Richard North, 06/12/2014  
 

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Having lost the ability to legislate over huge tranches of activity that were once the exclusive provenance of Parliament – mainly because the EU has been handed the power – our Government has acquired the singularly unhealthy habit of asking Parliament to impose binding legislation on itself.

First it was the Climate Change Act, committing us to pay £1.3 trillion, so I suppose we should be relieved that, this time, Parliament is only being asked to commit us to spending 0.7 percent of national income.

The deal, of course, is overseas aid – labelled in less PC times as foreign aid. But just to make us feel a little happier about it a bunch of Conservative MPs, led by Tory MPs Philip Davies and Jacob Rees-Mogg, gathered together in a forlorn attempt to kill off the Bill.

However, it was indeed a forlorn hope, as MPs voted by 146 to six to allow the Bill to proceed, and the legislation has now completed its stages through the Commons.

As it stands, we are committed to donating £12 billion a year "voluntarily", although this may have to go up by another billion over the next two years as the new system for assessing GNI cuts in – the same that has added £1.7bn to out EU contributions. This is a far larger sum than is disbursed by any other EU state and, among the world's big nations, only the US spends more.

The Financial Times thinks it is "hugely to the credit" of David Cameron's government, and his Labour predecessors, that Britain maintains a noble aspiration to assist the world's poor. But at a time of immense pressure on public finances, is says, it is reasonable to question the rigidity of the UK's commitment to international development spending.

The figure, we are reminded, goes back to the 1960s when the World Council of Churches declared that governments of the developed world should devote 0.7 percent of their gross national income to international aid. It was then adopted as a target by Mr Cameron's coalition, helping to soften the Tories' "nasty party" image.

Despite the pressure on Britain's budget, and the absurdity of having to borrow money to give it away, the commitment does have its upside. Meeting the 0.7 percent target has probably won the country more credit for its "soft power" role alleviating poverty and hunger in Africa and Asia, and far more kudos than its failed vainglorious military adventures.

But it says something that even the FT thinks the commitment should be reconsidered – just as it gets locked in as a statutory commitment. The newspaper thinks that the 0.7 percent number is based on outdated growth models and has little relevance today.

What matters, we are told, is that it wrongly puts the priority on the quantity of money that Britain spends on aid rather than the quality of its projects – especially as the Department for International Development – of Afghan Ferris wheel fame - is not always the best of project managers.

Making more than a little sense, the FT goes on to suggest that, after the next election, the debate over UK aid spending needs to be part of a wider re-evaluation of Britain's foreign and security policy. At present, it says, the UK tries to do too much in the international arena with too few resources. For instance, the paper continues:
Britain seeks to maintain its place as one of the world's big military powers, with defence spending around two percent of GDP. It wants to maintain its ambitions on overseas aid. Yet if the Conservatives win next year's general election they would reduce public expenditure to around 35 percent of GDP - its lowest level since the 1930s. Something has to give.

Next autumn's strategic defence and security review must determine what role Britain should play in a world of evolving threats. There is every reason for the UK to aspire to an ambitious global presence.

Russia's aggression in Europe bolsters the case for the UK remaining a core member of Nato. And upheaval in the Middle East and Africa - in the form of jihadism, migration flows and economic upheaval - mean there are good reasons for the UK to maintain its leadership on aid, development and humanitarian assistance.
Global influence, however, does not come cheap, the FT says. If Britain wants to maintain its place in the world in the years ahead, it will have to pay up.

Where one might disagree with the paper, though, is that the debate should come before the general election. There should be some serious discussion as to precisely what we are trying to achieve, what we want to achieve, and what we need to achieve with our expenditure - these three things not being the same.

We might consider, for instance, the role of overseas aid in mitigating migration pressure in less developed, and developing countries. If we are to address "push" factors in African states – and even in the Indian sub-continent – then there are financial implications, which should be taken into account in devising aid packages.

There is scope for imaginative partnerships with developing countries where, instead of raiding their brightest and best to staff our creaking health service, we operate extended secondment programmes, financing the return of staff to their home countries after they have worked here for a decade or more, rather than turning them into immigrants.

We need also to consider focusing aid where it will maximise the creation of jobs, thereby offering people employment and enrichment opportunities outside this country, once again reducing migration pressure. Properly judged, this can be more cost-effective than having to fund a restrictive immigration policy, and deal with illegal immigration.

For that to happen, though, immigration policy needs to be fully integrated with foreign policy, aspects of our industrial policy, health policy and, our course, our aid programme.

That is what is missing – the idea of joined up policies, all geared to achieving specific ends. As declared aims of our foreign and aid policies, therefore, should be the reduction of migration pressure in zones where the impact will be beneficial to the UK.

To that extent – and in other respects where our aid has a measurable effect in increasing the prosperity of potential customers of our export goods – there is some value in maintaining a well-funded aid programme. But no one should be asked to pay a single pound coin until the entire programme has been properly discussed, the aims declared, and agreed.

And, if anything was more amendable to a national referendum, than the nature and extent of our aid programme, it would be hard to think of what it could be. This is our money and if we are being asked to give it away, we should have the right to decide on how much, and to whom it should be given.






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