MPs query £1.85m overseas aid spent on Pope visit

MPs have asked ministers to explain why £1.85m ($3m) from the international development budget was spent on the Pope’s UK visit in September.They queried the “surprising” transfer from the Department for International Development to the Foreign Office.Ministers should explain what the money was spent on “and how it tallies with our commitments on overseas aid”.Dfid said the cash would not affect overseas aid spending as it was taken from its “running costs” budget.This part of the department’s budget, used to pay for staffing and administration costs, is not ringfenced from spending cuts unlike core overseas development aid which is protected.The coalition has committed to giving 0.7% of gross national income as international aid by 2013 but Labour is questioning whether they will fulfil this.Pope Benedict’s four-day visit in September was estimated at the time to have cost Whitehall departments £10m. Roman Catholic churchgoers also contributed to the costs of the visit.MPs on the international development select committee said they were surprised to discover the transfer of £1.85m while examining Dfid’s annual accounts, money the committee said was “supposed to be for overseas development aid”.”Many people will be as surprised as we were to discover that UK aid money was used to fund the Pope’s visit last year,” he said.”Ministers need to explain exactly what this was spent on and how it tallies with our commitments on overseas aid.”The committee also warned that a commitment to send more UK aid to war-torn and fragile states would make it more difficult to keep track of how the money was being spent, and meant less would go to some poor countries where it could achieve more.Mr Bruce said the committee supported the government’s aim to focus on fragile states – which made up the bulk of those countries furthest from achieving the Millennium Development Goals to tackle global poverty.

But he added: “War-torn or fragile states are inevitably more vulnerable to corruption and maladministration.”A Dfid spokesman said the department was one of several which part-funded the Pope’s visit.He added: “Our contribution recognised the Catholic Church’s role as a major provider of health and education services in developing countries.
“This money does not constitute official development assistance and is therefore additional to the coalition government’s historic commitment to meet the 0.7% UN aid target from 2013.”The committee acknowledges that we are right to focus on conflict-ridden countries, home to some of the world’s poorest people.”Labour say the coalition’s commitment to the 0.7% target is “fragile” amid what they claim is “virulent opposition” to the move among Tory backbenchers.In a speech later on Thursday, Harriet Harman – the party’s deputy leader and international development spokeswoman – will say that the coalition is freezing the core aid budget for the next two years and would effectively need to increase it by 31% in 2013 in order to meet the target.”With growing public anger about the effect of the cuts on domestic priorities, alongside a strong public belief that “charity begins at home”, no-one should take it for granted that the Tories will inevitably deliver on their pledge,” she will say – BBC