[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: The role and future of the Commonwealth, Fourth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, HC 114, and the Government response, Cm 8521.]
Mr Hollobone, I am grateful to you for calling me to speak in that generous manner. I am not sure that I can quite live up to that billing, but I appreciate the opportunity to address you in the Chair. I am also grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing, at a congested time in the parliamentary programme, that we could have a debate on the Commonwealth.
It has been my initiative, as chairperson of the international executive of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, to try to encourage universally throughout the Commonwealth a debate on a wide canvas, not necessarily to any rigid format, but to allow issues connected with the Commonwealth to be raised, as much as anything else just to hoist the flag and show that there is membership of the Commonwealth in each of the legislatures, that it ought not to be forgotten and that there should be a regular review of some issues affecting it. It is a rather good week, apart from being the week in which Commonwealth day occurs, because the new charter has been signed by Her Majesty the Queen. That in itself is a notable event, which we are right to recognise in this House.
It might be asked, what really is the Commonwealth? To even pose the question is a reminder that many people are unaware of the existence of the Commonwealth in their daily lives. That is worrying in respect of the Commonwealth concept having meaning and if people are to understand its breadth and the opportunities it provides. It is, importantly, a voluntary association. Nobody has to be a member of the Commonwealth. The modern Commonwealth is not a British Commonwealth; it is the Commonwealth of nations, in which there should, indeed, be parity of esteem. It is an example of countries slowly edging together, towards wider circles of understanding and co-operation, beginning to see that there are opportunities that were perhaps not recognised 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
The Commonwealth embraces one third of the world’s population, and half of the population of the Commonwealth is under 25. We should be particularly concerned about that young section. Just as we tend to accept the world as it is at the moment we are born, so the Commonwealth can pass over the heads of many young people, weighed down, perhaps, by what they see as immediate issues around them, rather than realising that they are also part of this greater entity. The Commonwealth must have meaning for them. That is why there is particular importance in the promulgation of the charter, affirming the commitment of the Commonwealth to the principles enshrined at Harare, Singapore and Trinidad and Tobago, and focusing on respect for human rights and equality for all, the rule of law and good governance.
It is correct that we should ask all members of the Commonwealth continually to assess themselves, and be assessed, against those values, but some degree of tolerance has to be allowed. There is never going to be a rigid standard to which at all times all nations are going to conform, for a variety of reasons. Indeed, looking at our systems of government, it could be argued that none of us are perfect. It is not too clever for British politicians to say to their partners in the Commonwealth, “You should be doing more about the representation of women in your Parliament”, when we in this country have not attained the levels that we would like to have achieved.
We cannot always expect the laws in certain other Commonwealth countries to conform to where we are; we have changed our minds on some issues, and the laws in our country have developed. We need to be careful about the extent to which we scold other countries for not marching in step with us. What is needed is a process of persuasion—sometimes rather slow persuasion—to move countries towards what might be seen as full conformity with the values of the charter.
In concluding the wider debate that preceded this one, the Minister mentioned the upcoming Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka. I visited that country for last year’s Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference. I had the privilege of giving a lecture in the series commemorating the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, Sri Lanka’s former Foreign Minister. He was a contemporary of mine at university, whom I admired then and whom I grew to admire even more during his legal and political career. In my lecture, I laid down views as to what our friends in Sri Lanka needed to do to give confidence to their partners in the Commonwealth and to ensure there was full-hearted support for their hosting of the Heads of Government meeting later this year. It is perhaps worrying that they have not yet demonstrated, to the complete satisfaction of their friends in the Commonwealth, that all is moving in the right direction.
There must, therefore, continue to be persuasion so that countries understand the importance of adhering to the values of the charter. The Commonwealth ministerial action group must take a more active role in chivvying, to ensure that people are not allowed quietly to forget, reject or abrogate the principles behind the charter. The CPA has a valuable role to play in that respect. It is not as effective as it could be. It is divided into nine regions, and a lot of valuable work is done, but more could be done if there was the will and if there were the resources.
What does the CPA do? It concentrates on strengthening parliamentary institutions. One has only to look around to see all sorts of possible improvements. Some Members of the House would say that improvements have to be made in the way Westminster works. We never reach a destination; there is always a desire to see how much more we can improve. However, bigger steps need to be taken in certain other countries. Many of those countries will look to this country for guidance, including help from Clerks about procedural matters or creating robust Standing Orders.
Given the churn rate of Members of Parliament in the different jurisdictions, people find themselves elected and then wonder what they have to do next. We can all learn from the interchanges that take place under the CPA’s auspices; we can learn from each other. We might say to someone, “Well, that’s interesting: I have that problem, but I didn’t know you had it as well. How do you tackle it?” There is mutual advantage in such exchanges. Similarly, strengthening parliamentary institutions is a topic for almost never-ending discussion.
There are also the diplomacy aspects. When parliamentarians talk to one another, whether in structured seminars or on their margins, when one meets afterwards for a meal or a drink, we begin to understand each other’s problems and points of view. That is not megaphone diplomacy; it is about quiet discussion and respecting the people we are with. There lies the strength of the interchanges I mentioned. Such things are, no doubt, easily mocked by the press. If someone strays outside their own jurisdiction to visit another, that may be seen as being somehow a diversion from their main duties, but it should not be, because such exchanges are extremely valuable. Strengthening Parliaments across the Commonwealth to improve the quality of governance is the key to their ultimate success in ensuring the prosperity and welfare of their people.
My right hon. Friend is talking a lot of sense about the interchange and networking opportunities in the Commonwealth. Is he aware that more than 70 organisations are linked inside the Commonwealth? They cover journalists, accountants, actuaries, local government officials and endless others, all of whom have an expanded network within the Commonwealth.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Yes, I am indeed aware of that. However, given that I happen to be the chairperson of the CPA, I thought I would concentrate on the organisation for which I have some responsibility, rather than range over the whole field. Of course I acknowledge what my hon. Friend says, as well as the need for many of the organisations he mentioned to work together. In some cases, what these different interests are trying to do overlaps, so if they co-operate and pool their resources, they can increase their impact and usefulness.
