Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Dr Coffey.)
It would not be appropriate to celebrate the Commonwealth without a contribution from Sir Alan Haselhurst, who is going to lead us in our debate on Commonwealth day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. It has not escaped notice that Commonwealth day at Westminster appears to be a little bit late this year, but I am extremely grateful nevertheless to the Backbench Business Committee for finding a slot for this annual debate. I realise that, as we come to the end of the Parliament, there is great pressure on time. One thing I have tried to do while I have been involved in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association at national and international level is to ensure that as many parliamentary assemblies as possible across the Commonwealth should find an annual occasion to debate whatever issues about the Commonwealth or within it were of particular interest to their members. It would have been slightly unfortunate had we, in the rush of business at the end of this Parliament, failed to find that opportunity ourselves. We should say to our colleagues and friends across the Commonwealth that it was by no means an afterthought that we should be holding the debate on 24 March and not earlier.
The debate is a symbol of our interest in the Commonwealth and the fact that, in some ways, it is subliminal among parliamentarians that we take for granted our membership of the Commonwealth and the values that it upholds. It is important that we should, from time to time, make a signal effort to demonstrate our commitment. Talking of symbols, if I may dare to say so, I am modelling the new CPA UK branch tie, which we are launching today. I hope that it will come to be seen as a central part of the wardrobe of Members of Parliament.
This is an opportunity to review certain aspects of the Commonwealth from our perspective. We often regard ourselves in the Commonwealth as a family. We have matters that cause us concern, matters that cause us grief and matters that give us cause for celebration. We feel great concern for the peoples of the south Pacific, particularly in Vanuatu, a small community overwhelmed by natural disaster, to whom our hearts go out. We welcome the return to the Commonwealth of Fiji. At the same time, we are concerned about events in the Maldives, and we hope that the situation will sort itself out without too much difficulty.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that now, or some time in the very near future, might be an appropriate time for the Irish Republic to consider returning to the Commonwealth? That might even offer the opportunity of a combined bid, between Northern Ireland and the Republic, for a future Commonwealth games.
I do not necessarily want to cause diplomatic concern by talking about the possibility of the Republic wishing to return to the Commonwealth, but I have raised that matter during my chairmanship with the Speaker of the Dáil. It seems to me to be a natural thing to do, but it is up to the people of the Republic to decide. They would be very welcome and they would seem natural partners among the 53 nations that are part of the Commonwealth.
I am pleased, having made three visits to Sri Lanka during my international chairmanship, to see that there has been a peaceful change of power in that country, which I think is a great testament to all concerned. It is still a country troubled by the awful battles that were fought, and not all the memory of that has been erased satisfactorily, but the fact that there has been a peaceful election is a step forward.
It would also be appropriate for us to acknowledge the life of Lee Kuan Yew, whose death has just occurred. I have some personal memories of him. As a precocious prospective parliamentary candidate, I was travelling through Singapore for the first time in 1968 and I dared to call on the Prime Minister’s residence. It was amazing to me that he was prepared to find time to meet me on that occasion. So began a relationship that continued over a number of years, and in 1972, when I returned to Singapore as a parliamentarian, I found myself summoned to supper with him and his wife. It was, in many ways, an intimidating occasion to be closeted so privately with people of such distinction and intellect. It made me extremely uncomfortable in my clumsy handling of chopsticks while maintaining, one hoped, a civilised and constructive conversation. Singapore is sometimes described as the Asian tiger, and in some respects that term might be applied to Lee Kuan Yew himself, for his personal vision, his dedication and his forcefulness—let us be honest about it—in ensuring that Singapore became the powerful city state that we now know it to be.
I thought for a moment that the right hon. Gentleman was going to say that the Prime Minister handled the situation very well and got over his nerves about meeting the right hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that is it not only a privilege, constitutionally and in every other way, to be part of the British Commonwealth, but that it brings benefits for inter-trade and for export and import to the United Kingdom as a whole?
Yes, I absolutely agree with that, and I will say a word or two about that in a moment. I have one other reflection on my visit to Singapore. It was famous that so many things were prohibited in Singapore, using the well known sign of a circle with a bar across what it was that people could not do. In those days, my hair was a little longer than it is today. I was rather concerned to be meeting Lee Kuan Yew when I was not sure whether I passed the test so far as wearing long hair in his country was concerned, but our friendship managed to survive that difficulty. I salute his memory and all that he has done for his people.
The Commonwealth has many manifestations, but its reality cannot be taken for granted. I said earlier that the Commonwealth is subliminal for us, or in our DNA; nevertheless, we need to understand that not everybody has it at the forefront of their mind. I am still chilled by a discussion in which I was privileged to take part with the External Affairs Committee of the Lok Sabha in New Delhi, when one of its members said to me, “Well, you’ve got to understand that not many people here in India understand what the Commonwealth is about.” That was a shock to me, coming from a representative of the largest democracy in the Commonwealth by population; but it is true, is it not, that if we went around our towns and cities and asked the first 10 people we met what they understood about the Commonwealth, the answers might be somewhat meagre. The Commonwealth is there, and we take it for granted, but we should not take it for granted; we need to remind ourselves of its values.
Taking up the point made by the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) about commerce and trade, it is encouraging that the City of London is a partner in establishing the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. The City is a founding father of that organisation, for which much is hoped. The lord mayor, Alan Yarrow, describes himself as a child of the Commonwealth, having been born in Malaysia and educated in Singapore. Undoubtedly, the City of London is playing its part to make a reality of trade and finance among Commonwealth countries.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that the Commonwealth theme for 2015, “A Young Commonwealth”, which recognises the contribution and potential of young people, is especially relevant to many countries, such as Pakistan, where a significant proportion of the population is under the age of 30? Thanks to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I recently met a group of young parliamentarians from Pakistan here in Westminster, and their enthusiasm and energy gave me hope for the future development of that country.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. Given the interventions we have heard so far, I am beginning to wonder whether my speech notes have somehow been circulated more widely than I had expected. I will respond to him in just a moment, if I may.
