Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am conscious that we are having this debate on the day that Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are, as the Times has reported,
“cementing an alliance to make the world safe for autocrats.”
I am also conscious that we are debating this on the day we hear that the First Minister of Northern Ireland is intent on resigning and possibly paralysing the Government of Northern Ireland, which definitely defeats the democratic intentions of the people of Northern Ireland. But I am confident that by the end of this debate we will be in a position, because of your Lordships’ contributions, to allay the fears of the people of the world in respect of this global alliance, and of the people of Northern Ireland as to how their democracy is not under threat either.
Democracy is in retreat and authoritarianism is on the rise. According to the University of Gothenburg’s V-Dem Institute, non-democratic countries outnumber democracies for the first time in 20 years, and 2021 was the fifth consecutive year in which more nations moved towards authoritarianism than democracy. In December, President Biden convened a virtual summit for democracy around an agenda that challenged authoritarianism and sought to fight corruption and kleptocracy and promote human rights. He said that
“we stand at an inflection point”,
with the future of democracy facing
“sustained and alarming challenges”.
In fact, the V-Dem Democracy Report 2021, which reflects analyses based on an assessment of nearly 30 million data points and aspects of democracy such as the freedom and independence of legislatures, judiciaries, the media and civil society, and human rights, shows the continuing global decline of liberal democracy. Electoral autocracies are still the most common regime type and, along with closed autocracies—ones in which the people are denied elections—they are home to 68% of the world’s population.
The data shows a drift of democratic backsliding engulfing 25 nations, or one-third of the world’s population. G20 nations such as Brazil, India, Turkey and the USA are part of that drift. Poland wins the shameful title of the country which declined the most during the past decade. I am confounded by that, given the history of Poland.
The process of decline follows a predictable pattern. Once elected—fairly or, more likely, after some manipulation of the electoral process—autocrats tend, if possible, to quickly remove the time limits on their term of office. They maintain power through centralised control of information and resources; political opposition is either forbidden or strongly curtailed; and individual freedom is limited by the state. First, they attack and repress the media and civil society and polarise societies by disrespecting opponents and spreading false information. Then, they undermine elections.
Dominant party authoritarian regimes exploit Western legal and financial systems against Western media where it is critical of their regimes. They sue the media, or they buy it. Russian companies have acquired large ownership stakes in foreign media companies and influenced their operations. They have engaged in disinformation campaigns that exploit weakness in our freedom of speech protections.
It is now common knowledge that Russian-controlled agencies and businesses played a strategically vital role in interference in the US 2016 presidential election, showing that it is possible to interfere destructively in the most powerful Western democracy. The ISC Russia report found credible open-source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns during the Scottish independence referendum. Although accepting that the evidence about the EU referendum campaign was less clear-cut, the committee recommended that the UK intelligence community produce and publish an assessment of possible Russian interference in the EU referendum to reassure the public that our democratic processes are safe. I should like to see that reassurance.
Rule by thieves arises when a country’s elite begins systematically to steal from public funds on a vast scale. Undermining democracy and the legal system, it gains control over vital economic assets and amasses substantial wealth. No longer is kleptocracy a corrupt political system in a few poor nations. It is a global network, with members including world leaders and powerful businesspeople. Assisted by corrupt professionals with the expertise to launder their wealth through a maze of shell companies, they secure it in luxury assets in the West or in our banks. According to the IMF, as much of 5% of the world’s GDP is laundered money and only 1% of it is ever spotted.
Collectively, developing countries have lost $16.3 trillion to elicit leakages since 1980. Their people struggle, they starve, they die, while their Governments export the country’s wealth and become net creditors to the world’s economy. Some of the money is hidden right here. Prime UK properties provide an attractive conduit for securing and legitimising the laundered funds. Despite much rhetoric, progress on paper and repeated parliamentary calls for change, the UK remains a haven for dirty money, a great deal of which comes from Russia and Eurasia.
It is not just money that is laundered but reputations as well. Family and key friends and allies of the thieves merge into our UK society at the very highest level. Some acquire British citizenship following receipt of a “golden visa”. Settled here, they donate to charities, threaten journalists with legal actions and make political connections and political donations. The Government have failed adequately to address this problem and, in the meantime, the provision of services by British professionals to kleptocrats corrupts our world-leading financial services and corrupts and undermines the famous efficiency of our legal system. Worse, it degrades our international reputation as a beacon of democracy and honesty.
The Government placed combating serious organised crime at the centre of their foreign policy but seem not to recognise the intimate connections that UK society and institutions have with kleptocratic states and their elites, who continue to find a welcome in London. The number of times that parliamentarians have drawn attention to this issue in reports, debates and Questions are too numerous to list. Yesterday, the Treasury Select Committee published but the latest example. In its report Economic Crime, one paragraph says it all. I refer to paragraph 230, which I will read short in the interests of time:
“Reform of Companies House is essential if UK companies are no longer to be used to launder money and conduct economic crime.”
It says that there is change:
“However, the pace of change is slow. The problems with UK company structures were identified by the Government in 2014 in the UK Anti-Corruption Plan. While there have been welcome innovations, such as the People with Significant Control register, on current plans it will have taken over 10 years to improve matters, during which time a large number of UK companies may have been put to criminal use by a wide range of criminals.”
I qualify that, on my part but not on behalf of the committee, by saying that companies have been used in a criminal way by a wide range of criminals, including kleptocrats.
In Europe alone, populist politicians have recently risen to power in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland and have gained momentum in France, Spain, here and elsewhere. In Hungary and Poland, this has been accompanied by an erosion of the rule of law, democratic backsliding, greater authoritarianism and an increase in the persecution of minorities. In the words of Jan Kubik from UCL, contrary to Viktor Orbán’s rhetoric, there is no such thing as an illiberal democracy.
Populist parties and politicians divide societies into “the people versus the corrupt elite” and argue that politics should express the general will of the people. By “the people” they mean their people. They erode the informal norms of democracy, question the loyalty of the opposition and decry criticism as fake news. As winners of democratic elections, they fail to constrain themselves and instead hollow out and politicise formal institutions of that democracy. They undermine formal institutions such as the courts, legislatures and regulatory agencies as creations of a “corrupt elite”. Rather than tolerating a free press and political opposition, instead they try to undermine their legitimacy and, most insidiously, they redefine “the people” by excluding vulnerable ethnic or religious minorities, immigrants and marginalised economic groups. The result is majority rule without minority rights. Mainstream political parties, the backbone of representative democracy, have so far largely failed to address these threats and some centre-right parties have become populist instead.
In his remarks at the Biden summit, Boris Johnson announced that we in the UK
“are working with our friends to ensure that”
we are using
“emerging technologies … designed to safeguard our shared values”,
“developing countries to build clean and green infrastructure with transparent projects, that are open to scrutiny”
and deploying new
“national sanctions to target those responsible for … human rights violations.”
Further, he promised in the “Year of Action” to
“take even stronger measures against the illicit finance that undermines democracy everywhere, strengthening our … powers to go after the criminals who”
exploit our lax corporate structures, bringing
“openness to the purchase of properties in the UK”
and taking forward
“new laws to safeguard our democratic processes and institutions from those who would do us harm.”
As the RUSI report makes clear,
“2022 has the potential to be an impressive year of action for the UK. But it requires the prime minister to acknowledge the UK’s global illicit finance responsibilities and reverse his current irresponsible disinterest in a topic that—as it does the US—threatens the UK’s national security interests.”
It also requires our Prime Minister candidly to accept that, if democracy is to begin at home, this requires more self-awareness than hitherto he has been capable of. If he genuinely wishes to be seen as a global leader for democracy, he needs to be clear that he and his Government are learning lessons too.
During his time in office, our Prime Minister has progressively degraded norms and standards, such as with the unlawful Prorogation of Parliament and the failure to dismiss the Home Secretary for bullying, to name but two examples. It seems that this Government are still on course to assault our democracy. We need look no further than our present and upcoming parliamentary business: an election Bill that affronts the right to vote, a policing Bill that sought to criminalise protests and a Nationality and Borders Bill that has been described as stripping British citizenship with the stroke of a pen.
What is more, this Government appear set on limiting the courts’ power to hold public bodies to account through judicial review and intent on tearing up the Human Rights Act and placing legal constraints on whistleblowing and journalism—and all this against a background where the Government whipped their vote through Parliament to support a Motion that ripped up parliamentary standards in a doomed attempt to save the disgraced MP Owen Paterson, who had lobbied for companies that paid him hundreds of thousands of pounds. The reality is that our Prime Minister has presided over a culture of corruption and clientelism. What other words are there to describe a politics in which political donors are given privileged access to a VIP lane for lucrative Covid contracts? I have but one question for the Minister, whom I admire greatly, as I know do many of your Lordships: what is the plan of action for the year of action? I cannot find one anywhere in government documents.
My Lords, I hope that we are not going to deteriorate into a sort of two-party or three-party squabble, because the Question that the noble Lord has put on the agenda is a fundamental one in European and wider terms. In 1979, Jim Callaghan noted that the age of post-war consensus politics was coming to an end. He probably did not realise how true the words that he spoke were. Today we have not only a very unsatisfactory democracy for those of us who grew up in the immediate post-war world but one that is largely underwritten by the population. This is something quite new.
I spent most of my active political career travelling around the world in many different guises and visiting other countries with many different forms of democracy. When I started in 1979, most of them at least subscribed to the idea that they were doing the best for their people. But by the end of that era, where we are now, we have not only a situation that is quite unsatisfactory but, I put it to your Lordships, a system that has far more support from the grass roots than we should be happy with.
I spent 20 years in the European Parliament as its rapporteur on Turkey. I saw it from the rule of General Evren and the colonels right through to the present President, Mr Erdoğan, who was Prime Minister when I finished. We may not like it, but we have to accept that Erdoğan has won all the elections that he has stood in. They have all been observed by Council of Europe and OSCE delegations and been passed as, on balance, acceptable. The people of Turkey have consistently voted for the policies that their President has wished on them, even though most of those policies are a big abnegation of anything that we could call democracy.
The same can be seen in other countries. My son studied in Moscow. I visited Moscow around the time of the Crimea incident, among other times. It was clear that the Russian population were overwhelmingly behind Putin, and they still are. He still has a roughly 60% positive rating, which is something that Keir Starmer or Johnson can only dream about.
My point is that it is fine for us to feel unhappy about the decline in democracy, and I indeed do. I share a lot of the reservations the noble Lord, Lord Browne, mentioned but I also think that we need to look beyond where we are and see why it has come about. I think one of the reasons is the genuine collapse in confidence of ordinary people that politicians can make a difference to their lives. That is probably the thing we need to direct our attention to.
