The UK Government has pushed through a parliamentary measure which formalises and extends the cut in UK development assistance.

At the 2021 budget the chancellor announced that development assistance would reduce from 0.7 per cent of gross national income to 0.5 per cent. The Conservative Party had pledged in their 2019 election manifesto that they would maintain the level of spending. It had been a centre piece of the coalition government between 2010 – 2015, that despite austerity measures introduced the level of development spending rose to meet the long-established target, which had never previously been achieved. 

While 25 Conservative MPs voted against the Government’s proposal, which locked in the cut until they were not borrowing for day-to-day expenditure, more than a dozen more were needed to block this change. 

Nigel Harris, CEO of Evangelical Alliance member charity Tearfund, said in response to the vote: We must be under no illusion that these now indefinite cuts not only break long-term promises to the world’s poorest, but will cost thousands of lives – both now and in the future of this parliament.”


Too clever by half

At the heart of understanding what’s going on are three things: internal politics of the Conservative Party, parliamentary procedure, and the unwritten constitution of the UK

What for David Cameron in 2010 was a key feature of detoxifying the Conservative brand is now considered a millstone that primarily appeals to people who wouldn’t vote for the party anyway. Therefore, the Government will spend little effort and capital, both financial and political, in appeasing its critics who would not vote for them regardless of how wholeheartedly the party did what they wanted. Supporting international development may make the Conservative Party look nicer but, as the supposed wisdom goes, it doesn’t win votes. 

Second, parliamentary procedure is increasingly being used to circumvent traditional policy making processes. This is done by government, opposition and backbenchers alike. Previously, attempts had been made to force a vote on the development cut through an amendment to a relatively unrelated piece of legislation. This approach was not allowed, but over the past decade moves have changed policy very quickly by using parliamentary process. That was attempted last week on abortion, and was similar to how both same-sex marriage and abortion were introduced to Northern Ireland. 

This week the Government published a written statement on Monday and announced a debate and vote on that statement the following day. This approach meant there was no possibility for amendment, and MPs either had to accept the full statement and approach or reject it. This was clever in that it limited the freedom of MPs to be nuanced in their criticism. It was too clever by half because it let the Government win a vote without winning the argument. Under the pretence of financial responsibility is a cut which will be hard to reverse.

The limits of laws

A lot can be explained by party management and the mechanics of parliament, but what about the law passed by the previous Conservative Government that ensured 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) was spent on development assistance?

The problem lies in the UK’s unwritten constitution, and among the many unwritten aspects is the convention, backed up by parliamentary rules that no government can bind the hands of its successor. In other countries there are provisions for constitutional laws or super laws that require additional ratification or super majorities to pass or overturn. No such thing applies in UK legislation; all laws are equal, and one can overturn another. That means that despite the messaging on international development, like with child poverty legislation or pension triple locks, they are actually meaningless measures if a future government has the parliamentary majority and the desire to overturn them. 

No law can guarantee the UK’s contribution to overseas development; and the limit of the law is a remarkably familiar problem for Christians to consider. I’m not going to lean too heavily on Galatians 3 for a detailed explanation of why the UK Government’s approach to aid spending both then and now is problematic, but laws are limited in what they can achieve.

Laws present a mirror to what we want and what we do not want. There’s a practical need for laws as a mechanism of order and stability, but laws serve a wider purpose to reflect our desires. A law to require a certain amount is spent on overseas development only works if we want it to work. The risk of putting in law what is spent on overseas development is that it can lead us to think the job is done. 

A number is arbitrary. Is 0.7 per cent the best amount for a country to spend on development? Probably not. But should we as a society, blessed with abundance, be generous to places where the need is indescribable and our own challenges pale into insignificance? Absolutely!

The cut in aid by the UK Government was done badly, for poor reasons and defended with weak arguments and illusive promises for the future. But the law which said we’d spend 0.7 per cent was also problematic because it suggested a set amount was the answer and failed to challenge the orientation of our heart. If a financial mechanism is the answer, we’ll look for another which limits the cost. 

We should press our government to be generous and compassionate, but the scale of need, and the complexity of mechanisms, can sometimes blind us. Our advocacy for those in greatest need should go undiminished, and our sacrifice should model how it is the direction of our heart leading with kindness that binds us far more than laws ever can.