Keir Starmer – 2021 Speech on Foreign Aid Cuts

The speech made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, on 13 July 2021.

I start by thanking you, Mr Speaker, and hon. Members from across the House for ensuring that this debate took place today. In particular, I thank the right hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I think they are the “lefty” propagandists that the Prime Minister was talking about a couple of weeks ago. I have to say that if the Prime Minister had confidence in the arguments he is making to this House, he would have given way to them a moment ago so that his arguments could be tested. He does not have confidence in them, otherwise he would have done so—that is obvious already. However, we do welcome the chance to debate this motion.

The motion is broad and, if I may say so, from this Prime Minister it is typically slippery. The House should have had the opportunity for a straight up/down vote on whether to approve or reject the Government’s cut to overseas aid to 0.5%. This motion does not do that. But the Chancellor’s written ministerial statement is clear: if the motion is carried, the cut in overseas aid to 0.5% will effectively carry on indefinitely. I will expand on that point in just a moment—[Interruption.] I will expand on that point and take interventions on it.

Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Keir Starmer

I am going to develop that argument. When I get to it, I will give way so that that argument can be tested, in the usual way. But if the motion is rejected,

“the Government would consequently return to spending 0.7% of GNI on international aid in the next calendar year”.—[Official Report, 12 July 2021; Vol. 699, c. 4WS.]

Let me be clear: Labour will vote to reject this motion tonight and to return overseas aid to 0.7% of GNI.

Mr Harper

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Keir Starmer

I am going to summarise my argument—[Interruption.] I am going make my argument, and when I get to the relevant part, I will take interventions.

The case that we make is this: first, that the cut is wrong, because investing 0.7% on international aid is in Britain’s national interest; secondly, because the economic criteria set out by the Chancellor would lead to an indefinite cut that is likely to last beyond this Parliament; and, thirdly, because it matters that this House keeps its word to the voters who elected us. Every Member here—every Member here—was elected on a manifesto to retain the 0.7% target, and it matters that we keep our promises to the world’s poorest, particularly at such a time of global uncertainty.

Mr Harper

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. I agree with him about keeping promises, and Conservative Members were also elected to keep fiscal promises to reduce our debt and not to borrow for day-to-day spending. I hope in his remarks he will set out, given that he is not going to support this motion, which areas of spending he is going to cut to pay for it or which taxes he is going to raise. If he does not do either of those things, then I am afraid his promises and his vote today are hollow, and no one will believe him.

Keir Starmer

I have to say that it is a bit rich from someone who may break the manifesto commitment to say that the vote today and the words today are hollow, but just to take that straight on, it is a false economy, I am afraid. Cutting aid will increase costs and have a big impact on our economy. Development aid—we all know this—reduces conflict, disease and people fleeing from their homes. It is a false economy to pretend that this is some sort of cut that does not have consequences.

Mr Mitchell

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is making a House of Commons speech, not a partisan speech. Can I ask him what I would have asked the Prime Minister if the Prime Minister had given way? First, will he confirm that the cut we are discussing today is 1% of the borrowing the Prime Minister described that he quite rightly sanctioned last year? Secondly, will he underline the fact that this was an all-party promise made at the general election by every single one of us, and we really should not break our promises to the poorest in this terrible way?

Keir Starmer

Yes and yes. It was not ambivalent in the manifestos and it was not conditional; it was clear.

On the first part of the argument—the national interest—British aid saves lives, it builds a more secure world, and it promotes democracy and British soft power. For the last 20 years, that has been the political consensus across this House. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown first set the goal of the UK reaching the 0.7% target—[Interruption.] I am making a speech to the House and for the House. David Cameron and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead made it a reality, and we acknowledge that in the right way. It has been supported—[Interruption.] The chuntering is all very well, but this has been a cross-party position for 20 years, and successive Prime Ministers have kept to the commitment. Every other living Prime Minister thinks this is wrong; there is only one Prime Minister who is prepared to do this, and he is sitting there, on the Front Bench. I acknowledge what those on the Benches opposite did in relation to this—the previous Prime Minister is sitting opposite. I am openly acknowledging that, and it has been supported by all parties, and rightly so. As the sixth richest country in the world, Britain has a moral obligation to help the world’s poorest, and our aid budget has done that with fantastic results.

Dame Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Keir Starmer

I will in a moment.

This has been providing education for women and girls; fighting poverty; providing sanitation, healthcare and vaccines; building resilience and infrastructure; and doing incredible post-conflict and reconstruction work, where I think Britain does a better job than anyone else, so it has real results. Let us be clear what these cuts would mean: 1 million girls losing out on schooling; nearly 3 million women and children going without life-saving nutrition; 5.6 million children left unvaccinated; an estimated 100,000 deaths worldwide. [Interruption] The Prime Minister says “Rubbish”; that is the human toll of the choices the Government are making, and it is not rubbish.

Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

The case being made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that the Prime Minister is making a promise he will not keep, but what did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown do? They made a promise but they never, ever spent 0.7% of GDP on aid, and therefore the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s speech lacks all moral force.

Keir Starmer

They more than doubled it; they set the goal, and then successive Prime Ministers implemented that goal. That is such a weak argument—11 years into this Government that is such a weak argument. When I was Director of Public Prosecutions, which has a five-year term, the very idea that I could turn around four or five years into the role and say it was somebody else’s fault five, 10, 15, 20 years ago—I have always found such an argument particularly weak. This is such a bad argument but it is used all the time. They have been in power for 11 years; either take responsibility for what you are doing or give up.

