Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Lidington.)
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and more so because of your deep knowledge and experience of Commonwealth matters, on which we have occasionally been conjoined. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate because I have been trying to press the idea that, on or around Commonwealth day, all members of the Commonwealth should be encouraged to hold a debate on either general or particular matters affecting it. Such debates are an occasion to celebrate the anniversary of the Commonwealth on the designated Commonwealth day and to raise the Commonwealth’s profile by highlighting why it is a body to be nurtured and encouraged as a forum for frank discussion.
It is too easy for the Commonwealth to be taken for granted. We recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, but I suspect that if we went out on to the streets of London, and possibly the streets of many other parts of the country, and asked the first 10 people we met what they understood of the Commonwealth, the answers would be rather meagre.
I take my hon. Friend’s point. The British would probably have to fight for recognition in that part of London.
I ask myself how we should respond to the public’s general lack of recognition of what the Commonwealth is and does. I tend to think of the Commonwealth as a work in progress: developing networks, exchanging information, exploring potential, making friends and doing business. The word “family” is often used in connection with the Commonwealth, and I do not think that is entirely inappropriate because the occasional quarrel is not unknown in families. The fact that we do not all think alike on every subject all the time is not a reason for abandoning or decrying the project. I make a risky comparison with the European Union, which is also a work in progress. For all those who may despair of where the EU is going, how fast it is going and what it is doing, we can look back now and realise how much the situation in Europe has changed. We are commemorating a great war of terrible privations, and we have moved on a long way from that after 2,000 years of strife. One does not expect countries from five or six continents, however they are described, suddenly to find accord on every single subject and to find themselves walking in step on economic matters at all times.
My point is that continuing to strive to achieve common objectives within the Commonwealth is emphatically worth while, even if sometimes progress seems imperceptible. The Commonwealth is a voluntary body. Countries do not have to be a member, yet it is significant and encouraging that more countries are prepared to join, including countries that were not part of the former British empire. That is a good indicator that the Commonwealth has moved on and still has meaning for many other countries. The Commonwealth would be a strange body, however, if it did not contain members or possess friends willing it to improve its functioning, raise its standards and develop its potential. The weighty report two years ago from the eminent persons group was brimming with ideas, but not all of those ideas received universal acclaim from those for whom the report was intended. There is no lack of advice on what one might try to do to give the Commonwealth greater focus and meaning.
The Commonwealth’s anchor in the political sphere is probably our charter of fundamental values, which was endorsed and launched by Her Majesty the Queen a year ago. It would be idle to pretend that all those fundamental values are burning bright in every member country, yet any perceived deficiency is not necessarily of one kind or in one place. None of us is perfect in the eyes of some of our friends and colleagues. Without a degree of caution and moderation of language, we can all find ourselves submerging in a sea of recrimination, but we also cannot simply push to one side the challenging issues that undoubtedly exist within our ranks.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way he is introducing this debate. What is his view of the two countries that are no longer members of the Commonwealth—Gambia and Zimbabwe? How can we ensure that they are able to come back in at some stage in the future? What is his up-to-date view on that?
We have to develop our contacts below the parapet. We should be stretching out the hand of friendship to work on contacts and to persuade people so that we can bring those countries to closer assimilation with the Commonwealth’s standards. That will take time, and we cannot plot an exact timetable, but, once gone, countries should not be abandoned and forgotten.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Gambia left voluntarily precisely because it was moving in a direction incompatible with the Commonwealth’s ideals? In one sense, that shows an understanding that we stand for ideals, but leaving the Commonwealth is a pretty cynical annunciation of a country’s unwillingness to conform with those ideals. I agree that we have to find ways of engaging so that, at some time in the future, Gambia can come back and be a better place than it is now.
There are examples of countries that exited the Commonwealth voluntarily and happily returned some years later, so I do not despair of the possibilities.
The high-profile difficulties, of which we are all too aware, are likely to be besetting our politicians and statesmen. When, as parliamentarians, we understandably dwell on such things, we should balance the picture and remember that there are many organisations in civil society that span the Commonwealth and bind people together in many constructive ways. There are between 90 and 100 such organisations spanning many professions and interests, so it is an ever-intensifying network that, in its own way, vividly illustrates the “team Commonwealth” theme of this year.
We should also acknowledge the work done by other Parliaments and other countries to mark and celebrate the Commonwealth anniversary every March. I have been reminded by the City Remembrancer of what the lord mayor and the City of London corporation, for example, do to involve young people in recognising the Commonwealth and the flying of the flag.
Will my right hon. Friend comment on the failure this year to fly the flags of the Commonwealth nations in Parliament square on Commonwealth day at the time of Her Majesty the Queen’s arrival for the observance service at Westminster abbey? Is it not a retrograde step that, for the first time ever, the flags were not flown?
I have to say that it was a disappointment, but I am unaware of the particular reason why that happened—whether it was carelessness or deliberate policy. It has always been a feature that Parliament square is decorated with those flags, and I am puzzled and disappointed that it did not happen this time.
I apologise for interrupting my right hon. Friend, but it might help the House if I say that there was a particular reason for not having the flags, which was that pavement works were taking place and they restricted access to Parliament square. It was not a shift of policy; there was a particular practical problem this year, and the Commonwealth flags were flown in Horse Guards road.
I am grateful to the Minister for making it clear that it was a mundane reason, rather than one of high policy. It covers my blushes in being unable to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell).
I draw attention to the stand-out event in 2014 of the Commonwealth games in Glasgow. They are often described as “the friendly games”. While sport may be about rivalries, these gatherings can help to spread friendship and understanding in their own way.
On a similar theme of friendliness, does my right hon. Friend recognise from his visits to Commonwealth countries and from talking to people from the Commonwealth that there is a feeling over the past few years, and under the previous Labour Government in particular, that there has been a tightening in the visas and opportunities for people from Commonwealth countries, including young people, to come to this country to work and to contribute? That is particularly felt as they arrive at Gatwick or such places and see that they are aliens.
Sometimes when I arrive at terminal 5, I feel like an alien, but that is to do with whether we have sufficient capacity arrangements at our airports. I had a discussion recently with the high commissioner for India, where there are particular feelings that our attempts to clamp down on bogus students are starting to deter legitimate students from coming here. There has also been some retrenchment on Commonwealth scholarships. I have also discussed that subject with the high commissioner for Canada, because Canada has taken a more restrictive attitude. It is terribly important that we find ways of encouraging people from Commonwealth countries to visit here. Young people are, on the whole, more mobile than they have perhaps ever been, and that is an encouraging factor. My hon. Friend makes an important point.
Having said that an awful lot of good things are going on—some below the radar. We still cannot ignore the family difficulties and they cannot just be somehow wished away. I suspect that if we locked the Heads of Government in a room for a month and left them to talk in private, they would not be able to overcome some of the difficulties that are very much known to us all. That brings me to the role of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, on which I intend to focus this afternoon. If the Commonwealth charter, in Her Majesty’s words,
“sets out the values and principles which guide and motivate us”,
the establishment of good governance throughout Commonwealth countries surely provides the essential foundation for the practical implementation of those values and principles. The major aim of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is parliamentary strengthening. That is done in a number of ways, such as election observance missions and post-election seminars.
We have to take note of the churn rate of elected politicians—it should send a chill down all our spines—which is pretty big. Electorates of various places, small and large, have been known to sweep out large numbers of the incumbents. Consequently, there is a flow of new people to Parliaments and they can benefit from the type of courses put on by the CPA. Specialist courses have been developed in the field of public accounts and on the encouragement of women parliamentarians. Name the parliamentary activity and it is possible to provide an instructional seminar that can help with it and with which Members and Clerks are ready to engage. There is a constant cross-fertilisation of ideas and expertise. We can assemble in this Chamber because of an idea first developed in the Australian Parliament to enable us to provide parallel opportunities for debates to take place and to improve the possibilities of Back-Bench participation in particular, as well as increasing scrutiny of Select Committee reports and the like.
The kind of activities that I mentioned require not only financial resources, but time. Elected Members well know that taking so much as one step out of their own jurisdiction is likely to bring the coals of press criticism descending on their heads. It is important to recognise that MPs across the Commonwealth—and not just young people in a different context—can inform one another. That amounts to what we might describe as soft diplomacy: creating understanding by constant discussion in a friendly and informal way, which enables some of the differences to be worn away over time.
Stronger Parliaments lead to better governance and build confidence in the validity of democratic systems. While the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has the potential to bolster parliamentary democracy and underpin human rights, it lacks the capacity to do so as well as it might. The CPA has not achieved the extent of Commonwealth-wide recognition that it should have. Also, there is a blurred understanding of the exact role of the Commonwealth secretariat. Those positions have not been as well defined as it would be helpful for them to be. The situation is complicated by other organisations in the landscape, such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Commonwealth Foundation, the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum. Many of us are nibbling at the same apple, and there is insufficient co-ordination to ensure—if we believe that we have a purpose to fulfil—that we do it on a much greater and more effective scale.
For the reasons I have given, I believe that parliamentarians should be to the fore, together with their local government equivalents. The CPA has not taken the helm, or, possibly, has not been helped to take the helm. Sometimes Speakers or Presiding Officers in particular Parliaments do not engage to ensure that the CPA branches in their country and the provinces of their country are actively engaged in a beneficial way. The special value of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is that it is not just about 53 countries.
My right hon. Friend might be coming on to commend the CPA for including the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies, but does he agree that it is time the Commonwealth gave some recognition to territories and dependencies that are not necessarily nation states, but are, by extension, British territories and so should be accommodated, even as associate members of the Commonwealth? They are currently excluded from main membership of the Commonwealth.
I was confident, by his presence, that my hon. Friend would raise that matter. Indeed, recognition should be under favourable consideration to find a way around the problem. I was about to say that beyond the 53 countries, the CPA has a lot of dependent territories, smaller jurisdictions, provinces and states as members, and that is what makes us different. That is why we do not neatly fit into some international organisation straitjacket, as some colleagues across the Commonwealth might desire.
The CPA’s system of governance is cumbersome. It is difficult to accommodate the nine regions in a coherent committee that meets twice a year only. Collegiality cannot be achieved in that time, and, because of the need to try to spread the net as far as possible, rotational membership means that the committee has less collective memory than may be desirable. The CPA’s whole international structure needs examining. I want more engagement and encouragement from mother Parliaments. I am saddened by the fact that there is still, after all these years, an uneven level of activity across the regions. Some are extremely busy on the purposes that I have described, but others are less active. We need better co-ordination with the like-minded bodies that I have mentioned. I am now coming to the view that it would be better to acknowledge that good things are being done in many of the regions, so there should be more devolution of resources and governance into those regions in order that they can work effectively. I will not do so today, but I could sketch out a structure that might increase the quantum of activity and offer better value for money as a result. The CPA’s system of funding could be improved by having a separate foundation that looks after its reserve funds and can perhaps get them more easily replenished, whether by the Department for International Development, by people of good will or by the like-minded organisations who say, “We can do things more effectively hand in hand with the CPA.”
Above all, as in so many things, communication must be improved. It is sometimes difficult to communicate to all Members of this House to make them aware of what is going on, but it is so much more difficult across the Commonwealth. A letter can be sent to 175 branches, but it is still a struggle to get a reasonable number of replies on time—if at all. That is just a consequence of the pressure of correspondence and whether letters actually get through to the person who can action things, all of which does not make it easy to achieve good governance within the organisation.
There is so much to be done. There is the issue of the representation of women in our Parliaments across the Commonwealth, but even more challenging is how we engage young people. Such a huge proportion of the Commonwealth is under 25 years of age. For how long—particularly in developing countries, but it applies across the board—will young people be patient with a system of parliamentary government that does not appear to be delivering fast enough or satisfying their aspirations? We must ensure that young people believe that the process of democracy is valid and will allow them to express their views and have them properly considered.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a main priority for many young people in the Commonwealth is getting a job and achieving prosperity? Does he share my vision that the Commonwealth must do more on the commercial diplomacy and trade agenda? We want more trade between Commonwealth countries, which share advantages around common language, contract law and legal systems, so that young people can have brighter hopes for the future in terms of trade picking up. Does he agree that the Commonwealth must give that agenda more priority?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will not venture too far down that road, but I am sure that if he catches your eye, Mr Bayley, he will be able to expand on that theme. The Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary raised the matter in a speech in Sydney a couple of years ago when he said that this side of the Commonwealth has not been given the attention it deserves. I appreciate that I have already been speaking for sufficiently long that I must not develop into other areas.
