House of Lords
Thursday, 8 September 2011
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Guildford.
My Lords, the conflict in Southern Kordofan continues. Despite the announcement of a two-week ceasefire in Southern Kordofan by President al-Bashir, we have continued to receive reports of fighting and human rights abuses, and humanitarian access remains extremely limited. The outbreak of violence in Blue Nile state on 2 September marks a further deterioration in the ongoing pattern of conflict. We continue to work closely with our international partners to push for an immediate cessation of hostilities. In Abyei, deployment of the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei continues, under UN Resolution 1990. We are concerned that the Sudanese armed forces and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement troops are not withdrawing as agreed, and call for both sides to start the withdrawal process immediately.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but I fear it seems to imply symmetry in the culpability for aggression between President al-Bashir’s government of Sudan forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Is he aware that in the recent conflict in Blue Nile, civilians have suffered aerial bombardment from government of Sudan forces? At least 50,000 civilians have had to flee, 20,000 into Ethiopia. Al-Bashir has denied access to UN and other aid organisations to civilians in need and dismissed the democratically elected governor, Malik Agar. What specific actions are Her Majesty’s Government taking in response to the sustained aggression that has been initiated and maintained by al-Bashir against the civilians, not only in Blue Nile but in Southern Kordofan and Abyei?
I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I think that symmetry is the wrong word, because we are under no illusions about the ferocity of the attacks by the Sudan armed forces, ordered apparently by President al-Bashir, and by the Sudan armed air force as well. Nevertheless, the truth is that these are disputed areas outside South Sudan. Many of them wanted to be in that but they have been left out. There is bitterness and both sides blame each other. That is a fact.
What are we doing? We are pushing for a strong line at the United Nations, where the matter is being discussed this very day at the Security Council. Our defence attaché is working hard in Addis Ababa, supporting the African Union implementation panel. We are, of course, putting strong DfID funds into South Sudan. The resources are already in the disputed areas, although it is very hard to get access to them, and we are backing the EU special representative, Rosalind Marsden, who is also very active in pressing Khartoum to halt the violence. Pressure is going on but it is not easy. The access is difficult and not all the parties concerned seem to recognise the awfulness of what is happening, but we are doing our very best.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s earlier Statement condemning the bombardments of civilians in the area. However, is he aware that the reports of Amnesty International and human rights groups on the ground confirm the UN’s concerns over the possibilities of war crimes through the bombing of civilians and villagers in that area? We are the lead member of the troika in the north of Sudan. Will we also take the lead in pursuing the investigations into these alleged war crimes of the bombing of civilians?
My Lords, I was grateful to read the Ministerial Statement earlier in the week. I have just read a Ministerial Statement issued today by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on this very serious area. Does the Minister have a prognosis of the African Union discussions under Thabo Mbeki, and what hopes does he have for that agency to influence for good a very difficult situation?
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right. We have issued a Written Statement today trying to bring colleagues up to date with the very ugly, and, I am afraid, deteriorating, situation. The official leading the African Union implementation panel has, of course, been Mr Mbeki. However, there is increasing activity as well from President Meles of Ethiopia, who is taking a lead in trying to get the aims of the panel and all the untied-up ends of the comprehensive peace agreement carried forward. There is more involvement locally. The whole process is very much alive.
My Lords, does the Minister recall the letter that I sent him on 22 June about the events in Kadugli, where 7,000 refugees were escorted away by members of the northern Sudan military? They included women and children and they disappeared. There have been reports in the area since then of mass graves. Is this not like an unfolding Jacobean tragedy, as we hear day by day of aerial bombardment, arson attacks on villages, rape and looting and the events that were described by my noble friend? In the discussions at the Security Council today will we be pressing for these crimes against humanity to be referred to the International Criminal Court?
We shall certainly be discussing them. I hope the noble Lord will believe me when I say that I do recall the letter that he sent me. As he knows, he sends me quite a few letters, which are very informative. However, as I say, I recall that particular letter. The atrocities that have apparently happened, which he described, are appalling, as is the general refugee problem of homeless people milling around in all three areas that we are discussing. That is causing enormous suffering, hatred and bitterness, which, I am afraid, will take a long time to eradicate. However, as to the role of the International Criminal Court, it is, of course, independent and will decide, probably on the recommendation or the nature of the debate in the UN, what charges to press further. As the noble Lord knows, it has already pressed some charges. These matters are very much on the table.
My Lords, will the Minister clarify exactly what the United Kingdom is doing to help secure unimpeded access for humanitarian workers? Is not the silence of the UN co-ordinator in Khartoum somewhat baffling? What pressure is the UK putting on the UN to be more vocal and more effective on this issue of humanitarian access? Secondly, what are the Government doing to help facilitate credible mediation efforts between the NCP and the SPLM in the north?
The answer in a very confused and difficult situation is that we are doing our best. As I said earlier, access for humanitarian activity is extremely difficult, particularly in Blue Nile state. The Government, through DfID, have put in resources and supplies almost in grim anticipation of things getting more difficult so that resources and supplies are accessible within Blue Nile state and in Southern Kordofan, but access to find out what is happening is difficult. The Government in Khartoum have been extremely unconstructive, as the noble Baroness knows, and she knows this area very well. They have constantly resisted the renewal of the UNMIS mandate in the north, although just recently I understand that a high Khartoum official did not rule out the idea of an international presence in Blue Nile state. If it is proved to be true, that could be a change from the previous totally unconstructive attitude. However, access is really difficult, so it is very hard to give the precise answers that the noble Baroness rightly seeks.
Agriculture: Animal Feed
My Lords, the basis for banning the feeding of animal by-products and catering waste to pigs and chickens is to prevent the spread of serious animal diseases for which these materials may be a vector. The European Commission is proposing to lift the ban on feeding certain processed animal proteins to pigs and chickens in the light of scientific advice that the ban is no longer justified. The Government are considering their position.
I thank my noble friend for his reply. Can he confirm that if the EC relaxes the ban on non-ruminant ABP being fed to pigs and chickens; and if, following the consultations he refers to, the Government are satisfied by the scientific evidence that there are no public health risks, they will then lift the ban in the UK?
My Lords, obviously we want to take the scientific evidence into account and consider it very carefully. We also want to take into account likely consumer reaction because we want to take consumers along with us. If that were the case, yes, we would be prepared to lift the ban.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that although there is remaining uncertainty as to exactly the origins of the rogue prion that caused BSE and how it hopped into cattle, the balance of opinion and evidence is that it came from the unnatural practice of feeding animal by-products to cattle? In the light of that, would it not be wise to continue the current precautionary legislation?
My Lords, as a very eminent scientist, the noble Lord is right to draw the attention of the House to the scientific evidence. At this stage there is no question of lifting the ban on feeding to cattle. We are talking purely about non-ruminants, such as pigs and chickens, at this stage. Obviously we will look at the evidence and at what the Food Standards Agency has to say, and then make a decision.
We must proceed only on a risk-based approach and, as the Minister said, the other element to be considered is the acceptance by consumers of food so produced. The supermarkets are the gateway to the consumer. Can the Minister tell the House the attitude of supermarkets to reducing food waste by this change of policy? What discussion has his department had with supermarkets and the Food and Drink Federation?
My Lords, we will continue to discuss these matters with the supermarkets and others. Obviously, where it is appropriate, food waste can go to feed animals—already some food waste can do so, when it has been appropriately separated from meat and other such products. However, as I made clear earlier, any loosening of what is happening will depend on scientific evidence and consideration of these matters. I also think that it is important, as the noble Lord makes clear, that we take opinion along with us on this matter.
My Lords, would the Minister accept that traditionally fed pigs are very popular with the public in terms of the flavour of pork, and so on? They certainly were until the change in their food. Feeding pigs largely on soya has an unintended consequence, in that all the imports of soya are leading to the further destruction of the rainforests. We really must make clear that using our food waste as best we can to feed to pigs has important consequences much further away in the world.
My noble friend is right to point to further consequences of feeding animals in this way, in terms of producing the amount of soya used. Again, I stress to her, we should not make any changes unless the scientific evidence assures us that that is right and proper.
My Lords, would the Minister accept that the Government and the European authorities are right to proceed with caution on this front? I speak both as the Minister who was allegedly in charge during the last stages of food and mouth and as a former consumer champion. The noble Lord, Lord May, has spoken about BSE and we still do not know how the foot and mouth virus entered the chain. While some relaxation may be possible, I advise extreme caution.
My Lords, it is very important we realise that the public perception is that the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in February 2001, which had such horrific consequences for the economy and everything else, was the result of feeding animals to animals. Although there is a suggestion—or at least the Minister has stated—that that will not happen with cattle, in the minds of the Great British public it does not matter whether it is cattle, pigs or poultry; they would still have this feeling. We must be awfully careful before relaxing the ban.
My Lords, the ban in 2001 that my noble friend refers to was a ban on swill. We had already banned the use of processed animal protein as a result of the BSE problems. I reiterate what I have said in answer to every question: we will proceed with extreme caution and we will base any decisions, as will the European Commission, on the scientific evidence available to us.
My Lords, exposure to second-hand smoke is hazardous, especially to children’s health. Since smoke-free legislation was introduced in England in 2007, evidence shows that the number of children being exposed to second-hand smoke has continued to fall. However, some children are still exposed in the home and in family cars. We want to encourage people to create family environments free from second-hand smoke. The Government are proposing a range of voluntary measures that we believe can achieve more, more quickly, than legislation.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his considered response. The evidence of damage to children from passive smoking is well documented. Thirty jurisdictions in Canada, Australia and the United States have banned smoking in cars when children are present. In Canada, exposure to smoking in cars fell by one-third to one-half in some provinces over a six-year period. Is my noble friend aware that the concentration of smoke in the back of a car is considerably greater than that in the front, even if the driver’s window is open? Is he prepared to follow the example of the Welsh Assembly and introduce legislation if efforts to change behaviour fail?
My noble friend speaks with great authority on this subject, and I find little to disagree with in anything that he has said. He is absolutely right that children are particularly vulnerable to the harms of second-hand smoke: more than 300,000 children in the UK present passive smoking-related illnesses to their GP every year. We have to take this matter seriously, and we are. However, despite the evidence my noble friend cites from Canada, it is still early days to judge how effective that legislation has been, over and above voluntary measures. The second issue that poses problems is enforcement. However, we continue to look at these questions very closely.
My Lords, as a former heavy smoker, I still have a guilty conscience over what I must have done to my own children. I fully support every effort to attack passive smoking. But did the Minister see in a report in today’s press that a council somewhere in England has refused to allow an adoption because the male of the family had once smoked a cigar at a wedding and had once smoked a cigar at a party? Is this not taking things to a totally ridiculous level?
My Lords, I moved Private Member’s legislation in the other place in the early 1980s and got nowhere on it. Only when legislation was moved was there a real reduction—a complete ban—on smoking in public places and only through legislation can effective action be achieved. Is it not also the case that smokers lighting up cigarettes in cars are dangerous in terms of road safety? That is an extra reason for doing it. Will the Minister therefore stop pussy-footing around and saying that this can be achieved voluntarily, when we all know that it can only really, successfully and effectively, be achieved through legislation?
My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord’s analysis. It is true that, on current evidence, the legislation is having a beneficial effect; I would not dissent from that. However, we know that voluntary behaviour change is eminently possible. It would explain why, between 1996 and 2007 when the legislation came in, secondhand smoking exposure in children in England declined by 70 per cent. That was driven by not only the evidence but also awareness campaigns and increased awareness in the lead-up to the legislation. Therefore, voluntary action can have a beneficial and marked effect.
My Lords, since the Minister mentioned enforcement, I wonder whether he would like to comment on the issue more generally. I take the point of my noble friend Lord Foulkes about road safety issues that arise from smoking in cars, as well as health issues. Is the Minister content that enough is being done to enforce restrictions that are already in place, for example on the use of mobile phones in cars? Is it not the case that the burden of enforcement always will fall mostly on the police, and that they are unlikely to be able to carry out those duties very effectively when they are under such pressure to cut their numbers?
The noble Baroness makes a very good point. Currently, enforcement in the hands of the police centres mainly on dangerous driving. That may take the form of people illegally using mobile phones while driving or perhaps smoking in a dangerous way. However, I take her point that there is a limit on the extent to which the police can be expected to extend their remit. There is also a sensitivity in this area. The idea of police stopping a car in which somebody in the front seat is smoking on suspicion that there might be a child inside may stray over the boundary of what society would consider an acceptable use of police time.
My Lords, I know that the Minister is very concerned about the effects on children. Could he remind me of the timetable to remove displays from tobacconists’ stores so that children do not see them and are not encouraged to smoke, because that legislation can already be put in place and carried through?
The noble Baroness is right. We believe that the Government’s commitment around the introduction of tobacco display legislation strikes the right balance. We have amended the implementation dates. Displays will come to an end in large shops on 6 April next year, and in small shops on 6 April 2015.
My Lords, my Government and this Government should be proud that today there are more than 2.5 million fewer smokers in England than there were in 1998. The noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, points to the challenge of how to make certain behaviours unacceptable. Does the Minister believe that the Government’s nudge policy will work here? Will the Government invest in a public information campaign aimed at substantially and permanently changing public behaviour in this respect?
My Lords, we are going to publish a tobacco marketing plan later this year which will lay out precisely what we propose to do at a local level. It is our intention to support local efforts to raise awareness and use the insights that we know about from behavioural science to influence positive changes in behaviour, including around the social norms of not smoking when children are present. Voluntary local initiatives are already working. There is a very good example of that in Lincolnshire at the moment. We want to roll out more programmes like that.
My Lords, as I indicated earlier, we certainly have not ruled out the possibility of legislation, but we need to be sure about the evidence that legislation will have a greater beneficial effect than voluntary action on its own. It is a case of balancing the pros and cons. We have touched upon the enforcement issue and I do not think that that will go away, but on the other hand, the benefits of legislation in other jurisdictions may turn out to be compelling.
My Lords, as part of standard policy development, officials in the Department of Health met UK-based companies and one international health expert to hear their experiences of intervening to improve underperforming organisations. These were background sessions to inform policy development. Any decisions to involve organisations such as the independent sector or foundation trusts in running NHS hospitals would be locally led. In all cases, staff will remain within the NHS and assets owned by the NHS.
Is there any suggestion by the Government of cutting staff or wage levels, thus putting greater emphasis on raising revenue rather than patient care, which we regard as highly important? This policy represents, does it not, the decline of the NHS rather than its reform?
I am not sure what policy the noble Lord is referring to. There is certainly no concerted policy to decrease the pay levels of NHS staff. That is something we take very seriously. The proper remuneration of NHS staff, and their motivation, is of central importance to the well-being of patients. No, we are not diluting the NHS; the whole point of the Government’s programme is to bolster and boost the sustainability of the NHS for the long term.
My noble friend is right. The statistics for the productivity of the NHS over the past 10 or 12 years show that it has actually gone down by about 3 per cent in total. We certainly think that the private sector has a role to play in places where it can introduce the higher quality of service that patients actually want. There is no question, however, of the Government forcing private enterprise into health services where it is not wanted and not in the interest of patients.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that question. I am sorry to say that I do not have those figures in front of me, but she is absolutely right to make the point that the independent sector treatment centres introduced by the previous Government were a perfectly proper move to increase choice for patients, and in many cases we have seen the quality of care in those hospitals encourage the NHS to raise its own game. Competition on that basis is highly beneficial.
My Lords, it is clear that one of the causes was that the previous Government—for all the right reasons, I have to say—injected very large sums of additional money into the health service, but alongside that there was no commensurate increase in activity. A lot of the additional money went into settling pay claims. That is not to decry the many benefits that arose from the additional money, but the net effect was a decline in productivity.
Does the Minister agree that there are dangers in sweeping statements on how NHS hospitals perform and that they perform badly, because that is not the case? In many instances, not just in my own hospital—Barnet and Chase Farm—the improvement in hospital services over the past years has been incredible. Does he also agree that there are already strong and widespread relationships with the private sector in NHS hospitals and that the challenge is for NHS hospitals to be better than private hospitals so that people will choose to go to their local hospital?
