[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of the Commonwealth.
It is a particular pleasure to hold this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and as a child of the Commonwealth and as the founder chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the Commonwealth. The fact that so many Members are here—at least on the Government side of the Chamber—is testament to the enduring importance of the Commonwealth. Today is a good day to have this debate, because it is only a few weeks before the first Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in this country for 30 years.
Much has been written about the Commonwealth, and it has been written off many times, but we can be confident that a recent article in The Guardian entitled “Empire strikes back: why former colonies don’t need Britain after Brexit” was suitably disobliging. A 69-year-old multilateral body that spans all continents and has 54 nations, from the very large to the minute, some 2.4 billion people, great forests of diversity, billions of pounds of intra-trade, a headquarters in a royal palace and a logo that appears to be a globe swallowed up by a hedgehog does not need to worry too much about The Guardian. What the Commonwealth needs to do is ensure that it is looking firmly forward, surprising us with its constant reinvention, giving the younger generation responsibility and, above all, looking confidently towards a bigger, better future—one that the American poet Aberjhani called
“reinvigorated substance, a fresh flow of ideas, and splendidly revitalised colour.”
Let me share a few thoughts about what that might look like in practice and what Britain might contribute. I cannot today namecheck the more than 100 Commonwealth organisations based in London, or pay tribute to their individual contributions to this great brand that we all want to see shine ever more brightly, but I can start by welcoming the fact that Prime Minister Modi—he is the Head of Government in India, which is the Commonwealth’s most populous nation—will be at this CHOGM. It is the first time that the Prime Minister of India has been for 13 years. That is important.
In that context, I strongly support the Royal Commonwealth Society’s call for a new visa partnership with India, modelled on what a number of us worked hard to achieve with China only a few years ago. That partnership would recognise that we are such an important investor in and visitor to each other’s countries. Let us build stronger links with India and encourage her to take a bigger leadership role in the Commonwealth. At the same time, let us use our huge development reach through the Department for International Development to realise two big development goals across not only India, but all the nations of the Commonwealth.
First, we should have a vision to increase vision, using the technology of apps and the success there has been, primarily with cataract operations. That concept was brilliantly outlined by Peek Vision during the Commonwealth service in Westminster Abbey, and it has realised huge success in east Africa and further south, especially in Botswana, whose Minster of Health was there beside our Prime Minister during the service. On that occasion, some Members will have heard the charity’s co-founder explain how the apps that have been developed can be used by teachers to diagnose what an impaired sight or blind person is suffering from and how they can be cured. There are more than 100 million people with bad or no eyesight in the Commonwealth and together, as a unified entity, the Commonwealth can help many of them, if not all, to have better vision.
Secondly, we could affirm the determination to eliminate malaria, not least through the charity Malaria No More. Across our Commonwealth and throughout the continent of Africa, malaria prevents so many people—especially the young—from reaching their potential or even enjoying a life beyond childhood. As someone who had malaria on his wedding day in east Africa, I feel I owe the mosquitos one. I hope that the Secretary of State for International Development and the Minister will say more about Malaria No More.
By combining development funds with national programmes, international charities and the power of giving across so many countries, I believe the two dreams of giving almost everyone in the Commonwealth sight and ridding the Commonwealth—and ultimately the world, but let us start with the Commonwealth—of malaria could be achieved. That would unite the people of the Commonwealth in a shared understanding of what we can achieve together. By eliminating malaria, we can make real advances on an issue that I know the Foreign Secretary cares hugely about and loses few opportunities to advocate: delivering 12 years of education for the 130 million girls in the Commonwealth currently not in school. I hope that the Minister will say more about what we can achieve to ensure that every girl in the Commonwealth gets the chance to go to school.
Nor is what the Commonwealth can achieve limited to change that directly affects humans. We can make the Blue Charter project come alive in islands in the Caribbean and the Indian and Pacific oceans. On land, we can protect more forests through the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy scheme. I hope that the Commonwealth will commit to that during CHOGM and bring that Blue Charter project alive.
These visions, projects and development causes will strike a light with many young people in different nations, and I agree with those who want to bring alive the values of the Commonwealth by doing more to promote gender equality through, for example, the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network. Of course that will sometimes prove controversial and uncomfortable in parts of the Commonwealth, as have other similar causes, but I hope we will not be shy in promoting the values that all nations have signed up to in the Commonwealth charter. Perhaps the Minister will say more about that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is making a brilliant speech, as usual. All the values that he speaks of—aid, co-operation, travel and so on—are fantastic, but is there not a case to explore military co-operation and intelligence sharing, given the threats we all face? The Commonwealth can perform a role in its own right.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If I did not know him better, I would assume that he must have cyber-attacked my speech, because he has brilliantly anticipated what I was about to say.
Development on its own—this is where my hon. Friend’s point comes in—however noble, is not enough of a cause to realise the full potential of the Commonwealth. One of the key things is to tackle civic society changes as part of an embracing of all talent and good business practice. That boosts economies, security and standards of living for all. On the business side, I do not think that a future Commonwealth-wide free trade agreement is practical—I am sorry to disappoint those who believe it is. We might be able to make a start with a small coalition of the willing, but I doubt it would expand across the full panoply of the Commonwealth in the way that many of us would like.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He set out some of the reasons why today is a good day to have this debate. As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Commonwealth and chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, I want to add that today Cyril Ramaphosa is signing an Africa free trade agreement. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the potential for free trade within Africa, combined with forward-looking trade agreements with the UK that put economic development at the heart, are real opportunities for the Commonwealth?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; today is an exciting day. I think it is called the continental free trade area. It brings together 21 African nations, so by no means everybody in Africa, but it is a huge leap forward. In a sense, I am leading on to that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another reason to be optimistic is that the incoming President of South Africa was a major figure within the Commonwealth family? He believes in the Commonwealth, he gets it, he is coming to London and hopefully he will make South Africa a far bigger player in the Commonwealth family than has hitherto been the case.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; he will be very welcome here. The changes in southern Africa, both in Zimbabwe and South Africa itself, give us all hope that the direction of southern Africa is on a positive trend, in the sense that in both cases the changes have been done bloodlessly. I very much hope that South Africa will be a keen part of the Commonwealth again, and that perhaps next year we will be able to welcome Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth family, which I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) would welcome, too.
Although the Department for International Trade wants to see, precisely as both hon. Members have mentioned, the benefits of intra-Commonwealth trade spreading more widely across the Commonwealth and reaching forward to a world where free trade agreements could be more possible and practical, the biggest challenge to the ease of doing business is in the non-tariff barriers. At some point we must try to do more about the practical challenges to benefiting from cross-border trade in the way that Malaysia and Singapore, two far east Commonwealth countries, trade together over each other’s borders.
It is amazing that we have not yet made more progress—by “we”, I mean the Commonwealth in this context. I first started working on these issues with the then Minister for the Commonwealth, Lord Howe, a great champion of the Commonwealth since its birth. With Lord Marland leading the charge at the reinvigorated Commonwealth and Enterprise Investment Council—my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) is part of that team—we have the opportunity to help steer the Commonwealth in a more business-friendly direction that will advocate free trade.
