as the right hon. Gentleman has described, but the Treasury made it extremely difficult. My point is that the savage cuts made to the bilateral programmes, where food was literally removed from the plates of starving children in Yemen, show why, in the end, if the Foreign Secretary is forced to make such decisions, she is right to take the money out of the multilateral programme.

While I am on the subject, Britain has had a leadership role within the Global Fund, along with the Americans. After 2010, we made a number of substantive changes to make the Global Fund better. It is extremely good spending, for reasons that the Minister will be well aware of, and I urge the Government to ensure that we are as generous as possible on the replenishment of the fund, not least because the Americans have made it clear that they will be even more generous than they are already being if other countries put their money where their mouth is. There is a real incentive of getting far more bang for the British taxpayer’s buck in helping with the replenishment of the Global Fund.

My other point about the money, and again I hope the Chair of the Select Committee will forgive me for making it, is that I do not believe it is sensible to go in one year from 0.5% to 0.7%. The Chancellor has already committed to bringing back the 0.7% in two years’ time. The year before that, he should go to 0.6%. I say that for two reasons.

There is quite a lot of money involved, and although there is no doubt we could spend it well through the multilateral system, I do not think the British taxpayer would believe that such a big uplift in one year could guarantee that the money was really well spent, and I do not want to test their patience on this. I want to make sure that we can look the British taxpayer in the eye and say that, for every pound of their hard-earned money that we spend on international development, we are delivering 100p of value on the ground. I urge Treasury Ministers to consider bringing back the 0.6% next year and the 0.7% the year after, and not doing it in one lump, which I believe is the current plan.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I commend the right hon. Gentleman on the book he wrote, which I remember reading about two months ago. In that book, he referred to the role he previously held in the then Department for International Development, and from what he said it was clear to me that the benefits of the money the United Kingdom spends are not just marked in financial terms, but in terms of the effect on people across the countries it helps. Does he agree that for those reasons, the good that it does is much more important than the money itself?

Mr Mitchell

My hon. Friend—he is my hon. Friend—is absolutely right in what he says, and it is very good of him to make mention of my book, “Beyond a Fringe: Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey”, which is still available in bookshops. I am very grateful indeed to him for drawing the House’s attention to that. I should say that the Minister, who has a starring role in my book, understands these issues, and I absolve her of all blame for any of the criticism I am making because she inherited much of this situation and was not responsible for it.

The real problem, which is even worse than breaking our promise on the money, is the vaporisation of DFID. I think the abolition of DFID is now acknowledged in almost every corner as an absolute disaster because it has cut at a stroke the expertise assembled by Britain. The international community used to come to Britain to come to DFID, and to our universities with their programmes that were so closely entwined with DFID, to see how to drive forward the efforts in their part of the world to degrade and try to eliminate grinding international poverty. Most importantly, the top 100 people who were responsible for driving forward the Government’s agenda in DFID have gone. Of course they have, because they have been headhunted by the international system, whether in New York, Geneva or the charitable sector. They have gone because they see a Government who do not recognise or appreciate that extraordinary skill that existed in DFID. The Government are now faced with a large budget but a diminishing level of expertise.

It is even worse than that, because the Prime Minister decided that we should not revert to what Mrs Thatcher so rightly had—the Overseas Development Administration as a Department within the Foreign Office that Tony Blair subsequently took into DFID. The Prime Minister does not want an ODA in the Foreign Office because he knows that if it was there, another Administration after him could immediately re-set up, or try to re-set up, DFID, and he wants development done on a geographical basis. That is the destruction of a real hub and driver of UK leadership, influence, expertise and knowledge. All that has now gone.

All international development spending is about Britain’s national interest. It is spent largely in areas where we have a historical connection. When I was DFID Secretary, the Foreign Office always had a view, which we always accepted, about where was the best place in which British influence through development could and should be exerted. The aim of international development policy, which Britain drove forward so successfully under both political parties for so very many years, was to build safer and more prosperous communities overseas. It was to make sure that we helped countries, through partnership, to deal with conflicts—to stop conflicts starting, or, once a conflict had started, to eliminate it and reconcile people who had been torn apart by it, and then to build prosperity and help to promote economic activity to ensure that people had the tools to lift themselves out of poverty. It was hugely in our national interest to pursue those policies because it made us safer in Britain and more prosperous as well. The world is a small place and we are all increasingly dependent on each other. That is an eternal truth.