I want a Commonwealth youth Parliament established on an annual basis. I want representatives of that organisation to be at the top level when we have our annual conference of the CPA, and I want them to have access to Foreign Ministers when it comes to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Romford will pay attention here, because special attention must be given to smaller states. We should try to have a figurehead representative chosen from the small states to be on the executive committee of the CPA, for which there is great enthusiasm. I hope that the executive committee can be persuaded to accept that idea at its next meeting.
The right hon. Gentleman has set out clearly and eloquently the challenges and several changes that he would make to the CPA. What is his assessment of the likely degree of support among member states of the Commonwealth for his suggestions about the CPA? Is there a groundswell of opinion in his favour?
The answer is mixed. There is a groundswell of support for doing more for women parliamentarians in the Commonwealth and for an annual youth Parliament, and the matter of the small states will be put to the test soon. The reactions may be mixed to my suggestion about the devolution of power, but I am merely floating the idea based on my experience of the past two and half years as the chairperson of the executive committee. Having seen what is happening across the piece, there is a case for considering that proposal, but it has not yet been examined in any great detail.
The powerbrokers at ministerial level in the Commonwealth and in national Parliaments should take much more seriously the Commonwealth’s parliamentary and local government arms and its associated organisations. By the time of the next CHOGM in two years’ time, I hope for some progress on what was said in Colombo in the hurried half-hour that was granted to the associated organisations. There was a feeling among Foreign Ministers that something more had to be done to engage, and I am willing to suggest ways in which that could be done. I envisage an event at the next CHOGM that highlights the civil society aspects of the Commonwealth, but which would also make clear the role that can be played by the elected partners among the associated organisations. That ought to be seen as a win-win within the Commonwealth family and would help the CPA, in particular, to aspire to a stronger sense of purpose and a sharper definition of its priorities. I hope that moves in that general direction will be encouraged by Her Majesty’s Government.
Thank you, Mr Bayley. I was pleased that this debate was selected and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on organising it, recognising his deep knowledge and participation in Commonwealth matters.
I was pleased just the other day to be asked by Huntingdonshire district council to speak to local residents at a flag-raising ceremony in my constituency on the meaning of the Commonwealth. Being in my constituency, my thoughts focused on what the Commonwealth might mean to my constituents. First, we need to appreciate that, as my right hon. Friend intimated, memories of the British empire are very distant for most people in the UK—if people have any knowledge of it at all. I would therefore contend that most young people—anyone under the age of 60 for this purpose—may have little idea of empire or its end. So why, I contended with my constituents, should the Commonwealth have any relevance to our lives today? With 54 independent countries and 2 billion people—a third of the world’s population—the scale of the Commonwealth is significant, but size in itself does not bring its relevance to life.
The principles of the Commonwealth, offering through its charter mutual support for more inclusive and equitable social progress for member states, are also to be applauded. In themselves, however, they sound somewhat abstract. The objectives of upholding democracy, human rights, peace and security, respect and understanding, freedom of expression, separation of powers, the rule of law, good governance and so on are ideals that we should all aim for. Again, however, that sounds like motherhood and apple pie when read out as a long list, such that some might consider the Commonwealth to be more of a talking shop than a body for action.
It must be said that the measures of successful membership are not being upheld consistently—or in some cases at all—by certain members. The royal family has done a magnificent job in unifying the institution, but their future leadership will be at the members’ discretion. Many member states would, until recently, have struggled to describe themselves as capitalist economies, but, with the fall of communism, that is no longer the case. An understanding of the need for vibrant, and let me also say uncorrupt, market economies generally exists.
Trade between member countries is increasing for the benefit of all. One may have thought that that would be a key area of engagement for the UK, but even here the situation is more complicated and there is little evidence in many Commonwealth member states that our membership gives us a significant trading advantage. Indeed, despite some 250 years of trading with India, I was surprised to hear that Switzerland, for instance, does more trade with India than the UK does. Having said that, I acknowledge the strenuous efforts being made to increase our trade with India and the significant investment by the Foreign Office and UK Trade & Investment to that end.
I wanted to learn more about the Commonwealth, so, about a year ago, I was pleased to be invited on my first visit with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch to India. I subsequently visited Sri Lanka. I went to India with an open mind, keen to play my very small part in encouraging good relations and trade between our two nations, but, for the reasons I have given, I was not wholly convinced at that time of the value of the Commonwealth per se. However, I can now say that I have changed my mind. I now believe that the Commonwealth is not a talking shop but a real and vibrant platform for upholding good governance, improving democratic institutions, respecting human rights and extending trade opportunities.
My hon. Friend and I both have a passion for the export of UK legal services. We agree that one of the stumbling blocks for the export drive has been the attitude of both the Indian Government and the regional governments in India. On his visit, did he detect any discernible movement away from that attitude, which was previously quite negative?
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I did indeed bring that up on our visit to India. I am sorry to say that, when we were there, there was little movement in that direction. However, I recognise the significant efforts since made by the Foreign Secretary, and indeed the Lord Chancellor, with India. They are not giving up the ghost on this; they are working hard to reverse that position. India is currently undergoing a difficult time, thinking about elections rather than policy, but, hopefully after the elections it will look more carefully at this issue and change its mind. That would be, as I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, for the benefit of India and Britain.
Many Commonwealth countries have political institutions whose administrations and standing orders are not as efficient as they could be. We can—and do—do much to assist them. By engaging with member countries, we also create ties and good will in different areas that provide much greater depth to our international relationships than fleeting ministerial visits—as important as those are, I say with respect to the Minister.
I saw the value of engagement again when I joined a CPA UK delegation to Sri Lanka to review post-conflict reconciliation and human rights issues. Sitting in a very hot hut, which Tamil MPs used as a headquarters, we heard their grievances, which included alleged human rights complaints. They appreciated our making the effort to go to the north of the country, which still shows clear signs of the terrible war. We also met with army, police and other national representatives who explained their security concerns. Everyone seemed pleased to see us and keen to put forward their cases. That certainly gave me the impression that everyone wanted reconciliation even if, unfortunately, not at the same pace.
Importantly, we engaged with Sri Lankans from the north and south, and those of different religions and races, not as the old imperial power coming to dictate but as equals; as friends and colleagues with a shared history, and with a will to share the benefit of our experience and learn from each other. We also met with shared expectations of maintaining shared values—in effect, the values contained in the Commonwealth charter, which, at that point, came alive to me as a living and relevant document. More than that, being a member of the Commonwealth meant that I felt that I could be open and frank in setting out, for instance to the Sri Lankan human rights commission or Ministers, where we felt that improvements to conduct were required.
Let me add that the discussions were not one way. For instance, a number of our hosts raised complicated questions arising from the colonisation of their countries. The fact that they wished to discuss such issues on an open and friendly basis was, for me, proof of the worth of connecting through membership. I agree, therefore, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden about the importance of the CPA.
The further question, therefore, as I think my right hon. Friend said, is: how do we explain the benefits of our membership to the wider population? As well as feeding into the youth parliament concept, greater engagement by schools would be a good idea. Many areas of British engagement in environmental, social, empowerment of women and other civil projects across the Commonwealth would be fascinating for children to learn about. Given what I have seen and the value I now attach to the Commonwealth, I do see the benefit of having a Commonwealth day in order to provide a focus for the explanation of its relevance to our constituents and their children at school.
I passionately support the Commonwealth as I was born in Pakistan in 1978. On my hon. Friend’s point about focusing on the Commonwealth’s values and principles, does he agree that more work needs to be done on basic human rights across all members of the Commonwealth? I was in Pakistan in 2012, where I met members of the Christian community who, along with many other minority communities, felt persecuted by the blasphemy laws. We need to work here and in other Parliaments with Pakistan to get them to reform those laws so that people can aspire to the basic freedoms of faith and belief.
I very much support my hon. Friend’s comments. The Commonwealth provides a platform for that to be done; the question is the extent to which we use that platform. He makes the important point that we should use that platform. I have said what I wanted to say. We should all support Commonwealth day and I am happy to support the motion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Bayley. I congratulate the chair of the CPA, the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), on securing today’s important debate. I belatedly wish all of my colleagues a happy Commonwealth day.
I start on the right hon. Gentleman’s idea for a Commonwealth youth parliament, which is a fantastic idea. As a former MSYP—that is a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament for those colleagues from south of the as-yet-non-existent border—I think that that could be a crucial tool in a group of countries with so many under-25s. In some of the recent news from our partner countries in the Commonwealth, we have heard the voices of the past coming forward in their legislation. I cannot think of a better tool to get the voices of young people heard actively across the Commonwealth than what he suggested.
As a Scot, I am proud that we are hosting the Commonwealth games. It is an exciting time for Scotland and for those of us who live around Glasgow. I am looking forward to welcoming friends and athletes from all over the world. It is an exciting opportunity for Brits and Scots not only to make new friends and hear from different cultures but to make our own voices heard and to speak out about the concerns we have. I will concentrate my remarks today on one such issue.
One reason I have been involved in the CPA since I was elected four years ago is the strength of the Commonwealth, as I see it, as laid out in the charter. Although it has had some criticism, it is an extremely worthwhile document. It will help to champion human rights throughout the Commonwealth and we should be wielding it as a weapon at the moment. I want to talk about what has been happening in Uganda recently. In recent meetings I have had with them as chair of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS, Ugandan activists have all had the same war cry, which has been to ask us to cleanse ourselves of our imperial guilt. All Commonwealth member countries should use the charter as much as they can, and all parliamentarians who can use the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to get their views heard should do so.
I include British Members of Parliament in that. Sometimes we have been too quiet about saying what we think when something has gone wrong. The anti-homosexuality law that has recently been passed in Uganda and the anti-pornography law that was passed just before it are good examples of just that situation. We should be calling on the strength of the Commonwealth to stand up to the human rights infringement in Uganda.
Uganda is a country that means a great deal to me. I have spoken often in the House about the fact that I have friends and family there. I have visited Uganda often, as a tourist, as a student worker and as a CPA member. It is very close to my heart and I have been deeply upset by what has happened there recently. I want to use the opportunity that today’s debate offers to speak about that. I hope we can use the CPA to stand up and have our voices counted.
The law in Uganda now threatens life sentences for homosexual behaviour and “aggravated homosexuality”—that is what the law says. It is also a criminal offence for anyone to know that someone is homosexual. The law will therefore divide families and ensure that men who have sex with men are frightened to seek health care. It will cause friction where there should be none. Uganda’s Health Minister has already declared that the law will not breach human rights on access to health care for men who have sex with men, but I cannot see why that will be the case. Men who have sex with men will not seek health care if they think that they might be turned in to the authorities for homosexual behaviour. The law also contains a provision on the promotion of homosexuality, which means that some of the clinics and non-governmental organisations that we as a country support will not be able to operate in Uganda without risk of criminal conviction and jail. All that is happening in the only country in Africa that has rising rates of HIV. For me, the law is simply a violation of human rights.
The issue does not simply concern Uganda, however, and the reason I have raised it in a debate about the Commonwealth is that I have real fears that it will spread throughout other Commonwealth countries. We have already seen evidence of that happening in the two and a half weeks since the Act was signed into law by President Museveni. Just before that, a new anti-gay law was signed in Nigeria. A copycat Bill has been introduced in the Kenyan Parliament and Bills have been introduced in Liberia and Malawi as well.
I share the hon. Lady’s concern that since the private Member’s Bill was passed in the Ugandan Parliament other initiatives have been triggered in the countries she has mentioned and in others, including non-Commonwealth countries. Does she agree that aid is a key part of our bilateral relationship with most of those countries and there is therefore a role for the Department for International Development? DFID should have very firm conversations on the matter, probably in private—I have certainly found that speaking to President Museveni in private on the matter was a great deal more effective than doing so publicly. Does she agree that DFID has to look at how it finesses those conversations in the very near future?
The hon. Gentleman has made two good points. He mentioned private conversations. My work through the CPA has allowed me to have such conversations with Members of Parliament and Government Ministers and officials from some of the countries I mentioned, including Uganda. At the time, I found those private conversations to be most helpful in gaining a better understanding of where the movements are coming from. However, with all due respect, in Uganda it has not worked. We have been hearing all the right things—other Members here today will have had those conversations, particularly with Ugandan parliamentarians, and the President and the Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament—but we are now in the situation we are in. Although my fears are mainly about Uganda at the moment, I am incredibly concerned about what will happen across the rest of the Commonwealth.
