Serious questions remain for Andrew Mitchell on aid to Rwanda

Why did he choose to reinstate aid to Rwanda on his last day as International Development Secretary?

A month of feverish speculation about one of Andrew Mitchell’s first actions as Chief Whip – the infamous incident at Downing Street – eventually led to his decision to resign the post.

Yet there has been much less focus on one of his final actions as Secretary of State for International Development – despite far more serious ramifications. As he prepared to leave his post in the Department for International Development, Mr Mitchell ended a freeze on aid to Rwanda. As a result, £16m was granted to the country in a move which left the UK internationally isolated.

While the move received some coverage – including by the New Statesman here, it did not receive widespread coverage.

It reversed a previous decision made by Andrew Mitchell, in common with allies in the European Union and beyond, following intensification of fighting in Eastern Congo - fighting in which the M23 rebel group played a substantial role.

It is not clear why the UK government made the decision to reinstate aid on the day Mitchell left the department, why it made the decision alone and what, if any, consultation took place with European Union countries who, increasingly, co-ordinate policies and payments with the UK government.

It is also a puzzle that any Secretary of State should make such a sensitive decision on his last day in the job, since the issue was not especially time sensitive and could have been considered, with appropriate discussion with allies, by his successor.

The decision became more sensitive still within a month. A Reuters news report said that concerns have been set out by UN experts in a report due out in November that Rwanda’s defence chief is effectively leading a rebel group against its neighbour’s Government. The M23 rebels have been fighting government forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo for much of the year, a key factor in the initial suspension of aid in July. Rwanda has strongly denied the suggestions.

Andrew Mitchell’s actions in restoring aid moved against the tide of international opinion and left Britain isolated.

The question is: why?

In a parliamentary answer last month, the government confirmed they remain “very concerned by continuing reports of Rwandan support for the M23 rebels, by the humanitarian situation, and by reports that the M23 rebels are setting up a parallel administration, and are committing human rights abuses.”

Asked by Cardiff West Labour MP Kevin Brennan why aid was restored despite those concerns, the Prime Minister said: “We should be very frank and firm with President Kagame and the Rwandan regime that we do not accept that they should be supporting militias in the Congo or elsewhere. I have raised that issue personally with the President, but I continue to believe that investing in Rwanda’s success, as one of those countries in Africa that is showing that the cycle of poverty can be broken and that conditions for its people can be improved, is something we are right to do.”

This response does not sit well with the decision to suspend aid in July.

Certainly, the Foreign Office is sensitive to continued concern on the matter. Minister Hugo Swire, speaking in a debate on the Democratic Republic of Congo on 23 October said in reponse to me pressing him on the matter:

The decision to disburse £8m of general budget support while reprogramming the remaining £8 million to targeted programmes on education and food security took account of the fact that withholding the money would impact on the very people we aim to help. By reprogramming some of the general budget support, we signalled our continuing concern about Rwanda’s actions in eastern DRC.

I am sure that the honourable gentleman was not trying to make some kind of cheap political point about the issue. The point is that we are committed to helping the poorest people in the world and we believe that there are people in Rwanda who are still deserving of our support. The decision to continue that support was taken across Government.

Andrew Mitchell’s decision to reinstate aid amended the package to Rwanda: part of the aid was “reprogrammed” to targeted programmes. This indicates worries that the funding could have been use inappropriately had a simple reinstatement of aid been made.

It is very welcome that Andrew Mitchell will be giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development on 8 November on his decision to reinstate aid to Rwanda. Substantial questions remain for him to answer.

Ian Lucas is Shadow Minister for Africa and the Middle East and the Labour MP for Wrexham

Andrew Mitchell photographed after his resignation as Chief Whip. Photograph: Getty Images

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

Getty Images.
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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.