Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Guy Opperman.)
It is a considerable honour and a real pleasure to address the House tonight because today is Commonwealth day. I am afraid that it is drawing to a close, but it is a good time to hold this highly topical debate. I have just been told something I did not realise, which is that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), is the longest-serving Commonwealth Minister, having served for four years. He has done extremely well, and it is lovely to have a Minister serve so long in one place. That has to be something of a record, so there is more than one celebration.
Our Commonwealth unites 2 billion people in 53 nations around the world. Today, we have celebrated the fact that even though we all come from different backgrounds, we are joined purposefully together for a single purpose. The Commonwealth charter declares that everyone is equal and deserves to be treated fairly, regardless of race, age, gender or belief and never mind whether we are poor or rich. Those are very fine principles, and I tell the House that it is well worth dwelling on them.
It is too easy to snipe at the concept of the Commonwealth. The fact that it is carrying on successfully after so many years is a constant puzzle to certain people. What is it for? What does it do? Why do we still need it? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), who held the chair of the executive committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association before me, would also say, that line of questioning can be annoying at all sorts of levels. Let me offer one gold-plated reason for cherishing the Commonwealth—the huge financial opportunities it can bring.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this subject to the House. Every Member who is in the Chamber is here because we support the Commonwealth. The world’s fastest-growing economies and markets are in the Commonwealth. Does he agree that, now more than ever, we can reignite our bountiful relationship with our natural allies and friends throughout the whole Commonwealth?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The startling effect of the Commonwealth, through from the old empire to the Commonwealth as it is now, and what we have achieved in harmonisation, governance and friendship has been remarkable. I was going on to make exactly his point by saying that India is now one of the world’s leading economies, which is a very good example.
It is no accident that countries that follow the Westminster model of democracy tend to have ambitions to grow and prosper. If we look at the best academic index of economic progress among African nations, we can see that Commonwealth members always emerge in front. That is why the City of London has for a very long time had a soft spot for the Commonwealth. Our business and financial institutions have long had links throughout this family of nations. They need our expertise, and we can reap the benefits of the trade and prosperity that it brings to all our nations.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of the City of London. He will know that this week it celebrated Her Majesty’s 90th birthday by inviting Commonwealth heads to the City, which, as with numerous events that have been organised, helps to promote the great links that the City has had since 1926. Does he agree that one country is missing from all this and that, to help in that friendship and fraternity, the Republic of Ireland should come back into the Commonwealth as the 54th country?
I would just say in response that Her Majesty’s trip to the Republic of Ireland was one of the great diplomatic successes of the past few years. I believe that Her Majesty has been leader of the Commonwealth for about 48 years—[Interruption.]— 63 years. I thank all hon. Members who said that from a sedentary position; it just shows that my public school upbringing did me no good. It is an enormously long time, and her Majesty has never put a foot wrong with the Commonwealth, which she has championed. She has absolutely been a brick, a rock and the person around whom all this has been built. Through times that have been very bad and times that have been very good, she has never wavered in her absolute understanding of the Commonwealth. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister, who was in the Abbey to support Her Majesty during the service today, will say exactly the same. We wish her happy birthday, and long may she reign.
As the hon. Gentleman is taking bids for membership of the Commonwealth, this is an opportunity to put on the record the fact that the White Paper on independence, which was published by the Scottish Government in advance of the 2014 referendum, stated that Scotland would be proud to be an independent member of the Commonwealth, with the Queen as the Head of State.
More appropriately for this debate, may I echo the sentiments that the hon. Gentleman has expressed about the value of the Commonwealth and the role that we can all play in that family of nations? I am expressing the Scottish National party’s sentiments in that regard. I particularly take note of our relationship with Malawi as a Commonwealth member. It is very appropriate to mark the day with this debate.
We have now heard from Northern Ireland and Scotland. Ours is a group of nations just as the Commonwealth is a group of nations. That is the beauty of it. It is a family of people who are bound together by an historical anomaly that has now become a Commonwealth of trade, prosperity and understanding. The hon. Gentleman’s point on Scotland’s long history with Malawi is an example of that. Any nation can make friends with any other nation. We welcome it and will help it, and we will do everything we can to be part of it. It is important because we stride the entire compass of the world as a Commonwealth together. It makes it a smaller place.
