My Lords, it is a great pleasure and privilege to speak in your Lordships’ House for the first time and to follow the very passionate speech by the noble Lord, Lord German. I am immensely grateful for the warm welcome I have received from all sides of this House. The support from Black Rod, the Clerk of the Parliaments, attendants and other staff has also been greatly appreciated. I am especially grateful to my noble friends Lord Hendy and Lord Haskel for introducing me to this great House, and to my noble friends Lady Crawley and Lord Kennedy of Southwark for mentoring me.
A special year in my life was 1966. It was then that I arrived in England with my family to join my father, who had already come here a few years earlier. Regrettably, my full-time education ended in 1968, when I left school with no qualifications of any kind. After that, I worked full-time and studied part-time to acquire GCE O-levels and A-levels, professional accounting qualifications, an MSc in accounting and finance, a PhD in accounting and a BA in social sciences. Along the way, I worked as an accountant for some of the largest corporations in this country. I subsequently held professorships in accounting, or accounting and finance, at the University of East London, the University of Essex and the University of Sheffield. I published research in scholarly journals on matters such as accounting, auditing, corporate governance, insolvency, globalisation, tax avoidance, bribery and corruption, and my research received recognition from the British Academy and the US Academy.
Over the years, I have given evidence to many parliamentary committees in the UK and the European Union, and advised them as well. Most recently, I advised the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee on its investigations into the collapse of BHS and Carillion. My research has often focused on what I call the dark side of capitalism. For example, the UK has the highest number of qualified accountants per capita in the world, but this huge social investment has not really given us good corporate governance, reliable financial reports or even honest audits.
The problems are systemic, going far beyond the affairs of just BHS and Carillion. This country has had a banking crisis in every decade since the 1970s. The finance industry has been a serial mis-seller of products and has admitted to rigging exchange rates and interest rates. These events draw attention to very deep-seated cultural and regulatory fault lines, which really need to be looked at.
The UK is also the home of a rampant tax avoidance industry, which enables companies to avoid taxes by shifting profits to low or no-tax jurisdictions through intragroup transactions. My response to that was to join up with some colleagues; in 2003, I became a co-founder of the Tax Justice Network, with the sole aim of sensitising people to how taxes are avoided and what the social consequences are.
I am a person from a working-class background, somewhat overawed at being here, and I wondered what on earth my objectives should be. I think there are really only two: to increase people’s prosperity and people’s happiness—there can be no other objective. However, in a country where 14 million people live below the poverty line, it seems that both happiness and prosperity are in short supply.
Some 250 years ago, Adam Smith said:
“No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
Smith suggested—and it is highly relevant today—that policymakers need to focus not only on what can be done but, above all, on what should be done. And, of course, there are numerous obstacles in trying to do what should be done. Here, I take some comfort in the immortal lines from Winifred Holtby’s great novel South Riding:
“We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our hands. If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.”
These sentiments were also expressed by the noble Lord, Lord German, in his speech, with a recognition that decent, well-planned and affordable housing is key to people’s prosperity and happiness.