The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has been accused of attempting to mask reductions in aid spending to poorer countries by giving fewer details about allocations to MPs.
Sarah Champion, who chairs parliament’s International Development Committee, said the government had developed a “pattern of trying to hide foreign aid cuts” that included changes to the way it presented its so-called “main estimates” spending plans.
Champion said another example included a request to foreign secretary Dominic Raab for a breakdown of how foreign aid was being spent in countries and regions around the world that resulted in a list of nations that received aid but featured no dates or numbers.
She said a further ploy was a reduction in the budget of the Independent Commission on Aid Impact, which analyses aid spending.
Champion added that the changes had come against the backdrop of the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development to create the FCDO, and the government’s decision to reduce overseas aid spending from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%.
She said that that failing to provide her committee with enough information to perform its scrutiny role bordered on contempt of parliament at a time when the United Nations World Health Organisation estimated that the reduction in the UK’s aid spending could cost up to 30,000 lives.
“This is not the first time the Foreign Office has tried to fob us off with dodgy information on what it is up to,” Champion said.
“Lumping spending plans together, rather than breaking down the detail, may seem like a technical issue, but it is not. The tactic makes it almost impossible to scrutinize, meaning my committee cannot see where the priorities should be when it comes to supporting the poorest parts of the world and helping the UK taxpayer get the best value for money from the aid budget.
“Quite frankly, this pattern of behaviour is arrogant. It is bordering on showing contempt for my committee - and by extension towards the democratic parliamentary tradition of holding the government to account for its actions.
“We oppose the cuts to foreign aid because we know aid helps people in poorer countries. The tragedy of the cuts detailed by the World Health Organisation is just one example.
“We oppose these cuts and we will keep calling out the government every time it tries to hide them.”
Champion said FCDO perm sec Sir Phillip Barton had told her that the decision to bring together most aid spending into a single-line budget called “strategic priorities and other programme spending” was a “technical rationalisation” resulting from the merger that created the current department.
However she said In previous years spending on foreign aid would have been broken down into several categories giving more detail on how aid money was being spent, such as whether it was allocated to humanitarian aid or assistance to international organisations like the WHO.
Champion said the change meant her committee was being provided with level of detail on spending plans that fell below expectations at a time when “rapid reductions” in foreign aid were being implemented and there was a “high level of public interest” in the cuts.
She called on FCDO officials to work with the MPs to change the format of the spending plans so that they better reflected the interests of the committee and improved transparency.
Champion said Raab’s presentation of a list of countries receiving aid – without figures or dates – was a “a ridiculous way to inform parliament”, while reducing the budget of the Independent Commission on Aid Impact was “a worrying new development that must be robustly challenged”.
An FCDO spokesperson said: "We are committed to full transparency, and throughout the pandemic have continued to publish our aid spending for each project online so anyone can see it.”
This story was updated at 10.20am on 25 June 2021 to include an FCDO response