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.

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Why there are fewer free-range eggs on sale right now

Because of restrictions designed to combat avian flu, some farms are losing their free-range status. Should consumers accept barn birds for now?

“How do you like your eggs,” asks the terrible chat-up line, “fried or fertilised?” But caged, barn, free-range or organic is the tougher choice faced by many. And come March the decision could get more complex still - as measures taken to combat the recent outbreak of avian flu begin to bite.

An H5N8 strain of flu has been identified across a number of UK and European farms this winter, and in response the government ordered all poultry to be kept indoors. But under EU regulations on classification, any hen kept inside for more than 12 weeks loses its "free range" status. Many consumers prefer free-range eggs for their higher welfare potential - so farmers fear losing business along with their label.

The 12-week limit has been reached today. After that, what happens next depends on whether farmers are working in a higher or lower risk area, as identified by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs on this interactive map. Those at higher risk must either cover their outdoor space with expensive netting or keep their hens indoors.

Those in lower risk areas may let their hens outside under supervision. But even then, producers are fearful of letting their hens outside and potentially exposing them to the flu. “It would finish us off if we got it,” says Susie Macmillian of Macs farm, “we’d lose all our wholesale customers – and I’m absolutely terrified about it."

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) has thus ruled that all commercial boxes of free-range eggs must now carry stickers explaining that the hens have been housed indoors, regardless of what risk area they came from.

So what can consumers do to help? For Phil Brooke from Compassion in World Farming, it is vital that consumers temporarily put aside concerns about keeping hens indoors in order to support free-range and organic producers through this tricky time.

“In the short run these farmers need supporting - whether they call their eggs barn-produced or free-range,” says Brooke. “If people stop buying the eggs because they think the hens are being shut inside, then the farmers are going to have to kill the flocks. And you may end up without the free-range market”.

Continuing to buy these newly labelled eggs will therefore help tide the industry over this present crisis. But the scramble to explain the flu crisis to consumers is also showing up the sector’s wider cracks. "Free-range systems have the greatest potential to provide high welfare conditions for hens, but this potential is not always achieved,” says Professor Christine Nicol from the University of Bristol. 

Cage-free brands thus compete to attract consumer attention with promises of various welfare add-ons – from “woodland” egg to “happy” hens. But what difference do these provisions really make to a hen’s wellbeing? And are the big brands really best placed to decide?

Pressure to save on costs is also pushing some free-range and organic producers into ever larger economies of scale, says Susie Macmillian. And while the UK’s major retailers have committed to becoming cage free by 2025, they have not yet specified what will replace caged eggs as the value option.

Taken together, these trends suggest an urgent need for new ways of evaluating hen wellbeing.

EU categories currently divide eggs into four levels -  colony (caged), barn-produced, free-range and organic - and each level entails higher welfare standards than the last.  With free-range hens, for instance, there must be no more than nine birds in a square metre, while for organic hens it is no more than six.

But what about hens who enjoy roomier conditions but not the organic diet? At present there is no independently certified "free-range plus" to help distinguish such cases. The RSPCA Assured label (previously known as freedom Foods) ensures that hens' welfare has met standards above the legal minimum. Yet in an effort to help lift all hens out of the caged-sector, it is also very inclusive. In fact it currently covers almost all of the non-caged market.

Yet a sunny-side is in sight for further independent certification.  The Soil Association has already added an extra layer of conditions that organic producers must meet to gain its seal of approval: from free-range conditions for pullets (young hens), to smaller colony sizes, more pop-holes, and a ban on beak tipping. And some European welfare bodies have introduced new, multi-tiered systems of independent assessment across the cage-free spectrum. In Holland, the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals awards its “Beter Leven” (Better Life) seal on a rising scale of one to three stars.

So could a similar system be introduced for UK free-range?  The RSPCA is not currently considering tiering its mark but the possibility for further differentiation in the future does exist. The RSPCA already conducts “welfare outcome assessments,” says Mia Fernyhough, who writes the RSPCA’s standards for laying hens. These take into account indicators of birds’ comfort  – such as their levels of feather cover - and allow assesors to place each individual farm on a sliding scale of success.

More streaming within free-range could also benefit farmers. According to Ben Pike of Bfrepa, the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, producers fear that if free-range becomes the norm, they will lose the small price differentiation that has kept them afloat.

The present flu crisis is expected to recede by April, and when it does the biggest welfare gap will still be between caged and non-caged hens. But if consumers are to help British egg prodcution continue to improve in sickness and in health, then more ambitious independent certification should be top of the pecking order.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.