I beg to move,
That this House has considered Commonwealth Day.
I am delighted to work under your chairmanship again, Mr Davies. We have, for many years, worked together on various things, both here and in Europe. I am delighted also to see so many colleagues joining us to celebrate the Commonwealth.
If I may, Mr Davies, I will start on a sad note. Emilia Monjowa Lifaka, chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, unfortunately passed away, as you know, in sad circumstances. She was from Cameroon—a remarkable lady who was one of those people who go through life setting the room alight. She was absolutely sweet. Her death caused a vacuum, which has now been filled temporarily by me.
I am delighted to introduce the debate for a load of reasons. First, the Commonwealth, as my colleagues know, is 111 years old. It is one of the oldest—dare I say it?—non-governmental bodies in the world, and it has enormous respect. For the record, 17,000 parliamentarians, 180 Parliaments, 54 countries and 2.4 billion people are part of the family that we call the Commonwealth.
This week is very pertinent because yesterday we had the Commonwealth service in Westminster Abbey, which is always interesting. I am sitting next to a couple of my friends—my right hon. Friends the Members for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell)—and we are delighted that this week we have the Westminster Seminar, which is ongoing, as we speak, in the Attlee suite. That seminar is 70 years old this year. The Commonwealth, as a family, has shown time and again that it breaks every record.
As chairman of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and international vice-chairman, I am always grateful for the support that the House and the other place give. Every party in the House, and every Member, is an enormous supporter of the Commonwealth, and I am grateful for all the work that colleagues do—not just here in the United Kingdom, but overseas—in welcoming delegates, wherever they come from across the Commonwealth, and going on trips, sometimes at short notice, which can be fairly onerous as we know. You, Mr Davies, have been involved, and I am grateful for the time and effort you have put in over the years.
Was yesterday’s Commonwealth Day just a symbol or an annual occasion? Some people may think it was a bit of both, but let us put the matter in perspective. The world is watching in horror and disgust as the tragic death and destruction in Ukraine unfold. That is why the peaceful symbolism of the Commonwealth has become more important than ever. For anyone who saw the moving service in Westminster Abbey yesterday, or was lucky enough to be present, as I and colleagues here were, the true meaning and the lasting value of the Commonwealth shone through.
It was terribly sad for us all that Her Majesty the Queen, in her 70th year on the throne—she has provided enormous support, stability and guidance over all those years—was not able to attend the service. We were obviously delighted to see His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall, and Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. That was very special indeed, but I know that we all send Her Majesty our heartfelt wishes to get better soon.
In normal circumstances, the Queen is an absolute stickler for duty. I suspect her doctors probably said, “Look, stay at home,” but I know one thing: she does not give in easily. However, the decades of loyal service are catching up with her, and because she has only recently recovered from covid, I think she has, more than any other person, an excuse for saying, “I can’t attend.” I am convinced, however, that she can play, and will continue to play, a highly influential role in the development and success of the family that we call the Commonwealth. I hope colleagues will join me in that, for that is what the Commonwealth really is—a family. It is no cosy club, let alone, God forbid, a political movement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. My hon. and gallant Friend has alluded to the fact that the Commonwealth can be regarded as a family—I have two brothers, so I know that, occasionally, there can be tension in a family—and I applaud him for his excellent work with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, of which I have some direct experience. I know that people get more out of the Commonwealth than they put in.
Does my hon. and gallant Friend agree that the jurisdictions that we are able to help from this place find it immeasurably helpful to share not only democracy, but also the same values, legal system and language, to the benefit of what was once the British empire?
I would like thank my hon. Friend on three counts: first, for his courtesy in intervening, as he raises a very important question; secondly, for all the work he has done on behalf of the Commonwealth; and thirdly for the overseas trips he has undertaken very nobly.
The point my hon. Friend makes is absolutely right. There are hiccups; in any family, there will be hiccups. Hopefully this year we will welcome back the Maldives and Zimbabwe. We resolved an issue with Fiji, and they came back into the Commonwealth. We do not like to exclude anybody, as my hon. Friend alludes to. We try to work with any country that has an issue to make sure that they understand what we can do to help them, and maybe how they can help us. It has been a very successful formula; we have never completely excluded anybody. Even in the worst days, with some of the things we have seen over the years—I am a little older than my hon. Friend—we have never done that. We have kept things going. Therefore, my hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is an amazing organisation, based on mutual trust as much as anything.
The Commonwealth is a genuine association of nations with worthy aims and the mission to improve the lives of all its members and their citizens. We are talking about very big numbers across the world. Commonwealth Day was observed and celebrated by people in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Americas, the Pacific and, of course, here in Europe.
The Commonwealth of Nations, which is its proper title, has 54 nations. It is impossible to open an atlas without finding somewhere the footprint of that extraordinary organisation. On the continent of Africa are Botswana, Cameroon, The Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, the Kingdom of Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Zambia. To the east, we have Bangladesh, Brunei, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Singapore and Sri Lanka. In the opposite direction, over the Atlantic, there are Antigua, Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, not to mention, of course, Trinidad and Tobago. Across the other way, towards the Pacific, we have Australia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. It is a really incredible worldwide membership.
Some of us may be very lucky and hopefully get away to the beaches of Cyprus and Malta this year, provided there are no further problems. Both of them, which comes a surprise to some people, are members of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth occupies one quarter of the world’s landmass, and is home to 2.6 billion people. To put that vast figure into perspective, here are some timely comparisons. Russia has a population of 146 million. Even the former Soviet Union, which Vladimir Putin wants to put back together, apparently, would only account for 300 million people. The Commonwealth is enormous: big not only in size but, I am glad to say, big in ideas.
We are committed to the institution of world peace and the promotion of representative democracy. We stand for individual liberty, the pursuit of equality and the opposition of racism. We only fight discrimination, poverty, ignorance and disease—I want to get that message across. We want a safer planet. A democratic planet. A free world with free trade and the freedom to express ideas and the pursuit of common goals.
At this stage I would like to mention my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and her phenomenal work with the Women and Equalities Committee across the world. I am so grateful for all the work she has done. I have a feeling, if I dare say this, that the Kremlin would not understand a word of this, and I also have the feeling that they should learn.
The Commonwealth is far more than a throwback to the days of the British empire—that is a silly myth. Although it is perfectly true that many of the great Commonwealth countries were once British colonies, look at them now: independently governed, democratically elected, not owing their lifeblood or their existence to a long-gone empire. Thirty-four of its countries are republics; 15 others are Commonwealth realms where our Queen, the Head of the Commonwealth, is also the Head of State; and five countries—Brunei, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malaysia and Tonga—are monarchies, with kings and queens in their own right.
My hon. and gallant Friend is making an excellent speech; those who have heard him speak before will not be surprised by that. Does he agree that there is quite a young population within the Commonwealth? From my understanding, about 60% of people in the Commonwealth are below the age of 29, and therefore the next generation has seen the benefits of being a partner within the Commonwealth family.