In terms of the possible knock-on effect, it is not always clear what is happening in those countries. I found it difficult to research exactly what the legislation was in some countries and what the changes were. I will use Malawi as an example. President Joyce Banda, who has been a guest of mine in this House, announced in November that she had suspended all laws criminalising homosexuality, but the Malawian Government have recently denied issuing that statement, and the laws criminalising same-sex acts remain in place. We are stuck in a position where we are hearing one thing in private conversations with legislators, but the reality for people on the ground is something very different.
The hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) also raised the role of DFID as a lever to encourage or discourage partner countries on the ground. Although that is possible, in the case of Uganda we do not, as far as I know, provide any direct Government support, as all our money is directed through NGOs and other projects. There is therefore the difficulty of what levers we can use to influence Uganda. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us about what more the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can do in our conversations with Uganda.
The hon. Lady is making an important and powerful case. Does she accept that gay rights are not our only area of concern? In a number of countries there are also concerns about the rights of women and the right of access to family planning, and the fundamental issue of unsafe abortions. We do not have the right to impose our view on people. We have to find partners within the country with whom we can engage at all levels. She is right to say that the situation is tricky, because if we start trying to use the DFID budget as a lever, the danger is that those countries will turn round and say, “We do not want your aid.” We have to be careful to find a partner we can work with inside the community and give them the support they need.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, who has a lot of experience in international development. It is a tricky balance to strike. We should not be frightened of saying what we think, but we must use the correct levers. We should not wield the DFID budget as a weapon but instead should use it to promote the values and beliefs that we have as a nation, the fundamental one of which is universal human rights.
My point is similar to that made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce). I was at the Commonwealth parliamentary conference with the hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend in South Africa in September 2013 and spoke several times on this issue. I urge caution in using the Department for International Development budget because a big challenge for us when Canada, Australia and Gibraltar raise concerns is that our actions can be seen as an attempt to recreate the empire or to preach from our imperialistic past. Perhaps it is better if other nations, such as South Africa, advocate on such issues. We heard a wonderful speech at that conference from the Deputy Speaker of the South African Parliament, and because of history it may be better if South Africa advocates on such issues instead of us, sadly.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He made the great point that we should remember that we are not the only advocates in the Commonwealth for LGBT rights, women’s rights and equality for all. We have strong partners in the Commonwealth, and this is the time when we should come together to ensure that their voices are heard. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that South Africa may be a better advocate at the moment, and I hope that we can work with it on that.
I would like some clarity on the Foreign Office’s position. Has the Minister spoken about the matter to Uganda’s high commissioner in London recently? Are there other diplomatic engagements with Uganda and other Commonwealth Governments, such as Malawi and Nigeria, and countries such as Liberia, about LGBT rights and the recent proposed changes to legislation?
I want to pick up some points that hon. Members have made about DFID’s role and ask the Minister to comment on his Department’s discussions with it on Uganda and the emergency reaction. We have not touched on the fact that the problem is not just the legislation and the threat of arrest but violence. There have been outbreaks of violence over the past few years at every stage of the Bill’s progress in Uganda. Since it was enacted on 24 February, there have been several reports of people being murdered after being outed.
I was horrified to see that the Red Pepper, a tabloid in Uganda, had published the names of 200 people, including photographs and including the name of a dear friend of mine, Frank Mugisha, who runs Sexual Minorities Uganda. His name has probably appeared in Hansard more than mine over the last few years, and it is often taken in vain when this important issue is discussed. I am glad to say that he has rightly been nominated for a Nobel peace prize. He is the successor to David Kato, who was murdered three years ago after his name was published in another tabloid in Uganda. He successfully took the paper to court, but the price he paid was to be murdered. My blood ran cold when I saw that history was repeating itself in the tabloids.
What conversations has the Minister had with DFID about what the Government can do to provide support to those on the ground? I do not ask for protection from a law in another country, but what can we do to protect vulnerable Ugandans who are at increased risk of violence and violation of their human rights? An emergency security funding pool has been established, and I ask the Government to contribute to it quickly.
I have raised this issue today because it is fundamentally a human rights one. The Commonwealth charter, which was signed last year, includes articles on tolerance, respect and understanding, freedom of expression and human rights. I cannot think of a more valuable current issue to address than LGBT rights in Uganda and beyond in the Commonwealth. We should use our position in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Commonwealth to ensure that our voice is heard.
I am delighted to serve under your surveillance, Mr Bayley. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing this debate and setting the broad scene. That enables me to be a little more focused on what is called the old Commonwealth, which is the backbone of the Commonwealth with the United Kingdom at the head. There is a feeling among the old Commonwealth nations that the door that was open is slowly closing, and that that was happening particularly under the last Government.
I have been speaking for about 10 seconds, and everyone is aware from my accent that I come from one of the Commonwealth countries. I cannot get away from that, but my accent is not Australian. I have dual nationality and I carry a British passport and a New Zealand one, which creates difficulties sometimes when there is a small battle at Twickenham. I assure all hon. Members that I cheer for England, although I put my money on the All Blacks.
As I said during an intervention, when I arrive at Gatwick, having dual nationality gives me the opportunity to survey which is the longest queue and which has more people serving it. I sometimes join the alien queue because it is quicker.
Does my hon. Friend share my opinion that it is terrible that Canadian, Australian and New Zealand nationals, who share the same monarch as us, are treated as complete foreigners when people from 26 other foreign countries can just walk through as though they were British citizens? That is completely unacceptable.
I thank my hon. Friend, who fired the shot for me without my accent, which was helpful.
The Commonwealth is a unique organisation. It is a worldwide family with a mixture of races, religions, languages and creeds based around the United Kingdom and the Queen. As I said, I come from New Zealand, which is a huge supporter of the Commonwealth and the Queen. If the New Zealand magazine, Women’s Weekly, does not have six pictures of the Queen and the royal family, there has been a misprint along the line.
New Zealand has slight republican moments, and I understand that it is considering a slight variation of the flag, but we will see. It will be amusing because Women’s Weekly will battle to keep the flag and I suspect that elderly New Zealand ladies will rally to the cause.
Next door to New Zealand is another Commonwealth nation—a little island called Australia. It has a few republican problems and, if asked, any New Zealander would explain that being Australian is in itself a difficulty, but it seems to overcome that, particularly in the cricket field.
Those two old Commonwealth nations have a huge rivalry, which can be seen on the rugby field. The insults and jokes between them are phenomenal and racist, but every joke can be turned round the other way, so anything a New Zealander says about Australia can be returned the other way round. However, they work extremely closely with the British Commonwealth, particularly when the United Kingdom is under deep threat. With Canada and South Africa, they are the old Commonwealth. They have a Commonwealth link, reinforced by kith and kin, and a two-way flow of tourism and migration going back two centuries, although that is being stemmed now.
My direct knowledge is obviously predominately of New Zealand, although I have lived in the UK longer than I lived there. I occasionally return there for a refresher course in the accent and attitudes. A touch of history may be helpful. New Zealand’s biggest influx of immigration over the past couple of centuries involved people who went there by choice—I am sure I will receive letters from Australians about this—and were not transported there. That can be seen when wandering around New Zealand, because the place names are a mixture of Maori, English, Scottish and Irish, and there are even a few Welsh names. The people there drive on the left. They predominantly speak English or a version of it, and the parliamentary system, although it has only one House, is much the same as that here. In fact, it mimics it even to the building. It is not quite as spectacular and not anywhere near as old, but it does mimic it.
My parents’ and grandparents’ generations talked of the United Kingdom as home and of “going back”. They still do. What intrigued me was that many of them had never been here, but they still talked about going back. They all have close links with this country and they display that in their houses. My parents’ and grandparents’ generations in particular would have on the coffee table in the sitting room—it was a sitting room, not a withdrawing room or drawing room—a fantastic book or two. Those fantastic books are full of photographs, which are dramatic for two reasons. First, they feature the United Kingdom and its beautiful scenery. The second and even more amazing thing is that the photographs were taken on sunny days. How the photographers managed to get 50, 60 or a couple of hundred sunny days to take fantastic photos beggars belief, especially after the last few months.
The close rapport between the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia is perhaps emphasised most in the farming communities. There are very close links, including educational links, both ways between the farmers, but perhaps it is more educational for the farmers from this country. One of my colleagues in this place asked me whether I could find a farm—he was thinking of a farm in this country, as I belong to the National Farmers Union—for his daughter to spend her gap year on before going to veterinary school. She needed a very good and unusual entry—a star entry—on farming on her CV to get into vet school. I ignored the thought that the farm would be here and rang New Zealand. I spoke to one of the high-country farmers I know there. They said, “Yes, we’d love to take her here—kith and kin etc.” She was over the moon, until she arrived and suddenly realised what she had taken on. The farm has barley, lucerne hay and so on, 1,000 head of cattle, 1,000 head of deer and 23,000 lambing ewes, so when they have lambed—this is the farm I came from—there are 50,000 woolly beasts running around the place. That my colleague’s daughter went there was an example of kith and kin. She had a hard time for the first couple of weeks and then settled into it and came back really educated. She staggered the people who interviewed her for veterinary school, and walked straight in.
Of course, the biggest example of kith and kin is seen at times of conflict. We have the first world war commemoration coming up. In that war, there was the battle of Gallipoli, which led to Anzac day. Here, Remembrance day is important. It is covered on television. Anzac day in Australia and New Zealand is the same. Interestingly, the young people in Australia and New Zealand now go to the remembrance celebration there. They used not to do that in the past. The people of those countries remember the soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought for the United Kingdom as part of the Commonwealth.
I found this hard to understand as a child. My little village—it was a little village, in the north of the south island—had a war memorial. In typical New Zealand style, people were pragmatic about it. It was a superb memorial, but of course they had public toilets underneath it, because they had to use the space there for something useful. The walls of the memorial—one can see this at any of the memorials in Australia and New Zealand, but particularly at the war memorial in Canberra—were covered with the names of the soldiers who had died, and there were hundreds upon hundreds from that little village.
On Remembrance day in this country, I go to the villages in my area, and they read out the names. That is desperately important—it is desperately important that the names are remembered—but people cannot read out the names in the little village that I come from, because that would take up the whole time for the service.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful point. May I share this with him? Recently, my daughter did a first world war project, which involved researching the names on the war memorial in our village. We found that a significant number of them were people who had emigrated before the first world war to New Zealand and who came back to fight for their country and die for their country, their country being both New Zealand and the UK.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention.
This is one of the latest examples of what I am discussing. Some of us will remember that in Afghanistan there was a Mumbai-style attack on the Intercontinental hotel in Kabul. Two vehicles rolled up. Six guys got out, charged in, dealt with the terrorists and came out unscathed. They did look as though they had come out of a Rambo movie, but they were the New Zealand SAS, who had just been called up on spec to go in and deal with the situation. They did that, calmly, and got out. They are dangerous people, those New Zealand SAS.
Some years ago, I visited Monte Cassino, the scene of the battle for Rome in world war two. Between 17 January and 18 May 1944, four battles were fought there. The soldiers involved on our side were called allied troops. There were Polish troops, but the only others were from Commonwealth countries. A total of 54,000 men from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Canada were lost, as well as a number of Gurkhas.
The horrible reality of what happened came home to me during my visit. There were separate cemeteries for the various nations, with thousands and thousands of tombstones, but what really struck me was the ages of the troops buried there. Most of them—these are troops from the Commonwealth countries—were in their late 20s or in their 30s or 40s. Almost all of them would have been married and had families. Those families had no father, because they were over here, fighting for a United Kingdom war. That explains why, when I was a kid, I noticed that in my village there were a lot of single-parent families and a lot of ladies who remained single. That was simply because there were no men.
After the war, shoals of people from New Zealand and Australia came to the United Kingdom on six-week boat trips. Nowadays they fly. Many if not all are skilled. They are doctors, dentists, nurses, farmers, accountants, lawyers and experts in banking, finance or construction. Some stay; others move on to other parts of the world; and some go back. But they all contribute to this country. For decades, university graduates have been among New Zealand’s biggest exports. In the main, they used to come here. However, the United Kingdom has become progressively less receptive in the past few years. Entry is becoming more difficult, and to stay to contribute is becoming more difficult. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will look at that.
