The speech made by Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat for Oxford West and Abingdon, in the House of Commons on 6 July 2022.
I start by thanking the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing this incredibly important debate. Notwithstanding whatever state the Government may be in now—the latest apparently being that they cannot find MPs to fill the roles of all the Ministers who have resigned—this incredibly important debate shows that Parliament continues to work, even if the Government do not.
Last week, we debated the Government’s thoroughly un-British plan to go back on their word and break their promise over the Northern Ireland protocol. Today we must remind ourselves that this is another promise, made right at the beginning of the Prime Minister’s premiership, that has been broken. I found the remarks of the Prime Minister interesting when he said, clearly in relation to the right hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), that some people do not change. I am afraid that is what we have seen in this Prime Minister as well, because he has not, and the decisions that this Government have made are wrecking our reputation, not just domestically, but internationally, too, whether that is the diplomatic service, the BBC World Service, the British Council, or, as has rightly been the focus of the debate today, the international development budget.
The Liberal Democrats are particularly proud that we brought forward the Bill that enshrined 0.7% in law, but it was a cross-party, settled matter among MPs across the whole House. It was in all our manifestos, and we collectively promised it. That promise to the British people was broken by this Government when they reneged on 0.7%, and shame on them. Perhaps the good that will come from the eventual, inevitable fall of this Prime Minister is that decency and honesty might be restored to this Government. I hope therefore that the first act of the new incoming Administration might be to restore the aid budget immediately.
Today I want to focus on this Government’s current mishandling of the aid budget. The cut to the budget has hit and continues to hit those countries who need it most, including Ethiopia. The House may not know, but I lived in Ethiopia. We moved there when I was five, and we were there until I was eight. It was in the early ’80s, and people may remember the famine. We were there because my father had been given the job of economic adviser to the European mission out there, and my earliest memories of life at all are going with him to aid projects, where I would meet little children of my age who were emaciated, did not have clean water and were not able to go to school. It is a success story of aid that many of those children down the line, and their children, would have had better prospects than perhaps the young children I met.
In the context of the war in Ethiopia, the aid budget has been slashed from £325 million in 2020-21 to £30 million in 2024-25—less than a tenth. In Bangladesh, the budget will have halved from £200 million in 2020-21 to just £100 million in 2024-25. Those cuts are not a proud record of global leadership in international development; they are an international disgrace that is affecting the most vulnerable now more than ever.
Since the Government reneged on their promise, we have found ourselves with a war in Ukraine, which means that the 400 million people worldwide who rely on Ukrainian food supplies cannot get them. That ongoing military crisis—the blockade of ports, the destruction of agricultural machinery and the shells strewn across fields—is preventing grain from leaving what is rightly named the breadbasket of the world. That crisis will lead to people dying and to further instability.
I also lived in Egypt for a while; we moved there right after the revolution. The reason that the Arab spring happened was the price of tomatoes and bread. That kind of poverty and economic instability lead to political instability. To the points that have been made on both sides of the House I would say that if we are intent on helping people so that they do not have to flee and come to our shores as refugees, the best investment that we can make is to give money to partners abroad that can help them to have the best possible life where they want to be—in their cultures, in their homes, in those countries. Of course we want 0.7% to be restored, and the Ukraine crisis is why it should be restored now. In the light of that crisis, we need to step up to the plate—to the global catastrophe in front of us.
There may be hope. The latest Office for Budget Responsibility forecast reveals that a return of 0.7% is on the cards, because the fiscal tests of the old Chancellor are due to be met in 2023-24—less than a year away. Now that that decision has been made, however, it does not give me hope that the Treasury will acknowledge that 0.7% will return, because every time it has been pressed, it has refused to say whether it will allow it in the autumn. By its own tests, it should be in this autumn’s Budget that we return to 0.7%, but as has been mentioned, that promise was made by the last Chancellor. As of today, we have a new Chancellor; perhaps he will do the right thing and restore 0.7%.
International development was a proud thing for this country to hang its hat on, which matched our proud reputation as a development superpower. If the Government were serious about global Britain—Great Britain—they would lean into that reputation. It had its own Department and Secretary of State with a dedicated seat at the Cabinet table and at the National Security Council. The United Kingdom is a centre for excellence for international development and we are home to institutions that deliver world-leading research and development technical expertise and project co-ordination.