I thank my hon. Friend again, because that is a very good intervention. He is absolutely right: this is a very young organisation. If we take India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and a lot of Africa, these are very young people. As you well know, Mr Davies, the younger you get people, the more you can influence them, and democracy is something we fight for and live for. We want to foster that, and it is taught in schools. I have just come back from Pakistan, where I was with Stephen Twigg, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. We went to see schools where they teach children of six and seven about what it means to be part of Pakistan, and about democracy and the way it works. We were surrounded by MPs from Pakistan who came out to talk to the kids as well. It was a great thing.
Saying that we are a family takes in every age group, ethnicity, colour, creed and religion, and that is the beauty of the Commonwealth: it is all-encompassing, and age is just one facet that we love to deal with. I am very grateful to colleagues that the Westminster Seminar series is looking at this part of it. We sit there in the Attlee suite, and one of the things we embrace is the ability for young people to aspire. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to find somebody from Tonga who has gone to Canada, somebody from Canada who has gone to India, somebody from India who has gone to New Zealand, or somebody from New Zealand who has gone to South Africa to work within our family. Our scholarship and fellowship schemes are quite remarkable.
As I say, these countries all do their own thing, but they prefer to stay signed up to the ideals of the Commonwealth. Any Commonwealth country can leave. We started with eight countries when Her Majesty came to the throne; we are 54 now. Nobody leaves—they join. Why? Because they know what they are getting. What is on the tin is in the tin, and they understand that. It is funny how many countries want to join us. Sometimes, like with Mozambique or Namibia, people might say, “Well, it is a bit tenuous.” Rubbish! We are delighted for countries to join whose creation Britain has had a part in—probably not quite the part they wanted, but we had a part in their creation, and they want to join us. That is important. There are only two Commonwealth countries that did not have any connection with the empire. Namibia is one; the other, of course, is Rwanda, which has gone through a frightening history and is now an enormously valued part of the family.
Slowly, patiently and effectively, the family of the Commonwealth is spreading the doctrine of parliamentary democracy across the world. It works at different speeds in different places, understandably, but there is no doubt in my mind—or, I hope, in the mind of any Member of either House—that it does a good job. We reject dictatorships. We seek agreement through debate, with the active participation of the people via the ballot box. That is what we do as an international parliamentary association and as its individual nation branches, including the one right here in Westminster, which is phenomenal: I thank my colleagues and Members of the other place so much for the work they do. The network is registered throughout the world, and recognised throughout the world as an invaluable source. It brings people together and nurtures co-operation. If it did not exist now, we would certainly never invent it.
But there is a problem—one that, sad to say, the Government at the moment have not been able to address or recognise. For reasons that make little sense to me, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is a registered charity. That goes back into the mists of time; I do not know why it was set up that way in the first place. That would be fine if the CPA were purely in the business of raising funds for worthy causes, but we do not need the sorts of tax breaks that go with charitable status—it is not what we do. We are serious players in a serious process of effective diplomacy across the world. We have something to offer that is proven, practical and effective. We help all parliamentarians in the Commonwealth. We aim for best practice; we teach best practice; we want good governance and know how to get it. That is our strength. It is surely high time that the CPA is given the status it richly deserves.
All we are asking for is legal status in the UK similar to that enjoyed by comparable organisations. We do not want to be any different from them. We just want it changed so that we are comparable, for example, with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Francophonie, a group of parliamentary nations that share the French language—Belgium, Canada, Belize, Cambodia—in a mini Gallic commonwealth. Such legal recognition would enable the CPA to have more positive influence.
I do not think that is much to ask and the time has come. The former Lord Speaker, Baroness D’Souza, introduced a Bill in the other place, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (Status) Bill, which is working its way here. A few weeks back, I launched a ten-minute rule Bill, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (Status) (No. 2) Bill, with exactly the same wording, to get the legal status recognised. The enthusiasm for change unites all parties throughout both Houses of this Parliament. Mr Speaker is an enormous advocate of the Commonwealth, as is the Lord Speaker, who spoke at the Westminster Seminar yesterday. I am very grateful to Mr Speaker, who has been incredible in the past 24 hours, appearing at almost every event. It would be fitting to pay tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in Her Majesty the Queen’s jubilee year. She has presided over the incredible growth of the organisation.
I know that Ministers have so far reacted to the idea without enthusiasm, even though it will not cost a penny. It will make no fundamental change to this place and no difference to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It will make no difference to the way we operate. We will operate in exactly the same way, but it will make a massive difference to the way that we are seen in the world, and the organisations we can become part of. I say gently to the Minister that I sincerely hope we can help change the Government’s views on a fairly small but fundamental change. These are very dangerous days for world peace. We should show leadership as a nation and support all efforts to promote democracy, not just in the Commonwealth but obviously elsewhere. The alternative is as brutal and deadly as Russia proves hour by hour. That is what we do not want to see.
The Speaker, for the first time, is leading his own delegation to India in a couple of weeks, about which we are absolutely delighted. It is right that the Speaker of the House of Commons should be able to lead delegations, and I hope colleagues agree that is a welcome change. I know colleagues will join me in thanking the CPA team in the House, led by chief executive Jon Davies and Helen Haywood, which looks after CPA interests in this country and across the world.
I would also like to thank Stephen Twigg, who is the secretary-general of CPA international, based across the road from here, for the work that he and his team have done. It has not been easy for either team over the past two years. We have had to keep everything going and keep in touch with everybody round the world, when we could not go anywhere. The frustration for me and Stephen was that we could not send colleagues or get into delegations, with everything done by Zoom. Last week in Pakistan we met a female MP who said to Stephen:
“Gosh! You are a lot taller than you look on Zoom.”
That probably summed up the past two years. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke knows, that was Shandana, who is chair of the women’s caucus and forum, the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians.
Lastly, it has been a great privilege to be part of the CPA for a decade. I follow on from a line of very noble people who have led the CPA UK branch, and it has been a remarkable experience for us all. One thing I will never cease to be amazed by is that, everywhere I go in the Commonwealth, I realise that people are truly grateful for the work we do on benchmarking, for the way that we do our academies, and for the way we work with other Parliaments through Clerks, through Hansard and through all the other things that we take for granted but which so many other places do not. It is what gives us our strength. It means never resting, never stopping, growing the Commonwealth, and making sure we do it in the name of democracy and in the name of the people whom we represent: the people of the world.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on setting the scene so well. His deep interest in this subject is apparent from his comments, and I thank him for all the hard work he does.