Today, I will mainly concentrate on the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. It is a huge honour to have been the chairperson of the United Kingdom branch, and I could never have guessed that, within a year of accepting that post, I would find myself as the international chairman. I would describe the three-year period that I served in that position from 2011 to 2014 as both a joy and a challenge. The fact that I was welcomed so generously in all those parts of the Commonwealth, small and large, that I was able to visit during the term of my chairmanship was uplifting. I felt that, in a modest way, I was some sort of symbol of what the Commonwealth meant.
However, the governance of the CPA at international level presented a serious challenge, which is ironic because, as much as anything, the CPA is about promoting good governance. We believe that if there are stable systems of government—representative parliamentary democracy— in each Commonwealth country, bound by common principles and standards that have been signed into the charter by Her Majesty the Queen as head of the Commonwealth, it will lead to confidence in the economies of those countries, to investment, to the creation of jobs and to the advancement of their peoples. I am pleased that the Select Committee on International Development has stressed the importance of good governance, and I have always tried to say that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association can be one of the most effective instruments for trying to ensure the improvement of governing practices.
Great work is being done. Wherever one looks, particularly at regional and national levels throughout the Commonwealth’s Parliaments and Assemblies, one will find people who are engaged in that work. The willingness of my parliamentary colleagues here to give time and the willingness of officials is replicated in other countries as well. There is an enormous amount of interchange, training, workshops and so on, because there is always churn—an increasing churn rate in some cases—in members of the respective Parliaments, so there is always someone new who needs to learn the ropes; someone who, having realised their ambition to be elected, suddenly realises that they have these responsibilities and wants to learn how best to discharge them.
Therefore, I found it quite difficult that at the apex of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, in its structure internationally, it was not the best exemplar of good governance. I like to think, somewhat immodestly, that there were some advances during my three years as chairperson. We saw an extension of the Commonwealth women parliamentarians network—it is still not fully complete, but it has advanced considerably. I seem to have persuaded colleagues that the institution of a Commonwealth Youth Parliament should be an annual event, bringing people from all parts of the Commonwealth to an assembly in which they can perform. After one hiccup, when Andhra Pradesh was going to be the host and the state was divided by a decision of the Indian Government—that year it fell through— the Commonwealth Youth Parliament was held last year in the legislature of the North West province of South Africa. The UK delegate, Meera Sonecha, became Leader of the Opposition and even, briefly, Prime Minister following a vote of no confidence. I hope this year’s UK’s representative will distinguish himself or herself to the same degree.
In all my contact with the Commonwealth Youth Parliament, I have been impressed by the young people who are coming through. We can have hope for the future in that respect, provided that we say to young people, who make up such a high proportion of the Commonwealth’s population, that their voice can be heard consistently. If we are listening, they will have confidence in talking to us, proposing their own ideas and, indeed, building their own ambition to take part in the governance of their respective countries. So that was good.
I also advanced the representation of small states of the Commonwealth. We will have an annual small states conference, and I want to see a representative of those small states as an extra person on the executive committee to put their point of view. The small states sometimes feel that they are the poor relations just because they are small—some of them are very small, and some of them are in scattered areas of the Caribbean or the south Pacific. We established a mentoring scheme whereby parliamentarians with long experience can be linked with someone who is new to their Parliament or Assembly so that they can continue the discussion. They do not have to meet people on an occasional basis; they can pick up the telephone or use e-mail to make contact.
More prosaically, we at last managed to implant the principle of internal audit in the CPA structure. Some people had difficulty understanding the principle, although it is actually commonplace in their respective Parliaments and, quite rightly, it needed to be introduced at international level. The CPA’s governance structure does not help it to do the work that it needs to be doing. One of the things that has bugged the CPA for two decades or more is the fact that some members are uncomfortable with the CPA’s legal status as a charity based in the United Kingdom, which I suspect evokes a colonial memory that is unhelpful to what the modern Commonwealth is all about. We have spent a great deal of time trying to find an alternative status that will be acceptable and workable, but of course the whole point of charitable status is not somehow to be degrading; it is a protection against tax. All our purposes are charitable, and therefore it makes sense for us to have that status. However, it was uncomfortable for some. We argued and argued and argued about it, and never found a solution.
The executive committee is the governing body of the CPA internationally. It has nine regions, each of which has three representatives, except Africa, which has six representatives. That gives an idea of how large it is—bigger than the Cabinet of our country and most other countries. It meets not weekly—obviously—but only twice a year, with a rotating membership. In fact, each region’s representatives rotate—they are on the committee for three years and then they go—so there is no enduring memory within that body to ensure that good governance takes place.
Also, there was a resistance to the idea of changing the practice whereby the regional secretaries, who are professional people and often clerks in their own countries, could not even sit in on the meetings that take place. When I pointed out that if messages from the executive were to percolate through to all the 175 branches of the CPA, it would seem essential to put some professional “oomph” behind it, I was told, “Well, no, the regional representatives are the ones who do that.” However, if a regional representative is not at the meeting for any reason, there will obviously be a breakdown in communication: they cannot get the messages back to their home branches. Nevertheless, there seems to have been resistance, up to now, to the idea that the regional representative should do what we normally expect our professional advisers, in the form of our clerks, to do: to ensure that decisions taken are translated into action. That does not happen with the CPA internationally.
Then there has been the collection of a very large sum of money in reserves, which now amounts to about £9 million. Prudent management of the finances is, of course, vital. However, if the income of the CPA internationally is roughly £2.5 million, the reserve that it is necessary to keep to guard against any difficulty does not need to be £9 million. It seems to me that, to some extent, that money would be better dispensed in doing work in the regions to ensure that the network of, say, women’s branches or youth branches is strengthened.
It was rather dispiriting that the last words published in The Parliamentarian by the—alas now deceased—secretary-general of the CPA, Dr Shija, seemed to concentrate on the CPA acquiring new premises in London, with a conference facility, an apartment for the secretary-general and so on. That seemed something of a departure from what the main purposes of the CPA should be. My vision—if I dare use that expression—is that we should build up the position of the small states and that their representative on the executive should be an officer of the CPA, alongside the chair of the Commonwealth women parliamentarians group and the treasurer, the vice-chairman and the chairperson. Similarly, with the youth structure we should see someone becoming the apex of the young people of the Commonwealth, so that he or she can play their part.
