In a dramatic intervention, the spiritual leader of the Church of England and his Roman Catholic counterpart urge Boris Johnson to U-turn, saying: “Balancing the books during a pandemic on the backs of the world’s poorest is not acceptable.”
Cuts in aid to Yemen and other countries in crisis are “doing real damage”, they say. They warn it is a question of “morality”, adding: “We must not walk by on the other side.”
It is rare for the most senior archbishops to enter such a politically-charged row, but they say the pandemic has exposed how the fates of countries around the world are interconnected.
Reacting to vague assurances in the Government’s recent Integrated Review of defence and diplomacy, they warn: “Saying the Government will only do this ‘when the fiscal situation allows’ is deeply worrying, suggesting that it will act in contravention of its legally binding target. This promise, repeatedly made even during the pandemic, has been broken and must be put right.”
Their call threatened to deepen a Conservative rebellion against the cuts.
Andrew Mitchell, the former International Development Secretary co-ordinating rebel MPs, said: “The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster are joining the former Conservative Solicitor General and former Director of Public Prosecutions in calling on the Government to respect the law of the land.
“Our international reputation for tackling poverty and misery, is now being destroyed as the Government implements unlawful cuts to humanitarian aid – including unconscionably cutting support for women and children during a famine.
“This is the image of Global Britain that we are now allowing to be seen around the world “
Backbenchers stepped up pressure in the wake of the article.
Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chair of the Defence Select Committee, described the aid cuts as “an extraordinary act of self harm”.
He said: “The recruiting sergeants for Hezbollah, Al Shabab, Boko Haram, ISIS and other terrorists and armed militia will be the immediate beneficiaries of cuts to the UK’s humanitarian programmes.”
He said China and Russia would step in “to fill the vacuum” left by UK cuts, gaining influence: “It is an extraordinary act of self harm to weaken our defences in this way.”
Totnes MP Anthony Mangnall said: “The UK is the only G7 country cutting aid, and yet we are hosting the G7 summit in the UK in June. Diplomatically, it is imperative that the Prime Minister is able to bring our allies to the table to kick start the global recovery, combat Covid and avert climate breakdown.”
Caroline Nokes, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, said: “The Prime Minister has rightly spoken out against violence against women and girls but cuts to humanitarian aid will leave the most vulnerable around the globe at the mercy of rapists in warzones and predators in refugee camps. Cutting aid during a pandemic will push overstretched health systems over the edge and leave women without access to modern contraception or healthcare during pregnancy and child-birth. As the UN said, cutting aid is a death sentence.”
In addition to the £4 billion cut announced by Mr Sunak, almost £3 billion more is being lost to aid because of the fall in GDP, which the target is linked to.
Downing Street denied that the cut is unlawful, claiming it is consistent with the target, a claim that is disputed by critics. MPs say they want the cuts to go to a full Commons vote because the 0.7 target was written into law by David Cameron’s government.
Speaking in the Commons last month, the Prime Minister said Britons could be proud of their aid spending. “We’re going to get on with our agenda of delivering for the people of this country and spending more than virtually any other country in the world, spending more than virtually any other country in the G7 on aid,” he said.
“It’s a record of which this country can be proud. Given the difficulties that this country faces, I think the people of this country will think we’ve got our priorities right.”