Jeremy Wright – 2021 Speech on Foreign Aid Cuts

The comments made by Jeremy Wright, the Conservative MP for Kenilworth and Southam, in the House of Commons on 13 July 2021.

There are, I think, two primary arguments for opposing the Government this afternoon. The first is that the 0.7% overseas aid target was a manifesto commitment. That is a serious point, though the electorate will appreciate that the expectations on which those manifestos were based have changed substantially since covid-19.

The second is that the target is in statute in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015. That is true, but the Act also envisages and allows for circumstances in which the Government might not meet the target in any given year, including the impact on public borrowing, and Parliament cannot stop the Government doing so. The Act, at section 3(1), is very clear about that. We have the right only to be informed of how and why the target is to be missed. As far as I can tell, nobody is proposing to amend the 2015 Act, so it will remain unchanged whatever the vote this afternoon.

I welcome the Government’s clarification that they are not seeking unilaterally to change the statutory target, but rather to miss it. Those are different things, and the former would, in my view, be both wrong and unlawful, but we either trust the Government or we do not. If we do not trust the Government—and we are here because a large number of Members do not—why would we trust them to keep the 0.7% commitment beyond next year when the Act so clearly allows them to decide not to? Transparent, externally judged criteria, arguably at least, would leave those of us who want to see the preservation of aid spending in a stronger position than under the 2015 Act alone, which applies what are in truth fairly loose shackles to Government on aid spending and leaves it entirely to Government to decide when to escape them, and that cannot help provide the certainty that the aid sector rightly seeks.

I believe in the merits of overseas aid spending and I have used many of the arguments made so eloquently by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who deserves huge credit for extracting the compromises that the Government have already made. Those arguments, though, must in the end persuade the public whose money we are spending. As Conservatives, we also argue that high public debt is bad for our long-term capacity to support the vulnerable everywhere. Enduring public support for aid spending may well depend on the public recognising that we have apportioned the financial burden of the covid crisis fairly, and not protected aid spending to the detriment of other areas of spending that they may find at least as deserving. I think the Government are now trying to strike that balance. Recognising though I do the strength of the arguments made by many on both sides of this House in the course of this debate, it is important and necessary to give the Government credit for that effort.