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Commonwealth: Caribbean

Volume 715: debated on Wednesday 2 December 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad from 27 to 29 November, how they are building a constructive relationship between the United Kingdom and Caribbean Commonwealth countries.

My Lords, last week, Her Majesty the Queen made a state visit to Bermuda, the Bahamas and to Trinidad and Tobago. Her Majesty attended the Commonwealth summit in Trinidad and Tobago. In Port of Spain, at the summit, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister met the Caribbean Heads of Government and emphasised strongly the value of the UK’s relationship with the Caribbean region and its people. Before attending the summit, I visited Jamaica and met Ministers and others.

Is the noble Baroness aware of the very widespread perception in Caribbean countries that the UK Government have much less commitment to the Commonwealth Caribbean than they previously had? Is she aware, for example, of the widespread anger among Jamaican parliamentarians that, if they wish to attend meetings in Brussels, they have to transit through the UK and are now required to have a visa simply to change planes?

I thank the noble Baroness. I am aware and, indeed, acknowledge that some disquiet has been felt by the Caribbean Governments in particular. We are making every effort to address that. I have been engaging with the diaspora in the UK. I have had a round table with representatives of the Caribbean community and a UK-wide event with the diaspora. I have plans in hand to deal with issues such as trade and industry, the relationship with DfID and, I hope, with the border authority as well, so I am making a serious effort to address some of the concerns that have been raised.

The noble Baroness referred to visas. We believe that we get more efficiency and more flexibility, and that the system has more integrity, by delivering Jamaican visas from the United States. The visa system has to have quality and consistency and it was discussed with the Prime Minister at the meeting that I mentioned earlier.

My Lords, does the Minister share my view that last week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was a successful and significant one and that the Commonwealth became much more outward-looking? I hope that it brings benefit to the Caribbean Commonwealth countries and to their own efforts through CARICOM, et cetera. Does she also note that the group in Trinidad decided to invite Rwanda into the Commonwealth? It is probably a good idea—particularly since I gather that they have taken up cricket in Rwanda—but was either House of Parliament consulted before it became the British Government’s policy to back that membership?

My Lords, the decisions made by the Commonwealth are made by all Commonwealth members and not by the British Government, and that was the case with Rwanda’s application to join the Commonwealth and the agreement which the Commonwealth as a body gave to that position. It appears in the communiqué and there was a very firm belief, as has been in the case in the past—for example, with Mozambique—that it is a way of ensuring that you draw into the Commonwealth those countries that can benefit from the relationship that we have on human rights, democracy and other issues. I sensed a real consensus around the Commonwealth meeting of Ministers on the application and the success of Rwanda in joining.

My Lords, has my noble friend assessed the co-operation that our Government are receiving from the Government of Jamaica and from other Caribbean Commonwealth countries on the efforts to interdict the illegal trade in drugs?

I thank the noble Lord. As he suggests, we are concerned about rising levels of crime throughout the region. We have invested a great deal in reducing drug trafficking and associated crimes, working with the Serious Organised Crime Agency and collaborating with the Governments in the region. During my visit, I went on board HMS “Iron Duke”, a ship working in the Caribbean mostly on disaster issues, which has developed a very important and significant counternarcotics role in the region. The collaboration and co-operation are good, but we concede that there are huge concerns since we know that 30 per cent of the cocaine found on the streets of the United Kingdom is transhipped through the Caribbean.

My Lords, following the welcome decision of the Commonwealth to admit Rwanda to its membership, can the Minister tell us whether we are engaging with President Paul Kagame and Rwanda about Rwanda’s involvement in the continuing conflict within the eastern part of the Congo where, as she is well aware, millions of people have died over the past 15 years?

My Lords, we should recognise, acknowledge and welcome the fact that there has been a rapprochement between Rwanda and the Government of the DRC. It is a very positive advance on what we have seen in the past. The noble Lord’s concerns would have been commendable in the past, but we have now seen some serious progress.

My Lords, the noble Baroness may have not quite heard the question put to her by my noble friend. As I understood it, he was asking when Parliament had had the opportunity to debate the proposal that Rwanda should be admitted to the Commonwealth. That, it appears, was government policy. Did we all know that it was government policy?

My Lords, those of us who follow issues relating to the Commonwealth were very well aware that this was being discussed. I am very surprised that the noble Lord seems to be unaware that this has been discussed for two years or more. It is not the practice to ratify such a decision made by the Commonwealth in national parliaments, whether that of the UK or of any other Commonwealth member.

Was the tax on travel to the Caribbean discussed at the Heads of Government meeting? Will the Government think again, because it is an unfair burden? We have lost bananas, we have lost sugar et cetera, and now we are told that tourism is our only means. This will definitely put a ban on tourism and certainly will not help Caribbeans in this country who are trying to get there to see their relatives.

I can certainly confirm to my noble friend that the issue of air passenger duty was raised many times with all of us. We are all conscious—I am conscious—that this is a cause of concern. I am aware of what has happened to the banana industry, the sugar industry and the rum industry. Now there are threats to tourism, not just from air passenger duty but due to the economic situation across the world. I cite what the Prime Minister said at the meeting in Port of Spain, when he was asked a question. He said:

“The UK is keen to ensure that these measures are not discriminatory and have asked the Treasury to look urgently at the issue. Strong solidarity with Caribbean economies as they, too, weather the global downturn, is very important to us”.

I hope that those words are reassuring.