Boris Johnson has avoided a humiliating rebellion on his decision to slash British help for the world’s poorest on a Commons technicality.
But the Commons speaker blasted the Government – saying they “may have acted unlawfully” by making changes to the aid budget without a Commons vote – and urged them to hold an emergency debate on the subject tomorrow.
The Prime Minister’s predecessor Theresa May and former cabinet ministers Andrew Mitchell and David Davis are among Conservative rebels backing a move to reverse the decision to cut spending on aid from the legally enshrined 0.7% of national income.
Mr Johnson cut aid spending to 0.5% as the coronavirus pandemic hit the economy, but ministers have insisted it is only a temporary measure until the nation’s finances are repaired.
The 0.7% target is written into law and maintaining it was a Tory manifesto commitment in 2019, but cutting it will save around £4 billion.
Around 30 Tory MPs, led by Mr Mitchell, were hoping to use an amendment to legislation setting up the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) to force the new body to make up the funding to meet the 0.7% goal.
But, the rebels’ move was be thwarted after the amendment was not selected by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.
Commons clerks reportedly advised it is “out of scope” of the Aria Bill.
Reading Commons rules in the chamber, Sir Lindsay said: “Amendments and new clauses which are not in the scope of the bill are out of order.”
But he said it was”duty” of the government to meet the 0.7% aid commitment – and there must be a vote.
He said: “As we all know, the Government has, through our standing orders, significant control over the business the House considers on any given day, and its control is particularly strong when it comes to the initiation of public expenditure.
“Under the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, it is the duty of the Secretary of State to ensure that the target for official development assistance to amount to 0.7% of gross national income is met by the United Kingdom each year.
“Up ’til now, however, the House has not had an opportunity for a decisive vote on maintaining the UK’s commitment to the statutory target of 0.7%. I expect that the Government should find a way to have this important matter debated and to allow the House formally to take an effective decision.”
The Speaker added he is open to hearing applications for an emergency debate on the issue, which could take place on Tuesday.
Mr Mitchell, a former international development secretary, remained hopeful that his amendment would be chosen, saying it is “clearly in order… otherwise it wouldn’t appear on the order paper”.
He added to BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme that the Speaker will “be conscious in making up his mind that the Government has specifically denied the House of Commons a vote on this matter so far”.
The number of Tory rebels is enough to cause nervousness in Government ranks despite a comfortable working majority of 85.
The issue has resurfaced at a sensitive time for Mr Johnson because he is preparing to host leaders from some of the world’s richest countries at the G7 summit in Cornwall this week.
Mr Mitchell warned: “Britain is the only G7 nation cutting aid this year.”
Former Brexit secretary Mr Davis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the “harmful” and “devastating” cuts would result in deaths around the world.
There will be massive cuts in efforts to provide clean water, which will kill children worldwide, and in funding for food for starving people, where “again thousands will die”, Mr Davis told the programme.
“No other G7 country is cutting its aid in this way. It is going to have devastating consequences across the world,” he said.
“Historically, I am a critic of aid spending, but doing it this way is really so harmful.”
He said Germany, France and the US are leaders in spending in this area, adding: “So we are not such a leader any more – in fact we are throwing away enormous influence, particularly in Africa, where there is an ideological battle with China.”
Mr Davis told the programme: “Morally, this is a devastating thing for us to have done.”
The Tory rebels are supported by opposition parties, with shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy telling Sky News: “It would be in the Prime Minister’s interests if they just admitted they got this one wrong and move on, and started focusing on the G7, which is really important.”
Labour former prime minister Gordon Brown told BBC Breakfast it is “a life-and-death issue”.
Solicitor General for England and Wales Lucy Frazer said the pandemic had forced the Government to make “tough decisions” as she defended the reduction of the overseas aid budget, insisting the law allowed for the temporary reduction.
“The pandemic has forced us to make tough decisions and that’s why we’ve said we’ll temporarily reduce the amount that we’ll spend,” she told Times Radio.
“It does say in the legislation that we commit to 0.7% but that can be varied if the fiscal or economic circumstances suggest that it should, and that is the circumstances we find ourselves in.”
Downing Street suggested aid spending could exceed the downgraded target of 0.5% of gross national income when the donation of coronavirus vaccines is taken into account.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Johnson would set out more details on sharing surplus doses with developing nations at the G7 summit.
“As is standard, any funding that benefits poverty reduction in developing countries would count as ODA (Official Development Assistance) funding,” he added.
Asked if extra spending would be on top of the existing aid budget, the spokesman said: “The £10 billion has been largely allocated in the spending plans already set out with regards to ODA funding, but I’m not going to jump ahead of what the PM might say later this week with regards to the commitment.”
Some 1,700 charities, academics and business leaders jointly wrote to the Prime Minister to warn that the UK’s “credibility and voice on the international stage will be undermined” just as he prepares to preside over the G7 gathering, which will include his first face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden.
The letter, with signatories including Oxfam GB and Save The Children, said the aid cuts are a “double blow” to the world’s poorest communities in the midst of a pandemic.