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Developing Country Debt (Restriction of Recovery)

Volume 492: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2009

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the recovery of the defaulted sovereign debt of developing countries; and for connected purposes.

This small Bill touches on some of the big issues of our times: the unbridled profiteering of some financial institutions; the pressing need for regulation of the excesses of those institutions; and the gulf between their massive wealth and the desperate poverty of millions of people in developing countries. The Bill aims to put some simple regulations in place to stem the worst of the abuses by the vulture funds that profiteer from the debts of some of the poorest people in the world.

The economic crisis has already highlighted the flaws in the global financial system, which we all recognise is in need of reform. It has revealed widespread under-regulation of various financial market actors, including hedge funds and other investors. There is agreement across the House that regulation that is too “light touch” has not served us well, and that more controls are needed to ensure the standards of probity that we expect in the UK as a world centre for financial services. That includes the regulation of hedge funds, and just this week there have been proposals from Europe in that regard. This Bill, therefore, is being proposed against the background of the Government’s commitment to act to regulate financial services.

Another aspect of the background to the Bill is the Government’s outstanding commitment to dealing with developing country debt, which is greatly undermined by the activities of the so-called vulture funds. The Bill is aimed directly at those companies and funds that buy up defaulted sovereign debt at highly discounted prices, then try to recover the full amount, plus costs and fees, through the courts—often, unfortunately, through the UK courts.

The funds are often based in tax havens and are secretive, and it is the secrecy as well as the profiteering that this Bill seeks to address. One of the most notorious cases is that of Donegal International Ltd, which set its sights on Zambia. An excellent investigative report by the BBC’s “Newsnight” programme revealed the full extent of the scandal.

Zambia was provided with a loan to buy some tractors, but by the 1990s it was unable to pay the money back. The country was in the process of trying to find a settlement with the creditors for the debts, but the fund purchased the debt for the knockdown price of $3.3 million in 1999. It proceeded to pursue Zambia through the UK courts for the full amount of the debt, plus interest and fees, demanding an astonishing $55 million in total. The courts awarded a total of $15.5 million, more than five times what the fund had paid for the debt—money that could have been used to train doctors, nurses and teachers, or to build hospitals. A big chunk of it, enough to pay for 30,000 primary school places, ended up in the hands of a secretive, unaccountable private fund.

That is not an isolated case. A current example involves the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a company called FG Hemisphere, which has been awarded $100 million against an original claim of $44.1 million. In addition, Argentina is being pursued through the UK courts for $285 million. Such activity undermines UK and international efforts to reduce the unsustainable debts of developing countries.

Our Government have been at the forefront of driving through the cancellation of the debts of some of the poorest countries. We have contributed to the programme of debt reduction for 35 countries, 29 of them in Africa, providing a total of $51 billion in debt relief.

Debt relief and cancellation have allowed the release of funds for spending on social projects in the countries involved. Thousands of new schools and classrooms have been built as a result, and there has been investment in water systems, teachers, health care projects and many other programmes. Many of Zambia’s creditors, including the UK, agreed to cancel its debts on the understanding that the funds would be used to reduce poverty among the very poor, and not to provide a huge and completely undeserved payday for the very rich.

Thanks to the Jubilee Debt Campaign and the “Newsnight” exposé, some action was taken by the UK and other countries to reduce the risk of sovereign debts falling into the hands of vulture funds. Agreement was reached with the World Bank to help poor countries buy back their commercial debts at a discount. In addition, the board of the Africa Development Bank agreed to endorse the establishment of an independent legal support facility to advise countries on how best to tackle vulture fund activity. However, the global economic downturn has produced more debt problems in the developing world; hence the need for this Bill.

The Bill has four main provisions. First, it would stop the excessive profiteering by preventing financial institutions and companies from buying up developing countries’ debts at cut-rate prices, then suing the country’s Government through the UK courts for the full original amount of the debt. The Bill would limit the maximum recovery amount to the sum paid by the financial institution, plus a simple rate of interest and charges specified in the Bill.

Secondly, the Bill would introduce accountability. It makes provision for controls on recovery actions and introduces reporting requirements. The financial institutions—the vultures—would have to get permission from the UK courts before starting recovery proceedings in the UK for any amount of defaulted debt from a developing country. In addition, the vulture would have to ensure that a copy of the application went to the UK Government and to the UK representative of the developing country’s Government.

Thirdly, the Bill would ensure greater transparency. It would shine a light on the vultures and require the financial institutions to disclose the beneficiaries of the recovery proceedings. It has been completely impossible to get information about this in the past. We have been unable to find out who has benefited from some of these huge undertakings involving recovery actions pursued through the UK courts.

Fourthly, the Bill would help to combat corruption. It contains anti-corruption measures that would require a vulture fund to declare any payments or gifts given by it or its colleagues to the developing country’s Government.

I would like to pay particular tribute to the colleagues in the House who were active in putting their names forward to support the Bill. I would also like to thank the Jubilee Debt Campaign, which first brought this subject to light, and which has worked tirelessly to keep debt at the heart of the international debate on poverty and economic justice. I would also like to thank the Clerks in our Public Bill Office, who did a phenomenal job of drafting the Bill. Similar legislation is being introduced in the US Congress, and I hope that the special relationship that exists between our two countries will extend to dealing with this very unacceptable face of capitalism.

Over the past months, we have all been appalled by some of the extraordinary greed in the financial sector—Fred Goodwin’s pension springs to mind, among other things—but the impact of these vulture funds on developing countries is far worse than anything that we see here in the UK. About two thirds of Zambia’s 12 million people live on less than $1 a day. They are truly the poor of this world. The amount of money that one single vulture fund tried to get from that country would have been enough to keep all those very poor people going for five days—a full working week. That level of profiteering is well in excess of anything that we have seen in the UK, and it is wrong that this country, which has such a proud record on international aid and debt relief, should be used as a haven for secretive and exploitative funds operating without scrutiny or regulation.

After I have presented the Bill today, we will be discussing in our debate on the Finance Bill the impact of the excesses of the banking system on our own economy. My Bill deals with the consequences of those profits on some of the poorest people in the world, and I hope that the House will give me permission to introduce it.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Ms Sally Keeble, Sir Gerald Kaufman, Hilary Armstrong, Mr. Peter Lilley, Andrew Stunell, Mr. Andy Reed, Tom Brake, Mr. David Drew, John Austin, Mr. David S. Borrow, Mark Lazarowicz and John Bercow present the Bill.

Ms Sally Keeble accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 June and to be printed (Bill 91).