Politics has become far too professional. I remember when I came into politics in the 60s—this was after 1966—they used to say we have 300 members of the parliamentary Labour Party, 100 of them are totally unfit for office, another 100 do not want office so that gives us 100 people from whom to fill 80 ministerial posts. If you look back, Ministers lasted a long time. Now, virtually everybody in Parliament is capable of being a Minister, but I am not sure that they are capable of relating to the people who elect them to this building.
There is a fundamental challenge. I do not think it is a clash between two parties; it is a challenge for us to get our act together and start building democracy back and promoting the values on which it is based.
My Lords, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that we have to say something about the UK’s standing as a democracy because that affects our ability to respond to the current situation. We all agree that we face a global push-back against democracy and the rule of law. It is led by China and Russia, supported by the central Asian states that emerged from the USSR, and now also by Turkey, with governing parties in two EU members, Hungary and Poland, drifting into that camp.
I want to stress the role that Middle East autocracies are actively playing in this development. We have seen the wealthy Governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia actively working to suppress the democratic efforts of the Arab spring, supporting the military coup in Egypt, funding anti-democratic forces in Libya, helping to undermine democracy in Tunisia and contributing almost as much as Iran and Israel to the destabilisation of Lebanon. Their elites also penetrate open democracies such as the UK, employing PR companies and buying football clubs to bolster their reputations. They buy mansions and country estates and gain acceptance within our political and social elites. The current rise in energy prices will increase their ability to extend their influence through societies like ours.
The global reputation of democratic government has been shaken by recent events in the United States and Britain. The American Republican Party, which some in our Conservative Party still see as a model they wish to follow, is engaged in voter suppression and election-fixing. Here, we have a Prime Minister who has broken the Ministerial Code on numerous occasions and stretched the boundaries of reasoned debate, respect for opposition and the rule of law.
The Lords will shortly be scrutinising the Elections Bill—it was originally entitled the election integrity Bill but has now dropped the claim to integrity—which has been designed to tilt our democracy further in favour of the Conservative Party. That will be followed by the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, an almost direct copy of Republican efforts within the United States, which is intended to extend state influence over university teaching and appointments.
Populist Ministers in our Government repeatedly attack the BBC for its failure to present the government line uncritically. The Prime Minister loves to talk about Britain as a “soft power superpower”. I remind the Minister that the integrated security strategy published a year ago noted five key elements of British soft power as the BBC, the global reputation of our universities, the generosity of our international development efforts, the work of the British Council and the strength of our cultural sector. All have been undermined since then by government decisions and ministerial attacks.
Our populist Prime Minister loves to talk of Britain “leading” a group of democratic nations across the world. Sadly, we are in no position to lead the democratic world now. A glance at overseas media across continental Europe, south Asia and North America shows that the political antics of recent years have replaced respect with ridicule. I sympathise with the Minister, who must of course defend the Government; he is somewhat better than this, but he will be painfully aware of the damage that current events have done to Britain’s global reputation.
However, at least we can do something to reduce the penetration of British politics, society and business by kleptocrats from authoritarian states. One of the most disturbing statements in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report, in paragraphs 50 and 53, was that the integration of post-Soviet oligarchs into
“the UK business and social scene … cannot be untangled, and the priority now must be to mitigate the risk”.
Boris Johnson’s attempts to downgrade and delay government action in response to the recommendations of the Russia report are one of the most disgraceful aspects of his premiership.
Priority in the next parliamentary Session must be given at last to the economic crime Bill and revision of our outdated Official Secrets Act. I hope also that the Government will accept the amendment I have tabled to the Nationality and Borders Bill to suspend the tier 1 investor visa scheme, which has allowed oligarchs to import corruption into the UK and buy access to the top of the Conservative Party. Such changes will reduce the damage that has been inflicted on Britain by corrupt and hostile foreign influences. But other changes will be needed to restore our damaged global reputation as a democratic, open society.
We were due to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Hacking, but he is not here. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, would now like to speak.
My Lords, the last century, the one in which many Members of your Lordships’ House spent most of their lives, opened with a world dominated by empires and autocracies, and with true democracies very much in a minority. The century closed with democracies in the ascendant, the empires largely gone and something close to a rules-based international order having emerged from the ashes of two world wars and one long Cold War. Any complacency that that progress might have engendered has long since dissipated, with several autocracies or quasi-autocracies prominent, and with the rules-based order under threat, from within as well as from outside, as supporters of unfettered national sovereignty espouse policies that are inconsistent with their countries’ obligations under international law. So, today’s debate is timely and I warmly welcome the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, in securing it, and his excellent introductory speech.
What needs to be done to check the trends of the last few years and to secure what was once described as
“a world safe for democracy”?
First, we need to ensure that our own democracies are in good working order and that they are promoting, in practice as well as in rhetoric, policies that strengthen other democracies worldwide and further respect for human rights, as laid out in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. We also need to ensure that our democracies encourage effective international co-operation to address the great challenges of our time: climate change, pandemics, the risks of nuclear proliferation and war, and trade protectionism. That will not be the work of one year or of one Government. It will require concerted effort over decades, and it is not happening—yet, at least.
Should this effort involve a more or less formal grouping of democracies? I rather doubt whether that is the right direction in which we or others should be moving. Such a grouping would raise plenty of problems—first, what is described as the “sheep and goats” problem. How do you decide, and who decides, which countries are truly democratic sheep and which are undemocratic goats? It is not easy, and certain to lead to many difficulties over borderline cases. Moreover, while such a grouping can apply policies and make rules for its own members, it cannot hope to make such policies and rules binding on others. Where globally applicable rules are needed, as with the global challenges that I mentioned earlier, this grouping will simply not be able to deliver the goods.
So, while it is right for democracies to work very closely together, I also suggest that they would best do so within global institutions, many of which already exist, even if their efforts are so far inadequate. Yes, we ourselves should be working to strengthen other democracies and working with regional bodies such as the European Union and the African Union, which are mandated by their founding charters to uphold democracy; but we should not regard democracy as something to be imposed by force nor, conversely, as in the case of Taiwan, to be reversed by force.
Those global institutions I referred to may not be working very effectively, but should they be replaced by something different? In my view, that would be an act of folly. Is there really any likelihood that they would be replaced by something better? Just read the UN charter, if you want an example, and ask yourself whether that document could be negotiated today. More likely, the world would slip back into the law of the jungle which prevailed in the first half of the 20th century and from which it had to be rescued by the democracies, with the expenditure of much blood and treasure and massive human suffering. What is needed, surely, are policies of incremental reform, which will make those global institutions more fit for purpose. I hope that our own country will play a prominent role in shaping the reforms needed, as we did with honour in the past, and that we will act by example and not just by assertion.
I have to say that some of the legislation that has come before your Lordships’ House in recent years—the internal market Act, the external operations Act and the Bill before the House this afternoon on frontiers and border protection—is inconsistent with our obligations under international law. The Minister can stand at the Dispatch Box and say that this Parliament is sovereign and can change these things if it wishes, and that is correct—but another Minister cannot succeed that Minister at the Dispatch Box and say that we are the great supporters of the rules-based international order.
In following the noble Lord, I very much agree with him that we should refer ourselves back to the creation of the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF and the other institutions. Indeed, the Motion refers to co-ordination, which is a very important point.
I move on to sub-Saharan Africa, where there is a quarter of the world’s poorest countries. It seems a very good example of the struggles to arrive at a proper understanding of the norms and values of democracy. It has been said, and I think it is right, that the best thing about democracy is that it enables you to change your Government without violence. In sub-Saharan Africa, that is by no means universally the case. Another thing that one could say is that some countries that have been mentioned today, including our own, have arrived at an understanding of the norms and values of democracy and are now being accused of backsliding—what you might call the Capitol syndrome. But many other countries have never got there. It is important that we think differently about the countries that have never got to the point where they had regimes that respected the norms and values of democracy.
When one thinks about sub-Saharan Africa, one is looking for something positive—that is to say, what are we going to do about it? Do we have any responsibility to do anything? If so, what will we do? Of course, that takes one back to the international organisations. In reading about the World Bank’s operations in sub-Saharan Africa, I get the impression that it is rather tired. It is not the World Bank I remember from 20 or 30 years ago.
The positives we need to find are headed by economic development. We know that if you want to have a reasonable regime, it is important to be able to collect some taxes and to have some public expenditure. If your economy simply does not support that approach, you are not very far along the road to having an acceptable regime. In thinking about acceptable regimes, it is risky to assume that the default position is our understanding of democracy. All the evidence shows that this is not the case and that there may be many other ways in which people will continue to think about their politics and their regime that do not conform to our understanding of the norms and values of democracy. We have to approach all this rather cautiously.
I want to cite two examples in sub-Saharan Africa: Burundi and Cameroon. They were both brought under German colonial control in 1884. At the end of the First World War, they were both taken away from Germany and, by a co-ordinated effort of the League of Nations, one became Belgian and one a mixture of French and English. We now have virtually no relationship with Burundi, but we have a sanctions regime. It seems to me that to apply a sanctions regime to Burundi, which is similar to that we might apply to Russia, does not make any sense. I think the British Government have forgotten Burundi. On Cameroon, I have just one last sentence: there is conflict there, again created to quite a large extent by the League of Nations decision after the First World War and by independence and what happened in 1971. I think our Government’s reaction is that Cameroon is too complicated for us to have an opinion about what should be done there. After Brexit, we now need some opinions about what needs to be done in sub-Saharan Africa.
My Lords, Bain & Company presents itself as a reputable global consultancy operating across the world, with an office in London and recent contracts worth £55 million with the Cabinet Office alone. Yet in South Africa, Bain brazenly assisted former President Jacob Zuma to organise his decade of shameless looting and corruption, with the company earning fat fees estimated at £100 million—or 2 billion rand—from state institutions.
South Africa’s State Capture Commission, a judicial inquiry headed by Deputy Chief Justice Zondo, indicted Bain’s work with the South African Revenue Service as “unlawful” and recommended that all its South African public sector contracts be re-examined with a view to prosecution. At the time, Bain South Africa’s work was endorsed by both its London office and its US headquarters in Boston. Bain has also been disgracefully smearing Mr Athol Williams, a key whistle-blower praised by the Zondo commission who recently had to flee to the UK for his safety.
Given the scandalous collusion of Bain UK and Bain USA. I am asking that the UK Government and the US Government immediately suspend all government contracts with Bain. I wrote three weeks ago to the Prime Minister requesting this, and he has just replied stating that the Cabinet Office will
“look into this matter with urgency”
and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster wrote to me yesterday saying that the Government will be contacting Bain. I hope that those contracts will be suspended and that that is the case for all public sector contracts in the UK.
