Parliament should be given the chance to reject the Government’s “damaging cuts” to foreign aid, the former Lord Speaker has said, warning he and other opponents “will not give up”.
Speaking from the red benches after quitting the Woolsack earlier this year, Lord Fowler argued the legally binding commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas development assistance (ODA) had been “changed by ministerial decree”.
The 83-year-old former Tory health secretary pointed out the controversial move had seen funding slashed by more than 80 per cent to the United Nations Aids agency for which he was an ambassador.
It comes amid continued criticism of the decision to ditch the foreign aid guarantee and reduce it to 0.5 per cent of national income as a result of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ministers claim an exemption in legislation allows them to miss the target in exceptional circumstances, although critics argue it is unlawful and should be put to a parliamentary vote.
Speaking at Westminster, Lord Fowler said: “An Act of Parliament has been changed by ministerial decree.”
Raising the prospect of a legal challenge, the independent crossbencher said: “The difficulty is they will take time. In my view the best outcome is for this to be settled in Parliament.
“The Government should recognise that aid organisations today face unique and urgent problems, partly because of Covid.
“How much it would be better for the Government to recognise that reality and change course.
“The issues of poverty and of a lack of health provision remain the same. The difference is that with the onset of Covid they have become even more acute.
“I do not believe this is a ‘Red Wall’ or a ‘Blue Wall’ issue. It is not and should not be a matter of party politics at all. It is a matter of judgment and in my view of common humanity.
“For millions of men, women and particularly children around the world aid is their lifeblood.
“I believe we should keep to the course we set in 2015 and above all we should at least have the opportunity to reject these damaging cuts by the Government obeying the usual parliamentary rules and allowing a vote in both the Commons and the Lords.
“I cannot see that morally the Government can do anything other than that.
“We will not give up on this issue. We are not just going to go away.”
Responding, Tory frontbencher Lord Parkinson insisted the Government had acted in line with legislation “which explicitly envisages that there may be circumstances where the 0.7 per cent target is not met”.
He said despite the reduction in funding, the UK would still be spending 10 billion pounds (13 billion dollars) on overseas aid this year.
Lord Parkinson added: “The context is crucial. We cannot ignore the fiscal situation that we face as a country.
“The Government is especially proud that we are continuing vital humanitarian aid and development support in the face of the worst economic contraction in almost 300 years and a budget deficit of close to 400 billion pounds.
“With less money to spend in 2021, we have prioritised our aid to be more strategic so we can remain a force for good across the world.
“Despite the unique and extreme financial pressures imposed on us by the global Covid-19 pandemic the UK remains in both percentage and absolute terms one of the world’s most generous aid donors.”