Furthermore, building stronger and safer societies over there helps to stop the high level of migration, which is now being fuelled by starvation and famine, climate change emergencies, and the ease of travel. The whole burden of British development policy was to try to help to resolve that by building those safer and more prosperous societies overseas.

Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)

The right hon. Gentleman is making an incredibly powerful speech. Does he agree that there is a direct link between the poor people coming across on boats that this Government are now intent on rounding up and putting in detention centres, until legal challenge is stopped, to send them off to Rwanda, and the aid that we are no longer giving to the country they have come from, thus forcing them in that direction? If we want to stop people making those dangerous journeys, is not the best investment we can make to help them to do what they want to do, which is to stay where they were born and where they can be prosperous?

Mr Mitchell

The hon. Lady has said more eloquently than me precisely why this is such an important aspect of British policy and also why it is strongly approved of by the Daily Mail and the right, which is because it helps achieve the aim of mitigating and addressing flows of migration and refugees. That brings me to my next point, of which again the Chair of the Select Committee may not approve. I am not opposed to sending people who have been processed here, and who are not eligible for asylum here, to Rwanda, if it is prepared to take them, which it is. I know Rwanda very well. I was there recently for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, participating in an investment conference. It is a wonderful place, and I have no objection in principle to us sending people there, once they have been processed here, if Rwandans are prepared to take them.

However, there are two problems with the current policy. One is that it will not work, and the second is that it is extraordinarily expensive. In this business, there is no alternative but to put in the work, to do the hard yards and to recognise that we have to process far more quickly and effectively people who are coming to our shores, many of whom are fleeing persecution in great jeopardy. We need to hear their cases and process them.

Secondly, we need to open up lawful, legal and safe routes. At the moment, those legal and safe routes do not exist. They exist for Ukrainians, and they did exist for Afghanis—and some time ago for Syrians—but for others they do not. Some 87% of the people who come to our shores come from just four countries, and we should remember that 75% of them end up being found eligible to stay in the country. We need these proper legal routes, we need to process in the right way and we need to restore the relationship with France.

The relationship with France, as anyone who has engaged with the French Government in any way in recent weeks and months will know, is appalling and needs to be restored. There are huge reservoirs of knowledge in this country about France and of good will with senior French politicians. Politicians on both sides of the channel know each other well, and the relationship has never been worse than it is today. It urgently needs to be restored if we are to address the issues that exist in the channel. They are issues of life and death and of order, and we cannot address them properly if we are at loggerheads with a country 22 miles away across the channel.

The final thing that we have to do if we are to resolve these issues is renegotiate the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees, which was set up largely by British effort. It was British officials who helped corral all the different parties to accept this international convention, but it was made at a time when travel was not as easy as today. The situation has completely changed. If we are to resolve this problem, which will get worse because of climate change migration, we need to understand that the rich world has to play its part if it expects the poor world to comply. That is a real job of work.

On 25 July, just under a year ago, I had this precise conversation with the Prime Minister, who described the analysis as excellent, but nothing has been done in the past year to give some extra strength and a boost to the international system to do something about it. That is my objection to the Rwanda plan. It is not that I am seduced by the relevant lobby; my objection is one of severe practicality and cost, and the plan just will not work.

Having broken our promise on the budget and having effectively abolished the Department, we are now left with a big budget being spent in ways that are determined by the Foreign Office. I remind the House that it was a law of Whitehall that while the Foreign Office did prose, the Department for International Development did money. Whenever Tony Blair and David Cameron went to an international conference where money was being discussed, they always took a senior DFID official, because DFID, as even the Treasury would admit, was extremely good at money and running money.

