Another three years to wait for 0.7% overseas aid?

The Tories have again delayed their pledge to meet the UN aid spending target.

The Observer yesterday reported that the Department for International Development (DFID) have pushed back their commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid from 2013 to 2015. The report is based on the new update to DFID’s business plan which now lists the end date for both the commitment to legislate and also the commitment to meet the UN spending target as "Mar 2015".

I’ve written for The Staggers several times about the government’s slow back-track on this commitment, here, here and here. The commitment is clear. The coalition agreement, says on page 22:

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

But, on page 117 of the Conservative manifesto, the commitment, and the timing of it, was more explicit:

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.

The Observer suggests that Labour will try to force the government’s hand by using a private member's bill from a Labour member of the development select committee. Previously, the International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, told Channel 4 News that the bill is ready and that "the law will come… but it must take its place in the queue."

Previously, I speculated that the go-slow was simply to avoid the optics of a backbench Tory rebellion. But the change to DFID’s business plan suggests that the legislative delay is necessary because the policy itself is to be delayed. This move might be popular with the public at a time when public finances are under pressure, but it would represent a breach of trust and would break the manifesto commitments of both governing parties.

Next week, IPPR and the ODI are publishing a report on UK public attitudes towards international aid and development as a contribution to the next phase of UK campaigning on poverty reduction and global development. Broken promises from the government risk returning the political and public debate on development to an unproductive political competition about spending, at the expense of the conversation that the public want to hear about results, change and progress in the developing world.

The last time they were in office, the Conservatives halved the aid budget. Labour trebled it. One reason the Conservatives made the promise was to achieve all-party consensus and put the issue beyond doubt. A broken promise on 0.7% would significantly damage the UK’s international position as a leading advocate for development and poverty reduction.

Next week sees the eagerly awaited publication of the ONE campaign’s DATA report that assess the record of rich countries against the promises they have made to the world’s poorest. The UK’s ability to pressure other donors to keep their promises will be seriously compromised if the Government reneges on its own commitment.

If David Cameron is going to show global leadership as the co-chair of the panel creating the next set of international development goals, he needs to start by showing leadership in his own Parliament and seeing off the opposition in his own party. Labour’s private member's bill may force his hand but a true global leader doesn’t whip from behind, they lead from the front.

Update: DFID have been in touch and say: "The position has not changed. The Bill is ready and will be introduced when Parliamentary time allows. The Business Plan has been updated to reflect the final date by which the Bill can be made law within this Parliament.”

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 looks at a refugee at the Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, near the Kenya-Somalia border. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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