The CPA has the advantage of embracing the small states and the overseas territories, in a way that is not mirrored at Heads of Government level. We also have the separate Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians organisation, but it is not yet strong in all the CPA’s nine regions, and I am seeking to put that right. I am also seeking to have established the principle that the Commonwealth Youth Parliament should meet every year, because it has met just five times over the past 50 or 60 years, which is not enough. Young people expect continuity; they do not want to be picked up every now and then, asked, “Are you interested? Have you got something interesting to say?” and then forgotten about. There needs to be a continuing process whereby young people’s voices are heard at the highest level.
What is the Commonwealth? It is an extraordinary association of nations. When we celebrate it on Commonwealth day, we are entitled to extol its rich heritage and recognise its enormous reach. In 2013, I should like to see a significant deepening of social, economic, cultural and sporting links between Commonwealth countries—our nations, our citizens and, pre-eminently, our parliamentarians.
The Commonwealth’s theme this year is opportunities through enterprise, and that is opening up a whole new possibility for Commonwealth countries. In the past, their economic relationships were perhaps imbalanced; now there are more opportunities for trade and for taking a common position on trading matters in wider world bodies.
We will let ourselves down if we fail to engage in a continual programme of reform and renewal. An annual check-up such as this, at parliamentary level, is valuable and should continue. There is so much to think about; I have merely scratched the surface in general terms. There is so much to work towards. I fervently believe that all nations in our Commonwealth gain strength from developing their links and deepening their friendships.
Order. After that excellent start, let me announce how we will proceed with the rest of the debate. I will ask Sir Alan to respond to the debate for a couple of minutes before 4.30 pm. At 3.55 pm, I will call the Opposition spokesman. At no later than 4.10 pm, I will call the Minister. Several people have tried to catch my eye who have not informed the Speaker they wish to speak, but, being the nice chap I am, I will do my best to ensure everybody has a say. Given the numbers wishing to speak, I could impose a time limit, but I am not going to; I am going to rely on your good judgment. However, it would be helpful if you could restrain yourselves and make five-minute speeches; if you go over that, I am afraid somebody will lose out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Hollobone. I have the privilege of serving under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on the Administration Committee and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association executive. The right hon. Gentleman spoke of leadership, and I think that the whole House would agree that he has provided leadership to the CPA at a worldwide level, in the 18 months since he took chairmanship of the executive committee.
I am conscious of the time and will restrict myself to brief observations on five areas. As has been mentioned, the CPA has a vital parliamentary strengthening role, as do the Commonwealth institutions themselves. The right hon. Gentleman was right to speak of a two-way learning process. The process at the general election was not all it could have been. There were queues in many cities, because of poor administration. In the light of the way many other Commonwealth countries run their elections, we may need to learn from them. There was also noteworthy turnout on a couple of recent occasions. I am wearing my Falkland Islands cufflinks for this debate: I received a letter today from the Minister about the 92% turnout in the referendum. If only we could have that in Northamptonshire or Dunfermline, I am sure that we would get similar acclamation. Turnout was similar in recent elections in overseas territories such as the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands, at 80-plus per cent, which shows that we have things to learn. I hope that the Government will make a commitment to invite the CPA to send an election observer mission to the UK, as it did in 2010, for the next general election.
I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the new Government of Malta, which were elected a couple of weeks ago. He will notice that that was a Labour landslide, ending 15 years of conservative rule. I hope that the UK will move a bit faster towards a change of Government.
An issue on which there is cross-party agreement is defence and security co-operation. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy), the shadow Defence Secretary, made an excellent speech at the end of last year, building on the comments of the Chief of the Defence Staff about what more the UK can do towards capacity building in defence and security, particularly in north and central Africa. The Chief of the Defence Staff was right to point out that there is a role that we can play; I hope that the Minister will outline the role that the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence think we should play in the Commonwealth countries of Africa, to build their capabilities and capacities at an early stage.
As someone who takes a keen interest in the overseas territories, Mr Hollobone, you will be aware that 90% of the biodiversity in the United Kingdom is contained in those territories. There has been something of a debate recently about turtle farming in the Cayman Islands, but there is a much broader issue about how the UK Government assist and support our overseas territories. Will the Minister briefly outline the support being provided to the overseas territories on various challenges not only by the FCO and the Department for International Development, but by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport and the Department of Energy and Climate Change? Those challenges include—for DECC, for example—hydrocarbons in the Falkland Islands and the management of fishing stocks in the Caribbean.
The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden mentioned that sport is an important part of the Commonwealth, and I am sure that the Minister looks forward to the next Commonwealth games, which Scotland will host next year. I hope that he will take time out from his summer schedule to come and watch Scotland claim many well-deserved gold medals.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) for the way that he chairs the CPA and for his excellent opening speech.
I walked around Parliament square on Monday and was moved to see the flags of the founding members of the Commonwealth movement and of some of the largest and oldest members, and then those of the most recent members, notably Rwanda and Mozambique. That brought home to me the fact that countries want to join this extraordinary organisation.
I welcome the charter. The Commonwealth cannot stand still. Like any organisation, it must move forward. It is excellent that it has now got over some post-colonial hang-ups and guilt, and looks to the future as a truly extraordinary network of like-minded nations with a shared history. For the first time, with the charter, we have a single document setting out the core values and aspirations of the members of the Commonwealth.