The potential for our own free trade agreements in the United Kingdom means that during our period of leadership of the Commonwealth over the next four years, there is no excuse for not seeing a sea change in the number of free trade agreements and direct bilateral business being done throughout the Commonwealth.
I thank my hon. Friend for his interesting and timely speech. I fully agree that the Commonwealth is unlikely to form some kind of new trading bloc, but does he agree that it is an important framework for intergovernmental co-operation in improving the investment environment? That is the way that it will help to aid trade: by working together on things such as infrastructure, the business environment, the rule of law and governance. All those things will help to improve our trading relationships in the long term.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know that her experience in the International Trade Committee bears on that. Those non-tariff barriers: the ease of doing business, infrastructure issues, blockages at ports, and bureaucracy and paperwork involved are all things on which we and the Commonwealth as a whole can make huge progress. She is quite right; it would make a big difference.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for being generous with his time. Does he agree that improving the regulatory capacity in Commonwealth countries is an important factor in supporting and increasing trade in services? Although most businesses want to make a positive impact, some are looking to exploit the lower regulatory barriers in some developing countries. The Commonwealth can make a real difference in ensuring that the legal and regulatory frameworks in Commonwealth countries enable a free and frank negotiation of regulatory agreements.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point. The question of standards and regulatory resource capacity and implementation, which ultimately boils down to the rule of law, is critical. If we say, as we often do, that among the shared values of the Commonwealth are those of democracy, language, the rule of law, accounting standards and so on, we should not be complacent about assuming that they are all the same in every Commonwealth country and that they are equally well implemented. That comes back to one of the issues from the report by the Eminent Persons Group in 2013, which the Minister will remember well because he was in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the time. A commissioner was going to be appointed to look at the quality and the implementation of democracy in its widest sense, including—in my interpretation anyway—the rule of law. The business of standards is absolutely critical. The Minister may want to comment on that when he speaks.
We are hearing from across the Chamber an enthusiasm for more business, and not just for business’s sake but as a catalyst for improving living standards for millions of people across all continents. We in the United Kingdom may want to look at what more we can do with our resources. It was mooted in a recent House of Lords debate that perhaps we should have more trade envoys with Commonwealth member responsibilities. I think there are seven of us at the moment who are trade envoys for the Prime Minister with Commonwealth countries, but there may be a case for increasing that number, to see whether the team would benefit from further recruits, especially from those with close links to the Commonwealth countries to which they might be appointed.
There could also be a real effort by the United Kingdom to open doors and opportunities through our large, thriving financial sector. For example, we have great fund managers such as Standard Life Aberdeen or Schroders, but I am not aware of any investment opportunity into a Commonwealth-branded fund. That would be an obvious potential opportunity. Perhaps it should be done by one of our smaller and nimbler venture capital or private equity outfits, but a Commonwealth fund could have real emotional appeal and could attract a large amount of funding that, if focused on venture capital, could encourage a resurgence of Commonwealth entrepreneurs.
At the same time, with our new and invigorated UK export finance, where we have announced huge sums of money available, particularly for the region of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where I have trade envoy responsibilities, surely there is an opportunity at this CHOGM to make an announcement that UK export finance will provide a large fund of perhaps £2 billion to £5 billion of finance available as insurance credit for business partnerships around the Commonwealth. That would be a good start and would demonstrate our commitment to promoting greater intra-Commonwealth trade.
Behind that, there are what I might call the two step-brothers that are critical to every country across the Commonwealth: cyber and FinTech. In these sectors, the UK can offer a huge lead for, and partnership with, other Commonwealth countries. We already do so, particularly with Singapore in the far east, but there must be greater opportunities for doing so with Commonwealth partners, particularly in Africa.
I recommend that the Foreign Office—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, rather; let us not forget the C—proposes to the Commonwealth secretary-general, my former fellow trade envoy, Baroness Scotland, that she considers setting up a new Commonwealth cyber body as soon as possible to bring together expertise from the UK and other member states, and considers ways of increasing capacity for the protection of all digital facilities, Government and non-Government, in member states.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am sure that he already knows this, given that he is trailing heavily with his tailcoat, but I understand that the cyber proposal he mentioned has already received considerable support, and that a large number of our fellow Commonwealth members will take it up during CHOGM.
In fact I did not know that, but it makes logical sense. If that work is already under way, I am delighted. Perhaps the Minister can say more about it, because that is exactly the sort of initiative we need. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention.
The next stage, which brings me back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) said, is the whole business of training and skills. For everything I have mentioned—standards, fund management, export credit, cyber and FinTech, and promotion of development causes—we will need more skills, and not just in this country but throughout the Commonwealth. Training courses and the handover of skills through higher education and vocational qualifications are critical to the way the Commonwealth moves forward. The UK has a huge amount to offer in that context through organisations such as TVET, but specific sectoral skills also need to be passed on, and there is arguably no sector more important than the armed forces and the police. Widening our security links with Commonwealth countries and improving their security will be crucial to the success of those sovereign states and to ensuring that there is less volatility in governance than there has been in some of them in the past few years.
My hon. Friend is making important points, and I commend him for bringing forward the debate. I was astonished to learn in preparation for the debate that more than half the population of the Commonwealth is under 25. One can hardly begin to imagine the potential of the creative energy of all those wonderful young people and what that could do not just for the countries of the Commonwealth but for the whole world.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, although with that goes the challenge of ensuring that those people have opportunities, and the skills and qualifications to take up those opportunities. I add another caveat: if countries such as China are going to play a greater role in the development of infrastructure in the Commonwealth, particularly in Africa, I very much hope that the resultant job opportunities are not purely for large ships full of Chinese who come over to develop that infrastructure, but for the people who live in those countries.
There we are. I have touched on prosperity and security, partly because, alongside fairness and sustainability, they are two themes of CHOGM, but also because, in the absence of security and the ability to become more prosperous, the future of individuals, families and nations is always set back. This is an important time and these are important themes.
Let me quote:
“By pledging to serve the common good in new ways, we can ensure that the Commonwealth continues to grow in scope and stature, to have an even greater impact on people’s lives, today, and for future generations.”
That was said by she who will shortly host the greatest number of Heads of State and Government seen in this country since the 2012 Olympics: our own Queen. I believe that this CHOGM is partly to recognise, and perhaps to celebrate, Her Majesty’s incredible service to the Commonwealth and to ensure that the baton is passed on. I very much hope that the Prince of Wales and his sons and their wives play an increasing role in serving the Commonwealth, as our Queen has for so long.
Ours is a nation with much to give the world. I hope that the Government, business, charities and other organisations rise to the occasion of our hosting this year’s CHOGM, welcome India’s enhanced engagement and Gambia’s rejoining the Commonwealth, and consider all the ways we can ensure that that incredibly important and precious organisation goes from strength to strength.
