The UK government is facing a backlash after announcing a cut to its global aid budget by £2.9 billion this year as MPs left parliament for their summer break.
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab said the move was because of the economic hit caused by the coronavirus crisis, and insisted the UK will still meet its commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) on international development.
Government sources said that a “line by line” review of aid projects had taken place and what were considered the “40 most vulnerable countries” were prioritised for assistance.
The spending on Official Development Assistance (ODA) was set to be £15.8 billion this year before the Covid-19 crisis emerged.
Sarah Champion, chairwoman of the Commons International Development Committee, said it was “poor practice” to announce the move on the final day of parliament before the summer recess as MPs could not scrutinise it.
And the Liberal Democrats branded the move “callous”.
In a letter to Champion, Raab said: “The UK is experiencing a severe economic downturn as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We have been able to ensure that the money we will still spend in 2020 remains prioritised on poverty reduction for the ‘bottom billion’, as well as tackling climate change and reversing biodiversity loss, championing girls education, UK leadership in the global response to Covid-19, and campaigning on issues such as media freedom and freedom of religious belief.”
Raab said spending on ODA would remain at 0.7% of GNI.
He said: “So that we can react to the potential shrinkage in our economy, and therefore a decrease in the value of the 0.7% commitment (which is based on the UK’s GNI), we have identified a £2.9bn package of reductions in the government’s planned ODA spend so we can proceed prudently for the remainder of 2020.
“The package I have agreed with the prime minister maintains our flexibility and enables the government to manage our ODA spend against an uncertain 0.7% position.
“It will see some reductions made now, with arrangements in place to tailor spending further during the remaining months as we start to gain a clearer economic picture.”
Champion branded announcing the move on the last day of parliament before the long summer recess “poor practice”.
She said: “The announcement today raises more questions than it answers.
“The letter speaks of delaying activity and stopping some spending – what is the timescale on this?
“If it is with immediate effect, do the projects know or will they find out via the media as DFID staff did about the merger? Is there an overarching strategy in place?
“Will the evaluation of the impact of these cuts be made public? Where is the scrutiny?
“Clearly there has been no consultation, but to release this news literally as parliament rises so there can be no scrutiny by MPs is poor practice.”
Labour’s Shadow international development secretary Preet Gill said: “As we face the reality of lower GDP, projects and programmes that are not transparent or have been found to have no or limited development impact should be the focus of re-evaluation.
“Labour wants the aid budget to deliver value for money for British taxpayers and urge the Government to make sure it is focused on tackling poverty.”
Liberal Democrat international development spokesperson Wendy Chamberlain said: “Despite previous assurances that clearly weren’t worth the paper they were written on, we now see the callous Tories for who they really are.
“This devastating cut to international aid is a clear sign that the UK is abandoning the world stage. Because of this government more children will have their life chances blighted by poverty.”