The noble Baroness is right to pull me up. If I implied that the NHS was across the board providing a lower standard of care than the private sector, I apologise because that is certainly not the case. There are some shining examples of care delivered by the NHS. However, as she will know, not all hospital trusts are as good as hers. Some give us cause for concern in a clinical sense, and they need to be challenged sometimes on the way they look at quality. That is going on at the moment with the quality, innovation, productivity and prevention programme that she will know very well.
My Lords, let us get this Question back to transparency. Over a year ago, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, said:
“Greater transparency across Government is at the heart of our shared commitment to enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account”.
That is the point of my noble friend’s Question. I would like an assurance from the Minister that minutes and discussions are available at local and national level on the public record of meetings with private and independent healthcare providers.
My Lords, the origin of this Question was, I believe, a freedom of information request that was replied to by my department. The background is that we have a small handful of hospitals that will struggle to achieve foundation trust status in their own right. I suggest that civil servants have to be allowed to have potentially helpful conversations with those who have experience of turning around financially challenged organisations. That is the background. We are perfectly transparent about that situation, as were the Government of which the noble Baroness was a member.
Health and Social Care Bill
The Bill was brought from the Commons, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Business of the House
Timing of Debates
Commonwealth Parliamentary Association
My Lords, the modern Commonwealth is a unique and powerful force in the world today. Its 54 member nations are linked by shared values, democratic aspirations, a common colonial history and, not least, language. The countries of the Commonwealth cover six continents, comprise one-third of the world’s population, represent all of the world’s major faiths and religions and collectively represent 20 per cent of world trade. The Commonwealth is also dynamic and growing. The two most recent members—Mozambique and Rwanda—do not even have historical links to our colonial past, and there are two more countries in the queue. We should never forget that Commonwealth soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder with our forces in two world wars. Small wonder then that the Commonwealth holds such a special place in our affection as well as in our history. This undoubtedly accounts for the distinguished list of speakers before us today. I am immensely grateful to all noble Lords who are participating. I look forward to hearing and learning from contributions based on specialised knowledge and experience over a wide variety of issues. I am also looking forward to the wind-up speech by my noble friend the Minister, who has always been a great champion of the Commonwealth, even when it was unfashionable, and who has, more than anyone else, ensured that the “C” is firmly back in the FCO.
Turning to the Motion before us today, first, I wish to focus on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or CPA. Although only a recently elected member of the executive council of the UK branch, I have over the years participated in bilateral visits, incoming as well as outgoing. I might have been able to visit Canada and Australia under my own steam, but without the CPA I very much doubt that I would have gone to Pakistan or the islands of the South Pacific and been able to enjoy such insights into the way those countries operate.
The CPA is the parliamentary arm of the Commonwealth. It was founded as the Empire Parliamentary Association in London on 18 July 1911. Its then-stated aim was,
“the establishment of a permanent machinery to provide more ready exchange of information and to facilitate closer understanding and more frequent intercourse between those engaged in the parliamentary government of the component parts of the Empire … having a branch in the United Kingdom and in each of the self-governing Dominions of the Empire”.
Those were very far-sighted people who set up the association.
The current mission of the CPA is,
“to promote the advancement of parliamentary democracy by enhancing knowledge and understanding of democratic governance and by building an informed parliamentary community able to deepen the Commonwealth's democratic commitment and to further co-operation among its Parliaments and Legislatures”.
These are very worthy aims. The international secretariat of the CPA is based in London under the direction of Dr William Shija. The UK branch, as most people here well know, can be found in Westminster Hall. The team there, under the leadership of Andrew Tuggey, carries out and organises an impressive number of bilateral visits, parliamentary strengthening programmes and international outreach. It is a terrific team.
Each year the CPA organises an international Commonwealth parliamentary conference in a different member country: last year in Kenya, next year in Sri Lanka. This being the centenary year, it seemed fitting that the 2011 conference be hosted by the United Kingdom branch at Westminster. It was a splendid sight at the opening ceremony to see the flags of all the Commonwealth countries being marched through Westminster Hall to the podium from which Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal, on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen, the then Lord Speaker and Mr Speaker all addressed an audience of 600 delegates from across the Commonwealth.
The CPA is the only international organisation that gives a voice to all legislatures, large and small, developed and developing, and at national and state level, and voices were certainly heard during the three days of the conference. Thoughtful and articulate arguments pursued the overall theme of reinforcing democracy. Issues explored in workshops and open debate included: governance and accountability; climate change; education; the global economy; migration; and the future of the Commonwealth. Plenty of networking went on in between. Apart from the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, our very own the noble Lord, Lord Howell contributed importantly to these sessions.
A high point came with the election, in spite of stiff competition, of Sir Alan Haselhurst, the former Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, as chairman of the international executive committee for the next five years. This is no sinecure. His first task will be to deal with the implementation of a working party report on a reassessment of priorities at a time when there are strong differences of opinion within the CPA; for example, the question of the charitable status of the CPA has been raised, with some countries deeming it inappropriate, in spite of the tax advantages it provides. It is therefore important at this time that the chairman and chief executive of the CPA should be able to work closely together. Sir Alan has pledged to bring determination and drive to finding an enhanced role for the CPA.
The conference was an undoubted success. The purpose of this debate is to spread the word and put on the official parliamentary record recognition of the valuable work of the CPA and perhaps of the UK branch in particular.
As to the continuing role of the Commonwealth itself, it may change; it may be modernised and streamlined. But its commitment to democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law will always be relevant. Let us not forget that countries that do not comply with this commitment have been, and continue to be, suspended. They have to fulfil strict conditions before returning to membership.
There are a few things that give me hope for the future. One is the will to reform and develop Commonwealth institutions, as evidenced by the strengthening of the work of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and the creation of the Eminent Persons Group to examine options for reform. I hope that my noble friend will be able to update us on progress in this area.
Another cause for hope is an initiative such as the Commonwealth Youth Parliament. As it happens, it is meeting in London this week—the third of such meetings. I had the pleasure of attending and talking to many of the young people yesterday at Marlborough House. Indeed, our new Lord Speaker was there in her capacity as joint president of the UK branch of the CPA. Those I spoke to came from Nigeria, Tanzania, Australia, Barbados, the Falkland Islands and, indeed, from all over the Commonwealth. They have already elected their Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and Ministers with portfolios, and are clearly looking forward to their debate on climate change, which will take place here in your Lordships' House tomorrow. I hope that as many of your Lordships as possible will be able to attend that debate. It is clear that the next generation of Commonwealth politicians is already working together enthusiastically and learning the skills and values that the Commonwealth of the future will need.
The Commonwealth Youth Orchestra, whose president, the noble Lord, Lord Luce, is participating in this debate, played at that event. The Commonwealth Youth Games start today in the Isle of Man. All these initiatives represent other ways of bringing young people together and strengthening relationships and friendships. That gives me considerable hope for the future, and I trust that my noble friend the Minister will be able to reassure us that the Government’s commitment to and support for educational exchanges and the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan are ongoing and, if possible, increasing. Education is vital.
On the theme of education, which was raised frequently at the CPA conference, I should like to reminisce a little if I may. As a Minister in the Department of Education and Science, as it then was, in 1988, I attended the Commonwealth Education Ministers conference which was held in Kenya that year. We discussed there the possibility of a Commonwealth university. It was agreed that a university was perhaps exclusive and that the institution that should be formed on Commonwealth lines should go wider. As a result of that, the Commonwealth of Learning was set up in Canada, which has provided an important resource for the future. We must all be grateful to Canada as the main contributor to that institution.
Another idea that has been mooted is to have a Commonwealth-based research programme. This could be especially valuable in the areas of agriculture and perhaps energy, where alternative energy resources—for example, solar power—could have an enormous impact and benefit, particularly on the less developed countries. I hope again that the United Kingdom Government will support such an initiative and development.
Touching on the role of the Commonwealth and trade in the global economy, as I have already stated, collectively the Commonwealth countries represent 20 per cent of world trade. Another way of looking at it is that the Commonwealth market is nine times greater than that of the European Union. It represents developed countries like ourselves, huge developing economies like India and small, dynamic countries like Singapore. Commonwealth countries form half of the ASEAN bloc and include three members of the European Union, seven members of APEC and five members of the G20; so there is a certain amount of overlapping. The Commonwealth’s values and standards can be a force for good in all of those fora. It can even be said that some of the less developed countries will be the markets of tomorrow. It will be their consumer demands that are needed to ignite the global economy.
In an increasingly global world, a multilateral approach can be an advantage; in the case of small countries, it can even be essential. Most of such organisations are regionally based, like the European Union. Part of what makes the Commonwealth unique is its diversity and its geographical spread, and this diversity must be cherished. It is interesting to note that not only are the Francophone countries considering strengthening their institutions and working together along the lines of our Commonwealth, but now the Portuguese-speaking nations of the world have realised that they, too, have an untapped source of co-operation and much to gain from working more closely together.
Therefore we can be proud of the Commonwealth record, but we should not fail to recognise the changes and challenges that inevitably lie ahead. There is much to celebrate in the achievements of the Commonwealth, not least the mere fact of its continuing existence. I look forward to hearing other points of view in the course of today’s debate. I am glad to have had the opportunity to introduce this important subject. It has been both a pleasure and a privilege. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on her timely initiative. Both she and the Minister are long-serving Commonwealth people. As for myself, I chaired the UK branch of the CPA for four years and currently I am vice-chairman. I have benefited enormously from the Commonwealth experience.
I make two comments—reflections—on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and one on the Commonwealth. Having been a member of the CPA for more than 46 years, I have seen many changes in our Parliament and in the association, mostly for the good. Our Parliament has become, I regret, rather more parochial. Fewer people have direct overseas experience, and the CPA is one means of providing that valuable experience. It is important not only in allowing smaller countries to walk tall but because it concentrates on the practical problems of parliamentarians, such as financial control of the Executive, the role of opposition, and so on. The linkage between governance and development is increasingly recognised, as is parliamentary diplomacy.
So far as the Commonwealth itself is concerned, the leitmotiv of the new Government has been their new commitment to the Commonwealth. To the CPA centenary conference in July, the Foreign Secretary said that,
“this Government has rediscovered the Commonwealth”,
“this government has put the Commonwealth back at the very heart of British foreign policy”,
and “back into the FCO”. Those are fine words but perhaps I may allow myself a little scepticism on those claims.
In the 1980s, I spoke on Africa for the then Opposition. I recall the period during which the then Government almost destroyed the Commonwealth in relation to sanctions on South Africa. The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, and I were regularly briefed by Bob Hawke at the famous 1986 Marlborough House conference. I also notice that today, for example, the Foreign Secretary will give a speech on the diminution of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I began as a young diplomat in 1960. I remember two periods when the FCO was being diminished. One was in the 1980s in respect of South Africa and the other was before 1997 in respect of the European Union. I suspect that that will not figure in the Foreign Secretary’s speech today.
My other suspicion is that for some—but not, I am confident, for the Minister—the Commonwealth is viewed virtually as an alternative to the European Union when most Commonwealth countries value our membership of the EU as an advocate for the Commonwealth. I recall that in 1975, prior to the referendum on the European Union, the then Foreign Secretary, James Callaghan, visited African countries and learnt that they welcomed wholeheartedly our continued membership of the European Union, as it is now.
My final scepticism is that this is not year zero and not a new commitment. The Labour Government had a number of fine initiatives, in particular at Gleneagles, particularly in relation to the informal Commonwealth.
I welcome the Government’s stated initiative but it needs clear and realisable objectives. The claims of the possibilities should not be exaggerated, nor the likely results. Clearly, there is important work in the field of soft power, which is no less important. The Commonwealth has a role in the new political agenda—climate change, terrorism and energy security. They should recognise the limitations as shown by CMAG, as well as the fact that the Commonwealth could not play a role in key areas such as Kashmir and the conflict in Sri Lanka, and that in terms of election monitoring, it has not been a great success because of its reluctance to criticise failings in elections in member states.
The Secretary-General recently wrote that he had no role to speak publicly on human rights. Do the Government agree that he should have that role? If they are so committed to an increased role for the Commonwealth, where is the money in terms of new possibilities for the secretariat and for new issues such as human rights development, which really needs a new commissioner perhaps on a model of the European Commissioner for human rights? Nevertheless, we hope that the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group reporting to the Perth CHOGM will lead to a number of initiatives. I hope that the Minister will indicate their proposals in respect of the EPG and the CHOGM in Perth in October.
My final reflection is that one test of the relevance of an organisation is that new members wish to join—in respect of the European Union, Croatia and the western Balkans. In respect of the Commonwealth, we have not only South Sudan with its application on the table but also Somaliland. I shall end on this point: is it perhaps too fanciful to suggest that after the highly acclaimed visit of Her Majesty the Queen to Ireland, even Ireland in the new circumstances might over time consider some new relationship with the Commonwealth?
My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, in congratulating the noble Baroness on securing this timely and important debate. If I may reflect briefly on his last comment, about the Republic of Ireland, is it beyond the wit of man to think that Afghanistan might rejoin us at some stage, this time in a civil rather than a military fashion? I leave that thought on the table.
My contribution today is on the continuing role of the Commonwealth in my position as chair of the International Advisory Board of the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau, formerly known as the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit. In this regard, I am pleased to acknowledge the support provided to me by the bureau’s director, Daisy Cooper.
Reform is high on the agenda of the Commonwealth. The two groups previously mentioned, the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, are set to report on their proposals for reform at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in Australia in November. Meanwhile, DfID will be reviewing progress on the reform of the Commonwealth Secretariat after CHOGM and again, one year later.
Dealing with these initiatives in reverse order, in its multilateral aid review earlier this year, DfID concluded that the Commonwealth Secretariat was one of the multinational organisations offering poor value for money for the UK. As such, DfID placed it under what it called special measures. The Commonwealth Secretariat could play a key role in strengthening democracy and supporting development across the Commonwealth, and in making the Commonwealth’s voice heard on global issues. DfID’s review found, however, that the secretariat’s programmes were thinly spread over many interest areas and its potential was not being realised. As a result, DfID planned to increase its engagement with the secretariat and to work closely with other member states to drive reform forward. Its top priorities were to secure greater focus on areas of comparative advantage, to support and represent the interests of small states, global networking, advocacy and specialist advisory services to its members and to strengthen management and oversight systems within the Commonwealth Secretariat.
A goodly part of DfID’s year has passed and the Perth CHOGM is fast approaching. Can the Minister say what monitoring has taken place by his colleagues in DfID so far? What have been the outcomes? Based on progress to date, how confident are the Government that DfID’s funding levels for development, only to be triggered if progress is made, will in fact be released?
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, CMAG, will be reporting at Perth on how it intends to strengthen its role in ensuring that members abide by the Commonwealth’s principles and values of democracy, the rule of law and of human rights. Past calls for reform have criticised CMAG’s terms of reference for being too restrictive and not allowing for situations where otherwise democratically elected governments might be involved in widespread and sustained abuses. The main suggestion for reform called for the development of objective triggers which, if activated, would result in the immediate referral to CMAG. They would be based on unconditional and arbitrary actions such as postponing national elections without the agreement of all political parties, violating opposition rights and compromising the judiciary’s independence.
After some years spent garnering support for these reforms, they were defeated, apparently by the veto of a single vote at a Heads of Government Retreat in 1999. We understand that CMAG is now looking at these proposals again and that there is a call for it to adopt a more considered and proactive approach and not be just a censorious or punitive body. In this regard, do the Government plan to support and encourage CMAG in measures that would enable it to expand its mandate, to set objective triggers and to adopt a proactive approach to constructive engagement?
Finally, there is a report to CHOGM of the Eminent Persons Group. We understand the EPG is to make over 100 different recommendations to CHOGM. The most notable include a charter for the Commonwealth, a commissioner for democracy and the rule of law, an expert group on climate change, rationalisation of the secretariat’s work plan to discard low-priority and lower-impact programmes by 2012 and measures to ensure that the Secretary-General and all the Commonwealth heads of government play their part in enhancing the profile of the association.
