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The Commonwealth: Trade and Diplomatic Connections

Volume 604: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2016

7. What steps the Government are taking to promote trade and diplomatic connections with other Commonwealth countries. (902969)

The United Kingdom is committed to strengthening its engagement with the Commonwealth. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister led a strong delegation to the Commonwealth summit in Valletta in November, where my noble Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment, Lord Maude, and I promoted trade opportunities.

I am grateful for that answer. Given that three quarters of UK-Commonwealth trade is with India, Australia, Canada, Singapore, South Africa and Malaysia, how does my right hon. Friend propose that the UK can broaden its trading links with the other 46 Commonwealth nations?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. This question affords me the opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Baroness Scotland and to congratulate her on her appointment as the next secretary-general of the Commonwealth. We hope that she will refocus it. I am sure that Members from all parts of the House will want to work closely with her in the coming months and years.

At Valletta, we had the biggest ever Commonwealth business forum, which was organised by my noble Friend Lord Marland and the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. Lord Marland, the Minister for Trade and Investment and I are working very closely together on having more regular meetings of Commonwealth Trade Ministers, so as to expand Commonwealth trade both bilaterally between the UK and other Commonwealth members and within the Commonwealth.

The Africa all-party group, which I chair, recently met governmental and non-governmental representatives from African Commonwealth countries who expressed real concern that the European economic partnership agreements, which were negotiated in haste, under pressure, and often with many negotiators on one side and few on the other, will do real damage to Africa’s emerging service and manufacturing industries. What is the Minister doing to redress the balance of power?

The EU has trade deals involving 17 Commonwealth countries, and it is currently negotiating further agreements with Canada, Singapore and regional blocs in Africa. Africa is an area of huge potential for the Commonwealth—in fact, one of our recent successes is the east Africa oil and gas high value opportunity, which will support UK businesses in gaining access to local markets. One should look at the opportunities presented by potential investment in Africa, rather than the negatives.

21. Does the Minister agree that we cannot just wait for the result of the referendum on our membership of the EU, and that we must press ahead now with fostering further strong trade links with our Commonwealth friends? (902986)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. We are a key member of the Commonwealth, and we know that trade between two Commonwealth countries is on the whole 19% cheaper than trade outside the Commonwealth. We should concentrate on growing trade in the Commonwealth, and I am sure that like me my hon. Friend believes in the good Conservative philosophy that a rising tide lifts all ships. [Hon. Members: “What?”]

I am slightly thrown by the Minister’s last words, Mr Speaker.

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November, the first ever women’s forum agreed 36 points of action. In any discussions that the Minister has with other Commonwealth heads, will he take on board those 36 points to ensure that women are not left behind?

Indeed, and the hon. Lady will know, as I do, that the Commonwealth charter focuses on such matters. We have an opportunity, and I am happy to meet her to discuss those issues in the run-up to the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in the United Kingdom in spring 2018. We have the opportunity to shape the agenda.

The Minister will know that Commonwealth countries represent some of the most important future emerging markets for the United Kingdom. Would it not be better if we could sign our own free trade agreements directly with Commonwealth countries, and not depend on Brussels to do it on our behalf?

I repeat to my hon. Friend that we want to encourage trade within the Commonwealth, and, as he knows, the Commonwealth makes those trade agreements with the EU. That is the current situation, and that is what we should concentrate on.

Trade between Commonwealth member Rwanda and the UK has grown steadily since the end of the genocide and the election of Paul Kagame as the country’s President in 2000, but there are worrying signs of intolerance, dissent, and repression of the media, and a recent referendum agreed to lift the two-term limit on holding presidential office. Does the Minister have any concerns about President Kagame’s increasing grip on power and associated reports of human rights abuses in Rwanda?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his position on the Front Bench. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (James Duddridge), who has responsibility for Africa, visited Rwanda as recently as a month ago. I am sure he would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the findings of his trip.