Queen’s Speech — Debate (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:48 pm on 15th May 2013.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds Bishop 6:48 pm, 15th May 2013

My Lords, one of the privileges of a debate of this sort in your Lordships’ House is hearing speeches from those with a deep personal knowledge and understanding of places in the world they have visited. The speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, was a good example of that.

I particularly associate myself with the magisterial speech of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, on Sri Lanka, with which the diocese of Ripon and Leeds has connections, through the worldwide church, with the dioceses of Colombo and Kurunagala. Like him, I emphasise the need to work with the people of that land both in securing the peace which has been achieved and in ensuring human rights in that country.

The other thing that I have done this afternoon is go with a number of other noble Lords to the Christian Aid presentation in Westminster Hall. In the middle of Christian Aid Week, it is particularly crucial that the Government join millions of our fellow citizens in affirming our desire to see an end to hunger in our world. I welcome the leadership that the Prime Minister has shown to date, particularly in challenging tax evasion, which has a particularly detrimental effect on the poorest countries of the world.

In that context, I remain disturbed by the absence in the gracious Speech of any reference to the target of 0.7% of gross national income being spent on international aid, and I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for her firm statement on the importance of achieving that target for our country. However, we still lack any information on the intention to embed this in law. That commitment represents our concern for the poorest people in our world and is an important part of the determination of the still-wealthy nations to continue their support of those in most need. I associate myself with the words of the noble Lords, Lord Chidgey and Lord McConnell, in wanting to affirm clearly at this point the millennium development goals and the need to move beyond them in seeking to put an end to hunger in our world.

There have been various assurances over the past 12 months that a Bill incorporating the 0.7% commitment is written and ready to be presented to Parliament when the business managers can find time for it. I am aware that a fortnight ago a Bill was lost in the other place under pressure of business after the Government had said that it was almost identical to what we would have tabled. I look forward to the Minister’s assurance that not only is it the aim of this Government to ensure that the 0.7% target continues to be met but that the search is still on to find parliamentary time for such a Bill. It may be that the noble Lord who is to reply can table it in this House because the promise is beginning to look somewhat thin unless it is now accompanied by action.

There has been much important debate on the proper objective of aid to other countries, and I welcome the desire to concentrate aid on where it can do most good in appeasing hunger. In particular, it is crucial that aid goes to those Governments who need the administrative power to collect tax and to close those loopholes that enable multinational corporations to send their profits offshore. However, that should not extend to military action, and it would help me greatly if the Minister can commit himself to the OECD requirement that aid is judged as such only when it is administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective.

That brings me to the UK’s presidency of the G8. I am encouraged by the commitment in the gracious Speech to “tackle tax evasion” and to “encourage”—although I would have welcomed a stronger word—“greater transparency and accountability”. The key challenge is to ensure that any tax agreement concluded by the G8 benefits poor countries and enables them to access information about company ownership and assets held in tax havens. In particular, can the Minister tell us whether any tax haven has yet signed the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters? It would be a powerful example of leadership if the UK-linked tax havens were to sign the convention in the lead-up to the G8.

The Government must be aware that the IF campaign’s pressure, to which a number of noble Lords have referred, to end tax-dodging by individuals and major companies has rightly touched a nerve with the public in our country. The Government need to bring a beneficial ownership action plan to the G8 and encourage other countries to do the same, whereby we can know who ultimately benefits from the profits of companies and ensure that taxes are paid in the countries where those profits are made.

Finally, I welcome the commitment to a hunger summit prior to the G8 meeting. This concentrates attention on where it primarily belongs—on the appalling truth that the world has the capacity to grow enough food for its population and yet NGOs, Governments and individuals still need to provide for those who starve. That is the greatest scandal of all in our world economy.