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David Cameron doesn’t need to legislate for an aid target to meet his aid target

By Peter Hoskin
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The last Conservative manifesto contained a commitment not just to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas aid, but also to ‘legislate in the first session of a new Parliament to lock in this level of spending for every year from 2013.’

The Coalition Agreement made a similar promise to ‘enshrine this commitment in law’.

But – what’s this? – today’s Times reports (£) that the legislation to enshrine the 0.7 per cent commitment into law will not be mentioned in this year’s Queen’s Speech, which will be delivered on 8th May. Three years into this Government, and this particular pledge still hasn’t been met.

At which point I should probably say that we at ConHome are – on the whole, and with all the usual caveats about transparency and efficiency, etc – sympathetic to the aid target. I won’t reheat the reasons here, not least because most of them are contained in Robert Halfon’s post for our Compassionate Conservatism series today.

But, even so, I still think there are good reasons for David Cameron not to enshrine the target in law – or at least understandable ones. Some of them are political: any attempt to legislate will provoke an awkward level of opposition from Tory backbenchers. We have already seen this in miniature, with Christopher Chope terminating the Labour MP Mark Hendrick’s efforts to this end.

And other reasons are more fiscal. As George Osborne confirmed during his Budget speech this year, Britain is going to become the first G8 country to achieve the aid target anyway. That hasn’t required reams of legislation. It’s just required a Chancellor with a mission.

Of course, the idea is that legislating for 0.7 per cent will dissuade other Chancellors from backing away from it in future. But, as important as the aid target is, I’d prefer our finance ministers to enjoy flexibility to act as the situation demands. As Labour’s child poverty targets have shown, legal requirements can quickly be subverted – and yet politicians still unfairly catch flak when they then try to take a different approach.

When it comes to enshrining the aid target in law, much depends on whether you believe manifesto commitments ought to be inviolable. But, in any case, given the polling, I doubt too many voters will weep if Mr Cameron gave this one a miss.


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