I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Commonwealth in 2020.
May I wish you a happy Commonwealth Day, Madam Deputy Speaker? It is a great honour to have been reappointed as the Minister for Africa for the UK Government, this time working across Foreign Office, international development and Commonwealth issues.
Since I began working for Barclays in Swaziland—now Eswatini—in the 1990s, Africa has been a huge influence on my life, both personal and professional, inside and outside this place. The same is very much true of the Commonwealth. I have had the privilege of working, living or travelling in 18 of the 19 Commonwealth countries in Africa. I exported my only brother to the Commonwealth: he went to Australia. I met my wife in Eswatini and we travelled on our honeymoon anticlockwise around the outside of Zimbabwe. It was a Commonwealth member at the time we met, and I hope that it will rejoin us. I previously served in the Foreign Office covering the Caribbean, and until recently I was chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the reins of which I assumed from and return to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger).
I thank the Minister for his comments, and also for the work he did as chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association over that period. I should also like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans), who is now a Deputy Speaker. May I ask the Minister to dwell, at some time in his speech, on the success of the scholars that we bring here from all around the world? I know that he has chaired many conferences. Will he also mention what we do for the young people of the Commonwealth whom we bring from all over the world to learn and to exchange best practice with us?
I thank my hon. Friend. The conferences that the CPA runs are superb, and I thank him, the executive committee and Jon Davies, who works tirelessly on behalf of the Commonwealth and colleagues. I was well rewarded for my role as chair of CPA UK, as it gave me this rather nice tie as a leaving gift. [Interruption.] I think the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) disapproves of my tie, but he too wears racy ties on occasion—I am glad to see him sporting a slightly more conservative one today.
I was a member of the parliamentary delegation for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018. Now that I have a role in Government, I am looking forward to delivering some of the commitments made in 2018. I trust that the House understands why it is such a pleasure for me to mark Commonwealth Day on behalf of the Government.
As a relatively new Back Bencher, I am now able to take part in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegations for the first time, so I reiterate the Minister’s point about how worth while they are. They should be commended to Members across the House who are perhaps not so familiar with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I recently had the opportunity to travel to Botswana, where we encountered a very enthusiastic parliamentary delegation. These bonds are part of the important underpinning of our Commonwealth.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I fondly remember having a tour of the Parliament of Botswana when I worked there a number of years ago. I strongly commend the CPA to new Members, as it is a brilliant way to get to know the Commonwealth—it is also brilliant to get involved in the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which has a slightly different remit and does things in a slightly different way. The CPA allows us to reach out beyond the United Kingdom and to understand why we help the Commonwealth in the way we do. Also, in all candour, it allows us to reflect on our positions here and to get to know colleagues from other parties, as we do on Select Committee—the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), who is nodding on the Opposition Front Bench, knows me only too well, and not only from CPA visits but from serving on the International Development Committee. On such trips we realise how much we have in common and that in our mission there is more that unites us than divides us, as someone once famously said.
The Commonwealth brings together 54 countries and nearly 2.5 billion people—a third of the world’s population—from every corner of the world. Its value and appeal are not only enduring, but growing. The Maldives re-joined only last month, and a number of countries, including most recently Angola, have expressed their enthusiasm for joining the Commonwealth family and sharing in all that the organisation stands for and delivers.
Some cynics have suggested that it is a cliché to describe such a diverse group as a family, but I wholeheartedly disagree. In fact, the Government’s Front Bench is the most diverse in British history, and there we find the reality of what the modern Commonwealth family means for modern Britain. A number of ministerial colleagues have to go back only one generation to show that we in the UK are literally a product of the Commonwealth—from India, Pakistan, Sierra Leone and, in my case, less exotically and interestingly, Bristol.
Commonwealth Day offers an opportunity to celebrate those bonds. It is also a chance to take stock of our co-operation and the opportunities ahead. The Commonwealth charter acts as a guiding light for our shared values. It commits member states to developing free and democratic societies, and to promoting peace and prosperity. The ambition and vision for what we collectively want to achieve are shaped by the Heads of Government meetings, which are held every two years—a number of colleagues will have participated in those.
At the most recent London summit, leaders agreed that the Commonwealth should be a global force for good and should play a full role in tackling the major challenges of the century, from reducing plastic in our oceans to increasing our resilience against cyber-attacks. We have also made major commitments, such as the commitment to 12 years of quality education for all.
That is all very well, but the vast majority of Commonwealth citizens live in countries where homosexuality is illegal, where they could be sent to prison, and where they suffer all sorts of different forms of homophobia. Why did the declaration that followed last year’s CHOGM contain not a single mention of that?
The Commonwealth charter refers to rights for all, and that should include rights for sexuality. Some countries in the Commonwealth and internationally have made significant progress, but many have not. Many countries, as the hon. Gentleman knows, throw back in our face the fact that those are our laws from a bygone age. We should do more to encourage people in the Commonwealth and around the world to modernise and have rules that reflect the charter and what we describe here as modern Britain, which should be the modern Commonwealth and the modern globe. I encourage there to be more discussion in Kigali in June specifically on these issues. Like me, he knows that with such matters sometimes a strong voice behind closed doors is more effective than a loud voice in public.
I used to fly the pride flag in my office when I was a Foreign Office Minister, and I think that was done at the discretion of the local ambassador and high commissioner. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position that that has stopped. I think we should probably review that again because it was a good policy, so I will look into why there has been a change. We should do more in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), who I do not think is in the Chamber, will be twinning people who are either from the LGBT community or supportive of it with each country in the Commonwealth and globally so that we have that connection, parliamentarian to parliamentarian, which I think will be very effective.
At CHOGM 2018, the Heads of Government agreed a range of actions to build a Commonwealth that is fairer, more prosperous, more secure and more sustainable. As chair-in-office, we have worked closely with member states, accredited organisations and the secretariat to drive co-operation to achieve those goals. We have focused our efforts in four key areas: delivery, reform, solidarity and voice.
Delivery is about implementing each and every one of the commitments that we have made, and more than £500 million has been set aside to support that work. Our funding not only boosts our trade, safeguards our oceans and enhances our cyber security but promotes equality, inclusion, democracy and good governance, which the hon. Member for Rhondda touched on.
Our reform agenda is about ensuring that the Commonwealth secretariat is as effective and transparent as possible, liaising with all other Commonwealth organisations. Solidarity is about increasing the collaboration between member states in international organisations, which I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) is keen to see more of through the CPA.
The Commonwealth represents a quarter of the UN’s membership, so we will have more influence in New York if we work together more. That is why the UK has initiated monthly briefings for Commonwealth member states to come together at the UN to share ideas and understand each other’s priorities.
Our fourth focus is on ensuring that the voice of the Commonwealth is projected and heard on the international stage. As a global organisation representing a diverse range of countries, the Commonwealth is well placed to give a voice to the marginalised, and we have real clout when we speak as one. That is why we want to amplify the voices of smaller states, at the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, at which we represent quite a large bloc.
I am pleased to hear the Minister refer to smaller states and marginalised voices. How can the overseas territories, the Crown dependencies and other external territories be represented more forcefully in the Commonwealth, because at the moment they have no status, which I think is an oversight? In today’s world surely Bermuda should have as much of a voice as Tuvalu, which is a much smaller nation state. Is there some way we could work on that to ensure that such places are properly represented?
My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate for the overseas territories, and I was glad to see some of them at the margins of the last CHOGM with observer status. As he knows, there are significant issues in recognising them as countries at either the Commonwealth games or CHOGM, but we want to ensure that we engage as closely as possible with our overseas territories and the broader Commonwealth family. I will personally strive to do that, as will other Ministers.
Does the Minister agree that Her Majesty the Queen’s reference to diversity and its strength is duly poignant? As we launch into a new Brexit world, the strength of the Commonwealth can and will be the cornerstone of a future built upon the foundations of the 54 Commonwealth countries.
Absolutely. I will touch on the opportunities for projecting our global vision beyond our exit from the European Union and for looking to some of our traditional friends and neighbours that are further away, rather than some of our less traditional, closer European partners.
When the Heads of Government come together in Kigali, we will have to make sure that our co-operation remains strong. This will be a great opportunity to develop relationships with each of the Commonwealth countries in line with the global Britain that the hon. Gentleman highlights. We considered the potential of the Commonwealth when we considered how we will upgrade our new embassies and high commissions. For the first time, we have a high commission in Samoa, which I am pleased to report has had a wonderful day. Samoa’s Prime Minister went to celebrate Commonwealth Day in that newly opened high commission.
In 2018, when he was Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced his intention to expand our presence with eight or nine embassies, which are now functional. Not all of them have been officially opened, but those bricks and mortar demonstrate that our commitment is both genuine and enduring. I look forward to returning to Eswatini to open the high commission formally, and I will be returning to formally open the high commission in Maseru, Lesotho later this year.
Commonwealth citizens are rich in talent and ability. We also share a common language, which places Commonwealth citizens very well in the new points-based immigration system. We will be able to attract the brightest and the best from around the world, including scientists, innovators and academics. The points-based system supports the English language, which most of the Commonwealth have as one of their main languages.
The UK Government’s commitment to the Commonwealth and its shared values remains as steadfast as ever. Of course, no one can surpass the commitment of Her Majesty to the Commonwealth. I believe she was at Westminster Abbey today alongside Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for the Commonwealth to celebrate all things Commonwealth. It is a great convenor. Alas, in my preparation for this debate, I was unable to go myself, which is ironic given that I was able to go last time when I was not a Minister. I will rectify that next year, whatever I am doing.
We used the summit to raise our ambitions, and as chair-in-office we have delivered the commitment to expand the diplomatic network. We have also facilitated co-operation and a swathe of mutually beneficial projects and programmes, which I hope we will touch on in this debate.
The Kigali Heads of Government meeting will be a major milestone on the road to achieving the 2030 sustainable development goals, in which the UK is ready to play our full part as a leading actor on the world stage. As we mark Commonwealth Day, I welcome the views and insights of hon. Members as we work to fortify this fantastic institution and network for the benefit of future generations.
I thank the Minister and wish everyone a happy Commonwealth Day. I know his passion for Africa and the Commonwealth from the inquiries and trips we did together on the IDC.
As the shadow Foreign Minister covering the overseas territories, I want to mention their important role in the Commonwealth while highlighting that five of them—these are not even Commonwealth nations—do not recognise same-sex marriage, and it was this Government who, last year, rejected the recommendation of the Foreign Affairs Committee to make Orders in Council to require them to recognise same-sex marriage. If we cannot get it right for even our overseas territories, one wonders if we have any hope of persuading our Commonwealth friends. I will come on to that in a bit.
The Commonwealth is more important than ever as we leave the European Union in a world in which there is currently a grave lack of global leadership, in which the credibility and relevance of our great international institutions are under daily threat and in which human rights and the rule of law are being disregarded by dozens of Governments and deprioritised by dozens of others. In a world like that, we desperately need global leadership and co-ordinated international action, and that is what the Commonwealth should and can offer.
We desperately need a strong and united Commonwealth to demonstrate to the rest of the world why such institutions are so important. We desperately need a Commonwealth that will defend and promote respect for human rights and the rule of law. If the Commonwealth can do all those things, it will remain a vital force for good in our world and a centre point of Britain’s multilateral relationships, because we see the Commonwealth countries not simply as trading partners but as essential partners in the challenges faced by the world and by each of our nations.
