Speaking in an Estimates Day debate in relation to the Foreign Office, Harriett Baldwin calls for Parliament to have a meaningful vote on the 0.7% overseas development commitment and particularly calls for more funding for girls education and family planning.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) on securing this afternoon’s debate.
Let me start by anticipating some of the things that my hon. Friend the Minister may choose to say at the end of the debate. I have no doubt that, as my excellent successor, he is extremely well briefed on some of the points that he will choose to make in response to the points that have been raised by so many colleagues this afternoon.
I first want to say, in my most understanding mode, that I understand that when we have the sharpest economic contraction for 300 years, it is necessary to review aid spending that is linked to the size of the economy. The £2.9 billion that had to be removed from the budget as a result of that economic contraction is something that I can understand. It is unfortunate, but I can understand it.
I can also understand the defence, which the Minister will no doubt put up, that there is a clause in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 that says that, under extreme circumstances, the Government can come to Parliament and outline an explanation for why they did not meet 0.7% in a particular year.
I anticipate that the Minister will also point to the fact that the UK continues to spend £10 billion this year in overseas development assistance. Any one of us would accept that that is a very large amount of money, and when we are spending a large amount of money, it is always important to review it and see whether we are spending it wisely. A zero-based budget exercise, looking at every line item of expenditure, which is effectively what the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has just gone through, is something that any prudent Government should do from time to time.
However, where I begin to depart from agreeing with what my hon. Friend is likely to say at the conclusion of the debate is around the change to 0.5%—going into a financial year and deliberately changing that percentage—without testing the will of Parliament to agree to it. That is where I think we are getting on to rather difficult legal and constitutional ground, because we all went into the last general election with a pledge to meet 0.7%. It was something that 100% of MPs were elected on. The law does state that 0.7% is what we should be aiming to achieve, apart from when there is an inadvertent inability to meet that due to economic circumstances.
I feel very passionately that those of us who are expressing concerns this afternoon are really expressing the concerns of those who are most affected, who are unable to voice their opposition. Of course, when a party breaks a manifesto pledge, it is usually voters at the next general election who are affected by it who will vote them out, but in this case, those who are most affected will, according to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), very likely be dead by the time of the next election and not able to lobby a UK Member of Parliament.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) was saying about polling—no doubt the Minister may also allude to this—the fact is that this policy does not poll badly in the United Kingdom, because those affected are not themselves being polled and those being polled are not themselves affected.
There has been lots of backwards and forwards on this, but the simple truth is that the polling depends very much on the question asked. One of the effects of these cuts falls on starvation relief, drought relief and on medical support. If it is put to the public, “Do you want to give emergency aid to people starving to death?”, we get 92% in favour.
Indeed, that is an excellent point. People are very strongly in favour of vaccinating the world, and that is why I very much welcome the pledge made at the G7, which I understand will be in addition to the 0.5%. No doubt the Minister will confirm that.
Just on the subject of polling, the British Foreign Policy Group, which is hardly a right- wing organisation, polled this issue earlier this year.
Some 72% of people would like to see a cessation or reduction in aid until the financial situation is resolved. We are in danger of batting these figures backwards and forwards. We must rely on what we hear on the doorstep. I do not know what my hon. Friend’s doorsteps are like, but mine are quite unequivocal on this matter.
What I would say is that there is one poll I would like to take—it is the one that Mr Speaker has asked us to take in this House—and that is a vote on whether the 0.7% should be changed to 0.5% on a forward-planning basis. That is the poll I would like to take. Last week in Prime Minister’s questions, in response to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), the Prime Minister indicated that today’s debate on the estimates was that vote.
I have looked into the matter, and I understand that if we voted down today’s estimates, not only would all diplomats stop being paid immediately, but a vote against estimates can only be done to reduce a budget, rather than to increase a budget. That is why I am perfectly happy to support today’s estimates, but I would like to see a separate, stand-alone vote on whether we should go from 0.7% to 0.5%. If this House agrees that, I do not have any problems with the constitutional situation. I think that would override what is in the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015. We need to see a test through a poll of the Members of this House.
I am delighted to see that the economy is recovering very fast at the moment here in the UK, which I hope will mean that next year’s budget for overseas development assistance can start to increase once again. I am also delighted that the UK and Kenya are jointly co-hosting the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education at the end of July. I very much welcome the £430 million that the Prime Minister announced at the recent G7 towards global education. It is the single best investment we can make in the future of our planet in terms of making sure that every child gets 12 years of quality education. We all know how much that unlocks in terms of economic prosperity, a better climate and a healthier society, so that is an incredibly important thing to be doing.
Can I suggest to the Minister that, in encouraging a successful replenishment of the $5 billion that the Global Partnership for Education is seeking, we offer, as our economy grows, to match fund contributions from other donor countries around the world? I think that would be a really positive way of saying, “If you’ll put in more money, we’ll put in more money here in the UK.”
I would like to see a reversal of the 85% reduction to the United Nations Population Fund for family planning. I want every girl in the world to be able to access the same choices in family planning as we were all able to access in our lives. Of the countries around the world, one of the most alarming anecdotes I have heard about the impact of this reduction in aid spending is that in South Sudan the World Food Programme is saying it is now having to choose between feeding hungry children and feeding starving children. I would urge the Minister to put that very much at the top of his shopping list for his budget increase next year.
In conclusion, let us not argue about which poll says what. Let us have a poll in this place on this issue. Tonight’s vote is not the vote on that. Let us have a separate one.