The EPG report to CHOGM is full of exciting and challenging ideas. Can the Minister say what the approach of the Government will be in responding to that report? Will it be to select those initiatives they most favour or to welcome the report as a whole? Or will it be to be guided by the following principles: reform should provide something for everyone in 54 countries, big or small, rich or poor; reform that advances democracy and development; reform that recognises the comparative advantage of the Commonwealth’s convening power and ability to influence; and, as a member state, will the UK honour its commitments? If we wish to see new initiatives, we should pledge the financial resources to help fund them, or suggest areas of work that could be discontinued to release funds that could then be redirected.
DfID has highlighted this issue by making further funding dependent on reform of the Commonwealth Secretariat. If, however, we are serious about taking up the recommendations from CMAG and the EPG, members must be ready to fund the secretariat adequately. Many of its current shortcomings are the result of serious underinvestment over many years. It is unrealistic to call for additional funds without a clear demonstration by the secretariat that a programme for reform of the organisation and its working schedule has been developed and can demonstrably be seen to be in place. So I would urge the Minister and his colleagues to press vigorously for a binding commitment to such a reform programme from the secretariat as soon as possible as a condition of further funding.
My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to congratulate the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association on its centenary and its recent successful conference when delegations gathered from all parts of the Commonwealth in Westminster Hall. I have seen the Commonwealth evolve in ways that could not have been imagined 30 years ago when I joined the executive committee of the UK branch of the CPA. I was privileged to become its president when I was Speaker of the Commons, and I returned to its executive when I entered your Lordships’ House, so it could be said that I have come full circle.
The Prime Minister made a bold assertion in his speech to the CPA delegates which I think has great merit. He said:
“we no longer live in a world of super powers but in a world of networks and friendships”.
That, in a nutshell, is what I believe to be the real point of the Commonwealth. It is why this unique association of independent, democratic, multiethnic and multireligious countries has survived the changes that have destroyed the global supremacy of the old power blocs. Their roots were too weak to sustain them. They were not nurtured by the networks and friendships that support the Commonwealth and its enduring aspirations.
The Queen’s message to the CPA conference expressed her personal experience and understanding of what makes the Commonwealth tick. She said it ensures that nations talk to each other and that,
“there are many more similarities between us than dissimilarities”.
I believe that to be profoundly true. Why else, I put it to sceptics, would South Africa have rejoined the Commonwealth as a multiracial democracy after decades of apartheid? Why else has Southern Sudan, ahead of its first elections after gaining its independence, already applied for membership?
Historic connections with this country are part of the answer. They obviously admire our contribution to democracy. Just as important, I believe, are the networks and friendships the Commonwealth offers in a world where billions of people are threatened by forces that appear to be outside their control and where co-operation can make a big difference. In that spirit, perhaps another former member will follow South Africa’s example and rejoin our rainbow of nations. The success of the Queen’s recent visit to Ireland was a historic event that marked a new phase. Ireland has much to contribute and the Commonwealth would surely welcome it back. That, of course, is for the people of Ireland to decide for themselves in their own good time.
My grass-roots role is as patron of the Commonwealth Countries League, founded in 1925 to promote and encourage mutual understanding throughout the Commonwealth. Our education fund, which became a registered charity in 1982, sponsors secondary education for girls in their own country. Since that time, 3,000 young girls have benefited in 35 Commonwealth countries, a small number perhaps but an example of what can be and is being done by way of practical help and personal encouragement when more eminent statesmen have had their debate, passed their conference resolutions and gone home.
Advances in many Commonwealth countries today enable far more children to receive primary education, but barriers are very much in place before secondary education becomes available to many. In addition to climate disasters, challenges such as abject poverty, remoteness of location and ignorance are barriers to secondary schooling. Jane, from a remote island in the Solomons, needed extra support for travel and boarding in a larger island. She is now studying dental surgery in Fiji. The first woman doctor in Tonga was sponsored by the education fund. Three students from remote areas of Uganda are now at universities studying development economics, civil engineering and industrial chemistry. Former students in Papua New Guinea are working in banking, journalism, tailoring and forestry. Those supported by the education fund not only have achieved goals beyond there dreams, but are ambassadors for female education.
Advanced societies recognise that there are economic and health benefits from investing in female education. Educated women tend to have fewer and healthier children. They are economically more productive and earn wages. Particularly in developing countries, educated women have a higher status within their own communities. By empowering young women, they make a contribution to the future well-being of their own country as well as to that of the wider Commonwealth.
A new initiative was launched a few months ago here at Westminster, supported by the noble Baronesses, Lady Flather and Lady Howells, and me, entitled Thousand Schools for a Thousand Girls, headed by Ladi Dariya, herself a former beneficiary in Nigeria. Schools here are invited to raise funds for a five-year period to cover the cost of a girl’s secondary schooling. The project will not only benefit the sponsored girls but open the eyes and broaden the minds of students in this country to the challenges and the barriers elsewhere and demonstrate to our young people that they, too, are capable of encompassing the Commonwealth theme as agents of change.
Our fundraiser Ladi knows the difference that such support can make. Her father died leaving three wives and 13 children. While still a child, Ladi hawked bean cake and herded cattle, and read at night under a kerosene lantern. She was assisted by the fund, subsequently graduating with a BSc with honours in economics and, after some years in banking, she achieved a Master of Science in management and is an associate of the Chartered Management Institute of the UK. Ladi herself supports 10 girls in Nigeria through secondary education. She says, “There is nothing special about my story. It could be the story of any other woman from my background who is given the same opportunity”.
The work carried out daily by people of good will though charitable organisations changes the lives of communities within the Commonwealth for the better. I greatly appreciate the initiative that has been taken by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, in tabling this Motion, enabling me to give voice to some of the valuable grass-roots work undertaken by the educational fund of the Commonwealth Countries League.
My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Baroness for initiating this debate and am particularly glad to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, because I want to second some of the remarks that she has made. Like other speakers, I am convinced of the continuing value of the Commonwealth and welcome the evidence, despite the understandable note of scepticism that has been mentioned, that there has been a rediscovery and an increase in the personnel at the FCO dealing with Commonwealth matters. Like the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, I hope that this really does presage a change in attitudes.
I have really come to learn and I have already learnt a great deal, including some acronyms with which I am pretty unfamiliar, so it has been a pretty steep learning curve to listen to other, more knowledgeable speakers. However, the diocese of London, as a result of Mozambique joining the Commonwealth, initiated a partnership with our equivalent church in Mozambique. We have thus participated in trying to increase the provision of education, particularly in rural areas, opened a health centre and tried to support flood relief schemes. My point is not the help that we have given to people in one of the newer Commonwealth countries but the extraordinary impact that opening the channels of communication has had on thousands—in London, we educate 50,000 children a day in our schools—of young people in this country.
One of the most exciting projects has been the way in which Mozambican artists—we remember that the independence of Mozambique came out of the most damaging civil war—have been using the debris of violence and war to make artworks. Recently we have received a work called “Music Man”, made out of spent cartridges, spent gun parts and all the debris of the civil war. The work has been shown in school after school. I went to one large primary school in East London —not a church school—where a very long corridor was covered with poems, artworks and reflections on the experiences that lay behind “Music Man” and the way in which Mozambican artists created, out of the lethal detritus of violence, something much more hopeful.
My question echoes the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, as to whether there is any scope—and I speak like a fool—for a Commonwealth programme in particular to link schools, create partnerships within schools, promote mutual learning, and increase the ways in which we bring together young people who have very different experiences of life in our wired-up world. Much of what has been discussed is extremely valuable, but it is at a very high level and I doubt whether the commitment to the Commonwealth as a concept will survive so prosperously unless we devise initiatives that build a popular basis for Commonwealth consciousness among the young. So much of what we have been talking about is information that is shared with highly motivated people, but within a comparatively small compass.
I have just one more comment. We have heard several times already in this debate that the Commonwealth is a multireligious entity. I recently had experience of a Commonwealth initiative that has brought together leaders of different faiths, from Nigeria and Uganda and involving faiths in this country, to confront the question of climate change. This seems to me a positive way of advancing one of the main objectives of the Commonwealth; we build unity not so much by scrutinising and criticising one another as by standing together, confronting a common problem. That builds relations and creates new experiences that outflank old animosities.
Therefore, as someone who is hugely grateful for the existence of the Commonwealth, my question focuses upon how we can build that greater popular basis of Commonwealth consciousness among the young.
My Lords, I welcome the debate on this subject. The Commonwealth is one of the few large, multinational organisations that have a very important position in the world in so many ways. This may be a surprising observation from me, as I am regarded—unjustly—as a eurofanatic and as caring very little about these things. In fact, as a Welshman, I go back to my days in the Sunday school at Carmel chapel, Aberavon, in 1935, when we were presented with a card from His Majesty King George V, celebrating his Silver Jubilee, which contained this sentence:
“I ask you to remember that in days to come you will be the citizens of a great empire”,
and I always have remembered that.
It fell to my lot, rather fortunately, some 12 years later, when I found myself commissioned in the Army— in the Royal Signals, though still having very little understanding of electronic science—to be posted to east Africa. I was stationed in Nanyuki on the equator, as second-in-command of the East African Signals troop, with 20 British NCOs and 100 Africans covering Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. I am reminded very much of the extent to which my black signallers had seen service in the Burma campaign with the 11th East African Division. Sergeant Mbela Kasema BEM was one of these. He had come to represent them in the victory parade, and was still corresponding with a girlfriend in Chalk Farm. Among other things, I had to instruct my African soldiers in the greater benefits of “Kingy George Five” rather than Bwana Joe Stalin. I became very conscious of the fact that we were all grown-up children of the same great Empire that King George had commended with his message so many years before. So indeed I found it during the six years which I had the privilege to spend as Foreign Secretary, because there was no doubt about the importance of the Commonwealth.
One particular feature, which I will come back to, relates to the fact that I was, on demobilisation to Cambridge in 1948, given the alternative of going as a captain to command the signals troop in Mogadishu. I did not take that up because the signals troop there was simultaneously giving service to the Somali Youth League as well as the interests of their own unit. That was a rather unfortunate episode, but it drew my attention to Somaliland and, subsequently, to the existence of British Somaliland—of which more in a moment.
As Foreign Secretary, I came quickly to realise the importance of the Commonwealth in so many different ways. One that struck me almost immediately was how much better informed I was in going to IMF meetings, or things of that kind, than the Secretary of State from the United States because I had acquaintance with a whole range of countries, many of which paid great tribute to Britain’s contribution. I recall one observation made by Yaqub Khan, the Foreign Minister for so many years of Pakistan, when he welcomed me to the country and said, “You will enjoy it here—you will find it peopled by the noble ghosts of Britain's past”. I found similar tributes would come in from the leaders of many Commonwealth countries. Commonwealth conferences, or Prime Minister’s conferences, are enormously valuable in finding agreement between the Commonwealth members with their great diversity. For example, it helped us in getting across to all the Commonwealth countries, notably in dialogue between my noble friend Lady Thatcher and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the sincerity of our attempt to bring the Cold War to an end.
I want to close, if I may, with a minute on the problems of British Somaliland, which are very serious because of its subsequent merger in the greater state of Somalia, where it has now suffered adversely as a result of corruption and worse in that country. A very valuable comment on the whole situation was made in the debate in the other place by Tony Worthington, who I think was on the Select Committee on International Development when it visited Somaliland. He pointed out that:
“Our foreign service hang-ups about recognition are getting in the way of us fulfilling our duty to pursue the millennium development goals for the poor people of Somaliland”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/2/04; col. 273WH.]
The reason is that it would like to be admitted to the Commonwealth—comparable to the admissions of, for example, Rwanda and Mozambique, which have been a great advantage to those countries and to ourselves.
British Somaliland, as it was, is not getting the treatment that it deserves. I cannot spend any more time describing the history behind that but I hope that Her Majesty's Government will pay attention to the case being tenaciously argued by a number of people for the recognition of British Somaliland, so that we are able to deal with it more independently than it is now being dealt with, in the unhappy marriage that it agreed to make with the rest of Somalia some years ago.
My Lords, I, too, add my word of delight to the noble Baroness for bringing forward this timely debate and offer congratulations, for what mine are worth, to the parliamentary association for surviving this long. Perhaps I might also say how much I respect the role of Her Majesty the Queen as an ingredient in the curious chemistry that has kept that body going, and being so lively for so long.
It is under the part of the Motion about the continuing role that I wish to offer my remarks. I would have wanted to spend a little time on and discuss further, for example, the place of Caribbean studies in our universities. I come to this debate from a meeting on that subject in my office. When I was pursuing doctoral studies in the area of Caribbean studies, there were at least half a dozen universities with vibrant departments looking at subjects that arise from that interesting part of the world. Now there are none. This is a source of great concern to those who live in significant areas within this country whose populations have large numbers drawn from those Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean.
In the few minutes available, I want to concentrate on what ongoing role the Commonwealth has towards countries that it has suspended from its membership. Suspension cannot be a self-justifying end in its own right. I have in mind particularly the case of Fiji. The Fijian Government have been suspended until they meet certain norms. Sanctions by Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and others have been placed on the present Government. However, they have taken terrible measures against the Methodist Church. They have refused to allow its annual conference to meet for three years and gave only 24 hours’ notice this year in ordering the church not to meet in conference. This takes away the economic basis of the Methodist Church in Fiji, where the finances for the whole year are gathered at its conference. Not only that but women’s prayer fellowships, choir practices, house groups, midweek communions and youth fellowships have all been banned. The Methodist Church is the only church against which the Fijian Government have taken such draconian measures.
Your Lordships may have a certain view of the minority place of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, but I bring the matter to noble Lords’ attention to remind them that, in Fiji, Methodism constitutes pretty much the DNA of the country. I myself preached at the institution of a president of the conference on the princely island of Bau not so long ago, in the very place where chief Cakobau was converted to Christianity in 1853 and where the baptismal font was carved out of a rock upon which previously the heads of those about to be eaten were crushed. Methodism has been part of the emerging Fijian country, and a wonderful place it is. However, at the moment, Methodism is being suppressed.
This is important because it means a very important part of Fijian society is being marginalised. The fabric of society is being weakened. Many of the council of chiefs, which operates alongside the legislature in Fiji, are themselves drawn from Methodism. The indigenous peoples are dominated by Methodism, too. Methodism has played a large part in bringing the Indian population, who are still landless—and that is another problem that has to be addressed at some stage—into the mainstream of life. I wonder what the Commonwealth can do to put further pressure on the Government of Fiji. The Pacific Islands Forum has already sort of excommunicated Fiji from its fellowship. I am hearing messages—texts and the rest of it—that, on the streets of Suva in Fiji, there are beginning to be the sorts of demonstrations that, who knows, could lead to things that we have seen in other parts of the world in recent times.
Prevention is better than a cure. Are there ongoing relationships? Does the Commonwealth have a continuing role? Should we be trying to do more and to be more proactive in creating conditions out of which conversations and pressure can be placed upon the Government of Fiji? All this is urgent. The Commonwealth must, therefore, be congratulated not only on the very proper range of activities it fosters and relationships that it engenders but also on the role it might play in keeping peace in troubled parts of the world. The Fijian Government are setting up an alternative Methodist Church to do their will, just as President Mugabe has done with the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe. Let us put in the cautionary note. Let us delight ourselves in the presence of the Commonwealth, and hope and pray that it can play some part in bringing decency and dignity back to the people of Fiji.
My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for initiating this debate. This is a great day for the Chamber. I am the fourth Welshman to be taking part in this discussion, and the second Methodist minister. It is a good day for me if it is not a good day for the House of Lords.
Some noble Lords will remember going to school in the 1940s, as I do, and seeing a map of the world showing the British Empire marked out in red, as my teacher, Miss Evans, told me. We were so delighted to see that. This weekend the “Last Night of the Proms” will take place. Spectators at that event and at home will join in singing:
“Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet”.