The hon. Member referred to the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I endorse his comments about what the CPA does and the importance of having it in place. He also referred twice to parliamentary democracy and how important it is to set an example, which the Commonwealth clearly does. As we are all reminded every morning and night on our TV screens, some parts of the world are fighting for their democracy; we think of Ukraine, as the hon. Member rightly said at the beginning. We concur with his comments about Russia, but we are greatly encouraged by the Ukraine military’s spirit and the courage that people are showing against Russian aggression. We are proud of that.
We are also very proud to be part of the Commonwealth of 54 nations. The Commonwealth spans 54 independent countries, and about 2.6 billion people—out of some 7.9 billion globally—live in the Commonwealth. That tells us about the size and importance of the Commonwealth, and about what it does. I share people’s adoration of the Queen, who by her very Christian faith and life sets an example for us all in this House and across the world. She is also the Queen of 15 Commonwealth nations, whereas five other countries have their own monarch and 34 are republics. The Commonwealth makes up a quarter of the world’s landmass. Such stats illustrate the importance of the Commonwealth, its size and the role that it plays across the world.
Along with India and Australia, the giant of the Commonwealth group is Canada. I well recall emigrating to Canada as an 18-year-old—it was not yesterday. Canada was the country where I was a landed immigrant for a year. I was a bricklayer there; it was good to experience, as a young person, what the Commonwealth has in Canada and what it can offer. One of the great things about the Commonwealth is being able to enjoy that. Canada is the world’s second largest country by area, but the beauty of the Commonwealth is that we also embrace the smaller states to which the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset referred— states such as the Pacific islands of Nauru, Samoa, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, as well as Dominica, Antigua and Barbados in the Caribbean. This great Commonwealth represents a cosmopolitan world through countries large and small.
As a Commonwealth of nations, we believe in democracy, freedom and a common purpose to extend the arm of friendship to many countries across the world. It is mutually beneficial to be a member, and the combined GDP of the 54 countries is some £7.5 trillion—twice the size of Japan’s, but some way behind that of the US. Trade with the Commonwealth accounted for some 9.1% of the UK’s total trade in 2019, and UK exports to the Commonwealth were worth around £65 billion. That tells us that the importance of the Commonwealth lies in our trade and in nations coming together. Imports from the Commonwealth were worth around £64 billion, so the value of what we sell them is comparable to the value of what they sell us.
It is clear that it is a good thing to do business with friendly neighbours. Although this is not a Brexit debate, it has always been my hope that we can be separate yet distinct in Europe with our friendship. The despicable treatment of my country, Northern Ireland, as a political football has disabused me of that notion. Were we to treat one of the Commonwealth countries with such malice and contempt, the world would rightly call us out. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland’s treatment by Europe has been widely accepted and continues—but that is a discussion for another day as it is not the subject of this debate, although it is important to put it on the record.
Now, more than ever, the arm of friendship should be extended within our Commonwealth family to ensure that we are getting and giving the best of those with whom we share the commonality of the Commonwealth. We share many cultures, much history and even, in many cases, the same language. We must also use our position to encourage members that do not allow religious freedom to do so. The Minister knows that I often speak about that and although I suspect that she has already prepared the answer to the question that I will ask, it is important to put it on the record.
According to the Pew Research Centre, 70% of people who live in Commonwealth countries face high or extremely high Government restrictions on their right to freedom of religion or belief. Worse still, some 88% of those people face high or very high social hostility simply for holding minority beliefs. I declare an interest: I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief. As we celebrate the Commonwealth, will the Minister tell me, the House and those watching the debate what has been done to address the persecution of those in this great Commonwealth who have Christian beliefs, other beliefs and, indeed, no beliefs? I would like there to be freedom of religion for all—and I know, without even asking, that the Minister does as well. It is important that one of our pleas should be for that to be improved, and I hope that it will be.
I will also make another honest plea. As we approach St Patrick’s day on Thursday, I am ever mindful that the Republic of Ireland is not part of the Commonwealth. Would it not be great if they were? It is not too late to ask them—we ask them regularly. We want them to consider that gently but honestly, as friends. I see membership as something that could be advantageous to them and to us. Their inclusion would make the Commonwealth bigger, greater and better. I ask the Minister this: has there been any opportunity to see whether the Republic of Ireland would join the nations brought together by this great multicultural Commonwealth and by a common desire?
This great challenge must be met head on. I urge the Minister to take the baton of that challenge and work sensitively and effectively with all our Commonwealth brethren to bring about religious freedom for all. Trade is a wonderful positive point, but we must all ensure that we exert any positive influence that we can, at any opportunity, to bring about change.
I am eternally grateful for the leadership of Her Majesty the Queen in matters of faith—I know that those are a priority for her. We can and should follow the example of that wonderful lady by pressing for religious freedom for all. We can do more with the body and the mechanism of the Commonwealth to improve lives, but we must also take the opportunity, in this dark world, to shine a light at any and every opportunity. The goodness of the Commonwealth, in what it does and what it can do, can help this country to be a brighter shining light for all.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I am delighted to have co-sponsored the debate with my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), and I congratulate him on securing it on Commonwealth Day.
As a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I appreciate the importance of the interconnected nature of the Commonwealth and the need to keep and strengthen the strong cultural, trade and diplomatic relationships between the countries of the Commonwealth. I am looking forward to strengthening our sporting ties this summer, when we will welcome people from across the Commonwealth to Staffordshire, particularly the west midlands, for the Commonwealth games. I welcome the Minister to her place. I know that she shares my enthusiasm for the games, as the mountain-biking event will take place in Cannock Chase forest, which borders our two Staffordshire constituencies.
I am honoured to have been appointed as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Kenya, one of the leading Commonwealth nations in east Africa. The close Commonwealth connections between the UK and Kenya mean that it is one of the first countries that the UK has done a trade deal with in this area following our exit from the European Union. I was pleased to be at the signing of the UK-Kenya economic partnership agreement, which I believe will provide continuity for UK businesses and help to create more jobs, both at home and abroad. From my recent visits to Kenya to meet British businesses working in east Africa and Kenyan Government Ministers, the importance of this trade agreement for our mutual prosperity is very clear. Such trade deals are being replicated across the Commonwealth, increasing economic prosperity for all Commonwealth citizens.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, I attended the Commonwealth service at Westminster Abbey yesterday with the Prime Minister and the royal family. I sat alongside a number of African MPs who were here this week in London to attend the Westminster Seminar. I was struck by how united the Commonwealth is in its aims for the future and how immense the potential is to tackle the great global challenges we all face, including one of the biggest threats to our current way of life: climate change.
I attended the COP26 summit last year in Glasgow to meet with parliamentarians from around the world who are all so dedicated to delivering sustainable development goals and looking at ways to promote international conservation. It was clear from talking to those MPs that there is international will to tackle climate change. In particular, there were strong commitments from Commonwealth nations. I welcomed the Glasgow Climate Pact, which includes a plan to phase down the use of unabated coal power, as well as the Global Methane Pledge, which was signed by over 100 countries, committing at the summit to cutting their methane emissions by 30%. These steps will lower greenhouse gas emissions and help to reduce the use of fossil fuels, which ultimately will help us tackle climate change.