However, Bain’s shamefully shady behaviour is just the tip of the iceberg. The prodigious looting, corruption and money laundering under former President Zuma would not have been possible without the complicity of Bain, KPMG, McKinsey, SAP, Hogan Lovells and the banks HSBC, Standard Chartered and Bank of Baroda. Those fee-clutching global corporates and turn-a-blind-eye Governments from London and Washington to Dubai, Delhi and Beijing helped to rob South African taxpayers, contributing to a catastrophic loss of South Africa’s GDP of around one-fifth. Economists estimate the full cost of the Zuma state capture to be a monumental £750 million or 1.5 trillion rand. The Government’s total annual expenditure is just 2 trillion rand annually. These global corporates all obtained sweetheart state contracts, which helped Zuma’s business associates, the Gupta brothers, to loot the state. Global banks such as HSBC, Standard Chartered and Baroda transferred this looted money through their digital pipelines to less regulated jurisdictions such as Dubai and Hong Kong, or British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean, to then clean the money by mingling it with other funds, disguising its origins and enabling it to be more easily spent.
Lawyers and accountants assisted the Guptas to set up complex shell, or front, companies, hiding their true owners—the Guptas or their associates—and enabling money to be moved to a country where there is low transparency. Dishonest audits left suspicious transactions hidden. Estate agents received laundered money during Gupta property purchases. Global brand names from KPMG to McKinsey, from HSBC to Standard Chartered, all profited while the Guptas hid and spent their stolen funds that could otherwise have been destined for essential South African public services, job creation or infrastructure, leaving South Africa’s public finances near-bankrupted and its growth stalled.
I therefore find it completely unacceptable that Bain is licensed to operate commercially in the UK, the USA or anywhere else in the world—at least until it has repaid all its fees earned from the South African state during the Zuma-Gupta years and answered charges in the courts there. Unless the UK, US, Chinese, Indian and UAE Governments co-operate with each other, state capture will happen again, either in South Africa or other countries.
The truth is that international criminals continue to loot and money-launder with impunity through centres such as London, New York, Hong Kong, Delhi and Dubai. Ministers talk the talk on corruption but refuse to take the necessary tough action against guilty big corporations to stop it. Meanwhile, financial crime is estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, to be worth around 5% of global GDP, or $2 trillion, each and every year.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Browne, on mounting this debate. He has been absolutely tireless in promoting more international co-operation and co-ordination on all the really existential issues threatening the world in an extremely dangerous time for us all. This debate is a marvellous further step in that direction.
I also agree with my noble friend Lord Balfe that we need to start on this question of defeating the autocracies by looking at and repairing our own weaknesses in democracy. I agree with most of what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said on the same theme. I think I was a bit naive in agreeing with my noble friend Lord Balfe that there was going to be a non-partisan approach to these totally new issues, but I am afraid that was soon disabused. Maybe my naivety will have to be put aside.
We have to know what the weaknesses in the democratic pattern are in this digital age. About a year ago, the Cambridge Centre for the Future of Democracy produced an extensive and extremely alarming report examining the views of millennials and Generation X—the people born after 1990—who, by a large majority, delivered the view that they were losing faith in democracy. I think it was rather a general question. They did not really mean that they were against democracy; what they meant was that the systems of democracy that are around are not delivering for these people in the way that perhaps they did for my generation and those in between.
I therefore think we have to be ready to move outside the old western camp view of thinking and maybe search into Asia where, frankly, all the great growth, all the booming economies and possibly all the biggest dangers will be over the next 10 or 20 years, and see what additional lessons we can learn in a world that is no longer ideological in the old Cold War language, with neat ideological divides between the systems and so on. I do not think the world is at all like the sort of thing that George Soros was wrongly stating the other day, with two economic systems lined up against each other. The reality is that the economic, social and therefore political mixtures ahead, in all continents, will turn out to conform neither to the isms of the past nor to the clichés of 20th-century European political discourse.
Just as what we continue to call democracy in the West seems to many people not very democratic at all, so what the Chinese, for instance, call socialism is really not very socialist either. Wise leaders should avoid attaching the old ideological labels to either of these models and recognise instead that revolutionary technology has fundamentally changed the behaviour of individuals to one another, of businesses to one another, of economies and of nations. A new kind of populist connectivity is pushing its way through just about everywhere, regardless of the doctrines and labels to which officials continue to cling.
I was particularly supportive of the concept advanced by the Foreign Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, when she talked about the need for understanding the world in terms of networks, and in particular a “network of liberty” of like-minded countries broadly dedicated—not always succeeding—to democratic values in lining up a security and defence chain, as it were, against the outright flouters of democracy, which are obviously to be found in Moscow and Beijing. This is the new pattern, which I think we have to apply our minds to.
I would like to see a prize awarded to the genius in the vanguard of thinking who can come up with a new language to explain to, inspire and guide confused millennials and the younger generation just about everywhere. Just as our forefathers invented the words “capitalism” and “socialism” only a couple of centuries ago to describe the new industrial world emerging, so we need the same inventiveness to describe the digital world that has replaced it. It is a challenge for thinkers and leaders in both East and West.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Browne and begin with a Polish question. What is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? A pessimist says things cannot get any worse and an optimist says, oh yes they can. We can surely apply that to the position of democracy today. There is certainly a recession, a backsliding.
Consider the position perhaps 30 years ago. We had the end of the Berlin Wall, which led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Empire—
“Bliss was it in that dawn”—
and the end of apartheid in South Africa and, indeed, Namibia. It was the end of a chapter of colonialism. We had the time when the United States was the only hegemon and was not challenged by an authoritarian China.
A little later, there was the pent-up anger against autocrats which led to the Arab spring. Now, what is left of the Arab spring? Some may say, Tunisia, but the jury is out on Tunisia, and everywhere else where there was the Arab spring there has been a deterioration. The situation has changed very much indeed.
Secretary Blinken on his visit to Africa last year spoke of a “democratic recession”. There has been a series of military coups. There has been a series of civil conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia, and generally, as the Library notes show, reports from a series of well-respected international organisations illustrate that recession.
Even in Europe, there is a fragility in our democracies. In France, the 25 January edition of Le Figaro showed the disillusion with democracy there. Some 39% of the 11,000 French people polled would welcome an elected strong man, but more than 50% would welcome a government by experts, not by elected people. The majority thought that, on the whole, the political elite was corrupt. Perhaps the position in this country is less fragile—we do not have the Bonapartist tradition—but look elsewhere around Europe and see the position of illiberal democracy in Hungary and the position in Poland.
My second reflection is that the contrast between democracy and autocracy has never been so stark, but there is a continuum, with perhaps North Korea at one end and the Scandinavians at the other. It is a problem of more so, less so. To illustrate that, I invite noble Lords to look at the Council of Europe and the fact that Russia is there. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014, yet it is a member of this major human rights organisation. Even, alas, our Commonwealth has deteriorated, with most countries backsliding. The position in South Africa, certainly under Zuma and the state capture by Zuma and the Gupta brothers, has been well illustrated by my noble friend.
Finally, yes, there should be co-ordination but the D10 cited by the Prime Minister is clearly a non-starter, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said. Co-ordination is important for Magnitsky, but the best response is not only soft power but also the question of leadership. On that, I would say that our leaders should be people of integrity and honesty. They should respect the constitution and the role of judges and parliamentarians. They should honour the international treaties they have signed and should adhere to the rules and regulations they have made. This is the best antidote to authoritarianism. We should look in the mirror ourselves, try to be a model, be vigilant, avoid the slippery slope and remember that dictatorships normally die through epileptic fits, democracies die by slow decline, often from the top.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, set out so powerfully and as others of your Lordships have reinforced, the situation today is an extremely distressing and depressing one. Countries such as India, which once rightly took pride in its democracy, have shown increasing disregard for basic human rights. Countries such as Turkey, which once stood on the very threshold of the European Union, have similarly regressed. One could go on. However, I want to do something different. There is no point in working for a co-ordinated response to defend democratic norms and values unless we have confidence in those norms and values in the first place. Whereas their abiding validity would once have been seen as obvious and taken for granted, it is now in different ways being subtly undermined. There are several reasons for this.
First, there is the widespread relativism of our times: the view that one stance on life is as good as another, that truth in any serious sense is unobtainable and we cannot and should not make judgments about how other societies operate.
Secondly, there is the widespread feeling that attempts to bolster or create democratic regimes in other parts of the world have been failures leading to massive loss of life, and that we should no longer intervene elsewhere on the assumption that they need democracy.
Those two tendencies have come together in some minds to conclude that different societies just do things differently from ourselves and we should simply accept that. We should put aside the arrogance of liberal progressivism and not assume that other countries would be better off if they had what we have.
The salutary point in this critique is that we should put aside any sense of arrogance and acknowledge that our democracy is deeply flawed. We should also acknowledge that if we are simply talking about the way of life of another culture, whether it is Chinese, Arab or indigenous, of course we should acknowledge that people choose differently and that they do so all adds to the variety and richness of human existence. But when it comes to democratic norms, we are talking about something different. At its heart is the most fundamental value of all: the equal dignity and worth of every human being, whatever their gender, religion, race or sexuality. This belief, rooted in the Christian faith and built on by secular rationalism, is indeed foundational for Western culture but is, I believe—somewhat unfashionably today in some quarters—a universal truth. That is why we have the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the range of other covenants and conventions that flow from it. That is the first point.
Secondly, there is the knowledge, derived of bitter experience, that state power has to be contained. It is this that led the great Reinhold Niebuhr to write that our
“capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but”
“inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
It was a combination of these two factors—the equal worth and value of every human being and the need to protect him or her from the overweening power of the state—that led to the great human rights movement after World War II. The insight of those giants who brought about that achievement still stands today. Human rights and the democratic norms which go to protect them are not just part of a way of life which people are free to choose or reject as they prefer. They are, I believe, universal moral insights now, quite properly, expressed in legal norms. Of course, I am familiar with the Marxist argument, which has some truth in it, and excessive liberal individualism does indeed need to be balanced by the insight that we are social beings, and persons only in and through our relationship with other human beings.
Whatever flaws there are in our democracy—and they are manifold—and whatever lessons need to be learnt from ill-judged foreign interventions in the past, we should not give up on the idea that democratic norms and values are a real achievement and are worth aspiring to for all human societies, not because they are Christian or Western but because the insights they express and safeguard belong to humanity as such. It is worth making a co-ordinated response because they are worth defending, and they are worth defending not just in terms of practical political steps that can and should be taken but intellectually and morally against certain insidious currents which have the effect of undermining their universal validity.
