From human rights abuses in the Caucusus to helping prop up dictatorships in Indonesia: for the last thirty years UK governments have handed over taxpayers’ money to support UK businesses abroad, some of which has had the most appalling consequences for foreign victims.
Today I am introducing a Ten Minute Rule bill, which calls for urgent reform of a secretive and unaccountable government department – the Export Credits Guarantee Department (ECGD). The ECGD sits within the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and reports directly to the secretary of state, there are very few legal obligations on its activities or its reporting and as such, what little we do know about it comes from the work of committed campaigners such as the Jubilee Debt Campaign, Amnesty International and Corner House.
The ECGD provides insurance to British companies hoping to work overseas in risky projects or places, overwhelmingly in the arms trade, oil and aerospace industries. Airbus, for example, received 89% of the ECGD’s support last year.
The department is under very little scrutiny – the majority of projects are not screened for human rights abuses, environmental impact of even child labour; there is no mechanism for complaints for the people who are affected by the projects it supports and there is no evaluation of the projects that the government invests in.
In a time of economic recession, the government needs to invest in business to lead recovery. Yet we cannot allow British business to operate around the world unchecked, least of all with taxpayers’ money supporting it.
The bill I will put to parliament today would put conditions on the type of business the ECGD can insure. If my proposals were put in place, the ECGD would not have been able to fund, for example: the water project in Lesotho which resulted in its chief executive being sentenced to 18 years in prison for taking £3 million in bribes; the oil pipeline in the Caucusus which violated human rights and environmental safeguards on 170 occasions; or weapons sales in Indonesia which were used by General Suharto to suppress and murder hundreds of thousands of people. All of this was made possible with the use of taxpayers’ money and it cannot be allowed to continue.
British business, now more than ever, needs support from the government. However, sustainable trade that is of long-term benefit for everyone should safeguard human rights, protect the environment and, at the very least, not exacerbate poverty.
My proposals are absolutely not anti-business, which is why the Bill has received full cross-party backing, but instead seek to raise awareness of the sort of business we are supporting, and to ask why that level of investment cannot instead be granted to ethical, environmentally friendly business activities.
The Bill seeks greater transparency, a debarring of companies who have been convicted of corruption from receiving support, and safeguards to ensure the UK does not force developing companies to underwrite the destruction of their own communities, environment and lives of their citizens. In the wake of the financial crisis, with growing consensus for the need for greater accountability in business and finance, we should be asking business to take responsibility for its actions, both here and abroad.
It is in the best tradition of the Labour Party’s internationalist history that we stand by people across the world and take responsibility for the impact of our actions on them. If we do not stand for this, what do we stand for?