The former international development secretary Priti Patel has joined calls for a radical shake-up of the aid budget rules, in a further sign that overseas funding could be a key issue in any post-Brexit Tory leadership race.
She follows the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson in making calls for broadening the definition of British overseas aid.
Patel, who resigned after she broke ministerial rules in her relations with the Israeli government, will on Monday back a pamphlet from the pressure group the TaxPayers’ Alliance calling for the international development budget to be reformed, and for the UK alone to decide what constitutes aid, rather than international organisations.
The Tory MP remains committed to the statutory target of UK aid being set at 0.7% of GDP, but calls for changes in what can constitute aid, tighter controls on UK aid spent by multilateral bodies and changes to the requirement that the target is reached in every calendar year.
While foreign policy does not normally feature in British party leadership contests, this may change in the context of the growing Tory debate about the UK’s international role post-Brexit. There have also been calls for a shake-up of Whitehall with the Foreign Office once again taking control of the aid budget, as well as trade issues.
Patel is not a declared runner for the leadership, and may back Johnson, in which case they will be competing with the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab for Eurosceptic votes.
Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary and Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, are also seen as likely challengers if they can gather support in the parliamentary party before the election is thrown over to the party membership.
Priti Patel goes to Israel on what she claims was a family holiday, which she paid for herself.
Patel met the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The meeting was not authorised in advance and no UK officials were present. She later claimed the Foreign Office was made aware of this meetings and others while her trip was under way.
Meanwhile, Patel’s deputy Alistair Burt and David Quarrey, the British ambassador to Israel, were meeting Michael Oren, a deputy minister at the Israeli prime minister’s office, according to the Jewish Chronicle. According to notes of the meeting, cited by the paper, Oren referred to Patel having had a successful meeting with Netanyahu earlier.
Foreign Office officials became aware of Patel’s first meetings, according to a statement given to the Commons by Burt on 7 November. He did not mention his own visit to Israel. Hansard quotes Burt telling the Commons: “The Secretary of State [Patel] told Foreign Office officials on 24 August that she was on the visit. It seems likely that the meetings took place beforehand.”
On the same day Patel met Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel’s Yesh Atid party, who describes her as a “true friend of Israel”.
On an undisclosed date during her trip, Patel visited an Israeli military field hospital in the occupied Golan Heights, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. If confirmed, this would be a breach of a protocol that British officials do not travel in the occupied Golan under the auspices of the Israeli government.
Patel leaves Israel after 12 work meetings, during two days of a 13-day holiday. As well as meeting Netanyahu, she also held talks with the public security and strategic affairs minister, Gilad Erdan, and an Israeli foreign ministry official, Yuval Rotem. The meetings were organised by Lord Polak, a leading member of the Conservative Friends of Israel. He accompanied Patel on all but one one of the meetings.
On her return to the UK, Patel inquires about using the UK aid budget to help fund the Israeli army’s humanitarian work in the Golan Heights. The idea is rejected because the UK does not recognise Israel’s permanent presence in the Golan Heights, which were seized from Syria in the 1967 war.
Patel meets Gilad Erdan, the minister for public security, and is photographed with him on the House of Commons terrace.
While in New York for the UN general assembly, Patel has another meeting with Yuval Rotem, an official from the Israeli foreign ministry.
Theresa May meets Netanyahu in Downing Street.
Patel told the Guardian that the foreign secretary knew about her trip and suggested the Foreign Office had been briefing against her. “Boris knew about the visit. The point is that the Foreign Office did know about this, Boris knew about [the trip],” she admitted telling the paper.
The BBC’s diplomatic correspondent James Landale reported that Patel had undisclosed meetings in Israel without telling the Foreign Office. He quoted one official as saying that Patel had been “pushing to get her hands on the Palestinian Authority aid budget and we have been pushing back”.
Patel apologises after admitting she gave a misleading account to the Guardian of her trip to Israel. In a statement, she admits holding 12 meetings, including three with Israeli politicians – Netanyahu among them.
She said: “This quote [to the Guardian] may have given the impression that the secretary of state had informed the foreign secretary about the visit in advance. The secretary of state would like to take this opportunity to clarify that this was not the case. The foreign secretary did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it.”
She does not mention visiting the occupied Golan Heights or the two subsequent meetings in September.
A No 10 spokesman confirms that Patel was rebuked for breaching the ministerial code.
Patel avoids answering an urgent Commons question about her meetings in Israel because of a “longstanding commitment” to visit Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. The international development minister Alistair Burt is put up in her place. Burt points out that Patel apologised for the undisclosed meetings. He adds: “The department’s view is that aid to the IDF [Israeli Defence Force] in the Golan Heights is not appropriate.”
Downing Street initially backs Patel but later confirms that the prime minister was not informed about providing aid to Israel during her meeting the previous day. It is suggested Patel failed to disclose her two subsequent meetings in September with Israeli officials. A Whitehall source says: “There was an expectation of full disclosure at the meeting on Monday. It is now clear Priti did not do that. It will now have to be looked at again.” But according to the Jewish Chronicle, it was No 10 who told Patel not to include her meeting with Rotem in New York in her list of undisclosed meetings for fear of embarrassing the Foreign Office.
DfiD confirms previously undisclosed September meetings with Erhad and Rotem in September.
Patel resigns from the cabinet after being summoned back from a trip to Uganda and Ethiopia by Downing Street. In her resignation letter, released moments after she left No 10, Patel admitted her actions “fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state”.
The 0.7% target, warmly embraced by David Cameron as a symbol of Tory modernisation, is not popular in the party membership, but many voices have argued that a large aid budget will be necessary to retain UK soft power and international stature.
The TaxPayers’ Alliance pamphlet that Patel endorses calls for piracy, drug busting and peacekeeping to be included in aid definitions. It proposes that funds to help poor countries take out private sector insurance against natural disasters should count towards the target. It also claims the current rules requiring the aid spending target be met within a calendar year leads to wasteful hurried spending at the end of the year.
The report also suggests that after Brexit the UK should take more control of its aid spending with less transferred to multilateral institutions such as the World Bank or the EU. As much as 40% of UK aid is currently channelled through multilateral bodies.
Tim Pilkington, chief executive of the charity World Vision, said: “An anti-aid agenda is now becoming brazen within parts of parliament. It is unacceptable for the world’s poorest to be used as a football in a Brexit-fed political power struggle.
“We cannot stand by and let a narrative take root that it is better to spend UK aid on boosting Britain rather than eradicating global poverty. Diverting funds from the world’s poorest communities under the guise of taking back control in the UK is shameful, and incompatible with a truly global Britain.”
John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Ministers need to bring the development rules in house, face down the international NGO cartels and address the real effectiveness of aid spending by signing off every penny.”
A DfID spokesman said: “The UK is shifting how it spends aid to ensure our investment benefits us all and is fully aligned with our national interest. All our work aims to reduce extreme poverty and we are continuing to push for reform to get the most out of the aid budget for the world’s poorest and UK taxpayers.
“This weekend the international development secretary announced more funding to make it easier for small British charities and humanitarian organisations to access the aid budget.”