As ever, it is vital that these agreements are what make a real difference on the ground. I note that the COP26 President, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), recently said at COP26,
“This is our last hope…Our best chance of building a brighter future.”
I welcome the fact that he retains the COP presidency until November this year, so that we can continue to make progress on tackling climate change. I believe this is a real opportunity to build on the plans to reach net zero by 2050; as a global Britain, we should continue to use the COP presidency as a platform to protect our planet further.
Climate change and damage to the environment are occurring now as I speak here in Parliament. In the last minute alone, we have lost 30 football pitches of forest and at present, over 1 million species are facing extinction. Those are staggering figures. The reality is that climate change is not just about statistics or abstract concepts of temperature modelling: it impacts the lives of people every day living in the Commonwealth. Sadly, it is only set to get worse in the future if we do not work together to tackle it.
I am sure that, like me, many Members saw Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe’s very emotive speech at COP26. He said, “We are sinking.” The camera then panned behind him to show that the island where he was standing was actually under water. As they say, a picture really does speak a thousand words. Climate change and rising sea levels are a problem not just for Tuvalu but for British overseas territories and other countries throughout the Commonwealth.
Also at COP26, the UK launched the Clean Green initiative to help developing countries take advantage of green technology and grow their economies sustainably. That included a doubling of UK-aid-funded green investments to more than £3 billion over five years. It provides new guarantees to support clean infrastructure projects in the Commonwealth and throughout the developing world.
One of the obvious opportunities for renewable energy is in east Africa with solar. Let us face it: Africa has a lot more sun than we do in London. On my first visit to Kenya as trade envoy last year, I saw first hand the transformative impact that renewables can have in Africa. I toured east Africa’s largest solar plant—Malindi—which was built by the British firm Globeleq using $32 million of financing from CDC Group, now British International Investment. The plant’s 157 solar panels began powering a clean energy transition earlier this year. That is a great example of where the UK-Kenya economic partnership is already delivering clean, green infrastructure on the ground in Kenya today and is the type of collaboration I would like to see replicated across the Commonwealth.
We have also seen deforestation throughout the Commonwealth; sadly, it is exacerbating climate change. As the chair of the sub-committee on the work of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, I have recently held an inquiry on international climate finance and how UK aid is used for halting deforestation and preventing irreversible biodiversity loss. We had a recent oral evidence session with Lord Goldsmith as the Minister for the environment at the FCDO. I asked the Minister how the Government see the role of tackling deforestation and protecting biodiversity, specifically in relation to reducing poverty. I was pleased to hear the Minister say that the Government are now actively looking for nature-based solutions when planning Official Development Assistance-funded projects.
Tackling deforestation and planting trees is one of the areas where the Commonwealth is leading the world. The Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy, launched at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2015, is an excellent example of how all Commonwealth countries are collaborating to make a difference to our planet. This is a flagship international conservation project and comprises millions of trees, from the Maldives to Malawi, from St Lucia to Singapore. It will eventually link Commonwealth nations across the globe, which demonstrates the power of the Commonwealth working together for the common good.
The project is also being replicated here in Great Britain. Earlier this month, I was delighted to plant my first tree for the platinum jubilee at Flash Ley Community Primary School in my Stafford constituency. Not only will that fruit tree teach local children about caring for the environment, but it also forms part of the Queen’s Green Canopy, which aims to encourage every community throughout the United Kingdom to plant trees to mark Her Majesty’s 70th year on the throne and expand the tree canopy in the Commonwealth. I encourage all my colleagues to do the same and especially the Minister, as my next-door neighbour in Staffordshire.
In conclusion, I applaud the efforts of all countries in the Commonwealth that are aiming to create a sustainable future that is more green. The Queen, as the Head of the Commonwealth, said it best in her recent Commonwealth statement. She said we must:
“endeavour to ensure the Commonwealth remains an influential force for good in our world for many generations to come.”
I absolutely agree.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to take part in this debate. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Stafford (Theo Clarke) and for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on sponsoring the debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset in particular for the work that he does as chair of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and for the work that he is doing on the international front, stepping in, as is his wont, to challenging situations and carrying that work forward with his usual good humour and disposition.
Last week, I had the pleasure of taking part in a Commonwealth day celebration in another Parliament. I was on the steps of the Lesotho Parliament in Maseru with the Speaker of that Parliament and the President of the Senate, along with our excellent and newly established British high commissioner in Lesotho. It was heartening to see the value placed on the Commonwealth by the Members of that Parliament and the tributes made, as they have been this morning, to Her Majesty the Queen and her commitment to the Commonwealth.
As other Members have referenced, the Commonwealth ranges in scale from countries the size of India and the geographic size of Canada to the very small, landlocked Lesotho. People in Lesotho are clear that their country is as much in the heart of Her Majesty the Queen as any of the other members of the Commonwealth, and her 70 years of service were celebrated as much in Maseru as they are being celebrated here in London and in the rest of the UK.
That visit—I know you are familiar with Commonwealth Parliamentary Association work, Mr Davies—was part of a series of contacts that have taken place between the CPA UK and the Lesotho Parliament to enable parliamentarians here and the CPA UK to support the Lesotho Parliament to develop and improve processes, and to learn from each other. The Lesotho Parliament is facing a situation that will be new to certainly all Conservative Members: there is a conflict within the ruling party and apparently a challenge to the Prime Minister, and there will potentially be a vote of confidence in Parliament. We were able to have a full discussion about how such matters are handled in our own parliamentary system.
I am being slightly flippant, but a serious discussion took place on how processes in that Parliament can evolve. The CPA UK has done a great deal of work that has fed into the National Reforms Authority, which has been established in Lesotho to try to take forward the omnibus Bill, which will reform that Parliament. That highlights the very important work that the CPA UK is doing not just in terms of what my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset does in this Parliament, but in working with other Parliaments—peer-to-peer working between Members of this Parliament and other Parliaments, and learning from each other. There are certainly things that we can learn from what is done in Lesotho and all the other members of the Commonwealth.
This is an appropriate time to pay tribute, as others have, to Jon Davies, the chief executive of the CPA UK, and his great team. We were accompanied on our visit to Lesotho and South Africa by Felicity Herrmann—she is responsible for many of the partnerships between this Parliament and other Parliaments—and others, such as Victoria Bower. They do an excellent job supporting members in their activities.
I led the delegation, and while we were there we met the Deputy Speaker of the South African Parliament. He made exactly the same points that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset made about the status of the CPA. I want to reinforce to the Minister that that is a really important issue, particularly for African members of the Commonwealth, which feel that the CPA’s charitable status demeans it in terms of the status that it should be afforded.
