Covid-19: International Response

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Monday 18th May 2020

(4 years, 1 month ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, the Covid crisis has not just been a health crisis; it has also been an economic crisis. While we should tackle the health pandemic soon enough, which may last all of six months, the economic crisis will last much longer. There are many groups of people in countries who have not been affected by the virus, but they have suffered the collateral economic damage, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and others have pointed out. While international co-operation is required for dealing with the health pandemic, it is much more important that we tackle the economic collateral damage being inflicted on the most vulnerable. Such people are not typically salaried or in white-collar jobs or jobs which can be done from home. They are suffering severe loss of income and, very often, the welfare state, such as the universal credit system, treats them extremely unkindly. We have to face up to the fact that, for the next 18 months, no economy will recover; certainly, ours will not. Whatever international co-operation may achieve from country to country, we have to see who is helping the poorest people in them. For example, are we going to resume refugee traffic? Are we going to help asylum seekers? Are we going to help those who have been temporarily unemployed because of the economic crisis and who barely qualify for universal credit?

It is these questions that we must study. We should start international co-operation on that subject.

India: Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019

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Tuesday 25th February 2020

(4 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, for introducing this Question. I must declare an interest: I have a column in the Indian Express every Sunday, and I have written extensively about the matters being discussed, but I shall refer people to find that out for themselves.

The noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, have raised many issues about India. I shall follow the title of the Question before us and confine myself strictly to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. It is said that the Act is unconstitutional, but we do not know that yet because the Supreme Court of India has not yet heard on that issue. As of now, all one can say is that both Houses of the Indian Parliament have passed the legislation; the President has signed it, and it has been notified in the Gazette and is the law of the land.

It does not concern Indian citizens that the title of the legislation is somewhat misleading. After the partition of India, which led to the movement of some 18 million people one way or another—I do not remember who called the partition; I am not going to go into that—the first Citizenship Act was passed in 1955. That related to the status of refugees who had to be given citizenship in India. Although the Act that we are discussing is called the “Citizenship … Act”, it is about refugees who are not citizens and the question is which set of refugees should be given citizenship.

The first Act was in 1955; there was another in the mid-1970s, and now there is this third Act. This Act relates only to refugees who have come from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the three Muslim-majority countries in the neighbourhood of India. The Act states that anybody who came into India as a refugee at any time up to 2014 and was likely to have faced prosecution will be recognised as a citizen. The position taken by the Government is that, because it was Muslim-majority countries from which they came, they will be predominantly non-Muslim—they will be Hindus, Parsis or Sikhs, but not Muslims. It is possible to say that this is not factually true, because there is a lot of persecution of Muslim minorities especially in Pakistan, where the Shias and the Ahmadis have been discriminated against, but the Government of India have chosen not to look at that and to consider only non-Muslim refugees for citizenship.

The fear about this Act, which is quite genuine and has been expressed in a number of demonstrations, arises from what has happened in Assam. It is somewhat complicated to go through it, but the Assamese position is that only people genuinely born in Assam and speaking the Assamese language can be considered Assamese, and that nobody else, Hindu or Muslim, coming from Bengal, Bihar or anywhere else, should be considered a citizen. There were major riots in the 1970s and 1980s, and in 1985 the Assam Accord was signed. As part of that the Government were supposed to consider a national citizenship register, and the Supreme Court commanded the then Government to do that. But they did not do it, and 30 years later it has come up. There was a citizenship register count earlier on, and 30 million Assamese were recognised as citizens while 2 million were thought to have dubious papers and their cases will be reconsidered. It turns out that out of the 2 million, around 1 million are Hindus and the rest are Muslims and other minorities.

This episode, and the question of what will happen to those who do not have the papers, is raising anxiety. People are saying that the CAA has been passed for no other reason than to let the Hindus with dubious papers to go through but not anyone else. This has not yet happened—it is a conjectural fear. I am not saying that it is not true: the conjectural fear exists, but so far neither the citizenship Act nor the national citizenship register have been implemented. It is important for us to have that in mind. Whatever representations Her Majesty’s Government make, they should be based on what has happened so far.