I was encouraged by a message I received from the executive director of Commonwealth Youth New Zealand, Aaron Hape, who tells me that a week ago they celebrated this year’s Commonwealth theme, “A Young Commonwealth”, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) has made reference. Aaron says:
“I was delighted to see supporters of CYNZ attend many events across New Zealand, and indeed, internationally, to celebrate this important occasion. What struck me was the amount of new faces that were present at these events.”
How many of us can say that about the young people in our country recognising the Commonwealth and celebrating its activities?
The other advantage of an enlarged officer structure is that one would be able to have rotation, so that every region would feel that it had some say at the top table. It is always the Pacific region that seems to have lost out in that regard over the years. It would be easier to have a rotation system whereby every region could expect that within a period of, say, five years, it would have one of the officers of the association.
Those are my reflections. My international term of office ended in October last year. My successor is Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, the Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament. I find her to be a hugely impressive parliamentarian. She has already built upon the role that the CPA has at the Heads of Government meeting, and the Maltese have been very accommodating to the CPA and to the representations that she has made. She is determined to broaden the scope still further of the Commonwealth women parliamentarians group. She represented the CPA at the commission on the status of women in New York and she is also keen to promote the voice of young people.
I believe that there is the opportunity to make the CPA at international level more than the sum of its parts, so that we have all that is best in so many different regions. In the UK, we do a terrific amount of work in promoting good governance and good relations between parliamentarians, and I see that in various other regions of the Commonwealth as well, but it is about bringing it together. From the centre, we should be disseminating best practice, showing that in our own structures we have got it right so far as good governance is concerned and therefore can preach the message with confidence to others, to remind people continually what our Commonwealth means and how we should put its principles into practice. That should be our constant aim, and the more we can put the spotlight on it, the better it will be and the stronger the Commonwealth will become.
Thank you very much indeed. As we are operating under the rules of the Backbench Business Committee, we will get to hear from Sir Alan for two or three minutes at the end of the debate, so that he can sum up the rest of the contributions. Perhaps he can tell us how we can get hold of one of the CPA ties that he is so handsomely sporting today.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to have a chance to contribute on this matter.
First, I thank the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) for securing this debate. Whatever time of year this debate happens, it is always good to speak in it, and to remember what the Commonwealth is, what it stands for and what it means to each and every one of us.
I am thankful for this debate not only because it is on an important topic but because it is less of a debate and more of a coming together to celebrate the Commonwealth and all the positives that its existence brings. The Commonwealth is often described as a family of nations and peoples, and that is exactly how I and many other people see it. As I have emphasised on many occasions, I am a firm believer in and supporter of the Commonwealth, because of all that it symbolises, does and stands for.
I believe that to be a nation that upholds the core beliefs that our Commonwealth sets out is a testament to the integrity of that nation and, in turn, the substance of its society. I find it difficult to imagine it possible not to be proud to be a part of an organisation that affirms support for democracy, human rights, tolerance, respect, understanding, freedom of expression and gender equality. However, while that speaks volumes about the merits of member nations, what makes the loudest noise is the success that happens when we pool the abilities, the diversity and the innovation of our respective societies. That is when we are strongest, and it is what this debate is about.
I am very pleased to see the Minister in Westminster Hall today. I have spoken to him on many occasions about the persecution of Christians. Sometimes within the Commonwealth of nations, preventing the persecution of Christians has not been adhered to by some nations; I know that, and I know that the Minister knows it. Perhaps in his response to the debate, he could give us some indication of what he has been able to do through his Department to act within the Commonwealth and to persuade those Commonwealth nations that perhaps do not adhere rigidly or respectfully to the rules about religious freedom to better that situation.
The Commonwealth forms an integral part of our collective identity. We may see it most prominently in the form of our beloved Commonwealth games. Who cannot be impressed by the Commonwealth games? They are one of the most watched events on television, and people are always keen to see the medal tally and how their country is doing. That is one of the good things that the Commonwealth does.
The work of the Commonwealth reaches all corners of the globe. Often, it is not realised that the Commonwealth is not one organisation but an impressive network of more than 80 societies, institutions, associations, organisations and charities that work towards improving people’s lives. Although it provides a powerful symbol of our unity, it is much more than that. The work of these organisations on a vast range of issues, including helping countries with trade negotiations, should be celebrated. The Commonwealth is more than just a commonwealth of nations. For example, it provides an opportunity for trade exchanges and trade negotiations to build our economies, here at home in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and across the world. Those organisations also work on encouraging women’s leadership and building the small business sector and, very aptly in accordance with this year’s theme, supporting youth participation at all levels of society.
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned Commonwealth youth. I want to focus on that, too. Maintaining the strength of the Commonwealth is of utmost importance. That is why I welcome the theme of this year’s Commonwealth celebrations: “A Young Commonwealth.” When we leave the scene of time, those who are left—the young people—will have to maintain our Commonwealth. We recognise the advantages this brings to each and every one of us.
The strength of the Commonwealth is in our being united by language, history, culture, and most of all, a shared view of the value of democracy and all that we expect to come with this. Her Majesty the Queen spoke poignantly about what we have worked toward and achieved through co-operation, and what we must do to ensure continued co-operation. It was apt that Her Majesty spoke on the significance of communication, saying that to come together to talk, to exchange ideas and develop common goals, can in itself bring fantastic outcomes, if only those channels of communication are open to us. Our Commonwealth offers us a clear channel of communication, allowing us to make these wonderful things to which Her Majesty referred happen.
The emphasis on partnership in discussion of this year’s celebrations should signal to us—no matter our region—that partnership, co-operation and union is the best way forward. My colleague and hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned that the Republic of Ireland will, hopefully, join the Commonwealth. That is an aspiration, a wish and a hope. It would be good if it happened.
Although there is diversity in abundance throughout all 53 of our Commonwealth nations, whether in culture or size, we have recognised that in spite of this we hold more in common than not. This commonality and commitment to shared values signals to us that there is great benefit to be found in our continued co-operation, not only for us as nation states and parliamentarians, but for our respective peoples and all the nations together.
