The British House of Commons debated Monday over whether the U.K. should maintain its commitment to spend 0.7 percent of national income on foreign aid after an e-petition urged the government to reconsider its pledge. Concerns that the government would reverse its spending pledge were quickly allayed by general agreement among speakers that foreign aid is valuable, and the spending target should be protected.
“Whilst I acknowledge the right of those who signed the petition and understand the strong feeling many people hold regarding this issue, I respectfully disagree,” said Steve Double, a Conservative member of Parliament, in his remarks opening the debate. “The U.K. has a proud history of playing a leading part on the global stage and assisting countries who are desperately countries in need. This I believe, is something I think we should continue to do.”
Members of both leading political parties made remarks throughout the more than one-hour debate affirming the value and impact of U.K. aid in developing countries. The major point of contention that emerged was the provision of aid money to Palestine. Labour Party MP Joan Ryan followed Double’s opening statement by arguing that the aid given to the Palestinian Authority fails to be effective, transparent and a reflection of national values.
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The debate results from recent pressure regarding transparency and accountability for how foreign aid money is spent. A petition launched in March by the British tabloid The Mail on Sunday, a long opponent to foreign aid spending, called for today’s debate. The Daily Mail questioned how the £12 billion budget was spent and why aid money was supposedly reaching the hands of terrorists in Palestine.
More than 150,000 people signed the petition in the first week, triggering the mandatory consideration by the U.K. government to host a debate on the issue.
“The amazing response to The Mail on Sunday’s petition shows how angry people are at the way the government spends more and more on aid while making cuts at home. I look forward to the Commons debate which will show ministers the depth of feeling that exists all across the country,” said conservative Member of Parliament Philip Davies, in response to the success of the petition.
On Sunday, a short letter signed by major U.K.-based aid groups called on the government to spare cuts to the aid budget. By walking away from its pledge, the government “sends all the wrong signals,” wrote the leaders of 20 humanitarian and advocacy organizations.
“The U.K.’s commitment to 0.7% of the country’s income being spent on helping others has inspired other governments to donate more from their national budgets,” stated the letter, published Sunday in The Observer newspaper. “We support the demand that all involved in the provision of aid should act with the utmost accountability and give value for money.”
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The debating parliamentarians agreed. Some raised the red herring argument that foreign aid spending comes at the cost of helping people at home, but it was mostly evoked by defenders of foreign aid spending to bat down a claim made by the Mail and other opponents. Even with concerns raised about money to Palestine, there was an overall acceptance that most U.K. foreign aid spending creates good and that there is a need for improved transparency and effectiveness of programs. The debate ended up being less about whether the spending target should remain, rather how to spend the money.