How cancelling 'made-up' debt could help the UK meet aid targets

Treating debt relief for Sudan as charity will allow aid targets to be met at no cost.

"The UK will not balance its books on the backs of the poorest," David Cameron told the G8 summit in May, reiterating his pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on international aid by 2013. The International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell has echoed this sentiment, saying it is "absolutely clear that we stand by this commitment". That may be -- but some political sleight of hand could help to meet this target.

Back in the 1970s, the UK government backed loans to Sudan to buy British exports. These commercial loans were given by the little known department UK Export Finance (formerly ECGD) winning business for Britain, and keeping Sudan on side during the Cold War.

However, floods and droughts in the 1980s, along with rising US interest rates, led to the country defaulting on its repayments to the western world. The bill outstanding to the UK was £173 million.

Over 25 years later, the claimed debt has now risen to £678 million, and is increasing by £20 million a year. This huge increase is due to notional interest rates of 10-12 per cent being charged every year on the original debt.

The debt claimed from Sudan is effectively made-up money. Yet it could help the UK meet aid targets in the years ahead.

In June, South Sudan gained its independence. The north of Sudan has agreed to keep all the debt, so long as it is allowed to enter an international debt relief scheme within two years.

If and when Sudan achieves debt relief, the UK will "cancel" the debt. Given no repayments have been received for a quarter-of-a-century, this will cost nothing. The government then intends to treat this cancelled debt as aid, and count £678 million -- or whatever figure has been reached by then -- as a contribution to meeting the target to spend 0.7 per cent of national income on aid.

Counting debt relief as aid is nothing new. In the years following the invasion of Iraq, the UK cancelled 80 per cent of the debt inherited by Iraqi people from Saddam Hussain. The cancellation was counted as aid even though the UK loans had included money for Saddam to buy weapons and parts for a chemical weapons factory.

However, the reduction in Iraq's debt, as well as that of Nigeria, did not count towards meeting aid targets. Under current plans, any debt reduction for Sudan will too.

The UK's approach reinforces a narrative that all debts have to be paid, and it is an act of great charity and benevolence on the part of creditors to cancel them. But questions need to be asked about the origin of loans, and responsibilities of lenders as well as borrowers.

In Sudan's case, the UK government says it does not even know what the original loans to dictator Gaafar Nimeiry were for. The government could learn the lessons of past failed lending by implementing Liberal Democrat policy to audit all debts, something Vince Cable, the minister responsible, has so far not been minded to do.

But in Sudan's case, we know the loans from UK Export Finance were driven by Britain's own commercial interest to win contracts and strategic interest in the Cold War. The repayments then became too high because of drought, flood and global economic crisis. The debt was too big in the 1980s and as with all debts that are too big, needed to be repudiated, cancelled or reduced. Instead the debt was kept on the books and inflated by ridiculous interest rates.

In total, Sudan is said to owe $12 billion to western governments. Mostly due to the same high interest rates charged by the UK. If and when this is formally cancelled, if it is all used to meet aid targets, it could knock 12 per cent off official aid for one year.

Treating debt relief as charity will allow aid targets to be met at no cost. It will also sweep under the carpet a history of bad lending, allowing the same mistakes to be made again.

Tim Jones is policy officer at the Jubilee Debt Campaign

Tim Jones is policy officer at Jubilee Debt Campaign. Jubilee Debt Campaign is part of a global movement demanding freedom from the slavery of unjust debts and a new financial system that puts people first.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.