Why has the coalition's aid bill been delayed again?

The Tories have put politics before the interests of the world's poorest.

According to weekend newspaper reports, the bill enshrining in law the UK’s commitment to the UN target for international aid spending of 0.7 per cent will be absent from next month’s Queen’s Speech. It’s not just NGOs under that impression, even the FT political team were confirming it.

A source close to International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell is quoted as saying that: “There's no question of a coalition split here. The bill is ready to go, subject to parliamentary time”. The same line was put out by DIFD’s press office, blaming “the business managers” as if the decision was nothing to do with them. Mitchell himself told the Sun the same thing last month.

These “business managers” are surely the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, who like DFID, take their orders from No. 10. The buck stops with the Prime Minister and he has already presided over the breaking of his manifesto commitment on this issue. On page 117 of the Conservative manifesto which says:

A new Conservative government will be fully committed to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7% of national income as aid. We will stick to the rules laid down by the OECD about what spending counts as aid. We will legislate in the first session of a new Parliament to lock in this level of spending for every year from 2013.

This session has lasted almost two years and is one of the longest in Parliamentary history. The bill is short, with just a handful of clauses. It has already had pre-legislative scrutiny from the international development select committee and there is cross-party consensus. There is no prospect of it being overturned in the Lords. It could probably be passed on a one-line whip on a Thursday afternoon or Friday morning, with Labour and Lib Dem support.

So the weekend’s reports put the focus back on to the role that the Lib Dems are playing in making the coalition more, rather than less progressive. They too are bound by the coalition agreement, which says on page 22:

We will honour our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid from 2013, and to enshrine this commitment in law.

The suggestion is that the Lib Dems are prioritising Lords reform in their pre-Queen’s Speech negotiations so No. 10 are shelving the aid legislation in order to avoid a second Tory backbench rebellion. The line will be, “what matters is reaching 0.7 per cent in 2013, not legislating for it” but it was the legislation that was promised by all three parties in their manifestos and if it really doesn’t matter, why delay the vote?

The last time they were in office, the Conservatives halved the aid budget. Labour trebled it. The reason the Conservatives made the promise was to achieve all-party consensus and put the issue beyond doubt. The predicted backbench Tory rebellion, coming hot on the heels of the recent “caravan tax” revolt and the more visible EU referendum vote, would be popular with the public. But it would be damaging for the Tory modernisers, which is why those pesky ‘business managers’ could frankly do without it.

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DFID 2009-2010 and is now Head of News at IPPR - follow him on Twitter:@RDarlo

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell (C) speaks with locals during his visit at a Mother's Home Free education centre in Burma. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

Photo: Getty
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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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