The Commons Speaker has voiced his “frustration” with ministers and demanded they hold a vote on foreign aid cuts, as a Tory-led revolt on the controversy stalled.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle ruled on Monday that an amendment tabled by Conservative rebels to reverse Boris Johnson’s reduction to the aid budget was “out of scope” of the Bill to which it was pegged.
His decision, which was based on the advice of parliamentary clerks and legal experts, meant the amendment to legislation creating a new scientific research funding body could not be selected for debate, he said.
The ruling allowed Mr Johnson to escape a knife-edge vote on Monday night that Tory rebels claimed would have seen his 80-seat majority overturned in a humiliating defeat.
Their revolt had aimed to force him to restore the aid budget to 0.7 per cent of gross national income, after he slashed it to 0.5 per cent, citing the need to help the nation’s finances in the wake of the exorbitant cost of the Government’s response to the pandemic.
The move has wiped £4 billion from the international development budget this year, sparking heavy criticism from NGO chiefs and all five living former prime ministers.
While the Speaker’s decision came as a boon to the Prime Minister, Sir Lindsay expressed his umbrage about the Government’s conduct in an extraordinary intervention.
The Speaker criticised ministers for taking MPs “for granted” and refusing to treat the House “seriously” or with “due respect” by bringing forward a substantive vote.
In his scathing broadside, he warned that ministers must urgently remedy the situation and later approved an application by the rebels for an emergency debate on aid cuts on Tuesday. It will not bind the Government, but will provide MPs with an opportunity to formally register their views on the record.
Sir Lindsay told the Commons: “We are the elected members. This House should be taken seriously, and the Government should be accountable to it.
“So I wish and hope very quickly that this is taken on board. I don’t want this to drag on. If not, we will then look to find other ways in which we can move forward.”
The leader of the Tory rebels Andrew Mitchell, a former international aid secretary, told the Commons that if a vote had been allowed, the Government would have suffered a defeat by a margin of nine to 20 votes.
Stressing that the 0.7 per cent aid spending target was a Tory manifesto commitment, Mr Mitchell said: “The Government front bench are treating the House of Commons with disrespect.
“They are avoiding a vote on the commitments that each of us made individually and collectively, at the last general election, on a promise made internationally, and in the opinion of some of Britain’s leading lawyers, the Government is acting unlawfully.”
Rebels are now reportedly exploring legal action over the budget cut.
The timing of the planned revolt was designed to cause maximum embarrassment for Mr Johnson ahead of world leaders flying into the UK for the G7 summit later this week.
The Government is hoping to divert attention away from the row over aid cuts to the UK’s donation of vaccines to developing countries.
Mr Johnson is poised to announce that Britain will give away 100 million doses, according to reports at the weekend. It would exceed the 80 million doses pledged by the US.
It remains unclear whether some of the funding for this could come from the overseas development budget, which will total £10 billion this year.
The Prime Minister has described the aid cut as a difficult and complex decision, while other ministers have stressed it is a temporary reduction that will end when the UK’s finances have sufficiently recovered.
While the 0.7 per cent expenditure target is enshrined in law, there is provision for the goal to be missed in emergencies.
On Monday, Solicitor General Lucy Frazer said: “It does say in the legislation that we commit to 0.7 per cent but that can be varied if the fiscal or economic circumstances suggest that it should, and that is the circumstances we find ourselves in.”