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Government dodges bullet on overseas aid vote

Only Germany gave more overseas aid than the UK last year

By Ricky Browne

The Government has narrowly dodged a bullet as it missed being challenged in Parliament by its own backbenchers over its decision to cut overseas aid.

The government had previously announced that it would be pulling back from its previous obligation to give 0.7 percent of UK’s GDP towards overseas development aid, due to the pressures of the pandemic.

Luckily for the government the Speaker of the House turned down the attempt by backbenchers to force a vote over the matter.

The Speaker of the House Sir Lindsay Hoyle

Nevertheless, the speaker has said that the backbench MPs should be allowed to make their case tomorrow, during a three hour emergency debate. But there will be no binding vote. Still — it is likely to keep the story in the headlines for a bit longer.

The amount of 0.7 percent was written into law in 2015 under David Cameron’s conservative government and was agreed upon by all three major parties. The UK first gave that amount to overseas aid in 2013, meeting the target that had been set by the United Nations It is also something that the current government had in its manifesto at the last election in 2019.

In 2020, despite the pandemic, the UK held to that 0.7 percent amount – and was reportedly one of only seven countries to do so.

“In 2020, the UK was one of only seven countries reporting to the OECD that it had med the 0.7 percent target.

“Only Germany spent more than the UK on aid both in absolute terms ($29 billion, compared to the UK’s $19 billion) and in proportional terms (0.74 percent of GNI, versus 0.70 percent).

“Since 1960, only fourteen countries have ever met the target. The United States, Australia and Japan have never met the target. Germany met it for the first time in 2020,” according to the UK Parliament website.

But with the pandemic and the massive challenge to the country’s finances that that entails, the government has wanted to give a smaller amount – 0.5 percent of GDP – as a “temporary measure”. In real terms, that means a cut of about £4 billion – but the governed says that it will be giving some £10 billion in overseas aid this year.

The idea has not been universally accepted – not least by Conservative MPs – including former Prime Minister Theresa May – who say that the aid is needed more than ever now, with so much of the world reeling from the effects of the pandemic.

Former Prime minister Theresa May in parliament today

However, there is another argument, that the UK has done perhaps more than any other country in tackling this pandemic particularly in the developing world, with the development of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine, which is being produced and sold at cost. The same cannot be said for most other vaccines which are being sold to make profit, sometimes at prices five times or more than the price of an Oxford AstraZeneca shot.

Some 500 million Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines have been used across the world. At cost that works out to about £3 per shot or £1.5 billion in value. But the Pfizer vaccine is currently selling for about £20 per shot. If the Oxford AstraZenecca was being charged at a similar rate, it would represent a value of £30 billion.

If that policy was considered to be a part of the UK’s contribution to that 0.7 percent number, it is likely that the amount of aid the UK is giving to the developing world is actually a lot higher than 0.7 percent.

Unfortunately for the government, that aspect is not being considered in that way. The end result is that the Conservative government is in danger of looking like they don’t care what is happening to humanity elsewhere.

Its all go for the G7 wmeeting at the Carbis Bay Hotel in Cornwall this week Photo: Greg Martin / Cornwall Live

It’s a particularly bad look with the upcoming G7 global leaders meeting that is happening in Cornwall later this week, where the UK wants to project itself as a global leader in the fight against the pandemic.

If the vote had gone ahead, it may have forced Boris Johnson to backtrack quickly and live up to that 0.7 percent promise, if only for the party to not have to fight accusations of completely missing the boat on what used to be called ‘compassionate conservatism”, to help boost the international image of the UK and to not see its own party divided on the issue.

But the Prime Minister may would also have wanted to show that he in remains control of the Tory party by fighting his backbenchers on this. If he lost, he would have egg on his face. If he won, the damage to the image of the Conservative party could have been irreparable. But it appears he has been spared all that trouble.

Meanwhile, the Government’s move to hold down some other expenses hasn’t gone down terribly well either.

Its decision to allocate a further £1.5 billion to education to help students recover from a loss of education over the pandemic has been ridiculed by many for being pathetically small, and meaning only an additional £50 for each student. All told it would mean about £310 per student over three years. It was noted that catch-up funding in the United States and the Netherlands added up to much more per student – about £1600 in the US and £2500 in the Netherlands.

Sir Kevan Collins: quit in protest Photo: TC/Alamy

The education recovery ‘tsar’ Sir Kevan Collins had called for an investment of more than £10 billion, and resigned in protest.

The decision to limit wage increases to the NHS and health sector to one percent has been called a gross insult by some, and a nurse from New Zealand who helped the Prime minister recover from Covid resigned, partially in protest. Health unions called for an increase of 12.5 percent.

New Zealand nurse Jenny McGee quit Photo: AP

The one percent increase is estimated to cost about £500 million per year.

It is likely that there will continue to be demands for Government to increase its spending and to at least match its previous commitments. And it is likely that the voters will protest at any attempt to increase taxes to meet or extend those commitments.

The end result is that although the UK seems to be moving towards controlling the coronavirus pandemic, the economy will be suffering from long covid for some time to come.

Meanwhile, the British economy had a GDP of £1.96 trillion in 2020 – which was £216 billion less than in 2019 – a fall of about 10 percent.

Shoulld the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine be considered a part of the UKs contribution to overseas aid? Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP

The failure of the backbenchers to get a vote on the matter did not lead the evening news, and the government can now go onto host the G7 meeting without that potential embarrassment hanging over it.

On the BBC news site, the story was the 8th most read for the day, falling behind the regular Cornavirus update, the US approval of a new Alzheimer’s drug, why some fans say they booed England players for taking the knee and a story on where people can legally ride an e-scooter.

In the meantime, the government may now talk up how much it has done for the global fight against the pandemic as one of the driving forces behind the critical Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine – and what that means in pounds and pence, to help justify further its decision to cut official overseas aid.

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