The budget deficit remains
the central fact of British politics. The deficit constrains everything the
government does, or can plan to do. Restoring the country’s finances remains
the coalition’s priority, and rightly so, but this is proving harder than it
hoped or expected.
One reason for this is that
while Conservatives favour public spending cuts in principle, they often oppose
them in practice. Ministers are evidently fighting to protect their own
territory. MPs and activists call for spending to fall faster, but to rise in
their own favoured areas. Vested interests and lobby groups protest, but that
is their job – just as it is the Chancellor’s job to make decisions.
None of those decisions is
easy. But one is overdue, and has the unusual advantage of being both popular
and helping the Chancellor achieve his fiscal goals. It is time to remove the
ringfence around the International Development budget and end the commitment to
spend 0.7 per cent of our gross national income on aid.
I don’t want to rehearse the
overseas aid debate in detail. I have argued before that spending large sums of
taxpayers’ money in this way is too often ineffective or even
counterproductive, fuelling corruption and stagnating economic innovation in
the countries we are trying to help. The 0.7 per cent target, proposed by
campaigners half a century ago, is arbitrary and even bizarre: in what other
areas of government do we start not by asking what we want to achieve, but how
much of our national income we want to dispense?
It is sometimes said that the
commitment to the aid spending target shows Britain’s compassion as a nation.
But whatever its merits or otherwise, spending taxpayers’ money on aid has
nothing to do with compassion. People show compassion by giving of what they
have, of their own accord. If people want to support charities that provide
real help to those in need, I admire them. But governments cannot be
“compassionate” with money they have confiscated from their citizens on pain of
The Department for
International Development budget is increasing by an amazing 50 per cent over
this parliament. It is one of only two Whitehall ministries whose staff numbers
are growing. Even for those who defend overseas aid in principle, it is hard to
argue that spending on it should rise at this rate at a time when spending at
home is being cut.
Yet this policy remains the
orthodoxy among the three main parties, even though most people disagree with
it. I do not claim that many people are turning to UKIP, or saying they will
not vote, simply because of the aid policy itself – but Westminster consensus
in the face of public opposition is the kind of thing that many voters find
exasperating and drives them to look for alternatives or give up on politics
There are signs that the
government has begun to respond. David Cameron has indicated that some aid
money may be diverted to the Ministry of Defence to help cover peacekeeping
costs. Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary who is said to
be sceptical about some of the policies pursued by her department, is involving British companies in the delivery of
aid policy in an attempt to strengthen the private sector and end dependency in
The Chancellor should build
on this by announcing in next month’s budget that he is dismantling the
ringfence for the aid budget which sits so uneasily with most voters’
priorities. He need not formally abandon the 0.7 per cent target if this would
make coalition relations so difficult that progress stops in other areas – though
the country would no doubt welcome the news that we were no longer pursuing
higher aid spending as an end in itself. A statement that we were slowing the
planned rise would be a step in the right direction and show he was listening.
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