Theresa May will maintain Britain’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid despite pressure from within her own party to scrap it, the prime minister said today.
Speaking at a campaign event in her constituency of Maidenhead, four days after calling an early election, May said the UK should be proud of the money it has contributed to projects in the developing world.
"Let’s be clear, the 0.7% commitment remains, and will remain,” May said.
But the prime minister indicated that the way the money is spent will be reviewed so that it is “spent in the most effective way”.
On Friday, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, called on May to keep the commitment, arguing that the country’s commitment to helping the poor overseas was a “badge of honour.”
Earlier in the week, Bill Gates had urged May to maintain the target -- warning that lives would be lost in Africa and Britain’s influence in the world would be reduced if it scraps the target.
The 0.7% commitment, amounting to more than £11 billion a year, was enshrined in law under David Cameron, in accordance with United Nations targets. The UK is one of only a handful of countries that meets the target.
But it has long been unpopular with some Conservatives MPs and the right-wing press. Senior members of May’s own cabinet have urged the prime minister to divert the money into the defence budget, arguing that Britain was already doing more than its share on overseas development.
That had led to doubts about whether the commitment would be included in the party’s manifesto for the upcoming election in June.
While May faced rebellion on the right of her party, there was also a growing number of MPs worried that scrapping the commitment would play to perceptions of the Tories as "the nasty party" just as they are trying to woo voters. That could have been particularly unhelpful to Tory MPs who are facing a tight battle against the Liberal Democrats in marginal seats.
May said: “I’m very proud of the record that we have, of the children around the world that are being educated as a result of what the British taxpayer is doing, in terms of its international aid. The ability that we had to help in the Ebola crisis. The work that we’ve been doing supporting Syrian refugees…
"We maintain that commitment, but we have to make sure that we’re spending that money as effectively as possible.”
The announcement was met with derision by the Taxpayers' Alliance. John O'Connell, its chief executive, said the target was "totally arbitrary and meaningless."
May was speaking at a toothpaste factory operated by GSK which employs about 535 workers. She had wanted to return to the constituency which “moulded and shaped” her political career early in the campaign, she said.
Over the previous few days, May had not taken questions at campaign appearances, including from reporters, promoting accusations from her political opponents that she was scared of being confronted directly about her record. On Friday at GSK, she took questions from both members of GSK staff and the media.