Priti Patel has never made a secret of her scepticism about the way the aid budget is spent. Before she became International Development Secretary, she famously proposed closing down the department and replacing it with a Department for International Trade.
She no longer wants to close her department, but her suspicion that there is a great deal of waste and corruption persists. Indeed, since she took office there has been a steady stream of stories in the press about absurd projects which have been funded, the routine use of expensive consultants and what Patel herself calls “profiteering” in what has become an aid industry.
Many of these stories seem to originate from official sources, and bolster her narrative (though we shouldn’t be too cynical – yesterday she rejected widespread criticism of a grant paid to an Ethiopian girl band, which it would have been easy for her to condemn if she was simply seeking good headlines).
Patel finds herself in a somewhat tricky position. All International Development Secretaries tend to announce a “crackdown” of one sort or another, regardless of their personal view – not least because there is huge suspicion among the public and the press about the amount of money spent overseas at a time when resources at home are scarce. News that billions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money sit unspent in the World Bank simply in order to hit the 0.7 per cent aid target is rightly infuriating to people who are told the social care system doesn’t have the money to look after them.
To Patel’s credit, her anger at consultants creaming a fortune off a budget intended to help the world’s poorest is genuine, and she has a lot of good will stored up among the centre right press. But that isn’t a neverending commodity – as the months go by but little appears to change, Quentin Letts among others have begun to fear that she might become a captive of her department, absorbing its worldview along with its jargon.
What could she do to satisfy the critics? Even if she wanted to, she couldn’t reduce her budget and offer it to other departments – not only did the 2015 Conservative manifesto commit to keep the 0.7 per cent spending figure, but the Coalition put it on the statute book. To repeal it would require the agreement of Downing Street, and that would require a willingness to further complicate the already treacherous landscape of upcoming Commons votes.
This was of course the intention of the architects of the 0.7 per cent plan – to make it harder for their successors to deviate from their preferred level of aid spending. It’s working so far, but it might well backfire eventually. Without the budget being protected in statute, it would almost certainly have experienced some cuts by now given the wider fiscal picture. The cost of that protection is that it is becoming a totemic frustration for some voters and politicians – the words “charity begins at home” are repeated on the green benches as well as on the doorstep. A financial guarantee in the short-term might end up constituting a political risk in the longer-term – a risk that ought to counsel against such a gimmick being repeated in future.
Patel is doing what she can within the limits of her job and collective responsibility: demanding internally that her department does more with its ringfenced budget while making the public case for greater efficiency.
Given the fiscal and political situation, it looks like only a matter of time before the ringfence is removed anyway. If the number of aid critics in Parliament, the press and the country continue to grow, then they could get their way relatively soon.