Your cash is still funding despotic regimes in China and North Korea

Published by The Mail on Sunday (22nd December, 2019)

The Foreign Office has been condemned by senior MPs and human rights groups for continuing to use aid money intended to alleviate poverty to help some of the world’s most brutal regimes.

Controversial projects funded with its growing aid budget include training government officials in Kim Jong Un’s repressive North Korean regime and helping China with ‘combating violent extremism’ in its Xinjiang region, where huge numbers of Uighurs, a Muslim minority group, are incarcerated in concentration camps.

The Foreign Office has also used taxpayers’ cash to help China’s economy – now the world’s second biggest – and spent £17,060 on three trips to Britain by the head of Beijing’s Supreme People’s Court.

Documents seen by The Mail on Sunday reveal the department spent money intended to help the world’s poorest people in 111 countries during 2016 and 2017, when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary. Officials rubber-stamped schemes to help Argentina reduce ticket prices for domestic flights, aid Brazil’s gas and shipbuilding sectors, invest in Cuba’s efforts to build its banking system, support ‘smart’ bus services in India and assist Venezuela’s corrupt Left-wing regime to expand its oil industry.

They also advised ‘selected’ ministers from the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia on PR, funded TV debates about equality in Armenia, organised trips to Wales for six politicians from Kyrgyzstan, and paid for Iran’s foreign minister to attend a conference in London. ‘This is just the Foreign Office sucking up to governments around the world,’ said one former Tory Cabinet Minister.

The revelations come more than three years after this newspaper first exposed the shambles of Britain’s foreign aid system. It has been reported that the Department for International Development (DFID), which spends the bulk of the £14.6 billion aid budget, is to be merged into the Foreign Office.

Last night, Andrew Mitchell, who was International Development Secretary from 2010 until 2012, said: ‘The Foreign Office needs to explain why hard-earned development money is being spent in this style.’

The Government claims to have ended ‘traditional’ aid to China but the Foreign Office spent almost £1 million in 2016/17 on scores of schemes there.

Most focused on the economy and climate change, but documents show £12,113 was spent on a two-day event ‘countering the root causes of violent extremism undermining growth and stability in China’s Xinjiang Region by sharing UK best practice’.

The event, run by Royal United Services Institute think-tank, brought together ‘UK experts on CVE [combating violent extremism] with Chinese officials and academics working on these issues in Xinjiang to demonstrate the effectiveness of UK best practice in CVE and identify ways this can be adopted in China’.

Raffaello Pantucci, a senior RUSI analyst, said the idea was to use British experts to influence Chinese policies. He claimed that the discussions in December 2016 took place before the situation in Xinjiang worsened.

The Government has sought in recent years to reduce concerns over wasteful aid spending by shifting funds away from DFID. Almost a third is now spent by other departments, including £633 million by the Foreign Office last year.

However, the use of £200,000 in aid money to train North Korean government officials provoked fury. ‘It is mind-blowing that the British Government can be so naive,’ said Yeonmi Park, a human rights campaigner and author of a bestselling book about her escape as a teenager from the regime.

There was also anger at spending on schemes to promote ‘the UK democratic values agenda’ in Burma as the country’s troops committed atrocities and forced the displacement of the Rohingya Muslim minority. Almost £250,000 was spent on projects to foster human rights there, including a £12,735 scheme to show ‘the pervasive strength of audio-visual communication to build a society where all people are able to live in dignity’.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that DFID’s most senior official has been handed a huge taxpayer-funded pension. Permanent Secretary Matthew Rycroft received £183,000 of pension benefits on top of his salary of at least £160,000, taking his total remuneration to between £345,000 and £350,000. DFID’s last annual report showed he has a pension pot of £1.2 million.

Tory MP Pauline Latham said: ‘I do not believe any official should be getting a pension bigger than their salary.’

A recent report by the Institute of Government found DFID paid the highest salaries of any Whitehall department, with average annual pay of £51,660 – more than £8,000 higher than offered in the second-best paying department.

The Foreign Office said aid spending was subject to ‘robust scrutiny’, adding: ‘Aid is helping to create a safer, healthier and more prosperous world, which is in our interest.’

DFID said staff pensions were administered in line with standard Civil Service rules and managed by an independent company.

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