Aid budget used to pay for Pope's visit

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MONEY intended to alleviate poverty in the world's poorest countries was used to help fund the Pope's visit to the UK, MPs have revealed.

The government is facing a storm of criticism after it emerged that it raided the international aid budget for almost 2 million to cover some of the cost of the papal visit last year.

A report published today by the Commons international development select committee has questioned why 1.85m was taken out of international aid to fund the visit despite a pledge by Prime Minister David Cameron that the budget would be protected.

The move has been described as "shocking" by MPs, while the Church of Scotland said it was "utterly unacceptable".

The money was part of the overall 10m cost to the taxpayer of the visit by Pope Benedict. The trip should have been funded by the Foreign Office because it was partly a state visit.

However, the Foreign Office shifted the cost to the Department for International Development (DfID), meaning that it had to be found from money which should have been spent on international aid. The "somewhat surprising" transfer to the Foreign Office was queried following a detailed investigation of the annual accounts of the DfID

Lib Dem Gordon MP Malcolm Bruce, who chairs the international development select committee, said voters would struggle to understand why DfID money was involved.

"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 Church of Scotland Church and Society Council convener the Rev Ian Galloway said the raiding of the international aid budget would undermine the good work done by the visit.

Mr Galloway said: "This is an extraordinary confession by the government. It is utterly unacceptable and hard to explain to those whose suffering would be alleviated had this money been used as it was intended."

Anas Sarwar, the Labour MP for Glasgow Central, who also sits on the select committee and was involved in raising money for the Pakistan floods, described the findings as "shocking".

He said he was "proud" that the papal visited started in Scotland, but was concerned that the government had broken a promise to protect international aid.

"There is no getting away from it, this is going to pose sev-ere difficulties when it comes to making sure every pound is well spent."

Major charities have privately raised concerns but were last night unwilling to go on the record with their criticism.

However, Denis Rutovitz, of Edinburgh Direct Aid, said: "This is completely appalling. The visit should have been funded by diplomatic or religious money not money for helping the most vulnerable around the world."

The revelation has also been taken by critics of the Pope's visit last September as evidence that it caused more harm than good. A spokesman for the Scottish Humanist Society described the use of international aid money as "scandalous".

"It is not a surprise that the government has tried to hide the true cost of the visit by spreading the payments around in this way," he added.

He said the Catholic Church has a controversial reputation on international aid, not least for its opposition to contraception.

But the Catholic Church in Scotland pointed out that the visit was worth around 14m to the economy north of the Border alone, including 4.7m for Glasgow where the Pope held an open air mass at Bellahouston Park and 4m in Edinburgh where he arrived and met the Queen.

The Church pointed out that it paid its share of the costs for the pastoral side of the visit and a spokesman added: "It is a matter for the government how it pays its share."

The government last night insisted that the use of international aid money was acceptable because of the work done by the Church in the field.

A DfID spokesman said: "DfID was one of a number of government departments part funding the Pope's visit to the UK. "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 per cent UN aid target from 2013."

He added: "The committee acknowledges that we are right to focus on conflict-ridden countries, home to some of the world's poorest people."

The Foreign Office said that the issue was being dealt with by DfID.

Aid spending is under closer scrutiny than ever after the government protected it from swingeing spending cuts elsewhere.