Again, I want to adopt a positive tone. It is worth drawing on Her Majesty’s words. She said that co-operation also helps us avoid what a breakdown in communication can bring. Often, if we do not talk there can be problems. Only through open and continued dialogue can we address these dangers. The interests and fears we hold in common now perhaps make this continued co-operation more relevant than ever. The common challenges we face are best met together. We can overcome those issues on the sporting field and the economic field and it is important that we continue to make that happen.
With all the evident positives of co-operation, our choice to celebrate “A Young Commonwealth” shows that we have acknowledged the key to our strong future. Our young people are the future of our Commonwealth. I hold dear the belief that our Commonwealth will stay strong because of the aspirations and commitment of our young people.
Across all our nations we have bright, innovative and passionate young minds. Our Commonwealth relies on this innovation and passion to give fresh, new impetus to all our collective endeavours. I say this in good conscience as I reflect on the young people of Northern Ireland. We in Northern Ireland are proud to be part of the Commonwealth. In fact, the Northern Ireland Assembly branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has participated in Commonwealth day for the last seven years, holding a range of themed events. This year’s theme worked in conjunction with the “Rock the Vote” campaign—there is no better time for such a campaign than around 7 May—and served as a reminder of our own responsibility as legislators, which is to keep our younger generation engaged in democracy and, most of all, to motivate them to vote. The campaign focuses on encouraging young people to participate and get involved in the political process, and it is key to meeting the concerns of a young electorate who are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the political process. We simply cannot let that happen.
The commitment of the Commonwealth to democracy and the rule of law holds legitimacy only when our electorate participate. For this reason, we must reach out to our young voters and soon-to-be voters. These young people will be not only voters, but our legislators, diplomats and parliamentarians. They will be the navigators of the new age of the Commonwealth. In Northern Ireland, these young people will be the navigators of our political landscape and of the complexities it brings. In Northern Ireland, we have moved leaps and bounds in the political process, as the Minister knows, having previously been Minister of State for Northern Ireland. His relationship with Northern Ireland came about not only through Parliament, but, I understand, from his service in uniform.
We in Northern Ireland have moved forward. Our young people will be the politicians of tomorrow and they can meet our future challenges. What is more, and as mentioned in speeches at the Northern Ireland “A Young Commonwealth” event, those born in the post-Good Friday era are reaching voting age. We have moved on in the peace process and those 18-year-olds will be casting their vote. This different generation brings a lot of promise and opportunity regarding how they engage with the political process. We need to challenge the idea that young people do not care about politics and show them that they should care, and that politics is beyond our debating in a chamber, whether or not it is a debate on this subject.
I may speak on a regional level, but I know that what I say will hold gravitas in many other Commonwealth nations. I believe that, if we renew our younger generation’s interest in the political process, our nations have a bright future in which we can move forward together as a Commonwealth. I am sure that the range of Commonwealth day events has been equally impressive across all nations and hope that our youth’s claiming centre stage conveys just how much they matter, now and in future.
I shall quote Her Majesty once more, as her words perfectly summarise the sentiment I am trying to convey:
“We are guardians of a precious flame, and it is our duty not only to keep it burning brightly but to keep it replenished for the decades ahead.”
Wise words, strong words. Commonwealth day reminds us of this flame that we hold in common. The youth of our Commonwealth are the guardians of this flame and I trust and know that they will keep it alight. To maintain the Commonwealth, we must keep that flame and belief in our Commonwealth alight in our young people. The first step to doing this is ensuring their engagement and their belief in our democratic process.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who emphasised the importance of youth within the Commonwealth, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). I want to return to the role of youth, perhaps with a glancing reference to Cakegate in Northern Ireland, the meaning of which may become clearer in respect of the main issue that I want to raise.
First, I pay tribute to the leadership that my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden has given to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I do not know whether his speech was circulated beforehand—I had not seen a copy—so it came as a delightful surprise to discover that we had crossed paths in 1968 in Singapore. At the time, I was seven years old and attempting to learn to swim at the Tanglin Club. My father was stationed as a colonel on the staff in Singapore, trying to organise the withdrawal of United Kingdom forces from their permanent base station.
I was particularly impressed by my right hon. Friend’s leadership of the CPA at the Commonwealth parliamentary conference last October. Although I was elected in 1997, I had not taken the opportunity to attend the Commonwealth parliamentary conference until last year, when—having been freed of the responsibilities of ministerial office by the Prime Minister in 2012—it struck me that the Commonwealth and its institutions provided a suitable vehicle through which to identify and work for one of the causes that I intended to use my parliamentary position to pursue: the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights around the world.
Within that nexus, I was happy to become chair of the parliamentary friends of the Kaleidoscope Trust, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to advancing the cause of rights for LGBT people around the world, and to use the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association as a safe place where it ought to be possible to have difficult, sensitive conversations with fellow parliamentarians from the 41 of the 53 Commonwealth jurisdictions where LGBT people are criminalised. That is one of the unhappy legacies. One of the things that brings the Commonwealth together is the British legal system. Many states have on their statute books legislation that was in place in the colonial era, reflecting some of the less attractive Victorian values that were imposed on their societies in a period of British Administration.
In international terms, the Commonwealth is an organisation dealing in soft power rather than hard power and a place where we can bring this extraordinary range of countries and peoples together to discuss issues. As part of that soft support, the CPA is a place where it is possible to speak to one’s fellow parliamentarians to explain the journey that the United Kingdom has been on—from active enforcement of the laws in the 1950s, to a review of them in the Wolfenden report of 1957, to decriminalisation and then to equality in most of the United Kingdom, with the delivery of same-sex marriage.
The organisation is also about making clear to one’s fellow parliamentarians that we are not expecting them to change—it took 60 years in the United Kingdom—in one smooth movement, given that they have to operate within the popular views of societies where the strongly embedded religious organisations and Churches take a very didactic view of these issues. It is reasonable for us to use the CPA to educate, at least in that sense, our fellow parliamentarians and illuminate their experiences.