It was clear to me—I am sure the Minister and her colleagues are aware of this—that the position in South Africa vis-à-vis the UK is not exactly as we would want it to be. For example, the South African view of the Russian war with Ukraine is not the same as ours. It is very important that we have good working relations with South African politicians. South Africa is a hugely influential country, both in that part of the world and globally, and therefore we have to take it seriously when its Parliament says, “We don’t like the way in which the CPA is constituted.” I would be grateful if the Minister would take on board not only the point I am making, but the point made by my hon. Friend.
In his intervention, our hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) referred to the Commonwealth as a family, while the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) used this debate to raise his concern about faith issues. In my capacity as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS, I say to the Minister that we need to use the fact that we are in the Commonwealth family to put pressure on other members of the Commonwealth and raise the issue of HIV/AIDS and their response to it. Some 60% of people living with HIV live in Commonwealth countries, while one in four men in Caribbean countries where homosexuality is criminalised has HIV. There is a great deal to be done.
Thanks to the advances in medicine over the past 40 years, today there is no reason why anyone with HIV should live a shorter life than someone without it. Crucially, we have the tools to radically slow new infections through education and prevention measures. However, the ability to prevent the spread of HIV is seriously compromised by punitive laws, discriminatory and brutal policing, and denial of access to justice for people with and at risk of acquiring HIV, which is fuelling the epidemic.
The issue at the centre of international efforts to deal with this pandemic is a crisis of human rights law in many Commonwealth countries, not the lack of medicines. There is now overwhelming evidence of the link between the criminalisation of homosexuality and the rate of HIV infection. To end new diagnoses of HIV by 2030, which this Government are committed to doing, the punitive laws against LGBT+ communities in the Commonwealth must be reformed. We must not be afraid to raise this issue with Commonwealth family members—being a family is about being able to raise difficult and challenging issues.
As we have heard this morning, the Commonwealth is a really positive institution. Countries such as Rwanda and Mozambique have joined it. However, we must be clear with our friends and family members that we want to see them reform their own procedures and customs. On that basis, we can look forward to a very positive future for the Commonwealth. I certainly want to do my bit as part of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in the UK. I encourage all my colleagues in this Parliament and the devolved Parliaments to take part—it is a really worthwhile opportunity.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this important debate, Mr Davies. It is absolutely right that we should hold this debate, secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), to mark Commonwealth day. Yesterday, in Westminster Abbey, we celebrated the rich diversity of the Commonwealth; today, we are hearing from right hon. and hon. Members from across the House about the important practical role that the Commonwealth plays. I declare a slight interest: I am a member of the CPA along with my hon. Friend, and a trustee of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) set out very clearly that one of the many values of the Commonwealth, and in particular the CPA, is in enabling Parliaments to talk to each other and work together to improve. I say “together” quite pointedly, because we have as much to learn as we have knowledge to impart, which is very important.
We live in an increasingly interconnected world. The situation in Ukraine shows that, as do the pandemic and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) said, climate change. Whether it is equality, opportunity or religious freedom, which the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, so many issues are interconnected, and organisations such as the Commonwealth, but particularly the Commonwealth, can play such a powerful role.
The Commonwealth continues to resonate because it reflects that interconnectivity between 54 equal sovereign nations around the world—54 nations that share values that are fundamental to our way of life. We are free, democratic societies that want to live in peace and to prosper, and we take action to support each other in achieving those aims. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford mentioned the Commonwealth games. Nothing embodies the Commonwealth more than athletes from across the Commonwealth coming together, as they will in Birmingham in July this year, to demonstrate the purposefulness behind the Commonwealth organisation.
Too often, when we speak about the Commonwealth, we talk about economic ties. They are important—the Commonwealth provides significant opportunities for global Britain to trade more freely, and the Government have been very successful in putting their words into action with the free trade agreements with Australia, New Zealand and Singapore and the ongoing negotiations with India, and by looking to boost ties with countries such as Canada. That is very real and important. However, for me, it is the democratic ties that are so important, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale said.
We have opportunities to work together to improve our democracies. It has never been more important in this world for us to strengthen democracies, and for this Parliament, as well as Parliaments throughout the United Kingdom and the world, to understand their role and their obligation to strengthen democratic ties and, fundamentally, to strengthen our democracies.
Within the Commonwealth, it is astonishing to see the very practical ways that countries can work together at parliamentary and, indeed, Government level. We have 11 member states that are committed—as, I am proud to say, our own Government are—to 12 years of education for women. We have an alliance of 34 Commonwealth nations that have joined together to look at ways to reduce plastics in our oceans. Those are practical ways in which Commonwealth countries can come together on policy issues that really matter to the future of our world.
Like other Members who have spoken, I want to pay particular tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. When I joined Parliament, albeit it a number of years ago, I had not heard of the CPA, but over the ensuing decade and a half I have got to know it very well. I am deeply impressed by the way in which the CPA, not just here in Westminster but across the Commonwealth, is so dedicated to improving our democracy and the way democracies work, and to enabling us to learn from each other, as we are in this week’s Westminster Seminar. I am privileged to be leading a session on Thursday on how we can be better scrutineers of Governments. Having been a Government Minister and the Chair of a Select Committee, I am looking forward not only to talking about my experiences, but to hearing from other Members about how they effect good scrutiny in their jurisdictions.
As well as the CPA, Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians has a crucial role in a world where still only one in every four parliamentarians elected is a woman. We have a long way to go. In our own Parliament, there are twice as many men elected to the House of Commons as women, so anybody who thinks we have got this right needs to read some of the evidence; we still have a long way to go ourselves. By working together, Commonwealth women parliamentarians can share experiences, perhaps hold each other to account, and scrutinise each other on how we are trying to increase women’s parliamentary representation.
Across the Commonwealth, we are seeing significant action being taken. In the CWP Pacific region, women parliamentarians are using New Zealand as a crucial regional hub to increase women’s representation, and are highlighting notable role models. The Canadian region is working with civil society on non-political training for potential women candidates at provincial and municipal levels to encourage more women to stand for Parliament. That is something that our Parliament should be seriously considering, as we still have a real shortfall in the number of women who want to stand for election.
Curiously, our own region is called the British Islands and Mediterranean region. Basically, that is the United Kingdom plus a number of other quite scattered jurisdictions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset set out. We are very focused on how we can use an important tool—gender-sensitive Parliament audits—to look at how good we are as a region at female representation. The research is clear that strong Parliaments are representative of their country’s people and, of course, more than 50% of people in our country are female. We can use gender-sensitive Parliament audits to identify how we can improve the way we encourage women to stand for election and retain them as elected representatives.