Those words may be sung at the “Last Night of the Proms” but I bet that they do not appear in any party manifesto at the next general election. Everything has changed. Ploughshares now replace the sword. We are building a Commonwealth that is full of dignity and understanding. I have always dreamt—I still do—of one country being a role model for the world. At one time I thought that India or the state of Israel when it was founded in 1947-48 could provide role models of peace and decency. Of course, I have been disappointed. Perhaps the Commonwealth of Nations can provide that role model as we work together, showing respect for each other and not entertaining military or political ambitions but civilised, cultural and often spiritual ones.
Last week I was in Poland, which I think Norman Davies describes in his book as the playground of the gods or of God himself. Six million Poles were killed—not only Jews but others as well—at the beginning of the Second World War and yet they have survived and pulled through. Some may disagree with me but I suggest that that is due in large extent to the fact that they have a faith: 96 per cent of Poles are Catholic. They fill their churches and their faith keeps them going, as is the case with Israel. In 72 AD, the people of Israel were expelled from Jerusalem and scattered throughout the world. All they had was their Sabbath and their Torah—their faith. That kept them going for the next 19 centuries. We do not always agree with them but, when they came back, the state of Israel was established. Therefore, we need not only a political element but elements of culture, civilisation and faith. This means that we have to respect people who have different faiths and cultures from our own. We should look at them and say, “Isn’t it great to be in a world where people are different from one another?”. It is.
I am a vice-president of the Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod. Every year I go there and see nations coming together. They are different and colourful and they respect and love one another. This past year, I think that 14 of the competing nations were from the Commonwealth. Thanks to the CPA’s sponsorship, they will bring a bit of the Llangollen festival to Westminster. Next year marks the Commonwealth Year of Culture, Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. On 2 July 2012 we shall have a Commonwealth carnival of music before the festival participants make their way to Llangollen. Dancers, instrumentalists and choirs from different countries will enrich all our lives. I ask noble Lords to put that date in their diaries. We will be able to celebrate the diversity of the Commonwealth at that event. Does it matter that Scotsmen have the bagpipes and Welshmen have the harp? Not a bit. We can all appreciate one another.
Finally, there is still much work for the Commonwealth to do. Within the UK Scotland wants a wee bit more independence and Wales is also trumpeting in some way, but is not the Commonwealth the framework in which nations which want to loosen their bonds with central government might be able to achieve an independence that is not political but operates at a different level—that is, the independence conferred by respect and dignity? That is what we have throughout the Commonwealth but a tremendous amount of work is yet to be accomplished by our Commonwealth of Nations.
My Lords, I join noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on having secured this important debate. I wish to confine my comments to the continuing role of the Commonwealth, particularly with regard to healthcare and biomedical research. In so doing, I remind noble Lords of my declarations of interest, particularly my role as Professor of Surgery at University College London.
There is a distinguished heritage with regard to health and the provision of postgraduate medical education and training associated with the Commonwealth. For many decades, medical trainees, graduates and other healthcare professionals from Commonwealth countries have come to our country and made a vital contribution to the establishment of the National Health Service and ensured that that service was sustained over many years. Many of them returned to their own Commonwealth countries, having benefited from training in the United Kingdom, and went on to become leaders of disciplines in the profession of medicine in their own countries, contributing to the development of healthcare systems in many nations based on the provision of healthcare in the United Kingdom. In so doing, they brought great credit to our country and increased the influence of the United Kingdom in those countries because the provision of healthcare is so very important in every nation.
Equally, our own trainees had the opportunity to practise in many Commonwealth countries, making important contributions, learning an awful lot and having their own careers enriched as a result. The contributions in this two-way relationship have been substantial. In our own country the development of primary care, acute hospital practice, mental health and biomedical research have been hugely enriched by the relationships between Commonwealth countries. However, in the past 10 to 15 years, that emphasis on encouraging links with regard to healthcare and biomedical research across Commonwealth countries has become somewhat less important to our nation as we have looked to other regions to deal with the provision of staff and medical professionals to help in the delivery of healthcare in the United Kingdom. That is a great pity because one of the important by-products of these close links in healthcare and biomedical research has been the promotion of our own healthcare and biopharmaceutical industry in Commonwealth countries. We often hear that this area of economic activity and endeavour in health and biomedicine is the second most important industry for our nation after financial services in terms of its economic value.
Moving forward, there are important opportunities for us to refocus on the Commonwealth. As we have heard, one-third of the world’s population are citizens of Commonwealth countries. Many of these nations are seeing substantial economic development. As nations develop there is increasing emphasis on the provision of healthcare and the training of healthcare professionals. Our universities, National Health Service, healthcare industries and biopharmaceutical industry could all benefit from a renewed focus on the opportunities available if there were greater collaboration and co-operation in healthcare provision across Commonwealth nations. Equally, those nations could benefit from the very fine industries, knowledge, technology and innovation that we have developing in our own country in our universities and their associated industries.
I have four questions for the Minister with regard to health and training of healthcare professionals in relation to the Commonwealth. First, do Her Majesty’s Government have a specific strategy for ensuring that we can once again encourage some of the most able and capable medical trainees from Commonwealth countries to spend some of their postgraduate training time here in the United Kingdom rather than go to other countries, such as the United States, or other European countries? Secondly, can we facilitate our own trainees to take advantage of the wonderful opportunities existing in Commonwealth countries to enrich their own careers and training opportunities? Thirdly, is there a specific strategy to promote our healthcare and biopharmaceutical industries in Commonwealth countries, so that they can improve and increase their export opportunities and in so doing, ensure that the innovation and discovery from our own universities, and within those industries, can be used to improve healthcare delivery and health in Commonwealth countries? Fourthly, and finally, might there be opportunities for us to build on the concept of Commonwealth learning to develop a virtual Commonwealth postgraduate medical federation or university to promote continuing medical education driven from the United Kingdom to assist the development of healthcare in Commonwealth countries?
I congratulate my noble friend Lady Hooper and I also congratulate the CPA on the centenary. I have been fortunate to go to quite a number of CPA conferences and to make bilateral visits to Malaysia, the Bahamas, Namibia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Australia, just to name a few. We were in Australia at the time of the Bali bombing and it was a privilege to be in the national Parliament to hear the then Prime Minister John Howard speak about what had happened.
On the same visit we also went to Parkes, the place of my birth in that largest island of the world, where we had the best barbequed steak that we had anywhere in the whole of Australia. When I came to this country I think that my passport said I was an Australian citizen but it certainly said that I was a British subject. That terminology has changed completely. When I had tea in the Lords Dining Room—I have been in this House for 30 years now—a colleague said, “Oh, it’s rather nice to have a colonial in the House”. Commonwealth people gave up that colonial tag a long time ago. He was not a young man but it was an interesting facet.
What has impressed me so much about the CPA is how well it works on what I would call not just an all-party but an almost cross-party-and-no-party system. Wherever we have been in the world we have all worked together and no party issues have ever come up. It has been much bigger than that, which is a very important point. I also went through the Commonwealth Secretariat as an observer to the first elections in the Seychelles after many years. That again was something that we felt was useful. I was in Kenya on Remembrance Sunday one year and saw all those wonderful, large, very black men with their umbrellas standing in the blazing sun on 11 November. That reminds me of the great contribution that the Commonwealth has made to this country. It has made a major contribution in both World Wars and in all other times and will continue to do so. There is great fellow feeling within the Commonwealth.
I am still in the position of having my domicile of origin which happens to be Australia. We almost lost the right for Commonwealth citizens to sit in this House. That would have been a tragedy because, although it affected me personally, it is a very much bigger issue. When I last wanted to speak in a Commonwealth debate in June 2009, I rang the Clerk of the Parliaments, asking, “Could you tell me what Act I am sitting under now because I always like to quote that when speaking on Commonwealth issues?”. There was a long pause and he said, “We are sorry but there seems to be a bit of an unforeseen mistake. We are not sure that you are meant to be here at all now”. I said, “What do you mean?”. He said, “Well, you did sit under the 1981 Act”, and I said yes that that was the one I quoted. He continued, “When they renewed that Act in 2006 the Government made a mistake and covered the Commonwealth in the House of Commons but failed to cover it in the House of Lords”.
My speech on that occasion was a bit of a bombshell when I brought this out in the Chamber. The noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, who was answering, said that the Government guaranteed that it was a pure oversight and would put it right before the general election. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, which is enacted now, was very late in coming to us and arrived on the last day of the previous Parliament. It was very controversial and various people said how ridiculous it was that we would be asked to put this all through on the same day and that we could not possibly do it as it would take weeks of deliberation. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, waved to me to come outside and said, “You have got to say something”. I said that it had been suggested to me not to say anything, but he said, “Well, I wouldn’t want to interfere with other people’s views but I think you should say something”, so I did.
Various other people made points but the most effective was the one from the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, who said that some parts of the Bill were good and we should allow them through and not the rest. He quoted the Civil Service and said, “It might be only 90 per cent right, but at least that is 90 or even 80 per cent more than we have ever had, and we have waited 40 years for that, so can’t we have it?”. Various other people hopped up and then I got up and said my little bit about not even getting a Writ of Summons for Parliament unless the legislation went through. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and to the then Lord Chancellor who spent most of that afternoon in this House working on an all-party basis to try to get agreement on which bits of the Bill would go through and become the reformed Act. Fortunately, at the last minute on the last day of that last Parliament it went through.
That is very important in terms of the Commonwealth because Commonwealth people are amazed when they hear that a member of the Commonwealth who is not an English person or a British citizen can be a Member of this House—as also southern Ireland. I heard someone mention southern Ireland. Perhaps this is another indication that southern Ireland may well become part of the Commonwealth.
This occasion shows that there is a growing feeling on the need to renew the strength of the Commonwealth and gives new impetus to that. The attendance at this debate is higher than at any former Commonwealth debate I have ever attended and the interest in the subject is stronger than I have ever seen. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on the way in which she introduced the whole subject and the timing of the debate.
The approaching Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Australia in October will have, as has been referred to by many noble Lords, the report and recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group. Having seen the first draft of that report, I have every reason to believe that it will be robust and strong in its recommendations. The Heads of Government have to be robust and strong in deciding whether they will implement some of the recommendations. In addition, as has already been referred to, there is the Diamond Jubilee next year in which there will be opportunities to mark the Commonwealth and the commitment of this Government to give added strength to it, led, I am pleased to say, by the Minister.
The Commonwealth exists as an opportunity for us to take, as equal partners. It is a pragmatic, evolutionary group of nations representing a whole cross-section of the world. It is voluntary; it is not a treaty; it is not NATO; it is not the United Nations or the European Union. It looks in an informal way for practical solutions to problems, and it can add value to the work that we ourselves do bilaterally and multilaterally with other bodies. It is unique and it provides us with an opportunity which we can take if we wish.
There are two main points I want to make. First, I start on the non-governmental side, because I think that the people-to-people connection in the Commonwealth is in fact its heart; that is what it is really all about. We have a vast pattern of connections—in the various speeches we have heard today we have already seen a massive demonstration of this. It is not just the CPA, which is a very important association, but all the other connections in the field of education and so forth. There are more than 90 professional bodies, a mass of civic society bodies, and a mass of NGOs which all provide a sort of pattern. I declare an interest as president of the Royal Over-Seas League, which does educational work in three African Commonwealth countries and holds a Commonwealth music competition. I am also president of the new Commonwealth Youth Orchestra; music, of course, unites rather than divides nations. There are so many other organisations across the board, in every field, from universities, to law, to the Commonwealth Jewish Council, the Commonwealth Press Union, and so on, which demonstrate this vast pattern of links between us all.
The Commonwealth Foundation seems to be the basis upon which we can move forward. I was its chairman for five years in the 1990s. I know that the Eminent Persons Group will advocate for that foundation to be strengthened. It can act as a catalyst and facilitator of contacts within the Commonwealth on the non-government and civic society side. I think particularly of young people. I suggest that to mark the Diamond Jubilee and the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty being Head of the Commonwealth next year, the heads of government devise some kind of Commonwealth legacy which will devote itself to strengthening the Commonwealth for young people and civic society in particular. I hope a lot of thought will be given to this for next year.
The other point I wish to make regards the government-to-government side. I welcome the Eminent Persons Group’s belief that it is most important that we strengthen the governance systems of the Commonwealth and methods for dealing with conflict resolution. It is here that the Commonwealth must practise what they preach, committed to so often by heads of government. We should devise and set high standards, and should be robust with those who do not stand up to those standards—I hope that that is what will emerge. The heads of government will have to be courageous if they are going to commit themselves to that. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth will have to be very robust in speaking up from time to time on maintaining standards within the Commonwealth.
This Government and heads of government must be sharp in defining their priorities. If we try to do too many things in the Commonwealth, we will not achieve a great deal. Remembering that 50 per cent of Commonwealth citizens are under 25, I hope that a lot of priority will be given to young people. As far as membership is concerned, I hope there will be a separate debate on the subject of the former British Somaliland—an issue raised by my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, which I want to endorse. It was a great pity that the former British Somaliland was not allowed to enter the Commonwealth when it became independent in 1960. Perhaps new opportunities will be provided for us to debate this, as well as the prospects for South Sudan and other countries to join the Commonwealth. We now have this opportunity to rejuvenate the Commonwealth, and I hope the heads of government will take it in October.
My lords, I also thank my noble friend Lady Hooper for securing this timely debate ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting next month in Australia. I strongly believe in the Commonwealth and I have spoken in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere on this subject many times. I personally know high commissioners of several countries and have met leaders of their diasporas in the United Kingdom. I am interested in foreign affairs and have visited several Commonwealth countries.
The Commonwealth stands as a beacon to the global community. Membership shows a commitment to democracy, good governance and the rule of law. It is understandable why so many countries take great pride in their membership, and why the number wishing to join expands frequently. The Speaker of the Parliament of Norfolk Island referred to the Commonwealth as,
“the most wonderful place for a small place like us”.
This sentiment was reiterated by the chair of the CPA International Executive Committee when he identified the need for greater attention to be focused on the challenges facing smaller branches and the island states. It must, however, be emphasised that the Commonwealth is an organisation of equals. Smaller and economically vulnerable states are all given equal weight in the organisation. We are all aware that this is not the case in many other international organisations.
In choosing to address the recent Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary reaffirmed the importance of the association to the wider aims of the Commonwealth. The Prime Minister characterised the Commonwealth as modern, mainstream and practical. This seems to be a fairly relevant summary.
The Commonwealth's 2 billion inhabitants account for approximately 30 per cent of the world's population. It has been estimated that this translates to a contribution of one-quarter of the global economy. In excess of $3 trillion dollars worth of trade occurs annually within the Commonwealth. The combined gross domestic product of the organisation is thought to have almost doubled between 1990 and 2009. Member nations include India, South Africa, Malaysia, Nigeria and Singapore. These countries are among the fastest growing economies and are certain to shape the future of the global economy.
I welcome announcements by the Department for International Development that it will invest in Commonwealth countries separately to the United Kingdom's annual contribution to Commonwealth institutions and development programmes. A number of member nations are reliant upon the organisation's support in the area of development.
In choosing the right honourable Member for Kensington and Chelsea as our representative on the Commonwealth's Eminent Persons Group, we have an individual with a wealth of expertise in international politics. The group has been asked to make recommendations on improving efficiency within the Commonwealth. I, like many other Members of your Lordships’ House, look forward to reading its proposals.
It is argued by some that because the affairs of the Commonwealth are not legally binding, the organisation is weaker and its power is relatively less than, say, that of the European Union. I would, however, argue that this is a misunderstanding. It is the voluntary nature of the body and the common bond which provides its very strength. Indeed, the Commonwealth remains a forum for debating important issues affecting our world.
The Commonwealth comprises 54 nations, which represent each of the world’s prominent religions. I am actively involved in building harmonious relationships between various racial and religious groups, and I believe that the Commonwealth is a marvellous platform to bring people together under one umbrella. It is home to 800 million Hindus, 500 million Muslims and 400 million Christians. It is an important multilateral organisation that demonstrates the effective use of soft power in international relations. I would like to see Commonwealth countries more actively involved in conflict resolution and building stronger business links between the various countries.