With our common history and common future, the Commonwealth should be about sharing our wealth and knowledge, but we cannot deny that much of that history was not of a common wealth but of the UK taking, stealing and mistreating the countries that form most, but not all, of the current Commonwealth. Although we have impoverished those countries, we cannot change history or rewrite the past, but we can do the brave thing and apologise when we need to apologise and, where necessary, make concerted efforts to improve the lives of those who, by our colonial laws, are still discriminated against or who, by our discriminatory payments, lost out when serving to keep our country safe.
Rather than focusing on the far history, perhaps the hon. Gentleman might do better to focus on the recent history in which Commonwealth members joined together to sign up to the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative, showing that, actually, this is an organisation that is alive and well and working together on matters of great concern.
I am glad the hon. Gentleman has raised recent things because, even as we promote the Commonwealth now, we must be honest about places that have gone backwards, not forwards, over the past year and more in promoting peace, democracy and human rights—places where the Commonwealth is needed even more.
We think, of course, of the current tension in India and Pakistan and the violence in Delhi over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, but we also think of the democratic instability we have seen in Sri Lanka, a country I must have visited more than a dozen times, and in Nigeria and Kenya in recent months and years. We think of the deteriorating human rights situation in Uganda, Singapore and elsewhere, and the dreadful impunity of the regime in Cameroon. We think of the discrimination that continues against the LGBT community in far too many Commonwealth countries. That is the recent history of our Commonwealth. Of course we must celebrate some of the progress that is made, but we must not have rose-tinted glasses when Commonwealth citizens are being discriminated against around the world, their human rights are being denied them and their democratic participation is being taken away. Therefore, it was a missed opportunity when this Government failed to put the issue of LGBT rights formally on the agenda at the CHOGM in April in London. It was not only a missed opportunity, but a dereliction of our historic duty to right our wrong.
To avoid wasting another opportunity, may I ask the Minister what he has done since Britain became co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition in June to make it a priority to persuade members of the Commonwealth to join that coalition? After all, it cannot be right that the ERC, which exists to promote human rights of the LGBT community, currently has just six of the 53 members of the Commonwealth as signatories to its principles—none of the African, Asian or Caribbean Commonwealth countries have signed. If we are not putting pressure on those other countries to join, is it any wonder that they are doing the exact opposite and seeing how far they can roll back LGBT rights in their countries, including via grotesque proposals to punish same-sex relationships with the death penalty, as in Uganda? I have visited that country a number of times and met LGBT activists there, as many Members have done. Even in countries where the laws are not so draconian, the social situation is dire. In Jamaica last year, the global LGBT+ rights all-party group met many activists. How are those activists getting the support they deserve from this Government to overturn our imposed homophobia?
My sincere apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker. That was newbie mistake No. 473. I commend the hon. Gentleman for his concern for the LGBT community, but surely one of the best things we can do is invite the Commonwealth of Nations to this functioning democracy and show everybody that love does nobody any harm, and they can then take those examples back to their communities.
Yes, we did that two years ago, in 2018, at the CHOGM London meeting, but the Government failed to put this on the agenda of that meeting and to include it in the communiqué. I agree that we should be leading by example, but that means that when we have the chairmanship of Commonwealth positions and we do not raise these things, even gently, we are failing.
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of what was on the agenda at CHOGM, but does he recognise that the majority of diplomatic work that is done to achieve genuine difference is done behind the scenes? It is not about dragging our partners to the front of the stage and shaming and embarrassing them; it is about working behind the scenes to change their minds, showing them alternatives and working with them to achieve real change, so that they can own that change, rather than having it be seen as imposed as some neo-colonial viewpoint.
I worked with the Commonwealth secretariat and I have worked at the United Nations on these issues, so I know exactly what the hon. Lady is referring to. However, the proof is in the pudding, and I am afraid that the pudding is going rotten—things are going backwards. The situation of LGBT rights in these countries is deteriorating, not improving. If this is all done through private discussions, which are important, those discussions are going very poorly. Perhaps there comes a time when gently—we do not have to embarrass people—we publicly say, “We don’t think enough progress has been made on this, and we would like to move forward.”
It is important to say that all those countries have laws on their statute books because we imposed them. Those laws were not there before colonisation. In many of those countries, there was no legal discrimination and we imposed it. We have rightly seen our historical mistake and we have changed how we do things here, but we have a duty then to support others on the ground. It was right that the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), apologised last year. It was a brave thing for the Government to do, but it is time now for actions. Not only did the Government fail to put LGBT rights on the agenda, but the communiqué from London failed to mention them even once. Let us contrast that with what happened at the Commonwealth youth forum, where LGBT rights were raised in the opening and in the calls for action.
I am struggling a bit with the hon. Gentleman’s mental leap. He seems to be saying that we are responsible for all the problems with our colonial past and the laws that were created, and we are equally now responsible—he is lambasting the Government for this—for not forcing other Commonwealth countries to live up to our standards. I cannot see how we are responsible for the former and we are also responsible for letting them have free countries.
Usually, where someone goes into a shop and smashes a vase, they have a responsibility to fix it, or at least to pay for it to be fixed or replaced. If we go around the world smashing some people’s civil rights up, we have a responsibility to help sort it out. The question I asked the Minister was: how are we supporting the activists on the ground in those countries to make sure that they can pressure their Governments on laws that we imposed? I am afraid that if the hon. Gentleman cannot understand that, we are not going to see eye to eye on history or diplomatic relations.
Going back to where there is perhaps a glimmer of hope in the Commonwealth, the CYF brought together 500 delegates from around the Commonwealth, and it started to show us the future direction of many countries. Some 60% of the Commonwealth’s 2.4 billion population are under 30, so what are our Government doing to ensure that those young people’s voices are heard and amplified? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) suggested in the previous debate, we need to start to take Commonwealth youth service seriously, so that we can support those young people to hold their leaders to account. Will the Minister commit to training and funding young people to ensure that they are able to participate in the Commonwealth youth forum at this year’s forthcoming CHOGM? I am talking about supporting people from Britain and from some of the poorest countries from around the world that are Commonwealth members.
I have attended three CHOGMs, and this year’s will be the first to be held in a country that has never been a part of the British empire or part of a realm of the Crown. It will be held in a country where gender equality has been achieved by its Parliament, where the median age is 22.7 and where 69% of people are under 30. The CHOGM in Rwanda provides a real opportunity for gender equality and young people to be at the heart of the Commonwealth, and to put right some of the missed opportunities we had in London.
I had the privilege of being on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association executive and of visiting Rwanda 18 months ago. One concern about the Rwanda CHOGM relates to press freedom. It was alarming that Senators and Members of Parliament, all of whom are very good people and who have made huge achievements on gender equality, including on women’s budgeting issues—I thought that was extraordinary, and we could have done it here many decades ago—still had an issue about allowing reporters and mainstream media into Rwanda, because they believed that those people were not reporting exactly as the President would like. That problem needs to be addressed at the CHOGM in Kigali.
I quite agree. I have been proud to work with the Commonwealth secretariat in promoting press freedom, youth projects and, in particular, the youth development index, which includes an index based on freedom of speech. It is vital that we continue that important work. The Commonwealth Youth Ministers meetings happen regularly, and I have attended the last two. The Government have failed to turn up to a number of them in the past few years. I hope that with a new, revitalised ministerial team, we will see a change in that. Of course, I was personally proud and delighted to attend with Malala Yousafzai, who was honoured at the palace for the work she has done on girls’ education.
The shadow Minister is making an extremely good speech on gender equality. Does he agree that it is extremely important that we encourage and support Commonwealth countries to move forward and make progress on disability equality? That is an issue on which the Department for International Development in East Kilbride in my constituency is working hard. We should do our utmost in Parliament to champion movement on disability equality.
I do indeed agree. When I was at the most recent Commonwealth Youth Ministers meeting in Uganda two years ago, there were extensive discussions on that issue with some of the international disability organisations. I am pleased that in our presidency year London was host to a summit on disability and development. This country and the Government are doing things on disability, and for that they must be congratulated. They must continue that work.
If the Government believe that we need to develop new links around the Commonwealth, now is surely the time for them to develop schemes to make sure that young people and Commonwealth citizens can travel to meet and exchange with each other. A Horizon 2020 or Erasmus scheme for the Commonwealth—not just the poorly funded but very well managed Commonwealth Exchange programme that we currently have—must be on the agenda.
Let me turn to a couple of issues that cause so much pain among veterans in this country and in the Commonwealth. Every year since 2018, we have recruited 1,350 men and women from Commonwealth countries to serve in the British Army. That means that we currently have more than 6,000 Commonwealth personnel keeping our country safe. These men and women have come here, fought for our country and made lives for themselves. After four years, they are entitled to settled status, but they are forced to pay a punitive fee of £2,383, of which a large amount is profit to the Home Office. It is more than it costs to administer. Many of those who have come here have young families; for a partner and two children, they will be looking at a bill for more than £10,000 to stay in the place that they have protected, fought for and worked for, and that they now call their home. How can people who have volunteered to fight for us and our country—who have made their lives here—be treated so poorly? What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in Commonwealth countries about this issue? Will he speak to his colleagues in the Home Office about the Royal British Legion’s call for the removal of the fees for Commonwealth veterans? It is an issue on which we can probably find agreement throughout the House.
Let me finish by raising another issue. We literally owe an historic debt to members of the Commonwealth—Opposition Members have raised that issue a number of times. As the Minister will know, this time last year it was revealed that when the men of the East Africa Force —hundreds of thousands of black, white and Asian soldiers drawn from the British African colonies—received their demob pay at the end of the second world war, it was strictly calibrated according to their race, with black African soldiers from the same regiment paid a third of the amount given to their white counterparts of exactly the same rank. Many of those soldiers who faced discrimination are still alive today, but they are yet to receive even an apology from the Government, let alone any compensation.
The Opposition are yet to receive any answers to repeated letters asking the Government the following questions. First, how many surviving veterans were affected and are now contactable? Secondly, did the racial discrimination also apply to the demob pay of soldiers of the British Indian Army and the Caribbean Regiment in 1945? Thirdly, if so, do the Government know how many servicemen were affected in total across all regiments, and how many are still alive? Fourthly, what do the Government plan to do in response? They have had a year to provide answers to those questions, so will the Minister update the House on his actions going forward? When can the surviving men of the East Africa Force, and the other affected veterans, expect to receive an apology and acknowledgement? That is the very least that they deserve.
A Commonwealth must be more than just a name and more than just a glint in the eye of the past; it must be about honouring historic injustices, and it must be about a joint history. A Commonwealth must be about honesty if it is about anything at all.
It is the privilege of a lifetime to be elected to Westminster and to take my seat on these green Benches alongside so many new and talented one nation colleagues. While there is some personal irony to being referred to as “the cavalry”—not least because I cannot ride a horse—none of us is immune to the nature of the previous Parliament, nor to the need to make up for lost time now. I express my thanks to Members on both sides of the House for their warm welcome. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.
Entering Parliament for the first time is daunting: while I am slightly institutionalised by nature, this is a different kind of institution altogether, and I will admit to suffering the occasional bout of imposter syndrome. For those who pause for breath, the Palace is an ancient and inspiring place, full of echoes, whispers and the ghosts of those who have gone before. Indeed, the giants of our political history still sit among us. Who would dare to tread in their footsteps? But we have a chance to be a force for good, and it is incumbent upon us to do so.
