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10 May 2012

When will the coalition legislate for 0.7% overseas aid?

Cameron needs to show leadership in his own parliament.

By Richard Darlington

On Channel 4 News last night, International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell was asked why the bill to enshrine in law the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid from 2013 was absent from the Queen’s Speech. He said the bill is ready:”The law will come… but it must take its place in the queue. The important thing is that we are allocating the budget in accordance to the commitments we’ve made.”

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:

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.

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It’s not entirely clear where exactly this promised legislation is in what Mitchell describes as “the queue.” The last parliamentary session lasted almost two years and was one of the longest in history. This Queen’s speech was one of the shortest in recent parliamentary history. And, as the ONE campaign pointed out yesterday, the bill itself is short, with just a handful of clauses. It has already had pre-legislative scrutiny from the international development select committee and there is cross-party consensus. There is no prospect of it being overturned in the Lords. With Labour and Lib Dem support, plus the government’s “pay-roll vote” (ministers and whips) no backbench Tory rebellion could defeat it.

But it is the optics of a backbench Tory rebellion which is encouraging the Tory leadership to push this bill to the back of the queue. UK development NGOs have expressed their disappointment and Labour have highlighted the political symbolism of reneging on the commitment. Looking to countries like Australia, who have broken their aid pledge, or the way that Italy failed to live up to the commitments they made at the G8 in Gleneagles, shows just why this legislation matters. Yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, reports that World Vision have calculated the consequence of the decision will cost more than 250,000 lives.

The last time they were in office, the Conservatives halved the aid budget. Labour trebled it. The reason the Conservatives made the promise was to achieve all-party consensus and put the issue beyond doubt. It worked.

At the pre-election BOND hustings event, a delegate from Oxfam challenged Andrew Mitchell’s sincerity and said that she did not believe he would keep his promise. Rather than reassure her, to the surprise of the rest of the audience, he questioned her political motives and insisted that, on this issue, there was consensus across all political parties.

If David Cameron is going to show global leadership in as the developed world’s co-chair on the panel creating the next development goals, he needs to start by showing leadership in his own Parliament and seeing off the opposition in his own party.

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DFID 2009-2010 and is now Head of News at IPPR – follow him on twitter: @RDarlo