The membership of Mozambique and Rwanda speaks volumes about the influence and prestige of the Commonwealth as a unique association in welcoming countries who do not have links to the British Empire. However, Zimbabwe and Fiji cause us concern. I would be grateful if the Minister could provide an update on Her Majesty's Government’s plans to engage with these countries.
The Commonwealth includes Sri Lanka, a country that has failed to reach its full potential because of ethnic tensions that have blighted the lives of many. I visited Sri Lanka as a member of a parliamentary delegation—the visit was organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—and I was impressed with the recent developments following the hostilities. My Lords, my time is up, so I will sit down.
My Lords, my long-standing and firm friendship with the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, began when she served with great distinction as a Member of the European Parliament for the city of Liverpool, where at the time I was a local constituency Member of Parliament. I cannot think of anyone better to have opened today's debate. She set the scene with great clarity and we are all grateful to her.
My association with the Commonwealth began when I was a Member of another place. I served as chairman of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth. There is an old proverb that states: if you plant a seed, you plant for a season; if you plant a tree, you plant for 10 years; but if you plant education, you plant for a lifetime. I echo some of the things that my noble friend Lady Boothroyd said earlier, and others have said in the debate; it is clear that the role of the Commonwealth in future in promoting education must continue to be one of its central tasks.
There is a debate between ecclesiastical and secular Latin scholars about when to use a hard C and when to use a soft C. Many of us would say that in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for far too long we have used a soft C. However, in the Minister who will reply to today's debate—the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford—we have someone who has a long and distinguished record in promoting the Commonwealth, and who I am sure will insist that the hard C is used rather than the soft.
I will make one substantive point in my remarks. To some extent I echo what was said by my noble friend Lord Luce and by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, about membership of the Commonwealth and new members. I support in particular what they said about British Somaliland. My remarks will return to a subject that I raised with my noble friend Lady Cox earlier today at Question Time: the position of South Sudan.
Before I turn to that, I will remark that 10 years ago I had the opportunity to visit Rwanda. I visited the genocide sites. In that country, the genocide that took place against the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority led to the deaths of 1 million people. It was one of the most emotional and disturbing experiences of my life to see some of the mass graves and the places where people had been left. I had the opportunity subsequently to speak to President Paul Kagame. I was very struck when, in 2009, Rwanda applied and was given permission to join the Commonwealth. After all, this was a Francophone nation without the historic connections that many existing Commonwealth nations had. It was the right decision, not least because, in the Harare Declaration of 1991, we set out the principles of democracy and human rights that are not always observed even now in Rwanda. However, a country that seeks admission must surely have some belief in those principles: otherwise, why would it apply to join? At least when a country becomes a member of the Commonwealth and accepts the principles in the Harare Declaration, we are then able to hold it to account and also to enter into proper dialogue in order to strengthen those principles.
This morning, with the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, I met two senior officials of the new Government of Southern Sudan. It has become the world's newest nation, having achieved outright independence on 9 July. I visited Southern Sudan during the civil war, in which 2 million people died. I went to Darfur, where more than 300,000 people died. As the House heard earlier today, in Southern Kordofan and Abyei a campaign of aerial bombardment continues. I was last in Southern Sudan with my second son last year. We visited some areas there and in southern Ethiopia and Turkana where major challenges continue to face those nations. Again and again, I heard of the great warmth that people had for the United Kingdom and for the Commonwealth. Therefore, I was not surprised when the Juba Government, led by President Salva Kiir, lodged an application to bring the world's newest fledgling nation into the Commonwealth.
This is a dangerous time. I heard from the officials we met this morning that they are fearful that Khartoum will embark on a new outright war against the South. I heard from them about some of the many challenges that the South faces. Half of the South's population is below 18 years of age; 72 per cent are below the age of 30; 83 per cent are rural; only 27 per cent of the adult population are literate; 51 per cent live below the poverty line; 78 per cent of households depend on crop farming or animal husbandry as their primary source of livelihood; 80 per cent of the population have no access to toilet facilities; infant mortality is 102 per 1,000 births; under-five mortality rates are 135 per 1,000 births; the maternal mortality rate is 2054 per 100,000 live births; just 17 per cent of children are fully immunised; 38 per cent of the population have to walk for more than 30 minutes one way to collect drinking water; 50 per cent use firewood or grass as the primary source of lighting; 27 per cent have no lighting; 96 per cent use firewood or charcoal as their primary fuel for cooking; and a mere 1 per cent of households in Southern Sudan have a bank account. These are pretty daunting odds for any Government, but at least the Africans of the South now have the liberty and freedom that they have craved, and for which they fought and spilt blood, for so long.
Despite the phenomenal challenges, the taste of freedom is sweet. What better candidate could there be for admission to the Commonwealth? I hope that Her Majesty's Government will do all that they can in these urgent circumstances to accelerate that application for admission.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Hooper has done the House and the Commonwealth a great service by initiating this debate. I recall that a few years ago, when in opposition, my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford expressed concern during the debate on the Queen's Speech that the Government of the day had failed to make any reference to the Commonwealth when they prepared that speech. In my intervention on one aspect to do with the Pacific, where so many island states are staunch members of the Commonwealth, I very much echoed his remarks, as did others. Therefore, I look forward to hearing from my noble friend when he winds up about the current Government’s attitude towards and support for the Commonwealth, its members and its associated institutions.
I will turn to the South Pacific in a moment, but will begin with a more general observation. Sadly, we seem to read less and less about the influence and role of the Commonwealth. There was a time 10 or 20 years ago when barely a day went by without the comments of the Secretary-General or another influential member of the secretariat on matters relating to international issues involving the Commonwealth, or on more wide-ranging matters, being drawn to our attention by the media. Perhaps I read the wrong journals and am ill informed: or is it simply that the press and broadcast media feel that the Commonwealth has less relevance and do not report it? Or is the Commonwealth secretariat less forceful in expressing and publicising its views?
For the past 25 or so years, I have taken a close interest in the South Pacific. I was first involved as a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister in the late 1980s, when my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon was Foreign Secretary. I have been fortunate to travel there fairly regularly ever since. As members of the Commonwealth, Australia and New Zealand are naturally the major players in the region. Both countries do much to exert influence to ensure that the region remains stable and to enhance prosperity. The Commonwealth itself has a role to play throughout the region. Since the 1980s some of the reasons for a measure of disquiet in the region have diminished. The French are no longer testing nuclear weapons there; the United States is not destroying chemical weapons at Johnston Atoll. I recall both these issues being raised regularly at international or regional conferences which I attended. The UK naturally had to speak up for its wider interests, which did not always sit harmoniously with others in the Commonwealth, but it always struck me that somehow the fact that we were also members of the club that is the Commonwealth, if I may characterise it that way, made the Commonwealth something of a bridge between regional concerns and a wider international perspective.
However, now other issues have arisen which bear close examination. The influence of China throughout the South Pacific, often courting the island states with economic inducements, is no doubt welcome in many ways to those who need support, but one is bound to ask whether, in the international arena, its influence and aspirations are wholly benign or of self interest. The Japanese fishing industry, literally hoovering up the ocean with its long-line and other techniques of fishing—let alone its abhorrent whaling practices—stands, in time, seriously to damage the ability of the island states to sustain their own fishing industries. Of course, climate change and changes in sea levels are a major worry. I was very pleased to read on the Commonwealth Secretariat’s website that prosperity and resilience in the region was a key theme of the secretary-general’s address to the 42nd Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland yesterday.
There is also the matter of the internal politics of some of the island states and here I should like to dwell a little on Fiji, as did the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port. I visited Fiji last year for the second or third time. No more loyal member of the Commonwealth did there used to be than Fiji. Going back to colonial days, the people of Fiji venerated Queen Victoria and their links to the United Kingdom. The Rabuka coup of 1987 put paid, at least temporarily, to Fiji’s active participation in the Commonwealth. Now, 25 or so years later, following a third coup some years ago which removed democratic government from Fiji, Fiji remains politically isolated. I feel, as does the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, that the Commonwealth has a major role to play in pressing for a return to democracy in Fiji and I hope that elections certainly will be held in 2014.
How different Fiji is from its neighbour, Tonga, another country I know well. How stark it is that Fiji, which has strong familial ties with Tonga, should have moved in one direction and Tonga in precisely the opposite direction. One of the first and very farsighted acts of the King of Tonga when he acceded to the throne was to promise change to Tonga’s constitution so as to give up many of his residual powers as an absolute monarch and bestow genuine democracy and a constitutional monarchy upon his people. The success of these changes, which took effect in November last year, are immensely encouraging. Tonga is a loyal member of the Commonwealth with strong residual links to the United Kingdom and it plays its part on the international stage too. For example, Tonga even has a large contingent of its defence force currently serving in Afghanistan.
In a nutshell, the Commonwealth is a force for good in the Pacific, as it is elsewhere. It deserves wider recognition, but to gain that, its secretariat must be encouraged to become much more forceful, more outspoken in its utterances and press harder on its publicity while it is active on the world stage. Sometimes individual members may be uncomfortable with that, and unanimity of approach is difficult to achieve, but surely it is an aspiration worth encouraging and working towards.
My Lords, I welcome this debate, introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper. My father was a diplomat in the Commonwealth Relations Office, so I was brought up to this. As a boy, I saw the Union Jack coming down in Kuala Lumpur in 1956 and heard the music changing—we had a musical discussion earlier this afternoon. In my career, I have visited scientific, meteorological and governmental institutions in about 14 countries. I declare an interest as a visiting fellow of the Malaysian Commonwealth Studies Centre at Cambridge. In my remarks I should like to point out how the UK might reorientate its diplomacy to combine more strongly its roles in the Commonwealth and in Europe, particularly to help deal with global issues of climate change, the environment and developing science and technology-based business. The UK high commissioners could, I believe, do more to help promote the idea in Commonwealth countries of flying the European as well as the UK flag. You can be quite sure that when the French have their embassies in countries in the francophonie, they will be flying the European and the French flag.
The present and the previous Governments have worked closely with other European countries and the EU to establish Europe’s leading research position in climate change and to establish policies for mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases and for assisting developing countries to adapt to climate change and reduce their damaging impacts. Collaboration with Commonwealth countries is growing; we are having strong policy initiatives. The Australian Government are introducing bold legislation and, I am glad to say, ignoring the trumpeting by certain present and previous Members of this House who are very loud and noisy. In Singapore, the Prime Minister has set up a climate change secretariat and foresees greater collaboration with south-east Asians. As I found in a meeting interview with him, there is great concern in that area about the rising sea level, which for reasons of physics is stronger in that part of the world, as the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, has just emphasised. However, one has to say that the Canadian Government policy is not helpful in following the United States. I hope that there will be vigorous discussion with the Canadian Government at the forthcoming meeting of Commonwealth Prime Ministers.
In July this year, the Divecha Centre for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, together with the Malaysian Commonwealth Centre, held a workshop to review the special aspects of science and policies on climate change in Asia. The severity of the impacts, from the sea level rise to the melting glaciers in the Himalayas, were highlighted and the need to combine policies for energy and food was emphasised. Indian policy specialists commended the EU leadership for their climate policy and urged the EU, and the UK working with the EU, to keep up the pressure on the US Government to take a more constructive position, or at least not to prevent international collaboration.
The EU and the Commonwealth could work better to promote high-tech business and trade. Many of the most advanced projects in the UK are part of EU programmes—for example, Airbus and projects in space and the environment. In Singapore, I met the EU representatives—many Commonwealth countries have EU representatives. I believe that they and the UK High Commission could do more to explain how EU programmes are world leading and could be used more to help collaboration between the high-tech and advanced countries of the Commonwealth and the UK and Europe. Of course, many of these Commonwealth countries, as I again saw in Singapore, are now in a very advanced position in terms of their own work. Some of the leading groups and universities in the United States are setting up establishments there. UK funding, by Her Majesty’s Government, of UK technology at trade fairs is, in the views of many business people I have met, a poor shadow of the funding provided by other countries, including EU countries such as Germany. Perhaps, given the difficulties of our finances, Her Majesty’s Government should collaborate more effectively and economically with the EU in the promotion of UK industry and its development globally.
Finally, I should like to return to the point I have made several times before in this House and elsewhere that it is quite extraordinary that when scholars and researchers come to this country to work in universities—I have had many myself—there is no funding, no encouragement, nothing to bring these people to London, to Westminster, to show them what goes on. They know nothing. They go back to their countries—some of them become Prime Ministers—and they know nothing about the UK. It is quite extraordinary. Only Chevening scholars, a highly select group, are given, as it were, the treatment, but that is a tiny proportion, whereas when you go to other countries, they really use the opportunity to tell them about the country. After all, that is part of the reason why we do this.
One more thing: if they come to the UK, they should also learn that the UK is part of Europe, and perhaps that is how we should be moving. I have very little faith in this. I have spoken to leaders of the British Council and the Foreign Office, and they do not seem to understand that scientists need to know about the world in which they live, so there is a thought.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Hooper because this debate provides an opportunity to recognise not just that the Commonwealth has been a force for good but that it has a strategic importance for our country now and in the future. Too often in the past, we have underplayed the connections and interest we have with our partners in the Commonwealth. That is why I wholeheartedly endorse what the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for the Commonwealth have been working so hard to achieve: the re-energising of our relations within the Commonwealth. The Foreign Secretary’s visit to Australia and New Zealand last year was the first visit to those countries by a Foreign Secretary in 20 years. It indicates in stark terms that our focus has been elsewhere. Fulfilling the role that we have undertaken overseas in recent times may explain in part why, but it does not entirely excuse it. Surely the skill in gaining new friends and working elsewhere is in retaining old ones.
The Commonwealth family remains a unique forum for voices that would not necessarily be heard elsewhere. It is not just Governments that come together. The Commonwealth has a key role in feeding the world’s growing population. We have seen in graphic and heart-rending terms the consequences of nations—particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where 19 countries are in the Commonwealth—being unable to feed their own people. I therefore draw to your Lordships’ attention to and commend the work of the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth—the RASC—which encourages the interchange of information about developments in sustainable agriculture, forestry, aquaculture and the rural environment throughout the Commonwealth. It aims to encourage member societies in developed countries to help where agricultural education and expertise are needed to enable food production to be increased.
British farmers are actively playing their part, and within the RASC emphasis is being placed on the next generation and the generations of youth to come. Being the only Commonwealth agricultural NGO, the RASC seeks to work more closely with the Commonwealth secretariat and to participate in setting the agricultural agenda. The Duke of Edinburgh was president for more than 50 years, and this influential role is now fulfilled by the Princess Royal. In 2012, the biennial conference of the RASC will be held in Zambia and the theme will be feeding people and Africa’s role in helping global food security. Zambia has vast areas of sustainable agricultural production and commands some 50 per cent of southern Africa’s water resources. What a tragedy that its neighbour Zimbabwe has had its agricultural production devastated.
The Commonwealth is held in great affection by so many. Many of us have family ties. It continues to bind diverse nations together. Whether it is in the healthy rivalry of sport, the values of liberty and tolerance or a desire to enable all our citizens to prosper, the Commonwealth is an institution on which we should build so that all these ideals flourish. That is why I wish the Minister every possible success in his endeavours and responsibilities.
My Lords, I have been thinking a great deal about what the Commonwealth is. Is it an organisation? No, it is not an organisation. Is it a family? No, I do not think it is a family. I think it is a voluntary association of nations. It is a very good thing that it is voluntary, and it is certainly an association of nations. Many speakers have said that things have to be looked at and judged and that perhaps improvements need to be made. I want to state right at the start that I am not an uncritical admirer of the Commonwealth, but more about that in a minute.
