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