Order. I need to begin calling the Front Benchers as close as possible to 3.30 pm, so I will impose a time limit of four minutes. That will take us a little beyond that time, so I emphasise that the limit might have to be cut if Members make interventions—I hope that they will refrain from doing so wherever possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I will do the best I can in the four minutes available.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate. In the last Parliament, I was a vice-chair of the all-party group on the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, I missed its annual general meeting this year, but it does good work, and he can be assured of my support for it. I also served on the executive of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which is one example of the many organisations he spoke about that are brought together by the Commonwealth and help to facilitate its various aims.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the Commonwealth’s good work on tackling malaria and about sight and vision. We had the Commonwealth Development Corporation at the all-party group on Malawi not that long ago. The opportunity for co-operation there is very important.
At the same time, it is important not to get misty-eyed. CHOGM gives us the opportunity to look at whether the Commonwealth’s options for the future are challenges, opportunities or both. The concept of the Commonwealth is not unrelated to the old Scots concept of the common weal. Of course, it is the Scottish National party’s ambition for Scotland one day to become an independent member of the Commonwealth in its own right. The very definition of an independent country is how it relates to and co-operates with other independent states. I note that 31 members of the Commonwealth have a population of 1.5 million or less, and no one seems to argue that they are too small or poor to be independent, or that they need to come back to the bosom of mother Britannia.
Scotland already enjoys special status in the Commonwealth. We participate in the Commonwealth games, and we have hosted them—in Edinburgh in 1970 and 1986, and in Glasgow in 2014—and I am proudly wearing the demure and sober 2014 Commonwealth games tartan. The legacy of the Commonwealth games in host cities is another advantage of the organisation. It is notable that venues are refurbished and brought back to life, which contrasts with the grandiose venues that are sometimes constructed for Olympic games.
Scotland also has a relationship with Malawi, and today I welcomed the honourable Juliana Lunguzi, MP for Dedza East, to the House. I thoroughly agree with the idea of improved visas for India, but that should be extended across the Commonwealth. Far too often, people from Commonwealth countries, including politicians, do not have their visas granted in time. That happens time and again with Malawi.
CHOGM presents a number of questions and opportunities. If the Commonwealth is to continue to be a force for good, members must be willing to be frank with one another. That means there are opportunities to press for action on human rights—particularly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights—remembering that some of the oppressive laws in Commonwealth countries are a legacy of empire.
The question of the head of the Commonwealth is clearly under discussion, too. Even if the ceremonial head remains the monarch, perhaps there is a way of democratising the choice of the secretary-general and involving the Parliaments of member countries in that decision. On future membership—I was going to say that I joked about Scotland, but I did not; I am very serious about Scotland—there is a question about whether Ireland might come back in. We have welcomed Irish observers at recent CPA events—although, given Ireland’s record in the rugby, I am not sure whether we want its participation in the Commonwealth games.
Trade is vital. We must remember that 52 of 54 Commonwealth countries make up only 9% of our exports. As the hon. Member for Gloucester said, the Commonwealth is not a trading bloc per se, and Canada already has a deal with the EU, so we must be careful about how that is taken forward.
There is an opportunity not for misty-eyed, rose-tinted harking back to the past but for building a 21st-century organisation looking at human rights and democracy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on bringing this important debate to the Chamber. I also pay tribute to him for his obvious passion for eradicating malaria and for the education of young girls across the Commonwealth.
In the Commonwealth’s near 70-year history, it has been an incredibly difficult organisation to define. That is understandable. It is not, as some might have us believe, a remnant of empire. It is not simply an organisation that organises brilliant sporting events every four years. It is not a military organisation like NATO, it is not a free trade organisation like the North American Free Trade Agreement, and it is not a political, economic and monetary union like the EU. Instead, it is a free association of member states including some 54 nations, with more than 30 republics, five separate monarchies and 16 Commonwealth realms lucky enough to have Her Majesty the Queen as Head of State. It is scattered around the globe on all inhabited continents. It is 11,566,870 square miles—20% of the world’s land area. It has an estimated population of 2.4 billion people—and growing—which is nearly a third of the world’s population, and in 2014 it produced a nominal GDP of $10.45 trillion, representing 14% of gross world product.
In researching for the debate, I stumbled upon this quote from Wisma Putra, Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Minister. He said:
“The Commonwealth has played a catalytic role in strengthening society’s capacity to manage disparity and diversity through its emphasis on the shared values and principles as enshrined in the Commonwealth charter, its good offices role, various programmes and activities as well as assistance in building democratic institutions, good governance, credible and transparent elections.”
Mr Putra has summed up in one sentence what the Commonwealth is and stands for: shared values and principles; managing disparity and diversity; and encouraging sound democratic institutions and good governance. Above all, the Commonwealth fosters dialogue and discussion where otherwise, in many cases, there would be none. For the last 70 years, that has been the case. These disparate states, bound by a common history and shared endeavours, encouraged, supported and—most importantly—talked to one another.
That is the present and the past, and today we are talking about the future. Britain today is at the beginning of a new chapter of its island story. As we leave the European Union and look to foster alliances around the world with allies old and new, we look to strike trade deals and partnerships in Africa, Asia, South America, North America and Australasia. I put it to hon. Members that no country has ever been in so fortunate a position—or had a better starting point at such a juncture—as the United Kingdom today. We are a member of an organisation that spans every corner of the globe and encompasses some of the fastest growing economies in the world; that comprises 54 nations that share our values—we believe in free and fair trade as a means to grow prosperity and eradicate poverty—and our desire to build a better world for our children and our children’s children. For far too long—for understandable if regrettable reasons—this country has paid far too little attention to the organisation. I am glad that, through the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and beyond, we will begin to right that wrong.
It will not be a smooth ride—nor should it be. We do not and never should engage with Commonwealth member states as some sort of imperial master. They are bound to us by nothing but good will, a shared history and common values. We go to them as equals, but we do so from a terrific starting point. In the next few years together, the Commonwealth, with common cause and purpose, and with Britain—for the first time for far too long—at its true heart, can be the forum where, through trade, common endeavour and dialogue, we build a better future for all our peoples and make the 21st century truly the Commonwealth’s century.
Order. Before we go to the next speaker, may I ask the Front Benchers if I could cut them down to eight minutes each so that we can hear more from the Back Benchers? Is that agreed? Given that we have not had any interventions yet, and the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) has agreed to withdraw, I can extend speaking time to five minutes for everyone else.
Thank you for your patient chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on introducing the debate. This is a timely discussion about the role of the Commonwealth in relation to the United Kingdom as we look to the future.
My most endearing memory of involvement with the Commonwealth was as a volunteer at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth games, where I participated in the medal ceremonies. That was a fantastic experience. Aside from getting a free kilt out of it, I had the chance to work closely with Prince Tunku Imran, who was involved with the Commonwealth Games Federation and the presentation of medals to numerous teams. It was wonderful to see the diversity of participants, from world-class athletes such as Usain Bolt to people who were participating in formal competition in their sport for the first time. It was marvellous to see that diversity imbued in the Commonwealth. That is what gives it its unique flavour: it is not just a series of diplomatic member states in a secretariat but a huge synthesis of human relationships that go much deeper and build a great degree of influence and good will across the world.