My hon. Friend is right to be generous on Commonwealth day. Debates on Commonwealth day were instigated some five years ago at the time when I became founder chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the Commonwealth. He is right to highlight both the value of the Commonwealth across the world and the importance of the Head of the Commonwealth and the remarkable service she has given. Will he pay tribute to the outgoing secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma, who has been a tireless advocate for the Commonwealth, and congratulate his successor, Patricia Scotland? It is an important role, and we should be proud that a Member of the House of Lords is taking up the position for the first time.
Baroness Scotland will be delighted to hear that and will take a keen interest in the debate. My hon. Friend is right. It is remiss of me not to mention that he set up the all-party parliamentary group, which is a wonderful organisation. For the past five years, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has been very ably chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden, who will probably intervene later. He did a remarkable job before I became chair, year in and year out, with the same agenda, and we should celebrate that remarkable achievement.
This week, the City of London is playing host to the Commonwealth high commissioners as a mark of Commonwealth day and a celebration of Her Majesty’s forthcoming 90th birthday. The City is a founding partner of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. Anyone who turns up at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference will find the City of London there too. Frankly, if the City of London gives the Commonwealth its backing, I suspect the rest of us should do so.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association believes strongly that stable government and high parliamentary standards lead to confidence, investment, job creation and ultimately a better life for all the people. I can find no better advocate for the continuation of the Commonwealth than the very person who has sat at its head since her coronation. If I may, I will quote Her Majesty. She said that the Commonwealth
“has the power to enrich us all”
“in an uncertain world, it gives us a good reason to keep talking.”
Amen to that.
Here at Westminster, we jolly well ought to appreciate the value of talking and sharing ideas. We have developed and nurtured parliamentary government over centuries. As the British empire slipped away and the Commonwealth was born, many independent nations appeared and chose to adopt the Westminster system. It is not surprising that Westminster, with all its little failings, has a great deal going for it. We have learned to respect other people’s points of view. We have developed, over a very long time, effective systems for scrutinising laws and holding—dare I say it?—Governments and Ministers to account. Whatever our faults, we always try to make democracy work.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association was established 105 years ago to link Parliaments throughout the Commonwealth and to share all the positive lessons of good governance. That is a splendid ambition, and rightly so, but it is a very tall order.
I give way with great pleasure to the hon. Lady.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way—I can call him my hon. Friend—and congratulate him on securing this important debate on Commonwealth day. Does he agree that the theme of the Commonwealth this year—inclusivity—is an important one? We obviously want to learn and share best practice across the Commonwealth. Does he also agree that this is an important year for Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians as we elect a new chair? Hopefully, they will take the organisation forward in securing better representation of women in Parliaments and Assemblies throughout the Commonwealth.
I am going to have to embarrass the hon. Lady terribly. Without her input in championing women throughout the Commonwealth, I do not think we would be where we are today. The hon. Lady, through various incarnations within the CPA, has done a remarkable job. Just this morning I shared a platform for young parliamentarians with the hon. Lady—who I will say is suffering from a slight sniffle. They are the future. She was asked, very poignantly, about women’s issues and the way that women interface not just with our Parliament but many Parliaments. The hon. Lady gave a very robust and absolutely correct view of the challenges for younger people in empowering women, something we all face in this House and across the world. I cannot say more than that the hon. Lady has been a great colleague and a great friend to the CPA. She will continue to be so and I hope she gets better very soon from that ghastly cold.
We are talking about bringing together about 17,000 parliamentarians from 185 very different law-making bodies, some with traditions and practices all their own, and others relatively new and untested. In the past 10 years, for instance, more than 50 new Parliaments and law-making bodies have joined or re-joined the CPA. Fiji is now back in the fold after democratic elections a few years ago and Rwanda is the most recent new member. If I were to reel off the A to Z of membership it would start with Alderney, an island in the English channel just 10 miles off the French coast, and stretch all the way across the globe to Zambia in south Africa. In fact, I will be visiting Zambia in the next few days on another mission, but I will also speak to Commonwealth partners when I am there.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. As someone who originates from Goa in India and was born in the British Protectorate of Aden, I am well aware of the importance of a club. Groucho Marx said that he would not want to belong to a club that would have him as a member, but we are part of a very important club. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are the interface with the European Union, which places us in a very great position? And will he join me in thanking the staff of the CPA, who organise all these visits and help the rest of the world come to see what it is like to live under a rule of law in this country?
