LONDON: MPs have been met with a significant setback in the House of Commons after failing to push through an amendment that would have prevented the British government from slashing its foreign aid budget.
The roughly 30 Conservative MPs — led by former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell and including former Prime Minister Theresa May — had warned that the aid reduction from 0.7 to 0.5 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product would have major humanitarian consequences and harm the country’s reputation abroad.
They sought to add an amendment to a separate piece of legislation, aimed at improving the UK’s “high risk” experimental research capacity, which would have legally enforced a commitment made by the government not to reduce its aid budget until 2022.
On Monday, Parliament Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle — who has responsibility for managing parliamentary and legislative procedures of this nature — decided that the amendment was too far outside the scope of the research bill to be put to a vote.
Hoyle said he would accept a request for an emergency debate on the issue, scheduled for Tuesday, but any vote would be non-binding.
However, he did say the government should provide Parliament the opportunity to vote on the aid cuts, and hinted that he would facilitate a binding vote if the government refused to facilitate one.
“I hope the government will take on that challenge and give this house the due respect that it deserves,” he added. “And if not, we will then look to find other ways in which we can move forward.”
Despite Monday’s setback, rebel Conservative MPs have pledged to continue fighting the budget cuts.
One former minister backing the bid said they would bring their amendment “at the next possible opportunity. All this does is delay the inevitable. They know we have the numbers.”
Another MP said: “My view is Parliament has set in law 0.7 percent and Parliament needs to have a say on the reduction to 0.5 percent. The government has been reluctant to test the will of Parliament on this issue — arguably they are acting outside the law.”
If it goes ahead, the aid reduction — worth roughly £4 billion ($5.6 billion) — could have far-reaching consequences for the world’s poor, including millions of people across the Arab world.
Yemen, Lebanon, Libya and Syria are all poised to have tens of millions of dollars cut from the aid they receive.
British aid to Yemen, which is experiencing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, is channelled through multilateral institutions including the UN and the World Food Programme, and is focused on the “provision of basic services.”
Mark Lowcock, former head civil servant at Britain’s Department for International Development, warned that the cuts would “cause many more deaths” and “damage the international reputation of the UK.”
The government says the cuts are a temporary measure aimed at plugging the holes in Britain’s budget created by the coronavirus pandemic.