British diplomats have been instructed to find at least 50% cuts in UK overseas bilateral aid in the next few weeks in advance of the next financial year, the Labour party has said.
Sarah Champion, the Labour chair of parliament’s international development select committee, said: “Our ambassadors have today been instructed by the Foreign Office to cut 50-70% from the aid budget.”
Describing the speed of the planned cuts as catastrophic, she added: “There is no doubt that lives will be lost as a consequence and our global standing as humanitarians destroyed. Welcome to day 26 of ‘global Britain’.”
The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, appearing in front of the international development select committee on Tuesday said he did not recognise the figure, and said the programmes to be cut had yet to be identified.
Raab also published the overseas development spending budgets for 2020-21 for each Whitehall department totalling just under £10bn.
Analysts from the Centre of Global Development said that £6.6bn of the £10bn aid budget was already committed, leaving only £3.5bn for bilateral aid, a cut of 60% on the equivalent bilateral aid figure for 2019. The cuts would have to be found in a matter of weeks, the centre said.
The pre-allocated budget includes areas such as climate change, the CDC Group (formerly the Commonwealth Development Corporation) and continued commitments to multilateral aid bodies such as the European Union aid budget.
So far officials have been more forthcoming about the parts of the budget that will be protected than those that will have to be cut. The current foreign aid budget is approximately £15bn.
MPs on the committee made little progress in extracting any details on where the aid cuts would fall in the coming weeks. Raab said the strategic priorities were “overarching pursuit of poverty reduction: climate and biodiversity; Covid and global health security; girls’ education; science and research; defending open societies and resolving conflict; humanitarian assistance; and promoting trade”.
He said: “We have chosen them as the things that really matter.” However, critics said the lengthy list hardly set out the areas that would be cut.
Raab has also been warned by a former Conservative solicitor general, Lord Garnier, that he may be acting unlawfully in cutting the value of overseas aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income, a cut of nearly £4bn, without passing fresh legislation.
“Until parliament changes that law on the statutory duty to meet the 0.7% target, the government must aim to hit it,” he wrote in a letter to the international aid select committee.
The government has claimed it can reduce the target from 0.7% to 0.5% so long as the cut is temporary and required by the state of the economy. But Raab was unable to tell the committee when he would restore the target or the financial metrics that would determine when ministers could do so. He said the decision would involve a mixture of art and science.
Ministers have promised a vote on the reduction that comes into force in weeks, and are bracing for a rebellion that may include the former prime minister Theresa May.
The aid committee has been told by campaigners that the effect of the slowdown in growth will mean a long-term cumulative cut in spending. Even if 0.7% had been maintained, due to the reduction in the size of the UK economy there would be a cumulative cut in the aid budget of about £5.2bn from 2020-25. The additional cut to 0.5 % will mean the cumulative cut from the aid budget will be likely to lead to about £25bn-£30bn being lost by 2025.
Ministers are broadly confident the aid cuts are politically popular at a time of domestic belt-tightening, and the overall UK aid budget remains more than that of many G7 competitors.