Clause 3

Part of Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 9th March 2010.

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Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Conservative, Daventry 10:30 am, 9th March 2010

In seeking to intervene on the hon. Gentleman I was, if anything, about to reinforce his point. I, too, think that this is in our long-term national interest. The existence of depressed, poor countries that can find no relief from their long-term situation is not a satisfactory state of affairs. I would not have risen to speak were it not for the fact that I ought to declare an interest as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which, in a sense, is the guardian of the European convention.

I have a couple of general and one or two specific remarks to make. I am no lawyer, although, as it happens, I have a daughter who is a human rights lawyer and takes an interest in the convention. I find the European approach interesting. First—we should get this point on the record, and I say this as a Conservative—we are  talking about not the convention but article 1 of the protocol to the convention. Property rights are, in a sense, subordinate—I am not suggesting they would be in a judgment—to other, perhaps more serious issues such as murder, torture and the rights of prisoners and of family life, which are convention rights. That may say something about hierarchy.

My second point is that, looking at the European convention, which I do quite often, I find it striking how it is understood that there are clashes. There is no absolute way of resolving an issue according to some principle, because there are clashes here between the rights of predators and the laws of contract: the prudential virtues of the laws of contract on the one hand; and, on the other, the situation in which some developing countries find themselves. So it is not unfamiliar to people in European jurisprudence to be saying, “We have to try to sort out these relative pressures”.

I wish to commend the Treasury for once. One normally gets a peremptory certificate from a Minister, but here we have a full explanatory memorandum following consultation in which the issue is seriously agonised about and explained in a way that I find very reassuring. We come back to the point that there is an overriding public interest. It is in our public interest, as well as that of developing countries, to get this issue sorted out in a fair, orderly and equitable manner between the various creditors, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said. I am comfortable with that approach.

I have two questions, the first of which concerns forums, and perhaps the hon. Member for Northampton, North will come back to it. If my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, is right, there are many potential debts that might come to our courts. There is always the danger of forum shopping—of people going somewhere else if they think they will get a better deal. Can we have an appraisal from the Bill’s promoters as to whether that is likely? If that happens, in a sense it will devalue the Bill and create potentially awkward international anomalies.

My second point may be contrary—I am merely reflecting—but I would like the promoters’ response. Let us make a comparison with the historic position of, say, Chinese Boxer debt or pre-Russian revolution bonds. I hasten to say I do not own nice share certificates or stock certificates, but if I happened to be the owner of some of that ancient and completely useless sovereign debt, I would have two choices—or I might have had two choices if I were lucky. One is to be paid off something by a country that wishes to re-establish its credit rating and be able to service debts in future. If it says, “We’ll give you something”, I could assent to that debt. On the other hand, if I decided to hold out, or liked the stock certificate better, I could as an individual stay non-assented to that debt and I would still have my full entitlement. According to the term of art used in the explanatory memorandum for the right to sign for debt, I would not have anything in my hands because it would not be paid, but I could still in principle claim the whole lot and I could be in either the assented or non-assented category. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Northampton, North will reflect on that. If that situation existed it would further untidy the position, in that I am sure it would be better for the country in question to be able to know exactly where it stood with all the creditors involved with it.

My basic view is that we should be taking this on the chin as the right thing to do. There are difficult, complex and detailed issues that need to be thought about intensively to get the final outcome resolved, but I would not in any sense wish them to devalue the need to get on with things and seek a common haircut for all holders of debt. At the moment in the real world, that debt cannot be serviced or discharged. It is doing more damage than good to the international economy.