Our overseas aid budget goes beyond that moral obligation: it also helps build a more stable world and keeps us safer in the UK. In Afghanistan aid has supported improvements in security, in governance, in economic development and in rights for women and girls, yet, despite all the challenges that that country now faces and the security and terrorist threats that that poses to the UK—we know about those, and the previous Prime Minister the right hon. Member for Maidenhead knows about them—UK aid to Afghanistan is being cut from £192.3 million to £38.2 million. That is Afghanistan. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister chunters, but they are actually the Government figures. In Yemen, where there is the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world, UK aid has been cut by nearly 60%; in Syria, the Government are slashing aid by around 50%; and for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh there is a cut of 42%. All of those decisions will create more refugees, more instability and more people having to flee their homes.

Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the words of General James Mattis, the former United States Defence Secretary? When President Trump proposed cutting overseas aid, General Mattis said, “Fine, cut it, but you will have to give me, the Defence Secretary, more money to buy more bullets.”

Keir Starmer

I am aware of that, and it exposes the false economy argument in the Prime Minister’s case.

This cut will also reduce UK influence just when it is needed most, and of course it risks leaving a vacuum that other countries—China and Russia, for example—will fill. At a time when Britain will host COP26 and has hosted the G7 we should be using every means at our disposal to create a fairer and safer world, but we are the only G7 country that is cutting our aid budget—the only G7 country. That is not the vision of global Britain that those of us on the Labour Benches want to see, and I do not think it is the vision of global Britain that many on the Benches opposite want to see either.

Dame Andrea Leadsom

All of us in this House long to see our aid commitments re-established at 0.7% of national income, but the Leader of the Opposition will nevertheless appreciate that we continue to be one of the most generous foreign aid donors. He is making a good point about the 0.7%, but can he explain why, in all the Labour years of Labour Government, they averaged 0.36% of national income on overseas aid?

Keir Starmer

They doubled it, actually.

Let me turn to my second point, which has already been debated: the economic argument behind the Government’s position. The Prime Minister and Chancellor say that these cuts are unavoidable because of the pandemic and the economic consequences we now find ourselves in, but the whole point of the 0.7% target is that it is relative to the UK’s economic success or challenges: it rises when we grow and falls when we experience economic shock like the pandemic. Nobody in this House is arguing for overseas aid to be maintained at the pre-pandemic level during the downturn in strict terms. We all recognise that a contracting economy means a relative contraction in our aid budget, but the Chancellor and Prime Minister are asking the House to agree to go beyond that, to impose a new target of 0.5% and to create entirely new criteria for ever returning to 0.7%. In effect, the Chancellor is proposing a double lock against reverting to 0.7%. The written ministerial statement makes it clear that Britain will go back to 0.7% only when public debt is falling as a percentage of GDP and there is a “current budget surplus”.

Mr Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Con)

Will the right hon. and learned Member give way?

Keir Starmer

Let me make this point, and the Prime Minister can intervene if he wants. On the former point, the Office for Budget Responsibility does not predict public debt falling as a percentage of GDP until 2024 or 2025 at the earliest. If the Prime Minister wants to intervene, I am ready. That would mean returning to 0.7% will not happen in any year in this Parliament. I am clear about that. Does anyone want to intervene? That is the OBR’s prediction.

Anthony Mangnall (Totnes) (Con)

I thank the Leader of the Opposition for allowing me to intervene. Perhaps he can help in ascertaining when those targets would have been met in the past 20 years.

Keir Starmer

Well, that is a very good point. I think it is once in 20 years. However, there are two points here and, if there is a contrary argument, the Prime Minister can make it. On the first point, the OBR does not predict a fall in debt as a percentage of GDP until 2024 to 2025. Therefore, anybody voting tonight who is pretending to themselves that the cut is temporary and will be changed in a year or two is not looking at the facts. If anybody wants to say they have better statistics and the OBR has got it completely wrong, please do so—that includes the Prime Minister.

On the second point, the OBR does not forecast a current surplus for its entire forecast period. In fact, there is no expected timeline for that criterion to be met at all. What the Chancellor is setting out is not a temporary cut in overseas aid; it is an indefinite cut. Let me remind the House that only, I think, five times in the past 30 years has a current budget surplus been run—four of them, I might add, were under a Labour Government and one under the Conservatives—so the chances of those criteria being met under a Conservative Chancellor are remote at best. All the more so, because the statement creates an artificial £4.3 billion fiscal penalty for any Chancellor who seeks to rebalance the Budget. So this is an indefinite cut—it is not going to be reversed next year or the year after—and, however much the Prime Minister shakes his head, there is no contrary argument.

This is not just about economic necessity; a political choice is being made. Not only is it against our national interest but it further erodes trust in our politics. That brings me to my third point: trust. There is now a central divide in British politics and across the world between those who value truth, integrity and honesty and those who bask in breaking them. We were all elected on manifestos that committed to the 0.7% target. I am proud to have stood on that commitment and I know that many hon. Members across the House are as well.

Mr Simon Clarke

Will the right hon. and learned Member give way?

Keir Starmer

I will in just a moment. Let me quote page 53 of the Conservative manifesto, which says:

“We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development”.

Do not shake your head, Prime Minister—it is there in black and white. As Conservative Members have said, that is not equivocal or conditional. It was a clear promise to voters and it should be honoured. If it is not, where does that leave us? There are already countless examples of the Prime Minister breaking his promises, such as: no hard border in the Irish Sea; no cuts to our armed forces; and an already-prepared plan for social care—the list is endless. That matters. It matters to the British people that they can trust a Prime Minister to honour a clear commitment. It matters to our reputation around the globe that the word of the British Government will hold in good times and bad.

Today, the House has the chance to stand up for a better kind of politics for the national interest, to do what we know is right and to honour our commitments to the world’s poorest. When the Division is called, Labour MPs will do so, and I am sure that others on the Conservative Benches will do so. I urge all Members to do so.