My Lords, which keeps us awake at night—the prospect of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan or the prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine? Consider the disquieting possibility that both may happen on the same day by prearrangement. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, in introducing this excellent debate, spoke about the coming together of the two great illiberal powers. It is a very real coming together: the largest military exercise that the Chinese have been involved in with another country was conducted last year with Russian troops in north-western China, where J-20 stealth bombers were used. A signal went out that the two countries that have the most to gain from overturning the current world order and from a revanchist and autocratic alternative are working together. That same message has been heard on every continent and in every archipelago.
I spent part of last month in Pakistan. It was my first visit—it is a very beautiful country—but everywhere you see the spore of China, of the Chinese military and of Chinese society. Of course, Pakistan is a special case: its alliance with China goes back a long way, and it has always seen it as a counterweight to India. None the less, I was struck when I heard the Prime Minister of Pakistan, a man of very British sensibilities and education, saying that perhaps multiparty western democracy, which had been held out as the only alternative, was inferior to the more meritocratic Chinese alternative. I do not think we would have heard that 10 years ago, and certainly not 20 years ago. We would not have seen ambitious politicians learning Mandarin rather than English, or ambitious young army cadets studying at the People’s Liberation Army university rather than aspiring to come to Sandhurst.
Around the world, people hear the melancholy long withdrawing roar of western influence. We can sanction Lukashenko—it does not stop him kidnapping and murdering opponents or massing troops on the Ukrainian border. We can sanction Ortega—it does not stop him stealing the election in Nicaragua. The same has happened in Nigeria, in Burma and all over. The only part of the otherwise excellent speech by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, that I would question is when he said that the jury was still out on whether Tunisia is a democracy. When I see troops in the streets and Parliament dissolved, I do not think that the jury is still out. The last country that could still have been held to be a success 10 years after the Arab spring has joined the rush to autocracy.
We should all guard against the availability heuristic—it is always possible to pick examples of what is going wrong—but it was interesting how the noble Lord, Lord Browne, began by giving an empirical assessment of how democracy is in retreat. In addition to the source that he gave, almost everyone who studies this says the same thing, including the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House and the democracy index. Seven years of solid advance at some point in the past decade have stalled and gone into reverse. I want to explore why that has happened.
Of course, part of it is simply that people no longer care as much about what the western powers think; there has been a change in the balance geostrategically. Part of it, frankly, is due to the pandemic and the associated lockdowns—not just in the obvious sense that we gave up liberties, could not travel and were interned and so on, but in the more dangerous and insidious sense that a common threat of that kind tends to make people more authoritarian. It is a well-observed psychological phenomenon, whether it is a war, a plague or a natural disaster. People coming out of it become more intolerant of dissent and more demanding of the smack of firm government and strongman rule.
Perhaps the most disquieting thought of all is whether, in the scheme of things, it is not the last couple of hundred years of democratic and liberal advance that are the exception. All the things that various noble Lords spoke about—the kleptocracy, the institutionalised looting of state resources, the seizure of power by small elites—was pretty much how every civilisation was run for most of the last 10,000 years. The lot of almost every human being was servitude of one kind or another: back-breaking labour in the fields from dawn until dusk, while small elites systematically looted the state. We are exceptionally lucky to be here in a place and at a time when we have found mechanisms to keep the Government under control and when a measure of law and liberty can flourish, whereby we have elevated the rules above the rulers—but that is not the normal state of play.
I wonder whether we might be coming towards the end of a brief interglacial period between the long ice ages. That is why it is so important to keep educating and elevating the idea that process matters more than outcome, the rules matter more than the rulers and the individual matters more than the collective. That is why we should keep a sense of perspective in attacking different parties within a democratic system. If we lose sight of those precepts, the bleak landscapes stretch ahead of us, dark, cold and grim.
My noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton has chosen an excellent Motion to table because democracy around the world is under threat and needs urgent action to protect it.
Never forget that modern kleptocracies rely on some of us here in the West to help them launder money. Lobbyists, lawyers and accountants in democracies keep kleptocrats in power, often by hiding their money in offshore tax havens, and get rich as a result. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that the prevalence of these tax havens, many of them our dependent territories, and a general trend towards financial deregulation have made it increasingly difficult to identify and sanction criminal assets.
That brings me to a report from Chatham House—not a party-political organisation, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe—which said that Boris Johnson’s Conservative parliamentary party
“may be open to influence from wealthy donors who originate from post-Soviet kleptocracies, and who may retain fealty to these regimes.”
The Conservative Party received £3.5 million from naturalised British citizens of Russian and Eurasian backgrounds between 2010 and 2019, and the volume of donations has increased.
Kleptocrats are cementing their power in the United Kingdom by cleverly forging ties with political and business leaders, creating charitable foundations, seeking the support of think tanks and elite universities, and buying prestigious commodities such as football clubs, as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, rightly said. Access to these points of entry must be tightened. Sadly, Putin will not take our threats seriously if we allow this to continue. There is a growing need for action nationally and internationally.
For example, the US sanctioned Latvia’s ABLV Bank in 2018, which eventually led to the collapse of the firm, cutting off at least one source of funding for the North Korean Government. Europe also needs to follow the money. Restricting the flows of illicit finance that run through our markets and institutions, public and private, is key to tackling the threats posed by Russian electoral interference, Chinese competition and democratic backsliding in central Europe. We cannot tackle these challenges alone. The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance against Kleptocracy is an excellent example of how democracies are joining forces to make real progress against a rising tide of corruption, but much more needs to be done.
I want to highlight the case of Belarus. According to the Global State of Democracy 2021 report, Belarus is undergoing a year-on-year democratic decline, which is relatively rare. The only other countries where a similar trend was observed were Palestine, Côte d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic. According to Freedom House’s annual report, in Belarus:
“Political rights and civil liberties have become even more restricted than before, and democracy remains a distant aspiration.”
Russia, as we know, is using Belarus as a base to amass troops to threaten Ukraine. We have seen the effect of that; they are now within easy reach of getting to Kiev. Russia’s primary objective in Belarus is to avoid a colour revolution resulting in the installation of a new, pro-western, democratic Government seeking closer ties with us in Europe and NATO. All this is underpinned by Lukashenko’s autocratic regime. Libereco, an independent German-Swiss NGO dedicated to the protection of human rights in Belarus, reports that there are currently more than 900 political prisoners there, including women and men, young and old, from all strata of Belarus society. They only exercised their basic rights to freedom of expression and assembly and campaigned for a free and democratic Belarus.
According to Amnesty International, adopting political prisoners can have a hugely beneficial impact on their mental health and help to protect them from further abuse by the state. I am one of a number of UK Peers, including my noble friend Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, and MPs who have adopted a political prisoner: in my case, Stefan Latypov, who I keep in touch with to offer support and hope. I hope others here today will follow that example.
My Lords, the crisis in Ukraine has finally put on the front pages an inconvenient truth largely, if not deliberately, ignored by the Government. The safe haven and money laundering which the UK provides to kleptocrats and oligarchs sustains, enables and rewards pretty much any and every corrupt and autocratic regime on the globe. In 2016, the UK Government estimated that the amount of corrupt money flowing into the UK had reached £100 billion a year.
The Government introduced legislation, particularly the Proceeds of Crime Act, to tackle some aspects of economic crime transacted by what I might call traditional organised crime, but they have notably avoided the key pieces of legislation necessary to stem the laundering of money from oligarchs and kleptocrats. Their money is laundered particularly through UK property. Transparency International has identified at least £1 billion in property bought with suspect money from Russia alone. That will never be stemmed until we have legislation to require not just a register but a public register of the beneficial owners of property in the UK, enabling civic society and activists across the globe to aid our woefully understaffed and fragmented enforcement bodies and regulators, described by Chatham House as "weak and under-resourced”. That legislation was fully drafted weeks—possibly months—ago but, for some reason, the Government have chosen to halt it. Perhaps the Minister would tell us why. We also need proper verification of the Companies House public register of the beneficial ownership of companies. Will the Government tell us when we can expect its introduction—we have been waiting for months—and the other reforms of Companies House regulations?
Other gaping loopholes exist in some of our overseas territories and crown dependencies which do not yet have public registers of the beneficial owners of companies or property. We in the Lords thought that we had, in recent Financial Services Acts, fixed this problem, but the Government have used every strategy they can muster not to force changes. Will the Minister now update us? While UK property is at the heart of what is now known globally as the London laundromat, the other locations which make up the British financial family are almost as important to the kleptocrats.
The Americans have stopped being polite about the problem. The Center for American Progress, very close to the Biden Administration, has called for a joint US-UK counter-kleptocracy working group; in other words, they just do not trust us to take effective action on our own. I ask the Minister: will we agree to it? I suspect we have all read this quote:
“uprooting Kremlin-linked oligarchs will be a challenge given the close ties between Russian money and the United Kingdom’s ruling Conservative party, the press, and its real estate and financial industry”.
However, Government laxity, some might say collusion, is far from the only problem. As other have said, we need to go after the enablers—I quote the CAP again—
“the law firms, accountants, real estate firms, and investment firms that all profit from integrating Russian oligarch wealth into the West.”
Will the Government introduce a “failure to prevent” to stop such enablers? Speaking of prevention, will the Government end their disgraced golden visa scheme, described by Chatham House as a national embarrassment?
Free ports are now being introduced to the UK, with a proposal that there will be a register of beneficial ownership of businesses in them but that it will not be made public. Will the Government accept my amendment on this issue, recognising the importance of a public register, not a secret one, particularly given our weakened enforcement agencies? Will they take up my Private Member’s Bill to create an office of the whistleblower to provide proper protection for whistleblowers, who are presently ruined by their disclosures, but whose actions are vital to effective enforcement against powerful people such as oligarchs and kleptocrats?
My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, for initiating this important debate. It is a reflection on our times that it has become commonplace to compare the current geopolitical situation to the 1930s—a decade when autocrats and populists manipulated public opinion, preying on insecurity rather than hope, and drew their personal power from the fears, cynicism and prejudices that divide people, rather than the qualities of compassion and generosity that can unite humanity. It is equally commonplace—we have rightly heard it during our debate today—to call for politicians to take a more co-ordinated response, especially when nations disregard international laws and conventions. Ministers regularly assure us that the Government consult our partners when international norms are violated yet, in practice, global Britain too often speaks alone.
By contrast, Beijing’s increasingly effective tactics are to single out and punish those nations which dare to contradict the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly paranoid narrative—banning exports from Australia, incarcerating innocent Canadian citizens without due process, or intimidating Lithuania—without even talking about what has happened in Hong Kong, Xinjiang or Tibet, or its subversion of international institutions, from the United Nations Human Rights Council to the WHO.