It was during the Brexit doldrums of last October that I was fortunate to seize upon a fresh wind—I thank everyone at the Bracknell Conservative association for seeing something in me—and I left the Regular Army after proudly serving my country for 27 years. Handing in your ID card after a long career is no easy feat, but to do it with only six days’ notice was both unprecedented and unnerving. To any veteran who may be listening, I want to tell you that I absolutely get it. But the Army has done me proud, and I am grateful to everyone at the Ministry of Defence for showing me the door so quickly and allowing me to soldier on here.
It is customary at this point to pay tribute to my predecessor, but I would like to mention two, if I may. Andrew MacKay served as the MP for Bracknell for almost three decades before 2010. He was a loyal, much-loved and effective local politician. He is still spoken of fondly on doorsteps today, and has been a good friend to me since I was elected. More recently, Dr Phillip Lee also served this place with distinction, ploughing his own furrow as a man of conviction and always championing the causes dear to him. I thank both men for their huge contributions to Bracknell and for the legacies that they have left.
What of Bracknell itself? Nestled between the M3 and the M4 in east Berkshire, it is a new town, built in the late 1940s to offer an alternative to post-war London. It is characterised by one of the lowest rates of council tax in the country, a buoyant job market, near full employment, high-tech research and development facilities, and an abundance of international companies. It is indeed the silicon valley within the Thames valley, full of optimism for the post-Brexit economy and blessed with opportunity, as symbolised by the superb new Lexicon shopping centre.
It is no coincidence that Bracknell Forest Council has been able to get things done as a unitary authority that always balances its books. It is led by Mr Paul Bettison, one of the longest-serving council leaders in the UK; I commend him and all his staff and councillors. They serve their community with distinction, and I look forward to building a lasting relationship that is based on both give and take. We will also work closely with our friends at the neighbouring Woking Borough Council.
Bracknell is a great place to live, work and play, and has many open spaces that we must preserve from unsustainable house building. As a local boy, I am also fond of its people: they are hard-working, straightforward and blessed with a great sense of humour. During the election campaign, I was proudly informed by one constituent—please forgive me for quoting exactly—that
“you could win in Bracknell by pinning a blue rosette to a dog turd”.
I did, of course, thank him for what I took to be a compliment, but there is a serious point. I hope never to take this support for granted, and I am grateful to the people of Bracknell, Crowthorne, Finchampstead, Sandhurst and the uniquely named Wokingham Without for placing their trust in me.
I was proud, in 1993, to march up the steps of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, in the constituency that I now represent. In that time, I enjoyed some seminal experiences in amazing places with inspiring colleagues. Our recruiters will simply say that they are ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but the reality is much deeper. They come from all over the world to serve all over the world, notably from our great Commonwealth nations. They are multi-faith, male and female, gay and straight, black and white, and bisexual and transgender, and I have been proud to serve alongside every single one. Conversely, for those who have suffered the frustration or indignity of working alongside me, I can only apologise.
Right now, more than 10,000 people are serving in operations across the globe, away from friends and family, doing what they do without fuss and with complete humility. For some, the stakes are high, but military service is not just about fixing bayonets. For our combat and combat support arms, I have the highest regard, but it is also about everyone in the chain doing what they are paid to do. I would like to pay tribute to all those who sustain, particularly to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the Royal Logistic Corps, my own corps, and our civil service and contractors. More than 230 personnel from my own unit, 27 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps in Aldershot, are today manning the green line in Cyprus, and a further 14 soldiers from 19 Tank Transporter Squadron in Bulford are in Estonia supporting our combat forces. I am proud of the work they are doing and I miss them greatly.
As for the future, our armed forces do not need a magic wand, but they do need to know that they are valued, supported and resourced for what they do. That is why we have a golden opportunity now, with the forthcoming strategic defence and security review, to get this right. Our combat capabilities are among the best in the world, but we also need to tackle the threats that come from the other domains, too, notably space and cyberspace. Greater exploitation of remote technology, information systems and autonomous platforms will be needed, and our surface naval fleet will require more ships if we are to maintain a global presence.
Indeed. Quantity does, of course, have a quality all of its own. We should also focus on those strategic enabling capabilities that allow us to maintain a fully expeditionary posture, such as additional airlift, transport ships and utility vehicles, plus specialist logistic capabilities such as port and railway operators, movers, drivers, tank transporters and air dispatchers.
Operating freedoms and resilience do come at a price, but—here is the big but—the SDSR, when it comes, must be aligned to a defence industrial strategy, which places British manufacturing at the heart of what we do. We already have some of the best research and development facilities in the world and a coalition of the willing, so let us design British, build British, buy British and sell British. Once we have reassured those who have boldly continued to preserve our nascent defence manufacturing capability, we can transform this impetus to other commercial sectors, too, so that we boost all of our exports and put the UK back on the map.
That is my vision for post-Brexit global Britain—a proud, united, and independent nation with a strong economy based on manufacturing and services trading freely all over the world and creating the wealth that we need to pay for our public services. To protect British interests, we will need an agile and influential Foreign Office, robust defence capabilities and bucketloads of soft power. We already have the right tools for this with our diverse multicultural society, our unrivalled diaspora, our media outlets and our fantastic Commonwealth, but there is a snag. If the Government are to avoid writing foreign policy cheques that they cannot cash, then the Ministry of Defence will need more than 2% of GDP in its account. Perhaps then, by employing the best brains and linking all of these essential ingredients into a single global strategy, we will have a golden thread that should see us right through to the next epoch and beyond.
Here at home, I will, of course, be proud to get behind the blue-collar domestic agenda of our manifesto. I believe that the offer is good for health, education, social care, employment, and law and order. Plus, there is yet more to come across the political spectrum. I look forward to doing my bit for Bracknell, too. Indeed, this one-nation Government will make the UK a better place, boost economic growth, enhance opportunity and preserve the enviable way of life that we have in this country. But not everyone has a house on the hill. In fact, very few do and we have a moral duty to support those less fortunate than ourselves. The scourge of poverty is one priority that we must tackle now, but there are two other areas where we, as a nation, are furthest from where we need to be.
Mental illness is the modern day epidemic and affects more people than we know. Many years ago, I lost my best friend to suicide, when he was just 28 years old, and that trail of devastation continues two decades on. To my mind, it is unthinkable that, in 2020, anybody should feel disenfranchised in our society, not just on the basis of their colour, creed or sexuality, but in the area of mental health. We have work to do to put this right and to overcome the stigma of asking for help. For those affected, it is okay to not feel okay, but we also need to invest more so that mental health gets some parity with physical health. Secondly, our collective approach to special needs education for our children is woeful. As an affected parent, my heart goes out to all those who are waiting for assessments, waiting for educational health and care plans and waiting to be taken seriously. Like mental health, this is the time bomb of our age, and we owe it to every child to see that they fulfil their potential, irrespective of what special gifts they have been given.
If there is a single theme in this maiden speech then it is service. I wish to finish, if I may, by saluting all those who put themselves in harm’s way to serve others. Our police, ambulance and fire services do an amazing job, so please spare a thought for those who watch over us throughout the night as we sleep safely in our beds. I also want to acknowledge the chefs, porters, kitchen staff, cleaners and Doorkeepers in this place—they are the true lifeblood of Parliament. Elsewhere across the UK, our nurses, teachers, careworkers, refuse collectors and other public servants on low incomes do so much for others, and the heroes of the voluntary and charity sector also selflessly give their time for free. It is they who breathe fresh air into our country. To those who do so much in support of the armed forces covenant, I salute you. It is also about parents everywhere. They, like my own, make sacrifices to ensure that their children have a better deal than the one that they had. It is this power of humanity and generosity of community spirit that sets us apart as a nation and truly binds our Commonwealth together.
Finally, what about us as politicians? To my mind, politics is not just about what we achieve, but the manner in which we deliver it. My humble instinct as a new MP is that politics should be about inclusion over exclusion, talent above ambition, friendship above division, and substance over image. We should also perhaps do more to heal those negative influences in society that still exist to undermine us today. The one thing that I do know, and that every single Member of this House shares, is that politics is ultimately about service.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) on a passionate, and in some ways quite prescient, maiden speech. He has picked a pretty appropriate debate in which to make it, and I wish him and anyone else making a maiden speech today all the very best. Some of us were also elected at pretty short notice back in 2015, and it is absolutely appropriate to remark on the welcome we received from the support staff, the Doorkeepers and so on.
It is great that we are able to debate the future of the Commonwealth and Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth on Commonwealth Day itself, as the service has been taking place in Westminster Abbey and as the House has agreed to the Second Reading of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill. It is great to see the Minister in his place; I was looking back at Hansard and I do believe that he moved the motion in the debate on Commonwealth Day last year in Westminster Hall, as a Back Bencher—a debate in which I responded on behalf of my party. The debate is a little higher in profile today given that it is happening in the main Chamber.
The presence of the Earl and Countess of Dumbarton, making their last appearance in their current roles, has given a bit of added focus to the celebration in Westminster Abbey. We wish them all the best as they move on to pastures new. Another attendee in the abbey, as well as Mr Speaker, was the Speaker of the Malawian Parliament, the right hon. Catherine Gotani Hara, whom I had the immense privilege of meeting when I was in Malawi last year and with whom I enjoyed a very nice lunch this afternoon. The bringing together of such a number of different people from a number of different backgrounds and different parts of the world shows the effect of the Commonwealth.
The theme for Commonwealth Day in the year ahead is “Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating and Transforming”. It certainly will be a year—indeed years to come now—of innovation and transformation in the UK’s relationship with the rest of the world, and not necessarily for the better. I hope that Scotland’s constitutional future and international relations will also be transformed; I might say a bit more about that later.
It is worth reflecting, as others have, on both the history of and the recent developments in the Commonwealth. Last year’s debate was marked the 70th anniversary. That milestone has come and gone, but the institution continues to demonstrate its relevance and interests to the member states. We welcome, as others have, the readmission of the Maldives to the Commonwealth at the start of this month, following a period of internal democratic reform that resulted in its becoming the 54th member. That shows how the Commonwealth can be a force for good.
The UK’s term as chair-in-office is coming to an end, and the position will be taken on by Rwanda. As the shadow Minister remarked, that is unusual and a first, because Rwanda is not a former British colony. It is also a member of La Francophonie collection of nations, so it has a very interesting dual role.
Like the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who made a brief intervention, I was on the delegation of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association that was part of the preparatory work for Rwanda taking on the chair-in-office. We noted features of its democracy, including its high level of female participation and representation in Parliament, and its stable and growing economy—remarkable in that part of the world and given the country’s history. But there are also concerns around freedom of the press and freedom of participation, and it is right that such issues should be raised. The delegates at that conference will have much to learn and discuss.
I pay tribute more widely to the role of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I was an executive member between 2015 and 2017, and found it a valuable experience. The CPA plays an important role in connecting parliamentarians, and promoting mutual learning, sharing and partnership. It does not simply say, “Look at what a great example we can set here in the United Kingdom”, but asks, “What can we learn from different Parliaments around the world?” I mean, a number of members of the Commonwealth still include hereditary members of the aristocracy in their legislatures —Tonga, Lesotho and a small island state known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: it is not our job to go and lecture other members of the Commonwealth on the ideal models of democratic participation. We should all be in learning mode.
One of the most celebrated features of the Commonwealth is, of course, the Commonwealth games, which leave a lasting legacy wherever they are held. I was taught to swim in the Commonwealth pool in Edinburgh, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in January. The 2014 games in Glasgow also left a lasting and visible legacy in that city. Over the period from 2007 to 2014, the games contributed £740 million to the city’s gross value added, so Birmingham has very much to look forward to in the years to come. I just hope that it gets weather as exquisite as we had for those two weeks in 2014, which has not been repeated.
