Government accused of 'avoiding scrutiny' after refusing to release legal advice on aid cuts

The government has been accused of trying to avoid public scrutiny after it refused to publish the legal advice it received regarding its cuts to overseas development aid.

Preet Kaur Gill, the shadow international development minister and MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, criticised the government after it rejected a request by Third Sector under the Freedom of Information Act to release the legal advice it had received.

In March, Gill used a parliamentary question to ask the government whether it had received any legal advice regarding its decision to cut the overseas aid budget from 0.7 per cent of gross national income to 0.5 per cent.

At the time, the foreign office minister Nigel Adams said it was not possible to answer that question within the usual time period.

In response to the FOI request by Third Sector, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said it did hold the relevant information but that public interest favoured withholding it.

“Factors against disclosure include the strong public interest in protecting legal professional privilege and in government departments receiving comprehensive legal advice for the effective conduct of business which is given in confidence and with a full appreciation of the facts,” the FCDO response said.

“There is also a strong public interest in ensuring that disclosure of legal advice does not have the potential to prejudice the government’s ability to conduct its business or to diminish reliance that legal advice has been fully considered and presented without fear or favour.”

The FCDO declined to comment further on its reasoning for refusing the request.

Gill told Third Sector: “This Conservative government has consistently sought every avenue possible to avoid public scrutiny. It has refused to release details about the legal position of its actions, the projected impact of the aid cuts or any underlying strategy that went into the decision.

“If the government is convinced it is acting within the law by ignoring the legislative commitment to 0.7 per cent, then it should have no trouble in setting out the advice.

“If not, then it should put an immediate stop to the cuts and bring legislation forward for parliament to vote on them.”

In January, a group of international aid organisations warned the government was making decisions on programme cuts to international aid programmes behind closed doors and without proper scrutiny or consultation.

The government first announced last November that the UK’s overseas aid budget would be cut, slicing more than £4bn off the annual spend.

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