The States Assembly of Jersey implemented such an audit in 2018, and the Scottish Parliament has announced its plan to carry one out this year. I am hoping that we can do likewise here in the UK. I pay tribute to the work of the Women and Equalities Committee, which has looked at these issues in some detail. Indeed, four out of 13 Parliaments in our region have completed gender-sensitive Parliament audits.
I reiterate the comments made by my right hon. and hon. Friends about the status of the CPA. Its charitable status is becoming a real problem, and the Minister needs to take that on board. It is seen by many of our members as absolutely inappropriate. It does not sit well alongside the purpose of the organisation. The CPA needs to be recognised in the same way that so many other international organisations are recognised, and charitable status is not right. It would be such a shame, given the immense support that Ministers give to the CPA, if we could not resolve this rather administrative problem. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, who is the chair of the CPA in the UK and, indeed, on a Commonwealth basis at the moment, for all the work he has done on that. A number of hon. and right hon. Members have paid tribute to the staff of the CPA, and I echo that.
In closing, I will make reference to a remark that Her Majesty made in her message on Commonwealth day. She said that Commonwealth countries should continue
“to be a point of connection, cooperation and friendship.”
Those words are absolutely right. For me, the Commonwealth is literally part of my family. Half of my family is Canadian. I am a proud mother of three Canadian children—joint citizens. It is those family ties, that connectivity, that binds us together—most importantly of all, under the leadership of Her Majesty.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I too am grateful to the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) not only for bringing forward the debate, but also for speaking with such great authority and knowledge on the Commonwealth.
As we have heard, the Commonwealth brings together 54 countries and 2.4 billion people around the world. It is a network connecting many of the fastest-growing nations on Earth, with strong ties in language, culture, values and mutual appreciation. Of course there are also the famous Commonwealth games, which is one of the few opportunities for athletes in Scotland to represent Scotland under the Saltire; I am sure that the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) enjoys that just as much as I do.
The Commonwealth also has profound origins in colonialism and can be seen as a direct descendant of the British empire. Many critics of the Commonwealth have described it as an institute for Britain to forget about the British empire’s genocides, exploitation, dominance and oppression of post-colonial countries.
Today, Commonwealth countries are still waiting for an official apology for atrocities committed by Britain during its colonial rule of those countries. For example, there was the massacre at Amritsar in northern India in 1919, when British troops fired on thousands of innocent and unarmed men, women and children during a peaceful protest. Over 100 years later, Britain has still refused to offer an official apology, having only acknowledged that the massacre took place. This Government should offer India and the people of Amritsar the closure they deserve by issuing a formal apology—something they have requested for years.
Numerous aspects of the Commonwealth demonstrate it is not the welcoming body that we all hoped and imagined it to be. For example, take the Windrush controversy of recent years. Hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, many of whom were part of the Windrush generation, were wrongly detained, deported and denied their legal rights. For years, Caribbean Heads of Government tried to discuss this issue with this Government, only to be rejected. It was only when coverage of these individuals’ stories began to break in mainstream media that the same UK Government decided on a U-turn and abandoned their “hostile” immigration environment for the Windrush generation.
The UK has held the position of Commonwealth chair-in-office since 2018 and will continue to do so until June this year. To be honest, the UK Government have so far missed an opportunity to implement fundamental cultural change. In March 2020, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) addressed this issue and stated that the UK Government must do more, considering the two years we have lost due to the pandemic, and that time was of the essence to make a positive impact. Such an impact has not been made. The Government need to do more to fully understand the Commonwealth and to ensure that its member states abide by the shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law that are enshrined in the Commonwealth’s charter.
The Commonwealth has an unimpressive record of not being sufficiently vocal in enforcing these core values, a situation which has become more challenging as the organisation has grown in size. Some members ignore international pressure to promote democracy and human rights. Also, the Commonwealth family took no action in January 2021 when Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, clung to power after a deeply flawed election. Also, in 2013 President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka hosted a Commonwealth summit at a time when his Government stood accused of presiding over war crimes. In Nigeria, another Commonwealth member, there is a 10-year prison sentence for same-sex couples showing affection in public and a 14-year prison sentence for anybody having a gay marriage.
Also, the UK is withholding considerable aid funding from critical Commonwealth states, demonstrating that it is unconcerned about the Commonwealth. The UK Government have cut £4 billion from its foreign development budget for 2021-22 and according to Commonwealth Innovation Fund research the number of people living in extreme poverty in the Commonwealth will increase from 209 million in 2019 to 237 million by 2025.
The hon. Gentleman is making some important points about the Commonwealth, but will he not join me in paying tribute to the UK Government during their time as chair-in-office for supporting six Commonwealth countries to repeal and reform outdated legislation that discriminates against women, girls or LGBT communities? Is that not an opportunity that would not exist if the Commonwealth did not exist?
I thank the right hon. Member for that intervention. She is absolutely right, and wherever we can pursue openness, democracy, fairness and equality throughout the world, we should take the opportunity to do so. I just feel that we have missed an opportunity to do that while we have been chair-in-office. Nevertheless, I thank her for her intervention.
In 2019, the UK provided approximately £1.8 billion in bilateral aid to Commonwealth countries, accounting for over 18% of total bilateral ODA. In 2021, the then Secretary of State for International Trade, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss)—who now serves as Foreign Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities—signed off £183 million of cuts to education, gender and equality spending in the UK aid budget.
I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that I think there is a slight misunderstanding here. The Commonwealth does not deal with aid budgets; it does not deal with anything to do with Government, but Governments are part of what we do.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned certain countries that we work with. He is quite right that there are issues in those countries, but I was in Abuja in Nigeria recently, and we talked about that as a family. They understood that there is a great deal of concern around the world, as does the President of Uganda, whom I met. He realises that there is an issue. His deputy now is Rebecca Kadaga, who was formerly Speaker of the House out there, and she is pretty formidable. I say to the hon. Gentleman that he should please try not to confuse the two things. We do an enormous amount of work, but the air of publicity in certain countries goes against what we are trying to achieve.
I take on board what the hon. Member is saying. I will take the opportunity to raise the injustices that we see across the world whenever I can, and if that includes Nigeria or any other Commonwealth country, I will continue to do so, but I thank him for his intervention.
The UK cannot claim to have a compassionate, co-operative and international outlook while simultaneously decreasing its contributions to lower-income countries, including those within the Commonwealth. We in the Scottish National party acknowledge that work needs to be done, and that only by understanding these little-said truths about the Commonwealth can we understand it in the present.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Members for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) and for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for co-sponsoring this debate and bringing it before this House. Many right hon. and hon. Members from across the Chamber have made significant contributions on topics including promoting democracy across our Commonwealth nations, promoting religious freedoms, economic prosperity, preventing the spread of HIV, and connectivity between Commonwealth countries.