People from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa are exactly the type of immigrants this country needs. In general, they have high skills, earn high net incomes and pay a lot of tax. They are almost invisible to social services, because they never use them. They integrate well into British society. After all, most of them have parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents who came, either directly or indirectly, from the UK. They share the culture. They share the language, mostly. They share the heritage. And they tend to play slightly better rugby, but they blend in and add value to the United Kingdom. Their ability to blend in was recognised at one of the recent grand slam games—I am talking about rugby, ladies. The coach of one of the most successful Welsh national rugby teams has a very strong New Zealand accent.
Distressingly, the United Kingdom, as I have said, seems to be closing the door on Commonwealth immigration. It is losing expertise in medicine, dentistry, accounting, physiotherapy, the law and so on. I find that extraordinary. Highly trained professional people who come to the United Kingdom are being required to sit extra exams so that they can work here, whereas they are welcome in some other nations. The quality of their degrees is every bit as good as—and, dare I say it in hushed tones, perhaps sometimes better than—what is achieved here. If degrees from the United Kingdom are acceptable in those countries—and they are—that should be reciprocated, especially as a disproportionate number of the medical, dental and legal teaching staff in universities here are from those old Commonwealth nations. The same applies to the United States and Canada, but without the same difficulties.
Lord Rutherford began the process. It has continued; and I hope that, with a bit of freedom and a bit of relaxation, it will still continue. I receive many complaints from United Kingdom businesses and from Australians and New Zealanders that they are able to work here for only a very few years—generally two. Perhaps the Government could positively review that aspect of immigration policy.
The Commonwealth is very special for its people. In these difficult days, the United Kingdom needs to build on that family of nations and not destroy the willingness and desire to be in harmony with the United Kingdom in the Commonwealth.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the Chamber on the international importance of the Commonwealth of nations in the wake of the Commonwealth day celebrations in the UK and throughout the Commonwealth. I was proud to have been invited to attend the observance day service at Westminster Abbey in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, together with representatives from all the nations and territories in the Commonwealth family.
I was also proud to have played a part in the campaign to fly the flag of the Commonwealth, which ensured that most town halls across the country were sent the Commonwealth flag to fly for the first time. I pay tribute to Bruno Peak, who led that campaign and organised the sending out of flags. I hope that many of us were at our town halls on Monday to see the raising of that important symbol of the Commonwealth family.
I would not have expected my hon. Friend to have been anywhere else, because he is such a committed supporter of the Commonwealth. The tradition that we have established this week in our country—that the flag of the Commonwealth should be flown at civic offices, town halls and, I hope, schools—will continue. I am proud to say that the flag of the Commonwealth was raised on the flagpole outside the Romford Conservative association’s Margaret Thatcher house in my constituency.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) for his magnificent work as international chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and of its UK branch in Westminster. I know that you, Mr Bayley, also play a significant role in the work of the CPA. When I was elected to Parliament in 2001, one of the first things I did was to join the CPA. I commend it on its magnificent work and the way in which it has evolved over my 13 years as a Member.
On my first CPA visit in 2002, I accompanied my right hon. and noble Friend the then Member for Folkestone and Hythe—now Lord Howard—to Mauritius. Since then, I have participated in many CPA activities. I am delighted that the CPA is no longer simply about parliamentary friendship—although that is important—but about helping others to develop important things such as credentials and good governance. The CPA does magnificent work in those areas.
I put on the record my thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden and his team for all the work that they do to promote the CPA. There are issues about CPA internationally, and I hope that all nations in the Commonwealth understand and appreciate that we must work together because we have important common goals, values and objectives, which we must cherish.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), who has made powerful remarks today about his visit to Sri Lanka and the deep importance of the Commonwealth. Not enough people understand that. I am glad that he is part of the CPA and that he has been to Sri Lanka and seen what is going on. I was pleased to have the opportunity to visit Sri Lanka myself three years ago, where I saw the terrible things that have gone on in that country and the awful divisions that have occurred. Sadly, many of those divisions have been made far worse by the Sri Lankan Government’s decision many years ago that English would no longer be the country’s common language. Surely, one of the most powerful aspects of the Commonwealth is the fact that all its members are bound together by the common language of English. Ending the use of English as a common language for all peoples of the Commonwealth will create divisions as one regional language takes precedence over another. The common English language does more than anything else to bind us together.
The other thing that Sri Lanka did was to become a republic, taking away a Head of State who was neutral and above politics. Countries that have gone down the republic road have not necessarily had the great success for which they had hoped. Those that have kept Her Majesty the Queen as their head of state—Australia, New Zealand, Canada, most of the Caribbean countries and many others—have not suffered from the internal divisions that countries such as Sri Lanka have, sadly, experienced. That is a great lesson for countries thinking about going down that route. The monarchy is a glue that binds together people of all political backgrounds and all ethnic origins despite divisions within countries.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash) for her powerful speech about human rights in many Commonwealth countries. I agree entirely with her. We are not doing enough to deal with the atrocious things going on today in some Commonwealth countries—she mentioned Uganda, and there are many others—where the standards and values of the Commonwealth should be enshrined. Those countries must understand that being part of the Commonwealth means that certain values, including, crucially, human rights, must be upheld. I commend her for speaking so strongly about that. It is a message that we must spread.
On that point about human rights around the Commonwealth, two weeks ago students from Indian-administered Kashmir were charged with sedition and expelled from university for supporting Pakistan in a cricket match. That runs completely contrary to people’s basic human right to support whomever they like, however, wherever and whenever they like. Does my hon. Friend agree that those basic rights must be respected around the world, and that where they are flouted, we, as members of the Commonwealth, should say that that is totally unacceptable?
Of course, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The fact of the matter is that the Commonwealth is a Commonwealth of nations, and we are all proud of our national heritage. We are proud of being British, and people of Pakistani origin are proud of their origins, as are people from New Zealand or any other country. Tolerance, understanding, kindness and friendship are values that should bind us together, and intolerance against people for whatever reason is wrong. I am sure we all agree that the Commonwealth must uphold that principle.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) gave a moving, powerful and thought-provoking speech about the huge sacrifice made by the people of New Zealand, Australia and other Commonwealth countries in the service of King or Queen and country over so long. That is particularly true of New Zealand, which has done more than probably any other country when it comes to sacrificing its own people in the service of freedom, the defence of the Crown and all the values that we hold dear.
I have been to New Zealand five times and I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Australia and New Zealand, having been an officer of that group during my 13 years in the House. I believe that there is no country in the world with which we have more in common than New Zealand, although perhaps I might include Australia and Canada in that. We are cousins. We are kith and kin, as my hon. Friend rightly said, and I find it utterly shameful that a New Zealander arriving at Heathrow is treated as an alien. I have raised the matter repeatedly with this Government and the previous one. Two years ago, I put forward a ten-minute rule Bill, the United Kingdom Borders Bill, on that subject. In the final year before the general election, I hope that the Minister will take back to the Government the message that it is time we did something to address that.
It is completely wrong that someone from New Zealand, Australia or Canada is treated as an alien when they arrive at Heathrow, but someone from a country that happens to have joined the European Union, for better or for worse, is treated as though they are British and comes through the same channel as we do. How can that be right? How did we get into a situation where we treat countries with which we have most in common—countries with which we share a Head of State, a language and a style of parliamentary and legal system—as alien, while we give preferential treatment to countries that happen to have signed up to the European Union?
I urge the Minister to speak to the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister and do something about the situation. If we want to value the Commonwealth, and particularly the realms, which remain under the Crown—if we want to cement them as part of the great Commonwealth family—let us try to affect that issue. Nothing offends New Zealanders, Australians and Canadians more than being treated in that way when they arrive at Heathrow airport.
My hon. Friend is a powerful advocate, as we know from previous occasions. I entirely concur with what he says. Does he agree that a simple approach would be to start with Commonwealth realms, allowing their citizens to enter through the same channel as UK and EU citizens? I should have thought that that would be very simple.
I think that my hon. Friend was probably a sponsor of my Bill, because he has hit on exactly the point that I made about the Commonwealth and the realms. Realms, where the Queen is still the sovereign Head of State, have a special, deep constitutional link with the people of the British isles—of the United Kingdom. If we cannot immediately act in relation to the entire Commonwealth, let us at least work with the realms, of which there are 15 apart from our own. I shall not list them; I know that the Minister knows them by heart. They are deeply committed to their links with the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and we should do something to enhance and cement that special relationship.
I went to Jamaica two years ago with the Foreign Affairs Committee. That is another country with which we have strong bonds. Many Jamaicans live in the UK, particularly around London, and they, too, feel aggrieved when they are treated as aliens. They are also aggrieved at the air passenger duty that has done so much damage to our relations with the Caribbean.
I commend my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for saying that we would put the “C” back into the FCO. He has done that; but in the final year of the present Government’s term of office, we need to show that we mean it. We can do a great deal more on all the issues I am outlining. I know that the Minister, who is also deeply committed to the Commonwealth and the things that we have been discussing, will champion my suggestion when he next sees the Foreign Secretary. It would unite both sides of the House if we took the opportunity.
Hon. Members will know that in my 13 years as a Member of the House of Commons I have been a fervent champion of the Commonwealth, which we cherish and hold dear—its aims, objectives and successes, and all that those things stand for. It is a symbol of unity and demonstrates friendship between old friends and allies in all corners of the world, far and wide.
I am proud that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland takes a leading role in flying the flag of the world’s oldest and truest international grouping of nations, honouring centuries of partnership in the modern world. However, the Commonwealth of nations could be much stronger than it is, and a great deal more needs to be done to realise its full potential. Successive Governments of all parties have failed to grasp the potential that it represents.
We have, unfortunately, spent decades focusing on relations with the European Union—the Common Market, as it once was—building bridges with countries on the continent. That is right; we should trade and have friendship with the continent. However, that should not mean focusing purely on our relations with Europe and ignoring the Commonwealth. I fear that the Commonwealth has been damaged because for decades we have not realised its potential. We should have been building bridges in the past few years with Commonwealth countries in Africa, Oceania, Asia and of course the Caribbean. Yet all Governments have, sadly, focused on Europe. I think the history of our country has come to a turning point. That is not to say we should not continue to work closely with our friends and allies in Europe; of course we should, but we should now focus on the Commonwealth. We should help its countries and work with them, more deeply than in the past few decades, on building for trade and co-operation.
The Commonwealth cannot be defined in one sweeping statement. It has a number of unique and compelling attributes, all of which are weathered by time and change. It is steeped in tradition; shared culture, heritage and history; an intrinsic love of democracy and freedom; and shared legal and parliamentary systems. Above all the members of the Commonwealth are united in our love of our countries and our patriotism, rather than nationalism. There is a shared affection for Her Majesty the Queen and for historic links to the British Isles and what the Commonwealth represents. Her Majesty the Queen put it accurately:
“The Commonwealth of societies old and new; of lands and races different in history and origins but all, by God’s Will, united in spirit and in aim.”
There are 53 nations in the Commonwealth. Sadly, Zimbabwe and the Gambia are no longer members, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham), who has now left the Chamber, said, it is to be hoped that at an appropriate time they will rejoin and that we shall work with them on that.
The member countries range from the old dominions of Canada, New Zealand and Australia, of which we have spoken extensively in the debate, to the newest member, Rwanda, which joined in 2009. The Commonwealth spans every time zone and yields a combined GDP of more than £5.2 trillion. Commonwealth countries are the emerging markets of the future, so we no longer talk of the Commonwealth just in terms of a traditional, albeit important, friendship. Our intention should be to make it relevant to the long-term future.
I am brought back to my earlier point that we should work on trade with the Commonwealth. If that means changing our relationship with the European Union so that we can be the leading bridge between the English-speaking world and the Commonwealth countries, to build trade globally, so be it. Any Government bold enough to grasp that, and think long term—to utilise the Commonwealth as the foundation for that approach—will do a great service to the people of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth draws much of its uniqueness and individuality from its sprawl and its vast global network of nations. It boasts many of the world’s strongest economies, and its membership includes many emerging democracies. It is by no definition a western club; it includes countries from all corners of the earth, from the south Pacific islands to the Caribbean, from all corners of Africa to the north of Canada, and from the south Atlantic to the highest tip of the British isles. It is an amazing collection of nations, territories and dependencies: countries with a shared foundation of values and common interests, that we should make much more of than we have in recent decades.
