The government’s planned cuts to international aid will hit funding for childhood polio vaccinations in developing countries and endanger a programme developing low-cost prosthetic limbs, The Independent can reveal.
A Conservative backbench rebellion is brewing over the cuts, which break a Tory manifesto promise to spend 0.7 per cent of of GNI on aid and will see the overseas assistance budget slashed by one-third under Rishi Sunak’s Budget plan.
MPs are angry at being denied a vote on the policy, which falls in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, and have taken steps to have the plan declared unlawful. Pressure on ministers is increasing as the specifics of the programmes to be scrapped becomes clearer.
In a letter to MPs seen by The Independent, Judith Diment MBE, head of the Rotary International PolioPlus Committee, said: “We have been advised by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) that the UK may not be able to fulfil the current pledge of £400m which was announced in November 2019.
“We feel that longstanding investments and priorities like the one the UK has made in global polio eradication should be protected, so that we do not lose the significant progress we have achieved toward our goal of a polio-free world.”
Approached about the cut, a spokesperson for the FCDO declined to comment on the specific reduction for polio vaccination, but said: “The impact of the pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions.”
The spokesperson added that the department was “still working through” the impact of the cuts on individual programmes.
Last year, the United Nations’ aid arm Unicef warned that “decades of progress” were at risk on child immunisation in developing countries if countries paused their vaccination programmes, with its chief Henrietta Fore warning: “We cannot exchange one deadly outbreak for another.”
The bad news for children in developing countries comes as academics warned the swingeing cuts would also disrupt research into affordable and locally produced prosthetics limbs – which are meant to help, among others, the victims of landmines and unexploded ordinance in conflict zones.
Academics working on a partnership between Salford University and Makerere University in Kampala, in Uganda, said their programme was now at risk due to Mr Sunak’s decision.
Professor Laurence Kenney, from the University of Salford’s Centre for Health Sciences Research, told MPs: “The massive aid cuts proposed by the government are putting this and other similar projects at risk. If implemented, they will not only impact on many current and proposed projects, but also cause untold damage to academic collaborations which have been built up over years.”
The end of the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent per cent of gross national income on aid has already seen one minister, Baroness Sugg, resign her post – branding the decision “fundamentally wrong”.
Denied a vote on the issue, Tory MPs have taken an alternative approach and last month commissioned a formal legal opinion from top legal firm Matrix Chambers. Lord Garnier, the former solicitor general Lord Macdonald, the ex-director of public prosecutions, both declared the cuts were “unlawful” – potentially opening the government up to a further legal intervention.
The former chief whip and international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, said: “The government’s law officers can see for themselves the legal opinion from top-flight lawyers and will have seen that it corroborates the views previously expressed by Lord Garnier, who is one of the government’s most distinguished former senior law officers, and by Ken Macdonald.
“Brexit was supposed to be about enhancing the power of parliament, not ignoring its will on a matter where every single one of us was elected just over a year ago on a firm and clear promise to stand by our commitments to the poorest.”
One senior MP close to the rebellion added: “We have sent the government the views of the UK’s leading lawyers which shows clearly that ministers are making an unlawful budget and are cutting humanitarian aid to those dying of starvation. Is this really how we want to project Global Britain and see our reputation as a force for good in the world trashed?”
Leaked official documents reported last month by the investigative website openDemocracy show that officials are planning for the cuts to fall on some of the poorest and most war-torn countries in the world.
The plan, which was not disputed by the FCDO, is to reduce the 0.7 per cent of of gross national income the UK spends on overseas aid to 0.5 per cent, representing a cut in the UK aid programme from £15bn over two years to £10bn.
But the cuts would reportedly involve slashing the aid programme to Somalia by 60 per cent and to South Sudan by 59 per cent, with a reduction for Syria of 67 per cent and 63 per cent for Libya. Nigeria is expected to face a cut of 58 per cent, with a 60-per-cent reduction slated in the plan for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The government abolished the Department for International Development in September last year after 23 years and rolled aid functions into the Foreign Office, which is now officially named the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
David Cameron enshrined the 0.7 per cent of GNI target in law in 2015 after meeting it for the first time in 2013. Mr Cameron and Tony Blair both described the reduction as a “strategic mistake”.
YouGov found in November that 66 per cent of voters supported reducing foreign aid spending, against to 18 per cent opposed – at least before the details became clear.
A spokesperson for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: “We will spend more than £10bn this year to fight poverty, tackle climate change and improve global health – making us one of the world’s biggest aid donors.
“The impact of the pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount we spend on aid. We are still working through what this means for individual programmes and decisions have not yet been made.”