As well as looking at the past, I want to look at the future, and how the institution will develop in years to come. I am not sure whether it has been touched on yet, but we cannot ignore questions about how the secretariat is funded, financed and run, because we have to keep the house of the institution in order. Failings in that area might lead some members—there are plenty of voices in Australia, for example—to question the value of the entire institution, which would be pretty unfortunate. That is why we have to look back to the principles of partnership, mutual learning and accountability.
The bigger challenge that the Commonwealth has faced, and which has been touched on, is the difference between the declarations and statements made and the ambitions that the Commonwealth has for itself, and then the reality in many of its member countries. It champions—and we want to champion—democracy and human rights, but there are gaps and standards that are not lived up to, and that is particularly true on the question of LGBT rights, about which the shadow Minister spoke so eloquently; I entirely agree with him.
I admit that Malawi—a country that I have close and fond relationships with—is behind the curve in recognising the rights and freedoms that the LGBT community should have. If the Commonwealth is to be a force for good and make a difference in the modern world, these are the kinds of issues that it must seek to address through its structures and among its membership. That brings me to the role of the United Kingdom and its relationship with the Commonwealth, and how it fits with the concept of a global Britain.
For all the undoubted value that the Commonwealth brings to its members, it can never be a substitute or alternative to membership of the European Union. The fundamental differences are clear even from the names of the organisations. The Commonwealth is about a shared heritage and shared ambitions. The European Union is a political, economic—and, yes, a social and cultural—union. Membership of the EU has delivered economic benefits that are simply not possible for our relationship with the Commonwealth to replicate. The relative size of the economy, the nature of the trade in goods and services, and the sheer facts of geography and requirements of transport, mean that no trading relationship with Commonwealth countries could match what we had with the European Union.
If the Government do want to strike ambitious trade deals with Commonwealth countries, there will have to be arrangements, and give and take, on both sides. India, for example, has already signalled that it would want to see an easing on visa restrictions and travel opportunities. Therefore, although Brexiteers might rejoice in the ending of freedom of movement within Europe, the reality is that modern trade relies on the movement of labour, irrespective of our trading partners. People will still want to travel as a consequence of any future trade deals that might be entered into.
What the Commonwealth certainly is not, and should not be thought of as, is some route back to the bygone days of an empire or Britannia ruling the waves. Even if some of the more extreme elements on the Tory Back Benches were to think this desirable, it would quite understandably be resisted by the other member states. When the UK Government try to brand these islands as “global Britain”, we have to ask how that reality matches the rhetoric, because even for Commonwealth countries—the countries with which we are supposed to have the most historic ties, which so many Brexiteers saw as somehow preferable to our historic European ties—access to the UK is limited and constrained. I, and colleagues who are with me in the Chamber, have repeatedly raised concerns about the ability of artists, academics and businesses to get visas—not to stay, settle down, take jobs away or cream off the welfare state, but just to access the country to attend conferences and cultural events—yet they still face massive and expensive bureaucratic hurdles.
When I was in Malawi last year, we went to visit the British high commission, and it was festooned with “Britain is GREAT” branding, and adverts saying, “Come to the United Kingdom and take part in the Chevening scholarships”. Yet the night before we had been discussing with young Malawian members of civil society the fact that they could not even apply for the Chevening scholarships because they were not getting their visas. We hear time and again of visitors who come here, invited by the British Council and by the Commonwealth secretariat, and who are denied their visas and access to the United Kingdom. So the notion of Britain being open for business—of global Britain in some new, glorious era—simply does not match reality.
Nowhere is that clearer—again, I echo the shadow Minister on this—than on the issue of the visa charges for Commonwealth citizens who have served in the UK armed forces. When personnel who are Commonwealth citizens leave the UK armed forces and wish to apply to continue to live in the country that they have served for years, they face fees of thousands of pounds to do so. The Royal British Legion reckons that a service leaver with a partner and two children will be presented with a bill of almost £10,000 to continue to live in the UK, despite their years of sacrifice and service. Without leave to remain, these veterans are cut off from being able to access employment or state support, leaving them and their families reliant on charitable funds or facing repatriation to their country of origin. We wholeheartedly support the Royal British Legion and others who are campaigning for these fees to be scrapped for Commonwealth service leavers.
For the record, there are a huge number of people on the Conservative Benches who entirely agree with that point. We should look after these men. I have served with Fijians of great distinction. They have the right to stay here, and we should not charge them for it.
We are hearing from members of the armed forces and the Royal British Legion that these people have been recruited because we are not meeting our own recruitment targets here in the UK. We are going out to these countries and actively recruiting: promising the earth and then delivering very little for their families. It really is not how we should be operating.
I entirely agree. My hon. Friend speaks with some experience on these matters. The mismatch between rhetoric and reality is a bit of a theme on a number of issues in this debate, particularly the final one that I want to touch on. Again, this will not be a surprise to the Minister, because we have exchanged words on it in Westminster Hall on many occasions.
The issue is, of course, the UK’s role in the question of sovereignty over the Chagos Islands. Mauritius, which claims sovereignty and whose sovereignty has in fact been recognised by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, is a fellow member of the Commonwealth. Where is global Britain in all of this? Mauritius has had to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice. The UN resolution stated that the United Kingdom should surrender the British Indian Ocean Territory unconditionally, and the deadline for that was breached in November 2019. Where is global Britain in all that? Where is the respect for the partnership of the Commonwealth of Nations?
I totally understand and accept the points that the hon. Gentleman is making about the Chagos Islands and Mauritius, but will the Chagossians be consulted on whose sovereignty they wish to fall under? As we have that policy with all our overseas territories, such as Gibraltar and the Falklands, which have had a referendum, surely the Chagossians should be the people who should determine the destiny of their own homeland.
As the hon. Gentleman well knows, I am a huge fan of popular sovereignty and very committed to the concept of self-determination. But I do not want to make light of his comment; he is absolutely right. The point that I am trying to make is in the context of how the UK Government respect the rules-based order and the decisions coming from multilateral institutions that they claim to want to take part in and respect. Absolutely—the Chagossian community themselves should be at the heart of the decision-making process about their future and the future of their islands. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on that. It is probably not the last he is going to hear of it, if it falls within his wider ministerial remit.
This is the challenge regarding the question of Britain’s role in the Commonwealth in 2020. The reality that we have experienced with Brexit is that it is a fundamentally narrow, isolationist decision that will reduce the UK’s role on the world stage, and its relationship with the Commonwealth should not be used as a fig leaf to cover that reality. That stands in contrast with the ambition of my party and an increasing number—in fact, perhaps now a majority—of people in Scotland for a Scotland that plays a fuller role on the world stage as an independent country that defines its independence by its membership of supranational, international multilateral organisations like the Commonwealth of Nations, the United Nations and the European Union.
The more the United Kingdom bangs its isolationist drum and sooks up to superpowers at the expense of the established multilateral system, the sooner the day of Scotland’s independence and its membership as the 55th member of the Commonwealth of Nations will come.
May I first say what a real pleasure it has been to be part of this debate today and to hear the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland)? How welcome he is to this House, and how delighted we are that he is now the new—Conservative—MP for Bracknell. I thank him for his gallant service to Queen and country—particularly, of course, in the Falklands—and welcome him as one of the new vice-chairmen of the all-party parliamentary group on the Falkland Islands. I commend him for his maiden speech today.
It is an honour to take part in this debate about the Commonwealth in 2020. It is right that the Government have made time to debate this. It is very important that we never forget the Commonwealth, because we are the Commonwealth. This is our family, and we should be proud to speak about it more freely and more regularly than we do. It is also vitally important that we celebrate Britain’s special relationship with our Commonwealth friends not just by having this debate here in the House but with ceremonies and commemorations across the United Kingdom. I am looking forward to celebrations that we are having in Romford on Saturday, with a “Love the Commonwealth day” in Romford market when it will be open to everybody to come to celebrate our Commonwealth heritage.
We do celebrate the Commonwealth in my constituency. Last Friday we welcomed the Australian high commissioner down for a tour, a dinner, and visits to churches and local businesses. We are having that huge Commonwealth event on Saturday. Today I am proud to say we once again raised the Commonwealth flag from Havering town hall, with a lot of local community members and representatives of all different Commonwealth backgrounds. I pay tribute to the Mayor of Havering—our first British Jamaican Mayor, Councillor Michael Deon-Burton—and also to Felicia Boshorin, who runs Havering BME Forum. We have many Commonwealth-themed events. I encourage all Members to promote this idea in every constituency, because it really is truly inclusive for all people. We are very proud to do that in the London Borough of Havering.
I was also proud today to attend the wonderful Commonwealth service at Westminster Abbey in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen and other members of the royal family—and, indeed, the Prime Minister. It was a wonderful celebration here in the heart of Westminster. The Commonwealth service is an annual event attended by quite a number of MPs, but perhaps more of us should attend next year to show our true commitment to this wonderful family of nations. May I also say what a splendid sight it is to see the fantastic flags flying in Parliament Square? Every single Commonwealth nation’s flag is displayed for Commonwealth Day in Parliament Square. I urge the Minister—please do not take them down tomorrow. Let us see them for at least a week. I really get disappointed when the DCMS officials turn up and take the flags down so quickly. Let us see them flying for at least a week so that people can celebrate the Commonwealth and be reminded of the importance of celebrating our friendships with all the nations and territories of the Commonwealth.
We must not forget the 31 territories and dependencies. We talk about the Commonwealth of Nations, but territories and dependencies are not given proper recognition within the Commonwealth. They do not have their flags flown or attend Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings officially. They do not have full participation in the Commonwealth, and I would like the Minister to take that on board. Too often they are forgotten, left out and missed off, and that is not right. There are 31 external territories, dependencies and realm states within the Commonwealth. Most of them—21—are British, and the others are Australian and New Zealand external territories and realm states. Let us ensure that they are included in all things to do with the Commonwealth.
I commend my hon. Friend, who is a really good friend. I have been to his constituency on many occasions for dinners—he is a terribly generous fellow—and every time there have been representatives of the Commonwealth present, including dependencies. He does sterling work in that respect, and the House should commend him for it.
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks. This is something that we should all do with pride. This is our history—this is who we are. I know there are things that people might say about the past and things that have happened or should not have happened, but overwhelmingly this is a positive family of nations who choose to be together, work together and co-operate. We could do so much more, and I look forward to working with Members on both sides of the House to make that a reality.
As our nation escapes the clutches of the European Union, this must surely be a time to strengthen our global ties with our Commonwealth allies, who we have too long neglected over the past five decades. There is a natural interest in the Commonwealth today because it is Commonwealth Day, but it is an annual celebration, and I hope that our Government will take up the cause of the Commonwealth in a much more proactive way, because there is so much more we can do.
