There’s a powerful verse in the Book of Psalms that reads as follows:
How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! (Ps 133:1)
Christians have spent far too much time over the centuries fighting and bickering about doctrine and other differences, rather than focusing on what they hold in common with each other through the salvation of Jesus Christ. A similar thing could be said of our politicians.
It is a rare and beautiful moment when we see MPs and Peers laying down their party political weaponry and working together for the greater cause of the common good. We saw this yesterday when the 0.7% Private Member’s Bill, which aims to enshrine in law a commitment to spending 0.7% of Gross National Income on foreign aid, received its Third Reading. Fridays are constituency days for most MPs, so to ensure the Bill had sufficient support, various manoeuvres by the different parties resulted in LibDem MPs being shipped down from Scotland and Conservative and Labour supporters of the legislation ringing round to bring in their own MPs back to Parliament for the vote.
In the end the 146 to 6 majority was overwhelming, and the filibustering attempts of two Conservatives failed to stop the Bill passing through to the House of Lords. Philip Davies, one of the dissenting MPs, had previously described it as “a handout to make a few middle class, Guardian-reading, sandal-wearing, lentil-eating do-gooders with a misguided guilt complex feel better about themselves”. Andrew Mitchell, Jeremy Hunt and quite a few others who turned up might not be too chuffed about being labelled in quite such endearing terms…
This aid Bill, which now has a very high chance of becoming law, is the latest stage in a long and drawn-out journey that the UK began in 1969. In that year the Commission on International Development produced a study that recommended developed countries commit 0.7% of their GDP to the assistance of developing countries. A year later, the UN General Assembly made this target a commitment. It was reaffirmed in 2000 when the Millennium Development Goals were drawn up. In 2005 at the G8 Summit in Gleneagles all G8 members from the European Union pledged to reach the 0.7% target by 2015.
In 1970, when the UK agreed to the UN commitment, our development assistance stood at about 0.36%. By 1999, progress was non-existent. In fact it had dropped to less than 0.25%. In 2000 the government finally started to work towards the 0.7% target in earnest, and in 2013 our promise was fulfilled after a 43-year wait. The UK now stands in a small, select group of nations who currently give at this level or above. The others are Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg, and Denmark.
At a time of incomes being squeezed in homes up and down the country, and government money in short supply, such a desire to permanently fix our aid budget is certainly unpopular in certain quarters. Talking about the Bill yesterday, Nigel Farage said:
Of the £11 billion a year that we spend on foreign aid, only £2 billion of it is spent on genuine humanitarian (things), you know, inoculation or clean water. So I’d cut £9 billion from that.
£11 billion does indeed sound a lot, but it only represents 1.4% of government spending. Or, to put it a different way, 7p in every £10 of our national income is being used to help the world’s poorest people. Is that too much to ask? There are 1.3 billion people living below the global poverty line of $1.25 per day. This country’s giving saves thousands of lives and improves the quality of life for millions more. Certainly there are plenty of debates that can be had about how this money is spent and who should receive it. We’ve given plenty to countries such as India and China in the past, who we’d now see as being less deserving, but priorities change. Since 2002 all UK international aid has had to be aimed at eradicating poverty, and money is increasingly being spent on high-impact sustainable projects.
By fixing the 0.7% figure, the predictability of aid will be increased, allowing recipient countries to plan better, and helping the UK Government to make fruitful long-term investments. It will also allow the political debate to move on from how much we spend to ensuring that our aid is as effective it can be. Putting our aid commitment in law also creates more space for debate about how we can better tackle the root causes of poverty, such as tax-dodging and climate change.
Trust in our politicians is hard to find these days, but what this Bill has done is to confirm that there are plenty who do want to keep their promises. The Conservatives, Labour and LibDems all made manifesto commitments in 2010 to place the 0.7% figure into law. It was also part of the Coalition Agreement. But despite government foot-dragging, yesterday’s vote demonstrated how many MPs insist that backing down is not an option, either for this or future governments.
What makes this even more powerful is that along the way all Westminster parties have played a part. We wouldn’t be where we are without all of the work Gordon Brown did in making this area a priority. It was George Osborne, who unwaveringly carried it through to completion, and it was former LibDem Cabinet minister Michael Moore who brought forward his Private Member’s Bill with determination, managing to win the cross-party support of many, including David Cameron.
This is politics as it should be, at its very best. So to all those who voted yesterday, a very sincere thank you.