So what might we do when institutions are subverted? By way of example, might the United Kingdom lead by suggesting to its partners that we join an informal and temporary coalition of countries to simultaneously recognise on the same day the sovereignty of Taiwan—a vibrant and brave democracy which has been referred to during this debate, where the rule of law is upheld and diversity and difference are respected? Does the Minister agree that there would be relative safety in numbers if 40 or 50 nations found the courage to make a joint announcement recognising the sovereignty of Taiwan, thereby with one diplomatic gesture turning the tables on the CCP’s bullying posturing, or does our fear of losing diplomatic face immobilise us in the face of tyranny? I hope the Minister will commit to exploring a much more robust approach with our partners.
As we have heard, this is beyond urgent. During exchanges in the House on Monday, I specifically asked the Minister about the co-ordinated action which is greatly needed to face off the Kremlin’s aggression and metamorphosis from managed democracy to outright dictatorship. If Russia does invade Ukraine, does the Minister agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, said earlier that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Beijing might seize the chance to take one or two of the small islands around Taiwan, or indeed Taiwan itself? There are memories here of the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia and the enfeebled procrastination that emboldened the dictators of the day. Our piecemeal condemnation after the fact will have no more impact than the proverbial wailing and gnashing of teeth. The time for mass recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty by the free nations of the world is now.
In this ugly and deliberately intimidatory environment, do we not have one particularly cost-effective weapon in our soft-power, smart-power armoury: the BBC World Service? It is among Britain’s greatest exports, but it is also the most cost-effective weapon in our soft-power armoury. Do memories of beleaguered peoples—from the French Resistance to the dissidents of the Soviet Union—not remind us of the huge importance of sustaining World Service broadcasts? After all, it was Mikhail Gorbachev who admitted that even he had listened to the World Service during the Cold War in order to learn the truth. In the Far East, especially in Hong Kong, where champions of democracy are incarcerated or forced into exile, and in Taiwan, mainland China and North Korea, the BBC remains a link with truth. I hope the Minister will agree that millions of people who are being bombarded by poisonous propaganda each day rely on the World Service to cut through the fog of misinformation and assure us that funding for the World Service will keep pace with inflation.
To end, it was Robert Kennedy who famously described how each tiny ripple of hope, when joined with others, could create a current which could sweep down even the mightiest walls of oppression. When faced with the spectre of totalitarianism, we must surely project the message of hope—the message we saw in 1989 when the walls came down in Berlin—to all those who suffer at the hands of dictators and despots and who yearn for the freedoms, privileges and liberties which we all enjoy.
My Lords, we are indeed grateful to my noble friend Lord Browne for giving us this opportunity to discuss these important matters. I hope that he and other noble Lords will forgive me for starting in a different place from others, for I lived for 10 years in an autocracy, a kleptocracy with populism pretty much reigning on all hands. It was the 1970s; it was François Duvalier, followed by his son Jean-Claude. I met Papa Doc twice—he died shortly afterwards, but I do not think there was a causal link. Kleptocracy was certainly something I was more than familiar with. The school I was deputy head of had educated Jean-Claude Duvalier. We knew all his inside helpers. I taught members of the Tonton Macoute and of the diplomatic corps, as well as people with no money whose fees were paid by those who had stolen it from somebody else.
In the time available I must speak in headlines, for the democratic world has reduced Haiti to the frazzled rump it is now. From the time of Haiti’s independence, France took it ill and imposed an indemnity that independent Haiti went on paying back until relatively recently—just 20 or 30 years ago. The Americans have played a pretty bad hand in Haiti. I can assure your Lordships that an occupying force of redneck southern marines policing the first black republic in the world left its mark. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, rewrote the Haitian constitution and set up a rigged plebiscite in order that foreigners, previously not allowed to own land, could. American corporations rushed in. Sisal and sugar were exploited, as were minerals and other things. The Haitian national debt was taken from the Bourse in Paris and sunk in Wall Street, and used to leverage loans for a railway system that Haitians did not want but the sugar industry run by American corporations certainly did.
Denmark, Spain and, I am afraid, the United Kingdom played their own bit parts—cameo parts—in the reduction of Haiti to its present state. In particular, a book by a British ambassador in the 1870s vilified Haiti and fed the voyeuristic tendencies of a British readership for a cannibalistic, voodoo-dominated state, which Haiti certainly is not and never has been. I have briefed five consecutive British diplomats who have gone on to serve on the island of which Haiti is a part, and they need to know the full story of exploitation, rape and violation. That is an important aspect of what we are considering now.
I must very quickly say that since the Duvaliers left in 1986, it has been downhill all the way: a President assassinated last July, 250,000 people dead in an earthquake in 2010, 2,500 dead last August in another earthquake, gangs, drugs, insecurity, no democratic norms and no judiciary or criminal justice system. It is simply a mess. I am helping to run the campaign of a man who I hope will soon be the new President of Haiti—God, what a job he will have. After a visit I helped to organise to eastern Nigeria for 12 Haitian leaders just two weeks ago, he was arrested in Miami on his way back to Haiti, interrogated and accused of going to Nigeria to have dealings with Boko Haram—which is ludicrous fantasy—to assassinate his character ahead of the elections, because the Americans certainly do not want him.
All I can say at this stage is that I have become convinced of the situation. I have used Haiti for illustrative purposes because we can think of other people across Latin America and other parts of the world who have been favoured by democracies but turned out to be the kleptocrats and autocrats. With the permission of my noble friend Lord Browne—perhaps I will not ask his permission but impose it on him—I may turn this around and say that I would have loved to have moved that the Grand Committee take note of the impact of countries with democratic norms and values in creating autocrats, kleptocrats and populists.
My Lords, strategic litigation against public participation, known as SLAPPS, is abusive lawsuits pursued with the purpose of shutting down freedom of speech. They have been used against journalists, media outlets, whistleblowers, activists, academics and NGOs that speak out on matters of public interest.
The UK has become a global hub for financial crime and corruption. As the Prime Minister would say, we are world leading. My noble friend Lady Kramer referred to £100 billion a year. Along with that, our courts possess the tools to shut down reporting on such matters—cases for libel taken not for their legal merit but for the effect of silencing a critic by locking them into a long legal struggle. We have developed a class of lawyers who call themselves reputation managers.
Chatham House reported on the Abramovich action against the journalist Catherine Belton and her publisher HarperCollins. She had lived and worked in Russia for many years and had claimed in her book Putin’s People that Abramovich had purchased Chelsea Football Club at the behest of the Russian president Vladimir Putin. A statement from the firm Harbottle & Lewis, solicitors representing Abramovich, claimed that Belton’s book, “falsely alleges that” Abramovich “acted corruptly” —a claim that was struck out in the early part of those proceedings. However, a further three Russian billionaires and the Russian state oil company Rosneft followed Abramovich in filing civil claims against HarperCollins, Belton’s publishers. It is much to their credit that they stood by their author and the claims were apparently settled satisfactorily.
The chilling effect of this type of litigation is most visible in the threat of action rather than action itself. Karen Dawisha, the author of the 2014 book,Putin’s Kleptocracy, was forced to change publishers due to legal concerns in the UK. Her publisher, Cambridge University Press, dropped her on the grounds that those implicated would sue and that the disruption and expense would be more than it could afford. The book was published in the US. There are numerous examples. The Maltese journalist Daphne Galizia, who was murdered by a car bomb, was facing 47 libel actions brought by Maltese politicians and others for her unbending and brave journalism exposing corruption. After her death, her family accused Mishcon de Reya, a British firm of solicitors, of “hounding” their mother.
There are rules of court that make it possible to strike out actions in this country but this power is not used often enough. We have fallen behind. Other countries, specifically Canada, have introduced primary legislation to deal with the problem. Its Act with the section, Prevention of Proceedings Limiting Freedom of Expression on Matters of Public Interest (Gag Proceedings), was recently approved and upheld in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Following that Canadian precedent, I have drafted a Bill to reduce the risk that participation by the public in debates on matters of public interest will be hampered by fear of legal action. The Bill would give a judge the power to strike out an action at an early stage where the respondent satisfies the judge that the proceedings arise out of a communication that relates to a matter of public interest. The burden would then shift to the claimant to show that the proceedings have merit, the respondent has no defence and that the communication is sufficiently serious that it is in the public interest for it to proceed. In determining that public interest, the judge would consider the right to freedom of expression, the right of public participation in democratic discourse, the chilling effect of the proceedings and any disproportion between the resources deployed by the claimant and the amount of damages that might be awarded. The court would have power to award damages if the proceedings were brought in bad faith and award costs against the claimant on an indemnity basis. I hope that your Lordships will hear more about this Bill and I look forward to the Minister’s comments.
My Lords, while in preparation for this debate, for reasons I cannot explain, my phone decided to throw up some old pictures that I had kept in archive. A particular photograph came from 1975, of Idi Amin forcing white diplomats to bow down to him to give him subservience and obedience and take an oath of allegiance to his Government. We easily wrote him off then as a tyrant, an autocrat and a man who was intent on showering shame on those he despised and manipulating and destroying their lives.
Well, here we are many decades on, and we have recorded information this week that the former recent President of the United States spent the last weekend in Texas, assuring those who bowed down to him a year ago that he will pardon them when he returns to office and release them of the charges for which they were accused for leaping up on Capitol Hill to destroy the stable democracy of the United States, and that he spent weekends while in the White House destroying and ripping up official papers which members of his Government, in Civil Service terms, literally sellotaped together to provide to the inquiry in Washington.
We so easily used to point at African leaders as despotic and despairing and we now have them in abundance in the West. We have to learn to take account of what is clearly a major failure in our ability to display democracy to the rest of the world when we cannot see it in the places we once revered or even consider home.
I have reflected strongly on this issue, largely because I have felt a deep sense of despair at the state of our own country’s affairs. Before I leave them, I remind noble Lords who are followers of American political writing of a quote that appeared in the Baltimore Evening Sun on 26 July 1920—100 years ago—written by the leading political author HL Mencken:
“As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.”
In subsequent writings, HL Mencken went on to explain that
“the inner soul of the people”
was corrupted when the public were lulled into indulgence and indifference by consistent pleasure and abundant choice. He said that this allowed them to take the low road of ease and disengagement, which he called the cul-de-sac of hopelessness. If we care about democracy, we have to ask ourselves: what are we allowing people to be and to do carelessly—and social media fits well into that paradigm—that causes them to be lulled into persistent pleasure and indulgence?