I thank the hon. Lady. Her background is proof that anybody from anywhere can be part of this marvellous family—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or anywhere else. It is a wonderful family. She is absolutely right: the staff are remarkable. They do an incredible job. Today, they have literally gone from conferences to seminars to a drinks party and much else—it has been remarkable. There are not many weeks—I am sure we could count them—when there is not somebody coming to town to talk, be they a high commissioner, an ambassador or a group of parliamentarians. They always know our door is open, and we always love to have a conversation with our friends and our family.
The CPA’s UK branch elected me chairman last year. I took on the responsibility with enthusiasm, but with some trepidation. It is one thing to glance at the CPA from the outside; it is quite another being inside and getting involved in the inner workings. Thanks to the knowledge and efficiency of a superb CPA team, I have—I hope—begun to get to grips with it. They deserve credit and so do the whole CPA committee, without whom the CPA would not operate. The work that goes on by Members from both this place and the other place is crucial to its fair running. I am very grateful to everybody. In fact, CPA UK has just been recognised by the Investors in People scheme for outstanding levels of people management. Well done. We happen to be the most active branch under the CPA umbrella. And what a big umbrella it is! The sheer number of Commonwealth nations demands a giant executive committee to manage it.
It is fair and important to have it recorded in Hansard that the Christian principles of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Commonwealth have taken Christianity to the many parts of the world where it exists today and is growing. We need to recognise the Christian principles that drove the Commonwealth forward.
Yes, that is an extremely good point. We have had a wonderful service in Westminster Abbey today. Unfortunately, I was chairing a conference, but my right hon. Friend the Minister was there. Her Majesty attended, too, as did His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. It is a wonderful get-together. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it was based on a lot of British principles. In many ways, it was the missionaries who trail-blazed during the empire days and then under the Commonwealth. We can look back at some amazing people who went to places that nobody else would and took those Christian principles with them. We still see that today. We have to admit that there are tensions in certain parts of the world—we have to be honest about that—but we still talk. The Archbishop of Canterbury and many other churchmen work together to better people’s lives, so that when we have a disagreement we can say, “Let’s keep talking”, as Her Majesty succinctly put it. The Gentleman’s point, therefore, is pertinent and absolutely correct.
The day-to-day responsibility for ensuring that the CPA is steered on a steady course falls to the office of secretary-general. Since the start of this year, we have had a new man in this important post—someone with wide experience of governance and diplomacy; someone who already knows the CPA inside out and has been involved in the legal niceties of the organisation; somebody with the enormous drive and vision to carry this international organisation forward. His name is Akbar Khan and his mission is to make the CPA fit for the 21st century. I strongly believe that we should wholeheartedly applaud this aspiration, and I hope that the House will join me in doing so.
It is a sobering fact that in my constituency many young people know little about the Commonwealth, let alone the CPA. I am sorry to say that there is a wide canyon of ignorance among young people today. I am told that a survey was recently conducted in Jamaica to discover whether young people knew who is in charge of the Commonwealth. Some 25% said it was Barack Obama. Perhaps it is a blessing they did not say Donald Trump. When the pollsters asked what the Commonwealth actually did, most young Jamaicans said its only task was running the Commonwealth games. We have a lot to do. Somehow the CPA has to spread the word far more effectively and seek to win the practical support of the young. Under-30s now represent a majority of all Commonwealth citizens, so we have to find ways of making our work visible and relevant to them.
I am pleased to say that things are beginning to move. The CPA has launched a popular roadshow designed to engage with schools and universities right across the Commonwealth. We are trying to prove that we are not just about motherhood and apple pie and highlighting parts of our work that could capture the imagination of young people. We are showing how we can help to tackle corruption by using the rule of law. There is a lot more to it than roadshows, of course, which is why the CPA is getting on top of the digital world, tweeting its message, gaining “likes” on Facebook and hosting its own YouTube channel.