I commend the leadership given on that issue, not only by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden in the CPA, but by the serving secretary-general of the Commonwealth. Only three weeks ago, Kamalesh Sharma addressed the high level segment of the United Nations Human Rights Council in its 28th regular session in Geneva on 3 March. He represents an organisation three quarters of whose jurisdictions outlaw people such as me in their statute books. He said:
“Mr President, a 2011 report, requested by the Council and prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner, documented discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and gender identity, and how international human rights law can be used to end violence and related human rights violations in this area. In September last year, this Council adopted a new resolution on the subject, once again expressing grave concern and requesting the High Commissioner to produce an update of the report with a view to sharing good practices and ways to overcome violence and discrimination. We look forward to the publication of the report. We will be encouraging Commonwealth member states to reflect and act on its actionable recommendations in order to give effect to our shared commitment to dignity, equality and nondiscrimination.”
I salute the secretary-general for the leadership he is taking.
I thank the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Kaleidoscope Trust for their work. They have jointly produced a report called “Collaboration and consensus: building a constructive Commonwealth approach to LGBT rights”, which I commend to all those interested in the advancement of LGBT rights internationally. I particularly commend it to the Minister who has responsibility in this area.
I know that all the Ministers in the Foreign Office have taken a leadership role on this issue. Only last week, I met the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), to discuss informally how to advance the agenda. I met the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), to discuss the issue before the conference last year that the previous Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), held on the wider human rights agenda. That conference got significant attention, as it deserved.
During his term in office, the previous Foreign Secretary was prepared to meet such activists as Dr Frank Mugisha, from Sexual Minorities Uganda. Uganda has been at the centre of the debate. The issue is about giving that level of moral support by being prepared to meet the activists, who are being unbelievably brave. Their predecessors in these countries have been murdered; that has happened not only in Uganda, but in Jamaica. It is about understanding the courage of people standing up for the rights of LGBT people in conditions where popular sentiment is in a very different place from here and violence is incited against them. That demonstration of moral support was welcome, and I thank my right hon. Friend for giving that signal.
There is an extreme set of positions on LGBT rights in Commonwealth countries. In such countries as the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada, the legal battle for equality has pretty much been won. Aspects remain, although they are perhaps minor in terms of the whole United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, for example, there is controversy over the same-sex couple who wanted to buy a cake to celebrate their wedding and have something that they thought appropriate written on it. If someone is in the business of selling services, they should be absolutely clear that they cannot discriminate against people who buy those services. That should be utterly straightforward.
The hon. Gentleman mentions a legal case that will be heard shortly—at the end of this month. It may go on for about four weeks, but it would be remiss of me not at least to make a statement on Ashers bakery and the stand that it took. It believes that it exercised freedom of expression and that it had a right to do so. I stand strongly behind the Ashers bakery, as do others.
The hon. Gentleman is entitled to take that position. However, I hope that he will reflect, as the case plays out, on what it means when someone wants to buy a service freely available to everyone else but is told that they cannot have it because they are gay.
That is not what I said. That is a misrepresentation.
That is, in effect, the hon. Gentleman’s position. We want to get parliamentarians from all over the Commonwealth to empathise with what it actually means for someone to be in such a position. People have no control over how they are. We want parliamentarians to find a way to give people the freedom to be as they are and to understand how important that is to them and how unfair it is to have laws on the statute book that discriminate against them.
The question is one of trying to use the institutions of the Commonwealth to educate parliamentarians without confrontation. It is a process of education and understanding, and it is a journey that I have been on. Given the nature of the societies that we all come from and the extraordinary journey that understanding of and attitudes to LGBT rights have made in the United Kingdom over the past 60 years, I make no criticism of colleagues in this place, or parliamentarians in other countries, who are yet to have that level of understanding.
Nevertheless, I say to the Minister and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that despite all the support from the human rights officers in posts overseas and the moral support and leadership shown by FCO Ministers, and despite the leadership shown by the Prime Minister in raising these issues at Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, there comes a moment, as in Uganda, when some small demonstration of firm disapproval may be appropriate.
Happily, although the law in Uganda had been made significantly worse by the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the Act was struck down because it was not passed with the required quorum. That has given Uganda an opportunity for a period of reflection about what to do next. In the current circumstances, implementing any kind of sanctions or formal methods of disapproval would be inappropriate.
Nevertheless, if laws are promoted in Commonwealth countries that make discrimination against LGBT people worse, and the situation is made even more difficult and the climate even more uncomfortable for people with a minority sexual orientation, I hope that we would at least contemplate small measures, such as targeted travel bans for those responsible for making the situation worse for a significant percentage of Commonwealth citizens.
Bearing in mind the population of the whole Commonwealth, we are talking about hundreds of millions of people being affected by laws heading in the wrong direction. We must use the Commonwealth to allow laws and their implementation to follow steadily the route taken in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, where we have come to understand that having a minority sexual orientation is not something that people catch but something that they are born with. It is only right and proper that people should have the basic protections from discrimination that are embedded in the Commonwealth charter and the universal declaration on human rights, to which all nations of the Commonwealth have signed up.
In conclusion, I pay tribute again to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden for securing this debate and, much more importantly, for his outstanding leadership of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. He gave us some small flavour of the challenges that he faced in exercising that leadership. The CPA is obviously but one part of all the institutions of the Commonwealth. I look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate, which is relatively close to Commonwealth day, and to hearing his review of such an extraordinary institution and the opportunities it presents to advance the rights and status, both economic and social, of all Commonwealth citizens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone—we both learned how meetings should properly be conducted on Bromley council.
I pay tribute to two individuals. First, the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), who not only made a distinguished contribution to the debate but has played a considerable role in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—both the UK branch and, as he outlined, worldwide. With his usual frankness, he acknowledged that his work has not been without its difficulties. He has played a significant role in trying to move the organisation along. His work is very much appreciated and I hope that it will steadily bear fruit over the coming years.
Were it not outwith the procedures of the House, I would also draw attention to the welcome presence of the chief executive of the UK CPA, who is listening to proceedings from the Public Gallery. Through you, Mr Hollobone, I thank him and his staff for the enormous amount of work that they do in maintaining the organisation and assisting individual members. They also do great work with the various groups that come here from other Commonwealth countries for valuable exchanges of views and ideas, from which I am sure that those groups benefit and I know that we do too.
