Britain’s duty to the world’s poor

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THE now entrenched view that Britain’s political elite are out-of-touch with voters will have been reinforced by the acrimonious Parliamentary debate on a motion to require 0.7 per cent of this country’s GDP to be spent on overseas aid.

At the end of a political week dominated by the spectre of eye-wateringly large spending cuts after next year’s election, the timing of this motion – one which could compel taxpayers to find an extra £1bn to boost international development – could not have been worse.

It also reflected poorly on Ministers that a backbencher – Michael Moore, the former Scottish Secretary – was asked to propose the legislation rather than the Government finding time to put its principles to the test.

Presumably this tactic – there is virtually no chance of the measure becoming law owing to the filibustering of Tory eurosceptics like Shipley MP Philip Davies – is intended to spare David Cameron even more embarrassment after the aid commitment had been included in the Conservative’s 2010 manifesto. It has since been described as a “bizarre idea” by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.

Despite backing the measure, Mr Cameron was not present for yesterday’s vote. However, Tory turmoil should not detract from a wider debate about Britain’s global responsibilities as one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. The country has a moral obligation to lead by example, not least in efforts to reduce the threat of Islamic extremism in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. However, this does not justify a ‘blank cheque’ approach to aid.

Though abuses highlighted by Mr Davies, such as “millions of pounds siphoned off by dictators around the world for a new fleet of Mercedes”, are relatively rare, more needs to be done to ensure UK aid money goes to the intended recipients.

There’s also a case for the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development merging. The benefits would be two-fold – fewer overheads in Whitehall and assistance to the developing world defining UK foreign policy in the coming decade so aid can be spent more wisely. Given the parlous state of domestic finances, it would be unwise of the Government not to consider all options.

Field’s frankness: Tough on causes of immigration

IF BRITAIN was home to more independent-minded Parliamentarians like Frank Field, trust in politicians per se may not be at such a low ebb. Despite being a longstanding Labour MP, he is not afraid to challenge established orthodoxies.

The latest such occurrence is Mr Field’s warning that the debate about immigration policy will become even more toxic unless Westminster’s leaders acknowledge the public’s concerns about the pressures being placed on key public services like schools and hospitals.

Echoing one of Tony Blair’s soundbites, the Labour politician spoke for many when he said: “I would like us to be tough on immigration but tough on the causes of immigration.”

By this, Mr Field made a compelling case for a cap on the number of EU migrants entering this country – a stance that he shares with Sir John Major – as well as challenging the European Union to look at how living standards can be raised in countries like Poland, Romania and Bulgaria in order to lessen Britain’s appeal to the impoverished.

It is practical pragmatism that the main parties would be wise to heed ahead of a wider debate on Britain’s longer-term relationship with the EU.

A small gesture: Use the High Street – or lose it

USE it – or lose it. Today’s promotional events to mark Small Business Saturday are not just about the future of those firms who are the lifeblood of the economy, but also the fabric of high streets across Yorkshire.

As Christmas approaches, many will be tempted to join the masses at the large out-of-town retail parks or shop online. To them, convenience is the over-riding factor. But this is no consolation to those small independent shops struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis.

Though increased awareness about their plight has seen two-thirds of small businesses record an increase in sales this year, just half have enjoyed increased profits.

In short, reduced profit margins – and increased overheads – are making it harder for grocers, bakers, butchers, hardware shops and so on to make ends meet.

And, while many will welcome George Osborne’s business rates gesture, it does amount to small change until wider reforms can be introduced. In the meantime, the best thing that the public can do is support shops that go the extra mile before it is too late to do so.