We are also doing a great deal to promote gender equality—I pay tribute again to my friend the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods). It is work that desperately needs doing because women are still badly under-represented in Parliaments across the Commonwealth. The CPA has an effective and influential chairwoman, Shirin Chaudhury, Speaker of the Parliament of Bangladesh, who has been an incredible champion for women, the CPA and everybody else. I hope she is smiling at the moment, because she has a lot to smile about. She is a remarkable person. In addition, the CPA keenly promotes female involvement through the Commonwealth women’s parliamentary group. It is also very positive news that a woman has been appointed as the new secretary-general of the Commonwealth itself.
Slowly but surely, the shape of the CPA is changing for the better. A glance at my CPA diary for this week alone is enough to prove that we are not sitting back and letting the world go by—and nor will we ever. The UK branch is hosting a delegation from the new Canadian Parliament and is also running a unique international conference on sustainability.
I just want to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for all the work he has done in supporting Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians and its international chairperson. That is really important because she is bringing about enormous changes in the CPA, as is the new secretary-general, Akbar Khan, who I also think we should welcome to his post. We expect great things from them both.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden. Both he and the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset have led and are leading the CPA to some very good things. We look forward to seeing enormous progress being made across a whole range of areas to do with enhancing our systems of governance and accountability, as well as tackling corruption throughout the Commonwealth.
I could not work out the waving, so I apologise again, but it is very nice to be waved at. I thank the hon. Lady once again, but I think we all know that this is a huge team effort. I know that our secretary-general and many others take a keen interest in what we do as a body. It is important that we support each other. The work that has been done, even since he has been here, has been truly remarkable. I pay tribute to Andrew Tuggey and the entire team in the CPA. Without them, we would not be able to do what we do today. Andrew stands in for me. I made of a mess of something earlier and he had to step in and save me—and I am very grateful for being saved by him on a regular basis.
The hon. Member for City of Durham is right that there is a lot of work to do so far as women and many other issues are concerned. We are realistic about the challenges; we know what they are; we know what we have to do to change things; we will continue always to strive for that because that is our ethos—gender balance and gender understanding. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the work she has done in this area, and I am very grateful to her.
The critical issue, as my hon. Friend rightly highlighted earlier, is the way in which the younger generation of people in the Commonwealth around the world can be excited, motivated and inspired by an ideal that inspired an earlier generation. Will my hon. Friend provide some examples of things he believes we can all do in the Commonwealth to help that process along?
I hesitate to go on all night, but that is a lovely, pertinent question. What is the Commonwealth? It is about understanding, tolerance, governance, law, order, non-corruption and standing up for your fellow man or woman—it does not matter what someone’s creed, colour, background or religion is; they do not make any difference. We are a family of nations that are bound together by one common cause, which is working together to make sure we achieve the ideals that were set out all those years ago. It is also about bringing the very best of human nature to bear at all stages. That is what it is all about. I meet the most remarkable and incredible people, and I know we all do. We have had our ups and downs, but at the end of the day all parliamentarians are interesting, and none more than those of the Commonwealth—and that is to be celebrated.
Mention was made of the Commonwealth games, the most recent of which were held in my great city of Glasgow. As well as being a celebration of sporting endeavour and peaceful competition between nations, the games bring people from all over the world, and particularly from all over the Commonwealth to share their cultures in one place. The Commonwealth games are very much a manifestation of the practical implications and benefits of the Commonwealth and should be recognised as such. Scotland is a member of the CPA, if not yet a fully fledged member of the Commonwealth.
The very first Commonwealth games I ever went to as a boy many years ago were in Edinburgh. The Glasgow Commonwealth games were exemplary. They were handled beautifully. It was the family enjoying itself in many ways. The sport was incredible and remarkable—there were no Sepp Blatters or anything like that in sight. A very good organisation runs it. It is always a credit. Glasgow did an incredible job, and nobody can ever take it away from the city. I am most grateful for all it did. It showed the Commonwealth at its very best, as a group of nations that are very good at what they do. What other organisation could arrange a games free from all the other things we see so many sports tainted with?
My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the success of the Commonwealth games in Glasgow and, indeed, in many other cities of different countries. How about a Commonwealth music festival? We know that sports and music are the two things that most powerfully involve the younger generation.
