Keeping promises

On 29 September 2009, Gordon Brown told the Labour Party Conference: (my emphasis)

And let me say what was once an aspiration – 0.7% of national income spent on international development aid, has become with Labour a promise, and will in future become a law. We will pass legislation that the British government is obliged to raise spending on aid to the poorest countries to 0.7% of our national income. Others may break their promises to the poorest, with Labour Britain never will.

Unfortunately, he forgot to mention his promise to the Queen who offered only this in the Queen’s Speech (note to foreign readers – the Queen’s Speech is written by the Government, not the Queen):

Draft legislation will be published to make binding my Government’s commitment to spend nought point seven per cent of national income on international development from 2013.

Note the phrase “draft legislation will be published“.   That means somethinig quite different from the key phrase “My Government will legislate to …” that you find elsewhere in the, er, Gracious Speech.  It is Whitehall code for “we did not make room in the legislative programme for …“.   It is quite different in meaning from the Prime Minister’s promise less than two months ago:  “We will pass legislation that …“. The most positive interpretation is that the Government hopes that a friendly back-bencher might pick up the draft legislation and push it through as a Private Member’s Bill (which would not be a bad legacy for an MP who expects to leave Parliament at the next election).

On the subject of promises, the UK agreed on 24 May 2005 as part of a joint EU commitment that it would increase ODA to 0.56% of GNI by fiscal year 2010/11 (and reach 0.7% in 2013).  In 2008, the UK’s ODA/GNI ratio was 0.43% of GDP.  Even when you take account of the possibility of a contraction of GNI from 2008 to 2010, meeting this promise will require an increase in British aid over the next two years of about 33% in real terms. A European Commission report is warning that only five EU governments appear likely to meet or exceed the 0.56% target: Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland and Luxembourg.

Here’s my idea. Though there was no room in the legislative programme for a short bill to legislate for aid to reach 0.7%, the Government did manage to find room for a Fiscal Responsibility Bill.  Perhaps this bill could include – either in the Government’s draft or as a result of a backbench amendment – a clause requiring aid to be increased to 0.56% in 2010 and to 0.7% of GNI by 2013, and to remain above that level thereafter?  Investing in global social justice is as much a matter of “fiscal responsibility” as ensuring that domestic borrowing does not exceed investment (the grotesquely mis-named “Golden Rule” which is neither golden nor a rule).

I’m sure Gordon Brown will want to keep his promises, after all. This seems a good opportunity.

6 thoughts on “Keeping promises”

  1. I’m not sure about the UK but we have reached the point in North America where the electorate’s view has become so jaundiced that they no longer expect politicians to keep their promises. The issue came to a head in the province of Ontario in 2003 when the Liberal government led by current premier Dalton McGuinty campaigned with a promise that they would not raise taxes. McGuinty even went so far as to sign a “Taxpayer Protection Promise” to that effect with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (“CTF”). McGuinty won a majority government on the strength of that promise and it only took him a few weeks to break it when he introduced the Ontario Health Tax. The CTF sued the government for breach of contract and the case was dismissed on the basis of the following reasoning by Ontario Superior Court Justice Paul Rouleau: “it is not the role of the courts – to intervene to enforce – promises and pledges. Rather, the remedy is for the electorate to consider and weigh the record of each candidate and party at the time of voting and in the intervening period to trust that the power entrusted to minister will be ‘exercised from time to time as occasion may require in the public interest.'” In other words, Canadian politicians are free to break their election promises at their whim.

  2. Makes you wonder about the Tories’ pledge to commit to Labour’s funding pledges to International Development. How can you realisticly expect anyone to “commit” to “pledges” that may not be kept in any case?

  3. I think that is a great idea Owen. I will ask number 10 about it next week. It is a real shame we won’t see a full bill. At least a draft bill should mean that the 0.7% commitment gets some discussion in parliament but that is no substitute.

    The CSR has UK ODA going up to 9.1 billion pounds in 2010/11 after really strong campaigning around budget time in march of this year by a broad coalition of NGOs. there was a push from treasury to stick simply to the 0,51% promised in europe which would have meant a cut given the recession. By our calculations this will put UK ODA at around somewhere between 0.56 and 0.58 for the year 2010/11.

    Whether this means they will meet the 0.56% for 2010 stipulated in the EU promise not guaranteed but I would not say altogether out of the question. Also As I understood it the EU promise was for all of the old member states to reach a minimum of 0.51% by 2010, with this meaning that the overall EU average would be 0.56%. The UK has promised separately to be at 0.56 though.

    All of this will not happen without a fight that is for certain.

    The big question is can we get the tories in their first budget and spending review to specify the two additional increases to get us to 0.7. in 2013, and this will be harder without legislation.

    What is really interesting is that once we are at 0.7% the chances of us moving away from it are very slim- not because of political pressure necessarily, but because it means that DFID each year following 2013 will only be asking for an increase to cover inflation at budget time, and as overall dfids budget will still only be just over 1% of government spending, it is not likely to figure much in any calculations. the dangerous time is now when dfid is supposed to be getting double digit increases each year whilst other departments take cuts.

  4. Max

    I agree – once we get to 0.7%, it will be much harder to reverse. But it is going to be tough defending double digit increases in the aid budget when other services are going through hard(er) times. (I worry that this will lead the Treasury to bury increases in ODA in other budgets, particularly the MOD and FCO, breaking the important and valuable tradition that the aid budget is consolidated in one government department).

    I’m glad you like the idea of including this in the Fiscal Responsibility Bill. There may be an outside chance that this would be outside the scope, but (though I am not a lawyer) I cannot see how it could be.

    warm regards

  5. Pingback: From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green » Blog Archive » Is Sen wrong on famine?; Krugman 4 Tobin; US as failing state; weasel words; China ain’t green; how Gordon can defend aid and pomo-babble: links I liked

  6. I suspect Gordon has decided to achieve this via his promises on funding for ‘global warming’.

    Either way, as you’re in Ethiopia, you might be forgiven for not realising that the UK’s economy is going down the toilet – so, as a hard-pressed taxpayer, my answer to this plea for even more wasteful spending (half of which goes to dictators – hence your former DFID colleagues hid telegrams to this effect from Clare Short – no point denying it, I was there) is to tell you to get it from Bono…

    There is something in it for developing countries too – if our economy is stablised, then the yearly aid budget might still be worth something, rather than going down the Zimbabwe route. Better 0.5% of something than 0.7% of nothing, no?

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