I join the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden in paying tribute to the founding father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, whose death was announced this week. He was a figure not without controversy, but no one can doubt his achievements to the great benefit of his country, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations generally and the wider Commonwealth. It is no surprise that his wise counsel was sought by not only his successors in Singapore, but leaders and diplomats around the world. That has been evident in the tributes paid to him. On Sir Christopher Wren’s gravestone in St Paul’s cathedral is the inscription:
“If you seek my monument look around you.”
Looking around modern Singapore, one can see clearly the monument to Lee Kuan Yew, as well as his ultimate achievement of ensuring a system and progress that will continue after his demise.
A while ago my local council, Sandwell, was on an anti-litter purge, which gained some press coverage. Some busybody organisation that hoped to insult Sandwell dubbed it, the “Singapore of the west midlands”. The high commission here was slightly concerned, but my local council leaders were immensely flattered by the description.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden on the importance of having an annual debate on the Commonwealth to help us to focus, although I think we would hope that future debates do not take place just a couple of days before Dissolution. The debate on the Commonwealth is part of a wider debate about Britain’s position and role in the world. Some want to make us an inward, insular country, bitter at the outside world. That is not in Britain’s history, nor is it in its interests or destiny. In many ways, it is a replay of the old debate of “Little England” or “Great Britain”. That relates to our membership of the most successful defensive alliance in history, NATO; to the largest single market on the planet, the European Union, and to our position as a P5 country at the UN.
No less remarkable was the creation of the Commonwealth out of the end of empire—a multicultural, multi-ethnic body that has overcome so many of the issues of our shared history. Even countries that do not share that legacy are keen to join the Commonwealth, which is a significant tribute in itself—some hon. Members from Northern Ireland mentioned applicant countries for consideration. Without a hint of superiority or arrogance, we should take pride in the institutions and values that we have introduced worldwide, not least the institution of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law with an impartial judiciary. The success of Singapore—and, interestingly enough, of Hong Kong—is testimony to the ongoing strength and legacy of an impartial judiciary, but it goes much wider.
Learning from each other is by no means a one-way street. Debates in Westminster Hall derive from the Australian Parliament: we have a side Chamber with the full value of the main Chamber that allows more subjects to be debated—not only subjects of interest to individual Members of Parliament but debates such as this one.
Part of the Commonwealth’s shared history has been in conflict. Throughout the country, we are currently commemorating many of the events of the first world war, and we are reminded very strongly and deeply of their impact. I have been visiting Sikh gurdwaras around the country, where tremendous work has been done on researching the history and reminding youngsters of the significant contribution of the Sikhs in the first world war. They came to a continent that they had never visited and were faced with dramatically different weather conditions, and they fought bravely and at great cost against German imperialism. They were only one of the communities from the then India who participated at great cost to themselves.
Next month will be the commemoration of the landings at Gallipoli, with services at the Cenotaph and in Westminster abbey. The Minister and I are representing our respective parties at those events. The Gallipoli action not only defined the character of Australia and New Zealand, but deepened the bonds between their countries and ours.
In the absence of the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), it would be remiss of me not to follow up on the comments of the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden about the unique concerns and problems of small states. Had the hon. Member for Romford been present, I am certain that he would have raised once again the position of the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. We need to see how their concerns can be incorporated. Furthermore, on the smaller states, last year I had the privilege of attending a conference of south Pacific states held in New Zealand. That was an excellent CPA initiative. Those states are under considerable pressure from a China that is seeking to expand its influence in the area—they are not hostile but have some concerns—and the ability to discuss the issue within the framework of the Commonwealth was very much appreciated and understood.
As I said, this is not only a Commonwealth of nations, but a Commonwealth of values: parliamentary democracy, free trade, universal human rights and, especially, a commitment to pluralism. To be frank, in some cases—this has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members today—our relations with fellow Commonwealth members can be slightly strained over some issues. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) highlighted a particular one. Will the Minister indicate the actions taken and representations made by the Government on the important concerns that the hon. Gentleman expressed? It is right to raise such issues.
Putting that in the wider context of values and the very welcome Commonwealth charter, I have another question. At the Perth Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting—CHOGM—there was, as I understand it, much discussion but postponement of a final decision on the report of the eminent persons group. Some of its work is reflected in the Commonwealth charter, but what further work will be undertaken to build on that of the eminent persons group?
The Commonwealth is not simply a static organisation. Maintenance of linkages needs to be undertaken and a particular one is the “Young Commonwealth” theme. Young people make up a significant percentage of the populations of many countries in the Commonwealth. Focusing attention on that for the future of their societies and of the Commonwealth is extremely welcome.
There is also the work between states. I pay tribute to some of that work that the Government have undertaken, in particular by developing relations with India and, significantly, in the valuable connections of the AUKMIN group of Australian and United Kingdom Ministers. The next Labour Government look forward to continuing such initiatives.
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
However, some of this Government’s actions have put relations under strain. Only a week or so ago, a meeting hosted by the Russell Group of universities echoed and amplified the great complaints of the tertiary education sector about the negative impact on them and on British industry, commerce and society of our over-prescriptive visa regime, which has already caused a big decline in the number of students from India, Australia, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries. Real concerns have also been expressed by the Governments of Australia and New Zealand about the declining opportunities for their youngsters, many of them our relatives, to spend time working here, contributing to the British economy and gaining experience to take back to their home countries to develop their growing economies, which, incidentally, are also major trading partners of ours.
Given the large number of countries in the Commonwealth, I can touch only on a limited number of them. Mention has been made of the welcome return to the Commonwealth of Fiji, which is particularly good news for the British Army. I remember officials at the Ministry of Defence telling me that they had had expressions of interest from Fijian soldiers about joining the British Army and asking what we would do about it. We set up some protocols but, with some foresight, I predicted that that would play havoc with the inter-service rugby competition, to the benefit of the Army, although I had not anticipated the havoc in the regimental rugby system, because a number of the Fijians played for some of the previously more minor regiments. It is welcome that Fiji is back in the Commonwealth, following what is generally regarded as a successful election. Obviously we must ensure that such developments continue to make progress, in particular in the field of trade union rights.