Commonwealth Day is an opportunity for us to reflect on the enduring bonds we have with our Commonwealth siblings. Nothing more effectively reminds us that we are part of a global Commonwealth family than contact with our constituents. Our diversity is our strength, and I think we in Lewisham appreciate that more than most. I have Guyanese Indian and Jamaican descent, and I am British born and bred, so I am a child of the Commonwealth through and through. On my trips to both those countries, I have gained such an appreciation of the culture and traditions that have developed over centuries from people mixing together. In Guyana, I love the pepperpot and cook-up rice, just as in Jamaica I love the saltfish and ackee with green bananas. I have been to many Commonwealth countries so far in my life—The Gambia, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, Mauritius and Malta—and hope to visit many more.
We cannot take our Commonwealth family ties for granted: the strong relationship we have with each other must be constantly nurtured. The institutions of the Commonwealth help us to do just that, and find new ways to partner and co-operate to solve our common challenges. Today, we look forward to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda this June. As we know, the timetable was delayed by the pandemic; the UK has now held the chair for four years, and I am sure the Minister will set out what the Government see as the achievements of our time as chair.
I also want to hear about the engagement that has been happening in preparation for June. One of the ways in which the Commonwealth brings people together is through sport, and we look forward to the 22nd Commonwealth games in Birmingham later this year, which will provide another welcome opportunity to renew and deepen our connections. I would like to take this opportunity to celebrate the achievements of Birmingham as it prepares to host the games.
The challenges we face are daunting, but we are stronger together than apart. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has far-reaching impacts. We must be clear that the Russian invasion is a violation of the Commonwealth values and principles set out repeatedly in declarations from Singapore, Goa, Harare and Coolum. Does the Government intend to facilitate any discussion among Commonwealth partners?
As Commonwealth members, we believe in the notions of peace and security, and the international rule of law. Both of those principles have been shattered by the Russian invasion. The Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations, Martin Kimani, said it best:
“We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”
I could not agree more. Those words are another example of how we have so much to learn from the experiences and histories shared across our Commonwealth partners. I would like to again put on the record Labour’s support for improvements to the curriculum so that a broader range of perspectives can be fully understood.
The Russian invasion will also have economic implications across the world, including for many Commonwealth countries. Labour urges the Government to publish assessments of the impact of the food and energy price rises on developing countries, particularly the least developed states. I urge the Government to restore funding to 0.7%, otherwise the humanitarian money that is rightly being devoted to Ukraine will come at the expense of others. That will often mean Commonwealth countries whose needs are also great.
Much of the UK’s time as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth has been dominated by the covid-19 pandemic. I ask the Minister to give an update on the number of vaccinations delivered into arms as a result of UK donations. I also ask the Minister to say something about any progress that has been made on delivering those doses earlier and more predictably, because a dose that arrives just weeks before it goes out of date is not really a donation at all—it is closer to the dumping of medical waste. Quite frankly, that is an insult.
To recover from the pandemic, we need education systems to bounce back quickly and effectively. In many Commonwealth countries, as in the UK, schools were shut, in some cases for almost two years. That can have a massively greater impact on girls, particularly in parts of the Commonwealth affected by poverty. Children who are not in school are vulnerable to child labour and child marriage.
Analysis of the 2020 and 2021 aid budget cuts suggests that together they would result in 700,000 girls losing support from education programmes. The leaked equalities impact assessment last week showed a reduction of 75% for programmes to tackle violence against women and girls, and up to 80% for some sexual and reproductive health programmes. The focus of this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda will be empowering young people through technology. There are many strong UK companies and NGOs which could contribute expertise, so I hope that the Minister will say more about what the Government will be doing.
The benefits of an inclusive recovery from covid are huge. Girls and boys who can achieve their potential will build more secure societies and expand opportunities for trade and investment. Labour is watching closely to see how the Government live up to their promise to fully restore funding for women and girls, and I hope that the Minister will say more about that today.
Democracy and inclusive governance are core Commonwealth values. This year will see elections in many Commonwealth countries, including Malta, The Gambia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Kenya, Lesotho, and Fiji. We look forward to being able to celebrate the outcomes of free, fair, and peaceful elections with all of those Commonwealth siblings in the months to come.
We must do everything we can to support those values through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and Commonwealth Foundation, and through direct diplomacy by the Government. However, the funding for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy remains in doubt. The Government must continue to support its work.
The protection of human rights is another Commonwealth principle, and we must continue to raise issues affecting marginalised people across our sibling countries. As we know, the colonial legacy includes laws targeting LGBT+ people, and all those standing up against that legacy today must have our full support. Likewise, we must work together to end violence against religious and ethnic minorities, and ensure that journalists and political activists can operate freely in every Commonwealth country, including that of the incoming chair-in-office. I hope that the Government will set out their intentions to do that in their response.
Having saved the best until last, the Commonwealth must come together to tackle the climate emergency. There is surely an opportunity in Kigali to set the stage for COP27 in Egypt and to announce continued deepening of shared Commonwealth programming. What are the Government doing to engage with Commonwealth states in June on the acute needs that many have on climate financing and on adaptation, mitigation, and loss and damage funds?
The members of our Commonwealth family are bound together by so much: our histories, our common values, our endeavours and our shared challenges. The Commonwealth can be a deepening partnership of equals that helps our world to flourish all the more. Labour joins in the celebration of Commonwealth Day, and I with it, as the Commonwealth is special to me. We encourage the Government to set out the steps they will take to make the promise of the Commonwealth a reality.
Thank you, Mr Davies. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, although I think I might struggle to answer every single point that has been raised in the debate. I have been furiously writing notes, and I will do what I can.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing the debate, which is timely and which gives us an opportunity to mark and to celebrate Commonwealth Day, and I commend him on his tireless work and support for the Commonwealth as chair of the CPA. We deeply appreciate the important work done by the CPA and its UK branch.
I welcome the commitment to the Commonwealth shown by Members across the Chamber, and I will do my best to deal with the points they have made, but I want to begin by mentioning one colleague who has been sorely missed during today’s debate: our dear friend, Sir David Amess. Sir David was a passionate advocate for the Commonwealth, and he took part in last year’s debate with his customary good humour, insight and conviction.
As Minister for Asia, I had the privilege of working with Sir David, and have travelled to a number of Commonwealth countries. Most recently, I visited Singapore, where I advanced our partnership to create a safer, more prosperous region. Each year, Commonwealth Day is an occasion on which to celebrate our connections and the diversity of our 54 nations. The Commonwealth makes up a third of the world’s population, spanning every continent and ocean, and every stage of development. It is right that we use Commonwealth week to reflect on our shared values of freedom, peace and democracy as enshrined in the Commonwealth charter. That is a key theme that has come through all the contributions this morning, and the charter sets out the commitments of each member state to develop as a free and democratic society, and to promote peace and prosperity.
