Cutting foreign aid is no way to respond to the floods

Farage is relying on misconceptions about the scale, purpose and outcomes of aid spending to argue for this cynical raid.

Nigel Farage is enjoying a surge of popularity in submerged swathes of southern England. Local radio stations claim his call to divert the foreign aid budget to shore up the flood response has got listeners chorusing their support. It is the kind of argument which understandably appeals to people facing deep uncertainty. Yet Farage’s populist instincts reveal a disconcerting capacity to cloud the vision of voters and use the world’s poorest people to animate his core vote ahead of the European elections. Politicians of other parties should close ranks to repel this latest attack on the aid budget and demonstrate why the British people can be trusted to face the facts about international development. 

The argument has morphed a little as the days have gone by. It has gone from being a call to halt all foreign aid to a more nuanced raid on smaller aspects of aid spending. Whatever way you look at it, it is wrong on at least three fronts. Firstly, it assumes the aid budget is too big. Secondly, it suggests that dealing with suffering in Britain can only be done by compounding suffering elsewhere, and thirdly, it ignores the realities of government.  

It’s easy to forget that Britain’s aid budget comes in at 0.7 per cent of our national wealth. It’s less in total than we spend on fizzy drinks in a year. With 99 per cent of our spending happening "at home", it’s not accurate to suggest that charity does not already begin at home – just look at the Red Cross for starters. Even with this relatively small amount of money we make a massive difference. The former Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell, was fond of pointing out that Britain sends 5 million of the world’s poorest children to school for just 2.5 per cent of the cost of sending the same number of children to school here in the UK. A little bit goes a long way. Furthermore we are four years into a coalition government which has put results and value for money at the core of its approach to aid. Independent experts scrutinise every element of DFID spending and ministers don’t hesitate to turn off the taps at the first sign of corruption overseas. So while it has never been perfect, when you look at aid in perspective, it’s not such sizeable drain on our resources.

Farage is relying on misconceptions about the scale, purpose and outcomes of aid spending to argue for this cynical raid on a budget which supports people who are the poorest of the poor. These are people who struggle to manage a meal of basic carbohydrate a day, have no permanent shelter, drink from puddles and, in some cases, are dodging militia that rape and kill at will. The idea that the same British people who dug so generously into their pockets to support the victims of Typhoon Haiyan (which affected 9 million people) or refugees from the Syrian conflict (around 2.5 million) would want to see that money sent back because of the recent floods (directly affecting around 10,000 people) is nonsensical. There are thousands of British people suffering right now, but it doesn’t make sense to meet misery with more misery. It would mean giving with one hand and taking with the other – and there are no insurance policies, government agencies or campaigning media for the world’s poor to call on.

It is no surprise that people coping with the threat that flooding brings to homes and livelihoods feel that the government should be doing all it can to support them – and it should. But there are at least three government departments with a responsibility towards the UK flood victims. The Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs is one. If you consider the fact that the floods are increasingly thought to be linked the climate change, the Department for Energy and Climate Change is another, not to mention the contingency funds held by the Treasury for dealing with expensive unexpected circumstances such as these. If we’re looking for ways to find extra money, cutting existing subsidies on the use of fossil fuels might be a good place to start.

As Eric Pickles noted, part of the aid budget is used to fund efforts to deal with the cause and effects of climate change in other parts of the world – which contribute to climate change here in southern England. If for a minute you took the suggestion of diverting funds seriously, you would see that while the government’s decision not to enshrine the 0.7 per cent commitment in law means that, technically, the UK could turn off the aid taps, the reality of such a decision would jeopardise jobs and livelihoods across the world. It would take months, if not years, to take effect, by which time hopefully the effects of the floods will be a memory not a reality. Such dodgy accounting might win short-term popularity but it’s a recipe for long-term problems.  Not to mention how it would damage the effectiveness of remaining aid spending.

The aid budget is not a perfect tool for helping people in Africa but using it to try and fund flood relief in Somerset would be like choosing to bail out their backyards with a thimble. It might do the job eventually, but surely we’ve got something better suited to the task. Starting with the Treasury’s contingency budget, which, at 2 per cent of national spending, is far bigger than the aid budget. Any serious politician should know that.

Jonathan Tanner is Media and Public Affairs Officer at the Overseas Development Institute

Nigel Farage wades in water as he visits a flooded property at Burrowbridge on the Somerset Levels on February 9, 2014 near Bridgwater. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonathan Tanner is Media and Public Affairs Officer at the Overseas Development Institute

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn: “wholesale” EU immigration has destroyed conditions for British workers

The Labour leader has told Andrew Marr that his party wants to leave the single market.

Mass immigration from the European Union has been used to "destroy" the conditions of British workers, Jeremy Corbyn said today. 

The Labour leader was pressed on his party's attitude to immigration on the Andrew Marr programme. He reiterated his belief that Britain should leave the Single Market, claiming that "the single market is dependent on membership of the EU . . . the two things are inextricably linked."

Corbyn said that Labour would argue for "tarriff-free trade access" instead. However, other countries which enjoy this kind of deal, such as Norway, do so by accepting the "four freedoms" of the single market, which include freedom of movement for people. Labour MP Chuka Umunna has led a parliamentary attempt to keep Britain in the single market, arguing that 66 per cent of Labour members want to stay. The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon said that "Labour's failure to stand up for common sense on single market will make them as culpable as Tories for Brexit disaster".

Laying out the case for leaving the single market, Corbyn used language we have rarely heard from him - blaming immigration for harming the lives of British workers.

The Labour leader said that after leaving the EU, there would still be European workers in Britain and vice versa. He added: "What there wouldn't be is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry." 

Corbyn said he would prevent agencies from advertising jobs in central Europe - asking them to "advertise in the locality first". This idea draws on the "Preston model" adopted by that local authority, of trying to prioritise local suppliers for public sector contracts. The rules of the EU prevent this approach, seeing it as discrimination. 

In the future, foreign workers would "come here on the basis of the jobs available and their skill sets to go with it. What we wouldn't allow is this practice by agencies, who are quite disgraceful they way they do it - recruit a workforce, low paid - and bring them here in order to dismiss an existing workforce in the construction industry, then pay them low wages. It's appalling. And the only people who benefit are the companies."

Corbyn also said that a government led by him "would guarantee the right of EU nationals to remain here, including a right of family reunion" and would hope for a reciprocal arrangement from the EU for British citizens abroad. 

Matt Holehouse, the UK/EU correspondent for MLex, said Corbyn's phrasing was "Ukippy". 

Asked by Andrew Marr if he had sympathy with Eurosceptics - having voted against previous EU treaties such as Maastricht - Corbyn clarified his stance on the EU. He was against a "deregulated free market across Europe", he said, but supported the "social" aspects of the EU, such as workers' rights. However, he did not like its opposition to state subsidy of industry.

On student fees, Corbyn was asked "What did you mean by 'I will deal with it'?". He said "recognised" that graduates faced a huge burden from paying off their fees but did not make a manifesto commitment to forgive the debt from previous years. However, Labour would abolish student debt from the time it was elected. Had it won the 2017 election, students in the 2017/18 intake would not pay fees (or these would be refunded). 

The interview also covered the BBC gender pay gap. Corbyn said that Labour would look at a gender pay audit in every company, and a pay ratio - no one could receive more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid employee. "The BBC needs to look at itself . . . the pay gap is astronomical," he added. 

He added that he did not think it was "sustainable" for the government to give the DUP £1.5bn and was looking forward to another election.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.