Why has the coalition delayed its aid bill?

The government must keep its promises to the world's poorest.

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.

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

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

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.