While we have been here, in the course of this debate, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser, Munira Mirza, has resigned, accusing the Prime Minister of slurs against the leader of the Opposition, saying that:
“There was no fair or reasonable basis”
for the assertions made at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons. She continued:
“This was not the normal cut-and-thrust of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse. You tried to clarify your position today but, despite my urging, you did not apologise for the misleading impression you gave.”
How can we preach democracy and authoritative, intelligent leadership to a world that now so desperately needs it when those at the centre of our own politics cannot seem to display it?
These things are inconsistencies, and I wonder whether the Minister might reflect when he makes his reply on whether he believes the assertions in the Economist of the last week that at the heart of our problem is the “childish lack of seriousness” at the heart of government and the failure of the Government to tell consistent truth. The Economist says:
“Treating voters as dopes to be bought off with bombast is a feature of the demagoguery that Mr Johnson rode to power. It is an example of the contempt with which populist leaders treat the people they govern. So, alas, is the other trait that has infected post-Brexit Britain: lying”,
consistently in public. We cannot preach democracy to the world if we cannot deliver integrity at home.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, began this debate by saying that he hoped that it would not become party political. I would agree with him, in that although the geography of this place divides us into two sides, there are more than two sides in British politics. I will say that this problem is much broader than one side of government, although I very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, just said: things have got much worse in the past decade.
None the less, we have spoken a great deal about golden visas, and I would point out that they were introduced in 2008. There was what is known as the blind faith period, when checks on applicants and the source of their wealth were done neither by the banks nor by the British Government, and more than 3,000 people came in that period between 2008 and 2015. We have to say that responsibility for that sits on both sides, if we divide the House that way in your Lordships’ House. This is not a two-party issue but a systems issue; we have a broken system here and around the world.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Browne, for introducing this debate so powerfully and for giving us the chance for such an interesting discussion. In his introduction, he focused on the financial sector, a haven for dirty money where reputations are laundered and political donations accepted. I am really pleased to see the turnout today, and I contrast it to the kind of turnout that we saw in debates during the passage of the Financial Services Act, when frequently we were debating controls on the financial sector, controlling legislation, and we were lucky if half the number of people who are in this Room today were involved in those debates. I note that at Second Reading of that Act, the noble Lord, Lord Agnew of Oulton, said:
“We need to show to the rest of the world that this will be a soundly regulated environment.”—[Official Report, 28/1/2021; col. 1877.]
We know how the noble Lord thought that went along.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, talked about two economic systems lined up against each other. Of course, the world has only one economic system now: capitalism. I am not a Marxist—I do not believe that the superstructure is determined by the base, and that is very clear in that we have a base of capitalism and the structure around the world that we have now. If we look at that not philosophically but practically, the Russian model was developed on the basis of advice from US and UK advisers—the kleptocratic model. The Chinese adopted the capitalist market system underneath their own political frame. So where we are today is not a degradation but a continuation. The incredibly powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, spelled that out so beautifully.
Power and resources have, from the colonial period through the post-colonial period to today, been held in the hands of the few to the impoverishment of the many. We have treated nature as a mine and a dumping ground. Today, to bring it up to the current day, not all the superyachts being built and sailed around the world are sailed by kleptocrats and autocrats; quite a lot of them are people who are residents of our own countries.
My next point is on the question of them and us. The authoritarian tendencies that we see in other parts of the world are to be found right here at home as well. What are typically described as liberal democracies are neither liberal nor democracies. If we look at the treatment of minoritised communities and indeed of women by our police forces, and at the treatment of desperate refugees by the Home Office hostile environment, that cannot be described as anything but authoritarian. To quote the late feminist social theorist bell hooks, we live in a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” This is a system that benefits the few and represses the many.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, said that systems are not delivering and perhaps we should look to Asia and other places. I suggest that we should instead look to the ignored people in our own societies, who are repressed, oppressed and dispossessed in our own societies but who are building up from the grassroots alternatives and different ways of doing things. If we look at the global frame of freedom and liberty, where do the ideas come from? If we go back to the human rights framework, that was very much driven by campaigning from civil society that forced the introduction of those things that built up towards the UN and the human rights framework. More recently, looking at Magnitsky-style sanctions, where did they come from? They come from civil rights campaigning that was then implemented by government.
In conclusion, we are responsible for the state of the world today. To prevent a world dominated by autocrats, kleptocrats and populists, here and abroad, do not look outside—look inside.
My Lords, as we have heard this afternoon, there is little doubt that democracy has been on the slide: the recent report from Freedom House pointing to 15 consecutive years of declining freedom and democracy makes a depressing read. I wish to focus on the decline in democracy rather than the rise of autocrats and kleptocrats, specifically during the last two years of the global pandemic, when the ability—or, should I say, appetite—of the so-called leading democracies to collaborate and work together for the greater global good has largely evaporated.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, so eloquently stated, the rise of populism and nationalism among major democracies was evident in the years running up to the pandemic. The election of Donald Trump in the US heralded four years of division—aided and abetted by social media—and a combative approach to the UN, NATO and many other multilateral organisations. Here in the UK, a deeply polarising Brexit referendum, where quality of debate, trust and objectivity took a back seat, has been followed by two to three years of an equally divisive Johnson Government, where—to put it very mildly—domestic issues have pushed critical global issues into the sidings. Sadly, there has been little sign that other countries in the G7 or indeed the G20 have stepped up.
I shall briefly compare and contrast the world’s response in 2008 to the global financial crisis to the current response to the global pandemic. Facing a pyramid of toxic debt from European and American banks, the G20 stepped up—with our Prime Minister at the time, Gordon Brown, to the fore—to assemble a $1.2 trillion-rescue bailout to avert the impending collapse of the world’s financial system. Some 14 years on, and we are in the midst of a far more serious world crisis. The IMF estimates that the damage to the global economy wreaked by Covid-19 will reach $12.5 trillion by 2024. It could be considerably more than that. In humanitarian terms, the pandemic numbers are even more chilling: nearly 6 million deaths so far, 160 million people dropping below the poverty line, hundreds of millions of children missing out on education, and tens of millions more added to ever-lengthening waiting lists for critical—and in many cases life-dependent—operations.
The tragedy of this is that the cost of vaccinating the world does not run into trillions; far from it, the figure is more like US$25 billion to US$50 billion. That is little more than 2% of the cost of the banking bailout and less than 0.5% of Covid’s estimated economic damage but, with wealthy nations focusing on their domestic vaccination programmes, it has been left to a critically underfunded COVAX to act like a charity, begging for vaccines to inoculate middle and lower-income countries. It is way behind its target of vaccinating 70% of all adults by September this year. The 1 billion jab milestone was finally reached in January, whereas 2 billion vaccines had been touted as a target for the end of last year. Currently, 3 billion adults across the world are totally unvaccinated.
Where is the leadership and collaboration from the so-called leading democracies? Where, indeed, is global Britain and what are the prospects for foreign secretary Liz Truss’s call at Chatham House in December for
“a network of liberty that spans the world”?
Vaccine inequity leads to a disturbing form of vaccine diplomacy, with China and Russia to the fore. Beijing has granted 53 countries free shipments of vaccines, including Pakistan, the Philippines and many countries in Africa. By the way, those countries are receiving the Sinopharm and Sinovac jabs, which evidence strongly suggests produce a much weaker immune response than the mRNA vaccines we all have here.
Sadly but, perhaps, inevitably, Covid-19 has presented autocrats and leaders in countries such as Venezuela, Belarus, Serbia and Sri Lanka with the excuse further to clamp down on civil liberties. The title of this debate raises the case for a co-ordinated response by the United Kingdom and her allies. Vaccinating the world surely provides that compelling case.
My Lords, I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, will accept a cup of tea to serve as an apology for my jumping up before time, as I do to all noble Lords for speaking in the gap, but will speak for no more than two minutes.
Democracy stands for accountability to the people, expressed by popular mandate. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, drew attention to the upcoming meeting between Presidents Xi and Putin: a joint security statement will be forthcoming. I suspect that it will be a statement of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. While both aspire to a different form of communism, an alliance between the two will attract others into an axis—Iran is the most likely candidate—driving a wedge between two forms of governance: democracy over autocracy.
Leading on from that, we have just witnessed events in Kazakhstan. During the time of his presidency, it was said that President Nazarbyev commanded great popular support. Fast forward and, with the recent mayhem, it is abundantly clear that that support was entirely artificial. Autocrats do not have the support of the people, which is why an exit route must be found whereby they should be encouraged to leave, otherwise they will surely stay. A way must be found for free and fair elections as the only solution in everyone’s best interest.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the UK board of a global peace-building charity, Search for Common Ground, and am an associate with Global Partners Governance, a UK-based not-for-profit focusing on supporting representative politics. During the February recess, I shall be in Baghdad and then Beirut, working with those wishing to strengthen their Parliaments. The Minister knows of my declared interest in Sudan and the retrograde step of moving away from the transition to democracy there. In all those three countries, brave young people and, primarily, women have been in the vanguard of supporting the basic and fundamental democratic norms that we are debating today. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Browne, for bringing this vital debate to us today. Far too many people this year alone, as well as last year, have lost their life fighting for a cause which we here take for granted.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannan, referenced Tunisia. Literally just before this debate, I was on a call with our ambassador in Tunisia through the Inter-Parliamentary Union. We discussed the retrograde step of military courts being used against civilians, the displacement of opportunities for many people and the move away from a parliamentary system. That is just one example of global goal 16—supporting institutions and building the rule of law—now under assault.
The debate seems to be broken down into three broad areas: the global counter-democracy movement towards absolute rulers, theocrats and autocrats; the lack of a coherent and credible UK approach to counter it; and the urgent need to clear our Augean stables here at home. A reliable indicator, the democracy index, states that only 8.4% of the world’s population live in a full democracy, with more than a third under authoritarian rule. My noble friend Lord Wallace highlighted the sweep of those who wish to maintain degrees of authoritarianism and absolute rule.
The UK’s trade with China, to give one example, has doubled over the last decade. We now have a trade deficit with China of £40 billion—unprecedented in history—and are seeking ever-increasing foreign direct investment from the Gulf states into the UK. What leverage do we have in reality against those we seek to build a “network of liberty” against? These are hollow words when we are dependent on many of them. As my noble friend said, the silence on democratic norms in the Gulf is matched only by the volume of the arms we sell there.
The noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, mentioned the pandemic, and in many ways he is absolutely right; it has exacerbated these areas. Not only is there vaccine nationalism and condescension for many countries, but we slashed our development co-operation at the height of the pandemic. In many respects, we are not a leader in this. But the pandemic has also had deeper elements that should trouble us: data harvesting of many populations, with data now a commodity to be traded as well as a tool for Governments against their people; open-ended emergency powers; and fraud in the response, which we hear of at home. It was right to mention the governing party having a VIP stream for contracts that were not made public, as well as youth displacement and other challenges.
