Why has the coalition's aid bill been delayed again?
According to weekend newspaper reports, the bill enshrining in law the UK’s commitment to the UN target for international aid spending of 0.7 per cent will be absent from next month’s Queen’s Speech. It’s not just NGOs under that impression, even the FT political team were confirming it.
A source close to International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell is quoted as saying that: “There's no question of a coalition split here. The bill is ready to go, subject to parliamentary time”. The same line was put out by DIFD’s press office, blaming “the business managers” as if the decision was nothing to do with them. Mitchell himself told the Sun the same thing last month.
These “business managers” are surely the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, who like DFID, take their orders from No. 10. The buck stops with the Prime Minister and he has already presided over the breaking of his manifesto commitment on this issue. On page 117 of the Conservative manifesto which says:
A new Conservative government will be fully committed to achieving, by 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7% of national income as aid. We will stick to the rules laid down by the OECD about what spending counts as aid. We will legislate in the first session of a new Parliament to lock in this level of spending for every year from 2013.
This session has lasted almost two years and is one of the longest in Parliamentary history. The bill is short, with just a handful of clauses. It has already had pre-legislative scrutiny from the international development select committee and there is cross-party consensus. There is no prospect of it being overturned in the Lords. It could probably be passed on a one-line whip on a Thursday afternoon or Friday morning, with Labour and Lib Dem support.
So the weekend’s reports put the focus back on to the role that the Lib Dems are playing in making the coalition more, rather than less progressive. They too are bound by the coalition agreement, which says on page 22:
We will honour our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on overseas aid from 2013, and to enshrine this commitment in law.
The suggestion is that the Lib Dems are prioritising Lords reform in their pre-Queen’s Speech negotiations so No. 10 are shelving the aid legislation in order to avoid a second Tory backbench rebellion. The line will be, “what matters is reaching 0.7 per cent in 2013, not legislating for it” but it was the legislation that was promised by all three parties in their manifestos and if it really doesn’t matter, why delay the vote?
The last time they were in office, the Conservatives halved the aid budget. Labour trebled it. The reason the Conservatives made the promise was to achieve all-party consensus and put the issue beyond doubt. The predicted backbench Tory rebellion, coming hot on the heels of the recent “caravan tax” revolt and the more visible EU referendum vote, would be popular with the public. But it would be damaging for the Tory modernisers, which is why those pesky ‘business managers’ could frankly do without it.