One reason why I welcome the enhanced role of the ministerial action group, with the power to respond to violations of core values, is that without stability we cannot have flourishing business. I strongly believe that the trade and investment side of the Commonwealth is crucial. Commonwealth trade is worth £3 trillion—not dollars, but sterling. Indeed, the GDP of Commonwealth countries will overtake that of the EU by 2015. The opportunities are huge, and it is essential that Britain should make the most of them. I believe that we can do that and use some of those shared values—particularly shared legal systems and philosophies on regulatory frameworks—to our advantage. What does the Minister intend to do, along with UK Trade & Investment and other Departments, to make the most of those opportunities in future?
A role that the Commonwealth could pursue with enhanced vigour relates to regional trade integration. Trade Mark East Africa involves mainly Commonwealth countries and has been a great success in breaking down trade barriers between them. Above all, single points of entry between different countries have obviated the need for multiple checks at borders. The same is true also of a tripartite agreement that has been pioneered by the Southern African Development Community.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife mentioned the overseas territories, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden, briefly. One of the key aspects of a recent White Paper on the overseas territories was enhanced engagement by other Departments. A unique selling point of that White Paper is that it harnesses the power, influence, knowledge and skills of other Departments to the benefit of those tiny territories, which lack capacity. I suggest that the Commonwealth can also play an important role in that approach. For example, it helped when the Turks and Caicos Islands had to go into special measures and came under direct rule. Thankfully, home rule has now been restored; but in the interim period, Canada put a great deal of effort and investment into the islands and, for example, seconded a police commissioner and deputy police commissioner there. Both those officers made a significant difference.
I want to mention the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that is scheduled to take place in Colombo. I feel strongly that the future credibility of the Commonwealth is closely linked to its ability to uphold and protect the values set out in the new charter. We must be completely realistic. In spite of numerous warnings and the announcement of red lines, the conduct of the Sri Lankan Government and especially their attitude to accountability still leave a great deal to be desired. There is still a climate of fear and helplessness in the country.
I do not think that it is good enough for the Minister and the Foreign Secretary to say that they will make up their minds about whether Britain will attend the meeting. Her Majesty’s Government should work tirelessly with the secretariat to ensure that certain conditions and benchmarks are laid down for the CHOGM’s going ahead. It would be odd for the head of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty, not to attend a CHOGM. In fact, a CHOGM would not be complete without the head of the Commonwealth.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden that the Commonwealth has done some excellent work over the past few years, but a great deal of progress can still be made. I do not want to see that progress undermined by what will be a long drawn-out debate on Governments’ attendance of CHOGM, because we need action, we need benchmarks and we need conditions.
It is a pleasure to follow the former Minister, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). I completely agree with his remarks on Sri Lanka and the CHOGM. I will not refer to what I said in the previous debate; people can read Hansard tomorrow to see what I said.
It is important that we recognise the enormous potential in the Commonwealth, but, as the report published by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs at the end of last year made clear, the Commonwealth is currently failing to realise that potential. The report also criticised the Government and stated that
“the FCO’s rhetoric about the importance of the Commonwealth is not being matched by its actions.”
I exempt the hon. Member for North West Norfolk and the former Minister in the Lords, Lord Howell, from that criticism, but there is an issue with how the Government, including Departments such as the Department for Education, collectively work with Commonwealth institutions and organisations. More could be done to build on the Commonwealth networks, to which the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), referred in his intervention.
We also criticised the past closure of diplomatic missions, particularly in the Pacific, Swaziland—I have personal experience as a former Voluntary Service Overseas teacher in Swaziland—and Lesotho. There is a question on how seriously our current approach accounts for the fact that we no longer have diplomatic representation in a number of Commonwealth countries. Those countries may be small, but they are politically significant in an organisation that works through consensus.
There is also a question about the BBC World Service, which we referred to in our report. The Chairman of the Select Committee and I visited the World Service’s excellent new facilities this morning.
In the time left to me, I will address the role of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in building capacity and developing democracy. I declare an interest, because the CPA sent me on a capacity-building mission to the Maldives in November 2011. Sadly, within three months there was an engineered coup in which the democratically elected President, Mohamed Nasheed, was removed. His successor, President Waheed, embarked on various measures in an assault on democracy, including the harassment and arrest of members of the Opposition. Former President Nasheed had to seek refuge in the Indian high commission, and, having left the high commission, he was recently arrested. That is all part of a ploy to try to stop a truly democratic election from taking place.
That is shocking to me, because my discussions with members of that country’s embryonic democratic institutions in November 2011 convinced me that there was a role, which the FCO facilitated, in helping to build a committee structure, in training and in democracy-building. All that is being set back by the events of the past year and a half. I hope the CPA and the British Government will continue to press for a truly free and fair election in the Maldives and for a democratic outcome that is acceptable, not just to the people of the Maldives, but to the democratic values of the international community.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing it.
I will begin by reading the first paragraph of the Commonwealth charter that Her Majesty the Queen signed this week:
“Recognising that in an era of changing economic circumstances and uncertainty, new trade and economic patterns, unprecedented threats to peace and security, and a surge in popular demands for democracy, human rights and broadened economic opportunities, the potential of and need for the Commonwealth—as a compelling force for good and as an effective network for co-operation and for promoting development—has never been greater”.
That neatly summarises some of the points that have already been made on the importance of trade and human rights in the Commonwealth and the value of the new charter.
My comments will focus on creating a proper sense of ownership of the Commonwealth in all those countries across the world that belong to it. Often, when listening to debates in this House, people might think that the Commonwealth is something that belongs to Britain. Of course, it is not; it is an organisation, a network, in which we have an important role, but of which we are only one member.
As my right hon. Friend pointed out, the Commonwealth represents 30% of the world’s population and a huge number of young people—there is a huge amount of dynamism. The Commonwealth also represents a huge proportion of the world’s resources. In the ever smaller and ever more interconnected world in which we live, the Commonwealth has an important role in meeting the world’s need for resources. Companies such as Shell talk about the resource nexus between energy, water and food becoming greater than ever.
