George Osborne to divert aid to house refugees

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne appearing on The Andrew Marr Show. Picture: PA
Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne appearing on The Andrew Marr Show. Picture: PA
Have your say

TENS of millions of pounds are to be taken from Britain’s aid budget and handed to councils across the UK to help house refugees from Syria and north Africa, George Osborne has revealed.

Ahead of Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement today on the migrant crisis gripping Europe, the Chancellor has promised that cash will be funnelled to local authorities to cover the costs of taking “thousands more” refugees on top of £250 million already allocated to the Middle East as part of a “fundamental rethink” of the £12 billion aid budget.

The photo [of Aylan] crystallised a growing sense of crisis

George Osborne

A further £1m is to be spent by the Scottish Government, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced.

It is expected the government will accept at least 15,000 refugees from camps in the Middle East but refuse to take those who have made the dangerous crossings to Greece, Italy and Hungary. Mr Osborne made it plain that the government hopes to deal with the “root cause” of the crisis.

The Chancellor also said ministers should make the argument for military action against Islamic State militants in Syria.

However, he admitted that this will only happen if ministers think they can get a majority, and with Jeremy Corbyn expected to win the Labour leadership, he is expected to join the SNP in opposing further military action.

In a troubling development for Downing Street, it was clear last night that senior Tory backbenchers are also likely to oppose any action in Syria as well, unless Mr Cameron can “come up with a coherent strategy”.

Speaking to The Scotsman, Dr Julian Lewis, who is the Tory chairman of the defence select committee but was commenting in a personal capacity, dismissed the proposal to join bombing raids in Syria as “gesture politics” and warned that the government’s position of refusing to choose between the Assad regime in Syria and the Islamist extremists in so-called Islamic State was “delusional”.

He said that any decision to join bombing raids needs to be accompanied by “a coalition of anti-Islamist Islamic states ready to put ground troops in”.

He added: “The government is making the same mistake that was made with Iraq and Libya which is to see a very nasty dictator, take him out and hope a social democratic government will take its place when in reality it leaves the country to Islamist extremists.”

Conservative former defence minster Sir Gerald Howarth also warned any attempt to intervene militarily in Syria would provoke a response from Russia, and said the time had come to talk to President Bashar al-Assad. “At the end of the day, the man who is most likely to deal with Isil in Syria is President Assad.”

However, others, including former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, have called for the UK to start taking military action in Syria and Iraq.

In an article for a Sunday paper, the former prelate wrote: “I do not consider it enough to send aid to refugee camps in the Middle East.

“Rather, there must be renewed military and diplomatic efforts to crush the twin menaces of Islamic State and al-Qaeda once and for all.

“Make no mistake: this may mean air strikes and other British military assistance to create secure and safe enclaves.”

Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Mr Osborne said he believed the vote to block military action made by MPs almost exactly two years ago was “one of the worst” made by the Commons. While ministers were not prepared to risk a repeat of their Commons defeat two years ago on military intervention, he said they would begin making the case for extending RAF air strikes against IS in Iraq into Syria.

“We need to see support across the House of Commons for this action. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to sign up to it. We have got to spend the coming period making that argument to people,” he said.

He hinted that if Mr Corbyn – who is opposed to military intervention – triumphed in the Labour leadership contest, ministers could try to peel off support from Labour MPs opposed to the left-winger.

“I think you have plenty of Labour MPs – people like [interim leader] Harriet Harman, I suspect that she’s not particularly comfortable with the position the Labour Party took [in 2013],” he added.

Addressing help for the refugee crisis, Mr Osborne said it was right that aid spending was used in support of Britain’s national interest and he signalled a major shift in resources to the Middle East to promote stability.

He said the government’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international aid meant that increased funding would become available as the economy strengthened.

“The foreign aid budget that we have can provide the support for the first year for these refugees, to help the local councils with things like housing costs,” he said.

“This budget is tied to our GDP, our GDP is going up – let’s use the additional money very specifically on the challenges that Britain faces, one of which is this crisis on our doorstep.

“Five years ago we were spending £10m on this region, now we are spending £250m but it is still in, my view, not nearly enough.”

While the move is likely to be welcomed by Conservative MPs who have criticised the government’s commitment to the 0.7 per cent target, aid agencies may be less happy at the prospect of overseas aid money being used within the UK.

Mr Osborne refused to be drawn on how many additional refugees would be admitted but said an assessment would made as to what the country’s infrastructure and public services could support.

He acknowledged the decision to increase the numbers was in part driven by the pictures of the body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. “I think the photograph crystallised a growing sense in Britain that this was a crisis where Britain had to do more,” he said.

At the same time, he said wider action was needed to address the instability in the region which had led so many people to flee, which meant dealing with the threat from Islamic State.

In a sign of how the crisis has moved many people in Britain, more than 2,000 have offered to house refugees in their own homes while others have donated food, clothes and shelter to ease the growing humanitarian crisis.

Many thousands have descended on community centres, churches and village halls across the country to make donations to help with the relief effort abroad. In what charities have hailed as an almost unprecedented outpouring of support, teachers, dinner ladies and Green Party leader Natalie Bennett gave up their Sunday to volunteer to help with donations.

Labour leadership contender Yvette Cooper, whose speech last week helped to shift the debate on refugees in the UK, has also said she will give up a spare room for a refugee.

“I think we can do that, I think you’ve got a lot of people across the country, coming forward saying, ‘Now, do you know what, we want to help’, and I think it has been a huge tribute to people’s compassion.”