Russian jets in our skies and the folly of cutting defence but splurging on aid

Thousands of Russian troops have invaded a neighbouring country — Ukraine. A court has heard how Russian agents caused a nuclear incident on the streets of our capital by administering lethally radioactive polonium-210 to a man working for our intelligence services.

Last year there was a three-fold increase in the number of interceptions of Russian warplanes by the RAF — and less than a fortnight ago our fighters were scrambled to intercept two long-range Russian bombers flying, with their radio transponders switched off, over the English Channel.

What are we doing about this? Well, last September at the Cardiff summit of Nato, Britain as host exhorted the other European members of the western military alliance to re-commit themselves to spend 2 per cent of their national income on defence (the U.S. already devotes 4.4 per cent of its GDP).

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Test: A Russian Bear is escorted by an RAF jet during an alert in September last year (file picture). A similar incident happened less than a fortnight ago. What are we doing about this, asks Dominic Lawson

Test: A Russian Bear is escorted by an RAF jet during an alert in September last year (file picture). A similar incident happened less than a fortnight ago. What are we doing about this, asks Dominic Lawson

Yet as the Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute, Professor Michael Clarke, observed three days ago: ‘The UK will not even meet that commitment itself. Last year defence spending was right on the threshold. This financial year, it will fall to 1.8 per cent, and could be 1.7 per cent or less by 2020, even without considering the impact of further cuts expected later this year.’ 

What this means is that by the end of the decade, if not before, this country will be spending little more than twice as much on defence of the realm as on foreign aid. The former, even in less troubled times, is held to be the first and most important duty of any government.

Yet, having passed through the Commons with only six dissenting MPs, a bill making it mandatory for all future governments to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on overseas aid is now going through the formality of approval in the House of Lords.

I say formality, because with all three main parties officially committed to the measure (in fact a Liberal Democrat private member’s bill), there is little chance of the Lords delaying it from becoming law before the general election.

President Putin’s increasing bellicosity is a perfect example of 'changing circumstances abroad'

President Putin’s increasing bellicosity is a perfect example of 'changing circumstances abroad'

In a debate in the Lords last Friday, those peers daring to suggest amendments to this unprecedented measure binding the expenditure of future governments — whose number included my father, Lord Lawson — were subjected to constant interruption and harassment of a kind rarely if ever seen in the Upper House.

Yet in 2012, the Economic Affairs Committee of the Lords had produced a detailed report — The Economic Impact and Effectiveness of Development Aid — which declared: ‘We do not accept . . . the target of spending 0.7 per cent (£12 billion) of Gross National Income on aid. It wrongly prioritises the amount spent rather than the result achieved: it makes the achievement of the spending target more important than the overall effectiveness of the programme; the speed of the planned increase risks reducing the quality, value for money and accountability of the aid programme.’

This verdict was backed unanimously by the entire committee, whose members concluded of the proposed legislation: ‘It would deprive future governments of the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances at home and abroad.’

President Putin’s increasing bellicosity — following gigantic increases in the Russian defence budget — is a perfect example of ‘changing circumstances abroad’ that this ignored report warned of. Its other observations have also been vindicated.

In a desperate effort to funnel out sufficient cash to meet the £12 billion expenditure target, the Department for International Development spent more than a quarter of its budget in the final month of last year. The head of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, accused DFID of ‘rushing out cash to meet the 0.7 per cent target’, and her committee condemned DFID’s oversight of an aid agency to which it had gifted £700 million as ‘unacceptably poor’. This included an investment of £20 million in an energy business named by a 2014 investigation into allegations of looting of Nigerian oil revenues.

As such items reveal, this is not humanitarian aid, of the sort which the British public has always been generously supportive at a personal level. Barely 10 per cent of our aid budget can be so described. The rest is known as ‘development aid’, which as many studies have demonstrated over the decades, rarely achieves much to aid development — though a great deal to line the pockets of politicians in the recipient countries.

It is claimed that a dramatic increase in our development aid budget enhances our ‘soft power’: that the recipients will see that their lives have been enhanced by Britain’s generosity and therefore become friendly to this nation. This might conceivably make some sort of sense if all our £12 billion a year (and rising) was visibly earmarked and presented as ‘British aid’.

Looted: Allegations include the plundering of revenues from oil in Nigeria (pictured in file photo)

Looted: Allegations include the plundering of revenues from oil in Nigeria (pictured in file photo)

But it isn’t. We have in the past three years doubled the amount going out as ‘multi-lateral aid’ — which means that we have no great control over how or where exactly it is spent, and the recipients certainly have no idea that a disproportionately large proportion of it comes from British taxpayers. 

Disproportionately large, because there are very few countries which meet the 0.7 per cent target (originally proposed back in 1970 by the United Nations). One rare country which does spend proportionately more on foreign aid than Britain is the United Arab Emirates. But this is a fantastically rich oil-producing nation in budget surplus, whose citizens pay no taxes whatever.

In our case, however, every increase in the foreign aid budget must be met out of higher taxes on personal incomes or expenditure (via VAT). And, perhaps more disturbingly, we as a nation are already facing interest payments on our national debt of £1.7 trillion amounting to around £1 billion every week. To put it in the starkest terms, we are borrowing a further £12 billion each year to give to other nations with balance sheets healthier than our own.

It is exactly this financial predicament which lies behind the desire of the Chancellor George Osborne to cut further into the defence budget. His concern at the state of the finances is proper. But it is deeply irresponsible — at a time like this — to give national security a lower priority than a pledge to increase foreign aid.

Worst of all, this commitment has no higher purpose than to demonstrate our politicians’ good intentions. And they, as we know, pave the road to Hell.


Maxwell's shadow over Chilcot

Crooked: A Board of Trade Inquiry into Robert Maxwell, pictured, got him completely right

Crooked: A Board of Trade Inquiry into Robert Maxwell, pictured, got him completely right

A word hitherto not widely used in political discourse dominates discussion over the delay in publishing the Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq. Sir John Chilcot told MPs last week he could give no idea when his report would be published because of ‘the Maxwellisation process’.

This is the name for the procedure whereby those to be criticised in official reports are entitled to see the draft sections referring to them, and to challenge any statements they deem inaccurate.

Yet as Chilcot’s report is expected to be about 1 million words, with 30 or so participants (from Blair down) thought to be in line for severe criticism, the process is interminable. But why is this called ‘Maxwellisation’? It stems from a Board of Trade Inquiry into a 1969 merger involving the late Robert Maxwell (right). The inspectors concluded: ‘Mr Maxwell is not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company.’

Enraged, he took the matter to court and two years later a judge declared the inspectors had ‘virtually committed the business murder of Mr Maxwell’.

As a result it was established that those criticised in official inquiries should be allowed to challenge their conclusions before publication. Yet as Mirror Group pensioners later discovered, the Board of Trade report had got Robert Maxwell absolutely right.

The shadow health secretary Andy Burnham had this to say over the weekend about Tony Blair’s enrichment since leaving government: ‘I’m not saying it’s OK to cash in, but each to his own. I wouldn’t do it myself. I don’t have any interest that way. I’m not motivated by money.’

Thanks for letting us know, Andy. But those of us who followed the great parliamentary expenses scandal of 2009 can recall you appealed not once, not twice, but three times against a decision by the Commons fees office to reject your £16,500 claim for ‘home refurbishment costs’. Only after your fourth whinge did the exasperated officials agree to cough up the (taxpayers’) money.

That persistence on your part does not evoke a lack of interest in the accumulation of cash.

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