My noble friends Lady Kramer and Lord Thomas highlighted that here at home we do not lead by assertion; we have inaction. The assertion that we are ridding London of its reputation is not matched by action. The world’s leading laundromat status for London is a stain on our global reputation. I have been to too many events around the world to count at which UK Ministers have sought to persuade other countries to crack down on corruption, only for people in those countries who are desperate to do exactly that to say to me and others that London is one of the key problems and the greatest facilitator of all.
It is remarkable to me that President Xi, Putin and other autocrats say their style is no different from that of our new western leaders, as the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, indicated. They say they are not hypocrites and would not ask them to do anything that they would not do.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, asked us not to be partisan. Let me just quote from the resignation letter of Munira Mirza, the Prime Minister’s former head of policy, who resigned today:
“This was not the normal cut-and-thrust of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse … you did not apologise for the misleading impression you gave.”
In too many areas we are now using a playbook that autocrats and others we seek to move away from are using. We will never be a global Britain if we reject the corrective of seeing ourselves as others see us. The tragedy in all this is that we in our country, which I am desperately proud of, in many areas have built the norms of democracy and supported others in that great ambition, but we are not offering more. Our actions, and not assertions, are playing into the very hands of those we are concerned about in this debate.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Browne for his excellent introduction to a wide-ranging debate. I also thank all noble Lords for raising such important issues.
As we have just heard, the UK has had a pivotal role in promoting globally the rule of law and democratic values through multilateral institutions, as a permanent member of the Security Council, as a significant player in NATO and, as the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, reminded us, as a principal contributor to the World Bank and IMF. We should also not forget our leading role in promoting globally the UN target of spending 0.7% on ODA, and the leadership role we played in initiating the UN’s global goals, which established a reputation for the United Kingdom as a trusted partner across the world.
Our influence is not restricted to relationships with Governments. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, our renowned institutions such as the BBC World Service, our universities, as well as the export of music and other cultural assets have given us huge soft power that we should not underestimate. However, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that the ingredients of a thriving democracy are not limited to Parliaments and parliamentarians. Civil society organisations such as women’s organisations, charities, faith groups, trade unions and other organised communities have all demonstrated their role in defending democracy and human rights.
When nations fail in their most important task of providing safety, security and freedom for their people, it is always civil society that leaps first to their defence. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, highlighted, the Foreign Secretary said in her Chatham House speech that efforts to build a “network of liberty” must be firmly anchored in human rights and civic freedoms.
We must strengthen our ties with civil society, too. Unfortunately, there was little of substance on this in the Integrated Review, a situation that I hope will be corrected in the development strategy due in March. Clearly, in promoting our values we should work with our democratic allies bilaterally and multilaterally through the UN and other institutions. However, as my noble friend Lord Browne said, we do so against a backdrop of a series of states falling backwards into autocracy, kleptocracy and populism, and led away from the principles that have defined us as a country. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, highlighted, it is vital—I repeat, vital—that our words match our actions both at home and abroad.
The noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, reminded us of the Freedom House reports. Other democracy indices show that autocracy has been spreading for the past 15 years. That was recognised in the Integrated Review, which outlines how the UK will respond, including through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and other organisations that support good governance and civil society around the world.
We talk about how important that is, but my understanding is that the WFD’s funding has been cut. Surely, at this time, it should be increased to support the fight against autocrats—and, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, at a time when global Britain, which led the way on 0.7%, cuts that and breaks the law. I hope the Minister will talk about how we will return to 0.7%. We have also seen the cuts to the BBC, the very thing that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, highlighted. The impact on the World Service will be disastrous, particularly in Russia and Ukraine, where it plays a really important role.
On the borders of Ukraine, we can see all too clearly that autocracy is a danger to global security. Russia’s aggression towards its neighbour is a product of a political system that also starves people of their human rights. The United Kingdom should be a more confident supporter of a free civil society in Russia while also acting domestically to confront those who attempt to export their kleptocracy through illicit finance.
I remind noble Lords—as I did earlier in the week—that a 2018 report by the other place’s Foreign Affairs Committee warned that
“turning a blind eye to London’s role in hiding the proceeds of Kremlin-connected corruption risks signalling that the UK is not serious about confronting the full spectrum of President Putin’s offensive measures.”
That is so true, as we have heard in the debate today. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I would like the Minister to answer the questions I put to him on Tuesday on the full implementation of the ISC Russia report. Also, when are we going to properly tackle the scandal of how 700 Russian millionaires were fast-tracked for British residency via the so-called golden visa scheme? The Foreign Secretary’s response on Monday was not satisfactory, and I hope the Minister can properly deal with that. I also repeat the call: when can this House expect to consider the economic crime Bill, which is such a vital tool in addressing these issues?
Following President Biden’s virtual summit for democracy last year, what steps have Ministers taken to mark the agreed year of action? Since the summit, President Biden has spoken of the need for political leaders to look inwards at how they can strengthen democracy at home, but under this Government our norms and standards have been undermined. The criminalisation of peaceful protest under the policing Bill was just one example. They lessen our legitimacy to stand up for democracy globally, which is vital.
As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, our leaders need to uphold those standards. The disgraceful attack on Keir Starmer by Boris Johnson has resulted in his own director of policy resigning today. I hope the Minister will be able to address the contents of the letter that she wrote to Boris Johnson; it actually says why it is important that we uphold those standards.
The United Kingdom should be a proud champion of democratic principles and standards, and their promotion should define our foreign policy—but we must also invest in those standards and in democracy at home.
My Lords, I first thank all noble Lords for their participation in what has been an excellent and, as ever, informed debate on a subject which—as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Browne—was all-encompassing and quite broad. Equally, noble Lords have drawn attention to some consistent themes. I wish to put on record my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Browne, for tabling this very important debate and for getting the insights from across your Lordships’ House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, pointed out, the attendance today demonstrates both the insights and experience on this important issue, even though we may have different perspectives on the issues that have been discussed.
I will address a couple of issues right from the outset. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hastings. It has been the greatest honour of my professional and political career to represent my country on the world stage. It is important that we reflect on who we are, what we are and what we stand for. It is also important to lead from the front and to look towards our own backyard and demonstrate that we stand up for the values that we all believe in. On this, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, was spot on. As someone with a particular heritage who is proud of my faith, I value the fact that my country allows me to celebrate both. Equally, I am proud of my country, the United Kingdom, which allows me to do that.
But these values are not unique to the UK. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, pointed out, they are embedded in the common humanity that we all share. Equally, as we take the messages of strengthening democracy, we need to reflect on our own history, both recent and past, to ensure that, when we talk of human rights, we talk not by pointing a finger but through sharing experience, and when we talk about sharing and strengthening democracy and the rights of women, we do not say, “Look at us today”. We should reflect on our past and the hard struggle for democratic rights within our country.
Therefore, leadership is important and I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, that in my engagements I put that very much at the heart of our diplomacy. As a country we believe in democracy. What we are seeing today is democracy very much in action—the ability for a government Minister to respond to challenges and criticisms. It is right that any thriving democracy allows that to happen. As my noble friend Lord Balfe said, it is important, whichever party we come from and whatever perspectives we bring, that we seek to defend them both individually and collectively.
We have seen, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said, human rights eroding. We should look to ensure that human rights, the rights of communities and people, are protected both internationally and at home. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, pointed out, many institutions took immense challenge to create, including the United Nations. It is not perfect in every way but, as a P5 member and a committed member of the multilateral system, we must do our best to change from within so that the institution itself is strengthened along with others.
From the economic strong-arming of China to the bullying tactics of Russia—the noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed towards Ukraine, which is rightly taking up the bandwidth of many people in your Lordships’ House and beyond; we stand in solidarity with Ukraine against further Russian aggression—autocratic regimes are looking towards a democracy in terms of our strengthened, or indeed weakened, position. What happened in Afghanistan should not be lost on us. Countries will test us. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He knows both from our public debates and from private discussions that the Chinese authorities are watching very carefully. They are looking at unity, not just of language but of purpose and action.
What has worked well recently? The Covid response was a matter of discussion for many months; indeed, more than two years. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Londesborough, that we saw the best focus and prioritisation of humanity and the interdependence of humanity, from academia to research to manufacture and delivery. I fully accept that there is so much more still to do, and we are focused on that. While it is far from a perfect outcome, one hopes that as we evolve as established democracies that were at the forefront of the vaccination, we do not forget smaller countries—developing nations that are yet to receive the vaccine in the way they require—and that we invest in their infrastructure, support and distribution. Now is the time for the free world to stand together.
As the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, pointed out, we have seen the decline of democracies around the world. As my noble friend Lord Balfe pointed out, democracy does not necessarily mean the election of Governments and Administrations who meet with our own aligned values.
Equally, when we look towards Russia, democracy also means that those in government protect those in opposition. It means that, after what we saw in the dreadful, awful and continuing case of Alexei Navalny, we stand together to show that democracy is not just about ensuring that your own position is secure—the Opposition are also free to challenge and be critical. That is why the UK is working with like-minded friends to build that network of liberty that my noble friend Lord Howell spoke of, and he knows very well the strength of that network, with its links to key institutions, including the institution of the Commonwealth, which brings together 54 nations. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said, we will continue to build that network of liberty to promote democracy and freedom around the world.
The noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Alton, talked about soft power, particularly of the BBC. I assure noble Lords of the fact that we continue to provide support to the BBC—this year, the budget is £94.4 million—and, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, also pointed out, to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. On the current settlement, although we are still going through the process at the FCDO, I agree with noble Lords that those institutions play an important role. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, pointed to our universities, and I agree with him. He pointed to the cultural sector and the British Council, and I agree with him. All those institutions are an important part of what the United Kingdom does internationally. It means that together we build a powerful alternative for countries which, unhappily, do not share the strength of democracy.
We have heard about autocrats and populists; we must stand firm against that. That means building stronger security ties and a network of allies to protect our people, our friends and our freedoms and to show adversaries that they do not have a free hand to achieve their objectives through force. Therefore, it is important that we continue to build alliances, as we have done recently through the AUKUS partnership with the US and Australia, which will help to protect sea routes and stability across the Indo-Pacific, while deepening our work with Canada to cover the Arctic and beyond.
It is key that, in building these alliances, we continue to stand up for free market economics and argue for trade and technology as tools of liberation, not control. It means offering a compelling alternative to low-income countries whose balance sheets are loaded, as several noble Lords pointed out, with debt to China. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, pointed out, inequality is real and in front of us. In the alternative that we present, empowerment through the economy and economic empowerment must be based on equality and not on debt reliance. That means cutting our strategic dependence on authoritarian regimes, starting with Europe’s unsustainable reliance on Russian energy. We have seen that Russia can and will weaponise that, and the United Kingdom is responding to all these challenges.
