When will the coalition legislate for 0.7% overseas aid?

Cameron needs to show leadership in his own parliament.

On Channel 4 News last night, International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell was asked why the bill to enshrine in law the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid from 2013 was absent from the Queen’s Speech. He said the bill is ready:"The law will come… but it must take its place in the queue. The important thing is that we are allocating the budget in accordance to the commitments we’ve made."

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.

It’s not entirely clear where exactly this promised legislation is in what Mitchell describes as "the queue." The last parliamentary session lasted almost two years and was one of the longest in history. This Queen’s speech was one of the shortest in recent parliamentary history. And, as the ONE campaign pointed out yesterday, the bill itself 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. With Labour and Lib Dem support, plus the government’s “pay-roll vote” (ministers and whips) no backbench Tory rebellion could defeat it.

But it is the optics of a backbench Tory rebellion which is encouraging the Tory leadership to push this bill to the back of the queue. UK development NGOs have expressed their disappointment and Labour have highlighted the political symbolism of reneging on the commitment. Looking to countries like Australia, who have broken their aid pledge, or the way that Italy failed to live up to the commitments they made at the G8 in Gleneagles, shows just why this legislation matters. Yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, reports that World Vision have calculated the consequence of the decision will cost more than 250,000 lives.

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. It worked.

At the pre-election BOND hustings event, a delegate from Oxfam challenged Andrew Mitchell’s sincerity and said that she did not believe he would keep his promise. Rather than reassure her, to the surprise of the rest of the audience, he questioned her political motives and insisted that, on this issue, there was consensus across all political parties.

If David Cameron is going to show global leadership in as the developed world’s co-chair on the panel creating the next development goals, he needs to start by showing leadership in his own Parliament and seeing off the opposition in his own party.

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

International Development Andrew Mitchell and Chief Executive of Save the Children, Justin Forsyth speak with newly arrived refugees at the Dagahaley refugee camp in Somalia. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

David Cameron addresses pupils at an assembly during a visit to Corby Technical School on September 2, 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Can Cameron maintain his refugee stance as he comes under attack from all sides?

Tory MPs, the Sun, Labour and a growing section of the public are calling on the PM to end his refusal to take "more and more". 

The disparity between the traumatic images of drowned Syrian children and David Cameron's compassionless response ("I don't think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees") has triggered a political backlash. A petition calling for greater action (the UK has to date accepted around 5,000) has passed the 100,000 threshold required for the government to consider a debate after tens of thousands signed this morning. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson has tweeted: "This is not an immigration issue, it's a humanitarian one, and the human response must be to help. If we don't, what does that make us?" Tory MPs such as Nicola Blackwood, David Burrowes, Jeremy Lefroy and Johnny Mercer have similarly appealed to Cameron to reverse his stance.

Today's Sun declares that the UK has "a proud record of taking in desperate people and we should not flinch from it now if it is beyond doubt that they have fled for their lives." Meanwhile, the Washington Post has published a derisive piece headlined "Britain takes in so few refugees from Syria they would fit on a subway train". Labour has called on Cameron to convene a meeting of Cobra to discuss the crisis and to request an emergency EU summit. Yvette Cooper, who led the way with a speech on Monday outlining how the UK could accept 10,000 refugees, is organising a meeting of councils, charities and faith groups to discuss Britain's response. Public opinion, which can turn remarkably quickly in response to harrowing images, is likely to have grown more sympathetic to the Syrians' plight. Indeed, a survey in March found that those who supported accepting refugees fleeing persecution outnumbered opponents by 47-24 per cent. 

The political question is whether this cumulative pressure will force Cameron to change his stance. He may not agree to match Cooper's demand of 10,000 (though Germany is poised to accept 800,000) but an increasing number at Westminster believe that he cannot remain impassive. Surely Cameron, who will not stand for election again, will not want this stain on his premiership? The UK's obstinacy is further antagonising Angela Merkel on whom his hopes of a successful EU renegotiation rest. If nothing else, Cameron should remember one of the laws of politics: the earlier a climbdown, the less painful it is. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.