Concerns have been expressed widely, if not in the debate today, about the imprisonment in Malaysia of Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on sodomy charges. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has raised the issue. A number of Opposition Members and activists there have been arrested too. Will the Minister indicate what action our Government have taken in response to such concerns?
A number of constituencies have sizeable Bangladeshi communities which, whatever their views or whichever party in Bangladesh they supported, are concerned about the escalating tensions in Bangladesh and about the unnecessary violence and tragic deaths. In the election in January last year, not all the people of Bangladesh were able to express their democratic will fully. Progress can be achieved only through dialogue between all parties. All sides need to call for restraint and an end to violence. The international community should certainly support Bangladesh in that regard.
On the Maldives, concern about due process has been expressed about the arrest, conviction and sentencing to 13 years in prison of former President Nasheed. The Commonwealth has discussed the matter and is providing a measured response. It is important for the Commonwealth to work together to promote democracy and due process.
As the hon. Member for Reigate indicated, equality is a significant underpinning of the Commonwealth, but LGBT equality remains a major omission from the Commonwealth charter. Will the Government pursue the issue with individual countries and more generally in the Commonwealth?
With regard to Sri Lanka, there has been a welcome change as a result of the election. It is also important for the further upcoming parliamentary elections to be free, fair and peaceful. We look forward to the postponed publication of the report of the UN Human Rights Council inquiry, to improvement in relations between the communities in Sri Lanka and in the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law—justice and accountability—and to the country getting back to rebuilding its economy and society.
That is only a small number of the issues facing the Commonwealth today, but they indicate its vibrancy in tackling them, which adds to the ability of the Commonwealth countries to work and trade with each other. In particular in Africa, the attempts to break down customs and other barriers to trade between countries are important and would be to the benefit of the countries, which have huge young populations with a real need for employment. The Commonwealth offers a beacon of hope and a mechanism for dealing with such issues.
On a point of order, Mr Gray. The hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) stated that the Ashers bakery had refused to bake a cake for a same-gender couple. Let it be very clear that that is not the case: Ashers said that it was unwilling to use the wording that was requested on the cake. The issue is the right of those at Ashers bakery to hold fast to their religious views. Incidentally, according to the latest poll, the vast majority of the population in Northern Ireland—over 70%—supports them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. However, that is not a point of order but a point of information. He believes that something that another hon. Member has said was incorrect. By his intervention he has put his remarks in Hansard, but what he has raised is not a matter for the Chair.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing this debate, whether timely or otherwise. I thank other hon. Members for their contributions.
I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend and of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which, as he has outlined so eloquently, has done so much to forge ties and strengthen democracy across the Commonwealth. I associate myself with his warm words about the founding father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. My right hon. Friend’s commitment to the CPA was much in evidence at its recent conference on human rights in the modern-day Commonwealth, at which I spoke. He may have come to the end of his tenure as chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, but I, like other Ministers across Government and Back Benchers on both sides of the House, have always valued his immense contribution. I hope we will continue to benefit from his insight and experience on Commonwealth matters—I am sure we will.
I also congratulate and welcome the incoming chair, Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, Speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament, whom I met earlier this month. I wish her well and hope she has great success in her new role. I trust that, as her predecessor, my right hon. Friend will feel able to share with her his clear and well argued vision for the association’s future. I am certain she will continue to enjoy the full support of the excellent CPA secretariat.
I share my right hon. Friend’s deep respect and admiration for the Commonwealth. Indeed, the Government have made no secret of our strong support for that unique organisation. Since my appointment as Minister for the Commonwealth, I have worked to uphold our pledge to put the C back into the FCO, not least because, as my ministerial travels have reminded me, we owe our friends in the Commonwealth an enormous debt of gratitude. I have made it a habit to pay my respects where possible at the many memorials across the world that commemorate the names of the 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars, fighting to defend the freedoms we enjoy today. I pay tribute to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which has so beautifully maintained those memorials.
The Commonwealth today is about much more than its past, however. It is a global network of 53 equal partners, which offers a wealth of opportunities to work together on trade and on issues such as climate change. The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) spoke passionately about extending the network by one member. I will refrain from commenting on that matter, other than to say that it is not a new idea.
To make the most of the opportunities the Commonwealth offers, while never forgetting the shared history that brought us all together in the first place, we must spend more time looking to the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) pointed out that 60% of the Commonwealth’s population is under the age of 30. This year’s Commonwealth day on 9 March rightly celebrated that, with the theme “A Young Commonwealth”. At the Commonwealth day observance at Westminster abbey, I was delighted to see our Commonwealth envoy sitting among the high commissioners. For obvious reasons we do not have a British high commissioner in London, and for too long that has meant that we have not been represented at a senior level at Commonwealth meetings. The new post of envoy ensures, for the first time, that we have a dedicated envoy to represent our views at the Commonwealth. That important institutional change will, I believe, make clear to all the value we attach to our membership of the organisation.
After a successful Commonwealth day, our thoughts now turn to the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malta, where the theme will be “adding global value”. I am delighted that Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will attend. A future CHOGM is planned to take place in Vanuatu; our thoughts are with all those affected by Cyclone Pam. I have been to Vanuatu, and have been watching with horror the devastation that has been wreaked upon it. I am pleased to say that the United Kingdom is providing £2 million of immediate support to the people of Vanuatu through funding to non-governmental organisations and the United Nations.
I am pleased that, at the next CHOGM, Prime Minister Muscat plans to focus on securing practical outcomes that address the issues that matter most to our members and that look at the challenges we share, rather than the points on which we disagree. We have worked closely with Malta to develop a set of institutional changes to make the Heads of Government meeting more effective. We will also elect a new secretary-general, the successor to His Excellency Kamalesh Sharma, whom I warmly congratulate on all he has achieved within the secretariat. We want to ensure that the best candidate is selected for the role, no matter where they are from. Whoever it may be, those at CHOGM will have an opportunity to give them a clear, focused mandate and a realistic set of priorities upon which to focus in the years ahead.