The United Kingdom is the chair-in-office, and we have tried to make use of that period, but we still have a little way to go, and I hope the Minister will ensure that we use the opportunity in the last few months to make an impact. The theme of our period as chair has been “A connected Commonwealth”, and there are so many things that connect the Commonwealth countries. There is our shared history, our shared culture and our reverence for Her Majesty the Queen as head of the Commonwealth, but what I believe most tightly binds us together is our shared values, which are outlined in the Commonwealth charter. Those values of democracy, freedom of speech, human rights and the rule of law are more important today than ever before, and I am proud that this fantastic organisation has done so much to promote and maintain those values among its members. There is a lot more work to be done—I freely admit that—and Britain should be there helping and advising and ensuring that things are going in the right direction. I truly believe that they are going in the right direction and will continue to do so in the months and years ahead with our support.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is one of the key organisations that does so much work to uphold and promote those values—in particular, that of parliamentary democracy, and I stand here today in the mother of Parliaments. As a member of the CPA executive for the past 10 years, I have had the privilege of working with CPA members, in particular the current chief executive, Jon Davies, and his brilliant team. I would like to thank them for all they do at CPA UK. We are privileged to have them work so hard to promote Britain and the Commonwealth in the way that they do.
It is important to recognise the CPA’s work in providing training of parliamentarians and administrators across the Commonwealth and the UK overseas territories. I am involved in the CPA’s overseas territories project—a fantastic operation that assists our territories with good governance, particularly through public accounts committees, which some of them did not have. That has had a huge positive impact, developing good practice across Commonwealth countries. The CPA’s work observing elections, providing public finance scrutiny and lobbying to increase representation of women in Commonwealth Parliaments has had some remarkable successes.
Organisations such as the CPA are what make the Commonwealth so special. It is a truly modern organisation from which other multinational structures could learn a huge amount. Members have no legal obligations to one another, but instead co-operate on the basis of bilateral agreements, human networks and the numerous associated organisations such as the CPA that work alongside Government and Commonwealth structures. These organisations are based on mutual interest and understanding and are often far stronger than some of the outdated, inflexible and undemocratic legal structures of the organisation that we have now left—the European Union. The Commonwealth has a great future with Britain playing a central part within it.
Some have criticised a renewed focus on the Commonwealth as being backward-looking, outdated and looking to empire and “Rule, Britannia!” I disagree with those people; I do not think it is. It is part of today’s world. It may be our past, but it is very much a part of our future, so that could not be further from the truth. We should be proud of what the Commonwealth is today but work to expand it and make it even more successful.
While many Commonwealth countries are former British colonies, I am glad that we have welcomed new members of the Commonwealth such as Rwanda and Mozambique, which have hardly any historical connections to Britain at all. These countries wanted to join the Commonwealth of Nations, and the fact that they have chosen to do so shows how much they respect this organisation on the global stage and how much it can offer its members. It also shows just how important the Commonwealth should be for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Britain must take advantage of these Commonwealth links by pushing an agenda that places the Commonwealth at the heart of global Britain. That means investing even more in the Commonwealth institutions and supporting organisations such as the CPA. We have already built up massive good will in many Commonwealth countries, thanks to our development funding, while helping to save lives, boosting local economies and leaving permanent infrastructure in place. We should strengthen these bodies by creating special programmes in the Department for International Development, with a focus on delivering for the Commonwealth of Nations and the British overseas territories.
Another way to strengthen the bonds between the UK and the Commonwealth is through mutual immigration and the exchange of human capital. We already have so many Commonwealth immigrants living in our country who have contributed a huge amount to the value of our country, as well as creating a permanent bond between their countries of origin and the United Kingdom. But now that we are leaving the European Union, we can finally end the discrimination against Commonwealth citizens, so that everyone can be in this country equally and fairly.
The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights the contribution that so many Commonwealth citizens have made to our country, including of course those who came over on the Windrush. That also includes the 160 Commonwealth citizens identified by the Public Accounts Committee who may find themselves in the same position as the Windrush generation, but whom the Government are refusing to track and contact. Does he not think that we owe it to our Commonwealth brothers and sisters to do that work to make sure they do not have to go through the pain that so many have already gone through?
I do not think anyone should go through that pain, and what happened with the Windrush generation should never be repeated. I know that the Government are doing everything they possibly can to ensure that that does not ever happen again. If the hon. Lady thinks they are not, then I know the Minister will have heard what she said, and he will take that up with the Home Office Ministers responsible.
I hope that our newly balanced immigration system, along with exchange programmes such as the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, will allow this dynamic interchange of people between the UK and the Commonwealth of Nations to continue well into the future.
Alongside immigration, the area where we will see the most dramatic change in our relationship with the Commonwealth in the short term is trade. The United Kingdom is becoming a beacon of free trade once again, I am pleased to say—returning to our traditional role as a global, outward-looking, seafaring nation. The Commonwealth countries represent the future of global trade, with rapid economic and population growth being the norm across the Commonwealth. New trade agreements should be struck rapidly with Commonwealth countries to take full advantage of our departure from the European Union.
The United Kingdom has neglected the trading aspects of the Commonwealth for far too long. I was glad to see that the Government recently increased its funding for the Commonwealth Standards Network, which plays a key role in breaking down non-tariff barriers between Commonwealth states. We must support initiatives such as the CSN and continue to promote free trade not just between ourselves and other Commonwealth countries, but across the entire Commonwealth. Free trade is in the interests of all members, and it is clearly in the interests of Britain to promote it now more than ever before.
Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. First, I want to express my deep gratitude to the people of Leicester East for electing me to this place. It is truly an honour to represent the city where I was born and where I grew up—the city my parents made their home. Leicester, of course, is full of surprises. I mean, who would have imagined that it would become home to the most famous car park in the world, where the remains of King Richard III were found, and who would have imagined that Leicester City football club, ranked 5,000-1 outsiders, would be crowned premier league champions in 2016?
Leicester is bursting with talent and inventiveness. We have the National Space Centre on the edge of my constituency, vibrant theatres and concert halls, and our world-famous Diwali festival on the Golden Mile. Leicester’s Attenborough arts centre is one of only five in the country to be purpose-built for disabled artists and audiences. You know, in any fish and chip shop across the country, you will find no better pie than Leicester’s Pukka Pie. There is no better cheese than Red Leicester, no better packet of crisps than Walkers and no better vegetarian curry house than in my constituency of Leicester East.
I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Keith Vaz, the longest-serving British Asian MP, who represented Leicester East for 32 years. The 1987 election, when Keith Vaz was elected, was a watershed moment in the history of race relations in this country. There had been no black MPs for over half a century. Keith Vaz became only the third British Asian ever elected to this Parliament. That election also brought to this House pioneering black MPs Paul Boateng, Bernie Grant and—my inspiration—my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), the first black woman ever elected to Parliament. I am proud to be part of the Parliament with the highest number of African, Asian and minority ethnic MPs ever. Over his long parliamentary career, Keith Vaz advanced the cause of representation and race equality while also holding major positions, including Minister for Europe and, famously, Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. Keith is of course a passionate campaigner on the issue of diabetes. He also did truly important work in highlighting the UK’s involvement in what he rightly called the “forgotten war” in Yemen. Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure you will join me in wishing Keith Vaz and his family well in his retirement from this House.
As a feminist, it is a privilege to be addressing this House as the first female Member of Parliament for Leicester East. I am also proud to be the first British-born Member of Parliament of African descent from the beautiful Caribbean island of Nevis. My parents came from Nevis to the UK and, remarkably, given a Nevisian population of just 11,000, they met for the first time here. They settled in Leicester, where I was born, so Leicester of course runs through my veins.
I am a daughter of the Windrush generation, and we must never forget the history of struggle of African, Caribbean and Asian people in this so-called United Kingdom, without whose blood, sweat, toil and tears there simply would be no kingdom and no form of modern prosperity. I have no doubt that my ancestors are here with me today. And I share the pain of their suffering because of the historical injustice of slavery and colonialism, but I also share their joy at the liberation that brings me to this place today. Throughout the centuries my foremothers argued for and suffered and died for the freedoms I enjoy here today in this place. With my presence in this House, Commonwealth history and the British empire cannot hide.
We cannot talk about the present without recognition, apology, returning what was stolen and reparations for the past. One fifth of the billionaires in Britain owe their wealth to the transportation of my ancestors, because they benefited from the compensation of the equivalent of £20 billion in today’s value for the “human property” they somehow lost at sea. It is to our shame that Members of this House during the mid to late 1700s represented slave plantations, and let us not forget that British colonialism reduced India from holding 23% of the world economy to 4% by the time the British left.
How many in this House know or care about the British torture camps in 1950s Kenya, where members of the Kikuyu tribe were systematically tortured, starved, beaten, mistreated and raped? How many in this House know or care about the massacre committed by British colonial groups in the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar massacre? And let us not forget that working people here from all over the Commonwealth died in their thousands in both world wars, only to see their descendants shackled and deported in the continued shame that is the hostile environment.
My father, along with his identical twin brother, worked as an engineer’s hand at the former Wadkin factory on Green Lane in what is now my constituency of Leicester East, but those unionised factories, jobs and industries of the past were destroyed, along with Leicester’s manufacturing base, by Thatcherism in the pursuit of free-market capitalism.
Leicester is considered the home to the garment industry. My mother was a home-worker, skilled as a dressmaker, a seamstress and an overlocker. But in Leicester’s garment industry today many workers, overwhelmingly women, earn well below the minimum wage—as little as £3 an hour in conditions that most people would find unthinkable in modern Britain.
That is the legacy of Tory deindustrialisation, yet Leicester is the place where working women fought back. It was Asian women who went on strike for equal pay at Leicester’s Imperial Typewriter Company factory, and it was those women who led the way in equal pay, race equality, and employment. I pay tribute to them.
I am incredibly proud that Leicester is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse places in the UK. Our city’s identity is forged from a proud history of immigration from the Commonwealth and beyond. Over two thirds—68%—of my constituents are from an African, Asian or minority ethnic background, and nearly half of our residents were born outside the UK. We are home to 240 faith groups across 14 different faiths and our residents hail from 50 countries across the globe.
This is what makes Leicester East so special. We are the city where the minorities make up the majority, and we are richer for this vibrant exchange of cultures. But racism and the far right have left an indelible stain on the history of my constituency. Enoch Powell’s racist “rivers of blood” speech in 1968 gave rise to the National Front and its message of hatred and intolerance across my constituency, but the history of Leicester’s anti-racist activists, campaigners and organisers who fought back against the rise of organised racism is a source of great pride and inspiration. In April 1979, when the National Front organised a 1,000-strong rally in Leicester starting at Welford Road recreation ground, they were confronted by 2,000 anti-racist protesters who withstood police violence to send the message out loud and clear that racism shall not pass through Leicester. It was a turning point in the decline of the National Front. We even renamed Welford Road recreation ground: fittingly, we renamed it Nelson Mandela Park.
The right for different communities and cultures, and for people of all faiths and none, to live side by side has been won through generations of struggle. I do not take our unity and solidarity for granted. This Government, a Government for the super-rich, the oligarchs, the tax dodgers, are still trying to divide our communities based on the colour of our skin, our religion or where we come from. I know only too well the hurt that my constituents feel when the Government legitimise the dehumanisation and marginalisation of African, Caribbean, Asian and minority ethnic communities by deporting our people and embracing institutionalised racism, as was revealed by the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment. The continued detentions, deportations and charter flights are simply barbaric.
In communities like mine, this Government have normalised hunger, poverty and hopelessness. It should be a national disgrace in the sixth richest country in the world for a single person to be without food, and for just one parent to have to choose between heating their home and feeding their children. Yet more and more families in my constituency are relying on food banks every year, and fuel poverty is growing. Nearly 40% of children in Leicester East are growing up in poverty. As the 1% increase their share of the national wealth, our regions are pulled further and further apart in terms of income inequality and life chances.
