Huw Merriman is MP for Bexhill and Battle.
Last week, the TaxPayers’ Alliance published a report on aid spending. While I disagree with a number of its conclusions, it contained some constructive ideas for reforming the aid budget. Coming from an organisation that has steadfastly opposed the UK’s aid commitment, this partial conversion is noteworthy and welcome – and shows that the argument for the UK maintaining its role in the world, and our commitment to the world’s poorest people, is beginning to cut through.
All Conservatives would support the report’s basic premise – that every pound of British taxpayers’ money that is spent on aid should be accounted for and serve a worthwhile purpose. Given that, for less than a penny in every pound, it is estimated that UK aid saves a life every two minutes, money wasted is a life wasted.
That’s why I am especially supportive of the TPA’s proposal that the Secretary of State for International Development should personally sign off on all development spending – as opposed to just the spending that comes from DFID. This is something I previously raised with Foreign Office Ministers back in 2017.
Some of the biggest ‘own goals’ in aid spending come from outside DFID spending. From speaking to my constituents in Bexhill and Battle, I am acutely aware of the damage that these episodes have on public confidence in the aid system. It is so vital that every penny we spend overseas is justified.
The expertise, transparency and rigorous external scrutiny of DFID means it takes very good care of our cash. The Transparency Index, which measures the effectiveness of aid spending across the globe, places DFID in the top three of the world’s aid departments and rates its performance as ‘very good’. The Foreign Office is virtually at the bottom of the league, with its performance rated as ‘poor’. That’s why I oppose measures to transfer more aid spending from DFID to the Foreign Office. As a Conservative, why would I want taxpayers’ money to be spent by a department which spends it poorly?
The TPA report also calls for unilateral changes to international aid rules, which I cannot support. As a Conservative, I am driven by doing what works. By seeking to alter the rules which the rest of the world abides by, the credibility we have achieved through our aid spending risks being lost. I am proud of the UK’s work overseas – it is an area in which we truly are a world leader. And to stay in that leadership position the TPA is right that we need to continue to re-assess, reform and improve. But we also need to celebrate the work that we are already doing and recognise the gains that we have made.
I have seen this first hand. In 2016, I travelled to Jordan with Save the Children with an open mind as to whether our aid was being spent well. I was incredibly impressed. Whilst I witnessed the unimaginable hardship facing Syrian refugees in Jordan, having lost their homes and livelihoods, I also saw UK aid jumping into action.
I also saw how smart our aid is, and that far from giving a ‘hand out’ as is so often claimed, UK Aid was clearly acting as a ‘hand up’. Whether it was innovative cash transfers in Za’atari refugee camp – helping refugees plan their own family budgets and buy what they needed – or training young people to access gainful employment and keep learning, UK Aid was making a real difference. I was surprised that everyone I spoke to there did not want to migrate to Europe, but wanted to return home and rebuild their country when it is safe to do so. It is UK Aid that is helping them to do just this.
At this critical moment, we cannot afford to step aside and pull back from the world order. Now is the time for us to be out there, leading from the front and showing the best of Britain. By spending our aid money so effectively, and by championing the international rules that ensure others do the same, we can make the world a better place and keep Britain safe.