MP for Peterborough Stewart Jackson: Foreign aid: Time for a budget rethink?

Stewart Jackson MP's Westminster Life column in the Peterborough Telegraph - peterboroughtoday.co.uk
Stewart Jackson MP's Westminster Life column in the Peterborough Telegraph - peterboroughtoday.co.uk
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One of the hottest political topics at the moment is the Parliamentary petition to end the commitment of the UK Government to spending 0.7% of the country’s wealth (i.e. the Gross Domestic Product) on foreign aid. So far, over 208,000 people have supported the petition, meaning it is likely to be debated in due course in the House of Commons. Many of my own constituents have signed and have written to me to let me know and ask my opinion. Many Westminster politicians across all parties are calling for a review of this policy, now enshrined in legislation.

Last year, we spent £12.2 billion on overseas aid and by the end of this Parliament in 2020, we will be likely to be spending nearer to £16 billion. Recently, the Department for International Development admitted a £172 million overspend on its budget. That compares to a current budget for health and defence of about £45 billion each.

I am rather conflicted on the issue, as I have always broadly supported the notion that as a rich First World country, we have a duty to look after the interests of those less fortunate – a moral duty but also in the name of enlightened self-interest, as a country well respected for its values, its democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression and in short, a force for good in a sometimes terribly dangerous and tragic world afflicted by poor health and disease, war, human rights abuses and religious oppression. Whereas we once used “gunboat diplomacy” to project British power across the globe, we now exercise “soft power” through trade and commerce, the influence of the English language, our media, education institutions and first class research capacity which influences the whole world.

UK taxpayers are undoubtedly making a difference in alleviating poverty, improving healthcare, promoting education and boosting the life chances of many of the world’s poorest people and especially children and for that, we should all be hugely proud.

Fair enough. When the economy is growing and jobs are plentiful and our debt is manageable it is easier to justify such expenditure but when the Government has to deal with a mountain of debt, make tough decisions on areas like health and social care as well as welfare spending, it gives rise to some fundamental questions: Is it right to “ring fence” overseas aid spending, whilst cutting back domestic priorities like transport infrastructure, defence, policing and adult social care? Should the 0.7% figure have been an “aspiration” rather than being enshrined in law? Is the foreign aid target an example of “virtue signalling” – whereby the rich West shows off its compassion and caring nature but fails to properly ensure the money really is going to the most deserving who really need it? Why are we giving money to already wealthy countries like India and building vanity projects for the Palestinian Authority and giving cash to US development banks? It’s clear that there is too little oversight and scrutiny of UK taxpayers’ money, which is routed through too many agencies and it’s time we returned to a project-based system which other countries like Canada use very effectively.

I am minded to support calls for a review of the budget in such straitened times - not least because poor spending decisions undermines the whole worthwhile rationale of overseas aid - but would welcome your views on the subject via stewart.jackson.mp@parliament.uk