It was with some passion that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) spoke about LGBT issues. Respect for the values set out in the Commonwealth charter, which was signed by Her Majesty the Queen two years ago this month, is regrettably not consistent across the Commonwealth. Despite the work we have done to promote the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens of the Commonwealth, many, as we have heard, continue to suffer persecution. I actively raised our concerns at the last Heads of Government meeting, and was disappointed that we were one of only a few countries to do so. However, we will not cease from actively promoting the issue and raising it with our Commonwealth partners.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke, as he often does, about religious belief and freedom from persecution. It is worth pointing out that the Commonwealth has members of every major world religion, including 800 million Hindus, 500 million Muslims and 400 million Christians. We believe that tolerance, respect and understanding are Commonwealth values that are set out in the charter.
When discussing religion and LGBT rights, it is perhaps worth reminding all of what the charter says clearly:
“We are implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.”
We urge our Commonwealth partners to reread what they signed and to act, in due course, upon it.
We have concerns about political freedoms, too. The right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) raised the issue of the Maldives. I met a group of Maldivian parliamentarians only last week. If he has followed the FCO website and my tweets, he will know that I was the first Minister anywhere in the world to comment on the arrest of President Nasheed. We continue to monitor the situation extremely closely, just as we do the ongoing violence and disruption in Bangladesh.
We also have Sri Lanka, whose newly elected Government have re-embraced their place in the Commonwealth, for which we applaud them. They have committed to work with the United Nations to address the alleged human rights abuses of the past.
We cannot force a change in attitudes, and we understand that implementing the charter will take time—it is a marathon, not a sprint. However, we have made it clear repeatedly not only that member states have a moral obligation to uphold and promote what we agreed in 2012, but that it is in their national self-interest to do so. Human rights, democratic values, and safe and just societies are the building blocks of successful nations, and certainly Commonwealth nations. I do not, therefore, accept the widely held view that the Commonwealth should focus on human rights and democratic institutions or on trade, but not on both.
Hon. Members mentioned the movement of Commonwealth citizens and called for us to ease the ability of businesses and students to operate across the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth secretariat is looking particularly at the latter question, and we are working closely with member states on it. Despite the fact that the Commonwealth has a young, dynamic population of more than 2 billion people—they are spread across every inhabited continent, and the majority are united by a common language and common legal systems—there remains much that we can, and must, do to boost trade and investment between us. That is why the Prime Minister led a high-profile trade delegation to a number of Commonwealth countries, including India and Malaysia.
The shadow Minister mentioned the arrest of Anwar. I was in Malaysia last month, and I made very clear our concerns. We continue to monitor the situation extremely closely.
However, let me return to trade, which is the reason why we organised the Commonwealth Games business conference in July 2014. It is also why the work of my noble Friend Lord Marland’s Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, and of the Commonwealth business forum at the Heads of Government meeting, is so important, and I warmly applaud the connection with the City of London, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden alluded. The close involvement of those bodies with businesses is generating innovative ideas to realise the Commonwealth’s vast yet largely untapped potential for trade, which the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) rightly mentioned. We must continue to make the most of such opportunities.
Let me restate that the Government remain deeply committed to the Commonwealth. However, in a world where taxpayers rightly expect to know why institutions exist and what they achieve, and where competing bodies and organisations cover every area of international activity, Commonwealth members share a duty to work together to ensure that this great organisation is ready and fit to tackle the challenges, and seize the opportunities, of the 21st century.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the opportunity to debate these issues. I also thank him for everything he has done for the CPA—for his continuing involvement in it and for his guidance, which I am sure his successor will come to rely on in the years ahead. This is possibly the last debate on this subject in this Parliament, so let me also thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have shown an interest in, and a passion for, the Commonwealth, which is in good shape to meet the demands of an ever-changing, complicated and, at times, extremely dangerous world.
First, I thank colleagues for the kind remarks that have come in my direction. We are all committed to ensuring the continued strength of the Commonwealth.
I am pleased so much has been said about youth and human rights. Much more work has to be done to ensure that that 60% of the Commonwealth population—young people under 30—feel that there is a point to the Commonwealth and representative parliamentary democracy and that their voice can be heard.
We have to wear away at the differences on human rights. This, I think, is where we all believe that soft diplomacy can play its part. If one flings comments back and forth by e-mail or in the press, there is a danger that one simply causes positions to become entrenched. When one meets and talks to people— sometimes in the margin of conferences—one perhaps begins to establish a common understanding, which may, over time, lead to a softening of positions and to greater accord.
That requires people to use part of their parliamentary life to talk with others. One frightening thing about the world in the past was that people did not have the opportunity to travel or to meet others. I think of the dark days of the 1930s, when, had more people from this country travelled in Europe, there would have been greater enlightenment about what was happening, which might have averted catastrophe. Similarly, if more people had had the opportunity to travel to distant parts of the world, as they do today, they would have come away with a better understanding of how interdependent we all are and of how our general welfare can be advanced and the causes of conflict can be reduced.
We have a great role in the Commonwealth, which we must allow to be an exemplar of tolerance, understanding and respect for parliamentary democracy and human rights. The more we can air that view and be practical ambassadors, the better. I hope the media will not trivialise that or suggest that engaging in such things somehow means that we are neglecting our role. What finer role could there be than to enhance understanding across the world or to uphold the values of the Commonwealth? We should therefore stand tall. We should say that there are important missions we must undertake and that we do so with pride under the CPA banner—and even wearing the CPA tie, to which I boldly referred, and which can be obtained, I have no doubt, by applying to the chief executive of our branch in the near future.
Finally, I echo what the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) said: we owe a great deal to the staff of the UK branch. Officials throughout our Parliament help us with all this work, and they contribute freely to it. However, the core staff of the CPA UK branch have done an enormous amount of work, which is copied in many other parts of the Commonwealth. We know the amount of work they generate and the expertise they bring to it, and they earn compliments from all our visitors for the way they organise things. That is at the heart of our work in the UK branch, and we must try to ensure that best practice is spread throughout the Commonwealth so that the CPA can do its jobs more effectively in the future. We can then be increasingly proud as the Commonwealth advances in upholding the standards we believe are the right and proper way forward.