That is vital in today’s globalised world, where we face major challenges and huge global inequalities. The Commonwealth’s structure transcends that remarkably and provides a great forum and mechanism through which Britain can contribute to improving the condition of mankind across the world. That is why it is so relevant and critical today.
I hope that at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting we will see a reaffirmed, firm commitment to achieve the UN sustainable development goals through Commonwealth action by the target date of 2030. Recently, I was pleased to meet the high commissioner from Malawi who came to the House of Commons to discuss Malawi matters and how vital Scotland’s contribution has been to promoting development in Malawi. That was a great, heartening discussion. We had a debate on that topic in Westminster Hall recently, too. The depth of good will in the Commonwealth and the huge commercial trading and developmental opportunities that exist are clear. That is critical, and we must reaffirm our efforts to improve them and their resilience in the years ahead.
It is wonderful that as of last month Gambia has rejoined the Commonwealth. I offer my congratulations. I also hope that Zimbabwe will rejoin in due course; I believe discussions are ongoing to that effect. It is great to see the restoration of members within the Commonwealth, and that countries such as Mozambique, which were never part of the British empire and did not have a previous imperial relationship with the United Kingdom, saw the benefits of the Commonwealth and have joined it. That is a wonderful demonstration of what the Commonwealth now represents. It is not a hangover from empire but a relevant organisation. It is important that it continues to adapt and prove its relevance.
One of the key ways in which it can do that is by looking at how we deal with the challenge of AIDS and HIV across the world. We must be robust with other countries in the Commonwealth—particularly around anti-LGBT laws and how they adversely affect access to the prevention and treatment of HIV and AIDS across the world—and use Commonwealth mechanisms to make headway against that epidemic. I hope the Minister will raise those issues with his counterparts in the Commonwealth as part of our effort to deliver on the global goal of a world free from AIDS.
Many Members and previous leaders such as Gordon Brown have made the point about the relevance of the Commonwealth, particularly in dealing with huge global inequalities. Natural disasters contribute to $8 billion of economic losses per year in the Commonwealth, and the combination of many of the smallest nation states in the world with many of the largest and fastest-growing nation states gives us a huge opportunity to use the Commonwealth to redistribute wealth and power globally in favour of the most marginalised people in the world. That is where our focus should be: how we use forums such as the Commonwealth games, diplomatic networks and development networks to see a redistribution of opportunity, wealth and power in favour of the weakest people in the world today. With 2.4 billion people—a third of the global population—and the fastest growing cities in the world, there is a huge opportunity to be grasped.
Engagement with the Commonwealth is vital for Britain. We must look at how we can redouble our efforts. We see opportunities for close relationships between states such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand—the more developed nations of the Commonwealth with which we share a common language and other cultural links—and we must use that wealth to redistribute across other nations of the Commonwealth and ensure global redistribution of wealth and power. That is where the Commonwealth can re-establish and reaffirm its relevance in the 21st century.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing the debate. We are on the eve not only of CHOGM—for the first time in 30 years it will be held in this country—but of the Commonwealth games. As a recently appointed non-executive director of Commonwealth Games England, I want to dwell a little on that aspect and the importance of the games in bringing interaction between very different nations that are part of the Commonwealth family.
There are key strategic objectives over and above winning a lot of medals, which we hope our sportsmen and women will do. We need to deliver that success not just at the Commonwealth games, but at the Youth games that follow, which often give smaller nations an opportunity to host and benefit from everything that the Commonwealth games have to offer.
One of our key objectives is to create an English Commonwealth movement to promote personal achievement and our core values of equality, diversity and inclusion. Precisely because so many Commonwealth members are of such a young age, it is a very important opportunity to promote those values with successive new generations of citizens throughout the Commonwealth. Another objective is to be one of the most effective, respected, best-governed and well-managed sports associations in England and the Commonwealth.
As a west midlands Member of Parliament, it is a particular delight to note that Birmingham has stepped up to take the baton, which unfortunately had been dropped in the preparation for the 2022 games. The whole of the west midlands region will benefit from the opportunity to host the games and to bring many Commonwealth citizens to that part of our country. I am confident that we can do a good job.
It is significant that sport gives the opportunity to promote the benefits of Commonwealth membership. The sheer sight of two countries, North Korea and South Korea, taking part in a sporting event together under a single flag is the most recent demonstration of the opportunity that sport affords of bringing people together, which can be replicated at future Commonwealth games. It gives me the opportunity to touch on one important example of the way in which, coming together as sportsmen and women, we can also explore quite difficult subject areas together on such occasions.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which does such a splendid job in this place, is currently delivering a modern-day slavery project: a two-year multilateral project funded by the Home Office. Through seminars and workshops, the project is designed to support Commonwealth parliamentary colleagues in developing and strengthening modern slavery legislation in their own countries. I chaired a seminar on that very subject and I found it informative to hear from MPs from other Commonwealth countries what they are doing to tackle the very difficult problem of modern-day slavery. It was significant that a Nigerian MP who took part in the seminar went back to his own country and in February introduced legislation in the Nigerian House of Representatives to start to tackle the problem of slavery both at home and abroad.
There are also challenging messages that we have to be prepared to hear from other Commonwealth members. The Ghanaian Member of Parliament said that in his view the Italian Government were doing a better job of trying to tackle trafficking at source from his country than our own Government were prepared to do. We have to be willing to listen—it is a two-way conversation in the Commonwealth—and to explore where there is best practice in terms of tackling such a difficult problem as modern-day slavery. We may have been the first country to introduce legislation, but the problem is by no means sorted. Working together across the Commonwealth, which contains some of the most populous countries in the world, where, sadly, trafficking is a problem, we have a chance of dealing with it.
I hope that hosting the Commonwealth games will give us an opportunity to promote the best of British values across the Commonwealth and that at the same time we will tackle some of the difficult issues that beset all Commonwealth members at whatever stage of their development. Together we can produce a better outcome for all the countries involved.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this important debate and making an excellent speech. This is a timely debate at a moment of importance in the affairs of our country, as we face a crossroads following our decision to leave the European Union. Britain is in a state of flux as we work out how we are to play effectively our global role in a new world. This is therefore an extraordinarily good moment to have this debate and to look forward to CHOGM and all that it will mean for the future of the Commonwealth and for its presence in this country.
We maintain a truly excellent but rather reduced diplomatic service, which, incidentally, must be properly resourced for its new duties, and a still highly effective military—I endorse entirely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester—on whom we will need to spend more money in the years to come to cope with the myriad threats. But one of our most important positions is to be at the very heart of the Commonwealth with our Queen at its head. The organisation has tremendous possibilities for its members and as an institution in the years to come. It comprises 53 nations and there are more than 100 Commonwealth institutions in London alone.