[Mr Graham Brady (in the Chair)]
I touched briefly earlier on our trade with our partners in the Commonwealth of nations. That is among the most prevalent and topical economic discussion points of modern times. The tides of global trade are turning and we must adjust, to ensure that HMS Britain stays afloat and does not sink, lashed to the anchor of the eurozone, while we yet have the Commonwealth, which we could harness for trade and co-operation in so many areas. The time has come to be bold, and for us to be a global nation again. However, it will be necessary to change our relations with the EU to make that possible. Much is being made at the moment of the trading arrangements between the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States of America. Those agreements could have been made years ago, if we had chosen. We did not need to wait for Brussels to negotiate trading agreements; we could have agreed them many years ago, but we chose not to.
We not only chose not to but were prevented from making agreements because we are tied to an organisation that prevents us from doing what we have done throughout the history of these islands: traded globally, sailed the world and fostered relationships with countries far and wide. We can only do so again if we remove the chains that are shackled around our feet through being members of a political union. We can then use the Commonwealth as the basis of our global co-operation.
I welcome you to the debate, Mr Brady, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I have heard it suggested by many people that Commonwealth free trade is not practical. I disagree profoundly. With boldness and vision, we can lead on that idea so that Commonwealth trade is a way forward in future. It is backward-thinking to believe that our future rests only with the EU. We can trade with Europe as well as with the Commonwealth, and be a bridge between both parts of the globe that are important to us.
I would like to tell the Minister that a Government are strongest when they are boldest. I hope that most of us present agree that our boldest Prime Ministers, such as Lady Thatcher—some might not agree with everything she did, but she was bold and always stood up for what she believed was right—and the strongest Governments, often those who are re-elected, do radical things rather than pandering to the politically correct or acceptable views of the day. We must have bold vision, and I urge the Minister to raise that idea with the Prime Minister.
Look at the boldness that Lady Thatcher showed against adversity and in difficult situations; she risked everything to do what she truly believed to be right. What better example is there than when she sent a taskforce to the south Atlantic to rescue the people of the Falkland Islands? She could have given in and said that it was too difficult—that it was not practical and too expensive—but she knew what was right and fought for it, and thereby ensured that the people of the Falklands were liberated. We need the same attitude in government today on a range of issues, but particularly on embracing the Commonwealth nations for trade and co-operation, and to ensure that the values that we hold dear, which have lasted for generations, are protected and cherished for future generations.
I believe that all of us present could do more in our constituencies to promote the Commonwealth and the importance of our heritage. I would like to commend members of my local Conservative association who have formed a Conservative Commonwealth group. On Sunday, we held the first Romford service of thanksgiving for the Commonwealth at St Alban Protomartyr church in my constituency, presided over by Rev. Father Roderick Hingley. The chairman of my constituency Conservative Commonwealth association is Gloria Adagbon, who originates from Nigeria, and the president is Lloyd Thomas, who is from Montserrat.
People of all Commonwealth origins in my constituency are being brought together, celebrating their shared heritage—love of country; love of Queen; love of everything we hold dear in these islands. Many members have come to live in Britain and they cherish their Commonwealth links. I find it offensive and patronising when I hear talk of people being BME—black and minority ethnic. I do not think that that is a relevant term today. The term “Commonwealth origins” is a far more respectful way of discussing people who have come from different parts of the world. It does not matter whether someone is of a particular religion or colour; it is important that we have shared values, and the Commonwealth represents that.
The Conservative Commonwealth group in my constituency is doing amazing work in bring everyone together. I urge all MPs present, from all parties, to enhance the Commonwealth through their respective parties by bringing people together in their constituencies. We should visit schools and talk about the Commonwealth to children at assemblies and in classrooms more often. The diamond jubilee in 2012 was a great opportunity to do that. I visited every school in my constituency to talk about the importance of the United Kingdom, the overseas territories and dependencies, and, of course, the Commonwealth.
We all see in our local schools young children with Commonwealth ancestry—I certainly do in my constituency. At the service we held in Romford on Sunday we had a Commonwealth choir from the Frances Bardsley academy for girls. They sang Commonwealth hymns, and it was an amazingly uplifting occasion. High commissioners and representatives from all over the Commonwealth came to celebrate. I hope that colleagues from all parties can do more in their constituencies to promote the importance of the Commonwealth.
Earlier, I asked the Minister about the failure to fly flags in Parliament square this week for Commonwealth day. I must say that it was sad to see Her Majesty arrive to an empty Parliament square, completely devoid of flags. I know that health and safety is important and that work on repairing the pavements prevented the flags from being flown, but I really think that we can do better. I remember that the state opening of Parliament last year happened to fall on Europe day. The flags of the European Union were flown in Parliament square for the arrival of Her Majesty the Queen, yet this year, on Commonwealth day, she arrived at Westminster abbey and the square was blank, with no Commonwealth flags. We really should do better.
Her Majesty’s Government must look at the issue of flags, the failure to fly them on appropriate occasions, and the importance and significance of flying them in Parliament square. Parliament square is the centre of our democracy. Nearby is Parliament, the Supreme Court, the Foreign Office, the Treasury, parliamentary buildings and Westminster abbey, where coronations take place—yet in terms of which flags to fly and when, Parliament square is a muddle.
I wrote to the Prime Minister last year about the unbelievable events prior to Remembrance Sunday, when all the flags of the overseas territories and Crown dependencies were removed on the Saturday. It is bad enough that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies are not permitted to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday, but to remove their flags literally the day before—I witnessed it from my office in Portcullis House—was quite disgraceful; yet there has been no change.
We need a complete review of when flags are flown, and we should look at erecting permanent flagpoles in Parliament square. I am always told that it costs so much to put the flagpoles up and down; well, let us come up with a proper plan so that whenever we are in Parliament square we can see appropriate flags that show pride in our nation. I would have no problem at all with permanently flying in Parliament square the flags of the four countries of the UK, of the overseas territories and of the Crown dependencies. On special occasions, we can perhaps fly the Commonwealth and European Union flags, if they are considered appropriate, as well as other flags.
However, there is currently a complete muddle about when flags are flown and for what purpose. Departments are arguing with one another and blaming contractors for the muddles. I urge the Minister to take the issue back to his Department, because it would do great service to our nation, promoting pride and confidence in it, if we saw flags flying every time we went to the centre of our democracy, Parliament square. There could be no better advertisement for our country than if we were to get that right—currently, we are not.
I have mentioned the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, as I do on many occasions, and I would now like to discuss them further. We talk about the Commonwealth, but the overseas territories and Crown dependencies are not members. That is another strange muddle that we have allowed to occur over many years.
Mr Brady, as the chairman of the all-party group on the Cayman Islands, you will know how proud the people of the Cayman Islands are of their link to Britain. When I went to the Assembly of the Cayman Islands several years ago, I saw a map of the Commonwealth and I pointed out to the chief Minister of the Cayman Islands that the Cayman Islands was not coloured in as part of it. He looked at the map and said, “Actually, you’re right”; he had not noticed before. Ever since then, I have been astounded to see maps of the Commonwealth that do not include Crown dependencies and overseas territories. Why is that? Why are we not fighting for the loyal subjects of our 21 territories and dependencies? Why are we not allowing them to have at least associate status within the Commonwealth? Why do we not give them some recognition on maps of the Commonwealth? When the Commonwealth publishes lists of member states and their flags, the Crown dependencies and overseas territories are always missed out. I will refer to that matter further in a moment, because the British Council has just published a document that highlights precisely why it needs to be addressed.
We have this issue of the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories not being members of the Commonwealth and their flags not being flown accordingly. Despite cross-party support for their inclusion, the people of the Crown dependencies and overseas territories are still not permitted to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday alongside the other countries of the Commonwealth. I know that the Minister will say that the Foreign Secretary lays the wreath on their behalf, but the Foreign Secretary represents Britain to foreign countries. These are British territories and their people served and died for Britain—for King, or Queen, and country. Why is it that the people of the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and Bermuda, our oldest territory, are not allowed to have their representatives at the Cenotaph to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday? Is it not time that we addressed this issue once and for all? Of course the Foreign Secretary should continue to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday for British citizens all around the world, but let the territories and dependencies lay their own wreaths.
I have yet to hear from the Government who actually lays the wreaths on behalf of the Crown dependencies. It is not the Foreign Secretary, because the dependencies do not come under the Foreign Office; they come under the Ministry of Justice, but the Lord Chancellor does not lay a wreath. Once again, it is another muddle that the Government need to address, but I have yet to hear them deal with this argument, take it seriously and sort the matter out. I hope that the Minister will deal with it before the next election; we have one year to resolve it and I have no doubt that he will make it one of his priorities in the months ahead.
Let me give an example of how things are going so badly wrong. The British Council has published a superb booklet entitled “British Council’s Programme for Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.” We are all proud that the Commonwealth games are taking place in Scotland this year. The booklet is splendid and I have read it from cover to cover. It has a splendid message from Sir Martin Davidson, the chief executive of the British Council. Flicking through it, I came to the back and once again saw the map of the Commonwealth. Sadly, Gibraltar looks as if it is part of the Kingdom of Spain; it is not really highlighted at all and looks as if it is part of Spain. The Falkland Islands are the same colour as Argentina; they are not highlighted on this map at all. According to this map, there are no parts of the Commonwealth within the Caribbean. The British territories of the Caribbean—Montserrat, Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and Bermuda, which is the oldest British colony—are completely wiped off this map. And yet every single one of those territories that I have just mentioned is a participant in the Commonwealth games, even though they are all excluded from this quite costly booklet produced by the British Council. If the British Council cannot get this matter right, what hope is there? We need to sort these issues out. I say to the Minister that it is so important that Her Majesty’s Government recognise all Her Majesty’s territories.
If all that was not bad enough, according to this map, the Isle of Man is part of England. The people of the island will not be happy to have their status as a Crown dependency taken away. The Channel Islands do not exist on this map either. So, Jersey and Guernsey, both of which are participating in the Commonwealth games, are excluded from this map; Sark and Alderney are also excluded. Once again, it is a muddle. We need to sort these issues out if we are serious about taking this matter forward.
There is another issue I wish to draw to the attention of the House today. There is one huge gap in the Commonwealth today. We are more connected to the Republic of Ireland than to any other country in the world and yet the Republic of Ireland is, sadly, no longer part of the Commonwealth family. It is time that we said to our friends, our cousins and our extended family in Ireland that they, too, should join the Commonwealth and come home to the family of Commonwealth nations. It was the people of Ireland, together with the people of England, Scotland and Wales, who built the Commonwealth—the original British Empire that evolved into a Commonwealth of nations. I believe that the people of Ireland belong in the Commonwealth.
The other evening, I was very pleased to welcome the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, to Parliament. He was at a St Patrick’s day reception on the Terrace of the House of Commons, and I had the opportunity to speak to him briefly about the importance of Ireland and why it was important that it joined the Commonwealth. He was receptive to that possibility when I spoke to him. In his speech at that reception, he also commended Irish citizens who had served in the British armed forces, and I also pay tribute today to those who, despite being citizens of Ireland, died in the British armed forces. There are still many Irish citizens in the British armed forces.
Ireland belongs as part of the Commonwealth family, and I urge Her Majesty’s Government to do everything they can to work with the Taoiseach and those in Ireland who share this vision to bring Ireland closer to the Commonwealth and give its people the opportunity to be part of this great family. We are all part of the British isles; we share that common heritage, language and history. Together we built the Commonwealth, and I hope that the people of the wonderful country of Ireland will join with us as part of the Commonwealth. As we approach St Patrick’s day next Monday, which also happens to be my birthday, I look forward to the day that we can celebrate Ireland coming back within the family of Commonwealth nations.
For me, the Commonwealth is deeply important. It is not just an organisation that we happen to be a member of; it is an organisation that we founded. It is an organisation of peoples, nations and territories, with a common heritage, the same language and similar constitutions, with Parliaments based on the Westminster model of a constitutional Parliament. Commonwealth countries share a legal system, and so many other values and ideas that we have in common. I believe that we need to harness all those things more strongly for the years to come. The Commonwealth is vital to our future, and any future Government should look long term to consider how we can develop the Commonwealth to make it even more important, not only for the people of this country but for the developing world, which so many Commonwealth countries are a part of.