My origins lie in the Empire before the partition and independence of India. India was quite rightly known as the jewel in the crown because, as the right reverend Prelate mentioned, in the two world wars we supplied a huge number of people as well as materials. India became a giant factory providing materials for the war effort. In the Second World War more than 2.5 million men volunteered. I am sure noble Lords know about the memorial that now stands on Constitution Hill to commemorate the contribution of Indians, Africans and people from the Caribbean islands because, amazingly, all these volunteers were not remembered on any of the memorials. It is very important to keep that in mind because that binds the UK to the countries that were there to help at the right moment. I was interested in what the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, said about being called a colonial. I am quite happy to be called a colonial. I may not be one now, but I was one. I always say that it is the Empire striking back, so it is all right. I sometimes feel that I am here to remind people that we were part of the Empire and we are here now.
Anyway, to more important things. I think that we have set down too many absolute values for the Commonwealth to follow. If you set down too many absolute values, your attention is not necessarily focused on the most important ones. I believe that the most important thing, which was not mentioned in any of the papers, although it is an absolute value and has been mentioned as such, is the rule of law. Even with democracy, if you do not have the rule of law you have nothing. I am afraid that it is something in which many countries of the Commonwealth are sorely lacking. We have to find a way to help Commonwealth countries to develop better systems and to realise how fundamental this aspect of life is. You cannot have human rights without the rule of law. You cannot stop violence against women without the rule of law. You cannot protect the rights of individuals. Everything turns around. You can have democracy, but if you have corrupt politicians, who is going to stop them unless you have the rule of law? I want to make a particular plea because all the work the CPA does, which is wonderful, is about parliamentary democracy. It is necessary and essential, and it is an amazing programme, but somehow or other we have to bring in ways of improving the rule of law.
The other matter that concerns me deeply is that we talk an awful lot about climate change. We have talked about it in this Chamber. We talk about it, and we have conferences on climate change, but we do not talk about population. If in 1950 there were 3.6 billion people on this planet and there are now 7 billion, minus one or two, surely it is going to affect the climate. Surely no one can say that it will have no impact. There is no water, and all the trees have been cut down. It is extremely important that we start looking at population increase. Most of the population increase is in Commonwealth countries. In the next 30 years or so, the population of Africa is likely to more than double. Where will the food come from? Where will the water come from? No matter how many lightbulbs you change, or aeroplanes you do not use, it is not going to help with climate change. You have to look at the population. You have to consider helping women to not have so many children. This is a taboo subject. Nobody wants to talk about it, but it is essential for every possible reason: the needs of the people, too many young people, and not enough work, education, water or food. I therefore make the great plea that we should think about climate change aligned with population.
My last word—and it literally is a word—is that nowhere did I see corruption mentioned in the papers I have received. Is it not amazing that we all know how much corruption there is in Commonwealth countries and we do not mention it or talk about it? We have to be realistic. We have to be honest. We have to look at the situation as it is, not as we would like to imagine it is.
My Lords, first, I would like to add my own tribute to Her Majesty the Queen who, it seems to me, has done more than anybody else over the last 50 years to keep the Commonwealth together and to provide a wonderful focus of leadership. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on her excellent speech and for bringing this debate, which I think is particularly important at this time.
The Commonwealth is clearly the most international association in the world. On the one hand, it reflects 400 years of British history, engaging with the other parts of the world, but I think it should also be a much more important force in the future. I have always regretted the fact that 100 years ago Britain lost the opportunity that was sought by quite a lot of politicians to create a federal structure.
Britain is privileged to be at the centre of the Commonwealth but, as has been alluded to, should be careful not to be patronising in its attitude. I remember and was extremely embarrassed by the shoddy treatment that particularly Australia and New Zealand received in the 1970s in the wake of unrealistic expectations of EU membership. I remind the House that last time round, in the early 1930s, when Governments and central banks in Europe and America messed up their economies, the UK was able to recover very strongly in the second half of the decade, with the highest growth rates of the 20th century, on the back of a great strengthening of Commonwealth trade and indeed domestically of housebuilding.
I am very pleased that the Government have upgraded the importance of the relationship with the Commonwealth—indeed, it should have been upgraded long ago—and have commissioned a new Commonwealth strategy paper. I understand that the FCO has trebled the size of its Commonwealth Unit. To me, the Commonwealth’s economic and political co-operation and influence are still extremely underdeveloped, and a much greater development would actually be appropriate to the global world we are now in, where the relationships—trading, commercial and even political— between mature economies and new, fast-growing economies is ever more important.
My great interest—indeed, I made my maiden speech on the subject—is India, where I worked in the 1970s, a country for which I have huge love and affection. I have long taken the view that the UK and India in particular represent virtually the perfect relationship between mature and new, growing economies. I also lived in Hong Kong. Noble Lords have referred to Ireland, but I have always hoped that a way could be found for Hong Kong to become some kind of member of the Commonwealth. There is of course the sovereignty issue, but all things are possible and Hong Kong has been perhaps the greatest economic success of all the economies that grew and arose from British connections in the past.
The Commonwealth is not just about the amazing ties of history and culture and personal and family relationships but about what can be achieved with much more important political and economic co-operation in the future. I believe Commonwealth trade could grow from $3 trillion to $10 trillion within five years without that much difficulty. Reference has been made to the fact that the combined GDP has doubled in the last 20 years and could well double again in the next 10 or 15 years. The share of world GDP that the Commonwealth represents is in the course of growing by 15 per cent through to 2015. There has been a massive increase in what one might call middle-class consumers, and not just in India. There are some 1 billion in the Commonwealth as a whole, and, as mentioned, the Commonwealth represents over 30 per cent of the world’s population. This is a huge club that I think is being underexploited politically and economically. I would like to see completely free trade within the Commonwealth, as within the EU. It is potentially just as important to the British economy as is the EU.
Finally—reference has been made to this—it is important that the Commonwealth addresses some of the problems. We have heard the story of the Methodist Church in Fiji. We all know about the problems of Zimbabwe. There should be a mechanism for the enforcement of law and, with reference to the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, there should be some machinery to address corruption. Britain has just passed its anti-bribery legislation. It would be inappropriate and meaningless if that influence did not go international. I hope that the Government’s commitment is very much in earnest, and in the difficult times in which we live I believe that the UK is extremely fortunate in having its Commonwealth relationship, which could be of enormous economic help over the next few years.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for securing this important debate, and congratulate the CPA on its work, as I am a strong supporter of the Commonwealth. I also declare an interest as president of the Elizabeth R Broadcasting Fund, vice-president of the Royal Commonwealth Society, and as someone born in Trinidad, where membership of the Commonwealth is held in high regard.
My vivid childhood memories of the Commonwealth stretch back to my school visits to the now closed Commonwealth Institute, where through education I discovered the wonders of the various cultures which helped me understand how I fitted into the world as part of a global family. The feeling of belonging is one of the most important things for a child’s well-being and back in my days in the 1960s the Commonwealth, in all its glory, gave children that special ingredient.
Sadly, for one reason or other, the Commonwealth is no longer held in high esteem, especially over the last 15 years when it was government policy to place Europe centre stage and promote the EU as the most beneficial partnership for this country to be part of. However, nations like Japan, China and some South American countries have recognised the value in developing close ties with Commonwealth countries in order to increase support within world organisations such as the UN. We too need to nurture and encourage developing Commonwealth countries to participate within such organisations and influence the decisions that affect them and which can help them escape from the huge burden of debt.
Human rights are an important issue, too, so we need to help Commonwealth countries develop strategies for protecting the rights of people, allowing them to live without fear. This is where the Commonwealth Secretariat can play a part.
I am an optimist. I truly believe that the future is positive for the Commonwealth, because there is now a new, forward-thinking enthusiasm for it on the part of this Government. It is also good to know that the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group is working actively to promote the well-being of the Commonwealth.
There is a song which says of children:
“Teach them well and let them lead the way”.
That applies so appropriately to the future of the Commonwealth, for more than half the 1.8 billion people in it are under the age of 25. It is on these young people that we need to concentrate our efforts. Promoting knowledge and interaction between young people and encouraging them to be enthusiastic about the Commonwealth will strengthen understanding and global consciousness in our future leaders.
The task for us is to capture the imagination of the young and to energise them to support the values of the Commonwealth. Organisations such as the Royal Commonwealth Society have been doing just that for years with their youth summit and youth leadership programmes, which bring together young people to increase their awareness as global citizens. But more needs to be done, starting in the classroom.
Here in Britain, Commonwealth Day is one way of doing just that. For many years, I have tried to persuade the various Commonwealth bodies to open up the celebrations by holding the ceremony not just here in London in Westminster Abbey but in other major cities across the UK, in the same way as Maundy Thursday is celebrated each year. This way, the nation, especially schoolchildren, would get the opportunity to participate and understand the importance of the Commonwealth as part of their heritage. That is because, within every classroom, there will be several children who have Commonwealth connections. Will my noble friend the Minister give some consideration to the idea of moving the celebrations around the UK?
There is one area in the Commonwealth that I would like to highlight: the Caribbean member states, as they are vulnerable to many economic, social and environmental problems. Various trade agreements and the loss of agricultural revenue have forced many Caribbean islands to become wholly dependent on tourism. Now the question of the air passenger duty is hanging over their heads, with the potential to destroy their vital tourist industry, affecting many thousands of people. Policies adopted here in the UK, such as proposals for reducing leisure travel and a switch from long-haul to short-haul destinations, could have implications for the Caribbean in the areas of tourism and aviation. Another example of a decision made here that could have damaging financial consequences for the Caribbean is the proposal to abolish tax relief on Angostura bitters. This change would not only seriously damage the competitiveness of the product in the UK but would affect hundreds of people employed in the Caribbean by Angostura. I ask the Government to reconsider this proposal to abolish the tax relief.
There should be a long-term strategy to create sustainable businesses in the Caribbean—anything from call centres and light industry to medical and ocean sciences. Strong Commonwealth bonds will protect and help the Caribbean to survive. I have every confidence that this could happen. I was recently in the Caribbean and the political feeling there is one of optimism in respect of the UK Government. New links have been made at the highest level, and support has already been established through the Department for International Development. I believe that there are more connections elsewhere to be made.
I am so happy that the sun is rising on the Commonwealth once again. Let us all work together in harmony, show consideration when making decisions, and leave a golden legacy for our children to be proud of.
My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend Lady Benjamin about the need to rekindle enthusiasm far and wide for what our Commonwealth stands for and what it can do for all of us.
People in Britain who care deeply about the Commonwealth, and I am one of their number, have in recent years often found it difficult, I think, to overcome feelings of melancholy and restiveness. I should stress at the outset that this unease has not reflected any criticism of the work done by the myriad organisations that operate under the aegis of the Commonwealth, promoting cultural, educational and economic progress so successfully among its members. We will always be proud that the Commonwealth Secretariat is located in our midst at Marlborough House, where Edward VII as Prince of Wales tried to entice the King of Hawaii into joining the British Empire, an endeavour which, if it had succeeded, would have had interesting consequences for Anglo-American relations in more recent times. The Commonwealth is firmly embedded in our national life.
However, something serious has been missing. For far too long, the Commonwealth has been absent from our political life, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, reminded us with his customary force at the outset of this debate and as did my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble in more gentle fashion more recently. Winston Churchill taught us that the Commonwealth should always be one of our principal spheres of activity; in recent years, his injunction has frequently been forgotten. In politics, the Commonwealth has been widely regarded as an anachronistic embodiment of a sentimental memory. Under the previous Labour Government, no consideration was given to the importance of continuity and experience at ministerial level in our relations with key parts of the Commonwealth. Chris Mullin records in his increasingly famous diary that nine Africa Ministers held office in 12 years of Labour Government.
“How on earth can we expect to be taken seriously by our foreign counterparts?”,
he noted on 14 October 2009. It is an extremely pertinent observation, even though the word “foreign” slightly detracts from its force. The Commonwealth is family, not foreign, territory.
But now, at long last, despondency is in full retreat, which makes this debate, instigated so admirably by my noble friend Lady Hooper, a most timely affair. The coalition Government are seeking to restore the Churchillian precept. The Commonwealth is once again becoming a principal strand of British foreign policy. The Government choose to clothe their deep commitment to the Commonwealth in the fashionable jargon of the 21st century.
“The Commonwealth is a powerful global brand”,
the Foreign Secretary declares—not exactly Churchillian stuff—but it is the objective that matters, and the objective, reflecting liberal or progressive conservatism, could not be clearer. Our unique Commonwealth partnerships can, and should, bring us together on a family basis to help implement more fully in the world at large the liberal values that unite us: democracy, respect for human freedom and dignity, the rule of law and, not least, free trade, first promoted systematically by Pitt the Younger to the eventual benefit of many parts of the world that are now Commonwealth members.
We could be at a turning point in the history of the Commonwealth. This is a moment to encourage potential new members to consider the benefits of joining this unique institution, whose door is always open to newcomers as it is to former members. As the House has shown during this debate, the passing years have not diminished the sense of regret, so widely shared, that in 1949 the Republic of Ireland decided to leave the Commonwealth which, as “the restless dominion” of the inter-war years, it had done so much to shape. We are probably more conscious today than ever before that the family is incomplete without this conspicuous absentee from its ranks. So, too, are a number of influential figures active in the public life of our nearest neighbour. An open letter from them to the Irish Times on 3 March 2009 pointed out:
“When Ireland left the Commonwealth in 1949 the other member-states hoped its departure would be temporary … Ireland’s membership of the Commonwealth would, we are sure, be welcomed by the unionist community in Northern Ireland as a significant gesture of reconciliation … It would demonstrate unequivocally that the Republic has finally drawn a line under the troubled history of Anglo-Irish relations that led to Ireland’s self-exclusion from the Commonwealth 60 years ago”.
There can surely be little doubt that our fellow countrymen in Northern Ireland would rejoice if their southern neighbours returned to the Commonwealth family, and the family itself would surely rejoice to have southern Irish participation in all aspects of its affairs, from the Commonwealth Games to the advancement of human rights.
The point has been made earlier in the debate how very fitting it would be if progress could be made in the coming months, following the remarkable success of the visit paid by Her Majesty the Queen to the Republic of Ireland last May. The respect and affection felt for Her Majesty as head of the Commonwealth are boundless. It has been suggested that to mark her Diamond Jubilee next year, the means should be found to restore a royal yacht to her service. One way of doing this would be to put the project on a Commonwealth basis, raising the funds by public subscription from its members; it would work out at about 4 pence per head. The idea may be fanciful and impractical but rather magnificent in conception. The important point is to ensure that the Commonwealth never forgets for a single moment what it owes to its head.
My Lords, I join in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on initiating this timely and important debate. As I begin, if I may interject a light note, the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, in his somewhat musical address, alluded to the fact that the Welsh have harps and the Scots have pipes; he omitted to say that we Irish have drums.
While your Lordships’ House may still be reeling from the ramifications of the Parliament Act 1911, it is fair to say that 1911 was not a year without merit. As today’s debate notes, it is the centenary year of the formation of the Empire Parliamentary Association, from which today's Commonwealth Parliamentary Association traces its lineage. It is also the centenary of King George V's visit to Ireland, a royal occasion which was not to be repeated until Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s highly successful recent visit to the Republic of Ireland, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, mentioned. Those are two centenaries, marking two defining moments for the Crown and the Commonwealth, and two institutions with which our nearest neighbour in the Republic of Ireland may be redefining its relationship. I will return to that theme later.
I should like to place on record my appreciation and thanks for the often unsung work of the CPA and the wider Commonwealth, a not inconsequential network of nations which encompasses some 2 billion persons. I believe wholeheartedly in the Commonwealth, not just for its historical ties that bind our countries together but for its ongoing work bringing pressure to bear in the pursuit of democracy and the protection of human rights throughout the world.
People often question the relevance and the impact of the Commonwealth in the modern day. It would be fair to say that, as an organisation, it has struggled somewhat to profile its work effectively, be that because some sections of the chattering classes will not have anything to do with the age of empire or because, on occasion, it has found itself travelling at the slowest pace among its disparate membership. Nevertheless, for all that, the Commonwealth remains highly relevant today, retaining the ability to do much good both at home and abroad. A greater appreciation and knowledge of the Commonwealth would foster a greater appreciation and understanding of multicultural Britain. It would help our people view the world beyond the confines of the developed West and allow them to have a more global perspective and insight on global problems.