The bonds of history, language and political and other institutions shared by Commonwealth members are matters of celebration and could indeed represent great opportunities for Britain in a post-Brexit world, but they should never be taken for granted. Britain should be aware that in the 45 years since we joined the European Union, the world and the Commonwealth have both changed markedly in their perception and action towards the others. Finding areas of common interest in free trade across highly sophisticated and developed economies such as the UK, Canada and Australia will be a serious challenge.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Marland, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) and others who have driven forward the visionary work of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. I very much look forward to working with them over CHOGM.
Above all, in respect of the Commonwealth or any other trading organisation, we need to put flesh on the bones of global Britain, which at the moment is a slogan in pursuit of a strategy. It remains the case that there is a Commonwealth advantage. With its shared values, regulatory systems and language, there is no doubt that it has the potential to greatly increase intra-Commonwealth trade by possibly up to 20%, and could substantially cut the cost of doing business between member states. However, we need to keep a proper sense of proportion.
In 2015, 44% of our total UK exports of goods and services went to the European Union, while 9.5% went to the Commonwealth. This is a very big ask and a very important one. The biggest trade challenge for post-Brexit UK is not to get better trade deals with the rest of the world, although that would be good, but to get deals that are as good as those that now exist, most of which are multilateral and regional. We must remember that geography trumps history. This will be fiendishly difficult. Trade agreements are not something that happen at the drop of a hat; they take a lot of time and are complicated and deeply transactional.
I endorse very strongly the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester about India, which is interested in doing more trade with the United Kingdom. We have a long-standing and important relationship, but India will have its own demands on how many migrants are able to come here and the ease of getting visas to work. Surely to God we can work that out.
I wish to conclude and not take up my full time, but I wish to endorse again what my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said in an outstanding speech about the great debt that the Commonwealth and this country owe the Sovereign for her work in keeping together the Commonwealth through thick and thin and some very difficult times indeed. I hope that the gathering of the Commonwealth family will recognise that astonishing work and will see to it that, as my hon. Friend said, the succession is passed in good order. Finally, I hope—may all of us hope—that at a correct and goodly time Zimbabwe will return to the family of the Commonwealth.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech, particularly his focus on the United Nations sustainable development goals.
The UK’s trading future on the international stage is promising, and nowhere more so than within the Commonwealth. As a group of 54 nations, we are part of a collective comprised of 2.4 billion people—a third of the global population—and occupying about a quarter of the world’s land mass. By building on our relationships within the Commonwealth, we will further the goal, set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, of becoming a truly global Britain.
The Commonwealth has strong foundations rooted in seven decades of collaboration. It has helped support smaller nations develop, strengthening economies and democratic institutions. Our collective economic strength is significant: a shared gross national income of more than $10 trillion, and internal Commonwealth trade is expected to grow to $1 trillion by 2020. As we seek to develop new opportunities further, we do so from a platform of shared histories. In many cases we have a common language and a common legal structure. We should therefore in theory have fewer barriers to overcome in reaching agreements. Already, 80% of Commonwealth countries benefit from preferential access to the UK’s market. Furthermore, the Royal Commonwealth Society has highlighted the fact that there are already significant trade advantages within the bloc. In a recent study it found that transaction costs between two Commonwealth partners are 19% less than they are between non-Commonwealth nations: that is driven largely by language and legal systems.
When we consider bolstering our trading relations internationally, we need to do it strategically. I am pleased that the Department for International Trade is working with many of our partners to lay down the basis for future trade agreements. However, we are limited by our capacity to broker deals. Free trade agreements are clearly an ambition, and rightly. However, they do not always meet expectations. In most cases deals are designed around goods, but if we are to capitalise on our competitive advantages they will need to include service markets. The reality is that for businesses that trade internationally there are several non-tariff barriers that free trade agreements often do not address, such as licensing agreements, capital controls and ownership rules. The British Chambers of Commerce identified non-tariff barriers as the most important area of concern for business in non-EU third-party agreements.
One of the difficulties that businesses have faced in recent years, particularly in trading with such places as Australia and New Zealand, is the movement of personnel. Because we have had such free and easy migration arrangements with Europe, it has been a problem to try to get movement from those other countries. Does my hon. Friend agree that an interesting idea to consider is something like a realm visa, which would give easy access to people from countries where the Queen is the Head of State, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada?
Yes, I do agree. As we design an immigration system to meet the needs of the country, we will not have either artificial numbers or systems that do not meet the needs of businesses or our skills agenda.
Today the EU has, or is negotiating, trade deals with more than 80% of Commonwealth countries, in part thanks to the efforts of UK Governments, so we must ensure that we develop bilateral agreements to replace them. Bespoke deals could do just that. Singapore, for example, is a tech business hub for its region and could be a potential gateway to other Asian countries for British businesses. Like finance, technology consolidates in hubs, around talent and investment. We already enjoy a prominent position in the sector, with 18% of global data flows passing through the UK, so there is opportunity to grow. Singapore is currently finalising a deal with the EU.
We therefore hopefully have a foundation from which to work, with the potential for it to be more tailored to our national interests. Canada, too, has a basis from which to work, with the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement. Furthermore, we are Canada’s largest export market within the EU, and therefore there is a great mutual benefit to striking a deal.
In 2015 UK Commonwealth exports were £47.4 billion, with five larger economies—Australia, Canada, India, Singapore and South Africa—accounting for 70% of our Commonwealth exports and 65% of imports. There is therefore scope to expand our working relationships with the smaller developing Commonwealth nations. Technology, regulation, standards and skills training can act as a gateway to greater investment and openness in developing economies and provide career opportunities for large numbers of young people.
The Commonwealth provides the UK with a great opportunity for the further development of economic, diplomatic and cultural ties with nations that already have much in common with us. As the Prime Minister said last year, we face new and unprecedented joint challenges, and we all have a responsibility to work together as partners to ensure that the Commonwealth has the institutional strength to face them. Our trading relationships, if executed strategically, will drive prosperity both here and throughout the Commonwealth.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on obtaining the debate and on an excellent and thought-provoking speech.
This is an important time for our future as members of the Commonwealth. There is little doubt that the United Kingdom is at something of a turning point in its relations with the world, as several hon. Members have mentioned. It is at times of strife and change that we look to our steadfast and historic Commonwealth allies to provide some sort of security. Those nations represent peoples around the world with whom we have an affinity and share a history, and whose values are similar. Our shared history makes our shared future, through our dealings with the Commonwealth in the years to come, uncontroversial. We have a bright future in which to work with new and old alliances around the world, to secure our future place in it. I contend that we must be careful that we do not look to the Commonwealth only in extremis. We must not become known as a friend who calls only when they want something. It is not in crisis or strife that we want to build our future together; it is on the basis of a conscious decision to change our view of the world from a European perspective to a more global identity.
The potential for the UK to forge ahead in global terms offers significant advantages to the economy in the shape of new emerging markets in the Commonwealth, to sell our products to and to buy from. It offers investment opportunities in economies of all shapes and sizes, in which we can place investments, and where we can seek investors in our economy. House of Commons Library research states that the Commonwealth is already a significant and important part of our economy, representing £21.6 billion of exports in 2017. In Scotland, where we have strong affection for the Commonwealth, the figure is £2.7 billion. That is not a small part of our economic mix.
However, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester did not miss the mark when he pointed out the challenge of creating a mix between mature consumer economies such as Canada and Australia and developing economies, and other Members also commented on that. There is huge benefit for all concerned to be gained by working together. Beyond that, there is also immense potential for us to develop cultural and social links. As I mentioned in an intervention on my hon. Friend, more than half of the Commonwealth population of more than 2 billion is under the age of 25.
I want to end by returning to the words of Her Majesty the Queen that were quoted earlier, which I find inspirational. She recently said in Westminster Abbey:
“By pledging to serve the common good in new ways, we can ensure that the Commonwealth continues to grow in scope and stature, to have an even greater impact on people’s lives, today, and for future generations.”
In the spirit of that idea of the common good, I want to ask the Minister two questions about the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. How do the Government intend to use CHOGM to raise the profile of the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, which they have championed? Also, how shall we raise the principle of freedom of religion and belief through CHOGM? Sadly, it is not universally observed in the Commonwealth in accordance with article 18 of the United Nations declaration of human rights.
I hope that in the spirit of Her Majesty’s remarks we shall now turn as a faithful friend to our friends in the Commonwealth, nurture friendship and family connection with the Commonwealth, and reverse the neglect that we have shown for decades. In doing so, we can fulfil Her Majesty’s stated hopes and aspirations for the Commonwealth and further enhance her wonderful and lasting legacy.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as deputy chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council.
I want to join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). My old friend is a stalwart proponent of all things Commonwealth. It is very good that we have Commonwealth debates from time to time. When I was the Commonwealth Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, it became difficult, at times, to persuade officials and others of what an important opportunity the Commonwealth was, although people are finally waking up to that. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames): the Commonwealth cannot replicate the EU, but it is certainly a vital bolt-on part of Britain’s future, in terms of our economic and trading development.
The debate is timely, coming on the eve of the Commonwealth games, which will start in Brisbane shortly. I was the Minister when the games were hosted by the British Government and the city of Glasgow—the Labour city of Glasgow—which hosted them so well on behalf of us all.
As we look forward to CHOGM in just under a month’s time, I am sure there will be a huge turnout from Heads of State, not least because Her Majesty is entertaining at home. Indeed, I would not be at all surprised—this is all I will say—if there is an extremely high level of participation by all members of the royal family.
In the time remaining, let me give an unashamed plug for the work of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council and the stalwart job our small team is doing. We will have 800 senior businesses in London, and we will hold a series of sessions, including on accessing modern financial services, easing the pathway for business and growth, harnessing Commonwealth technology and innovation, creating a new attitude to sustainable business, mobilising an export economy, and attracting inward investment. Those things are important not only to the United Kingdom, but right across the Commonwealth.
The combined GDP of the Commonwealth will reach $14 trillion by 2020. Intra-Commonwealth trade was $525 billion in 2015, and that is set to rise to $1 trillion by 2020. We have heard a lot of statistics today about what the Commonwealth stands for, but I believe they are worth repeating. The Commonwealth is currently a group of 53 countries. I echo the desire for Zimbabwe to return to the Commonwealth fold one day soon, after having been thrown out because of Mr Mugabe. In a rather different way, the Maldives exited itself from the Commonwealth, and I very much hope that it, too, will return to the Commonwealth family, where it surely belongs. There is a road to redemption, as evidenced by Fiji, which was out of the Commonwealth for a while but now plays an increasing role within it. I suspect it will play an even bigger role in the years ahead.
It is worth bearing in mind when we talk about the Commonwealth that we are talking about a quarter of the world’s GDP and a third of the world’s population, 60% of whom, as we have heard, are under 30. At 1 billion people, the middle class of India alone exceeds the population of Europe. These are huge numbers.
I think that the Commonwealth has a rosy future. We are looking forward to the business forum that will take place over three days from 16 to 18 April, just before CHOGM. I think that will set the pace for a good Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. When it is all over, hopefully we will all congratulate ourselves, but that is when the real work begins. I hope that we can persuade colleagues in the Government to give the same attention to the Commonwealth after the Heads of Government meeting as they have suddenly been giving it in the last few weeks, in the run-up to that meeting.
I am pleased to be able to begin the summing-up. I commend the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing the debate and for his knowledgeable and informative introduction to it.
I am pleased to see so many people from Scotland here, because that accentuates the place that the Commonwealth has, and will continue to have, in the hearts of the people of Scotland. It also explains why, for the first time since I have been in Parliament, and possibly for the first time in recorded history, the Chair actually increased the time limit for a speech. However, I noticed, Mr Davies, that you waited until two of the Scots had spoken before you did so. I will try to leave time for them to get an extra minute each before the debate concludes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) made a well-informed speech, as would be expected given his long and dedicated track record of service to Commonwealth countries. A number of Members have mentioned the fantastic experience that was the Commonwealth games in Glasgow. When the world’s friendliest sporting event pitches up in the world’s friendliest city, we can be sure there’s going to be one heck of a party. I was pleased to attend, although unlike some Members, I did not get a uniform and I had to pay for my own ticket, but I enjoyed myself just the same.
I do not have time to mention the contributions from all the Members who have spoken, but I will pick up one or two points. I commend the dedication of the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) in taking on another commitment and promoting the success of the Commonwealth games, but I must take issue with the idea that winning medals matters a jot at the games. The Commonwealth games are a much greater spectacle and common humanity event than the Olympic games because, although the vast majority of spectators want to see the best, there is no jingoistic determination to get more medals than the next person. It would be a tragedy if we allowed the Commonwealth games to be soured by that mentality. We expect everybody who turns up to do the best they can.
Some of the most excited people I saw in Glasgow were the bowls team from Niue. It has a population of 2,000, but it managed to find a bowls team that gave Scotland a heck of a hard game. They and their compatriots went home without a medal between them, but they had a brilliant time and made a lot of friends. That is what the Commonwealth is about. Once that was what the Olympic games were about, and we are all poorer for the fact that that does not happen.
My deep worry is that there seems to be a thread running through the debate that the purpose of the Commonwealth after we leave the European Union might be about restoring our trading links. The Commonwealth is not there just for us to trade with to enrich investors and business owners in the United Kingdom. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North pointed out, this should be about “common wealth”, and the big problem with the Commonwealth is that, despite the benefit of hundreds of years of benign colonial intervention from the mother of all democracies, the vast majority of it is still a desperately impoverished place.
Half the GDP of the Commonwealth comes from the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia—they have barely 5% of the population, but half the GDP. Two thirds of Commonwealth citizens live in countries whose GDP per head of population is less than a 10th of the world average. If we were to use one description to characterise the lives of the vast majority of citizens of the Commonwealth, it would be “desperate, desperate poverty”. Surely, in the name of God, if we are looking to achieve something with new trade links and by expanding world trade links, lifting those 2 billion people out of poverty must be more important than further enriching investors who hide their money in tax havens elsewhere.