Windrush

Lord Desai Excerpts
Tuesday 4th September 2018

(5 years, 9 months ago)

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Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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The noble Lord makes a clear distinction. There is what we have a moral obligation to do, to put right the wrongs which go back decades, but also, we absolutely need to keep control of our borders, and the two issues are entirely separate.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, euphemisms are used about the Windrush generation; basically, we are talking about Afro-Caribbean black people. We are saying that some black people who may have lived here for generations were questioned as to whether they could prove that they belonged here. We have no identity cards in this country. How is one to prove, if one is not a white person, that you belong to this country? I am sorry to say this, but I remember that in the early 1980s, when we had to change the passport, there was the question of people born abroad—expatriate sons and daughters. They were accommodated through a grandfather clause: if their grandfather was all right, they were all right, and they did not have to leave. Obviously, a great injustice has been done, and the apology is just not good enough.

Baroness Williams of Trafford Portrait Baroness Williams of Trafford
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I cannot disagree with the noble Lord, and that brings me back to the point I made to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy: that perhaps we did not think about identity assurance as clearly as we should have back in 1973, and it is becoming all the more important. It is up to us as a Government to ensure that people are provided with that and that they are able to prove their right to be here, to live, to work and to rent, and so on. The noble Lord is absolutely right, but that identity assurance will become more and more important.

Brexit: The Future of Financial Regulation and Supervision (European Union Committee Report)

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Wednesday 6th June 2018

(6 years ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, if I may I will speak in the gap. I am a member of the committee but, by some muddle, my name does not appear on the list. I join everyone else in thanking our chairman for her excellent work—and our staff. I shall concentrate on one thing, because the report has been summarised very well by my fellow committee members. We all agree that the City is not only a great contributor to our economy but one of the best financial centres in the world. There is no doubt about that. We also know that access to the City is of great benefit to EU countries. But I say to my noble friend Lord Liddle that we could not write a report on any assumption other than that Brexit will happen. We had to work that out. If it does not happen, who knows what will happen—but we had to do that.

My doubt is this: yes, it is a fact that we are a very good financial centre, we make a great contribution to European prosperity and Europe needs us. In a world of rational, self-interest pursuing agents, it would be recognised by both sides that it is in our mutual interest to arrive at a good agreement—be it equivalence, mutual recognition or whatever. My fear is that we do not live in that world in this context. Given the way that the Brexit negotiations have gone, I increasingly suspect that neither side really wants to pursue rational self-interest. Indeed, had we wanted to pursue rational self-interest, we would not have got into this in the first place.

Given that we are champions in the financial industry, it of course makes sense for the other side to use what in the old days we used to call import substitution to keep us out as far as possible—because their industry can develop only if ours is stopped from competing in their market. This is the history of all developing countries and, if you are a financial centre such as Frankfurt or Paris, you look forward to the time when you can make it difficult, if not impossible, for the City of London to compete.

My conclusion from this is rather pessimistic, but I think it agrees with a lot of what our witnesses said. Assume the worst. That is the only ground on which you can plan the future. It is most likely, unless we are very lucky, that we will not get a good agreement in finite time and that we will have to adjust to a situation after Brexit when we will have to use our ingenuity and innovation to do better elsewhere.

Creditworthiness Assessment Bill [HL]

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Baroness Grender Portrait Baroness Grender (LD)
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My Lords, we on these Benches fully support the Bill as originally drafted and therefore oppose the amendments in group 1 for all the reasons set out so far by other Members. Renters are such a large part of the population now. They have every right to be full participants as consumers. I will give a very specific example: if you are a renter in social housing—78% of renters in social housing pay their rent in full and on time—and you go to buy a washing machine, currently, because you are described as high risk, you will pay between £300 and £1,000 more. Could somebody please explain to me how it is possible that someone can steer clear of arrears when they are in a scenario where, if they are not an owner-occupier, they pay between £300 and £1,000 more for a washing machine? We need to stand firm on the current wording in the Bill and not allow this probing amendment to be aired. A small change in the renting threshold would mean that an additional 4.8 million consumers would be more attracted to mainstream and lower-cost renting.

On arrears, while I understand that this is a point of concern, the whole point of this is to bring people who are renters into the sunlight with information about them. The FCA has also said that it would be good to know who these people are. The alternative is unscrupulous lenders. That is where we drive people to if they are not in the full sunlight of creditworthiness and there is data about them. For those very brief reasons, we urge noble Lords to reject these amendments and to understand that renters are increasing in number. Just today the BBC announced that the proportion of 35 to 54 year-olds who live as private tenants has nearly doubled in 10 years since 2006. The real problem is that the number of people who are renting is doubling but government policy is not keeping pace with this scenario. This very fine Bill tries to do so.

Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, I did not speak in the Second Reading debate but I add my support to the Bill sponsored by the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and speak against the amendment. The Second Reading debate showed that several things were being put together and confused. The Bill’s purpose is simple. Obviously the problem is that the poor do not get access to credit, or they do at very high interest rates. That is not the problem that would be solved here. There is also the problem that lots of people are in arrears. If they are they will have a low credit rating. That is often as true for owners. That is not a problem.

The virtue of the Bill is to say that if people are behaving like regular, honest payers of their debt on time they ought to get some sort of compensation or reward for that. If people are paying rent regularly they should be treated on par with those who pay their mortgage regularly. It is such a simple idea that I do not know why people are upset about it. For one thing, the cost of recording payments is much lower than it used to be because they are completely automatic. If we can tell the FCA to persuade people to get into a blockchain system that would be a very efficient way of recording payments, both on the part of the landlord who receives it and the tenant who pays it. It would be very easy to build up a databank of regular payments. From there we could easily get on to some sort of financial app that will give them the credit they deserve.

If we keep the Bill to this particularly narrow but very useful aim we should be very happy to support it. It is required that we do not treat two groups of virtuous people unequally. Those who pay their mortgage on time and those who pay their rent on time should be treated equally because they are both behaving honestly.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes Portrait Baroness Gardner of Parkes (Con)
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My Lords, I listened very carefully to what my noble friend said in introducing the amendment, but I really think it is a very bad amendment. It throws out the whole value of the Bill completely. It would just reinstate the current position. That is not what we are aiming to do. We are aiming to make this possible for people who really have no knowledge or awareness of finance or how to do things. These people would be the very ones to be overlooked with a “may”, because they do not push themselves forward in the same way, yet they need the information and the help, certainly if they have been good payers of rent. I remember when I was looking to get a mortgage for the first house I ever bought—I did not succeed in getting one at the time. The whole house cost £7,500, which in those days was a lot of money. A dental chair-side assistant was paid two pounds 10 shillings a week; a highly skilled receptionist was paid £7. We are talking about a long time ago. Although those were times when I knew nothing whatever about mortgages, these are times when you need help and you want to have your case considered. The more modest you are or willing to be squashed the more you were squashed. It is not a good amendment and I am sorry to say that I cannot support my noble friend on it. I want to retain the status quo in the original wording of the Bill, which would be very much more helpful to those who need help.

Role of Women in Public Life

Lord Desai Excerpts
Monday 5th February 2018

(6 years, 4 months ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, and perhaps I may match him story for story. In 1834, when this building was burned down, the House of Commons had to meet in the old House of Lords, which had somehow miraculously survived. In 1835 there was a proposal that galleries should be added to the Chamber so that women could come to watch the proceedings. The House of Commons, to a man, was shocked at the idea that women should be allowed to watch them. As one Member said, if women were there, it would cramp their style—I have put that into modern parlance—and therefore it would be a bad thing. Luckily, they were overruled and women were able to watch politicians in Parliament. So progress has been made, although it has been rather slow.

I have another story. In about 1974—I think it was before Mrs Thatcher was elected as leader—I was babysitting my young daughter, who was about two or three years old, and I took her to the LSE. It was a glorious summer’s day and we were standing outside a pub. Robert McKenzie, my colleague at the LSE, was there and I said, “What do you think of Shirley Williams’s future? How soon do you think she could be Prime Minister?”. Robert McKenzie looked at my daughter and said, “It will be lucky if we have a woman Prime Minister by the time your daughter attains maturity”. In 1974 he thought that there would not be a woman Prime Minister for another 20 years. So sometimes time speeds up and sometimes it is very slow.

We have heard lots of very good speeches, especially reminiscences and examples of people who are not in the public eye. I want to make a suggestion which has not been made so far. I think that we need a museum for the women’s franchise and their struggle for the vote. I have recently been associated with another museum which my wife has set up, the theme of which is the partition of India and Pakistan. Memories are still alive there—they have been recorded. We can still record people’s memories about their mothers and other people they knew. Those memories of women who were local councillors, mayors and so on need to be preserved for posterity. If we do not do so, they will be lost. It would involve a lot of work and a lot of money, which I am sure could be raised from private donations. I urge not necessarily the Government but people here to make a concerted effort to set up a museum to pay tribute to women’s progress in our society. Of course, there has not been enough progress, as we all know.

