By Meirion Jones
Former UK ministers and MPs from all UK parties are set to back a bill later on Wednesday outlawing the activities of vulture funds, hedge funds which divert debt relief from the poorest countries into their own pockets.
The bill singles out Donegal International and its boss Michael “Goldfinger” Sheehan who was exposed by Newsnight reporter Greg Palast for making a fortune out of Zambia’s debt.
Vulture funds have been condemned by governments around the world as perverse and immoral for preying on the world’s poor.
Developed countries including Britain and the US have spent billions of pounds trying to relieve the debts of the world’s poorest nations so that they can spend that money on health and education.
The vulture fund speculators effectively divert that debt relief to themselves by buying debt for pennies in the pound just as it is about to be written off, and then suing in British or US courts for the full value plus interest.
In 2007, Newsnight exposed the activities of Donegal International which bought a tranche of Zambia’s debt for $3m and then sued for $55m – the size of Zambia’s health budget.
Reporter Greg Palast doorstepped Donegal’s boss Michael “Goldfinger” Sheehan who styles himself after the James Bond villain.
The programme caused outrage. Two US congressmen were so moved by the broadcast that they went to see President George W Bush the next day and the-then president immediately promised to take action against the vultures.
After the programme one of Gordon Brown’s last acts as chancellor, before he became prime minister, was to ask G8 finance ministers to clamp down on the funds.
But two years on they are still operating on both sides of the Atlantic and according to the Jubilee Debt Campaign they are suing countries in the developing world for billions of dollars.
‘Failure to act’
As long ago as 2002, Mr Brown told the United Nations: “We particularly condemn the perversity where vulture funds purchase debt at a reduced price and make a profit from suing the debtor country to recover the full amount owed – a morally outrageous outcome”.
But debt campaigners charge that he has done nothing to outlaw the funds activities since becoming prime minister.
Former opponents, such as the Conservative’s Peter Lilley and Labour’s Gerald Kaufmann, are sponsoring Sally Keeble MP’s Ten Minute Bill today.
The sponsors expect the Treasury to incorporate their ideas into new rules which are being prepared to regulate the activities of hedge funds.
A similar “Stop Vultures Bill” is also about to be introduced into the US Congress.
The Developing Country Debt Bill which will be discussed in the House of Commons on Wednesday would only allow the funds to sue for what they had paid for the debt, not the 10 or even 100 times as at present.
It would force the funds to reveal who their investors were and would introduce measures against the corruption which has been alleged in many of the deals.
The Zambian deal with Donegal for instance involved an official in former President Frederick Chiluba’s administration who was later found – along with the president – to have stolen £23m from Zambia.
The bill is backed by the overseas aid agencies and by the Jubilee Debt Campaign, whose Director Nick Dearden says it would be “a major step forward in tackling these odious funds. It cannot be right that companies are allowed, in British courts, to make enormous profits out of the suffering of millions of the world’s poorest people”.
See the BBC Newsnight Reports by Greg Palast that brought the vulture funds to the attention of the UK Parliament, in Palast’s brand new DVD ‘Palast Investigates’.