The depressing day your concerns were simply swept aside

Published by The Mail on Sunday (19th June, 2016)

It should have been momentous: Westminster forced to reconsider the folly of adopting a fixed rate of foreign aid spending after an unprecedented display of people power.

So hopes were high when MPs gathered on Monday for the first parliamentary debate inspired by a petition raised by a national newspaper. 

More than 100,000 people signed up on the first day, underlining the depth of feeling on this issue. Now almost a quarter of a million signatories back The Mail on Sunday’s demand for money to be spent only on deserving causes.

Here was a chance for politicians to prove they were listening to their public. And to show that online petitions are not simply a sham.

Sadly, instead came bogus statistics, self-congratulation, sneering attacks on the media and naive speeches that showed little understanding of core issues.

With rare exceptions, MPs ignored the central tenet raised by this paper and many experts: that adhering to a fixed rate of aid is wasteful, unaffordable and ultimately damages development in poor nations.

Even Tories dismissed the UK’s £12 billion aid bill – rising to £16 billion by 2020 – as a trifling sum. The result could not have been less representative of the voters who pay them: unanimous rejection of the petition.

Opening speaker Tory MP Steve Double, a former pastor, made an instant dig at this newspaper because it gave voice to a family devastated by his adulterous liaisons. He went on to deny stories of mis-spending I have seen with my own eyes and claimed ‘every last penny… offers good value for money’.

It was a poor performance – not least given our revelations of fat cat private contractors creaming off vast profits, funding foreign civil servants who have not worked for almost a decade, fuelling corruption and supporting daft schemes around the world.

Double even claimed the petition’s suggestion to abandon the absurd target of giving away 0.7 per cent of gross national income was ‘impractical’.

Yet other rich nations fritter away far less – with the US spending just 0.17 per cent of GNI – while politicians in Holland told me they improved aid after ditching the target with its emphasis on spending rather than results.

Labour’s Stephen Doughty brushed aside £12 billion as ‘a tiny investment’ – but then he was once an official with Oxfam, which does so well for itself spending these ‘tiny’ sums.

Many speakers thought Britain’s stance was an example for the world, rather than questioning why no other major economy followed suit.

Needless to say, many MPs had enjoyed trips abroad ‘investigating’ this issue. One was just back from Ethiopia, another told of travelling to Kenya with Christian Aid, a third to Burundi with Action Aid, a fourth to Bangladesh, a fifth to Nepal, a sixth to Israel.

This offered insight into how the bloated poverty industry – now worth an astonishing £92 billion a year worldwide – works: a self-serving alliance of politicians, charities and private firms scratching each other’s backs at taxpayers’ expense.

So many MPs wanted to display their compassionate credentials that speeches had to be limited to first four minutes, then three, during the four-hour ‘debate’.

Yet few dared puncture the complacent concept that Britain was saving the world.

Instead, they talked sanctimoniously about the ‘moral imperative’ of aid – although the petition attacked a fixed target distorting priorities and fuelling waste, not aid itself. Others declared it a ‘false choice’ to decide between spending on concerns at home and abroad.

There were a handful of honourable exceptions. Labour MP Joan Ryan made a searing condemnation of aid funding the Palestinian Authority, which hands salaries to convicted terrorists. She accused ministers of ‘wilfully’ ignoring the funding of murderers – a point that was supported by several other MPs.

Her Labour colleague David Lammy condemned the ‘poverty porn’ promoted by big charities and the failure to ask tough questions over governance in recipient nations and stressed aid should not be seen as ‘a panacea’.

Tory MP Andrew Percy rebuked colleagues for being ‘sniffy’ and ‘patronising’ towards a newspaper that had given ‘a voice to the concerns felt by many people’.

And two Tories did question high spending. James Cartlidge questioned the affordability of Britain’s aid policies, especially given a public spending deficit. ‘Japan, the United States, Italy, Portugal and Spain are not international pariahs and they spend 0.2 per cent,’ he said.

And Newark MP Robert Jenrick pointed out that hundreds of his constituents had signed our petition, adding: ‘As a general rule in politics, if we brush aside the fears of our constituents, it only damages the goals that some of us wish to further.’

Yet that was precisely what these politicians did as they swept aside concerns from all those citizens who signed the petition. Not one dared to dissent.

It was a dismal display that showed contempt for the logic of economics, the realities of development and, above all, the values of democracy to which they pay lip service.

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