Leicester was recently shown to be one of the most polluted cities in the UK. I vow to fight for clean air. I vow to fight for clean energy and climate justice, so that my constituents and people across the world, particularly the global south, can have a liveable future. It is vital that those responsible for climate chaos, the fossil fuel companies and big polluters, are not allowed to profit from climate breakdown, and instead pay their fair share so that future generations can inherit a habitable planet.
I am proud of my party. I am proud of the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) in opposing austerity, opposing corporate power, tackling inequality and the climate emergency, and for having rewritten the terms of political debate.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I stand before you today in the lineage of people who fought to keep our culture and traditions alive, and to keep the shackles off our feet. I come from a people who survived: survived the evils of slavery. Today, and every day, I am grateful that they never gave up. I vow that as Leicester East’s new Member of Parliament, I too will never give up. I will work hard to protect all my constituents and fight against those who wish to pit our communities against each other.
Madam Deputy Speaker, thank you for allowing me to make my maiden speech.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) on her maiden speech. She has broken the ice and is on the way. It was a powerful speech with some key markers, so it is going to be interesting to watch her, although I do not quite agree with everything.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) on his maiden speech. Some time back, he said to me, “I’m an Army officer and I want to be an MP.” I said, “Why?” We then discussed why not, and after that, we discussed why he should. I left him walking away with a puzzled look on his face, but he obviously decided that the positive things were the way forward, and he is here.
The first thing I have to do is admit to being a dual national. I carry a New Zealand passport in one hand and a UK passport in the other, and that gives me a special interest in this debate. The Commonwealth works together very hard, and it competes—no more so than in sport and no more so than between Australia and New Zealand, particularly on the rugby field. If people do not come from one of those two nations, the banter between them sounds vicious, but, in fact, it is not. I was a little disappointed when the Minister said that his brother had gone to Australia, and I surmised that it was because New Zealanders would not let him in. I also did not remind him, but I will now, that the venom between the two countries—it is unreal, but joking—can reach quite a pitch, as it did some years ago, when the then New Zealand Prime Minister said that anybody from New Zealand emigrating to Australia lifted the IQ of both countries, but we will not go into that any further.
The amazing thing is that—despite the comments made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) —the Commonwealth works. It is predominantly countries collected in the British empire’s growth and, as has been referred to, it was not always that gentle. Post Brexit, we are looking for a huge expansion in our trade deals, hence Britain is in a unique position as head of the Commonwealth. As the Minister will be aware, Commonwealth states have, for some time, been working on economic connectivity. The goal is to expand investment and boost intra-Commonwealth trade to £1.5 trillion by 2030. Member states are offering capacity building to support trade liberalisation, helping one another to realise the full economic potential and deliver prosperity for all their people. It is what we would expect from a British background.
Considering that we now have the opportunity and desirability to expand our trade, this moment could not be more opportune. Commonwealth states together comprise 14% of global GDP, or over £8 trillion. The Commonwealth’s people, as has been mentioned, make up 33% of the world’s population, of which over 60% are under the age of 30. Factors including historical ties, similar administrative and legal systems and a common language all contribute to what we can call the “Commonwealth effect.” This helps to facilitate trade, accompanied with an ease of doing business between members. Furthermore, as it is desirable for us to reach a trade agreement with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it is extremely helpful to have Commonwealth friends within the TPP.
The Commonwealth brings together a family of 54 diverse member states, all committed to the development of free and democratic societies. We all seek the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all our people. We have a Commonwealth charter, which reminds us of our shared language, culture and history and our shared values and principles.
It is worth reminding the House, although it is not necessary, of the huge support Britain and Europe received during the second world war from Commonwealth nations, including south-east Asian nations, Canada, Australasia, the Pacific Islands and the southern African nations. For some of those nations, the losses, as a percentage of the adult male population, were staggering, particularly in my original country, New Zealand. On Remembrance Sunday in my constituency, I frequently attend a service at one of my villages during which the names of those who died from that village are read out. I have also been to a service on Anzac Day—remembrance day—in my wee village in New Zealand where they do not read out the names because it would take too long.
If one is visiting Canberra and Australia, I would highly recommend a visit to the Australian war memorial. The number of names inscribed on the memorial walls of those who lost their lives fighting, predominantly over here, in the second world war, is breathtaking and deeply sad. The explanation for that support, particularly from the Commonwealth nations, lies in the extremely strong kith and kin relationships. As I have said, my direct knowledge is predominantly about New Zealand, although I have lived for longer in the UK—I return to New Zealand occasionally to tone up my language and refresh my accent. New Zealand is a little country, being but 104 square miles greater in landmass than the United Kingdom, with a population of only 4 million, far away the majority of whom live in the north of the two islands. It is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by amazing oceans, with phenomenal countryside, as anyone will know who has seen the “Lord of the Rings” films. In terms of saving the environment, New Zealanders are extremely green.
It is fair to say, however, that the Commonwealth group of nations also rank saving the earth high on their agenda. In 2018, a key outcome of the Commonwealth blue charter was an unprecedented multilateral commitment by the Commonwealth states to work together on ocean conservation and to meet the commitments for sustainable ocean development, which is particularly important at a time when the threats confronting our oceans are numerous and deadly. Some 47 of the 54 Commonwealth members are coastal states, and they include most of the world’s small island developing states, which are the most vulnerable to ocean degradation and climate change and face the appalling prospect of disappearing under rising sea levels. Together, they cover more than one third of national marine waters globally and are home to 42% of coral reefs. The Commonwealth group of nations do then have a huge stake in the future of our oceans. I rank islands such as the Fiji islands among the most beautiful for idyllic beach holidays. Here, you will be hosted by some of the most lovely and friendly people you could ever hope to meet. Fortunately, Commonwealth member states continue to work together to combat these threats to our marine environment. I hope to see the great promise of this work fulfilled in years to come, and I urge the Minister to continue with it.
It is great to be British—even if my accent is odd—but it is even greater to be British and a member of the Commonwealth.
It is a great pleasure to be here today on Commonwealth Day and the day of the Commonwealth service, when all 53 flags are flying in Parliament Square—a day when the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill was brought before Parliament and the Minister has arranged for us to have a Commonwealth debate.
I think I arranged the first such debate in 2012 as the founding chair of the all-party group on the Commonwealth and, at that stage, Parliamentary Private Secretary to the first of two Ministers for the Commonwealth. It is a great treat to be here with him—the comeback kid of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He puts the “C” firmly back into the FCO: three times returned to the FCO to keep that C flag flying. If he has been to only 18 out of the 19 Commonwealth countries in Africa, surely his officials have an opportunity to arrange a trip to the 19th—we could even have a sweepstake on which one he has not been to.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), the living symbol of UK-New Zealand partnership in this Chamber. His speech followed two maiden speeches of great distinction. My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) typifies the concept of service before self, having moved seamlessly from the Army to Parliament, where I know he will put his constituents first. I shall return to one of his Commonwealth themes later.
We also heard a passionate speech from the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe). I have no doubt that everyone who lives in the Nevis Islands will celebrate her speech and her presence in the Chamber. She shared with us all a vivid talent for focusing on some of the crimes of the past, while perhaps skating lightly over some of the more recent scandals. We welcome her to the House. The Commonwealth is part of her, but it is also part of me, because I am a child of the Commonwealth. I was brought up in Kenya, and the atrocities in Hola to which she alluded were part of my childhood.
In the Chamber, although many of its Benches are empty at this late stage of the evening, people from all over the Commonwealth are celebrating today and what it means. This is a moment for congratulations, but also for us to reflect, each year, on what the Commonwealth means and how it is progressing. I must say that I do not share the intrinsic gloom of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), who was ashamed of the past, apologetic for the present, and gloomy about the future. That, I am afraid, is my summary of his lengthy speech. He described finding “glimmers of hope” in the Commonwealth, but I think we can do better than that.
Let me give just one example of the symbol of the success of the modern Commonwealth and the countries within it. The whole business of being able to conduct financial transactions over a mobile telephone was not invented in some rich western country, or even by state-sponsored technology innovation programmes in China; it was invented and formed in Kenya. It is possible to travel over large chunks of that most lovely country and find Masai herdsmen nestling a spear in one hand while looking out over their goats and, with the other hand, transacting their business over their mobile telephones, often returning in the evening to their huts where the telephones can be recharged by a miniature solar panel. There is much to be proud of in all parts of the Commonwealth: there is innovation, and much more than “glimmers of hope”.
There has been huge progress on eliminating malaria and reducing blindness, and on the Prime Minister’s campaign in promoting 12 years of education across the Commonwealth and, indeed, across the world, supported by the Department for International Development. I believe that, in future, this country in particular will be able to offer considerable expertise to help other parts of the Commonwealth to thrive. Cyber-security is incredibly important to us all, and, as we know from what happened in the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, there are all sorts of reasons why it should be strengthened—not just across that continent, but in other parts of the Commonwealth, including the parts where I spend some of my time nowadays as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy in the far east: Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore, three nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which are members of the Commonwealth.
May I present another offer of hope, and a glimmer of light from the Commonwealth? Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating Rwanda, where the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting will be held? It has made enormous strides in respect of water and sanitation, which is especially impressive because it is such a mountainous country. Many other Commonwealth countries need to go further in those respects to achieve health and wealth: through the Commonwealth and our work with DFID projects, we can achieve that as well. Water and sanitation need to be part of CHOGM, and part of our work with the Commonwealth.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her considerable intervention, which demonstrated her love of Rwanda. No doubt she has spent a great deal of time there. I am occasionally in touch with a former Anglican bishop of Rwanda, who is equally proud of some of the great progress that has been made in that country.
There is a slight warning note about Rwanda, which is a remarkable member of the Commonwealth. Her history is different, as she joined 28 years ago—something like that—and there is a caveat for all of us: not to put its leader on a pedestal. We are all human, and we all have feet of clay. I remember vividly the disappointment felt by many hon. Members when Aung San Suu Kyi became Prime Minister of Burma, but then presided over one of the world’s saddest periods of internal conflict and possible genocide against the Rohingya people. That was a period in which those who had strongly supported her opening the new Labour offices when she visited London had cause to reflect on the fragility of all of us as humans.
I return to two or three things that I should like to ask the Minister. During our time as the chairing office, various initiatives were launched, all of which I supported strongly—for example, the new business Commonwealth standards network, the world trade-based trade facilitation agreement, the Commonwealth clean oceans alliance, and the marine economies programme. All those were good news, and worthy causes. Will the Minister give us a brief update on how they are doing, and whether the progress made during our time in the chair can be continued?
Will the Minister also consider something else, so that we can end on a note of great consensus among Members of all parties in the Chamber, including the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), who made a very good speech on the Commonwealth, wrapped in a more traditional speech about the European Union? The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell about Commonwealth servicemen and women having to pay considerable amounts of money when applying for the right to remain here after five years’ service is something about which many of us feel strongly. In fact, I attracted 125 signatures to a letter that I wrote to the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), last year. He was sympathetic, as were Ministers in the Ministry of Defence, who said that it was a Home Office decision.
I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to take careful note of today’s debate and the feelings on this issue. I understand that there are problems—there always are—of precedence and cost. There are lots of different problems, as we want those Commonwealth servicemen to be motivated by the concept of serving in our armed forces rather than purely being attracted to the later possibility of being able to bring their whole family here. I understand all those problems, but my hon. Friend, who is nodding from a sedentary position, would probably agree on something about which many of us feel strongly, as does the British Legion. There must be an opportunity for the new Government to do us all a favour by taking a closer look at what can be done to help Commonwealth servicemen and women on Commonwealth Day, in a debate in which there is much good will across the House to make the Commonwealth prosper.