I will close by quoting a poem that was read out on Sunday at the Commonwealth service in Romford. It was written by Rebecca Hawkins, aged 13, who is in year 9 at the Frances Bardsley academy for girls in Romford. I will not read the entire poem, even though it is magnificent, but I will ensure that the Minister sees a copy of the entire poem. I will read the final verse, in which Rebecca perfectly describes the different parts of the Commonwealth:
“From the red rock far down under
To Botswana with its dust and thunder
From Bangladesh’s rivers wide
To Britain where our Queen resides
From djembe drums in Ghana
To the West Indian sugar farmer
From lives hectic and lives peaceful
To green island gems and waters crystal
From skyscrapers to mauve moors bleak
To deserts and forests and snow-capped peaks.
We are the Commonwealth.”
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who—for 39 minutes—regaled us with his love of the Commonwealth. I know that he is a passionate advocate of the Commonwealth, and that came out in every one of those minutes. I agree entirely with an awful lot of what he had to say, particularly with regard to Commonwealth access to the United Kingdom and the importance of the relationship between the UK and the EU not being to the exclusion of that between the UK and the Commonwealth. Although I am a passionate advocate of withdrawal from the European Union, I am keen that the debate should never become about choosing between the Commonwealth and the European Union, because that would pull people into opposing camps.
I will be brief because I want to hear from the two Front-Bench spokespeople, who have to respond to the many good points made in this debate. I was going to say a few words about the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference, but I mentioned it in an intervention and have spoken about it previously. Given where we are in the debate, I will not mention the CPA.
I broadly state my support for the Commonwealth and where it comes from, and I share that support with many of my generation. Some people tend to dismiss our relationship with the Commonwealth as something that people in their 60s and 70s are interested in because they remember empire and grew up learning history through the amount of red on the map in their classroom. That might be the case for some of that generation, who may look back on that period with rose-tinted glasses, but for people of my generation the issue is much more practical. There is a tendency to perceive that, because we have become so much more European, the Commonwealth is now less important to us. For my generation, in many ways, the opposite is true because we have been able to travel much more widely than our parents and grandparents.
For many of my generation, the Commonwealth is where we visit. It is a place we know better than perhaps our grandparents did. I previously worked in the US and Canada, with which I have a great affinity and attachment. Whenever I travelled in Canada, I could not help but realise that I was not in a foreign country. Canada feels far less foreign than popping 30 miles across the English channel to Belgium or France, which means that many of us in this country have a strong emotional attachment to the Commonwealth that was created not only in war but through practical interaction, exchange and family ties. Many of my generation feel a strong affinity and attachment to other Commonwealth nations.
When we talk about the Commonwealth, the issue is not about looking back with rose-tinted glasses to the lost days of empire. Many of my friends have emigrated. Where do they go? Some go to Europe for short periods, but in many cases they do not go there to start a new life. They tend to be drawn to Australia, New Zealand and Canada because of the similarities, shared values and in some cases, depending on their career, the shared legal systems and educational systems. They are drawn to the Commonwealth even now, after more than 30 years of EU integration and membership. For all that we have been forced down that route, many of us still feel committed to the Commonwealth.
I do not want to say much more. There is a lot that the Commonwealth could do a lot better, particularly on human rights. We should hold some of our Commonwealth partners’ feet to the fire, which is a point the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and I made when we were in South Africa, but I will not say any more on that as I have previously spoken about it here.
The Commonwealth is not about the past; it is about the present and the future. I hope the Minister recognises that many people of my generation strongly support links with our Commonwealth partners and would like to see a relationship in which those links are deepened and strengthened further. This is not about the past; it is about the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Brady. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on providing this opportunity, and I thank the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) for leading the debate in his capacity as chairperson of the CPA international executive committee.
As the other speakers have all done, I begin by emphasising the value of the Commonwealth and underlining the importance of Commonwealth day as an occasion to celebrate both the unity and diversity of our 53 independent countries. Other speakers said they feel the closest connection with Commonwealth citizens from Australia, New Zealand and Canada. I grew up in an ethnically diverse area and have had most contact with, and feel the strongest connection to, members of the diaspora communities from countries such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. When I worked in the City there seemed to be an awful lot of New Zealanders employed on temporary contracts, so I have had a fair bit of contact with New Zealanders. Our connection with the Commonwealth is not just about people in other countries; it is about people from those countries who have chosen to make Britain their home.
This has been an eventful year for the Commonwealth, marked of course by the birth of Prince George and our move even closer towards agreeing the new laws of succession. Fifteen of the 16 Commonwealth realms have agreed a new law to end male primogeniture and the bar on marrying Roman Catholics, which is a welcome step forward. Less positively, Gambia has withdrawn from the association. The Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka last November created some division, to which I will return, and led to Mauritius withdrawing as host of CHOGM 2015.
The theme of this year’s Commonwealth day, “Team Commonwealth,” indicates the association’s strong bonds, and it is particularly apt as we look forward to the Commonwealth games in Glasgow this summer. A team is a good analogy for the Commonwealth; it signifies our collaboration and indicates how each and every member is important and has its own role to play. It means that we can celebrate our successes together and that we pull together when times are tough. It also means that we speak frankly and offer our support when a team member could do better. Like the Commonwealth, every team needs rules, which is why I make no apology for concentrating on what I see as scope for improvement. Teams ought to push each other to achieve more, which is what the Commonwealth must do for each member state.
Some of these points were addressed in our debate on human rights in the Commonwealth towards the end of last year, but it is important that they are placed on the record again, given that the situation has not improved. It is now a year since the Commonwealth charter was launched, which was a significant achievement. It was the first time in 64 years that the Commonwealth’s shared values have been set out in writing.
Those shared values attempt to balance the autonomy and differing cultures of many sovereign states. As I said in the debate on human rights in the Commonwealth, agreeing to the charter was not enough and cannot be enough; it was a blueprint for action, not a statement of the status quo. The charter was the start of a process to promote democracy, equality and human rights within the Commonwealth.
There is progress to be made across a range of areas, including gender equality—which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce)—sexual violence and the death penalty. At 10 pm British time tonight, 6 am on Friday in Malaysia, a Nigerian national with schizophrenia is due to be executed for a murder committed 18 years ago. I flagged that up with the Minister when I arrived in the Chamber, and I hope he can update us on whether the British Government have made representations to the Malaysian Government on preventing that execution. We should all oppose the death penalty in any circumstance, but a mentally ill man is due to be executed, so it is a particularly important case.
There are many important human rights issues, but I make no apologies for focusing today on what was described as the “elephant in the room” by Dr Purna Sen, the former head of human rights at the Commonwealth secretariat, in the recent Kaleidoscope Trust report, “Speaking Out: The rights of LGBTI citizens from across the Commonwealth.” Globally, more than half the countries that criminalise homosexuality are in the Commonwealth, and they make up 41 of the 53 Commonwealth nations—that is nearly 80% of the association. We should not be afraid to stand up and say categorically that that is wrong. The issue was debated when I spoke about the charter at the CPA conference in Johannesburg in September, and it was discussed in the Westminster Hall debate, too.
I know there is a concern about being seen to go in and preach to other countries, particularly those countries where we instilled certain values. There has been some interesting research in Uganda on how homosexuality was accepted until the British came in, told people that it was not acceptable and introduced laws against it during the period of colonial rule. When I raised that point at the CPA conference in South Africa in September, it was not well received by all delegates. As the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said in an intervention, the point was supported by my co-speaker, the Deputy Speaker of the South African Parliament. She spoke eloquently about her country’s rainbow constitution and opposition to all forms of discrimination. She said that, in South Africa, LGBT discrimination was seen as akin to apartheid, which was once seen as acceptable by many and is now viewed as abhorrent by all but a few. That does not necessarily translate into perfection on the ground, however. There have been instances of corrective rape and discrimination against LGBT people, but the law sets a strong framework.
Other countries are not making such good progress, however. The Australian High Court recently overturned legislation in Parliament allowing for same-sex marriages. India has recriminalised homosexuality following its Supreme Court reinstating in December a ban on same-sex relationships—a decision refused review earlier this year despite applications from campaigners and the Indian Government. Nigeria has passed a same-sex marriage prohibition law, meaning not only that same-sex marriage is punishable by 14 years in prison, but also that same-sex relationships or participation in gay clubs or organisations are also subject to 10-year prison terms. There are reports that men arrested since the new law was passed have been publicly whipped and there have been claims that confessions have been forced by physical interrogation. The Kaleidoscope Trust quotes a human rights lawyer in Cameroon who explains that LGBT people
“are generally considered as animals or devils… so they are in permanent danger. They can be injured, they can be killed, and they can be discriminated against. They can be rejected from healthcare and justice”.
Most notorious, as we heard in a good speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash), is Uganda, which has now passed the long-feared Anti-Homosexuality Bill. Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda, but the penalties have now been increased to life imprisonment. Indeed, it was mooted at one point that the punishment ought to be the death penalty. I have also had the privilege of meeting Dr Frank Mugisha of Sexual Minorities Uganda on a couple of occasions, and I understand that he met Baroness Warsi yesterday. I hope that it proved a productive meeting, because, although I know that the Foreign Secretary noted his sadness and disappointment that the Bill was signed into law by President Museveni, some concerns have been expressed to me that the UK’s response has been relatively muted. As my hon. Friend said, serious concerns exist that the law represents a public health threat as NGOs, including international organisations that provide health promotion and HIV/AIDS prevention, may be forced to close to avoid criminal sanctions.
In its 2011 report, “Time for Urgent Reform”, the Commonwealth eminent persons group encouraged
“the repeal of discriminatory laws that impede the effective response of Commonwealth countries to the HIV/AIDS epidemic”
and cited United Nations Development Programme evidence that the Commonwealth is home to
“over 60% of people living with HIV”.
The issue should therefore be a priority for the Commonwealth. Several other countries, not least the US, have made it clear that they are undertaking a wholesale review of their relationship with Uganda, and the World Bank has postponed a $90 million loan to the country. Some have called for all aid for Uganda to be reviewed, but only a small proportion of UK aid actually goes into direct budget support for the Ugandan Government and it is linked to trying to improve parliamentary democracy. If aid is reviewed as part of the lobbying on the issue, it is imperative that it should not hurt the people that UK assistance aims to help and that the Government continue their support for LGBT groups and human rights defenders in Uganda, to which they have recently committed.
To conclude on Uganda, there have been calls for travel bans, in particular for the members of the Ugandan Government and Parliament who championed the new law. What measures or sanctions does the Minister think could be effective in trying to turn Uganda’s position around? What action could the ministerial action group take? What penalties would he like for countries that violate the values of the Commonwealth charter—if, indeed, he sees the charter as something that should be enforced?
As I mentioned, there were concerns that last year’s CHOGM risked undermining the Commonwealth’s commitment to human rights, given the ongoing abuses in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Government’s failure to deliver truth, justice and accountability. Can the Minister update us on the Prime Minister’s efforts to secure an international inquiry for the people of Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council this month? What efforts have the Government made to secure action from the Commonwealth on that? I have spoken several times in this place about Sri Lanka, and the issue is ongoing, so I will leave it there, rather than outline my concerns.
The final issue that I want to flag up is the need for collective action on climate change. The Commonwealth is an appropriate forum for that, although we should be doing it on a wider scale, too. Bangladesh tops the climate risk index as the country most affected by climate change. India is in the top 10 as well. In the Maldives in 2009, as people might remember, then President Nasheed held his Cabinet meeting underwater with scuba gear to try to focus the world’s attention on the grim reality of climate change. Countries such as the Maldives could be entirely submerged underwater within just a few generations with just a 1 metre rise in sea levels. The Maldives are the lowest lying country in the world, with an average height of less than 1.3 metres above sea level.
The challenge of climate change is not something that any state can overcome alone. The Commonwealth must renew efforts to press for multilateral co-operation and concerted collective action to reduce carbon emissions, to limit rises in sea levels and to safeguard habitats. At CHOGM, Australia and Canada disappointingly declined to support a green capital fund. Last month, GLOBE International published a report on 66 countries’ climate change laws and highlighted that only the Australian Government sought to repeal national legislation in the past year. Australia and Canada are the only nations to have reversed significant climate laws since GLOBE International began its monitoring four years ago. Will the Minister tell us whether he agrees with Lord Deben, the former Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment, who said that Australia’s move was
“so unintellectual as to be unacceptable”?
