Planning to miss UK 0.7% aid spend target is 'unlawful,' says former solicitor general

The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office in London. Photo by: Yui Mok / PA via Reuters

It would be “unlawful” for Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab not to meet the 0.7% development aid spending target before the law mandating it is changed, according to a former senior government lawyer.  

Lord Edward Garnier, who served as solicitor general from 2010 to 2012 and was a Conservative member of the House of Commons for 25 years, suggested the government “cannot legitimise a failure to hit the target by announcing in advance its intention to fail,” in a letter obtained by Devex.

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Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office officials have already been working on a prioritization process outlining which programs will continue to be funded and which will need to be reduced or closed. NGOs have also complained of a lack of transparency around the process and said the uncertainty around funding is already affecting programs on the ground.

The 0.7% law is enshrined in the International Development Act 2015, and it is the responsibility of Foreign Secretary Raab to ensure the money is spent correctly. The responsibility previously lay with the Secretary of State for International Development, a position which no longer exists. If the spending target was missed, the responsible minister had to explain why after it happened, according to Garnier — but he said this cannot be done in advance.

Garnier wrote: “Until Parliament changes that law on the statutory duty to meet the 0.7% target the Government must aim to hit it. It cannot deliberately aim off or fire blanks. It can say it intends to change the law or substitute another target but, until the statute is repealed or amended, the Government is subject to that law. It cannot legitimise a failure to hit the target by announcing in advance its intention to fail.” 

“What happened with the botched prorogation in 2019 or the Internal Market Bill in 2020 are not happy precedents.”

— Lord Edward Garnier, former U.K. solicitor general

He acknowledged that Raab’s failure is unlikely to lead to any prosecution. Still: “It would do neither his reputation as a lawyer nor the U.K. government’s domestic or international standing any good to be seen once again to be flouting a clear legal obligation. What happened with the botched prorogation in 2019 or the Internal Market Bill in 2020 are not happy precedents.”

The government should “change the law through Parliament, not break it out of convenience”, Garnier concluded.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced in November that the United Kingdom would not meet its legally mandated target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on official development assistance in 2021, and would instead spend 0.5% of GNI on aid, but said the aid budget would return to 0.7% “when fiscal circumstances allow.” The drop from 0.7% to 0.5% will reduce the U.K.’s aid budget by £4.5 billion ($6.15 billion), according to a new analysis by the Center for Global Development.

Shortly after, Raab announced the government would bring new development spending legislation because it wasn’t possible to “predict with certainty when the current fiscal circumstances will have sufficiently improved.” But no such legislation has been brought to Parliament or voted on by MPs yet — and a rebellion is expected, meaning the government faces the possibility of losing and not passing the new law.

Devex has contacted FCDO for comment.

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.