Image Credit: Andrew Parsons
After a seven hour questioning by the Joint Select Committee, Dominic Cummings produced both important questions about the government’s actions in the early days of this pandemic, as well as good material for the front pages of many of last week’s national tabloids. This week it was the turn of Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, to face the Committee’s testing line of questioning.
Hancock denied Cummings’ accusation of him lying dishonesty towards the Prime Minister over the state of care home testing, treatment and PPE supply over the first wave of coronavirus infections in England. Hancock stated that testing was limited in March and April last year, before he led a “ramp-up” in testing into the summer. Moreover, he maintained that at no point did a British coronavirus patient not receive the treatment they required – as seen across many parts of Europe at the time. The Health Secretary hit back at Cummings, saying that he was aware of the aide’s dislike for him and that Cummings spent time “briefing the papers” in an attempt to get him sacked. Cummings has previously stated that Hancock should’ve “been sacked at least 15 to 20 times”.
The real showdown of the week, however, came in the Commons early on. On Monday, a cross-party group of MPs tabled an amendment to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill, aimed at creating a new body to conduct “high-risk, high-reward” science, in order to challenge the government’s proposed cut in foreign aid. As it is down to the Speaker to select amendments – based upon advice of clerks over what is in order and what is in the interest of members – Sir Lindsay Hole decided that the amendment, if passed, would not be within the scope of that particular Bill, so it was not allowed to be debated.
The government intends to cut aid spending from its longstanding UN-backed target, enshrined in law and included in all major party manifestos at the last election, of 0.7% to 0.5% of Gross National Income (GNI). This will see the UK’s spending on overseas aid fall from some £14 billion in 2020 to £10 billion in 2021. The unofficial informal leader of the Tory rebels that supported the aforementioned amendment and former International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, stated in a Point of Order that the proposed cut could lead to “thousands of avoidable deaths” and requested the advice of the Speaker over how they can challenge the government in the House of Commons. In a short reply, the Speaker outlined his frustration with the Government for “ignoring the House” - something evermore commonly mentioned by Sir Hoyle – and granted a debate, though no vote, to the rebels the following day.
It is important to note that, despite the target being set in law, under the 2015 Bill that introduced the law, the government is able to reduce the commitment temporarily in the event of significant fiscal constraints.
On Tuesday, prominent Tory backbenchers such as former PM Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt, chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, spoke against the proposed cut, with a particularly powerful speech from May concerning the impact abandoning the UN target would have on the UK’s global reputation and influence. In a sign of unity across the House, Preet Kaur Gill, of the Labour frontbench, shared many of the concerns of Tory rebels and confirmed Labour’s opposition to the cut.
From the government, Steve Barclay defended the spending plans as temporary and said that it showed the government recognising a recognition of the need to be responsible to taxpayers at a time of financial trouble. Barclay stated that spending will return to 0.7% once the “fiscal situation allows”.
In what was a fiery PMQs, aid spending was also the focus of the SNP Westminster Leader’s question. Ian Blackford, who previously has wished for promoted the devolution of overseas aid spending to Holyrood, received a frustrated reply from Boris Johnson who labelled motions criticising the cut as “leftie propaganda” – which didn’t go down well with Tory rebels. Johnson accused Blackford of being pessimistic about Britain’s global contribution, saying arguing that one-in-three vaccines in use in the poorest nations were the British Government-funded Oxford-AstraZeneca jab.
Later in the week at Defence Questions, the British Army’s new Ajax armoured fighting vehicle was under question after it was revealed testing on the platform had highlighted significant flaws and had been halted for safety. Shadow Defence Secretary, John Healey, explained to the House how £3.5 billion had been spent on the programme so far, with only a current delivery of 14 vehicles, each with the inability of firing its main cannon whilst moving. Testing showed the vehicle also had issue reversing at speed and over obstacles greater than 20cm in height, whilst moving over 20mph caused nausea for soldiers and crew.
Jeremy Quinn, a Defence Minister, admitted the failings in this round of testing and stated that all soldiers subjected to the excessive noise and vibrations of the vehicle have received medical check-ups and further testing will proceed with added caution. The Defence Minister did however detail the importance of the project, which “will provide new capabilities” to the army.