Chancellor Rishi Sunak has insisted Britain is not turning its back on the world’s poorest as he defended the Government’s plan to cut the foreign aid budget.

Speaking on Sky News, Rishi Sunak said the coronavirus pandemic has forced his hand, leaving him to make "difficult choices".

The Chancellor's spending review yesterday saw the foreign aid budget commitment cut from the equivalent of 0.7 per cent of gross national income to 0.5 per cent.

A number of prominent Conservatives publicly expressed concern at the move – which formed part of the party’s manifesto – as the Government’s economic forecasts were questioned by some economists.

The overseas aid cut was announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak as one of a number of measures intended to help cope with the economy contracting by an expected 11.3 per cent this year.

READ MORE: Chancellor Rishi Sunak - a PM in waiting?

He said: “No one wants to be having to make these difficult decisions, but this is about an economic emergency that I described yesterday and we’re going to have record-level peacetime borrowing and debt.

“I don’t think anyone could characterise our level of support for the poorest countries as turning our back.

“We’ll be spending more as a percentage of GDP than France, Canada, the US, Japan.”

He added that he was “very proud” of the UK’s efforts in addressing some of the world’s most difficult problems.

Public sector wages are “generally higher” than those in the private sector, the Chancellor said, as he sought to explain the decision to freeze the pay of an estimated 1.3 million workers.

Rishi Sunak said there was a “disparity” between the public and private sectors going into the coronavirus crisis, and that “even when you take into account characteristics and pensions, there was at least a 7% pay premium for public sector”.

He added: “That pay premium has certainly widened in the last six months, because what we’ve seen over the last six months is private sector wages have fallen by a percent and public sector wages have risen by around 4%.

“On top of that, people in the private sector are losing their jobs, their hours are being cut, they are being furloughed – none of that is happening in the public sector.

“So given the context, I couldn’t justify an across the board, universal pay increase for the public sector.”

Speaking on Good Morning Scotland, Scotland's finance secretary Kate Forbes said she "absolutely disagrees" with a public sector pay freeze. 

She said: "I think a pay freeze absolutely misjudges the value of frontline services.

“I absolutely disagree with the chancellor’s approach to freezing the pay of public sector workers.

"Just a few short months ago, we were all applauding the key workers who are working on the frontline and responding to Covid, and now they’re seeing their pay frozen."

The Scottish Government will set out it's budget at the end of January, where Ms Forbes says will focus on economic recovery, protecting and creating jobs, tackling inequalities and dealing with the health crisis.

READ MORE: Spending Review: Scottish reaction as pay freeze condemned

She said: “There has been substantial damage done to the economy, the office for budget responsibility figures demonstrated that yesterday, and they are quite stark figures, which means this is a time to be offering support, helping families in need, but also critically, investing in economic recovery.”

She added: “Now is the time to be investing, to make the most of record-low interest rate borrowing, in order to speed up that economic recovery which could last for many years.”

“We’re still in the midst of the pandemic, we’re still in the midst of trying to analyse the economic impact that we will see, but ultimately right now we should be investing in infrastructure, we should be investing in economic recovery, because that is the fastest way to get us out of the challenging situation that we find ourselves in.”

Ms Forbes also claimed that Rishi Sunak is cutting the Scottish Government’s capital budget at the same time as the country tries to deal with Covid-19.

The UK Treasury said measures in the Spending Review mean Scotland will get an additional £2.4 billion of cash – with more than half (£1.3 billion) of this related to the pandemic.

That comes on top of the £8.2 billion the Scottish Government has already received to help deal with the impact of coronavirus.

But Ms Forbes accused the Chancellor of cutting her capital spending budget at the same time as this is being increased in the rest of the UK.

Respondind to Mr Sunak's spending review announcement yesterday, she said: “Whilst there’s a headline of £27bn increase across the UK that the Chancellor made yesterday, if you look beyond the figures you see that actually the Scottish Government’s capital budget has been cut by five per cent.

She added: “Because Westminster is our primary source of income, it’s important that the UK government ensures that every part of the country is getting the funding that it needs, not just in rhetoric, but also in substance.”