As the economies of western Europe and North America face the unhappy prospect of a lost decade, the Commonwealth has the scope and the opportunity to encourage more adventurous trade links, not least with the emerging markets on the Indian sub-continent. As we go forward to the next century, does the Commonwealth have a role? Certainly it does. Does it have the ability to carve out an enhanced purpose and role for the future? Absolutely it does.
As I noted at the start of my remarks, 2011 is a year of two centenaries: the formation of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s predecessor and the visit of King George V to Ireland. Her Majesty's recent visit to that country has laid one ghost to rest; but perhaps there is now a case and an opportunity to settle another historical fracture. As was said earlier in the debate, Ireland left the Commonwealth in 1949. A return would be a final reconciliation in Anglo-Irish relations and an acknowledgement of the historical ties that link these two close islands and neighbours. Undertaking such a project would be a fitting start to a new “century of excellence”.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the excellent contributions from many speakers in your Lordships’ House. I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for initiating today's debate.
I wish to declare that in January I visited Pakistan as part of a CPA delegation and I will also shortly be visiting Mozambique with the CPA. I am a child of the Commonwealth. I was born in Uganda to a family of Indian origin. Those are two distant and vastly different lands, yet they share many characteristics and values aided by their ties to Britain and the Commonwealth. I would hope that my contribution today would be equally relevant if I were in the Parliament of either of those two countries rather than in this great House in the mother of all Parliaments.
I wish to focus on two elements: my experience of the CPA since being ennobled and the need for a more trade-based Commonwealth in the 21st century. Since my ennoblement a little over a year ago, I have been very impressed by my interactions with the CPA. Having had to flee my home country because of a brutal dictator, I know the value of democracy and how essential it is for the instruments of democracy to flourish. The CPA's continuous programme of visits and activities would be enviable in any organisation, but when it is fulfilling such a worthy function as promoting democracy, it is something that we parliamentarians should be grateful for.
On my visit to Pakistan, I was struck by the passion of many of the young parliamentarians there, who look up to the stability and empowerment of Britain's democracy. Many of them were educated in Britain, and all of them feared the alternatives to democracy. I very much look forward to visiting Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony and one of the newest of the 54 member states in the Commonwealth, as it joined in 1995. The country is performing very well, and its membership demonstrates the continued high regard in which the Commonwealth is still held in many parts of the world.
The Government's policy of putting trade at the heart of our foreign policy is a wise and necessary one. As the Foreign Secretary said in Japan last year:
“We will make economic objectives a central aspect of our international bilateral engagement alongside our other traditional objectives”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, is right to say that the less developed Commonwealth countries are a market for tomorrow. I believe that the future of the Commonwealth must be debated with this statement in mind. Just as the Commonwealth adapted, with the London Declaration in 1949, to allow India and other independent nations to join, so it must adapt again to become a driver for economic growth. It is not just in Britain's interests; this sort of approach would most favour the poorest members of the Commonwealth, areas where poverty is still, sadly, far too prevalent.
As President Obama, also a child of the Commonwealth, said in his address to both Houses, the development of countries like China, India and Brazil has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty around the globe. If we can deliver sustainable economic growth to the Commonwealth, there is no reason why we cannot do the same. The countries of the Commonwealth are collectively responsible for more than 20 per cent of world trade, with over $3 trillion in trade taking place within the Commonwealth every year. At a time of global economic uncertainty, it is vital that we use our common links and long-established networks to boost trade and investment opportunities within the Commonwealth, and, in particular, in Africa. The Government have, encouragingly, already started to set out this case. I welcome the Government’s Commonwealth strategy. As the Foreign Secretary said:
“In our view, the Commonwealth could and should become one of the leading voices in the global economy, working to liberalise trade and break down barriers for international business”.
My noble friend Lord Howell has said that the Commonwealth strategy was drawn up thinking about,
“what the Commonwealth could do for the UK, and what the UK should do for the Commonwealth”,
I believe that it is in our mutual interest for the Commonwealth to ensure free trade—resisting protection and breaking down barriers for international business; to make it easier for smaller and medium-sized enterprises to export and do business abroad, especially early in the life cycle of a product; and to ensure that representatives of the business community are actively involved in the work of the Commonwealth, including promoting more businessmen to high commissionerships.
I am not advocating a complete change in the values of the Commonwealth. Pursuing economic policies is not contradictory to the core values set out in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009. I believe that economic security and prosperity are vital to ensuring that values like peace and security, education and good governance succeed.
The mechanisms of democracy—the rule of law, a free press, separation of powers, and free and fair elections—are vital for economic confidence. Economic prosperity is vital for the development of nations and, crucially, the development of a middle class, which is so often a defining moment in a country’s political history. I congratulate the CPA on its anniversary and encourage the Commonwealth of the 21st century to take a lead from our Government and demonstrate that it is open for business.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for initiating this timely debate. Over the past 100 years, the CPA has done sterling work and deserves our congratulations and gratitude for helping to promote the values of the Commonwealth. We look forward to another century of CPA’s sustained and innovative work to make the aspirations of the Commonwealth a reality. We wish Sir Alan Haselhurst all the best with his endeavours.
The Commonwealth is a unique phenomenon, with something special to contribute to the world in which significant geopolitical and economic shifts are taking place, and where democracy and human rights are under assault in many quarters. The Royal Commonwealth Society, of which I am president and a former chairman, described the Commonwealth as,
“an uncommon association with a wealth of potential”.
But to realise its full potential, the Commonwealth has to improve its efficacy. It has to reassert and renew itself in order to become a formidable force for democracy, development and prosperity. Thankfully, there are some very positive developments.
The Commonwealth is currently in an intensive phase of self-examination, which was partly triggered in 2009 by the Royal Commonwealth Society’s consultation about the future of the Commonwealth, entitled, “The Commonwealth Conversation”. The results of this consultation uncovered uncertainty about what its members had in common that sets the association apart from other international organisations and, of course, ignorance of its purpose. In response, the Eminent Persons Group to examine the options for reform was set up. The emerging recommendations on which it has consulted are robust and encouraging. The final report will be presented at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in October.
That meeting will be an important moment for the Commonwealth. It is difficult to resist a feeling that if this opportunity is grasped with our eyes on the horizon and our feet on the ground, the prospects for the future of the Commonwealth are bright and what it can contribute to the world in the future is enormous. Here is an opportunity, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who said that,
“the Commonwealth should shed its past diffidence and prepare itself to take a lead in setting the global agenda”.—[Official Report, 10/12/09; col. 1187.]
This would be a moment to raise the recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group and, of course, move forward. However, it is important that the recommendations are not just discussed, talked about and communiqués issued. It is important that a realistic implementation timetable is agreed. Who will take forward the implementation programme is firmly decided and arrangements for monitoring progress are put in place. We now need action and not just words.
The other encouraging development, which has already been mentioned, has been the coalition Government’s more positive and purposeful attitude towards the Commonwealth compared to that of their predecessors. The Foreign Secretary and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, have raised the profile of the Commonwealth within the FCO. They have spoken about the Commonwealth network as a vital strand of British foreign policy and the potential of the Commonwealth to become a leading voice in the global economy. Their analysis of why a shift in our foreign policy is necessary is compelling. The economic dimension of the Commonwealth is becoming increasingly important, as highlighted in, Trading Places: The “Commonwealth Effect” Revisited, a report published by the Royal Commonwealth Society in 2010.
That report pointed out that the Commonwealth Business Council is the only Commonwealth organisation which explicitly devotes itself to promoting trade and investment. There is further potential for the Commonwealth to nurture these links and this may well make its economic ties more important than its political ties: Rwanda, for example, joined the Commonwealth mainly for economic reasons. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that development, trade and democracy are interrelated, and that good governance and rule of law are central. Without good governance, development and prosperity cannot be sustained. The Commonwealth has a total package at its disposal, which it must exploit.
As we have heard, the Commonwealth is not just an alliance of Governments. It is an association of civil society organisations, the private sector and governments. Unrivalled among global organisations, the Commonwealth can realistically aspire to be a community of democracies. The Commonwealth’s attributes and connections, coupled with informal and unthreatening ways of working, make it well suited for building democratic societies from the ground up for conflict, resolution and mediation. Here is the opportunity with civil society to create what was referred to earlier as a very popular consciousness of the Commonwealth.
Some excellent work is being done by non-governmental organisations—for example, on migration and on issues of gender equality. The Commonwealth is a resilient and enduring force for good. It is a wide network both within and without. Now is the opportunity to grasp this moment with commitment and sharp purpose. I very much hope that the Government will do all in their power to assist with this process of reform and adaptation, in particular with the implementation of the Eminent Persons Group’s recommendations. It would be helpful to hear the Minister tell the House, if the recommendations are accepted, who is likely to lead the implementation of the reform agenda.
My Lords, as always, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lady Hooper for the way in which she introduces these debates. She is a remarkably dynamic character. As she knows well, dynamics stands for “Do you need a more interesting challenge?”. I have spoken in these debates on many occasions because, in a strange way, I am descended from colonials who failed in the United Kingdom and went to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, or around the world, to try to do well. We Scots were always like that. I am descended from the first Lord Mayor of Melbourne and I was conceived on the beach in Jamaica, so I was told, and which I have reported to your Lordships before.
I do not like this term “common wealth”. At an earlier time, the French always referred to the Commonwealth and thought that the United Kingdom was a republic. I will go back to history in order that we may determine the future by looking at the past. We have had these crises of our economies over time. Perhaps the greatest was in the early 16th century when we had to form the council of trade because our coin was being devalued. That led to what one would today call international development. In those days, it was colonisation. It meant going out to acquire products at the lowest possible price from countries producing things that we needed and sending people out to increase production—whether that was sugar, jute, coir or even minerals.
We have forgotten that we as a nation at the moment have a major balance of trade deficit on manufacturing and that we have to be a worldwide trading nation. We forget, too, that we know these countries and they know us; but over a period of time we forgot what we would now call, as the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said, “soft power”. We still felt that we had some great economic power when becoming an importing nation which needs to source its products. As noble Lords have pointed out, we have the technology to grow anything, anywhere in the world, at any time. We also have our historic relationships; I felt strongly that people in countries that left to become independent territories should have been treated differently and given Commonwealth passports. While I like the generic term Commonwealth—it has been used in the Commonwealth of Independent States across the board—I believe in the opportunities for bilateral relations.
During my time on various trade boards it was thought a good idea to go out to the colonies to see what they made and what they could produce. We forgot to look back at the records at what we had bought and imported. In my office I have a chart which the Department for Transport—the Ministry of Shipping—gave to me when I was trying to save the shipbuilding industry; it shows the position of His Majesty’s ships at sea and in harbour 14 days after my birth in 1937. It also shows what products we imported from which countries—rubber, flax or whatever. It drew to my attention that we were effectively an importing nation that may add value and re-export, and that is probably where we should come to.
We have the opportunity of being the world’s biggest client of individual Commonwealth countries, even if we have to re-export. You can give an order, an offtake agreement, to those countries in Africa which can produce enormous quantities of food—Sudan, for example, was meant to be the breadbasket of the Arab world—to acquire whatever they can produce. It could then be delivered to a particular port to be loaded on any one of the Commonwealth vessels—and these, as your Lordships know, make up 20,000 of the 90,000 vessels floating on the surface of the earth. The coastline of the Commonwealth is the largest in the world, some 44,000 kilometres.
If we look at those coastlines and we go back to Greenwich—which is of course the centre of the world—and we get a Mercator chart out and look down from the sky above from a satellite, beneath us there is an awful lot of sea, which is itself a great asset. Perhaps we should encourage certain initiatives with members of the Commonwealth countries, not least Her Majesty’s overseas territories, dependencies and islands. We have a normal 200-mile limit in the world. I think each of these countries should now declare a 500-mile limit and lay claim to all the resources that may be within or under the sea. If we look at the map, it shows where the resources are.
We as a country have no future as an insulated island; we have the ability, however, to look at soft power and build rapidly upon these historical relationships with Commonwealth countries provided we can bring an economic issue into the equation which will help their economies.
My Lords, it must be a happy day when so many of us are lining up behind the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, to celebrate the Commonwealth and the achievements of the CPA. It is an almost religious occasion. It is not fashionable to be positive about the state of the world at the moment; this weekend we are approaching another much less happy anniversary reminding us of terrorism. This is an important debate in that respect. Having been in New York last week I can confirm that Americans still have that spring in their step which has carried their economy through hard times in the past and has helped more than once to energise the post-war European continent. Whatever we do in foreign policy or in the Commonwealth we must not forget the underlying value of the transatlantic partnership to Europe and the rest of the world.
I, too, was brought up to admire the Commonwealth, not least as the son of a leading Eurosceptic who was the president of the anti-Common Market league and the safeguards campaign, no less. While I was never a supporter of that campaign and I voted for Europe, I have always recognised that this country has long depended on its relations around the world, as much as those in Europe, and those diplomatic and political ties with the Commonwealth remain equally strong and may be getting stronger.
There can be no doubt about the achievements of the Commonwealth and of the CPA; they belong to every sphere of activity and in some ways, as my noble friend Lord Luce suggested, the Commonwealth is the world’s largest NGO. It is this area of interest—the link between national parliaments, civil society and international development—on which I wish to focus. I declare my interest, having worked with several international NGOs and having benefited from visits through the CPA and others to parliaments in Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda, India, Nepal and, latterly, South Sudan.
I have read much of what my colleagues and others have written in the excellent CPA conference supplement. They summarise all the splendid values and objectives of the Commonwealth, notably in promoting democracy, human rights and development. There is no need for me to comment on these except to say that they include a number of unattainable targets such as some of the millennium development goals. Our own DfID has been a little more honest than the Commonwealth in explaining that a significant number of the development targets, as we now know, simply cannot be met within the timetable.
Poverty in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is so acute that the systems we expect to be in place to carry out these targets are just not there and when we try to import or reinforce those systems we are only adding to the logjam of development. Have we got to the point where, remembering Iraq and Afghanistan, our aid is part of the problem and not the solution? This question will, I hope, be answered in part by our development Minister when he comes to report on the comprehensive aid review. Aid effectiveness is now on the agenda not only of our own Parliament but in Europe, Africa and Asia as well, and we must hope that this discussion will lead to beneficial changes and not another layer of government. My sympathies lie outside government, with civil society and with parliaments. Parliaments are very different in character of course—some are representative, some are a pretence or what used to be called a mockery of democracy.
The Africa All-Party Group published a groundbreaking report called Strengthening Parliaments in Africa and this has been important for the CPA in sharing experience and bringing expertise into parliaments. However, I firmly believe that we should go much further than this, through the CPA and other channels, and press for even more engagement between Parliament and the people, and thus draw governments into more meaningful development.
I have found that civil society organisations are, as my noble friend Lady Prashar has said, essential to this process. Human rights, however, illustrate a possible weakness of this engagement though the Commonwealth. My noble friends Lady Prashar and Lady Flather have mentioned the rule of law; my noble friend Lady Stern has written about this from her considerable experience. The New Delhi human rights office needs to be strengthened, CMAG could be more active. There is international support for the rule of law in Africa through the European Union and the African Union in Addis Ababa and this sets a good example for the Commonwealth. In Africa there are many stoic figures in human rights who can carry a torch, men and women, but they need much more back-up.
The independent human rights commissions, which I have visited in Kenya and elsewhere, bravely take up causes, sometimes with the help of the media and civil society, but they lack the political muscle which is sometimes only given to a parallel stooge government commission. Surely the Commonwealth, in the wake of the Harare Declaration, should do more in this area of human rights, which is always the neglected younger sister of development.
Finally, I hope that, like others, we can see a way for South Sudan to join the Commonwealth. Ideally, both parts of Sudan should belong, but there are problems. Let us hope that the conflict along the border will not prevent the south from benefiting directly through the Commonwealth from much wider contact with the region and other countries so that the people have an opportunity of lifting themselves out of poverty.
