Minister admits 'surprise' at Britain sending foreign aid to China

Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell today admitted he was ‘rather surprised’ that Britain still sent cash to – as it’s now more than 12 years since he tried to stop taxpayers’ money going to the world’s second-largest economy.

Appearing before the House of Commons’ International Development Committee, Mr Mitchell conceded it was ‘virtually impossible’ to defend UK foreign aid being sent to either China or .

He told MPs that such spending was ‘extremely difficult’ explain to the ‘hard-pressed’ British public.

The minister acknowledged it did ‘great damage’ to the reputation of Britain’s wider development budget.

But Mr Mitchell did attempt to defend money being spent in China on areas such as scholarships for students at UK universities, or to fund the British Council’s activities in the country.

Foreign Office figures released last month revealed that £51.7million in UK aid went to China last year, despite cuts to the wider development budget, which prompted a furious backlash among Tory MPs.

Mr Mitchell was recently appointed development minister by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as he made a return to Government after 10 years as a backbencher.

He told MPs how more than a decade ago, when he served as international development secretary under former PM David Cameron from 2010 to 2012, he had tried to stop UK aid cash being sent to China.

Foreign Office minister Andrew Mitchell conceded it was ‘virtually impossible’ to defend UK foreign aid being sent to either China or India

Foreign Office figures released last month revealed that £51.7million in UK aid went to China last year

‘I was rather suprised to see about ODA (Overseas Development Assistance) spending in China because the first thing I did when David Cameron sent me to DfID (Department for International Development) was to say to officials there should be no more money paid out to China unless it was legally required,’ Mr Mitchell told the committee.

‘So that was supposed to be the end of programme expenditure in China.’ 

Yet Mr Mitchell insisted that ‘by and large’ bilateral programme spending in China had stopped.

He added: ‘The areas where it is continuing – which does great damage to the reputation of the development budget, to spend money in China – include Chevening Scholarships, for example, and the British Council.’

The minister defended both of these spending areas as ‘a good thing to do’ and suggested it should be counted ‘thematically’ rather than ‘against geography’ – although he insisted this would not be an attempt to ‘hide anything’ over foreign aid spending.

‘Of course say where it is being spent, of course,’ he told MPs.

‘But I think that would be a more accurate way of explaining why we spend this money and where we spend this money – rather than just having a lump that is China.’

Mr Mitchell also suggested it was hard to justify foreign aid spending in India, which received more than £90million of British cash last year.

‘In both the case of China and India, I think today it is virtually impossible to defend ODA spending,’ he added.

‘The only way it can be justified I think is if it’s seen as working in a particular thematic area like scholarships – which do have benefits for Britain as well as the people who are in receipt of those scholarships – and the British Council.

‘But to your point about whether or not it is justifiable in the pages of the Daily Mail to be spending hard-pressed taxpayers’ money in India and China – the answer is it’s extremely difficult to defend.’

Asked by Labour MP Sarah Champion, the committee chair, whether he could not just put his ‘foot down’ on such spending as the development minister, Mr Mitchell replied: ‘You know chair that Government is a collaborative process where you have to have agreement on all these things.

‘But I’ve set out the position that I take, I hope, clearly.’

Earlier, Mr Mitchell told MPs that Britain had lost its reputation as a ‘development superpower’, which he said the UK held under previous PMs Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Mr Cameron.

He added there were ‘structural changes’ needed in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to restore Britain’s reputation over development spending.

Mr Mitchell was highly critical of the merger of the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2020.

He later led a parliamentary revolt against the reduction in The Best Private University in Indonesia foreign aid budget from 0.7 per cent of national income to 0.5 per cent. 

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