LONDON: The UK government has said it will not allow Parliament to vote on cuts to its overseas aid budget, with critics saying it fears that a rebellion from its own MPs could scupper the plans.
The move comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson seeks to reduce government spending in an effort to reduce the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic in the country.
The government plans to reduce foreign aid by as much as £5 billion ($6.9 billion), a drop to 0.5 percent of the UK’s gross domestic product from its previous legal commitment of 0.7 percent.
Critics have said the move could be unlawful and amounts to “balancing the books on the backs of the world’s poor,” with some of the most poverty-stricken nations set to suffer most.
In leaked plans drawn up by the government, it was revealed that war-torn Syria, Yemen and Libya could see their foreign aid from the UK slashed by as much as two thirds.
Lebanon, in the grip of a devastating COVID-19 outbreak, political deadlock and an economic crisis, could see its budget cut by over 80 percent.
South Sudan and Somalia are also in line to see aid spending from the UK fall, by 59 and 60 percent respectively.
The British government said it will seek to increase spending on foreign aid when the UK’s economic forecast improves.
But that did not stop criticism from a cross-section of MPs, who said the move could breach the 2015 International Development Act, making it subject to legal challenge if not brought to a vote in Parliament.
Former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell told the House of Commons that the decision would also undermine the UK’s position as president of the G7 this year, noting that it is “the only country in the G7 that is cutting its development budget.”
He added: “If (Johnson) is determined to pursue this aspect of his policy, when will he bring it to the House for a vote? He may be in danger, as from the start of the new financial year, of creating an unlawful budget.”
Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley said: “We should meet the commitment (to foreign aid spending) we made in successive manifestos. I want to stand beside the prime minister as well as behind him, and we want to proudly meet that commitment.”
Johnson responded that he believes a commitment to increase spending later means that the government will not be in breach of the International Development Act.
“We can be very proud of what we are doing,” he said. “Of course we want the percentage to go back up again when fiscal circumstances allow, but I think people of common sense understand that £10 billion (the new target) is a huge sum in the current circumstances, and they will appreciate that it is right to wait until fiscal circumstances have improved.”
Criticism also came from the charity sector, with Oxfam CEO Danny Sriskandarajah condemning the decision to cut aid spending while increasing the UK’s spending on nuclear weapons. “It shows the government has got its priorities badly wrong,” he told The Times.