Member countries such as Australia and Canada are resource rich, and member countries such as India are immense consumers of the world’s resources and have an ever greater role in the world’s economy. We must ensure that all those countries feel ownership of the Commonwealth and accept that they have a part to play in defining its future. As we debate such things, it is important that we encourage Parliaments in those countries to engage with and take ownership of that agenda. I would like to see the Commonwealth charter as the beginning of that process, and not as the end.
In a week in which we have seen another great international organisation, the papacy, pass from the old world to the new, it is a good time to look at Britain’s place in the world and consider where we ought to be trading and to which organisations we should be reaching out. The Commonwealth is undoubtedly one of those organisations.
My late father made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on the importance of Commonwealth trade, and in that speech he said that we should not give up the enormous potential of trade with the world and with the Commonwealth for the “potage” of opportunities in the so-called common market of Europe. Many Conservative colleagues might feel that we have gone too far down that route over the years, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) has pointed out, with the Commonwealth set to overtake the EU in GDP in 2015, it is an important relationship for the future.
I want briefly to touch on a couple of issues that we have not yet heard about in this debate: the importance of collaboration on education across the Commonwealth and the importance of reaching out to students from across the Commonwealth, as the Prime Minister recently did in India, to persuade them to come to study in the UK. In his speech in 1961, my father said that we should seek to create a Harvard Business School for the Commonwealth. If we had such an institution, it would be enormously valuable in the 21st-century world. We should be looking at the opportunities for Britain to reach out, to engage and to play an active role in the Commonwealth, and we should ensure that we are humble about our position. We should feel not that we own that organisation but that we are an active and engaged member along with the other major powers and great nations that form the 21st-century Commonwealth.
I am happy to serve under you, Mr Hollobone. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) for not only his introduction to the debate but his work the year round.
I want to make four brief points; first, to commend the Select Committee report and the Government’s positive response to many of the recommendations. As a Parliament, it is good that we understand that the Commonwealth is a vital part of our foreign affairs, that it consists of our oldest friends and that the club of which we are the oldest member—or, the oldest club of which we are a member—is one that we sustain, encourage, build up and support. I have always been a fan of the Commonwealth, not to the exclusion of support for the European Union or the English-speaking world, but because they are all complementary. It plays to our strengths but, under all Governments, we have never given the Commonwealth the priority that it deserves. My first request to the Minister therefore is for the Government, as suggested by the Select Committee report, to look at and beef up our commitment to Commonwealth in all ways and all Departments, to show that we want to be a serious player.
Various areas could be usefully prioritised. In a second, I will come back to one that has already been the subject of a debate, but last week we had a good debate in the main Chamber about the death penalty elsewhere in the world, about the people on death row in India with the return to executions in that country. We could reasonably seek to persuade those Commonwealth countries that still have the death penalty that it is not a necessary part of a law and order policy, which is better without it. To work with our friends in India and other countries would be helpful. We also need to persuade other countries such as Uganda that persecuting homosexuals is not appropriate for a Commonwealth Government. We need to ensure the right support for people of all backgrounds, colours, castes, faiths, sexes and sexuality, irrespective of where in the Commonwealth they come from. I am also keen that we elaborate and clarify our commitment to the educational exchanges which have been touched on for students from Commonwealth countries. We have cut back on Commonwealth student scholarships, which is a short-sighted failure, because building up historic links that have been present for a long time is hugely important.
Secondly, I want to say a word about Sri Lanka. I greatly appreciate the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), recently a Minister in the FCO. We cannot be supportive of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting going on in Sri Lanka without a sea change in the attitude of the Sri Lankan Government. I do not have an antipathy to Sinhalese people, a Sinhalese Government or a Sinhalese President but clearly, over the years, the minority communities and in particular the Tamils have been ill served. Tests include the disappearance and assassination of journalists, one of the lowest rated categorisations for press freedom in the world and an inability for foreign countries and agencies such as the UN or the Red Cross to be present in the country freely. Sri Lanka has to change. I know the FCO position and that we are withholding our engagement, but unless there is significant change our response needs to be stronger.
Thirdly, I have had a long interest in Cyprus. I congratulate President Anastasiades on his recent election as the President of Cyprus. There is an opportunity to resolve the half-century of dispute over Cyprus—in effect, since its independence from the United Kingdom. There is good will in the north, in the unrecognised Government of northern Cyprus, and I hope for huge encouragement from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Finally, I have a request that the Minister knows is coming: the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council, in which I have had a part over the years, has lost its funding from the British Council and needs about £100,000 a year in public support to keep it going. It does great work and changes the lives of thousands; I hope that the FCO will find a way to support it continuing into the future.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing the debate and on his leadership of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Last year, I had the privilege of being part of a delegation he led to Sri Lanka for the 58th conference, at which a commitment was given in the hope that all CPA members would hold a debate annually at around this time of year, so I am glad that we are having the debate. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) for his role in such matters.
The Commonwealth is an extraordinary and wonderful organisation of which, frankly, we do not make enough. I am delighted to have the charter described in a little detail by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden. In particular, I praise article IX, which recognises the need for sustainable development, and article X, which declares that we need to conserve our natural ecosystems.
The only country that I want to mention specifically is the Maldives, so I am glad that the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) did so as well. I declare my interest, which is as chair of the all-party British-Maldives group. I do not wish to be critical of our Government, whether past or present. President Gayoom, however, had led the Maldives for 30 years, and democracy is not easily developed or won. We gave plenty of support to the elections in 2008, but the idea that that was fine, that democracy was then up and running and that we could move away could not be further from the truth. Without boring the Chamber and going into lots of detail, a number of issues should have been dealt with more robustly, as the hon. Gentleman said. Nevertheless, I meet regularly with the high commissioner, and I am glad that the upcoming elections appear to be on track. At our meeting only two weeks ago, I was reassured that the elections would be fair and free, with former President Nasheed a likely and unhindered participant. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister might reflect on that and, when he has time, write to us in a little more detail. The point I wanted to make is that the Commonwealth should help in every way it possibly can, not only with observers but in the build-up to the elections. Some may say, “Oh, the Maldives, wonderful holiday resort”, but life in the Maldives for many people is not like that. It would be a great shame if we abandoned this fledgling democracy.
