When will the government legislate for 0.7% overseas aid?

If Cameron wants to show global leadership on aid, he needs to start by showing leadership in his own Parliament and seeing off the Tory opposition.

Today, a Private Member's Bill from Mark Hendrick MP could have been debated and given a second reading in Parliament. The Bill would enshrine in law the coalition's pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on overseas aid but it was killed by the objection of Conservative backbencher Christopher Chope. It’s not the first time Chope has used this trick to kill a Private Member's Bill, he did the same back in March 2010 to one that would have taken action on vulture funds.

In today’s Guardian, the chief executive of NGO umbrella group BOND wrote about why Hendrick’s Bill was so important; because the next opportunity for any sign of this law to be seen in Parliament will be in May’s Queen’s Speech.

I’ve written for the New Statesman several times about the government’s slow back-track on their commitment to introduce this law: here, here and here. Their 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:

[The Conservatives] 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.

Two years into the Parliament, the then 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." New Development Secretary Justine Greening has also backed the policy but made no progress on securing a slot for the Bill that her department claims is ready to be introduced. Even Lib Dem Development Minister Lynne Featherstone told her party conference that she is "absolutely committed to it… No ifs, no buts."

So where’s the Bill? I’ve speculated that the government’s go-slow is to avoid the optics of a backbench Tory rebellion re-toxifying the party’s image. But after the Eastleigh by-election result, the Tory whips will be even less keen on having to fight another rebellion. Although the Equal Marriage Bill was a free vote, it shows that Tory backbenchers are prepared to vote against their leadership. It’s a problem they’d rather do without.

But 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.

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

 

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DFID 2008-2010 and is now Head of News at IPPR

He tweets: @RDarlo

David Cameron and International Development Secretary Justine Greening wait to welcome Indonesian President Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (unseen) to Marlborough House in London. 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.