I think the entire world plays football, but I think music from across the Commonwealth would be absolutely incredible. So many times we have been to conferences where we have been entertained beautifully by local bands—sometimes tribes, even—that are quite incredible. The richness of music crosses all boundaries. It does not matter whether we can understand the words; it is the beat and the rhythm, and all the rest of it, so that is a wonderful idea. I hesitate to say to Andrew Tuggey, “Perhaps tomorrow we should arrange a music conference for the whole of the Commonwealth” —he would probably have a heart attack—but it is a lovely idea. I think the rules of football were set in this country—I may be wrong about that, but I think they were—and, again, it is a great leveller.
Last week we were involved in celebrating International Women’s Day, and Mr Speaker very kindly let us have his apartments for a drinks party to end it. We are so grateful for that: it was so well attended and so fascinating. Again, it was a lovely day, and next week there is so much in the pipeline. We are helping out in one of Latin America’s poorest countries, Guyana. The aim is to assist the new multi-racial coalition Government to build effective democratic systems. We are also working alongside the Home Office to develop a legal framework to combat modern slavery. The idea is to enable parliamentary clerks from Commonwealth countries to come on secondment to Westminster and learn how to adapt slavery legislation for use back home. We are also trying to get some innovative new projects off the ground, such as an international parliamentary seminar on electoral reform and a cyber-security workshop for Commonwealth Ministers. There is even a project to open our doors outside the Commonwealth and allow representatives from target countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan to attend our seminars.
I am so grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he is being most generous. The list he is reading out is quite extraordinary and shows the huge diversity of issues that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is trying to tackle and to get serious discussion and sharing of good practice on. I would like to use this opportunity to thank Andrew Tuggey and all his staff, because they have been extremely busy putting all these important programmes together, hopefully with good outcomes in improving our governance.
I can echo that. In some cases the staff had very few days to put the bids together. They have done a remarkable job. We have superb staff and they are so willing. If anybody has a chance and wants to go into the CPA room, it is worth looking at just how many people are there and the work they do. It is truly remarkable. That is the future: taking workshops and encouraging people to do things, and if we do it, others will follow. We want to make sure that people understand that we are proactive in the 21st century and leading the charge of proactive democracy throughout the world. That is something we can only aspire to, so I thank to the hon. Lady for her intervention. She is absolutely right.
We are going to help to boost and change the Commonwealth and the new outcrops of democracy outside it. As ever, we rely on patience and an awful lot of dialogue, but that is what the Commonwealth is really all about. As Her Majesty puts it,
“through dialogue we protect ourselves against the dangers that can so easily arise from a failure to talk or to see the other person’s point of view.”
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Commonwealth. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) has been able to secure a slot on the Floor of the House and has been blessed with the good fortune of an extended debate, beyond the half-hour that it might otherwise have been, which has given other hon. Friends and colleagues an opportunity to take part.
I think it is a pity that there is not an annual debate on a Commonwealth theme in Government time, to demonstrate symbolically that we are taking the Commonwealth seriously. It would be an opportunity for all Members of the House to make a contribution on some particular aspect of Commonwealth matters that are of concern to them. However, I was grateful in my time to the Backbench Business Committee for giving us such opportunities, and my hon. Friend has also managed to ensure that the flame continues to burn.
One of the messages I tried to put across was that in every part of the Commonwealth we should have a debate about the Commonwealth, from whatever angle, in each Parliament. That is the way to give prominence to the fact that we are all members of that association, and that we believe in it.
Today I received a message from Commonwealth Youth New Zealand. I do not know whether I was alone in that, but the message was addressed to me. It said:
“Today in Wellington, 60 young people from around New Zealand will take part in the Common Leaders Day programme. This will bring together a range of inspiring young leaders in community, government, national and international fields and shows senior high school students that everyday people can become outstanding leaders. This is also an opportunity to promote understanding on global issues, international co-operation and, most importantly, the values embodied in the Commonwealth Charter that we all seek to uphold.”
I should like to think that 60 young people in every part of the Commonwealth were being encouraged to come together with that purpose in mind. We should be talking about the values of the Commonwealth, and continuing to put the message across.