I am optimistic about the future of the Commonwealth. I salute the charter, which sets out clearly some important principles to which all Commonwealth nations should adhere and probably already do. That is not to say that there are not huge challenges: many hundreds of millions of Commonwealth subjects still live in poverty; many children do not have access to education; and AIDS is still rife in many member states. I would not claim to have all the answers, but we are much stronger working within the Commonwealth than alone. Our shared cultures and close trading ties are pivotal, and I hope to see a renewed and continually developing Commonwealth emerge over the coming years.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing and leading the debate and on his work at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which he serves with great distinction.
The Commonwealth is an extraordinary organisation and family of nations, bringing together shared values, often a shared language and shared culture, with sporting links and many other dimensions of what I suppose these days we call soft relations or soft power. It is important to emphasise the importance of the Commonwealth as an avenue for the exercise of soft power, in contrast to many much more formalised, rigid and confrontational international arenas. The Commonwealth is enormously important in that.
Some Commonwealth members deserve particular attention; the one probably most at risk in terms of the shared values and international relations is Pakistan. The Commonwealth and the British Government should certainly be doing their utmost to support the traditions of democracy, freedom, peace, security and human rights in that country, while not underestimating the threats posed to it by internal and external forces. The terrible but inspiring case of Malala Yousafzai, who had to struggle first for her education and then for her very life against some of those forces, is instructive. Perhaps it has started to shift some of the political forces within Pakistan. The more that we can celebrate the courage of people such as Malala through the Commonwealth and other arenas, the more that we can support Pakistan in protecting those traditions.
Reference has been made to Sri Lanka as the host of the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. The Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, must attend the meeting, but her health has been frail lately and it is conceivable that she might be unable to attend. The reasons would be purely innocent, as we understand that her personal commitment to the Commonwealth is strong. If she attends, it will be difficult for the British Government not to attend, because we would not want to embarrass Her Majesty. If she does not attend for other reasons, it might provide an opportunity to reflect on whether Britain should attend the meeting. At the moment, only the Canadian Government are saying that they will not attend, but we must reflect on the situation in Sri Lanka and make a stand if we can.
The Government in Sri Lanka stand accused of war crimes, a politically motivated impeachment process and dismissal of their own chief justice this January. They are also accused of continuing human rights abuses in the form of disappearances, a culture of impunity and a misuse of security laws. In its 2012 annual report, Amnesty said of Sri Lanka:
“The government continued to arbitrarily detain, torture or ill-treat people and subject people to enforced disappearance. It failed to address most instances of impunity for violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The government rejected repeated allegations of war crimes committed by both sides of the conflict that ended in 2009, prompting Amnesty International to reiterate calls for an independent international investigation.”
I am afraid—this is beginning to sound a little critical—that there are other examples of the Commonwealth sometimes not living up to all its values. I accept, as the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden said in his introduction, that we cannot expect every nation to proceed in step with us through the democratic reforms and the expansion of human rights that we have experienced, but it is something of a matter of shame that no fewer than 36 of the 58 countries where capital punishment is still lawful are Commonwealth countries and that many of those countries still criminalise homosexuality and have a hostile response to gay rights. When the Prime Minister called for Commonwealth countries to reconsider the criminalisation of homosexuality, some countries responded positively—Malawi began to repeal legislation—but others, such as Uganda, went in the opposite direction. It is important to emphasise the totality of human rights for all Commonwealth citizens.
Zimbabwe is not currently a member of the Commonwealth, but I think that many people would still regard it as part of the family of Commonwealth nations. Again, if the Commonwealth can do anything to support the conduct of the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe, so that they are free and fair, and to support the people there trying to establish Zimbabwe as a thorough democracy once again, that would be valuable.
The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden referred briefly to the Commonwealth ministerial action group. Such groups and the secretary-general’s office need to be a bit more active and assertive in giving the Commonwealth teeth to promote in various countries the shared values expressed brilliantly in the charter. There is room for domestic effort as well. The Foreign Affairs Committee referred to the BBC World Service, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) rightly referred to student visas. Student links are part of what makes soft cultural relationships valuable, and we must reinforce them at all opportunities.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing this debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling it during the week when we celebrate Commonwealth day. As we have heard, there is much to celebrate, including our trading links with other Commonwealth countries, our cultural links and the number of students who come to study in this country and who go from the UK to other countries. I understand that the trade in goods within the Commonwealth is now worth £250 billion each year. This year’s Commonwealth day theme, “Opportunity through enterprise”, focuses on how the benefits of the Commonwealth can be shared by all members and citizens.
As the Commonwealth Secretariat states:
“Commonwealth Day is an opportunity to promote understanding on global issues, international co-operation and Commonwealth’s organisations, which aim to improve the lives of its citizens.”
It is therefore important that we use the day not only to consider the Commonwealth’s successes but, if we are to improve the lives of its citizens, to consider its shortcomings.
In addition to shared history in many cases, the Commonwealth is bound—it is said—by the shared values of democracy, freedom, peace, the rule of law and opportunity for all. As we heard from many participants in this debate, that is not always the case. There are concerns about human rights and democracy in several Commonwealth countries, and I will touch on those in a moment, but the idea of the Commonwealth as an institution with those shared values was underlined on Monday by the Queen’s signing the Commonwealth charter as Head of the Commonwealth, setting out the shared values and commitments agreed by all Heads of Government. The charter has been widely welcomed, and it includes many important principles. I welcome its focus on democracy, human rights, international peace and security, good governance and the rule of law.
