Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:12 am on 8th March 2023.
I congratulate Clive Lewis on securing the debate. I also congratulate him on bringing some important and challenging issues to the House during what has turned out to be an extremely lively debate, involving brief but passionate and important contributions from the hon. Members for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) and for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), and indeed Daniel Kawczynski.
I echo the welcome from the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham for the high commissioner from St Kitts and Nevis. I quickly checked Hansard when the hon. Gentleman was speaking: since 2005, there have been 16 on-the-record references to St Kitts and Nevis—I suspect that by the end of the debate he will have gone a long way to doubling that. The name “Nevis” is derived from the Spanish for Our Lady of the Snows, which is appropriate considering the weather we are experiencing today.
I cannot speak to lived experience of the kind described by the hon. Members for Norwich South and for Shrewsbury and Atcham, but it is my privilege as Member of Parliament for a Glasgow constituency to represent an incredibly lively and diverse community, particularly those constituents with Afro-Caribbean heritage. That community itself is extremely diverse, and it draws on the heritage and experience of many different cultures. As we have heard, the Caribbean is not a homogenous entity, place or territory; it is culturally, politically and economically diverse. The region encompasses some of the most and least privileged communities in the world.
In choosing the title for the debate, the hon. Member for Norwich South was right to draw attention to the inequalities across the region and the challenges they bring. Take the disparities between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, for example. They are two countries on the same island—not a concept we are unfamiliar with in the United Kingdom—but a person born in Haiti is two and a half times more likely to die as a baby, has a much shorter life expectancy, and will grow up to be almost 10 times poorer than a counterpart on the other side of the island.
The hon. Gentleman is also right that the Caribbean’s social, political and economic landscape cannot and must not be understood outside the region’s colonial past, the effects of which live on to this day. It has been irrevocably shaped by the history of western imperialism, the slave trade and the colonial—and perhaps ongoing—extraction of natural resources.
The juxtaposition of extreme wealth and poverty across the region speaks to wider global challenges that emerge when excessive concentrations of wealth come at the expense of sustainable public services and transparency. Transparency International said:
“far from being victimless crimes, corruption and tax evasion deprive citizens around the world of much-needed public services while at the same time undermining institutions and democracy. Developing countries alone lose an estimated US$1 trillion each year to illicit financial flows.”
The UK Government know that only too well because several of their overseas territories in the region effectively operate as tax havens. The Cayman Islands alone are home to 85% of the world’s hedge funds and an estimated 100,000 registered companies, and report banking assets in excess of $500 billion.
The UK Government have to step up and play their part in tackling the illicit finance in their overseas territories. They could establish an illicit finance commissioner to monitor the presence of assets in overseas territories and Crown dependencies. They could ensure that their refresh of the integrated review has a dedicated focus on countering illicit finance flows and addressing corruption. They could establish a transparent and accurate ultimate beneficial owner register, enhance verification of that register, initiate investigations into known weaknesses, and accelerate timelines for entries linked to British overseas territories.
The Government also have to step up and do more to address challenges at the other end of the spectrum, as the hon. Gentleman said, including high poverty levels, instability and the legacy of slavery and colonialism. I talked about the extremes of inequality and instability that Haiti has experienced in recent years, through a combination of natural and man-made disasters that have made it the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The UK could take simple steps such as uplifting its emergency aid provision, working with the non-governmental organisations that are still present in the country, liaising with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights when he makes an official visit, and exploring what the UK embassy in Port-au-Prince can do to formally document and escalate human rights abuses witnesses by British diplomats on the ground.
As the hon. Gentleman said, climate change is another major driver of inequality and instability. Again, people in the Caribbean are particularly at risk. Of the 511 natural disasters worldwide since 1950 that have hit small states, 324 have been in the Caribbean, killing more than a quarter of a million people and affecting more than 24 million through injury and the loss of homes and livelihoods. It is expected that by 2050, 1 billion people in low-lying coastal areas will face escalating climate risks that undermine adaptation efforts. Of the Caribbean’s 40 million inhabitants, 28 million live on the coast.
In addressing financial security and reducing inequality, the UK Government ought to address some of those points. They could learn from the Scottish Government’s commitment to a comprehensive sustainable loss and damage package to help developing countries tackle climate change. They could pledge to target the most climate-vulnerable countries first, which would include nations in the Caribbean. Of course, they will find it difficult to do that precisely because of the aid cuts that the hon. Gentleman spoke about.
Of course, the majority of the hon. Gentleman’s speech focused on the legacy of colonialism. He spoke incredibly powerfully about that, and he is right to put challenging questions to the UK Government and all of us in positions of responsibility.