The home secretary’s new plan to “redouble” efforts to crack down on knife violence is a reminder of where the spending priorities of this government have been, and a chance to question where investment is most needed now.
The UK’s ambitious aid target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income now accounts for £14bn worth of taxpayer money spent on aid – more than the policing budgets of England and Wales combined. While billions of pounds are funnelled to help enhance and secure peace abroad, violence and crime are on the rise at home.
Britain is a global leader when it comes to providing humanitarian relief.
From committing hundreds of millions of pounds to help “contain, control, treat and ultimately defeat Ebola” to supplying thousands of “shelter kits, solar lanterns and water purifiers” to Indonesia after the disastrous earthquake last year, this support for people deeply in need translates directly to more security for them, and, indirectly, to more security back at home.
The question is not whether the UK should be aiding humanitarian crises abroad – undoubtedly, the answer is yes. Rather, the question is where the money should come from, and how we can best raise funds, without depriving other public spending areas of the resources they need.
Recent manoeuvres in the Department of International Development seem to be heading in the right direction. On Wednesday, development secretary Penny Mordaunt called for a sensible shift in her department, moving the focus “from spending to fundraising”.
Recognising the philosophy behind the 0.7 per cent commitment, as well as the impractical implication of asking taxpayers to foot the full bill, Mordaunt has rightly targeted the private sector as a huge potential source of funding.
Britons already have an impressive culture of giving, without the taxman forcing their hands.
The Charities Aid Foundation reports that the total amount given to charity increased to £10.3bn in 2017. Overseas aid and disaster relief was the fifth most popular cause – 23 per cent of donors said that they gave money to this charitable effort – up from 19 per cent in 2016.
Mordant is right to look in this direction. From entrepreneurs to large corporate donations, there is likely a huge untapped resource that could contribute to the UK’s commitments abroad, allowing more tax money to stay back at home – in the Home Office’s policing budget, say, or back in the pockets of workers.
Britain was the only country in the G7 to meet the 0.7 per cent target in 2017. While this will be a source of pride for many, it also illustrates the extent to which this is a struggle.
As countries face changing and ageing demographics, with greater demands on health services and pension promises, as well humanitarian and security concerns of their own, a set target year-on-year is fundamentally unsustainable if it is fully reliant on the public purse.
I suspect that more radical policy will be needed in future, to properly tackle the 0.7 per cent target and the UK’s contributions worldwide. But radical shouldn’t be the enemy of reasonable.
If we can get more voluntary, private investment to step in and relieve the taxpayer abroad, I’d chalk that up to a big win in 2019.