The charter highlights levels of poverty in many Commonwealth countries and the threat of climate change, emphasising the need for sustainable development and the duty to protect the environment. It includes access to health, education, food and shelter, essentials that some Commonwealth citizens can now take for granted but that remain unobtainable for far too many. In many ways, the charter illustrates the diversity, and indeed inequality, within the Commonwealth. It could provide a basis for reducing the inequality while continuing to respect and celebrate the diversity. I agree entirely with the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden that we should not enforce exactly the same criteria across the Commonwealth; we should tolerate diversity within the Commonwealth and accept people’s right to their own way of doing things. However, in some areas, we must try to unify the Commonwealth around a certain set of values.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report on the role and future of the Commonwealth noted that
“the moral authority of the Commonwealth has too often been undermined by the repressive actions of member governments.”
I now turn briefly to that issue. Over the weekend, the charter was lauded by some as a landmark development for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality, but the rights of LGBT people and the unacceptable discrimination that they still face were not mentioned in the charter. Gender equality is specifically included, and I certainly agree with the charter’s assertion that
“the advancement of women’s rights and the education of girls are critical preconditions for effective and sustainable development.”
There is also a clause on tolerance, respect and understanding, explicitly covering religious freedom and
“respect and dignity for all human beings”,
but there is no reference to the LGBT community. It has been inferred that clause 2 covers the issue. I certainly endorse the commitment to the universal declaration of human rights and the opposition to all forms of discrimination, but given that the charter goes on to specify
“discrimination…rooted in gender, race, colour, creed and political belief”,
sexuality is a startling omission.
I accept that when charters explicitly cover religious freedom, it often comes into conflict with LGBT rights, but we must address the issue, particularly as 41 Commonwealth countries—three quarters of them—still criminalise homosexuality. There is still the prospect of the anti-homosexuality Bill in Uganda, which has caused many people grave concern, and similar legislation in Nigeria could increase the penalties for gay couples or same-sex displays of affection. In Cameroon, 13 people were arrested under anti-homosexuality laws between March 2011 and 2012, and in South Africa, a 24-year-old activist was brutally raped and murdered, seemingly because she was gay and a human rights activist campaigning for LGBT rights. Two years later, no one has been arrested.
I do not want to dwell too much on the negative in my remarks. There have been more promising signs, particularly in the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago, where homosexual acts can be punished with up to 25 years in prison and it is illegal for gay people to enter the country, the Prime Minister reportedly wrote to the Kaleidoscope Trust to confirm that she will act to put an end to all discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation. She shares the view that
“the stigmatisation of homosexuality in Trinidad and Tobago is a matter which must be addressed on the grounds of human rights and dignity to which every individual is entitled under international law.”
In Jamaica, where there are also anti-homosexuality laws and reports of attacks and harassment of gay people, the Prime Minister has said that no one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
With apologies for focusing on the negative, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) raised the issue of the death penalty. It is another area of concern that is touched on in the charter’s clauses on human rights, the rule of law and justice, but it is not explicitly referenced. As the Foreign Affairs Committee has noted, 36 of the 58 countries where capital punishment is lawful are Commonwealth members. Although some of those countries are abolitionist in practice, in that they do not carry out the death penalty, their citizens are still sentenced to death and so remain on death row indefinitely. The UK’s long-standing position is to support the abolition of the death penalty in all circumstances. Will the Minister tell us to what extent we have led discussions on the death penalty and LGBT rights within the Commonwealth, with respect to other countries’ rights to determine their own policies?
Finally, I want to touch on the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which has been mentioned by several speakers, both in this debate and the earlier one on human rights. I was interested to hear the Minister say that the UK Government’s position on whether we would attend CHOGM was not decided. In a previous debate, I got the impression from one of his colleagues that it was fairly set in stone that the UK would attend and that the UK Government were not prepared to use the fact that CHOGM is approaching in Colombo in November as leverage to try to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to do more on the human rights agenda. The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) suggested that that was an ideal opportunity, and I think the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) mentioned that as well. It is important that we do not just allow Sri Lanka to use the CHOGM to promote the regime and present itself as a wonderful country. It is in some respects a wonderful country—it is an amazing country to visit on holiday—but we should use the intervening period between now and November to put pressure on the Government to make some progress.
As I have said, I apologise if I have dwelt too much on the negative, but it is because I think the Commonwealth has achieved a great deal. I was in Uganda a few years ago, just before it was due to host CHOGM. It was interesting that people all over Kampala were not at all interested that the Prime Minister or any other UK politicians were coming to visit; they were interested that the Queen and Prince Charles were coming. All their questions were about that. It was clear to me how important they felt their place within the Commonwealth was and how privileged they felt to be able to host CHOGM that year. CHOGM is immensely valuable for Britain and the other countries that take part, but we should also use it to try to make progress on progressive values and to address the issues of poverty within the Commonwealth, as well environmental issues and all those other issues, otherwise it becomes something to celebrate, but not something that helps to change the world.
The Minister will, Mr Hollobone, therefore want to make a degree of progress. I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing this important debate and expressing his thoughts on the subject so eloquently, based on the knowledge we all know he has. I highlight his valuable contribution to the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
This is the first time the House of Commons has held a debate on the Commonwealth during Commonwealth week, and I hope it will become a precedent. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), the founder of the all-party group for the Commonwealth, is determined that it becomes a regular feature of the parliamentary calendar, and I pay tribute to his success as he stands down as the group’s chairman. I also thank right hon. and hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions. I will answer the specific questions raised by Members throughout my speech, and if I have enough time at the end, I will try to answer other questions.
I do not want to introduce a partisan element into what has been a wholly unpartisan debate, but perhaps the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) had his tongue slightly in his cheek when he questioned how seriously the Government take the Commonwealth. He talked about the closure of diplomatic missions. As someone who has been going around the world re-opening diplomatic missions after the neglect of the past 13 years, I imagine he was just gently teasing us. The coalition agreement sets out our vision
“to strengthen the Commonwealth as a focus for promoting democratic values and development.”
