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.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.