On page 18 of the Sun today, Political Editor Tom Newton Dunn, exclusively reveals that legislation to ensure Britain meets the UN goal of 0.7 per cent spending on international aid will be delayed. The International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, explains:
"The British public would not think it was sensible for us to bring forward declaratory legislation ahead of vital legislation for our economic recovery. I don't think it physically can now because there is not enough time left. We have signed off on the Bill and it's now with the business managers. They will proceed with it when there is parliamentary time."
In the Coalition Agreement, on page 22, it says:
"We will honour our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid from 2013, and to enshrine this commitment in law."
Looking back at page 117 of the Conservative manifesto, the timeframe for that promise is even clearer:
"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 has been one of the longest ever Parliamentary sessions in history, running from May 2010 to May 2012. So what's gone wrong?
There are still ten weeks left in this Parliamentary session and another three when MPs will be on holiday. DFID's 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.
Are the government worried about the destabilising impact of another backbench rebellion so soon after their European troubles? Or are they worried that the next Parliamentary session does not have enough business? In a story in the Times today, Political Editor Roland Watson reports that the next Queen's Speech will contain just 12 Bills because the Conservatives and Lib Dems are struggling to find enough common ground to agree a legislative programme.
Aid spending is now 0.59 per cent. As Mitchell tells the Sun: "the most important point, is that we are actually doing it -- and we have set that out in the figures". But the principle is also important. 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.
Desmond Tutu said that "a promise made to the poor is a sacred thing". Politicians should keep their promises, or risk proving cynical voters right when they say that politicians never keep their word.