Frankly, the idea of these brilliant diplomats who prosecute British diplomacy so well being responsible for and running multimillion-pound development programmes should give the taxpayer the heebie-jeebies. What will happen is this: the Daily Mail will discover examples of Foreign Office misspending of the ODA budget, and it will rightly pick up on them. It will say, “If Britain cannot honour its pledge to the taxpayer of value for money, and if it spends money badly in this way, why do we have this budget at all? Why don’t we spend all the money on our schools and hospitals here?” The argument will be made for abolishing the budget altogether, and if it is made on the back of misspending, it will be heard by our constituents.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact is the watchdog that reports on international development—rightly, to the Select Committee and not to Ministers who can sweep inconvenient truths under the carpet. It draws its power from the legislature and is an important new part of the Government’s architecture. Officials hate it because, of course, it can look at what they are doing and expose them. It is the taxpayer’s friend, it reports to Parliament, and Ministers have the benefit of its work, attention and rigour. It is a vital tool of making policy, so I urge the Minister, who understands such things, to become its strong supporter.

Sarah Champion

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for the formation of the ICAI, which absolutely does its job of scrutinising where the money goes. Does he share my concern that, at the moment, its future budget has not been signed off and it looks like its funding will be reduced, which means that its ability to scrutinise will be reduced as well?

Mr Mitchell

Of course, all the officials in the Foreign Office will want to reduce ICAI expenditure—first because they will have perfectly respectable arguments for where else the money could be spent, and secondly because they know that the way to emasculate it is to cut its expenditure. That will mean that it cannot investigate without fear and favour on behalf of the taxpayer who, as I say, is the main beneficiary. I agree with the hon. Lady and very much hope that her voice will be heard.

I will end on the subject of China, which seems to bring the whole argument together. In 2009, the Conservative Opposition decided that all development money for China would end. We did that because China has roared out of poverty; if we look at what China and India have done for poverty alleviation, we see that the results are sensationally good. China has done so much to tackle poverty and its GDP is bigger than ours, so there was clearly no case for expecting the British taxpayer to pay any money at all for development in China. I was sent by David Cameron to inform Madam Fu, the Chinese ambassador, of the decision that if we were elected and had the privilege of forming a Government, there would be no more ODA spend to China. She gave me a tremendous ticking off, but the Chinese accepted it.

When we went into government in 2010, the first thing I did when I had the privilege and honour of going into my new DFID office was to say, “No more ODA money for China. That was our commitment at the election to our constituents, and unless it’s legally due now, there’s to be no more ODA spend in China.” Basically, since that day, DFID—when it was DFID—has not spent money in China. There were long-tail projects that it could not end, but apart from that, it did not spend any more.

Significant money continues to be spent in China, however, by the Foreign Office, and it is not really development money. Providing that money is, the Foreign Office thinks, the best way to suck up to the Chinese Government, but it is not spent sensibly. Between 2009 and 2011, in the incoming years of the Conservative Government, the expenditure was reduced from £49 million to £15 million. Between 2014 and 2019, however, that ODA expenditure—taxpayers’ money—on the development budget in China rose from £23 million to £68 million. That was the highest figure, but I understand that it was £64 million in 2020. What on earth are the Government doing spending ODA money in China? We promised the electorate that we would not do it. DFID did not do it. It is not a development priority, there is no case for it and it should be stopped.

The second thing I ask of the Minister—the first was her trenchant support for the ICAI—is to commit to the House that there will be full transparency on ODA money that is spent in China. How much is it, and on what is it being spent? There is a suggestion that some of this money has been spent on prison reform in China. If that is the case, then for reasons that everyone will understand, it is an absolute disgrace. I hope the Minister will reassure us that, if that was happening, it is not happening any more and it will not happen again.

There has been further disingenuity, I would say, about spending in China, with the former Foreign Secretary announcing he was reducing it by 95%. That prompts the question of what it was doing being spent in the first place, but I suspect that figure is 95% of what the Foreign Office was spending and does not include what was being spent by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I end on this point: I am pretty sure that the money spent by BEIS has been tied aid. As the House will know, it is absolutely not allowed to spend money on tied aid—we are subject to numerous conventions we have signed not to do so—and I think it may even be against the law.

My point is that, because we no longer have the rigour and expertise of a separate Government Department that ensures this money is well spent, delivers results and gives value for money both to our partners on the ground and to the British taxpayer—we have lost that—we now have the very unrigorous and uncertain system of controls that previously led to the Pergau dam issue. We do not have the controls we had in the past, and the reputation of Foreign Office Ministers, the Foreign Office and the Government are very much at risk as a result.