Foreign aid 0.7% pledge will remain, says Theresa May

Jessica Elgot and Peter Walker
Theresa May speaking at a factory in Maidenhead on Friday. Photograph: Leon Neal/PA

Theresa May has moved to quash speculation that the government could drop its pledge to spend 0.7% of national income a year on foreign aid, saying the commitment “remains and will remain”.

After days of speculation that the policy would be watered down, the prime minister said Britain should be proud of meeting the UN-backed target, but stressed the need to spend the money more effectively.

“Let’s be clear, the 0.7% commitment remains and will remain,” she said during a factory visit in her Maidenhead constituency. “What we need to do, though, is to look at how that money will be spent and make sure that we are able to spend that money in the most effective way.

“I’m very proud of the record we have, of the children around the world who are being educated as a result of what the British taxpayer is doing in terms of international aid.”

At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, May declined to guarantee the future of the £12bn annual foreign aid budget, a regular target for rightwing newspapers and some Conservative MPs.

The past 48 hours of the campaign saw reports swirl that the party was poised to drop the pledge, especially when Downing Street sources refused to say whether it would be included in the election manifesto.

That prompted a warning from the Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who said any cut would cost lives and erode UK influence abroad. The World Bank chief, Jim Yong Kim, echoed Gates’s warning, and the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams defended the aid commitment on Friday as a “badge of honour” for Britain.

The Guardian understands that May’s team was still mulling over the issue as recently as Thursday evening, when senior figures said no decision had been taken. They said that the prime minister wanted to ensure that aid money was “spent effectively”.

The Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, has been pushing for the party to recommit to the target . “Ruth’s been vocal about what she believes very publicly over the last few days,” a Scottish Conservative source said. “She’s made her view very clear and the prime minister gave this commitment, and it is a real commitment.”

Davidson told the BBC it would take “moral courage” for the UK to continue to be one of the leading countries that espoused the benefit of aid not just to the countries that received the cash but also for the nations who gave.

However, Downing Street sources stressed the prime minister came to the decision alone. “She is not the sort of person who is swayed by what is written in various newspapers. She believes it is the right thing to do,” one senior source said. “She does feel strongly about helping the vulnerable, in the same way she feels about her campaign on modern slavery.”

The former chancellor George Osborne was one of the first to praise May’s decision to keep the commitment which he and former prime minister David Cameron had made a cornerstone of earlier election campaigns. He tweeted: “Recommitment to 0.7% aid target very welcome. Morally right, strengthens UK influence & was key to creating modern compassionate Conservatives.”

Charities including Save the Children, Oxfam, Christian Aid and Comic Relief issued a joint statement praising the decision. “The aid should be untied, focused on poverty reduction and spent through an independent Department for International Development,” it said.

May listed the achievements of the aid budget on Friday. “The ability we had to be able to help in the Ebola crisis, the work that we’ve been doing supporting Syrian refugees. I was in Jordan a couple of weeks ago, in a school, meeting some youngsters who are being given a good-quality education,” she said. “That’s one of the things the United Kingdom is providing. So I’m very proud of the record that we have. We’ve maintained that commitment, but we have to make sure that we’re spending that money as effectively as possible.”

The announcement will dismay some rightwing Conservatives, who fear it could push some wavering voters to Ukip. Its leader, Paul Nuttall, was quick on the attack, saying it was “an absolute outrage” that the aid money was not spent in the UK.

The prime minister spent the day campaigning in her Berkshire constituency, visiting a factory that produces 1m tubes of Sensodyne and Aquafresh toothpaste each day. She told assembled staff she wanted the same mandate from the whole country that she had been given by voters in her constituency, where she has a 29,000 majority.

“I’m only the prime minister because I’m a member of parliament, because the people of Maidenhead have put their trust in me and that’s something I don’t forget,” she said.






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