Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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The £1billion secret

Published by The Mail on Sunday (11th December, 2016)

The Prime Minister’s most senior security adviser has told MPs £1.1 billion of foreign aid spending should be ‘kept secret’ and only discussed in private.

Sir Mark Lyall Grant also refused to rule out dispersing chunks of the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund that he oversees in countries that use torture.

This new fund was launched last year with more than five times the budget of its predecessor, as part of the Government’s move to pour aid into the world’s most fragile states and conflict zones.

But it has sparked controversy over handing cash to countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the Foreign Office is spending £2.1 million on the security sector, despite claims of torture.

The CSSF also uses taxpayers’ cash to train security officials in Ethiopia, a one-party state holding a British father of three without charge. The country also jails journalists and kills pro-democracy protesters.

Last year a Cabinet row erupted to force the cancellation of a £5.9 million training contract for Saudi prisons in one of the world’s most barbaric justice systems.

Despite this, at a summit last week Mrs May told Gulf rulers, including those in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, that Britain was their ‘partner of choice’.

Now it has emerged that Sir Mark, the Prime Minister’s national security adviser, told a joint committee on national security strategy two weeks ago that some of the CSSF’s 97 projects were ‘clearly secret’ and they did not want them discussed in public.

He even rejected publication of strategies for individual countries as it might ‘offend’ those without one, but admitted it was hard to prove impact.

Julian Lewis, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, asked if they should ‘tear up the fiction that we are in any way able to hold you to account as to how you are spending this very large sum of money.’

Sir Mark responded by suggesting they ‘meet in private’ so he could ‘share more information’. The former diplomat added that the committee could keep its oversight role and examine spending only if there were private sessions to ensure ‘things that need to be kept secret can be kept secret’.

Astonishingly, he accepted it was ‘reasonable to assume’ there would be ‘human rights questions’ in some of the 40 countries in which they were spending money, adding that the definition of a questionable human rights record left ‘rather a lot of scope for interpretation’.

The rapid spending increase is part of the Government’s aim to hit the UN target of spending 0.7 per cent of national income on aid.

Dr Lewis said last night he was alarmed to discover MPs could not monitor such a big slice of the £12 billion aid budget. ‘I was surprised by the way large sums are being disposed of in such an unsupervised style,’ he said.

There was also an angry response from human rights groups fighting to stop aid going to foreign forces involved in abuses. ‘This shadowy fund provides support to security forces in countries where dissidents are routinely arrested, tortured and sentenced to death,’ said Harriet McCulloch of Reprieve, which fights against the death penalty.

‘It is little surprise that the Government is so keen to draw a veil of secrecy over this programme. They must urgently commit to greater transparency about overseas security spending.’

Last year, it was disclosed that Britain was spending £185 million on foreign police forces in places such as Bangladesh, Congo and Nigeria, despite cuts to domestic forces. Yet even as spending in fragile states was ramped up, the official watchdog criticised UK efforts to promote security and justice for overambitious targets, poor focus and ‘naive’ repetition of failed initiatives.

‘The problem is too much money and too much ambition,’ said one former military officer engaged in the sector. ‘This results in a lack of credible strategy.’

The source said that officials refused to accept criticism of schemes, adding: ‘The public would be upset to see how much of this money is being spent on the ground ‘It is not strengthening our national security.’

A Government spokeswoman said the CSSF would publish its first annual report next year and planned to increase ‘accessibility of project information’. She added Britain sought to play a leading role in the world to bring about ‘positive changes’ and protecting human rights was ‘a key part’ of the fund’s role.

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