The British government’s use of overseas aid for domestic refugees will come under political scrutiny after an inquiry was announced on Wednesday.
Parliament’s International Development Committee stated that it would examine the financing of Afghan and Ukrainian refugees after reports that Britain was spending more on aid at home than in the world’s poorest countries.
The investigation is likely to prove difficult for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak when as chancellor he controversially cut the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget from 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 0.5 per cent, as a post Covid-19 pandemic budget saving.
Announcing the inquiry, the cross-bench committee of MPs said it would investigate whether spending the aid budget on refugees within Britain was an “efficient, effective and ethical use of public money”.
While countries are allowed to devote foreign aid to the domestic costs of refugees and asylum seekers this can only last for the first 12 months. Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021 and the Ukraine conflict is now approaching nine months duration.
While the government was as yet not technically breaking international aid rules, Britain was “unique among the world’s largest donor countries in counting all of its in-country support for Ukrainian refugees as ODA”, the committee said when it announced the inquiry.
It also pointed to media reports suggesting the government was on course to spend more on aid in Britain than on humanitarian assistance abroad.
There is now growing concern that the underfunded £11.4 billion ($13.4 billion) ODA budget will be routed away from the world’s poorest to domestic ministerial departments to support refugees in Britain.
Recent reports have put hotel costs for asylum seekers who have crossed the English Channel on small boats at nearly £6 million a night.
MP Sarah Champion, the committee’s chairwoman, said they would scrutinise the ODA spending to examine precisely where the cash is going.
“The UK’s aid budget is already constrained with a freeze on all non-essential aid,” she said. “Transparency and accountability are essential and this inquiry will look across government departments to understand how this aid is being spent and who might lose out as the balance shifts from the world’s poorest people to the UK’s internal priorities.”
The cuts in aid are now having a tangible effect on the world’s most impoverished, with Britain’s budget for tackling Aids, tuberculosis and malaria reduced by almost a third, it emerged on Monday.
In 2019 former prime minister Theresa May was widely praised for pledging £1.4 billion over three years — or £467 million a year — on disease financing, a move that was welcomed by the Global Fund for “saving millions of lives around the world”.
On Monday, Andrew Mitchell, the Minister for Development, announced that the renewed budget would be £1 billion, or the equivalent of £333m a year.
“The UK and others founded the Global Fund because we refused to accept the loss of millions of lives every year to preventable and treatable diseases,” Mr Mitchell said, without mentioning the 29 per cent cut in funding.
“This fund gives hope and opportunity to millions who would otherwise suffer. Malaria kills a child nearly every minute of every day. These are wholly preventable deaths, and the UK is dedicated to preventing them.”