UK told foreign aid cut could be ‘unlawful’

The UK government has been told that not putting a decision on cutting foreign aid to a parliamentary vote could be unlawful.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seeking to reduce the current aid budget from 0.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), a figure set out in the 2015 International Development Act, to 0.5 percent of GDP by 2022 amid moves to tighten spending in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
The plans have drawn sharp criticism from many MPs, including from the ruling Conservative party, with Downing Street worried that a parliamentary vote could see the change rejected.
It has moved to amend the current target without resorting to parliament but Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, a former director of public prosecutions commissioned by MPs to review the plan, said it could be subject to a court challenge.
The Foreign Office (FCO) has said that the International Development Act allows the government to alter the annual foreign aid GDP target if done so “temporarily” and an explanation is given to the House of Commons.
But Lord Macdonald’s legal advice, issued through Matrix Chambers in London, contradicts that view.
“The secretary of state’s (UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab) decision (to reduce spending on foreign aid) is unlawful, not because of a (mere) failure to meet the 0.7 percent … target, but because the secretary of state has proceeded on the erroneous assumption that he has some power to alter the target itself. The illegality of the … decision is clear: The secretary of state proceeded on the erroneous assumption that he was free to establish a ‘target’ for official development assistance which is below 0.7 percent (GDP). In truth, no such discretion was open to him. For that reason, his decision is arguably (in contradiction of) the 2015 Act.”
The planned cuts would see around £4 billion ($5.54 billion) removed from the aid budget, and would affect some of the world’s poorest countries the most.
Syria, Yemen and Libya could see their foreign aid from the UK slashed by as much as two-thirds while Lebanon, which is in the grip of a COVID-19 outbreak, political deadlock and an economic crisis, could see its budget cut by over 80 percent.
South Sudan and Somalia are also in line to see aid spending fall from the UK, by 59 and 60 percent.
Former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said the findings of the legal opinion were not unexpected. “The foreign secretary told the (House of Commons) that his own legal advice required a change in the legislation, in order to change the 0.7 percent target. That’s why I have been urging ministers to address this in parliament. I still believe that it is not too late to change course, before the start of the new financial year in April.”
Another former international development minister, Baroness Sugg, said: “Legal opinion like this risks undermining our credibility on the world stage at the very moment we need to strike trade deals, negotiate communiques and agree ambitious legally binding climate targets. Cutting our aid and overseas investments sends a message that Britain is withdrawing from the world at the very moment we should be showing strong leadership.”
The FCO said: “The seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount we spend on aid. The UK government has acted in accordance with the International Development Act 2015 throughout this process.”