British MPs Seek to End Poverty, but Make No Concrete Offers

By Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Mar 15 (IPS) - A majority of British MPs have signed up for a resolution to make poverty history -- but not voted to take action on it. Their support comes through a parliamentary resolution that does not arise from within the parliament chamber. It comes by way of signing up to what is known as an Early Day Motion (EDM). Copies of the motion are placed in the House of Commons for MPs to sign up to, in the knowledge that these are not likely to be debated within Parliament. No EDM this year has drawn as much support as EDM number 9 tabled by Labour MP Julia Drown.

It says: ''That this House welcomes the United Kingdom government's commitment to the Millennium Development Goals; notes with concern that the current debt crisis, trade injustice and shortcomings of aid further exacerbate poverty, inequality, the HIV/ AIDS crisis and environmental degradation across the developing world; notes that if the international community is to make poverty history then there needs to be further co-ordinated political action by the world's governments, including the United Kingdom, aimed at trade justice, dropping the debt and providing more and better aid; and calls on the United Kingdom government to lead the way for change and use its influence when it holds the presidency of the G8 and chairs the EU to make poverty history in 2005.''

If the EDM was a bill, ''it would now become law -- compelling the British government to deliver trade justice, debt cancellation and better quality aid,'' the Make Poverty History campaign comprising more than 300 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), faith groups and trade unions said in a statement. ''Everything would change,'' Bruce Whitehead from ActionAid told IPS. ''It would then be illegal for aid to be conditional on trade policies in the country getting the aid. The aid allocation would have to go up to 0.7 percent of the gross national income (GNI), and Britain would have to cancel debts.''

There is a price tag to those changes. ''The government is trying to play a clever game,'' Whitehead said. ''They say they support our campaign, but they do not sign up to the pledge.'' Several NGOs led by vicars had gone to Prime Minister Tony Blair's office in January to call on him to sign up to their pledge on making poverty history. Blair said he supports the pledge, but as expected, he did not sign.
And it is not the convention for a minister to sign an EDM. In theory any MP could turn the success of the EDM into a private members bill. But it is rare for a private members bill to be given any time in Parliament. As a result, 417 out of 659 MPs had signed the EDM by Monday evening, but this amounted to an expression of sentiment, not a recipe for action.

But some campaigners believe that this level of support will bring pressure upon the government to act. ''MPs from all parties are making it clear to the government that it must make poverty history this year,'' Matt Phillips from Save the Children, a member of the Make Poverty History campaign said in a statement.
''They are demanding action, not more rhetoric. This must result in policy changes on things the UK can do to reduce extreme poverty, action to stop forced liberalisation, and real pressure from Tony Blair on other world leaders to deliver.''

It is not unusual for MPs to raise support for an issue through an EDM. What is unusual is the very large number of signatories to this EDM. The signatures add up to the wish of the substantial majority of elected leaders -- but just that. British leaders are looking to joint action with other partners in the G8 (the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia) and with other European Union countries.

Britain has presidency of G8 this year and is hosting the G8 summit in Gleneagles in Scotland this July. It will have presidency of the EU for the second half of this year. But Britain has got little by way of support from other countries for its initiatives such as a substantial increase in aid for Africa, and the setting up of an International Finance Facility to raise more aid faster. If others do not agree to act, there is little Britain can or will do. The EDM becomes the parliamentary equivalent of talk without action.