As my hon. Friend said, one of the fundamental roles of the CPA is to encourage parliamentary strengthening. Our Parliament was a place to which people believed they could come for the airing of grievances. When we look around the world now, we see that a great many young people in the Commonwealth countries—and 60% of the Commonwealth’s population are under the age of 30—have grievances, which often stem from dire poverty How can those young people be expected to continue to believe in the democratic system unless there is advancement—unless they have confidence in the Governments whom they elect and the work that they do? My point is not just that our Parliament is a fount of wisdom. All Parliaments in the Commonwealth should come together regularly, learn from each other, and identify common interests and practices that help to strengthen government. That will help to give young people confidence, in the future, that the Commonwealth itself has a meaning, and that they have hope within their own countries.
The right hon. Gentleman kindly mentioned New Zealand. Obviously, many of us in the home countries, particularly Northern Ireland, have a special relationship with New Zealand, to which our ancestors emigrated. Indeed, there is a special relationship between the United Kingdom and New Zealand. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that we should have more such relationships in the Commonwealth?
None of the other countries in the Commonwealth thought to send me a message, which is why I quoted from the one from New Zealand. However, I think that we should be more conscious—day by day, week by week, month by month—of our membership of the Commonwealth, and be more willing to stretch out the hand of friendship and encourage the development of more links between us. That happens in all sorts of different ways outside the parliamentary sphere—about 90 organisations are brought together to discuss a range of matters because of the Commonwealth link—but we need to do more at the political and parliamentary level, and the key to that is involving more young people. At least a Commonwealth Youth Parliament is now established annually. However, whether we call it an assembly, a council or a Parliament, I should like to see young people being persuaded to come together to do something very much like what those 60 young New Zealanders were doing today.
I agree with much of what has been said in the debate, but I should add that, in the next few weeks, we will at last achieve connectivity with one of the smallest branches of the CPA, that of St Helena. The then Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Northfield and I recommended that an airstrip should be built after we visited the island in 1972. It is very encouraging that, clearly, so powerful was our oratory that that is to happen at last, after 46 years. It will mean that we can bind St Helena closer to us and welcome its people much more actively, in the hope that they will gain benefit and that we too will gain benefit from an understanding of their way of life on that remote island.
I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset on initiating the debate. Let us keep on beating the drum for the Commonwealth, and bear in mind that there is much more to do. We look to our colleagues, as well as our staff, to continue to contribute in the magnificent way that they do now.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing this evening’s debate and on his relatively new role as chairman of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, following in the distinguished footsteps of my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), from whom we have just heard. I also thank other Members across the House for their contributions to the debate.
I should like to begin by paying a warm tribute on this Commonwealth day to Her Majesty the Queen, who has helped to shape the Commonwealth not for 30, 40 or 55 years—in this auction—but for almost 65 years. As head of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty has given tireless support and played a leading role in creating a family of nations that spans every continent, all major religions and almost a third of the world’s population. It was particularly gratifying and appropriate at this afternoon’s service at Westminster Abbey to witness Her Majesty, in her 90th year, being loyally supported as usual by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as by Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, His Royal Highness Prince Harry and His Royal Highness the Duke of York.
Like the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), I should like to pay tribute to the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and of Andrew Tuggey—who, for all we know, might even be following this debate tonight—and his colleagues who have done so much to promote and strengthen the institution of Parliament and the commitment to the rule of law. I shall say more about them later.
I should also like to join in the tributes and thanks for the work of Kamalesh Sharma as he steps down as secretary-general after eight years. I joined my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at No. 10 last week to thank Mr Sharma personally for his efforts. He has helped to guide the Commonwealth through a period of significant challenges and he can be rightly proud of the important developments that have taken place under his leadership, such as the introduction of the Commonwealth charter. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta last November, we welcomed the appointment of his successor, the noble and learned Baroness Scotland. We wish her every success as she takes up this position on 1 April. We believe that she will ensure that the Commonwealth has a strong voice and makes a greater impact, and that its members will show greater unity and purpose in upholding the Commonwealth’s values. In answer to the point made by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods), it is right and appropriate—and good news, says the father of two daughters—that the Commonwealth is headed by a woman, that the secretariat is to be headed by a woman and that the international chairman of the CPA is a woman. That is a pretty good start.
