LONDON — The United Kingdom government will bring forward new legislation to ease its foreign aid spending target, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab confirmed Thursday.
Currently, the 2015 International Development Act commits the U.K. to spending 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance.
Raab said the decision to introduce new legislation was being made because the government “can’t predict with certainty when the current fiscal circumstances will have sufficiently improved.”
It comes a day after Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the government would not meet the legal spending target of 0.7% next year. The government claimed the economic uncertainty brought about by the pandemic meant it needed to focus on domestic spending, but said there was an “intention” to return to 0.7% “when the fiscal situation allows.” Raab was not able to give a precise definition of what this meant when asked on Thursday.
“We’ve taken advice very carefully on this,” Raab said. “It’s very clear [that] if we cannot see a path forward back to 0.7 in the foreseeable immediate future and we can’t plan for that, the legislation would require us to change it, and [we] would almost certainly face legal challenge if we don’t carefully follow it.”
However, critics fear the government's decision to introduce new legislation signals a permanent shift away from the 0.7% spending commitment.
There was sweeping criticism of the decision from both political parties, with the Conservative’s former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell already reported to be organizing a rebellion against the planned change.
The government will need to pass any new legislation in Parliament, which some MPs believe will be a challenge.
Raab would also not commit to producing impact assessments of the planned cuts, nor to bring details of them to Parliament for MPs to vote on.
“Our traditional allies and our detractors will take note of this move. This government has destroyed the long-standing cross-party support for spending 0.7% of GNI to eradicate global poverty and reneged on their promise to the British people,” said Preet Kaur Gill, shadow development secretary.
She said the government had “turned their backs” on mothers, newborn babies and children dying of preventable diseases, girls out of school and people suffering the consequences of malaria and Ebola.
“Britain and the world deserve better than a foreign secretary who has allowed the aid budget to be slashed, leaving our global reputation lying [in] tatters ahead of a year the U.K. hosts G-7 and COP26,” Gill added.
For some, however, the planned changes were not enough. Some Conservative MPs suggested pursuing reforms to the international aid spending rules set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Development Assistance Committee, particularly to allow more ODA to be spent on peacekeeping.
Tom Tugendat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, urged the foreign secretary “to look at a slightly different way of counting, because we all know the 1970s rules on DAC need to be reformed.”
He continued: “I’m not alone in saying this, the French government said it, the Netherlands government said it, the German government said it … Could we not count the enormous sums he [the foreign secretary] is spending on the vaccine task force … U.N. duties … Could we not count that stability as our ODA capability ... and then perhaps we can look at the bill he may be forced to introduce and make sure it isn’t an open ended bill, but has a sunset clause, in black and white, that we vote on too.”
Nov. 26, 2020: This article has been updated with additional reporting.