By contrast, the report noted Kenya’s new climate change plan. Kenya, along with Mozambique and Nigeria, was included among the eight countries to have passed flagship legislation. Tanzania passed a national strategy and Rwanda was noted for including climate change and the environment as a cross-cutting issue in its economic development and poverty reduction strategy. The report concluded that the momentum for climate change legislation is moving from the wealthier, industrialised nations to emerging economies. I hope that the Minister agrees that all Commonwealth nations need to work together, as set out in the Commonwealth charter, to protect the environment through
“multilateral cooperation, sustained commitment and collective action…and facilitating the development, diffusion and deployment of affordable environmentally friendly technologies and renewable energy”.
Will the Minister update us on how the Government are pushing for more action from the Commonwealth on climate change? To what extent is there is a consensus on the scientific facts of climate change and concerted action? I am particularly worried by reports that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is seeking to abolish Australia’s independent Climate Change Authority. Its chairman has reportedly said that the “bad guys” are winning the climate change debate with “brazen falsehoods”, “untruths” and “misinformation”. It is essential that the UK plays a global role in challenging the misinformation and efforts to dismiss climate change science, not least within our own country.
I realise that I have perhaps focused on the negative to too great an extent, but if we value the Commonwealth and want it to have a respected voice on the world stage and a continued purpose in the 21st century, we have to ensure that it remains relevant. To do that, we must continually ask more of it and ourselves. I welcome the Commonwealth charter as a mechanism for raising the Commonwealth’s expectations, but if we do not meet the high standards that it sets, it risks being used to conceal abuses. When we come back to this issue next year to celebrate Commonwealth day, as I am sure we will, I hope we will be discussing how those standards are not only being met, but surpassed.
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing this timely debate on the Commonwealth. I am sure I have the support of the whole House when I pay tribute to his tireless work in his three-year tenure as chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association executive committee. I hope that he will take it in the right spirit when I say that that is one of the great achievements and services he has given Parliament in what I believe is his 35th year of service in the House.
The CPA, as my right hon. Friend has described, makes a valuable and concrete contribution to promoting democratic values throughout the Commonwealth and we should applaud its achievements. I would also like to thank all my hon. Friends and the Opposition Members who have spoken today and outlined eloquently their views on the Commonwealth: both its strengths and the challenges and difficulties it faces.
I should add that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), who is the Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth, regrets that he cannot respond to the debate. He is on a very long-planned ministerial visit elsewhere in the world. As Minister for Europe, however, I am delighted to deal regularly with two members of the Commonwealth as fellow members of the European Union, and—before my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) intervenes to remind me—with Gibraltar, a British overseas territory that is part of the EU and whose position in EU negotiations is something that I and the Foreign Secretary are always on the alert to safeguard.
In talking about the Commonwealth, we understandably focus on Governments and the incredible variety of countries, large and small, represented in this network of 53 nations spread across six continents and oceans. As has come through in the debate, we always need to bear in mind that those countries are home to no fewer than 2 billion citizens. The Commonwealth’s strength lies not solely in the relationships between the Governments of its member states, but in that web of around 100 different Commonwealth civil society organisations: professional, scientific and academic bodies that continue, month after month, usually unremarked and far from the national press headlines in any country, doing their important, constructive work for the good of the people of all those 53 countries.
This week, we marked Commonwealth day. This year’s celebrations have a special significance as we remember those soldiers from across the Commonwealth who fought and died for freedom and democracy during the first world war. Also, in September, we will mark the 75th anniversary of world war two, when we shall have occasion to reflect on the sacrifice of so many people during that conflict from Commonwealth countries and territories throughout the world.
Coincidentally, I was in a meeting earlier today with the Belgian Foreign Minister and one of the subjects we discussed was the work that the United Kingdom and Belgium are doing to commemorate the centenary of the first world war. The place of Commonwealth servicemen and women will be an important part of the British Government’s planning for that. I address this comment in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford): one of the very important events in the Government’s planning for those commemorations over the next four years will be the centenary of the Gallipoli landings next year, which is hugely significant in the collective memory of the people of New Zealand and Australia.
This summer, Glasgow will host the Commonwealth games. Scotland is no stranger to the games, having hosted them in 1970 and 1986. I know that the games organising committee, Glasgow city council, the Scottish Government and the United Kingdom Government are all working hard to make Glasgow 2014 a triumphant success. The“Team Commonwealth” theme of the 2014 games, is particularly appropriate. One reason the games will be a success is that the whole of the UK is working together at all levels as a team to achieve that.
Sport has a unique power to promote some of the Commonwealth values we cherish: teamwork, fairness, respect and equal treatment. This time last year, Her Majesty the Queen signed the Commonwealth charter, to which every Commonwealth nation has agreed and which sets out the Commonwealth’s core values for the first time in a single document. Those values are important in their own right, as respect for human rights and strong institutions are fundamental building blocks of development and prosperity.
However, as hon. Members have highlighted today, respect for the values set out in the charter is not yet consistent across the Commonwealth. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden said, not every Commonwealth member observes those values fully. During our debate, a number of hon. Members have drawn attention to particular problems in different Commonwealth member states.
I say to my right hon. Friend that member states have agreed to take forward all but 17 of the 106 recommendations that the eminent persons group made at CHOGM. Those include agreement on the Commonwealth charter and a strengthened Commonwealth ministerial action group, known as CMAG. The secretariat is now working on a new strategic plan to take it through to 2016-17. The key is the swift implementation of the recommendations of the eminent persons group, and this country will continue to work closely on that with the secretariat and with other member states.
We must be honest about the fact that the Commonwealth is an organisation that has always proceeded by consensus. There is no provision for majority voting or for a majority of the Commonwealth to mandate any one member to change its practices. It is more a question of the informal influence that can come from peer group pressure, or the advice of candid friends—perhaps it is best put that way. That is what we should rely upon to try to secure the change we want in line with the Commonwealth charter, which every Commonwealth member has undertaken to uphold.
I will respond now to some of the specific issues raised by hon. Members. I will take first the case raised by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). I am grateful to her for alerting me to the matter before the start of the debate. We are urgently investigating reports that a British national is facing execution in Malaysia. It is not yet certain that the man in question has kept British citizenship. Some media reports have suggested that he has joint Nigerian and UK citizenship, but we have also heard a suggestion from Amnesty today that the person in question no longer has United Kingdom citizenship. We are investigating that urgently, given what has happened.
Uganda has been mentioned in several speeches, particularly in that of the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash). As the House knows, on 24 February this year, the President of Uganda signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which increases sanctions against homosexuality. Ugandan civil society and human rights institutions have objected to that Bill in the strongest terms. They believe that it is incompatible with Uganda’s constitution and international obligations, and that it will harm human rights in Uganda. We share the concerns expressed by those Ugandan institutions. We have consistently raised, and will continue to raise, our concerns about the Bill with the Ugandan Government at the most senior levels.
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), raised this issue with the Foreign Minister of Uganda on 28 December and again on 28 January and, most recently, with the deputy Foreign Minister of Uganda on 13 February.
As the hon. Member for Bristol East rightly said, both the Foreign Secretary and Baroness Warsi met Frank Mugisha, a leading Ugandan LGBT activist, yesterday to discuss the latest developments and to take his advice on how the international community might best support individuals and organisations in Uganda.
Our high commissioner in Kampala met the Ugandan Minister of Justice earlier this week. The high commissioner has also received assurances recently from the inspector general of police on the protection of individuals. I assure the House and the hon. Member for Bristol East in particular that we will continue to follow this issue closely and actively make representations at all appropriate levels of the Ugandan Government and Administration.
I will draw the hon. Lady’s question to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for Africa, who is travelling on ministerial duties this week. If we judged that to be the best way of making effective representations, we would not hesitate to do that.
The hon. Lady mentioned various options for action that might be taken. There is a judgment to be made about the right balance in these circumstances, between the megaphone and the candid words in conversation. We try to judge these issues so that we end up with a set of actions that are most likely to help those people who are under threat in Uganda. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Baroness Warsi met Mr Mugisha yesterday so that they could hear first hand from somebody living in Uganda who feels that his position is at risk, and find out what he thinks are the most effective ways to try to seek a change in policy in Uganda.
The hon. Lady also mentioned Nigeria. We are disappointed that President Jonathan has given his assent to a Bill that would further criminalise same-sex relationships in Nigeria and infringe on the human rights of LGBT people. The Foreign Secretary made a statement on 15 January that highlighted our concerns and my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa raised these concerns directly with President Jonathan in Abuja, when he visited Nigeria on 27 February. Again, we will continue to lobby at the highest levels on this issue.
I was also asked about the persecution of Christians and other minorities in Pakistan. We continue to urge the Government of Pakistan to guarantee fully the human rights of all people in Pakistan, particularly the most vulnerable: women, minorities and children. These principles are, after all, laid down in the constitution of Pakistan and are in accordance with international standards, to which Pakistan has subscribed.
We regularly raise the issue of Christians and religious freedom more generally at senior level with the authorities in Pakistan, and did so during the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Pakistan in July 2013 and Baroness Warsi’s visit in September 2013. In fairness, the Pakistani authorities have publicly recognised the problems that their countries’ minorities face and the need to bring an end to religious persecution. The British Government remain fully committed to working in partnership with the Government of Pakistan to achieve that, and to tackle both terrorism and violent extremism in all its forms.
We cannot as one country impose change, particularly in public attitudes, which may in some Commonwealth nations be very different from public attitudes in this country, but we can and we will continue to speak out when basic human rights—life, liberty and personal safety—are violated. There can be no justification for infringing such fundamental human rights, which are central to a strong and prosperous society. The consequences of failing to respect human rights are apparent in Sri Lanka. I will give the Chamber the update for which the hon. Member for Bristol East asked.
The Prime Minister used his presence at CHOGM in Colombo in November 2013 to emphasise the United Kingdom’s and indeed the international community’s serious concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka. He made it clear that the Sri Lankan Government should begin a credible independent investigation into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by both sides during the war by March, when the UN Human Rights Council meets to discuss Sri Lanka. No credible domestic process has yet begun.
Establishing the truth plays an important role in reconciliation. As a result, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon made it clear at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 3 March that we would now call for an international investigation. I draw the attention of the Chamber to a written ministerial statement that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary published today on Sri Lanka. It is available in the Library and will be printed in tomorrow’s Hansard. That statement says, among other things, that a draft resolution was jointly tabled by the UN Human Rights Council on Monday 3 March by the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Mauritius, Macedonia and Montenegro. The draft resolution calls for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to lead the international investigation and to report back by March 2015. Further discussions on the text will take place this month.
The adoption of the resolution is not a foregone conclusion. Ahead of the vote, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, I, other Foreign Office Ministers and other Ministers across the Government have been in contact with a wide range of UN Human Rights Council member states to encourage them to support a strong resolution that calls for an international investigation. In doing so, we have drawn attention to the assessment of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who points to the need for such an investigation as progress on accountability in Sri Lanka has been, in her words, “limited and piecemeal”. In the days remaining before the vote takes place, we will continue to urge UNHRC members to support this action, and we will maintain our close contact with non-governmental organisations and civil society throughout.
I thank the Minister. I have seen the written statement. My concern is that Sri Lanka will not be happy to co-operate with this inquiry, and President Rajapaksa has more or less said so already. I will not put the Minister on the spot by asking a question about this, because his colleague, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for East Devon (Hugo Swire) is responsible for this policy area, but it is important that efforts are made to try to bring Sri Lanka on board and to convince it that it is in its best interests to co-operate with this inquiry rather than have it imposed from outside. It is in the interests of everyone in Sri Lanka, no matter what side of the conflict they are on, that a line can be drawn under past abuses and continuing abuses.
I agree with the hon. Lady. We will not for one moment stop trying to persuade the Government of Sri Lanka that it is in their interests on two counts—its effect on how Sri Lanka is seen internationally and the need for genuine reconciliation between different communities in that country. At the end of the day, the Government of Sri Lanka are sovereign and they will take their decision. We hope that they will eventually conclude that an independent inquiry of some kind is in the interests of Sri Lanka itself. That is why we are disappointed that they have not hitherto established an inquiry of their own. Had such an inquiry been set up in Sri Lanka, we would not need to call for one now at the UN Human Rights Council.
I should add that the Commonwealth ministerial action group has a key role to play in upholding the values to which all Commonwealth countries signed up when they agreed the charter. As CMAG meets for the first time since CHOGM here in London, we have a timely opportunity to restate our view that it is essential that CMAG lives up to the strengthened mandate that it received in Perth.