This Government recognise the great potential of the Commonwealth. In 2010, the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Lord Hague of Richmond, said that he wanted to put the C back into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and I believe that we have done that. This Government remain determined to ensure that the Commonwealth is re-energised and we support all its members in delivering greater prosperity and security to their citizens. For that reason, in May last year, we made a manifesto commitment to strengthen the Commonwealth’s focus on promoting democratic values and development. In November, the Prime Minister led a strong UK delegation to the CHOGM in Malta.
Our ambition for the Commonwealth is clear. Through the programme of initiatives we announced in Malta, we aim to strengthen efforts to counter extremism and radicalisation and to help small island developing states to develop their economies and boost resilience to climate change. These initiatives will strengthen the contribution of the Commonwealth and its member states in tackling global challenges. By positioning itself squarely in the international arena, the Commonwealth yet again demonstrates its relevance in helping to address these important issues that confront us all.
The Minister has put his finger on some important issues relating to climate change and addressing global terrorism, and he raised such matters with the President of the Maldives on a recent visit to the country. While there may be some difficulties with the Maldives, which interprets some things differently, talking about such issues, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), is positive and helps to better understand each other.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Guy Opperman.)
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Maldives, the secretary-general is sending his own representatives. We want the Maldives to stay a committed member of the Commonwealth and to adhere to Commonwealth values, meaning transparency, accountability, democracy—all the things that we accept as the norm. We want the people of the Maldives to be served by a Government that adhere to those principles, so I welcome the work of the Commonwealth secretariat and the Commonwealth ministerial action group.
We will continue to take initiatives forward through to CHOGM, which will be hosted here in the UK in the spring of 2018. We will work with our Commonwealth partners, wider Commonwealth organisations and with the Commonwealth secretariat under Patricia Scotland’s leadership. Hosting the next meeting presents us with the opportunity to build on the progress made in Malta to make the Commonwealth more relevant and more effective and to increase its stock and standing in the world.
The Commonwealth’s shared values of tolerance, respect and understanding are central to this year’s theme, “An Inclusive Commonwealth”, as we look to strengthen the partnership of nations, people and societies right across the Commonwealth. Earlier today, I had the pleasure of experiencing some of the diversity and energy of the Commonwealth in the performances at the multi-faith service at Westminster Abbey. This annual event is an opportunity, like this debate, to celebrate all that is good about the Commonwealth. The presence of Her Majesty and a significant number of dignitaries from across the Commonwealth, including the Prime Minister of Malta, who is the chair-in-office, and Kofi Annan, who spoke so eloquently, showed the warmth and high regard in which the organisation is held. The diversity of those who spoke at the event reflects the Commonwealth’s dynamic population of over 2 billion people.
As chairman of the executive committee of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset plays a significant role, as did his predecessor, in supporting work to foster co-operation and understanding between Parliaments, to promote good governance and to advance parliamentary democracy. We welcome the work of the association and its secretariat based here in London. Established in 1911, it has made a significant contribution in helping Commonwealth members to uphold democratic values, and its annual international parliamentary conferences offer an opportunity to discuss issues of mutual interest. This week’s visit of parliamentarians from Canada, which I recently visited, is another positive example of the strong relationships across the association. I very much enjoyed meeting members of the Canadian Commonwealth Parliamentary Association during my recent visit to Ottawa, and I welcome their commitment to share values and understanding.
My hon. Friend raised the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s conference on sustainability, energy and development. Events such as that are vital if we are to take forward the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting mandate of implementing the UN sustainable development goals. We welcome the recent appointment of Akbar Khan as secretary-general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. He has an important role to play in taking forward the organisation’s agenda. In particular, I welcome his vision of a strong parliamentary arm of the Commonwealth, working within and across the Commonwealth family. By delivering programmes to Commonwealth parliamentarians that underpin respect for Commonwealth political values, the association aims to strengthen democratic governance of our legislatures and Parliaments.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) referred to the success of the Commonwealth games in Glasgow. I was privileged to be there myself. I saw David Grevemberg, CEO of the Commonwealth Games Federation, today. He was recounting how a survey has been done in Glasgow on the success of the games and whether people felt they were worth while, and the almost universal feedback was that if they could host it all over again, they would, as it was such good news for Glasgow. The games will go to Australia next, where I am sure they will be a success. Hon. Members made a good point about having music as well as sport. At the Glasgow games, the Commonwealth youth orchestra and choir launched the Commonwealth music competition, so we look forward to that again.