In this debate there has been talk about suffragettes versus suffragists, but I do not think you can have one without the other. The suffragists, starting in the 1890s, patiently burrowed away at Parliament but eventually it was the suffragettes who made progress. They may have publicly lost the support of the Commons but I can tell your Lordships that the Members of the Commons were frightened out of their wits. The suffragette movement was perhaps the most violent political movement in the British Isles—even more violent than many trade union movements had previously been. However, something like that had to be done to wake people up to the fact that there was a burning desire on the part of women to get some sort of equality. Of course, the First World War helped as well. It was not just the suffragettes and suffragists; Rosie the Riveter helped too. Had women not worked as a vital part of the wartime economy, men would not have realised that women could do more than just sit at home and cook. Therefore, those three things—the suffragettes, the suffragists and the First World War—together were very helpful in building the case for women’s suffrage.

Many noble Lords have mentioned that, yes, there has been equal suffrage, but there has not been equality. One has to say that getting the vote is a very small part of the struggle for equality. There is no equality among men, there is no equality among women and there is no equality between men and women. Political action and political democracy are a very small part of what generates the day-to-day inequalities in income and wealth. We could talk about all sorts of disadvantages that we find very hard to remove, and there are parts of the world that still have gender selection of children. Women suffer disadvantages from birth onwards. Very often, even well-to-do families will send their boys to private school but their girls to the local state school. The advantages for the male child are built in from the early years onwards. Those things add up.

Substantial equality between men and women and between all people is a distant goal that we will be able to achieve, but political action is one thing that we can do now collectively. That is why it is important that we go on, through the legislative process, trying to remove the many disadvantages that women suffer. We must hope that, in the future, other people will follow our path and achieve equality. So I welcome this debate and I look forward to the debate in 10 years’ time, when we will celebrate the centenary of universal adult franchise. That is when the country became a real democracy.

Let me add one more thing. The impact of 1918 and 1928 was even more profound on the Commonwealth. All the countries that became independent from the Commonwealth had, at the outset, universal adult franchise. India had universal franchise for men and women in 1950, upon its birth. That would not have happened without 1918. That is a tribute to what was achieved.

Registration of Marriage Bill [HL]

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2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
Friday 26th January 2018

(6 years, 4 months ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, I speak as someone who in his youth thought marriage would become obsolete by the time he grew up, but that was not to be. I welcome the Bill, especially the fact that the mother’s name will be added to the father’s name, but I wonder, in the days of IVF and such things, whether the concept of mother and father would be applicable with such certainty everywhere. Perhaps we will need another Bill in another 10 years to clarify that.

I speak as a humanist, and practically all that I wish to say has been said by my noble friend Lady Bakewell. I shall therefore say just that I welcome the introduction of the mother’s name, I welcome the conversion to online registration, and I wish that the noble Baroness’s amendment receives as much support as the Bill.

DfID Economic Development Strategy

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Monday 27th November 2017

(6 years, 6 months ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, we are very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicholson, for introducing this topic. She has done excellent work in this area and she has now very boldly invited us to think about the new policy on development. I say immediately that I entirely agree with her suggestion that there should be much more liaison—if not almost a formal coming together—between the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and DfID.

Over the years that I have been studying or writing about development, we have come to a very different understanding of it now compared to before. Once upon a time, in the days of the Cold War, we got into development aid just to make sure that our voice was being heard, as against the opposite voice. We put faith in Governments, and government-to-government aid seemed to be the centre of the way development aid was distributed. We then realised that development is not actually about Governments but the people who live in those countries. The noble Baroness pointed out the problem of corruption; Governments often stopped development happening because they concentrated all the money in their own hands.

We need to look at two things. First, as the noble Baroness asked, how does UK development aid—I say parenthetically that I very much welcome our commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on development —further the UK’s soft power? That is one way of looking at it. Secondly, how does UK money actually further development? That is a separate problem and we should worry about that in a different way from how we worry about the departmental correlation.

On departmental correlation, the current problem of development is not only that it does not take place within national boundaries but that it often occurs in ways which are difficult to deal with. Take the problem of refugees, for example, who have streamed out of Syria because of the war. There are also people who are not refugees but economic migrants coming from Africa into Europe. That is a development problem, and the Syrian refugee issue is another such problem that belongs to no particular country but lots of lots of countries. We have to do something with our resources about the refugee problem, which will go on occurring. There will be no finite end to it; nor will there ever be an end to the problem of economic migration, no matter how many boats we ply in the Mediterranean. People will cross oceans and seas, taking enormous risks to move from what are now poor countries to what they consider to be rich countries offering them opportunities.

While we will do everything we can to stem the flow of people, there will be cases—especially those involving women, children and other vulnerable people—where we will have to face up to the fact that helping them is a problem for the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, or for DfID. But it is a problem we cannot neglect: if we are to advance our soft power and help development, we will have to have a philosophy within DfID, or within government itself, that takes a robust view of what we should do about these recurring problems.