Yet the international development strategy makes it clear how far we have already fallen. After reading it, it was interesting and instructive to do a little word search. If the point of international aid is to alleviate poverty—the Government’s stated aim—why was it mentioned only nine times? Investment, however, particularly linked to trade, was mentioned 48 times. That tells us everything that we need to know about the Government’s priorities.
When the Government announced their plan to merge the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office into the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Members on both sides of the House joined forces with the sector to raise concerns about what that would mean for effectiveness. I am sorry to say that that fear has come true.
The strategy prioritises bilateral aid over multilateral aid. This is fundamentally counter to the liberal ideal of working within international structures to solve the world’s problems. It should be “and”, not “or”—not multilateral or bilateral, but both. Multilaterals, including the United Nations, are very often the first to be able to get there on the ground with dedicated teams. In times of urgent humanitarian crises, it is very often specialist teams from such multilateral organisations that can deliver the big asks needed for rebuilding, so I am deeply concerned about how this policy will impact on the UK’s ability to respond to emerging disasters, in particular.
If we are serious about tackling poverty, inequality and vulnerability across the world, it is also essential that trade is distributed where it is most needed—not where it is most likely to benefit us; that is wrong. Trade is an important part of why we do aid, but it should never be the whole reason. Trade is important, of course, and so is aid, but tying one to the other, as is the direction of travel, is the wrong approach. I remain highly concerned by this Government’s approach, which may be leading us down a dark path towards tied aid. If people want a story about what that looked like, they should look at the corruption surrounding the Pergau dam. If we say, “Well, we legislated against that”, look what the Government are doing with their own legislation: they just throw it out the window when they think it is the right time.
I wholeheartedly agree with what the hon. Lady says. I am very conscious that in many of the countries my constituents have relationships with—Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Malawi, to give just three examples—there are NGOs and church groups on the ground, and they understand where the real needs are. Sometimes, it is better to feed in to the knowledge of the people on the ground about where the real needs are to ensure that aid gets through. Would that be an example of what the Government should be trying to do?
I thank the hon. Member very much for his intervention. I have seen this in the Ukraine crisis with a charity I know that operates in Moldova. The smaller charities are often very nimble and can use their knowledge straightaway on the ground. However, this needs to be “and”, not “or”. They cannot do it all; they have to do it in partnership with the multilaterals. Taking from one and not feeding into the other is the wrong approach.
In my view, the international development strategy emphasises short-term quick wins and overlooks the deeper causes of poverty and vulnerability. I will pick one specific example about women and girls, who are purportedly a priority in this strategy. The strategy claims that the Government
“intend to restore funding for this vital work.”
I ask the Minister to clarify what exactly she and the Government mean by “restore”, and to what level. This is not just about funding for schools. If we do not fund period poverty plans, sexual health plans and water plans, we find that women and girls are the first ones to start making up the gap.
There should not just be a snappy headline with the three Es of education, empowerment and ending violence against women and girls. Those are pointless unless they are followed up behind by things that are actually going to make a difference. I pay tribute again to the hon. Member for Rotherham and her Committee, because her use of privilege to make public the equalities report showed that the Government knew that their cuts were going to affect women, girls and minorities the most—and yet they have the brass neck to suggest in this strategy that it is their priority. This is the typical doublespeak we have come to rely on from this Government. To see what the Government are actually doing, look at what they say they are doing best. By and large, people will probably find that it is the thing the Government are doing worst.
The hon. Member is making an incredibly powerful speech. She has worked so hard in this area, and I commend her for it. Does she agree that the development strategy is not a strategy? We do not know what the strategy is. This is a collection of buzzwords with a few statistics put in, but where is the underpinning vision, which is meant to be the SDGs and reducing and removing poverty? It just does not exist.
The hon. Member is absolutely right: it is the strategy that is completely missing from the Government.
This is not just about the money. We are debating the estimates and the money, so that is the right thing to focus on, but what determines whether money is being spent effectively is knowing what we want to achieve with that money. I will tell hon. Members what the Liberal Democrat vision is: the eradication of poverty, human rights for all, and a bolstering, not a deterioration, of the international rules-based order. Under our plans, the 0.7% target would be restored and a completely different approach to foreign policy delivered. I am sorry to say that the Government seem to be doing the exact opposite.