Boris Johnson's overseas aid budget cut shows poorest on planet are no priority for UK government – Ian Swanson

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Boris Johnson's decision to slash the overseas aid budget by £4 billion has been roundly condemned by people in his own party as well as political opponents and a wide range of people outside parliament.

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And there's no getting away from the terrible consequences of this cruellest cut: it is estimated the reduction in aid will lead to 100,000 preventable deaths among the world's poorest people. Many of those who die will be children.

At one point, it looked as if there would be up to 50 Tory MPs ready to rebel against the UK government on the plan and it would be defeated. But in the end, Chancellor Rishi Sunak persuaded enough of them to stay loyal and the government had a comfortable victory.

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When it first proposed to abandon the legally enshrined, internationally recognised commitment to channel 0.7 per cent of gross national income into overseas aid, in breach of a manifesto commitment, the government promised it was temporary and aid spending would be restored “when the fiscal situation allows”.

But now ministers put specific conditions on it: the 0.7 per cent will not return until the Office for Budget Responsibility confirms the government is no longer borrowing for day-to-day spending and underlying debt is falling – tests which have only been met once in the past 20 years.

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It seems Messrs Johnson, Sunak and co have no intention of trying to restore this cut anytime soon.

Overseas aid is not a priority for Boris Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and their colleagues in the UK government (Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA)Overseas aid is not a priority for Boris Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and their colleagues in the UK government (Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA)
Overseas aid is not a priority for Boris Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and their colleagues in the UK government (Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA)

Among the Tories who did rebel, Mr Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May was one of the sternest critics. Defying a three-line whip for the first time ever, she summed up the situation simply: "We made a promise to the poorest people in the world. The government has broken that promise."

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Another former prime minister John Major said the government should be ashamed. Former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson called it “a bloody disgrace”.

In reality, the £4 billion which will be saved by the cut is tiny in the grand scale of government borrowing and spending at the moment.

But work with the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet clearly does not feature high on the government’s list of priorities. The abandoning of the 0.7 per cent pledge follows last year’s decision to merge the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office, despite warnings about the damage the move would do to Britain’s global reputation.

Projects which will now suffer as a result of the aid cut range from supporting girls’ education to relief for the humanitarian crisis in Syria and Yemen and from clean water to childhood polio vaccinations, to name just a few.

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Labour MP Sarah Champion, who chairs the Commons’ international development committee, said the cut in aid spending was not an economic decision but a political one. The Tories had no qualms about expanding the military budget by a huge £24 billion, including an increase in the number of Trident nuclear warheads.

Mr Johnson may have felt safe in wielding this particular spending axe because he knows polls show little public affection for overseas aid. But international development matters.

It matters because not only does it save lives, it helps to create a better, fairer world for everyone and recognises the crucial principle of interdependence around the globe.

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