Let me also point out the recent problem of hurricanes, floods and typhoons. It was reported—I say that only because I do not know whether it was true—that under OECD rules, DfID could not help certain Caribbean countries because they were classified as too prosperous to come under DfID rules. When people are affected by hurricanes, floods or climate change, do we not have a responsibility to think about how we can help them, especially if they are within the UK’s overseas territories? All the problems of climate change, hurricanes and floods, post-war refugees and economic migration are the new problems of development, rather than the old ones associated with trying to help the people of a country by giving money to their Government, in the hope that they will trickle the money down to the people.

Going further along that line of thought, I will say just one more thing. Over the many years that I have worked in this area, I have always thought that aid should not be from government to government, but from charities and NGOs in the donor country to charities and NGOs in the recipient country. We have to get the money on the ground with as few intermediaries as possible; often, governments are not good intermediaries in the developing countries where the need is greatest. The more that we can fund our aid through UK charities, which have done very good development work over the years, the better. We ought to use their expertise and on-the-ground knowledge of where the money is needed, what it is needed for and how to use it most effectively.

I welcome what the noble Baroness said about the Daily Mail. Let us have the Daily Mail as a critic, because it keeps us on edge. There is no point in wasting money. We have to be able to demonstrate time and again that we are using the money we have properly. Remember, there is a development problem at home as well. We have to maintain balance, and every time we give money outside the country, we have to think of the people who are not getting that money at home. We should not pretend that we somehow have no problems and that all the problems are abroad. People resent that. When we spend DfID money, we have to make quite sure that we are getting good value in terms of both UK soft power and tackling the problem of development.

International Development Policies

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Thursday 19th November 2015

(8 years, 7 months ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, let me see whether I can do it in two minutes. Over the 60 years that I have studied this problem, our idea of what causes development has got more rather than less complicated. The goals that we set for our aid agencies have become baroquely rich, and there are so many that it is not possible for any development agency to satisfy the many people who judge it.

A few years ago, I suggested when speaking in a DfID debate that the one thing we should do with the global aid budget was count how many poor there are and do a direct cash transfer of the entire development budget to the poor. At that time, it came out to be around $50 per poor person. I think there are now fewer poor, so we may be able to get more. If you want to get rid of poverty, the only thing to do is to transfer cash directly to the poor. If you cannot do that, I would suggest just one more thing that may relieve it. The only criteria of development is: what is the future of the girl child? If you can do better for the girl child in every society when you intervene, that would define your success.

Middle East and North Africa

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Wednesday 16th September 2015

(8 years, 9 months ago)

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Lord Desai Portrait Lord Desai (Lab)
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My Lords, let me first pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. Knowing him has been one of the great pleasures of my life here and I shall always cherish his friendship and his wit.

Let me try a completely different and somewhat utopian solution to the problem at hand. As the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, said at the beginning, this problem has been going on for a long time. The war in the Middle East has been going on since, I think, 1973, but if not, at least since the beginning of this century. It will go on, it is not going to end. We are witnessing the consequences of the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire 100 years down the line, and they are not going to go away.

I think that the European Union can solve the problem, but it cannot necessarily accommodate all the people who are going to come. Indeed, it is a travesty for the European Union to believe that it has done anything to solve the problem. It is Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey who have housed more refugees than Europe has done or will ever do.

My solution is the following—it is very utopian, I agree. The European Union should go to the United Nations and propose a global solution to the refugee problem. There are sparsely populated countries in central Asia: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Mongolia and so on. Their population density is one-hundredth of the population density in Europe. I would like the United Nations to arrange a transfer of as many migrants and refugees as possible, with the co-operation of those countries, to settle them in those countries. The European Union should provide financial support and encouragement for that.

As the noble Baroness said, the UK’s contribution to humanitarian aid has been fantastic, whatever people may say about our ability or willingness to have people come here. Europe’s strength is in resources—money—and diplomatic clout. Europe should go to the United Nations and propose that global solution with the co-operation of the receiving countries. We can then transfer a lot of people from Lebanon, Jordan or wherever to those countries. They are Muslim countries. These are co-religionists of the people leaving Syria and Iraq.

Everybody will tell me that that is not possible, but what is the House of Lords for if not to propose utopian solutions? That is my solution, and I hope that someone takes it up. If anyone wants more information, I can give it to them, but if I stop here, I will contribute three minutes to the debate this evening, and that is more valuable than anything I have said.