LONDON – British lawmakers voted on Tuesday to support a contentious cut to the U.K.’s foreign aid budget, a move that has slashed billions from programs helping some of the world’s poorest people.
The decision came in a 333-298 House of Commons vote that saw two dozen members of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party join with the opposition against the government.
Johnson’s government announced in November that it would cut the share of national income set aside for foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5%, citing the blow to Britain's economy from the coronavirus pandemic.
High-profile Conservatives, including former Prime Minister Theresa May, joined opposition politicians, United Nations agencies and aid groups in criticizing the budget cut. They say it will lead to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths in developing nations and that it damages Britain’s reputation just as it is trying to bolster its international influence in the wake of Brexit.
Facing growing criticism over the cut, which took effect in January, the government announced late Monday that Parliament would get a vote on a government motion to endorse the change.
Johnson told lawmakers in the House of Commons that Britain had experienced “an economic hurricane” because of the pandemic, with lockdowns shuttering large tracts of the economy and the government spending billions to support businesses and employees.
“The government has been compelled to take wrenching decisions," he said.
He said the reduction, which amounts to about 4 billion pounds ($5.5 billion) this year, is temporary and aid would be restored to 0.7% of national income “as soon as circumstances allow.”
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Britain is the only member of the Group of Seven wealthy nations club that is cutting its aid budget.
“That is not the vision of global Britain that we want to see," he said.
Had the government lost Tuesday's vote, the 0.7% budget share would have been restored next year.
Treasury chief Rishi Sunak said the government still planned to reverse the cut — but only when Britain is not borrowing to finance day-to-day spending and when its debt is falling. Critics fear the economic damage inflicted by the pandemic means those conditions are unlikely to be met for years.
Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of aid group Oxfam GB, called the result of the vote “a disaster for the world’s poorest people.”
“These cuts won’t balance the books; the government is putting politics above the lives of world’s most vulnerable communities," he said.
On most votes, the 80-seat Conservative majority in the House of Commons guarantees government easy victory. But the aid cut has caused disquiet among normally loyal lawmakers.
Conservative former Prime Minister David Cameron called the spending cut “a grave mistake." Conservative legislator Andrew Mitchell, a former international development secretary, said it had left “an unpleasant odor wafting out from under my party’s front door."
May, Johnson’s predecessor as prime minister, said she would rebel against her party on a major vote for the first time in 25 years.
“This isn’t about palaces for dictators and vanity projects,” she said. “It’s about what cuts to funding mean: that fewer girls will be educated, more girls and boys will become slaves, more children will go hungry and more of the poorest people in the world will die.”