Foreign office minister James Cleverly has repeatedly refused to say whether MPs will be given a vote on a multi-billion pound cut to the UK’s aid budget after being grilled by senior Tories.
The row follows the government’s decision to renege on a manifesto commitment to maintain overseas aid spending at 0.7 per cent of national income, cutting the budget to 0.5 per cent – around £4bn per year.
Ministers have insisted the cut is temporary until the economic crisis recedes, but have given no timeframe for the budget to be restored – leading to concerns the cut will become permanent.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, last year told MPs that legislation would be required if the government “cannot see a path back to 0.7 per cent in the foreseeable, immediate future”.
Addressing the issue on Tuesday, the former de facto deputy prime minister during Theresa May’s premiership, Damian Green, told Mr Cleverly: “The legislation allows the government to miss the 0.7 target in an emergency but not to plan to miss it for an indefinite number of years ahead.
He asked: “Can my right honourable friend give a commitment today that further cuts won’t be made until that necessary legislation promised by ministers to this House to enact this policy has been put to a vote?”
However, the minister replied: “The foreign secretary is looking carefully at the requirements of the legislation and I can assure him from this position at the despatch box this government is well able to listen to the mood of the House without the need for legislation on the issue.”
Pressed again by Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall, who also urged the government to bring forward a vote on the highly contentious issue, Mr Cleverly added: “The foreign secretary is looking at the legal requirements around this situation.
“I can completely understand his passion but I would remind him and the House that we remain one of the largest humanitarian donors to this crisis.”
The refusal to guarantee a vote came as Mr Cleverly also faced intense anger from MPs over humanitarian aid support to war-torn Yemen.
At a pledging summit on Monday, the UK government said it would earmark at least £87m in aid for Yemen during 2021 – over 50 per cent down on a promise of £164m made last year and significantly down on the total £214m figure of aid provided throughout 2020.
The former Conservative cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell warned the cut in Yemen was a “harbinger of terrible cuts to come” with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) yet to outline where cuts will fall as a result of the overall budget reduction.
“The fifth-richest country in the world is cutting support by more than half to one of the poorest countries in the world, and during a global pandemic,” he added.
“Every single member of this House was elected just over a year ago on a promise to maintain the 0.7. Aid has been cut already under that formula because our economy has contracted, but the government told this House that they would protect seven strategic priorities including, and I quote, ‘human preparedness and response’.
“No one in this House believes that the foreign secretary wants to do this. It is a harbinger of terrible cuts to come. Everyone in this House knows that the cut to the 0.7 is not a result of tough choices, it is a strategic mistake with deadly consequences. This is not who we are, this is not how global Britain acts.”