The Government has striven to avoid bringing the matter to Parliament for fear of an ugly squabble, so depriving itself of the opportunity to justify a sensible policy.
Meanwhile, some 50 Tory MPs, including former leader Theresa May, have tried unsuccessfully to force a vote. They believe if they gang up with Labour and the Lib Dems they can overturn the Government’s plans.
Well, let’s see if these Conservative rebels have the courage of their convictions to vote against a cut supported in a poll by two-thirds of respondents after being unveiled by Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Mr Johnson has promised that Britain will donate £2 billion for much-needed coronavirus vaccines for the Third World, which will be on top of the pared-down aid budget
The Government should demonstrate that Tory MPs, who speak of children dying as a result of cuts to foreign aid, are being disingenuous. And it should expose the idea that the Conservative Party risks being seen again as the ‘nasty party’ as the nonsense it is.
Let’s examine the arguments. During the pandemic the public finances have taken a hammering. The country is poorer than before Covid, and has been borrowing money on an unprecedented scale.
Against this background Mr Sunak proposes a short-term reduction in the foreign aid budget of some £4 billion, so that it will come down from 0.7 per cent of national income to 0.5 per cent. It was £14 billion, and for a limited period it will be £10 billion.
Some will say that with annual Government expenditure at more than £900 billion, a saving of £4 billion doesn’t amount to much. They’re wrong. Every penny counts.
If £4 billion is not taken from the bloated, often inefficient aid budget — of which more later — it will have to come from hard-pressed departments such as Defence, Education and Welfare, all of which were squeezed in the austerity years while foreign aid ballooned.
Against this background Mr Sunak proposes a short-term reduction in the foreign aid budget of some £4 billion, so that it will come down from 0.7 per cent of national income to 0.5 per cent
Doesn’t the Government have a primary obligation to protect its own people as far as it can after the privations of the pandemic, given there is less money to go around?
Unless, of course, the Tory rebels would prefer higher income tax. According to the Treasury, a rise of one pence would produce the necessary £4 billion. I just don’t see disgruntled Tories proposing that to struggling constituents!
In any case, the cut should be seen in proportion. Even after it has taken effect, Britain will contribute a much larger proportion of national income than Japan, America, Italy or Canada. Among the rich G7 nations only Germany and France (by a whisker) will give more as a share of GDP.
Remember that when you hear Tory MPs blathering about Britain being mean-spirited and squandering its influence due to the cuts.
Even so, I might oppose the temporary cut, if there were not innumerable examples of the wastefulness of foreign aid, and of massive amounts of public money being lavished on undeserving recipients.
The evidence is so extensive it’s hard to know where to start. A good place is the 2019 Commons public administration committee report, which concluded that hundreds of millions of pounds in foreign aid may be being wasted as no one is keeping a proper track of how money is spent.
There are three main categories of wastage. One is those wealthy countries which, over the years, have received huge dollops of cash from the long-suffering British taxpayer.
India, a nuclear power with its own space programme, has been given hundreds of millions of pounds in foreign aid. It was supposed to stop in 2016 but our mandarins still find ways to slip the Indians some cash.
Although by some measures India already has a larger economy than the UK’s, the Government announced in 2018 its plans to provide £98 million to invest in technical enterprises in the country.
As for China — the world’s second-largest economy — tens of millions pounds of British aid have found their way to Beijing, although HMG recently turned off the taps because of the regime’s human rights abuses.
The second category of wastage involves daft projects, such as an anti-passive smoking campaign in Bangladesh and Pakistan (£1.2 million), ‘friendship beaches’ in Zimbabwe (£700,000), and £1 million spent on telling people in Asia about the health benefits of brown and black rice.
The largest, and most controversial, area of wastage concerns impoverished, undemocratic countries which have consumed vast quantities of foreign aid with little obvious benefit. A few people living there have become much richer, but I am not speaking of ordinary folk.
In 2016 the leaked Panama Papers named Third World rulers and their families who own expensive houses in Western capitals. Some have apparently used offshore companies to minimise their tax liabilities, thereby depriving their governments of tax revenue.
Some of these nations have been long-term recipients of British largesse. Of course, I’m not accusing any of their rulers of diverting either aid or their own government funds.
Nevertheless, the case of dirt-poor Rwanda — which has had about £1 billion in British aid over the years — is arresting. In 2018 its brutal leader, Paul Kagame, splurged £30 million sponsoring his favourite club, Arsenal.
Kagame did not feature in the Panama Papers, but they do disclose that his former physician, security adviser and spokesman, Brigadier General Emmanuel Ndahiro, has allegedly owned a jet aircraft as well as property abroad.
The largest, and most controversial, area of wastage concerns impoverished, undemocratic countries which have consumed vast quantities of foreign aid with little obvious benefit
Almost unbelievably, Kagame was once the pin-up boy of Andrew Mitchell, Tory MP and former international development secretary. In 2005 Mr Mitchell and David Cameron founded Project Umubano to channel aid. In 2007 a grateful President Kagame was a star turn at the Tory Party Conference.
By embracing Kagame, Rwanda, and the cause of aid, Messrs Mitchell and Cameron tried to detoxify the Conservatives’ supposedly nasty reputation. But how much good have they really done?
Andrew Mitchell is a ringleader of the 50-strong Tory rebellion. I would ask him and his allies: Are you denying billions of pounds of aid have been wasted? Do you really maintain there are no economies to be made?
That is why I welcome Boris Johnson’s reported consideration of a proper Commons showdown. Of course much aid is vital, and some of it is doubtless well spent.
Incidentally, Mr Johnson has promised that Britain will donate £2 billion for much-needed coronavirus vaccines for the Third World, which will be on top of the pared-down aid budget.
Surely at a time of economic crisis it is reasonable for the Government to rein in aid spending for a while, and to seek better value for money. If the Prime Minister unashamedly said as much, he would be speaking on behalf of the majority of British people.