The value of those principles has been highlighted over the past few weeks, and they are completely at odds with Putin’s unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine. We will continue to work with our Commonwealth and international partners to ensure that there is strong political, humanitarian, defence and economic support for Ukraine.
This year, we celebrate the platinum jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen to mark her 70 years as monarch and 70 years as Head of the Commonwealth. Yesterday, the Prime Minister, Lord Ahmad, who is Minister for the Commonwealth, and members of the royal family were joined by Commonwealth representatives at Westminster Abbey for a service that paid tribute to Her Majesty for her tireless dedication to the Commonwealth. This summer, at the Commonwealth games in Birmingham, all 72 nations and territories of the Commonwealth will come together in the spirit of friendly competition. I am delighted that my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke), is in the Chamber today. The mountain biking event will be held in my constituency —I think the site is on the border of our constituencies, to be fair—and I am thrilled that we are hosting that event. I hope that Members will come to visit Cannock Chase, which is a beautiful part of the world.
In June, Commonwealth leaders will meet in Kigali for the first full in-person gathering of Heads of Government since the 2018 London meeting, but let us look at the past four years that we have been chair-in-office. We have worked hard to deliver the commitments made in London to build a fairer, more sustainable, more secure and more prosperous future for the 2.5 billion people of the Commonwealth. With our Commonwealth partners, we have built a fairer future. We have honoured our pledge to support women’s empowerment through trade. A number of Members raised the topic of women and girls. The SheTrades Commonwealth programme, which supports female entrepreneurs, has already helped generate sales of more than £32 million for women-owned businesses in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Bangladesh. We work with national human rights institutions across the Commonwealth to strengthen human rights, and we have ensured that more girls across the Commonwealth have access to education.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) mentioned LGBT rights. We have delivered programmes worth more than £11 million to support the promotion and protection of LGBT rights across the Commonwealth. We look forward to welcoming Commonwealth partners to the “Safe To Be Me” conference that we will host later this year.
With our Commonwealth partners, we have built a more sustainable future. The Government are committed to double our international climate finance to £11.6 billion by March 2026. Since 2018, we have co-founded the Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub, which has mobilised more than $45 million to support climate-vulnerable Commonwealth countries. Colleagues raised the issue of climate. Through the Commonwealth marine economies programme, we have helped 17 small island developing states to build sustainable marine economies that are more resilient to climate change.
With our Commonwealth partners, we have built a more secure future. We work with all Commonwealth countries to strengthen their cyber-security. We continue to support the excellent work that the UK Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is doing in strengthening governance, parliamentary oversight and accountability across the Commonwealth. We welcome the work it is doing this year on climate change, women, online harms and modern slavery.
Finally, with our Commonwealth partners, we have been working for a more prosperous future. We have a network of Commonwealth trade envoys—it is good to see some here today—in countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Rwanda. We have funded programmes to liberalise global trade. We have made rapid progress to secure trade agreements with 33 Commonwealth countries. We recently signed two historic trade deals, with Australia in December and New Zealand last month. This year we will launch a new developing countries trading scheme, which will help countries reduce poverty through trade.
Hon. Friends mentioned the legal status of the CPA. I know that Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Minister for the Commonwealth, wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset earlier this month, and I believe further conversations are ongoing with officials. We hope to find a legal route that will give the CPA the recognition it seeks. We have been proud to work with the CPA UK across a number of projects during our chair-in-office, which have sought to strengthen democracy, oversight and accountability throughout the Commonwealth, and we value that partnership. The CPA UK has put forward project proposals for the next financial year, and we are considering those as part of our business planning process.
I might have a couple of minutes to pick up on another couple of points.
I was just coming to countries re-joining the Commonwealth. The UK is open to considering new applications for membership on their merits. The interest of potential new members is a sign of the Commonwealth’s vitality. Decisions on membership are made by consensus of all member states. I believe that some of the countries mentioned earlier were members in the past. Whether they want to re-join is up to them, but as I say it is by consensus of member states.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is a passionate champion of freedom of religion or belief, which is established in the Commonwealth charter. We would like Commonwealth leaders to recommit to promoting and protecting those freedoms at CHOGM. He will be aware that the Prime Minister appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) as his special envoy, and will host an international summit in July. We continue to raise human rights with countries wherever concerns exist. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, my next-door neighbour, mentioned the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy. We hope that all 54 member states will have committed to participate by the time of CHOGM in June.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale mentioned HIV and AIDS. I know that he is a passionate champion of this issue. The UK’s Global Fund and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation are a really important way of supporting international progress on HIV and AIDS. There is strong engagement across Africa, including in many Commonwealth nations, as this issue is exceptionally important. We have a global AIDS strategy, which focuses on addressing those inequalities.
I think I have about one more minute before I must let my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset wind up. I am sorry that I have not been able to cover all the points made, but we have been able to get a snapshot of our co-operation with the Commonwealth and Commonwealth countries. Those partnerships and today’s debate demonstrate how the Commonwealth brings great benefits to diverse communities across the globe. As we hand over the baton of chair- in-office to Rwanda in June, our commitment to the Commonwealth and the shared values of the Commonwealth charter will not dim. The pandemic, the growing impacts of climate change and the rise in global prices make these testing times for all members of the Commonwealth, but as Her Majesty said in her Commonwealth Day message yesterday, we can
“draw strength and inspiration from what we share, as we work together towards a healthy, sustainable and prosperous future for all.”
I thank the Minister and all Members who have taken part in the debate. I am grateful for everybody’s insight and to the Minister for being able to take on the points that have been raised. I know that the point about the CPA’s status will be taken on board. The Commonwealth has achieved so many of the aims that it set out to. I did not mention this, but I am grateful for the funding that we get from the FCDO. I was not going to bring up our next funding bid, but I thank the Minister for doing so. I think she knows—certainly colleagues do—that every penny that we get from the FCDO is spent on programmes, and we do it well. The staff of the CPA UK is only 30. The staff of the CPA internationally is only 20. That a whole organisation can be run on such small numbers is phenomenal; they are a tremendous team.
We have praised Her Majesty for her incredible leadership over the last 70 years. That shows that one person can make a massive difference, and does so all the time. I say gently to the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar), that any country can leave the Commonwealth. It is a club. People want to be part of the Commonwealth because it gives us a shared history, good or bad. It shows that by working together we can change things. It is not always easy; it can be difficult, and I take that on the chin, but our history is one of the things that binds us. Common adversity can bring commonality. That is what has bound us together. Dealing with colleagues from around the world—it is lovely to hear about people’s heritages—shows that that is what makes this incredible organisation work so well. One can go anywhere in the world and meet people who say, “I’ve got a cousin”—or an aunt or whatever—“in the United Kingdom,” and that is just wonderful.
We do this every year. We do it because it matters to an enormous organisation that has an enormous heart. We are a democratically led organisation, and we fight for people and democracy.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Commonwealth Day.