That is essential if we are to build a Commonwealth fit for the 21st century. It is right that we take the opportunity provided by Commonwealth day, and, indeed, Commonwealth week, to look at how far the Commonwealth has come in the past year, and where it needs to go next.
In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden, I will focus my remarks on the Commonwealth charter. Agreed in the year of the diamond jubilee, the charter was signed by Her Majesty the Queen on Commonwealth day. Her Majesty is, of course, a staunch advocate of the work of the Commonwealth, which she heads. The charter’s agreement marked a major milestone in the promotion of democratic values across the Commonwealth. For the first time in its 64-year history, the Commonwealth has a single statement defining the core values for which it stands. They are the values that member nations think are important enough to bring together in one single document; values which affect the lives of millions across the Commonwealth every day.
As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and several others have made clear, it is simply untrue to say that all Commonwealth countries already adhere without exception to every value in the charter. By setting them out and agreeing to aspire to them, however, we are on the road to ensuring that they become common currency across the Commonwealth. I agree with the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) when they talked about the role of the charter and what Commonwealth countries can do on LGBT issues. We fundamentally believe that we should do much more and we remain concerned by recent attempts in several Commonwealth states to introduce punitive laws on homosexuality. As is well known, the coalition Government are committed to upholding the rights and freedoms of LGBT people in all circumstances. We are clear that discrimination is never acceptable. It is important that these countries agree and have a goal to aim towards, because the Commonwealth’s future credibility is closely linked to its ability to uphold and protect core democratic values.
In recent years the Commonwealth’s reputation as an organisation based on values has been tarnished by a perceived silence on human rights concerns. We have heard today about concerns on the political will in some Commonwealth countries to uphold the values to which they have committed under the charter. That undermines the credibility of the Commonwealth, which is why we are working to strengthen how the Commonwealth promotes and protects its values. We believe that the commitments in the charter should be upheld, adhered to and kept under constant review. Making the Commonwealth ministerial action group that acts on those concerns stronger and more proactive is crucial. The group responded well to the crisis in Maldives, which I will come to in a minute, and its continued engagement is important.
In common with other international organisations, the Commonwealth must evolve constantly if it is to keep pace with changes in the wider world. That is particularly the case with trade and investment, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). In this year of “Opportunity through Enterprise”—the Commonwealth’s theme in 2013—we must all work to strengthen the Commonwealth’s focus on trade and prosperity.
In order to increase the UK’s prosperity, we must work with and through every relevant international organisation to which we have access. In the case of trade, the EU, for example, represents 500 million people and 21 million companies. However, it is not only a question of trading with one organisation, or with just one country or another; it is about trading with all of them. I gently remind my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) that it is necessary to compare our trade within the EU and recognise that trade with the Commonwealth is something that we should concentrate and focus on, and grow, but it is not likely to be a replacement, tempting though that may be for many Members of the House, for the vast levels of trade that we do in the EU currently. I and my colleagues in the Government look forward to supporting work across the Commonwealth to boost intra-Commonwealth trade, which I believe can act as a catalyst for change.
The Commonwealth is a natural place for us to do business. Among its members are some of the world’s fastest growing economies—one thinks of India, where incidentally, we have just opened more offices, in Chandigarh and Hyderabad, as well as Nigeria, South Africa, Malaysia or Singapore. However, we need to see a more structured approach to taking advantage of the in-built benefits that the Commonwealth offers us on trade: our shared principles of democracy, the rule of law, good governance and our similar legal systems. We should do all that we can to strengthen those attributes, because that will help to create the conditions for trade to flourish between Commonwealth countries. That means tackling corruption, cutting unnecessary red-tape, and promoting transparency and accountability.
The Minister is absolutely right to talk about promoting transparency and accountability. He may be interested to know that the all-party group on the extractive industries, which I attended yesterday, heard from the high commissioner from Tanzania about approaches that have been made by the Commonwealth Business Council to establish best-practice working, in terms of encouraging transparency in the extractive industries. Does he agree that we should be looking to support that model across the Commonwealth?
I most certainly do, and not only across the Commonwealth. We have been encouraging that in Burma, with some considerable success, but it is precisely that level of expertise that the Commonwealth can bring to countries that need it.
What are we doing for other, smaller countries? The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) asked what we were doing to improve the links between the Commonwealth and the overseas territories, and what support Her Majesty’s Government provide through Departments to overseas territories. As our White Paper on the overseas territories, which was published last year, makes clear, the scale of the challenge facing the overseas territories is simply beyond the means of one or two Government Departments. Our commitment is to a whole-of-Government approach. As the White Paper says:
“We want to strengthen interaction between the Territories and UK Government Departments and local Government. Each UK Department has now assumed responsibility for supporting the Territories…in its own areas of competence and expertise. Departments have published papers setting out how they can provide support for and work with the Territories.”
We are now putting those commitments into action.
The hon. Gentleman also asked what we were doing in terms of defence and security building in Africa through the Commonwealth, and bilaterally. All I can say is that the Department for International Development’s £48 million Nigeria Infrastructure Advisory Facility is supporting interventions in power and transport. A business case has been pulled together to increase the programme budget to £98 million. NIAF is playing a major role on power sector reform, which is the highest profile and most important economic activity and reform under way. We are in the process of preparing support to scale up Mombasa port development, for example, to the value of about $42 million. The programme is a mixture of hardware and software support.
