Putting a target into law seems painless at the time. The lobby groups that are pushing a proposal – be it a legal target to reduce child poverty, or to cut carbon emissions, or to spend a fixed sum on aid – can claim a win when Ministers give way.
In doing so, Ministers get those groups off their back (at least for a while), and can claim to be doing well by doing good. By voting for the scheme, MPs can do likewise with constituents who are supporters of the lobby groups, and have been e-mailing, tweeting and ringing. Everyone’s happy: it would be a virtuous circle were there virtue in it.
Which there isn’t. All putting a big target of this kind into law achieves is to boost grandstanding at the expense of flexibility, value for money, sense – and, possibly, furthering the aim that the target is meant to deliver.
For example, it could be that the mood of the Commons is that a particular target is too ambitious; or that it is not ambitious enough – or else that it should be abandoned altogether.
Without that target in law, MPs would simply be able to pass a motion summarising their view, and hold the Government to account for its reponse. But with a target in place, someone – probably a Minister – has to take up Parliamentary time with a Bill to raise, lower or drop the target in question if change is needed. And such time is not well used to scrutinise legislation as it is.
Another consequence of putting a target in law is that can come back to haunt government. So it is with the target in law that requires 0.7 per cent of GNI on overseas aid.
The Government recently announced that the 0.7 per cent would be temporarily reduced to 0.5 per cent for an unspecified period of time. The reason given was that, though Ministers don’t want to make the reduction, the public finances must be stablished – though that process will kick in during future years, not this year.
Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that the reduction is popular with the public (and indeed with Party members). However, it doesn’t seem to have the same level of support among Conservative MPs. Tory opponents of the plan claim to have enough backers to ensure that the Government loses votes on any Bill to implement the reduction.
Perhaps they are bluffing and maybe they aren’t, but the whips are clearly unwilling to take the chance. So it is that, having indicated that a Bill would be introduced to reduce the target, the Government is now backing off.
Last November, Dominic Raab told the Commons that “we have taken legal advice on this. It is very clear that if we cannot see a path back to 0.7 per cent in the immediate foreseeable future then the legislation would be required.” But yesterday, during his statement on the Integrated Review, the Prime Minister said otherwise.
Asked by Jeremy Hunt “does he agree that because the 0.7 per cent cut is strictly temporary, relating to the pandemic, there is no need to amend legislation?” he replied that his former leadership opponent “is right in what he says about the ODA commitment”.
The Government will now surely have to contest a court case in which it will argue that the limited derogation in the legislation for missing the target does not apply to this deliberate reduction (having suggested otherwise, as we have seen).
To be clear: although we are a pro-aid site, we believe that there is no virtue intrinsic to spending a particular proportion of national income on overseas aid. Though we are concerned that breaking a manifesto commitment in coming off the 0.7 per cent (“we will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development) would set a bad precedent.
Our point is that Ministers will now be embroiled in an inevitable court case on the legality of its decision. It’s uncertain whether they will win; it’s certain the taxpayer will pay. All because the yellow half of the Coalition Government wanted to write the target into law, and the blue half let it have its way.