Liam Fox slapped down by PM in row over foreign aid

DAVID Cameron has slapped down his Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, by insisting that he would not retreat on a promise to increase international aid to the poorest countries.

The comment from the Prime Minister came after a leaked letter from Dr Fox revealed that the minister was against legislating for a minimum level of international aid.

The leak highlighted the uneasy relationship between Mr Cameron and Dr Fox, who were rivals for the Tory leadership in 2005.

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As he appeared before a Commons committee yesterday, Mr Cameron insisted that he would keep the pledge to put more than 0.7 per cent of gross national income as a statutory requirement for overseas funding.

Mr Cameron agreed with international development committee chairman Malcolm Bruce that the letter by Dr Fox made legislation more important.

"It is difficult commitment to make at a time when we are making reductions elsewhere," he said. "I profoundly think it is the right thing to do, because we have duty to the poorest in our world even at times of hardship at home.

"The fact that Britain has kept its word over the 0.7 per cent is worth a huge amount of influence in the Commonwealth, in the United Nations, in the European Union, in the G8, in the G20."

In his letter criticising aid targets, Dr Fox - who made clear he had discussed the issue with International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell and Foreign Secretary William Hague - argued that establishing a specific statutory target would open up the government to future legal challenges.

Instead, he suggested that the target should simply be recognised in legislation, along with a commitment to produce an annual report on whether it was being met.

"I have considered the issue carefully, and discussed it with Andrew and William Hague, but I cannot support the proposal in its current form," he wrote.

Dr Fox was condemned by Church leaders including the Rev Ian Galloway, convener of the Church of Scotland's church and society committee.

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"It reveals something about Dr Fox's priorities, and I hope that David Cameron sticks to his guns and commits help for poorest in the world instead of spending more money on Dr Fox's guns," Mr Galloway said.

At question time in the Lords, the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Rev Michael Langrish, said: "This is Christian Aid week, and up and down the country there are a large number of people who are raising funds to alleviate poverty in the most needy parts of the world."

But a source close to Dr Fox insisted that he was not opposed to the government's plan to increase spending on aid, saying: "The Defence Secretary fully supports the principle of a 0.7 per cent target on international aid. The issue is simply how best to reflect this in law."