MP claims UK aid legislation could be pushed through next week, as fears mount over cuts

A view of a camp near Hajjah, Yemen. Photo by: H. Veit / ECHO / CC BY-SA

Legal changes to the United Kingdom’s aid regulations could be made as soon as next week, according to a senior politician, as fears in the development sector mount over the impact of the cuts.

The government is set to deliver the budget Wednesday, but Sarah Champion, a member of Parliament and chair of the International Development Committee of politicians who scrutinize aid policy, said she worries the occasion will be used to force through changes to laws protecting aid.

It comes in a week of heightened confusion and anxiety for organizations running development projects, amid rumors of harsh cuts even to areas the government has said it would protect — including humanitarian funding — as it proceeds to reduce the aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income. There are particular worries over funding to Yemen, widely considered to be the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Champion theorized a situation where instead of bringing separate legislation to change the official aid budget — expected to face a rebellion from opposition politicians — the government could table a motion the next day and pass the changes as part of the budget, against which such rebellions are highly unusual.

“You would hope at least they would protect all of the aid that is directly saving lives, and unfortunately we don’t know if they are doing that.”

— Laurie Lee, CEO, CARE International UK

She said: “Everything that happens in the budget will tend to require legislative changes … which happens immediately the next day … they’d be voted on as a block. You could table an amendment, but it's really unprecedented to do something like that.”

Alice Lilly, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, said doing so would be tricky but not impossible, although the government would need “some kind of justification” as the finance bills that follow the budget usually deal with tax and customs. Doing so could cause a political backlash, but one that might not have any practical impact on passing the budget, Lilly said.

She added: “Because the [House of] Commons has privilege over the [House of] Lords when it comes to financial matters, the role of the Lords in scrutinizing finance bills is very limited. So if the government thinks that the Lords is likely to be difficult over the aid cut, then putting it in a finance bill gives them far less ability to be difficult.”

Meanwhile, NGOs told Devex the government has not communicated with them over what could be impacted by the cuts, affecting their ability to plan and deliver programs. Ministers have said the reductions are still being reviewed, despite rumors emerging about the fate of specific projects.

“We’ve had FCDO [the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office] asking us at embassy level in-country to keep discussions about cuts confidential and that they don’t want it shared with other FCDO partners,” said a staffer at a major agency, who asked to remain anonymous to maintain professional relationships.

The person added: “The fact that NGOs are reluctant to share stories of proposed cuts with each other points to a fear that they’ll be penalized if they go public. The FCDO has us exactly where it wants us. We are concerned about delays to future programs and cuts to existing ones.”

There are serious concerns among NGOs working in Yemen that funding to deal with its current crisis will be cut significantly, despite the government’s vow in November to prioritize funding for humanitarian and conflict-related needs. The U.K. will announce how much it intends to spend in Yemen at an international pledging conference Monday. Donors are being called to increase funding to the crisis.

“You would hope at least they would protect all of the aid that is directly saving lives, and unfortunately we don’t know if they are doing that because they have refused point-blank to be transparent about their criteria for these decisions,” said Laurie Lee, CEO at CARE International UK, which runs a cash transfer program in Yemen.

Given the dire situation in the country, “if the aid to Yemen is still cut, it's hard to see that anything at all has been protected from these cuts,” he added.

Despite global health security also being listed as a government development priority, key health areas are thought to be in for “severe” reductions, among them water sanitation and hygiene, as well as sexual and reproductive health.

According to an FCDO official tasked with implementing the cuts, this will mean “more teenage pregnancies, and so dropping out of school. It makes no sense.” Improving girls’ education is a key government development policy.

“With [Liz] Sugg gone, no one really cares about reproductive health,” added the official, referring to the former FCDO minister who resigned over the cut to 0.7%.

Other areas where there are fears for program budgets include anti-corruption, conflict and peace building, child marriage, gender-based violence and female genital mutilation, research, and nutrition.

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.