That is absolutely correct and a very valid point. We must ask ourselves where this new trade will come from. The list of countries with which the European Union—and therefore the UK—has a trade deal or will have one by the time we leave, already includes a lot of the Commonwealth’s economic powerhouses, such as South Africa, Canada, Singapore and the large but unequal economy of India. We are effectively looking for trade deals with poor countries full of poor people. Are we saying that we will start having trade deals that benefit those people, rather than ourselves? I hope so.
I do not have time to take too many interventions—I apologise.
I have a deep interest in the Commonwealth. My mum was from a very large family, and a lot of her younger sisters took the £10 single ticket to Australia. As happened in those days, they all changed their name when they got married, so none of them bears my grandad’s name. However, I am delighted that the descendants of the “Mighty Quinn”, a humble plumber from Newarthill in Lanarkshire, now run into the hundreds and contribute to the economic and social wealth of the great country of Australia. When I was putting my notes together, I actually forgot that my wife is the daughter of an Asian Commonwealth immigrant—perhaps that is what happens when we think of people as who they are, rather than where they came from and what colour their skin is.
As I said, Commonwealth countries collectively comprise some of the poorest citizens in the world. If we want to keep our entitlement to talk about the Commonwealth, we must do something to make it a bit more common to all. Some of the suggestions about the way that trade can be used are beneficial, but we should be careful about some of the others. One thing that most Commonwealth countries have in common is that their people were once exploited for the benefit of Great Britain. We cannot and must not allow that to happen again. If we want to contribute to the future of the Commonwealth, we must talk honestly and openly about its history. Some parts of that history do not make Britain or its constituent nations look particularly good, and I include Scotland in that, because the role that it played in the oppression and exploitation of citizens in other countries is something that none of us can be too proud of.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North mentioned the close links with Malawi—an example of how the new relationships can be made more positive. I am happy to place on record the extraordinary contribution to that link that was made by Jack McConnell, the then Labour First Minister of Scotland. His drive and determination created what is now probably the closest and best-developed bilateral link between any two nations on the planet. An astonishing 46% of people in Scotland know somebody with direct personal involvement in Malawi. Much of that is due to the fact that Malawians are eternally grateful for the part played by David Livingstone in abolishing the slave trade in their part of Africa and in helping to lead to its abolition elsewhere.
I cannot mention Malawi without singing the praises of the astonishing Mary’s Meals organisation. If hon. Members have not heard of it, they should hear about it. From literally nothing a few short years ago, it is now feeding over 1 million starving children every day—an extraordinary achievement by some extraordinary people. I hope that is the kind of spirit that can lead to the Commonwealth going from strength to strength.
The Commonwealth is not particularly a trading organisation, and I do not think it ever should be. It is not just about the Commonwealth games, but if the only thing the Commonwealth did was the Commonwealth games, it would still be worth celebrating. As I have mentioned, I was delighted when the games came to visit the city of my birth.
Leaving aside seeing the team from Niue, one of the things that we sometimes forget about the Commonwealth games is that it is not just 53 countries that take part, but 71. The Commonwealth Games Federation recognises the status of countries that are not officially countries according to the United Nations or the International Olympic Federation. For example, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man can compete in their own colours. The Commonwealth games are the only major competition in the calendar where world-class track or field athletes from England can compete in the colours of England. I think that is great.
The spirit of the Commonwealth games was best demonstrated by the lad from England who finished 10th in the marathon—didn’t he get a medal? His doctor said to him 18 months earlier, “You’re 6 stone overweight. Exercise or die.” So he exercised and exercised and exercised, and finished up the best-placed competitor for his country in the marathon in that great city. If the Commonwealth and our membership of it can inspire us all to put that amount of dedication into contributing something, whether to the Commonwealth games, the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit or Commonwealth-based organisations, the Commonwealth very much has a future ahead of it. I am proud to stand here as a citizen of the Commonwealth, and I hope to remain a citizen of the Commonwealth for the rest of my days.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this debate. We have heard many excellent speeches today; it has been an interesting debate.
Like the hon. Member for Glenrothes, I think there have been too many contributions for me to acknowledge every single one, but I was particularly struck by the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and her words about the importance of the Commonwealth games. I know the benefits they brought to my home city, Manchester; I look forward to the upcoming games in Australia and wish Birmingham all the best for 2022.
There were many important points made. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) also spoke about the importance of the Commonwealth games and the pleasure he took in participating and obtaining his free kilt, which maybe we will see him wearing one day. He also spoke clearly about the serious challenge of AIDS and HIV and how that is influenced by anti-LGBT laws. That is an area we need to look at in our relationships with the Commonwealth.
Many hon. Members have spoken about the benefits of trade arrangements with the Commonwealth. While I appreciate that in this post-Brexit world we are looking toward increasing our trading relationships with our Commonwealth partners, at the heart of the Commonwealth, as so many have said, is good will and co-operation, shared values and shared legal systems. We must remember that, and we must keep the sustainable development goals at the heart of everything we do. That does not preclude trade arrangements—sustainable development goal 9 talks about industry, innovation and infrastructure—but we must balance those things with reducing inequality, eradicating poverty, zero hunger and the important goal of ensuring that girls have access to 12 years of education by the year 2030, which the hon. Member for Gloucester referred to in his speech.
The question of who should be the next Head of the Commonwealth has arisen; I was interested to see that referred to in the House of Commons Library research paper, because I was not aware that it was in dispute. According to the House of Commons Library, it is not a foregone conclusion that Prince Charles will become the next Head of the Commonwealth, and that will feature in the CHOGM discussions in April. It will be interesting to keep an eye on developments there; I was not aware of the matter, and I had assumed it was a natural succession, but it seems some Commonwealth countries are saying they would like to elect a different Head. That will be an interesting one to keep an eye on.
It is particularly apt, as many hon. Members have said, that we are having this discussion prior to the CHOGM meeting in April. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association hosted the Commonwealth Parliamentarians Forum here in Westminster at the end of February, which gave parliamentarians an opportunity to engage with the overarching CHOGM theme, “Towards a common future”, with its key objectives of a more sustainable future, a fairer future, a more secure future and a more prosperous future, and its cross-cutting themes of youth, gender and inclusion.
The Commonwealth abides by the Latimer House principles, which guide governance, Parliament, the judiciary and the law-making process. It is also guided by its own charter, which commits to democracy, human rights, international peace and security, as well as recognising equality, the role of civil society, sustainable development and the importance of young people, who, as already mentioned, make up 60% of the 2.4 billion people in the Commonwealth.
To summarise, in an era of uncertainty, changing economic circumstances, new trade and economic patterns, unprecedented threats to peace and security, and a surge in popular demands for democracy, human rights and broadened economic opportunities, the potential of, and need for, the Commonwealth as a compelling force for good and an effective network for promoting development and co-operation has never been greater.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and a particular pleasure to respond to such a debate, where there has been a common thread among colleagues and where the speeches have all emphasised different aspects of a remarkable institution to which this House and all its Members are deeply committed. It is a joy to be able to respond. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) for securing this debate at such an important time for the Commonwealth, and for a charming and erudite speech in promotion of its values and everything else.