Trade is an area where the Commonwealth must have greater ambition, and this must be one of our top priorities for the 2018 Heads of Government meeting. Between now and then we will be developing a broad range of policies relating to the Commonwealth and trade. We are working extremely closely with the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, which is doing a magnificent job, and we had a good trade meeting in Valetta, which was attended by more than 2,000 delegates. We are going to build on that, and we are also working to bring trade Ministers from across the Commonwealth together more regularly to increase trade between member states.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset raised the idea of a possible project to inform parliamentarians across the Commonwealth of legislation, including things such as the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and we are also looking at that. Hon. Members also talked about rights and the Commonwealth charter. It is worth saying that despite this being set out clearly in the Commonwealth charter—the outgoing secretary-general can be justifiably proud of that, as I have said—respect for rights and values is not consistent across the Commonwealth, and we have to accept that that is the case. The issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights is a particular challenge. At CHOGM, the Prime Minister was clear about the need for the Commonwealth to seek to narrow its divisions on LGBT issues. In their statement, Commonwealth leaders agreed on the economic potential that can be unlocked by tackling discrimination and exclusion. I accept that these are difficult issues for some Commonwealth countries, but those same countries did sign the Commonwealth charter. Speaking at the Human Rights Council in Geneva last week, the outgoing secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, acknowledged that the Commonwealth cannot be truly inclusive if the criminalisation of homosexuality is not addressed.
That remains one of our biggest human rights challenges. We will continue to work with member states to end discrimination of all kinds, to promote tolerance and to build inclusive governance and opportunity for all. Those are all central to creating a truly inclusive Commonwealth and critical to developing stronger, more secure and prosperous societies. I say that because there is huge potential in the Commonwealth. A recent report has highlighted that, on current trends, the value of intra-Commonwealth trade will reach $1 trillion by 2020.
As the Minister responsible for our relationship with the Commonwealth since 2012, I have visited a good number of Commonwealth countries. From Canada to Australia, India to Papua New Guinea, and Sri Lanka to the Solomon Islands, it is clear that there remains a genuine desire across the 53 member states to see the Commonwealth progress on important areas affecting them and the wider world today. The challenges have never been greater, but the rewards could be greater still. It will be up to all of us within the Commonwealth family to ensure that action is taken on the most pressing global issues.
I therefore thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset and other right hon. and hon. Members for this opportunity to debate this important issue today. We are getting towards the end of Commonwealth day, but this does not end there, as there are more Commonwealth celebrations tomorrow. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is beefing up the Commonwealth team to make sure that, when we are hosts in the spring of 2018, it will be a memorable event. I look forward to any suggestions from those interested in the Commonwealth as to how we can make the agenda relevant and how we can make the whole Commonwealth conference exciting.
The hon. Gentleman already has a suggestion.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in terms of my membership of the CPA and of some of the visits that I have taken part in. In looking forward to 2018, will the Minister ensure that the devolved Assemblies are involved in this and are used to help spread the message of the Commonwealth? When the Northern Ireland Assembly was established in 1998, one of the most unifying things that it did was to create the Commonwealth Room. I know that he chuckled earlier when I made the point about Ireland coming into the Commonwealth, but the fact that the Assembly did that sends a message of hope.
Let me make it clear that it is not up to me or the British Government who becomes a member of the Commonwealth. There is a perfectly straightforward application process. A country has to fulfil certain criteria. It is not up to the United Kingdom who comes in; it is up to the secretariat and other members, and that is as it should be. Incidentally, there are a significant number of countries that aspire to join the Commonwealth. Talking of clubs, the hon. Member for Walsall South quoted Groucho Marx who said he would not want to join a club that wanted him as a member. The truth of the matter is that one can judge a club by those who want to become members, and there are some significant countries that want to join the Commonwealth. That in itself is a validation of the Commonwealth as being a relevant institution.
In terms of the devolved Administrations having a greater sight of what we are going to discuss at CHOGM, the United Kingdom is the member of the Commonwealth, but I have some sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says. We do not want the schoolchildren of Ballymena and of West Belfast thinking that Barack Obama is in charge of the Commonwealth.
Question put and agreed to.