We are building new and improved trading ties with like-minded nations, with two-thirds of our trade now covered by trade deals. We will continue to explore new areas of work. Many noble Lords focused on the issue of illicit finance and money laundering, and I am conscious that there were many detailed questions, but I shall seek to provide a framework to many of the questions that were asked. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for drawing attention to particular issues that have arisen, and I know that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has written to him on the specific issues that he raised. I hope that he would acknowledge that, on the issues that he raised and the follow-ups—I was conscious of a letter pending—we will follow up and take action, as we have done when exercising sanctions.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, talked of the year of action, as did the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others. It is right, and the UK has recognised that, as home to one of the world’s leading financial centres, it is a problem—but we need to face up to the challenge and work in partnership with others who face similar challenges. The corrosive risk of dirty money, including from Russia, being laundered in the UK poses a serious and dangerous risk to our national security, and we have consistently reinforced our ability to crack down on illicit finance in the UK through legislation and the strength of law enforcement response. Money obtained through criminality or corruption is not welcome in the UK, and more needs to be done. In 2018, the Financial Action Task Force found that the UK had one of the strongest systems for combating money laundering and terrorist financing of more than 60 countries that it assessed. We will also ensure the full weight of law enforcement will crack down on those who look to use, move or hide their proceeds of crime.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, and the noble Lords, Lord Browne, Lord Purvis, and others, raised the important issue of money laundered within the City of London. I acknowledge that the UK has one of the world’s largest and most open economies. I was in the City of London for over 20 years: you see the international finance infrastructure and yes, it is the world’s most attractive destination for overseas investors, including Russia. These factors include a range of viable corporate structures, making the UK attractive for legitimate business. However, I recognise, as noble Lords have pointed out, that that also exposes the UK to money-laundering risks, including those relating to Russia. We are well aware of individuals with links to the Russian state who may seek to further damage the reputation and influence within the UK, but also to use their own influence through strategic investments. We will continue to look at those cases in closer detail to ensure that we can act accordingly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, referred to Transparency International. I am sure she is also aware of a recent report that gives the UK a score of 78 out of 100 in Transparency International’s 2021 corruption perceptions index. I believe we were just outside the top 10, with Germany ahead of us. However, that does not mean that we rest on our laurels; there is more to be done. We will take robust action to crack down on dirty money. For example, we have broadened our sanctions regime through the global anti-corruption sanctions regime, and we are delivering on the UK Economic Crime Plan and the United Kingdom Anti-corruption Strategy. I note of course the concerns noble Lords have expressed about the economic crime Bill, and I assure them that we are following that up directly with our colleagues in the Treasury.
I say to the noble Baroness and the noble Lords, Lord Purvis, Lord Collins and Lord Browne, that the Financial Action Task Force is an important institution that feels that we have one of the strongest systems in the world. However, we will continue to work to ensure that we take further action. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned specific questions he has asked me. I have literally just signed a letter to him, so on receipt of that, I am sure we will have further exchanges.
The issue of Russian influence on elections in the UK is of great concern. The Government themselves concluded that
“it is almost certain that Russian actors sought to interfere in the 2019 General Election through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked Government documents.”—[Official Report, Commons, 16/7/20; col. 384WS.]
I will not comment any further at this point, as a criminal investigation is ongoing.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, talked about the overseas territories and the legislation which has been passed. We are working closely with the OTs and indeed the Crown dependencies on the issue of public registers, and they have all committed to public registers of ownership by 2023.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Kramer, mentioned tier 1 visas. I have noted the detail of the specific questions asked. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, pointed to the response my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary gave. The Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary are both seized of the important issues relating to the use of tier 1 visas, particularly those granted before the date of renewal, which was 5 April, and the use of such visas by those who seek to bring further disrepute to the United Kingdom. I will follow that up and will update the noble Baronesses accordingly.
Various countries were mentioned during what has been an intense debate about the actions taken. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, talked about Belarus. I pay tribute to his work and to that of others in your Lordships’ House in the Council of Europe. I met with the leader of the PACE delegation, and I am now the Minister looking after the Council of Europe; I look forward to engaging. Noble Lords referred to the importance of discussion and debate in the Council of Europe, particularly when the likes of Turkey and Russia are present. Certainly, from my own experience—others may challenge me—even with the worst foe or those you may feel most challenged by, you should never give up on the importance of discussion. I assure your Lordships that no one is taking aim at me. Nevertheless, this is an important point to consider, and I look forward to working with the delegation. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, in particular, for adopting a prisoner. He has taken a very noble decision and perhaps others should reflect on that action. I am inclined to learn more about that initiative.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, talked about Taiwan. The Government’s position has not changed, but as I have already acknowledged, the concerning situation and the ever-assertiveness of the Chinese Administration in the Taiwan Strait is a cause of great concern. This matter was very much discussed at the G7, and it continues to be an area of focus.
The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, talked about Haiti. One thing I will share with noble Lords is that there was a crisis in Haiti in the midst of the Afghanistan crisis, and I was proud of the fact that, notwithstanding the challenge and the scrutiny of our response to Afghanistan, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office also stood firm in its support of Haiti at a time of great challenge. This comes back to that central issue of values and action. Notwithstanding criticisms and challenge, we stand by those countries that need us—but, equally, this should be a co-ordinated, sustainable and long-term response.
My noble friend Lord Hannan and others talked about the situation in Tunisia. We saw Tunisia as one of the countries that came through the Arab spring positively, and it is important that we watch very carefully what happens there. My noble friend also talked of Pakistan, and there is a read-across to China. As we seek to strengthen, build and invest in relationships, particularly our people-to-people links, we also see the influence of other players, particularly China, in Pakistan—as he will have seen through my own direct engagement with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Human Rights Minister. One challenging question from my side to theirs was: what about condemning the treatment of Uighurs? The response was deafening silence, so there is work to be done as we counter this.
The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, talked about Kazakhstan, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley. As the Minister now responsible for central Asia, I am watching it very carefully. There is one positive we can take in terms of the support given by Russia and Belarus, as we have seen the structural withdrawal of those troops from Kazakhstan’s territory.
Other areas are part and parcel of our work on the world stage. I could talk about the work that we do through cyber and digital, which my noble friend Lord Howell pointed to, which brings both opportunities and challenges. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, pointed out the equal dignity of human beings. That should be the central aim of how we stand strong when it comes to human rights, whatever we stand for.
My noble friend Lord Hannan also talked about the importance of law and rules rather than the people who become the rulers themselves. Through our independent sanctions regime we are targeting those responsible for corruption and human rights violations around the world—in Myanmar, Belarus, China, Pakistan and Venezuela, to name a few. We also continue to lead on the Human Rights Council and the UN, which remain important parts of our focus.
On women and girls, as Nelson Mandela said:
“An educated, enlightened and informed population is one of the surest ways of promoting the health of a democracy.”
However, that can be put forward with strength only when we tackle gender inequality. That is a core part of the Government’s mission and right at the centre of the Foreign Secretary’s priorities.
During our G7 presidency, we rallied a new commitment to democracy. At the Cornwall summit, leaders pledged to harness the power of democracy. Yes, I assure noble Lords that whether it is in sub-Saharan Africa, on which my noble friend Lord Eccles focused, or with the multilateral initiatives we take—which were a mainstay of the contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay—we will continue to work and strengthen our work, including the Summit for Democracy, which was held in support of these aims and objectives.
To say a final word on the Council of Europe, that remains central to our thinking. I look forward to working with noble Lords quite directly to see how we can link in the work of what the Government are seeking to do with the important work of the Council of Europe, particularly on human rights.
To conclude, this has been an enriching debate. Again, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Browne, for the specifics that he drew attention to. There is an action plan on various areas of work, including tackling illicit finance and money laundering, but also standing up and strengthening democracies globally—as I said, not in a lecturing way, but in a way where we can share our rich and diverse experience for the health of democracies around the world.
I was asked questions about leadership and how we often look towards ourselves and our motivations. I am proud of the fact that our country is what it is—one that provides equality of opportunity. I am also reminded, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, reminded us all, that we must create a world in which democracy cannot just exist but flourish and thrive.
I end on the words of one of my personal heroes, Mahatma Gandhi, who said the following:
“Keep your thoughts positive because your thoughts become your words. Keep your words positive because your words become your behaviour. Keep your behaviour positive because your behaviour becomes your habits. Keep your habits positive because your habits become your values. Keep your values positive because your values become your destiny.”
My Lords, we have had an excellent debate and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, for characteristically, carefully, generously and respectfully responding to the debate. I thank all noble Lords for their valuable contributions. We have had a wide-ranging and informed debate—informed by significant awareness and self-awareness. I shall come back to that point.
I do not intend to respond individually to any or all contributions and would not be able to do that in the time left to me, in any event—I would not have the ability to respond to quality of the contributions and the points made. All that I can say is that every speech was an adornment to the debate, and I am extremely grateful for them.
I want to make just two points; it is really one point with two halves. I should make it clear that I come away from this debate conscious that we all have a shared responsibility for the defence of democracy. I say specifically to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that we all have a shared responsibility for the history that has got us into this difficulty in the first place. I think that we all recognise that. There is a great deal of self-awareness, and that was obvious in this debate.
The phrase, “to see ourselves as others see us” has been used. That is interesting, because we are nine days away from 25 January, the day on which the people of Scotland celebrate the birth of Robert Burns, the poet. My noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock had the pleasure and honour to represent a part of Ayrshire where every word that anyone remembers that Robert Burns wrote was written. When my noble friend retired, the boundaries were rearranged and I inherited the very town where those words were written, Mauchline in Ayrshire. I represented it for a period, and Burns was a significant part of certainly my late winter life as a Member of Parliament. I have been to more Burns suppers than I ever want to go to again, I have to say!
For those noble Lords who do not know where that phrase comes from, it is from a poem that contains a moral lesson for mankind. The poem was, characteristically for Burns, written about a scene that he observed in a kirk, in the congregation of a church—a church that still exists. There was a preening young woman in that church because she was attracting gazes from everybody. The fact of the matter was that the other members of the congregation were not looking at her but at the insect on her bonnet. Burns wrote this moral lesson with the words that you should pray for the gift,
“To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us”.
I am not going to take that any further because the name of the poem is, “To a Louse”. Given the context in which that was made, I would perhaps be being a bit too party political. We should remember that poem.
In the seconds left to me, I will do what I should have done when I first spoke. I apologise for not doing so. I beg to move.
Committee adjourned at 5.30 pm.