As my colleagues from the respective Front Benches said, there was too much in the speeches to cover everything, but I will try to pick out individual points. I must say that my sense that the Commonwealth is in good hands, as far as colleagues in the House are concerned, is very much enhanced by what all have said in picking out the different aspects of this extraordinary relationship that we all wish to enhance. That task within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office falls to Lord Ahmad; I speak here on his behalf. I praise the work he has been engaged on over the last few months. He was worked tirelessly in relation to CHOGM and continues to do so.
Many colleagues have spoken warmly of the connections we all share with other members of the Commonwealth, and of the organisation’s enormous potential for good. My family is no different from any other. Three cousins in Dundee looked at their futures in the early 1920s. One went to South Africa, one went to Canada and one stayed in Scotland. That is not an unfamiliar family pattern, particularly for my family north of the border. Families and other close ties cover so many different aspects of the Commonwealth relationship. As I will make clear, there is no sense that the only particular focus is on the trading relationship. It covers so much more, as almost all the speeches made clear.
The belief in the organisation’s potential as a force for good is shared by the Government. I will set out how we would like next month’s CHOGM meeting to agree ways in which together we can drive progress in realising the full potential of the Commonwealth. Next month promises to be a wonderful celebration of the modern Commonwealth, starting with two weeks of friendly athletic endeavour at the Commonwealth games in Australia’s Gold Coast.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) may like to explain his concept of a medal-less games to the Australians. I wish him joy in that. However, his point was well made; it is indeed “the friendly games” and always has been. However, there is importance in winning. When I was a 15-year-old cross-country runner and Ian Stewart won the 5,000 metres in Edinburgh in 1970, that made us all incredibly proud. Winning matters, but the spirit of the Commonwealth games clearly matters far more, as the hon. Gentleman was right to put it.
I wish my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) very well for the games coming up in Birmingham. She was right to flag how important that is and how important it will be for the city, just as it was for Manchester and all that was contributed there. That sense of athleticism and of joy that is created around Commonwealth games and Paralympic sport is something we all value hugely.
The week after the Commonwealth games, there will be a summit here in the UK, and the month will conclude with celebrations marking the 92nd birthday of Her Majesty the Queen. I put on the record, on behalf of the Government, our admiration of the extraordinary contribution made by Her Majesty over the years. The Westminster Abbey quote used by several colleagues emphasises how much the Commonwealth means to her. Indeed, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, whose commitment to the Commonwealth, and the passion with which he speaks about it throughout all his charitable work and other endeavours, speaks for itself. We should be very proud of the contribution made by both Her Majesty and His Royal Highness to the Commonwealth.
For the summit we will have the privilege of welcoming to the United Kingdom national leaders, Foreign Ministers, business and civil society representatives and, perhaps most importantly, young people from every corner of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is a unique global network. Its member countries together cover more than a quarter of the world’s land mass, are home to a third of the world’s population and account for a fifth of the world’s trade. Perhaps most importantly for the future of this great institution and the wider world is that more than two thirds of the Commonwealth’s people—around a billion people; one in seven of the world’s population—are under 30 years of age, as has been mentioned. Those figures show the Commonwealth’s immense potential to be an influential player on the global stage in the years ahead.
We have seen the tremendous impact that the Commonwealth can have when it acts as one, as it did in helping South Africa to transition from the injustice of apartheid to the free and democratic society it is today. At the last summit in Malta in 2015, we saw how Heads of Government came together to press for the ambitious climate change agreement forged in Paris just one month later, and we witnessed the valuable work of the Secretary-General and Commonwealth secretariat in helping to broker a political agreement in Zambia.
However, if the Commonwealth is to continue this important work and remain strong, relevant and fit to face the challenges of the 21st century, it must have a clear purpose that is supported by all 53 member states. My hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), in his excellent speech, which set out what the Commonwealth is not, managed to indicate what it is: this coming together of states, nations and peoples for no other purpose than their wanting to be together, which is so important.
All member states have agreed to focus on four clear priorities at the summit next month—to reassure hon. Members, each priority is as important as the other—and they will all be focuses on which the leaders will agree action. The first aim is to build a more prosperous future by making the compelling case for free trade as the best way to promote higher living standards around the world. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire)—a former Minister for the Commonwealth—made clear, when talking about the Commonwealth business forum, what needs to be done. He spoke of the real work that will follow the summit, and he is absolutely right.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), in talking about global Britain and the opportunities of that, made the point that global Britain is fine as a slogan, but that we have to deliver. The Commonwealth provides an opportunity, in conjunction with other work we will do, to do just that. Again, the commitment to the Commonwealth shown by both my right hon. Friends over the years has been extraordinary. We are in their debt.
The second priority is to build a safer future by addressing new security challenges, such as cyber-terrorism and online extremism. A cyber agreement is being discussed as we speak. The third aim is to build a sustainable future by helping small island and vulnerable states to mitigate the effects of climate change and by helping the Commonwealth to face other crises. In that context, we can look at some things mentioned by colleagues as they look at other crises. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester talked about malaria, which is a serious health concern for many Commonwealth countries. No decision has been taken on what will be raised at the summit, but we are pleased to note that Malaria No More will hold a malaria summit. It is a matter of great concern.
The final aim to be talked through is to create a fairer, freer and more inclusive future by promoting the values, enshrined in the Commonwealth charter, of democracy and good governance. So many things were mentioned about that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden spoke of the importance of addressing migration and modern slavery. That will absolutely be right up there. The summit is also certainly an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on the education of women and girls, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester mentioned. It will certainly be raised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) raised two questions: freedom of religion and belief, and the preventing sexual violence initiative. Both subjects will very much be raised at the summit and we anticipate discussions on both. We will use the summit to uphold the values of the charter, which are so important to many here. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) raised the sustainable development goals— I am glad to see her wearing the badge—and the CHOGM summit will be important to that. I know that this also matters to the hon. Member for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney), who raised the importance of LGBT issues. Those are other issues of real value. Although some of the subjects are difficult, he can be assured that the values are clear and that the determination will be strong.
The summit is a priority for the Government, and our ambition is encapsulated in the theme, “Towards a Common Future”: to reinvigorate the Commonwealth and to help to make it an even more active and influential global network. We want the summit to be an important milestone for the Commonwealth—a point in its history where it shows it is fit and able to take on the challenges of the 21st century. If the speeches today are anything to go by, I am sure it will be.
This debate has shown the House at its best, coming together in support of a great cause and great organisation and having a great discussion about what the future contribution of our country and the House can be towards helping the Commonwealth on its journey towards a really exciting future. I am grateful to all those who joined the debate, to the Minister for his response, which was helpful in both tone and content, and to you, Mr Davies, for chairing the debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the future of the Commonwealth.