Boris Johnson was spared an humiliating defeat on foreign aid today as Speaker Lindsay Hoyle dismissed a Tory-backed amendment – but demanded ministers hold a vote soon.
Sir Lindsay said clerks had advised him that the rebel bid to reinstate the 0.7 per cent spending target could not proceed as it is ‘out of scope’ of the legislation they were trying to change.
But he read the riot act to the government, saying that they should allow politicians to have a vote on the issue soon. He suggested there could be an emergency debate as early as tomorrow.
Sir Lindsay said: ‘The House has not had an opportunity for a decisive vote on maintaining the UK’s commitment to the statutory target of 0.7 per cent.
‘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.’
Former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell, the ringleader of the revolt, said he believed they would have won by up to 20 votes.
The government broke a manifesto commitment when it temporarily reduced the level to 0.5 per cent last year as coronavirus hammered the economy.
Ministers have issued a last-ditch plea for Conservatives to withdraw their bid to overturn the policy, with solicitor general Lucy Frazer saying that public funds need to be targeted on this country.
Dozens of MPs, including former premier Theresa May, have vowed to back the amendment that would require new legislation to make up the shortfall left by the cut.
Around 40 would have been needed to counter Mr Johnson’s huge majority – but they will not get the opportunity to test the support tonight.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle said clerks had advised him that the rebel bid to reinstate the 0.7 per cent spending target could not proceed as it is ‘out of scope’ of the legislation they were trying to change
The Prime Minister has temporarily reduced aid from 0.7 per cent of national income to 0.5 per cent, breaking a Conservative manifesto commitment
Ministers issue a last-ditch plea for Conservatives to withdraw their bid to overturn the policy, with solicitor general Lucy Frazer saying that public funds need to be targeted on this country
Sir Lindsay pointed out he had previously insisted he will not bend Commons rules – an accusation that was levelled at his predecessor John Bercow.
The amendment had been tabled to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill, and would make the government reinstate the higher target by next year.
Sources told MailOnline this morning that ‘every clerk’ was convinced it should not be allowed.
The conduct of Commons business is set out in the Erskine May rule book.
It states: ‘The scope of a bill represents the reasonable limits of its collective purposes, as defined by its existing clauses and schedules. In particular cases, difficult questions of judgment may arise.
‘The scope of a bill, particularly of a bill with several purposes, may be wider than its long title, although the long title may help to determine the scope.
‘Conversely, a bill with a single purpose may have a narrow scope even though the long title is apparently wide (for example, ”a Bill to amend a certain Act”).’
The legal advice against permitting the change is also said to be ‘so strong’ as the amendment would cast doubt on the meaning of other legislation enshrining the aid target. The government insists it can suspend the 0.7 per cent level based on provisions for emergencies in that law.
‘Morally you might agree, but these are the rules,’ one source said.
In a round of interviews this morning, Ms Frazer said the pandemic had forced the Government to make hard choices.
‘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 per cent but that can be varied if the fiscal or economic circumstances suggest that it should, and that is the circumstances we find ourselves in.
‘In the current legislation it already says the 0.7 per cent isn’t a commitment if the fiscal or circumstances change.’
Ms Frazer said the Government would continue to support international efforts but financial support is also needed in Britain.
‘In terms of the vaccine, we committed half a billion pounds very early on to support the vaccine and we do things outside of our international aid commitment,’ she said.
‘It is very important to support people internationally, for the price of a cup of coffee we can vaccinate children from some of the worst diseases that can affect them.
‘We have issues that we need to support here for the British public and that is what we need to do at the moment given the economic circumstances that we face in the pandemic.’
Former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell, who tabled the amendment, said it was ‘clearly in order… otherwise it wouldn’t appear on the order paper’.
He told the BBC’s World at One: ‘I think Mr Speaker will also be conscious in making up his mind that the Government has specifically denied the House of Commons a vote on this matter so far, we’ve had to come to a device through amending this Bill, which we think works, and in making his decision he will note that every single member of the House of Commons elected in December 2019 was elected on a promise to stand by this spending commitment, that it’s a legal commitment.’
Other Tory MPs have strongly backed the government’s stance, and ministers believe they have public opinion on their side.
Downing Street has tried to cool the row by suggesting that once donations of Covid vaccines are taken into account aid spending could exceed 0.5 per cent of national income.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘You can expect the PM to set out more details at the G7 this week on the UK’s plans to share surplus doses with developing countries.
‘As is standard, any funding that benefits poverty reduction in developing countries would count as ODA (Official Development Assistance) funding.’
Asked if it would be on top of the existing aid budget, the spokesman said: ‘The £10billion 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.’
Pressed if vaccine donations count as ODA spending, the spokesman said: ‘The £458million we spent on Covax so far is ODA. That is factually the case.’
But former Brexit Secretary David Davis said the Government is doing a ‘harmful’ and ‘devastating’ thing in cutting aid spending which could see people die.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme children will die worldwide from a lack of clean water and food.
He said: ‘No other G7 country is cutting its aid in this way. It is going to have devastating consequences across the world. Historically, I am a critic of aid spending but doing it this way is really so harmful.’
He said that 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.’
Former immigration minister Caroline Nokes said: ‘The cuts represent just one per cent of what the Chancellor is borrowing this year but they mean funding for the UN’s reproductive health programme has been cut by 85 per cent.’
Labour ex-PM Gordon Brown said the reduction in aid spending was ‘a life-and-death issue’
Tory MP Steve Baker insisted the amendment should not be called or passed, regardless of whether MPs support reinstating the 0.7 per cent target
Asked if there are enough rebels, amendment-supporting Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, told Sky News: ‘We’re cautiously optimistic…
‘Britain has a huge opportunity to shape the world at the moment of extraordinary flux and this, along with our defence and diplomatic and trade capabilities, is part of that.’
But former Cabinet minister Esther McVey said: ‘It’s trade not aid that gets countries out of poverty, and now we’re no longer in the EU we should be working to secure trade agreements with poorer countries, helping them to develop industry and trade their way out of poverty.’
A letter to the Government from charities including Oxfam and Save the Children has claimed the aid cut could undermine the country’s credibility at the G7 meeting in Cornwall, which starts on Friday.
Labour former PM Gordon Brown told BBC Breakfast: ‘It’s a life-and-death issue, we’re actually deciding who lives and who dies, particularly at this point where if we withdraw the money for vaccination it’s the equivalent of pulling away the needle from a kid or from an adult who is sick who needs the vaccination, a 90 per cent cut, for example, in support for polio vaccination.
‘You know, there has been an all-party consensus, all parties, for 25 years that we need 0.7 per cent, we need to play our role in the world by being one of the leaders in aid and, really, this is not the right time to pull things away because basically this is when the poorest countries need help most.’