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Commonwealth (UK Role)

Volume 522: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2011

I remain committed to strengthening the UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth and ensuring that we are at the centre of plans to reinvigorate this unique organisation for the benefit of all its current and future members. This ready-made network can further our foreign policy and economic interests.

Following the Foreign Secretary’s highly successful trip to Australia and New Zealand, what opportunities has he identified for increasing trade between Britain and that part of the Commonwealth?

There are huge opportunities to do that. I was the first Foreign Secretary for 17 years to go to Australia. There was a certain omission in that respect under the previous Government. I spoke there to the Australian British Chamber of Commerce, which revealed tremendous opportunities further to boost trade and the economic ties between our countries. The Commonwealth now accounts for a growing share of world trade, so that is an added dimension to the importance of that remarkable organisation.

As the Foreign Secretary knows, the previous Government had started negotiations and discussions about the Act of Settlement with other Commonwealth countries that share our monarch as their Head of State. Does he agree that the provisions that mean that no Catholic or anyone who does not subscribe to the Church of England can become monarch are outdated, as are the rules on male primogeniture? Will he pursue those conversations with those countries?

I recognise the force of the arguments about something that was originally set out more than 300 years ago. Among the issues of middle east peace, the Iranian nuclear programme and so on, I have not yet put that at the top of my list to negotiate with other Governments, but it is a legitimate issue for the long term, on which all the Commonwealth Governments with the Queen as Head of State would have to be consulted and agree.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Commonwealth countries are the emerging markets of the future? As he develops his hard-headed internationalism, will he recognise that the network that is the Commonwealth, together with our influence, represent a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom?

Indeed. The Commonwealth now includes 54 nations on six continents, with 31% of the world’s population. It has, as I said, an increasing share of the world’s trade, and the proportion of the members of the Commonwealth’s trade with each other is growing, so it is not an organisation of the past. It will have increasing importance in the future.