May I begin by paying tribute to some of the speeches that have been made? My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) spoke passionately about a number of issues, particularly special educational needs, which I am incredibly passionate about as well. We need to make sure that we do something on that in this Parliament, otherwise we will have huge problems as a country. I predict that I will disagree with the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) on quite a few issues in the next however many years, but she made a very good maiden speech. I am not saying that just because it is customary to say so; she is clearly a powerful orator. She mentioned her ancestors, and I am sure that they will be incredibly proud of her and the speech that she made.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) spoke about the reaction of the Opposition Front Bench to the debate, and the glimmers of hope that he sees. While acknowledging that the history of the British empire was chequered, to say that no positive contribution was made at all is wrong. The incessant need to prioritise apologising for our country the whole time and not saying anything good about us as a country and our history and why we are special is the reason why lots of patriotic voters up and down the country abandoned the Labour party at the last election, because it turned its back on them. By the looks of things, it will continue to do so.
It is a privilege to speak on Commonwealth Day in this debate on the Commonwealth of Nations in 2020. The historic bonds between the 54 countries of the Commonwealth are of immense personal significance to many people in Ipswich, as well as to millions of people across the country and around the world. Unfortunately, however, although those bonds have endured in people’s hearts, this country’s relationship with our Commonwealth partners has been neglected over the decades. As we have been shackled to the European Union and tied into the dogmatic pursuit of ever closer union, we have been drawn away from some of our closest friends and most loyal allies in the Commonwealth. This has left many around the world, including me, with a deep sense of regret.
Before our exit from the European Union on 31 January, we were members of an artificial and Babylonian construct that sought to govern the peoples of Europe and attain the power to coerce their elected Governments. Rather than bringing people together, this form of supranational government often drives people apart. This outdated and undemocratic model—which former European Commission President José Manuel Barroso likened to the creation of a new empire—stands in stark contrast to the values and principles of the Commonwealth. Our Commonwealth of nations is based on a voluntary association of sovereign states, with no country exercising power or dominance over any other. Commonwealth countries retain their right to opt out of any arrangements, and there is no obligation to hand over legal or regulatory powers to unaccountable bodies. This intergovernmental system reflects the sense of security that Commonwealth countries have in their own identities, and the respect that they hold for each other as equal members of our Commonwealth community. It fosters a working environment based on agreement and respect that makes positive and consensual co-operation possible.
Unlike the EU, which is driven by the idealism of an elite few, the Commonwealth is grounded fundamentally in what unites its peoples. These bonds are practical and tangible, but also immensely personal in many ways. They were forged in our shared history, trade, common culture, the language we speak, common law, shared values and the movement of people, and even as brothers in war. These are the elements we must consider as we debate the Commonwealth in 2020 and as we look to our global future.
If we are to reignite our relationship with this modern and dynamic community of countries, free trade must be at the heart of our efforts to make up for lost time. We must not forget that free trade was laid down in the Commonwealth’s Singapore declaration as one of our core common values and goals. Trade between Commonwealth nations is already estimated to be worth approximately £425 billion a year, and it is projected to rise to over £532 billion this year. Some 60% of the Commonwealth’s 2.4 billion population are aged under 30 and it also has some of the world’s fastest growing economies, so the opportunities for mutually beneficial trade are enormous.
Now that we have taken back control of our trade policy and left the stagnant and protectionist EU bloc—which frequently raised tariffs to the rest of the world as it struggled to get its own trade deals over the line—there is no reason why we cannot grasp the opportunities of intra-Commonwealth trade with both hands. The EU has trade agreements with 23 Commonwealth states but those deals represent only a small fraction of what is possible. India-EU negotiations have been ongoing since 2007 without success, and the Canada deal, which did eventually pass, was almost vetoed at the last moment. We could not rely on the EU to prioritise our Commonwealth links.
That is why I welcome the targets set out by the Commonwealth Heads of Government to boost intra-Commonwealth trade to £1.5 trillion by 2030. We must be ready to play a full role in building new trade deals with our partners on the foundations of the legal, linguistic and cultural norms we already share. While these important aspects are already in place, this country must also be prepared, as I have said before in this place, to be nimble, flexible and determined in the world as we seek to free ourselves from the EU’s protectionist customs union. India alone has a population of 1.3 billion, which is double the size of the EU’s. We must have the right tools in place if we are going to embrace our future as a truly global free-trading nation. In the past, Belgium has often traded more to India than we have. The European Union has been a barrier to our embracing the growth that was happening in India. If we are going to embrace this opportunity to trade with the Commonwealth, we must have first-class infrastructure to support ports such as Ipswich and Felixstowe, and to ensure that all parts of this country share in the benefits of increased trade.
If this country is to broaden its horizons to the Commonwealth and the world, we must also have a laser-like focus on the parts of the country that have untapped trading potential. The new role that we can play in the Commonwealth will be determined more than anything by our investment and belief in places such as Ipswich and the east of England.
A great deal of belief and investment in our town has already been made by the great number of Commonwealth citizens and Commonwealth-origin Brits who have made Ipswich their home, and I also want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to them. Among them are members of the Indian community, who play a vital role in our town, with many dedicating themselves to caring for others by filling many of the roles in our local NHS. We also have a great Bangladeshi community, which has produced some of our town’s most successful business owners and entrepreneurs. Their care for the wider community must not be understated either. The Bangladeshi Support Centre in Ipswich supports not only vulnerable people from the Bangladeshi community, but people from over 50 different nationalities across the town.
I have been lucky during my time as an MP to have many positive interactions with these communities, and of course that has been aided by the common language shared throughout the Commonwealth—I am of course referring to the language of cricket. Some Members might have spotted that I am wearing the tie of the all-party parliamentary group on cricket. We need to have a big screen in Ipswich town centre for the next cricket world cup, and indeed the next time there is an England-Bangladesh game or an England-India game. We need to embrace the festival of cricket to a far greater extent than we have in the past.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand how important it is to support Ipswich Town football club as well. My eldest son supports Ipswich Town, who are well known as the Tractor Boys. They are not doing so well this season, but they are still a team worth supporting.
Absolutely. Things are not great at the moment for Ipswich Town—we are 10th in the third division and things look pretty bleak. Only four weeks ago we beat Lincoln 1-0 and we were top of the table, so how quickly things can change—maybe I was a bad omen. Cricket unites Commonwealth citizens across the continents and is truly a great symbol of what we share, as last year’s world cup demonstrated.
One of the things that I hope the Minister will celebrate when he winds up this evening is the role of the Commonwealth within the United Kingdom today. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, we all have Commonwealth citizens serving in our hospitals and often in our armed forces, as has been mentioned. In many areas of life the children of the Commonwealth are playing such an important role, and we need to celebrate that this evening.
I could not agree more. They truly are the best of us, and that needs to be recognised to an even greater extent.
One point on which I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) is the issue of Commonwealth citizens serving in our armed forces. Currently, when Commonwealth personnel have served for at least four yours and wish to continue to live in this country, they face fees of nearly £2,400 per person for indefinite leave to remain. That means that a family of four faces a cost of over £9,500. The House does not need to be reminded of the enormous sacrifices made for us by those countries now in the Commonwealth during the great conflicts of the 20th century. At least a quarter of those who laid down their lives for Britain’s cause in the first world war were not British. Commonwealth citizens still fill the shortages in our ranks today.
Those who sacrifice so much for our country, and who have travelled far from their families to do so, should not face such exorbitant fees to stay in the country they have served. I urge the Government to waive the fees for brave Commonwealth troops serving in the British military, as they did in 2018 when they waived immigration fees for Afghan interpreters who had aided British forces in Afghanistan. If anybody should not be considered a foreigner in our country, it is them.
This country’s decision to leave the European Union was not inward-looking or isolationist, but an opportunity to pursue a global future as an independent, sovereign country. It is an opportunity because leaving the European Union by itself is just the beginning of that effort. As we take our first steps as an independent country, reaching out to our partners in the Commonwealth should be one of our highest priorities. The theme for this year’s Commonwealth Day is “Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming”. It is a message that we must embrace wholeheartedly. Whether it is trade, immigration, integration or co-operation, so many of the right preconditions already exist to create more Commonwealth success stories. People strongly believe in the Commonwealth links we share, in Ipswich and across the country. Let us act on these human relations and turn them into a reality for this country’s new relationship with the Commonwealth.
I welcome my friend and mentor the Minister to his place, and I welcome his experience and passion. Many have mentioned that this is not his first time at the Dispatch Box in a similar role, and I know he will serve us and our Commonwealth friends diligently.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who does great service to the Commonwealth. If he ever needs an apprentice, he can find one here ready to be put to work.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), who spoke so movingly—I am sure his words touched many of us. And I welcome the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe), my constituency neighbour. She was heartfelt in her words, and I am sure she will be heartfelt many more times in the Chamber.
There is a hierarchy of countries in this world. There are the big players—we all know who they are—and the smaller states that are too often left adrift, but the Commonwealth is not like that. There are few organisations in the world in which the Prime Minister of Antigua and the Prime Minister of Australia can sit side by side not just as friends but as equals. It is because of that equality that the Commonwealth has, in the words of perhaps its greatest citizen, Nelson Mandela, made the world safe for diversity.
The Commonwealth encompasses the 12th-richest country in the world and the fourth poorest. It includes the world’s largest democracy by population, India, and the world’s largest by area, Canada, which is also the only other country in the world to call its lower House the House of Commons. The Commonwealth Members in this Chamber will also be keen to note that our Dispatch Boxes were a gift from our faraway friends, the Kiwis, which I am sure will hearten my hon. Friends the Members for Guildford (Angela Richardson) and for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). When the Commonwealth speaks, the world speaks.
The equality at the heart of the Commonwealth is not a recent innovation but one moulded at its founding in 1867, which was perhaps the first time in history when power was relinquished without a shot being fired. Power was given to the people of Canada in that founding act of 1867, which was followed by Australia’s independence in 1901, New Zealand’s in 1907 and all the way to Saint Kitts and Nevis’s in 1983. That demonstrates a model of peaceful transition based on mutual respect and democratic values, a model of which we can be justly and enormously proud.
However, not all the transitions have been so peaceful, nor has the Commonwealth’s history always been quite so glorious and, if I may, I will take a moment to mention when the United Kingdom itself did not live up to the principles so eloquently expressed in the Commonwealth’s founding documents. Importantly, it was our Commonwealth allies who answered the call as we dragged our feet.
I speak, of course, of our response to apartheid. Although it should still fill us with shame that the United Kingdom was too slow to respond to the depravity and human horror of apartheid, we should be filled with pride that it was our brothers and sisters in the Commonwealth who pulled us out and made us speak truth. Most notably, it was Conservative Prime Ministers, Malcolm Fraser of Australia and Brian Mulroney of Canada, who led the Commonwealth’s opposition to that hateful regime, and I am proud that the United Kingdom has learned from that moment.
The Commonwealth is an equal body when it speaks, and it speaks with uncommon moral force. Seeking unanimity, the United Kingdom led the charge to kick out Zimbabwe in 2003 and to suspend Pakistan after the overthrow of the Government in 1999, to suspend Fiji in 2009, and to suspend Nigeria in 1995 until a civilian President was elected in 1999.
