Cllr Chris Whitehouse is Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy, and Secretary of the Conservative Group on the Isle of Wight Council.
If we are going into the coming General Election sticking firmly to the policy that we should spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid, then our Ministers, Members of Parliament and Prospective Parliamentary Candidates have a major job of work still to do to convince voters who simply don’t support the arbitrary target.
The results of a survey from the leading polling company, ComRes, published 1st October 2014 show the majority of Britons (58 per cent) believe that the target should be scrapped and that almost seven out of every ten adults (69 per cent) want the aid budget spent instead on protecting British citizens from poverty.
The poll also found that 63 per cent of Britons believe the Government should only give aid money to places experiencing humanitarian crises such as famines, conflict and natural disasters.
On the positive side, however, there is everything to play for if we can fine tune and reinforce our political message, because half of Britons (50 per cent) believe that we should be proud of the UK Government’s commitment to the foreign aid budget. These results are not contradictory but do demonstrate the need for better, clearer and consistent messaging if we are to convince the electorate of our rationale.
The findings come as those of us who support the commitment to overseas aid face increasing pressure from both within the Conservative Party and from UKIP. Nigel Farage has called for the foreign aid budget to be redirected to the UK, arguing that “charity begins at home”, with a number of Conservative backbench MPs moving to derail a Bill that would enshrine the 0.7 per cent commitment, currently worth £11bn annually, in law. Such a blocking move leaves me uncomfortable and could rebound on the party in the polls.
According to the ComRes poll, which I commissioned, men (64 per cent) are more likely to want to abandon the 0.7 per cent target than women (53 per cent). There was also broad consensus that the UK Government should only give aid to the most impoverished places, with 60 per cent of Britons agreeing that, except in times of humanitarian emergency, the aid budget should only be spent on countries that make up the poorest 25 per cent worldwide.
As a developed nation we have an obligation to help those in need, but there is clear public scepticism about setting an arbitrary target for spending on overseas aid when other government departments are being required to make significant budget cuts. There is also a clear view that aid should be targeted on the poorest and most vulnerable, a sound Conservative principle.
The British public is supportive of overseas aid when there is a clear and immediate humanitarian crisis, but the government now absolutely needs to show how UK aid helps those in need, as opposed to just balancing the residual concern in some minds that we are, in Theresa May’s now infamous words, the “nasty party”. If we cannot make a stronger, clearer case for the spending target that so many people believe is unsustainable in a time of austerity, then we will lose support on this point. That would be unfortunate for the party and a tragedy for those millions of people worldwide for whom British aid is life-saving and life-changing.
As my good friend Chris Bain, Director of the prominent overseas aid agency, CAFOD, said in response to the poll findings:
“Aid is not perfect and dealing with poverty is complicated with the poorest people often in some of the world’s most dangerous places. But our aid budget makes a huge difference. Child mortality rates have been halved since 1990. British support for immunisation saves a child’s life every two minutes. In the years 2011/12 and 2013/14 British aid helped 10.2 million children to go to school. Successes like this are the reality of British aid and why we should be proud of our contribution especially in these tough economic times.”
That is a record and a message of which our party can be proud and which it must promote more loudly.