The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, and other hon. Members, rightly raised what I consider to be the elephant in the room—the issues of CHOGM and Sri Lanka, and the attendance of the Government. The Government of Sri Lanka, as we all know, face considerable challenges in building a sustainable peace for all Sri Lankans, and they do so with the support of an international community eager to see lasting peace. However, with that support comes scrutiny and expectations of genuine progress, and in 2013 that will be particularly intense. This month, another country resolution on Sri Lanka is before the UN Human Rights Council. The UK co-sponsored a resolution last year and we will strongly support the United States follow-up resolution on Sri Lanka later this month. Come November, whichever countries attend, and at whatever level, CHOGM—which marks the beginning of Sri Lanka’s two-year tenure as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth—will be an opportunity either for Sri Lanka to showcase its progress, or for pressure and attention to be drawn to a lack of it.
Some hon. Members suggested that the UK should not be represented at a high level at this meeting. I can state on the record, absolutely clearly, that we have not yet made any decisions about UK attendance. I would also like to put something on the record—this was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk and the hon. Member for Cheltenham—about Her Majesty’s attendance. It is absolutely clear that the Queen attends CHOGM as head of the Commonwealth, not the UK Head of State. Her attendance is not a decision for the UK Government; if she were to ask for advice, it would be from all Commonwealth members.
We look to Sri Lanka, as with any CHOGM host, to demonstrate commitment to Commonwealth values, which was a point made by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), during his recent visit to Sri Lanka. During that visit he raised our concerns with the Sri Lankan Government and urged the full implementation of recommendations from Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, as well as wider measures on accountability. Although some progress has been made in Sri Lanka, we are clear that much more is needed. We are aware that members of the Commonwealth ministerial action group share those concerns.
I turn to an issue raised by the hon. Member for Ilford South and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Mr Amess). We support the Commonwealth’s work on the Maldives. CMAG’s decisive and timely engagement with the Maldives during the political crisis last year was a demonstration of its commitment to implement a stronger mandate. As the Commonwealth continues to offer technical assistance to help strengthen the judiciary and other key democratic institutions there, the UK will maintain contact with all parties in the Maldives and with engaged international partners. Our shared goal is a stable, peaceful and democratic future for the Maldivian people. We welcomed, at the time, the appointment of Sir Donald McKinnon in March last year as the Commonwealth special envoy. He has used his extensive expertise and experience to work with all the parties. Both he and the Commonwealth secretary-general have stressed the importance of moving forward to “free, fair and inclusive” elections in the Maldives. Sir Donald was most recently there in January. We have sought and received assurances from President Waheed that any trial of former President Nasheed will be fair and free from political interference. We look to the Maldivian authorities to ensure that due process is followed and that legal proceedings are fair and transparent.
The Government remain committed to the Commonwealth and to the values set out in its charter. This financial year, UK contributions to Commonwealth organisations will amount to approximately £40 million, and we look forward to hosting the Commonwealth games in Glasgow in July 2014. I very much look forward to being entertained at that time by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, and I readily accept the hospitality that he has proffered to me—at least that is the way that I chose to interpret his earlier point.
We are clear that we must capitalise on all the networks and relationships at our disposal in order to promote the UK’s prosperity, stability and security. The Commonwealth—a long-standing network of old friends, as I think the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark described them—lends itself perfectly to that ambition.
I firmly believe that the Commonwealth can and will go from strength to strength. In a world of many bilateral and multilateral regional agreements and associations, the Commonwealth still offers something unique, and countries recognise that. It is an important institution that many outside the club want to join, and through dedication and reform, it can become stronger and speak with a louder voice than ever before.
I encourage all hon. Members to get involved with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, so ably chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden, and with the all-party group for the Commonwealth. We should leave outside observers in no doubt that the Commonwealth matters to this House, to the British people and to this Government. The United Kingdom will remain steadfast in its support for the organisation, working with it and through it to make the Commonwealth more efficient, more focused and ever more relevant in today’s world.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for allowing me to say a few words to wind up the debate. I thank those colleagues who have participated. I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and the Minister. We have had a good demonstration of why such a debate is very appropriate for us to conduct.
Much has been said—rightly, because of the timing—regarding the Commonwealth charter. I hope that now that Commonwealth countries have set their hand to it, it will be seen as something to be promulgated on every occasion, a constant reminder of what the Commonwealth is for and something that may give hope to people, wherever they may be in the Commonwealth, who despair of their future, or who feel at the moment disadvantaged or oppressed, that there is a standard to which to aspire and to which we are all trying to work.
It is pretty evident from everything that has been said that we are all conscious here of the need for good governance at the centre of any state that professes to be a democracy. There is continuing work to be done, and parliamentarians, along with all those others who are in the different Commonwealth networks, have a particular responsibility to ensure that the basic conditions of democracy are met throughout the nations of the Commonwealth.
I made the suggestion to the Sri Lankan Government a few months back and also to the Commonwealth Secretariat that perhaps it would be helpful—reassuring, indeed—if we were to stage a Commonwealth democracy forum as part of the proceedings of the CHOGM, because parliamentarians other than the Heads of Government have not had a particularly prominent role at a CHOGM. Many other organisations of a civil nature have done that, so it is rather strange that parliamentarians have been somewhat subdued in this context. The idea has not so far been progressed, but I think that it would be a useful symbol, linked with the charter, to show what parliamentarians are all about.
If we in the United Kingdom really do attach importance to the Commonwealth, as many of my hon. Friends have demonstrated today, we should, I believe, mark that attachment by a debate every year, akin to an annual review, because there will be just as many issues to discuss a year from now as we have heard about today. Therefore, although I reiterate my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for providing us with this opportunity in Commonwealth week, I ask the Government please to note that there will be, a year from now, another Commonwealth day and therefore there will be the same pressure to hold and interest in holding a debate of this kind, perhaps with more time available for it.
I thank the Minister in particular for what he said towards the end of his speech, which seemed to echo my interest in establishing the precedent of this debate, and therefore I hope that throughout the House there will be enthusiasm and persistence to try to ensure that an occasion as valuable as this becomes a regular feature of the parliamentary calendar.