Iran and Zimbabwe among states owing UK more than £2bn

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The Independent Online

Some of the world's most illiberal regimes – including Burma, Iran and Zimbabwe – owe the UK debts worth more than £2bn, new figures reveal.

The list of 16 indebted countries, almost a third of which have no agreed final payment date, also includes Egypt, Iraq , North Korea and Sudan.

Sudan owes the UK more than £663m, the bulk of which is thought to be interest, while Indonesia is in the red to the tune of £445m. Iraq's bill to the UK totals £290m, meanwhile Zimbabwe owes more than £190m.

The new statistics emerged after Labour MP Andrew Gwynne tabled a parliamentary question last month asking the Export Credits Guarantee Department (ECGD) to come clean about the extent of debt and expected repayment.

The ECGD, which reports to Vince Cable (pictured), the Secretary of State for Business, was originally established to aid British business abroad, offering insurance to companies' dealings.

However, fears have been raised by MPs that public money has funded deals that "fuel poverty, human rights abuses and climate change".

The debt disclosure has been met with cross-party condemnation from MPs who are calling for an overhaul of the agency and an immediate public audit. Labour MP Lisa Nandy tabled a Private Member's Bill in April, which has passed through to a second reading, demanding improved accountability.

The ECGD has defended allegations claiming the bulk of the £2.35bn debt originated from "dodgy deals" brokered with authoritarian regimes.

Some of debts date back decades and the rate of interest on repayments is unclear, while Burma, Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe have no agreed final payment date.

The coalition has put export-led growth at the heart of its economic strategy, which has been underscored by recent visits to India and Pakistan, and is unlikely to scale back the agency's role.

However, MPs maintain that the ECGD has a history of supporting "destructive" deals, such as the sale of arms to Indonesian dictator General Suharto.

Liberal Democrat MP Malcolm Bruce attacked the "opaque" nature of the department. "There should be a proper risk assessment and transparent process," he said.

"Who are the beneficiaries of the payments? A lot of them are large companies who should cover their own insurance.

"We need a much more open and transparent system. It's almost impossible to track down when the debts originated and what status they have at any given time."

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