Together with our leadership, the Commonwealth has become one of the great beacons of human rights and a champion of the values that unite us and all the democratic peoples of the world, but we must show leadership again today. LGBTQ+ rights, on which we must fight within the Commonwealth, have been raised multiple times today. We must ensure that we stand strong on domestic abuse and women’s rights, as well as on climate change—my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) rightly mentioned our work on oceans—on disability, as raised by the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron), and on terrorism. We must stand strong against the shared threat we face.
What is more, the Commonwealth’s ties do not end every other year at the Heads of Government meeting. Together we find common cause at the WTO, in the UN, in the UNHRC and in the Five Eyes network. In every major forum in which the United Kingdom plays a part, our Commonwealth friends are there with us ready to make the case for markets, for democracy, for serving together and for the universal values that make the Commonwealth a great inheritor of perhaps the world’s greatest traditions.
It is also the Commonwealth through which we can tackle shared concerns. The Commonwealth provides a platform to tackle the current divisive rhetoric and actions between India and Pakistan, and it can create dialogue to end division. Here in the UK, as many Members have mentioned, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), we must tackle our not having given the Commonwealth soldiers who served alongside us the right they deserve to remain in this country, and they should not face exorbitant fees to do so.
Now, as we seek to rebalance our engagement with the wider world—I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich for his passionate statement of support for our independence as we leave the EU—the Commonwealth presents us with glorious opportunities. It represents an economy of £10 trillion, which we must tap into if we are to seize the global opportunities afforded to us by leaving the EU. When we negotiate with other Commonwealth members, we will negotiate not only as business partners but as friends. In the sometimes cut-throat world of international trade, that cannot be underestimated. At the same time, we can lead with the island nations on climate change. Many of the most forceful global advocates exist in places such as St Kitts and Bangladesh. The Commonwealth may not be the only place where we can balance the development needs of the global south while recognising the imperative of decarbonisation, but it is perhaps the only place where we can be sure that all voices will be respected.
It is vital that we have a meaningful diplomatic strategy for the Commonwealth, not just a swathe of individual agreements and individual focus, country by country, but an overarching goal and objective, where the Foreign Office works together as one. There may be more effective forums, larger gatherings, more prestigious summits and more exclusive meetings, but in terms of getting the world in a room, with diversity united by shared values, and equality of aim and spirit, the Commonwealth is unparalleled. For our hand in that, we should be justly proud and seize the opportunities it presents. I thank my friends and allies across the Commonwealth for their friendship, and I look forward to our shared future.
First, I would like to wish everyone a happy Commonwealth Day. I would also like to thank Members for their meaningful contributions in this debate. We have heard speeches and interventions from some 26 Members. Let me also congratulate the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) on making two excellent and passionate maiden speeches.
The Commonwealth is one of the oldest and most diverse political associations. It was established more than 70 years ago and includes 54 member states. Some 2.5 billion people around the world are members, from the Caribbean to the Americas, from Europe out to Asia, Australasia and Africa. But what does it all mean for an incredible collection of people? The core values and principles of the Commonwealth, as outlined in its charter, include democracy; human rights; peace and security; tolerance, respect and understanding; protecting the environment; and gender equality. There is no doubt, however, that the Commonwealth faces a lot of challenges, including human rights abuses, resistance to upholding the rule of law, and persecution of minorities, but it also has a lot of potential and promise, which I will explore.
Given the rise of populist Governments, the need for a strong multilateral organisation is more important than ever. A united Commonwealth that upholds and promotes democratic culture can demonstrate to the world why institutions such as this one are so important. I would like to echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) in saying that the Commonwealth can remain a vital force for good in our world.
In many ways, I am an embodiment of the Commonwealth, having roots in both Pakistan and India, and having grown up in Britain. The UK is hugely indebted to the Commonwealth. The contributions made by Commonwealth communities are colossal and vast. The military contributions made during the second world war will never be forgotten, and their legacy must be remembered. Indeed, my father served in the British Indian Army. In order to keep these stories alive, will the Minister agree that it would be a good idea to include them as part of school curriculums?
Currently, more than 6,000 personnel from Commonwealth countries are serving in the UK armed forces, with more being recruited each year to fill technical and specialist roles. Despite the sacrifice that the many Commonwealth personnel have made, they are faced with fees of £2,389 if they wish to apply to continue to live in the country that they have served for four years. Speaker after speaker today has touched on that point, and I hope that the Minister will convey the message to the Government so that we can have change. The Government must drop the visa fees for Commonwealth personnel and their families.
With the upcoming Heads of Government meeting in June, we have a perfect opportunity to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the Commonwealth. The theme for this year’s meeting is “Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming”. Five sub-themes have also been identified: governance and the rule of law, IT and innovation, youth, environment and trade.
There is no doubt that the diversity of the Commonwealth is a strength, and our Commonwealth diaspora communities are at the heart of that. As Members have rightly identified, in 2022 the Commonwealth games will be held in Birmingham, a city that is rich in diversity and culture. I remember when Manchester hosted the Commonwealth games in 2002; what a proud moment that was for our city. It brought tremendous opportunity, as I am sure it will do for Birmingham. I look forward to the UK hosting the iconic games once again and celebrating the power of bringing people together and making connections across the UK and the Commonwealth.
Another strength of the Commonwealth is its 1.4 billion young people, who will help to define our future. It is vital that the Commonwealth demonstrates its relevance to the youth by representing their interests and showing commitment to tackling the climate crisis, prioritising girls’ education and ensuring LGBT rights.
The Commonwealth, in all its diversity, champions religious freedom, but the ongoing violence in India and the discrimination against religious minorities in many Commonwealth countries reminds us of our shared responsibility to uphold and protect the fundamental human right to freedom of religion or belief. No one should be persecuted for their faith. The upcoming Heads of Government meeting will provide a useful platform for discussion. It is worth noting that it will take place in Rwanda, where an unprecedented amount of human rights violations have taken place.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking on the issue of freedom of religious belief; it is really important that all the Commonwealth countries respect freedom of religious belief. It is about respect, tolerance and love for all. That is something that we can all take on board, but all countries need to absorb it and live it out, too.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments; I am looking forward to his Westminster Hall debate on Wednesday and hope to join him. I hope that the Minister will commit to raising human rights violations in the Commonwealth at this prime opportunity.
A strong and united Commonwealth must be able to tackle the crisis in the light of the current coronavirus outbreak. Will the Minister tell us what assistance the UK will provide to vulnerable countries in the Commonwealth with insecure health systems?
In conclusion, the Commonwealth is a diverse family of nations that, by virtue of historical and cultural ties and shared values, seeks to find solutions and share common goals. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown highlighted, there is a gap between the Commonwealth’s emphasis on human rights and the reality on the ground in many member states. We should be focusing on promoting democratic values and developing and amplifying the voices of small states; upholding human rights and LGBT rights; and tackling global challenges such as extremism and climate change. The potential for the Commonwealth is vast, but to ensure that that potential is realised, we have a responsibility to promote the common principles throughout the Commonwealth, along with all our other human rights goals.
Happy Commonwealth Day to you, Mr Speaker. I know that you have been busy at Westminster Abbey and elsewhere carrying out duties, but I hope that you have had time to celebrate Commonwealth Day as well.
This has been a fantastic debate celebrating the Commonwealth from the perspective of Manchester, of Birmingham earlier in the day, and even of Romford, where, if I have no other plans, I will be going to the market on Saturday to join the festivities. I will just have to check my diary to see whether I am free.
The debate has been wide-ranging. I will try to pick up on a number of consistent themes. LGBT rights were mentioned, with a number programmes on which we are focusing. I want to focus on this issue, although it is not directly within my list of ministerial responsibilities. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) asked specifically about flags. I stated the position in a previous debate and that position has not changed, but I am more than happy to have a chat with him about that. The Opposition Front Bench speakers mentioned the issue of youth. The Foreign Office was represented at director level, but I am more than happy to meet youth parliamentarians of the Commonwealth myself next time around. That is a commitment.
The Minister will remember that a year ago, he and I sat down together and discussed a project, which is now known as CP4G—the Commonwealth Partnership for Good—between the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and other partners. As he knows, that partnership has been put together. Its focus is on trying to help youth, women, LGBT and those with disabilities into parliamentary democracy. Does he agree that this helps to answer some of the questions asked by the Opposition, and that it is proving successful?
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. It has been a very successful programme, which drills down into specific countries rather than being about generalities, and gives covering fire to discuss problematic issues in those countries under the guise of discussing a whole number of matters.
A number of colleagues and the Labour Front Benchers mentioned the issue of Commonwealth veterans. I have listened very carefully to those comments, and I will be seeking a discussion with the Minister for Defence People and Veterans, who is now separate from the Ministry of Defence and from the Home Office. I was asked to have a meeting with him, and I think that is the right way forward. There is also the issue of the veterans of the second world war. I have not yet received parliamentary questions on that, although I understand that there have been historical questions. I am more than happy to review those questions and to respond to further such questions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) was introduced incorrectly, I think, as a new Member of Parliament, so competent and lucid was he. However, I will never ever be able to listen to the phrase “blue rosette on a donkey” or “blue rosette on a monkey” without hearing the example from Bracknell of a blue rosette on a dog turd. I do not thank my hon. Friend for that analogy. I think he is a very modest man—we heard later in an intervention of his service in the Falkland Islands—and a very sensible man from the Logistics Corps who praised in advance the logistics of this House, which serve us all incredibly well.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) pointed out that we have served together a number of times in debates on this issue and will continue to do so. I look forward to working with my Scottish colleagues and will be visiting the joint headquarters of the Department for International Development next week in East Kilbride.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has been an advocate for all things overseas territories and dependencies. I cannot promise him an outcome, but the trajectory of travel is to work closer and closer with the overseas territories and Crown dependencies. He raised a very good point about the flags, and he asked me not to take them down tomorrow. I can confirm that I will not take them down tomorrow, and that I will consult Government protocol to find out why they cannot stay up for longer, so that we can celebrate the Commonwealth over a longer period. I know that he has been passionate about flags, and that he has had a big flag raised at the other end of this building, and I am keen to support the celebrations further.
We had an excellent speech from the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe). I am not sure what it says about her parents—they spent all that time on Nevis, an island state of 11,000 people, without meeting and then they nipped over to Leicester and suddenly they were together. I am minded to say that there must be something in the water, or perhaps it is the Pukka Pies that she was advocating in her speech. On behalf of the whole House, I would like to wish Keith Vaz a happy retirement from politics and thank him for his service on the Commonwealth parliamentary executive, among his other achievements. I will now also always think of Leicester East as the minorities that make up the majority; that is rather a lovely way of describing an eclectic and interesting constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) explained to me the rivalry between New Zealand and Australia, and I welcome his putting on record that my brother is now an Australian. He also talked of coastal states and small states, and climate change—an issue that we will follow closely as part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting and COP26.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) thanked me for being the comeback kid and for putting the C back into the Commonwealth. I did wonder what he was talking about, and then I realised that the C stood for Commonwealth. I thank him for his experience and passion, and for setting up his all-party group.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) talked eloquently of historic bonds and mentioned the trade benefits from the Commonwealth post EU. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) talked about us coming together as equals in a tour de force of speech. I thought she was going to break the convention of not interrupting a maiden speech; she was writhing in her seat in anger at references by the hon. Member for Leicester East to Pukka Pies, because she maintains that Melton Mowbray pork pies are the best pies in the whole Commonwealth.
This has been an excellent debate, and I hope it is an annual one. With that, I do not intend to detain the House further.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Commonwealth in 2020.