This edition of AidEx Voices is an opinion piece by AidEx Event Director, Nicholas Rutherford.
The UK government won its vote to keep its budget for international development to 0.5% of national income, reduced from 0.7% and a cut of almost £4bn. This was in-spite of making 0.7% part of the party's 2019 election manifesto and the figure having been made law in 2015.
A cross-party attempt to reinstate the 0.7% figure by 25 Conservatives who joined Labour and other parties – as well as all the UK's living former prime ministers, was defeated in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the cut was needed to keep public debt down during the pandemic.
Oh yes, public debt…
The UK Government is predicted to spend around £400bn responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. The largest proportion of the spending has been on economic support for businesses. Of the more than £90bn worth of loans handed out it expects £26bn may have to be written off.
In the early stages of the pandemic, the UK government spent an eye-watering £10bn on its much criticised covid-19 test and trace programme and £15bn on personal protective equipment that was often unfit for purpose.
“Early in the crisis the government wasted the opportunity to build on existing expertise and experience within our public services for contact tracing, and instead ministers chose to hand lucrative contracts to a handful of outsourcing companies including some with a questionable record of delivery;” said Rachel Reeves, Labour MP for Leeds West and currently serving as Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Of the 10 companies that were handed the highest value deals to supply the government with PPE, five had no apparent record of procuring PPE previously. Amongst others, PPE contracts were awarded to a pest controller and a confectioner.
An interim study by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that Test and Trace spent a total of £5bn on 121 contracts that were awarded directly, without competitive tender, using emergency regulations which allowed the government to bypass normal procurement rules.
The test and trace system that was widely criticised at this time, for being ineffective and wasteful was run by Baroness Dido Harding. Critics of Harding, who ran the scheme until April this year, say she was not given the job on merit but because she is a Conservative life peer, married to a Conservative MP.
Similarly, Dame Bingham, who chaired the UK Government's Vaccine Taskforce had no experience in the field prior to her appointment, she is another Conservative peer, venture capitalist and is married to Jesse Norman, a Conservative Minister who had been a contemporary of the Prime Minister’s at Eton.
PPE contracts worth £186m, the second largest amount spent with any PPE supplier, went to UK logistics firm Uniserve Limited, whose multi-millionaire owner was listed as a speaker for the influential pro-Brexit lobby group Prosperity UK. Other speakers listed on the site include Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Cabinet Minister Michael Gove.
According to a recent article in the FT, The Good Law Project, a not-for-profit campaign group, has taken the Government to court, saying that it breached its duties of transparency last year in awarding nine PPE contracts worth £700m to three companies — Ayanda Capital, Pestfix and Clandeboye. It claims a “substantial proportion” of the PPE procured under the deals “was unfit for purpose” for the NHS.
Jason Coppel QC, the barrister representing the Good Law Project, told the High Court that the Government’s procurement process gave rise; “to very serious concerns as to the management of large amounts of public money”.
I can see why Boris Johnson is so desperately searching for cuts to address a growing sense of panic surrounding rising public debt and financial ineptitude in the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Cronyism and wholesale departure from standard procedure in procurement won’t have helped.
Personally, I feel a deep sense of shame over the Government’s decision to continue with the cut to overseas development, it is like stealing from your own family after mis-managing your finances.
Theresa May, former Prime Minister mocked the Government for focussing on a £4bn cut to foreign aid at a time when it had borrowed 100 times that during the COVID pandemic.
"We're told there will be dire consequences for tax and public spending if this motion is defeated tonight," she said.
"We've borrowed £400bn, where are the dire warnings about that? It seems that £4bn is really bad news but £400bn, who cares?"
The decision to go ahead with the cuts has put tens of thousands of lives at risk in some of the world’s poorest nations. The campaign group Global Justice Now said; “every MP who has voted to sever the UK’s 0.7% commitment should know that blood is on their hands”.
I was very proud of the UK when it enshrined in law its commitment to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on aid every year.
This was a promise to help people in their worst times; the aid and development community do all they can to ensure that lifesaving aid gets put to the best possible use and goes to those who have the least. We know that many have suffered in wealthier countries because of the pandemic but the world’s poor always bear the brunt and the worse things get, the more disproportionately they are affected.
Mary Creagh MP, Labour’s Shadow International Development Secretary of the day said: “This bill ensures that whoever is in government, our promises to the world’s poor will be honoured.”
Is this the return of the Nasty Party…