LONDON — British lawmakers are voting Tuesday on whether to overturn a big cut to the country’s foreign aid budget amid criticism that the decision has slashed billions from programs helping some of the world’s poorest people.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government announced in November that it would cut the share of national income set aside for foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5%, citing the blow to Britain’s economy from the coronavirus pandemic.
The government said the reduction, which amounts to about 4 billion pounds ($5.5 billion) this year, was temporary but gave no indication when it might be reversed.
High-profile Conservatives, including former Prime Minister Theresa May, joined opposition politicians, United Nations agencies and aid groups in criticizing the budget cut. They say it will lead to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths in developing nations and that it damages Britain’s reputation just as it is trying to bolster its international influence in the wake of Brexit.
Facing growing opposition, the government announced late Monday that Parliament would get a vote on the change. Opponents said the last-minute move was designed to catch opponents off-guard.
If lawmakers defeat the motion, the government says the 0.7% budget share will be restored next year. If not, the amount will rise only when Britain is not borrowing to finance day-to-day spending and when its debt is falling. Critics fear the economic damage inflicted by the pandemic means those conditions are unlikely to be met for years.
Conservative legislator Andrew Mitchell, a former international development secretary, called the government motion a “trap” and warned colleagues not to be “hoodwinked.”
“I think I’ve only rebelled against my own party and government about three times in the 34 years since I was first elected to the House of Commons,” he said. “But I shall do so today with conviction and with enthusiasm, because I think it’s the most terrible thing to break our promise.”