Boris Johnson – 2021 Statement on Foreign Aid Cuts

The statement made by Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, on 13 July 2021.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Written Ministerial Statement relating to Treasury Update on International Aid, which was made to the House on Monday 12 July.

I believe that, on this vital subject, there is common ground between the Government and hon. Members on both sides of the House, in the sense that we believe in the power of aid to transform millions of lives. That is why we continue to agree that the UK should dedicate 0.7% of our gross national income to official development assistance.

This is not an argument about principle. The only question is when we return to 0.7%. My purpose today is to describe how we propose to achieve this shared goal in an affordable way.

Here we must face the harsh fact that the world is now enduring a catastrophe of a kind that happens only once a century. This pandemic has cast our country into its deepest recession on record, paralysing our national life, threatening the survival of entire sectors of the economy and causing my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to find over £407 billion to safeguard jobs and livelihoods and to support businesses and public services across the United Kingdom. He has managed that task with consummate skill and ingenuity, but everyone will accept that, when we are suddenly compelled to spend £407 billion on sheltering our people from an economic hurricane never experienced in living memory, there must inevitably be consequences for other areas of public spending.

Last year, under the pressure of the emergency, our borrowing increased fivefold to almost £300 billion—more than 14% of GDP, the highest since the second world war. This year, our national debt is climbing towards 100% of GDP, the highest for nearly six decades. The House knows that the Government have been compelled to take wrenching decisions, and the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 expressly provides that fiscal circumstances can allow departure from the 0.7% target.

Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and the Chancellor for their constructive engagement with those of us who have been profoundly concerned about our departure from the aid target. Will he reconfirm to me and to the House that this is not a fiscal trap, and that the mechanism set out in a written ministerial statement is a genuine and full-hearted attempt to return to our commitment of 0.7% at the very earliest economically sustainable opportunity?

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on and expertise in this matter. I know how deeply he cares about this, in common with many other Members across the House, and I can indeed give him that confirmation. The decision that we made was temporary, to reduce our aid budget to 0.5% of national income.

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

With great respect, if the House will allow me, I will make as much progress as I can in this speech, and then allow the, I think, 77 others who wish to contribute to have their say, so I will not take any more interventions.

In the teeth of this crisis, amid all the other calls on our resources, we can take pride in the fact that the UK will still invest at least £10 billion in aid this year—more, as a share of our GDP, than Canada, Japan, Italy and the United States. It would be a travesty if hon. Members were to give the impression that the UK is somehow retreating from the field of international development or lacking in global solidarity. As I speak, this country is playing a vital role in the biggest and fastest global vaccination programme in history. We helped to create COVAX, the coalition to vaccinate the developing world, and we have invested over half a billion pounds in this crucial effort, which has so far distributed more than 100,00 million doses to 135 countries.

The Government’s agreement with Oxford University and AstraZeneca succeeded in producing the world’s most popular vaccine, with over 500 million doses released to the world, mainly to low and middle-income countries, saving lives every hour of every day. The UK’s expertise and resources have been central to the global response to the emergency, discovering both the vaccine and the first life-saving treatment for covid. We have secured agreement from our friends in the G7 to provide a billion vaccines to protect the world by the end of next year, and 100 million will come from the UK. We are the third biggest sovereign donor to the World Health Organisation, and the top donor to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which vaccinates children against killer diseases.

We are devoting £11.6 billion, double our previous commitment, to helping developing countries to deal with climate change, including by protecting their forests and introducing green energy. I can tell the House that this vital investment will be protected.

When it comes to addressing one of the world’s gravest injustices—the tragedy that millions of girls are denied the chance to go to school—the UK has pledged more than any other country, £430 million, to the Global Partnership for Education, in addition to the £400 million that we will spend on girls’ education this year.

Later this month, I will co-host a summit of the partnership in London with President Kenyatta of Kenya. Wherever civil wars are displacing millions or threatening to inflict famine in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia or elsewhere, the UK is responding with over £900 million of help this year, making our country the third-largest bilateral humanitarian donor in the world. It bears repeating that we are doing this in the midst of a terrible crisis, when our public finances are under greater strain than ever before in peacetime history and every pound we spend in aid has to be borrowed. It represents not our money, but money we are taking from future generations.

Last year, we dissolved the old divide between aid and diplomacy that once ran through the entire Whitehall machine, by creating the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. In doing so, my objective was to ensure that every diplomat in our service was actuated by the mission and vision of our finest development officials, and that our aid was better in tune with our national values and our desire to be a force for good in the world. So I can assure any hon. Member who wishes to make the case for aid that they are, when it comes to me or to anyone in the Government, preaching to the converted. We shall act on that conviction by returning to 0.7% as soon as two vital tests have been satisfied. The first is that the UK is no longer borrowing to cover current or day-to-day expenditure. The second is that public debt, excluding the Bank of England, is falling as a share of GDP.

Mr Mitchell

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

I am just coming to the end. The moment the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts show that both of those conditions will sustainably be met, from the point at which they are met we will willingly restore our aid budget to 0.7%.

Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

Plenty of people want to speak in this debate. The Government will of course review the situation every year and place a statement before this House in accordance with the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015. But as we conduct that annual review, we will fervently wish to find that our conditions have been satisfied. This is one debate where the Government and hon. Members from across the House share the same objective—

Yvette Cooper

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

I am sure the right hon. Lady will have plenty of time later on.

As I was saying, we share the same objective and the same fundamental convictions. We all believe in the principle that aid can transform lives, and by voting for this motion, hon. Members will provide certainty for our aid budget and an affordable path back to 0.7%, while also allowing for investment in other priorities, including the NHS, schools and the police. As soon as circumstances allow and the tests are met, we will return to the target that unites us, and I commend this motion to the House.