Our debate this afternoon is a reminder that democracy itself is a key Commonwealth value. The work that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association does to support and extend democratic values across the Commonwealth should not be underestimated. The CPA rightly enjoys associate organisation status within the Commonwealth and is the one Commonwealth organisation that directly represents parliamentary democracy. The Government recognise the CPA’s importance, and we remain happy to discuss proposals to enhance further its work through such measures as a democracy forum. I welcome the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden about the wish to see greater recognition of the CPA’s role in strengthening contact between elected local government bodies across the Commonwealth.
I also welcome my right hon. Friend’s creative and imaginative proposal for a Commonwealth youth parliamentary assembly of some kind. I look forward to seeing how that idea develops further within the CPA. I welcome the decision of the House—it was not welcomed in all quarters—to allow the United Kingdom Youth Parliament to sit in the Chamber. The idea that one day we could look at a Commonwealth youth parliament visiting different Parliaments in different Commonwealth member states and in different continents is very attractive indeed.
In addition to Commonwealth values, hon. Members have referred today to the potential to increase prosperity across the Commonwealth for all its members. The Department for International Development contributes directly to member states that are developing countries, and allocated about £2 billion of aid to those countries in 2013-14—that figure ignores regional programmes and therefore masks a higher total.
Local sporting events also drive economic growth, as previous Commonwealth games have shown. According to the organising committee of the New Delhi games, Manchester benefited to the tune of more than £2 billion in 2002, Melbourne by £1 billion in 2006 and Delhi itself by £2.5 billion. The United Kingdom exceeded its four-year Olympic legacy target, adding £11 billion to the economy through trade and investment in just over one year. The Glasgow games of 2014, which will draw in more than 6,500 athletes and officials in 17 sports, with a global audience of approximately 1.5 billion people, offer a great opportunity for the United Kingdom to provide leadership in enhancing Commonwealth prosperity.
To that end, UKTI is working with Scottish Enterprise, in partnership with the Commonwealth Business Council, on behalf of the Scottish and United Kingdom Governments together to deliver the Commonwealth games business conference on 22 and 23 July. That conference will explore opportunities to strengthen trade and investment between Commonwealth partners and seek new, innovative solutions to deliver sustainable economic growth.
After that conference, UKTI will also host the British Business House, to highlight the UK’s position as a centre of trade and investment. Businesses and key decision makers from the UK and across the Commonwealth will participate in a series of high level round-table and seminar sessions to explore new opportunities to increase trade and investment in the Commonwealth.
Those are just two examples of how the Commonwealth can harness the potential in its membership to increase prosperity. We should be increasing trade and investment with all our partners globally, including the Commonwealth and the EU. I welcome the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), especially in the knowledge of his long-standing, honourably held position on our EU membership, that it is not a matter of trading with either the EU or the Commonwealth but one of trading with both. Indeed, in the case of Cyprus and Malta, we have an overlap on our Venn diagram.
The free trade agreements that the EU has concluded, or is negotiating with Commonwealth countries, will enhance further the conditions for trade. We expect, for example, the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement to benefit the United Kingdom’s economy and businesses by more than £1.3 billion every year.
I wanted to say this, but I got my timings wrong, because I had not realised that the debate was running until 4.30 pm. That was why I cut myself off after four minutes. In terms of our relationship with Canada and the CETA, we will have a special position once that agreement is implemented. Does the Minister not agree that we need a particular strategy that utilises our unique relationship with Canada to ensure that, when the CETA is in place, we are the country in Europe that benefits most from it? We need a UK Government strategy.
With my Minister for Europe hat on, I would caution my hon. Friend slightly, because France would think that it has a particular relationship with Quebec, but he makes a good point. Actually, that strikes a chord, because when I last discussed EU-Canada negotiations with Lord Livingston, our new Minister for Trade and Investment, he was focused on the need for the UK to build up a greater market share in Canada. Canada is one of those countries where we have not yet taken sufficient advantage of the commercial opportunities open to us. I shall make a point of drawing my hon. Friend’s comments to his attention.
I take on board the Minister’s comments and commend the fact that we will have a trading agreement with Canada via the EU. Does he not, however, agree that, as Canada is one of our closest allies, we could have done that decades ago? Why have we had to wait all these years for Brussels to negotiate that on behalf of Britain?
When looking at any one bilateral free trade agreement, it is difficult to make an accurate judgment about what might have been had we not been members of the European Union: whether it would have been easier or more difficult. Actually, until the Doha round ran into the sand, the policy of successive British Governments was to focus less on bilateral trade negotiations than on multilateral trade negotiations, first through the general agreement on tariffs and trade and then through the World Trade Organisation. That would have been the best way in which to address this agenda. The failure of those global trade liberalisation talks has resulted in the European Union and individual countries around the world looking for opportunities for bilateral deals instead. My word of caution to my hon. Friend would be that when we come to look at how trade negotiations progress—this is particularly true of the negotiations with the United States—we see that the value of and the leverage provided by membership of a market of 500 million people is greater than that of a market of 60 million people.
In respect of Canada, I have no idea how things would have gone had the United Kingdom some time ago decided to try to negotiate a bilateral agreement. I just draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that the European Free Trade Association-Canada free trade agreement, which preceded the EU one, leaves out a number of key sectors, such as financial services, that would be particularly important to this country. Sometimes that European Union leverage does enable us to get, in my judgment, further than we would be able to on our own. That is certainly true of the talks with the United States at the moment. However, as I have said, I do not think that this is an either/or situation. We should be looking to get the greatest advantage out of our membership of all the international organisations to which we are party.
My hon. Friends the Members for Romford and for Mole Valley both talked about airports, passport queues and visa arrangements. They will not be surprised if I start by saying that, as the House will know, those are primarily matters for the Home Office, rather than for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It has been the consistent policy of successive British Governments to say that citizens from all Commonwealth countries should be treated, for immigration purposes, as third country nationals. It is also the case that the citizens of some Commonwealth countries, including at least one of the realms—Jamaica—require visas before they come into the United Kingdom; entry clearance on its own is not deemed sufficient. The position is more complicated than it is sometimes made out to be, but again I promise to draw to the attention of my colleagues in the Home Office the points that were made very strongly by my hon. Friends.
I thank the Minister for giving way; I do think that this issue is important. I understand the specific situation with Jamaica, but of course the Jamaican Government have stated very clearly that they wish to remove the monarchy from their constitution and become a republic, so perhaps at that point the situation will become a great deal simpler. This is something that we should, at least from the Government side, express as a desire and an aim, given that these are citizens coming to the country where their Head of State resides and we treat them as foreigners, which of course in law they are not.
I will draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. She has the policy lead on these matters.
I would have been astonished had my hon. Friend the Member for Romford not seized the opportunity to speak about the British overseas territories. He is renowned as their foremost champion in the House of Commons. I accept and sympathise with his wish to see greater recognition for the overseas territories in Commonwealth affairs. It is worth noting in passing that of course Australia and New Zealand, too, administer island territories as dependencies that, as I understand it, are not full members of the Commonwealth in their own right.
The constitutional issue is that the Commonwealth has always operated on the basis that there is just one category of membership, which is full membership, and that is available only to sovereign states. That position was most recently reaffirmed by the Commonwealth Heads of Government in 2007. It would be perfectly possible to create some new status of associate member, but that would, of course, require the unanimous agreement of every member of the Commonwealth. I will ensure that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, who has responsibility for the Commonwealth, learns of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford and of his wish for this country to take more of a lead in pressing for such a change. I will ask my right hon. Friend to write to my hon. Friend, to set out his response to those ideas in greater detail.
I thank the Minister and welcome his remarks and his offer to take this matter up with the Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth. Following on from what he said about Australia and New Zealand, will he also undertake to discuss this issue with the Governments of Australia and New Zealand, as New Zealand has four realm states and Australia has seven external territories, such as Norfolk Island? Many of those are participating in the Commonwealth games and must also be considered in this respect.
That must be a question for my right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for the Commonwealth to consider, but my hon. Friend makes a fair point. Clearly, if there were a move to put the question of associated status on the Commonwealth agenda to members more generally, it would be important for the UK, Australia and New Zealand to work out some commonly agreed position between them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford also spoke about flags. Several different questions arise in that regard. I tried to deal with the particular problem about Parliament square, which was outside the control of central Government, in an intervention. I do not know which layer of local government was dealing with the pavements at the time and I do not want to point the finger and find that I have mistaken my target. However, we all agree that it would have been preferable had there not been that unfortunate coincidence this year. I hope that all relevant authorities can avoid a repetition of that in future.
We will continue—certainly, during the term of this Government—to ensure that the flags of the British overseas territories are flown from Government buildings on the national days of those territories. My hon. Friend knows that the Foreign Office has been doing that.
The question of the Crown dependencies, as my hon. Friend knows, is a matter for the Ministry of Justice, but I am sure that the Lord Chancellor will be delighted to learn of my hon. Friend’s interest in the matter and I will draw his comments to my right hon. Friend’s attention.
The Government want to ensure that the Commonwealth remains as relevant to us in the 21st century as it was 65 years ago, when the London declaration of 1949 marked the birth of the modern Commonwealth. In this, our values and our drive to seize on the Commonwealth as an economic and diplomatic force multiplier will be vital.
The hon. Member for Bristol East drew the House’s attention to climate change, a contemporary challenge facing Commonwealth countries. As she hinted in her speech, Commonwealth island nations, particularly the Maldives under the former president, played a leading role in some of the global negotiations. Their sense of urgency and their ability to point out directly the threat faced by the islands and their citizens helped make it possible to build a bridge between some contrasting positions held by developed and emerging economy countries. This Government are continuing to press for ambitious European Union offers to global negotiations.
At CHOGM last year, Commonwealth leaders collectively renewed their commitment to achieving an international climate deal in 2015 and to making real progress through the UN climate negotiations. There was also agreement on the need to build the capacity of Commonwealth states to respond to climate challenges. We welcome such commitments and look to work closely with all our Commonwealth partners this year to strengthen ambition and capacity through the UN climate negotiations and other forums, such as the Secretary-General of the United Nations’ summit on climate scheduled for September.
A Commonwealth position, as I mentioned in a different context earlier, requires consensus, but the Commonwealth can provide a forum, unique among international organisations, in which developed countries, vigorous, fast-growing, emerging economies, poor, developing states, enormous countries, such as India, and tiny island nations can all sit down together to discuss common problems. Through its network of connections—not just at Government level, but at civil society level—the Commonwealth provides a means of facilitating dialogue aimed at reconciling different interests and positions on climate change. In so doing, I hope that it would be easier to get the sort of global agreement that the Government want.
Our taxpayers rightly expect to know why institutions exist and what they achieve. The EU is familiar with such scrutiny, and the Commonwealth needs to define its relevance in a world of competing international organisations that cover all areas of activity. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon, who has responsibility for the Commonwealth, recently brought together high commissioners from right across the Commonwealth and why he will shortly host a further discussion at Wilton Park on the future of the Commonwealth. In the wake of the CHOGM in Colombo and in preparation for the CHOGM in Malta, the work will provide leadership in identifying how we can adapt the Commonwealth to reflect better all our needs and to strengthen it as an association that endures into the next century.
The UK is one of 53 equal members within the Commonwealth, and the other 52 members’ voices carry as much weight as ours, so it is incumbent on all members to ensure that it remains as powerful and as effective as it has always been.
The network of parliamentary relationships provided by the CPA will be an important element in trying to secure agreement on reforms and the evolution of the Commonwealth in a way that demonstrates to citizens in all member states the organisation’s continuing relevance.
The Commonwealth is a vast network of Governments and civil society. We should strive to harness its economic clout for the mutual prosperity of all members. At its best, when it is true to its charter, the Commonwealth can be an effective advocate for democracy and for human rights. It can stand up for what the Foreign Secretary described in a speech in July 2011 as the values that “ultimately make us secure”. That is the Commonwealth at its best. That is the vision that the CPA embodies and exists to support and enhance. I hope—and believe—that its work will continue to grow in importance, and I wish success to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden and Members from all parties in this House who serve in the CPA.
I want to acknowledge the contributions made in today’s wide-ranging debate, which serves to provide a peg on which to hang the concerns, current and enduring, of those of us who are committed to the concept of the Commonwealth and the increasing harmony and sense of purpose of its members. I am encouraged by what the Minister had to say, particularly about the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and I shall be pleased if we can harness similar good will throughout Commonwealth Parliaments to ensure that the CPA can be still more effective in the future.
Question put and agreed to.