My Lords, I join others in congratulating my noble friend on securing this important debate, in which I declare an interest as chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust. We have been privileged today to hear many eloquent speeches about what an extraordinary institution the Commonwealth is, the benefits it brings and what remarkable opportunities exist for its development. While acknowledging those successes, I believe we must recognise a number of challenging areas where it must play a more forceful role in shaping the future stability and prosperity of its member states and their peoples, and I would like to highlight two of those.
The first relates to equality and the dreadful treatment in too many Commonwealth countries of gay men and women, a subject ignored for far too long by the Commonwealth. It is time for change. There has been some progress in recent years and I commend the Commonwealth Secretary-General for stating that:
“Vilification and targeting on grounds of sexual orientation are at odds with the values of the Commonwealth”.
That comment follows a vital ruling in the High Court in Delhi which led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India, and of course South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Those are positive steps, but I fear they are dwarfed by the oppressive regimes in many other countries. Consider this: homosexual acts are still punishable by life imprisonment in seven Commonwealth states—Bangladesh, Barbados, Guyana, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda. In a further six, they are punishable by hard labour and flogging. Thirty-eight out of 54 member states still criminalise homosexuality, and indeed half of all the countries in the world that criminalise homosexuality are to be found in the Commonwealth. This state of affairs is wholly unacceptable.
There are many terrible examples of the human consequences of this. In Jamaica, sexual assaults on gay women are known by the odious term “corrective rape” and happen far too often. In Uganda, David Kato, a well known gay activist, was brutally murdered, unleashing a campaign of homophobic paranoia in that country. This has appalling implications for public health and the spread of HIV/AIDS. Where anti-homosexual laws exist, gay people are driven underground, away from effective HIV prevention, treatment and care. In Kenya, 42 per cent of gay men have HIV, which is a terrible waste of life. Whereas the Commonwealth once represented a beacon of hope during the start of the HIV pandemic, HIV now rampages within far too many Commonwealth countries with terrible consequences. It is now time for the Commonwealth to give a firm lead on this fundamental issue of human rights. Two years ago at CHOGM in Trinidad, many NCOs, notably the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, called attention to the issue of homophobia and its impact on the spread of HIV, but the call was met with a deafening silence. The issue must be on the agenda in Perth, and the meeting should be the beginning of a constant effort by Commonwealth leaders to make it central to a new human rights agenda. As the Secretary-General has said:
“The Commonwealth operates through encouragement not coercion”.
Let such encouragement begin now and in earnest.
My second issue is that of press freedom, and I declare an interest accordingly as chairman of the Press Standards Board of Finance. Press freedom is important to developing countries, not just as a matter of principle, but because it is a vital precursor to successful economic growth and social progress. There are some Commonwealth countries where the record on press freedom is execrable. In the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, many member states languish near the bottom of the table, with Rwanda an appalling 169th, in close proximity to North Korea and Iran. But the Commonwealth does take this matter seriously and recently there have been considerable gains in press freedom in Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia. In a number of other countries, Governments have moved away from the repressive architecture of state media control to allow the press the ability to self-regulate. Sri Lanka has made considerable progress in this area and there have also been significant strides in Bermuda, Vanuatu, Samoa and Namibia among others.
But my greatest fear is that funnily enough it is events in this country, the font of Commonwealth democracy and individual freedoms, which now cast a pall over further progress. For it is Britain, with a history of press freedom stretching back over many centuries, which has always been the shining example for those seeking such freedoms for themselves. For years we have assisted those seeking to move away from state control of the media, not just through our leadership but through practical help, as happened with the establishment of a press complaints commission in Sri Lanka. But now there are threatening noises here. Self-regulation has “failed”, we are told; the press must be “controlled”. “Independent regulation” is the way forward. How the repressive regimes in many member states must be cheering that. Let us be in no doubt that they will use what happens here as an excuse to crack down on the budding of a free press in their own countries. Already it has begun in Sri Lanka, and the runes are ominous in Namibia, Zambia and Botswana. I fear that others may follow, and that would be a tragedy.
I am deeply anxious that intemperate language about press freedom in this country could rebound to the long-term detriment of all member states in the Commonwealth, when what we should be doing is showing a leadership role. I would therefore urge the Government to make clear in Perth that this country continues passionately to believe in a free press, and will continue to do all it can to ensure that the ancient liberties we enjoy in this country are increasingly widely shared across the Commonwealth. That would be a great achievement.
My Lords, I am grateful to the House for allowing me to speak in place of my noble friend Lord Triesman without giving proper notice, and I thank the government Chief Whip for facilitating this. I apologise on behalf of my noble friend Lord Triesman for his unavoidable absence.
We all owe a sincere thank you to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for initiating this debate. It has been a great debate which has triggered some absolutely fascinating and, for me, educative contributions. She summarised very well the excellent work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and certainly the Opposition want to join her in celebrating its work on the occasion of its centenary. There have also been some great contributions from around the House. I have learnt a lot from the noble Lords, Lord Luce and Lord Glenarthur, who both have great experience; and from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, who spoke most movingly about the grass-roots work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. We all pay tribute to that.
My own views on the Commonwealth are very similar to those of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe. I am pro-Europe and I am pro-Commonwealth, and I do not see one as a substitute for the other. Indeed, I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, probably feels much the same. Perhaps I may say that this was embodied in my own family. My father-in-law, who was a Member of this House before he died, George Thomson, served as a Commonwealth Secretary in the Wilson Governments and as one of our first European Commissioners, so that is as pro-Europe and pro-Commonwealth as anyone can be.
A lot of people contributing to the debate have talked about what the Commonwealth meant to them personally. It certainly does not mean to me what it means to the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, who was conceived on a Jamaica beach, and I do not want to annoy the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London because obviously the Commonwealth is one of the great foundation stones of the Anglican Communion. However, the notable features of this debate were speeches from two Methodist ministers—my noble friend Lord Griffiths of Burry Port and the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno. It was in chapel in my home town of Carlisle that I learnt the virtues of the Commonwealth. We had fairly well drummed into us, although it did not have to be drummed very much, the problems of world poverty and the essential need for racial equality, both of which were seen through the prism of the Commonwealth. These values, plus those of democracy and human rights, were for me as a youngster what the Commonwealth was all about.
Let me make one general point before I ask the Minister some questions. I think that we need to be clear about what the Commonwealth is and what it is not. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, described the Commonwealth as a voluntary association of nations, but I think that it is more than that. I think that the Commonwealth should aspire to be a living network of values, sustained not just at the political level but at the people-to-people level, which many Members of the House have stressed. However, to be honest, I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, that the Commonwealth is a kind of fool’s substitute for a proper foreign policy in the modern world. It is not a defence and security organisation or a trade bloc; it is not NATO or the EU, which are vital pillars of our economic security and our position in the world.
In describing the Commonwealth, I applauded the fact that, under this Government, it was becoming a major strand of foreign policy. I certainly did not intend to suggest—and I do not think that I did—that that was to the exclusion of many other important strands.
Of course, I was not trying to suggest that, but there is a little bit of a danger in the present Government’s discourse if you think about the three circles of influence of the past 60 years. There is clearly a weakening of the transatlantic tie with the United States, in that America is looking more Pacific-wards, it has its own economic problems and it does not think that Europe has stood up to the plate in world conflicts. Then we have all the problems with our relationship with the European Union, from which many Members of the party opposite would like to distance us. Given that that is happening to two of the three circles, I do not think that we can imagine that the Commonwealth is a substitute for those. I see the Commonwealth as playing a very big supplementary role in foreign policy because, as a multilateral organisation, it is an instrument of soft power. We should see it as a network of influence and values that can aid us in achieving our objectives.
On questions for the Minister, I want to ask first about the people-to-people aspects of the Commonwealth. I was very struck by the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that about 50 per cent of the Commonwealth’s citizens are young people. What ideas do the Government have for strengthening links between young people within the Commonwealth? That brings me to the point about higher education made by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, because there is no doubt that in the last few decades our universities have lost out in appealing to Commonwealth students—he mentioned the case of postgraduate medical students. How do we once again make our universities the first choice? Of course, we need to make sure that Immigration Rules do not stop that happening, which is a very important point.
On civil society links, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, gave as a good example the Royal Agricultural Society of the Commonwealth. We need those kinds of links. How can we build on the initiative that the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, spoke of so warmly in terms of raising consciousness about the need for girls’ education, which is an absolutely vital development issue?
On the government-to-government aspect of the Commonwealth relationship, what leverage can we exercise and what issues will the British Government put on the table as they try to strengthen the influence and role of the Commonwealth? As we have seen in this debate, there is clearly a role in climate change, both in highlighting the risks to the very survival of the island states in the Pacific and, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, mentioned, in persuading rich countries that they cannot become climate deniers—we have to be blunt with people like the Canadians, who have to live up to their responsibilities.
On the human rights issues that the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, mentioned, on migration which the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, mentioned, and on the corruption issues that the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, mentioned, how are we going to prioritise these topics for discussion? How are we going to use positively the opportunity of membership of the Commonwealth to improve people’s situation—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, spoke about Somaliland’s membership? Conversely, how can the Commonwealth be used as a sanction? The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, gave the example of the actions taken by the Fijian Government against the Methodist Church and we have the very big example of Zimbabwe. How in future do we play this mix of incentives and sanctions? What are the Government’s proposals for strengthening the Commonwealth secretariat, including its funding, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, mentioned?
This has been an excellent debate, which has shown the value of the House of Lords, has been well attended and has included some excellent contributions. It has celebrated the cross-party work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—long may that continue—and it has demonstrated that the Commonwealth remains a good and great cause. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, I would like to see the sun rise once again on the Commonwealth, but it will do so only on the basis of a proper analysis of its true potential as a unique instrument of benevolent influence in our very troubled world.
My Lords, I cannot disguise my pleasure for this occasion this afternoon, or do anything to reduce or diminish my very warm gratitude to my noble friend Lady Hooper for initiating the debate. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, that this is a happy day when we have heard so much skill, expertise and insights about the possibilities of the future, not about the baggage of the past—although some of the baggage of the past, not all of it of course, one is proud enough to carry—that have made this a terrific debate. I know that that is the normal phraseology, but in this case I really mean it.
Let me start with the comments of my noble friend Lady Hooper, who launched us into the debate. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which she focused on to begin with, is a marvellous example of the non-governmental Commonwealth network that is really at the heart of what makes the Commonwealth unlike other multinational organisations and more attuned to the 21st century than many of the organisations that we inherited from the 20th century.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association celebrated its centenary this year. That in July 1911 it was called the Empire Parliamentary Association is a reminder of its historical links, but July’s conference here, which I attended, showed how far it has come from that. We talked about Commonwealth mark 1, mark 2 and mark 3, and we are moving into a new pattern altogether. The more than 600 participants demonstrated the staggering diversity and yet unity of the Commonwealth, covering a huge range of cultures, religions and races with every country, as one of your Lordships rightly reminded us, on an equal footing—large and small, richer and not so rich, mighty and developing and holding back for the time being.
Of course, there is a very long way to go; your Lordships have all recognised that. The Commonwealth needs to have a more forceful role, as my noble friend Lord Black, one of the final contributors to the debate, has just reminded us, especially in the field of human rights, in matters such as sexual differentiation, and in other issues and the rights of minorities. Indeed, only last week I attended an amazing gathering at the Commonwealth Advisory Bureau, which was also attended by Justice Albie Sachs, who lost an arm when it was blown off by a bomb planted in his car. He has campaigned brilliantly down the years for homosexual rights in South Africa and throughout the Commonwealth.
All this sums up why the Government have made a powerful commitment to upgrading the UK’s relationships with the Commonwealth network, and strengthening it as a focus for democracy, development and prosperity. Next month’s Heads of Government meeting at Perth—the so-called CHOGM; I do not like the sound of that word, but that is what they call it—at which these recommendations will be discussed, has the potential to be a defining moment for the future of the Commonwealth. It provides an opportunity for this organisation to take its rightful place on the global platform and in the 21st century global system.
I would go a little further even than that and say that I think that from the point of view of Britain and this Government, of which I am a member, the Commonwealth marks out our country with a degree of exceptionalism. We have links, developed in the past from our own experience and from the way we have handled the unwinding of the old Empire and old Commonwealth while yet developing new friendships, and this gives the UK an exceptionalism that I think many people are looking for in a world in which we are constantly threatened by homogenisation and unification, and being submerged in the greater blocs that the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, rightly suggested were a thing of the past.
When one thinks about the millions of people in our own country with Commonwealth connections, Commonwealth origins, Commonwealth relatives, Commonwealth links and Commonwealth memories, it is probable that this could be the unifying national narrative that many people feel we need in this country at the moment. Many people argued during the stormy days of August here that this was a necessary or missing part of our own social culture. Dare I even say that one could see the Commonwealth—something that the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said reminded me of this—as the big society writ large. I hope I am not pushing too much of a line of thought representing one party or another, because of course this whole matter stretches right across our parties, our Parliament and our institutions.
We must not get carried away. It is of course true that the Commonwealth has its faults and problems. It does not have the executive power or the resources of many other multinational institutions. In consequence, I am afraid, it is from time to time sneered at by ill-informed columnists. I should hasten to say that we have some very good columnists, but alas we have an ample supply of the ill-informed. They do not understand that in this age of citizen empowerment it is the voluntarily and grass-roots-supported nature of the Commonwealth network, with its enormous latticework of trans-Commonwealth linkages not just at government level but at sub-governmental level—on the professional, social, cultural, scientific, judicial, and educational levels, mentioned by several of your Lordships, as well as business, agricultural and technical levels—which makes the Commonwealth such an amazingly relevant organisation for this information age and such a huge pool of potential opportunities for all who belong to it, not least our own country, the United Kingdom. That is what gives the Commonwealth its deep-rooted power and influence, such as no other international institution can offer its members, and it explains why today so many nations are anxious to be associated with it, or are indeed queuing up to join it, a point which too many members of our own media seem to comprehend only dimly, if at all. The marvellous thing this afternoon is that your Lordships comprehend it, which must give some people at any rate very great encouragement.
Let me turn to a number of the specific points that have been made. I shall try to comment on almost everybody’s arguments, but I shall not be able to cover all the points that were made. My noble friend who opened the debate referred to the CPA and to the educational element that binds the Commonwealth together. There is much more to do, and the right reverend Prelate emphasised the tasks ahead in bringing the young people of the Commonwealth into closer linkages through links between Commonwealth schools and so on; I will say a word about that in a moment. We are expanding the Commonwealth Scholarships and Fellowships Plan and it is my hope that we have more to come on that front, so I can assure noble Lords that the crucial importance of education, at primary, secondary, higher and postgraduate levels, is not for a moment lost from sight.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, expressed—and I think it was a valuable input to the debate—some scepticism about putting too much emphasis on what the Commonwealth network stands for and can achieve. As he rightly said, soft power is the thing. Several of your Lordships mentioned the nature of the emotional and reputational value of soft power in the new landscape of this completely changed world, and the way in which soft power can bring in hard cash—by people turning to this nation, a trading nation, for our services, our goods and our exports—if we handle the soft power side of things in the right way.
The noble Lord talked about the need to beef up the human rights element, and the need for a new commissioner. That, of course, is one of the proposals of the Eminent Persons Groups, which has been much mentioned in the debate, that there should be a new commissioner for human rights, democracy and good governance. That EPG proposal is one that Her Majesty’s Government will back. The question then arises: will it happen? I cannot answer that. We are going to Perth to argue through these things with 53 other nations, many of which have very firm views on how the EPG ideas should be processed. We will push them very hard indeed and put our full backing behind them, but it is a democratic organisation and I cannot guarantee that all members will come out in this way. Nevertheless, we are hopeful that the general aims of the EPG—to upgrade and reinvigorate the Commonwealth and bring it to its own standards of strong commitment to human rights, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law and good governance—will be seen to be the values of the future that make the Commonwealth what it is.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, also mentioned another matter that I am hesitant to mention as it is not really my business: the position of the Republic of Ireland. I refer to it only because I think no less than three or four of your Lordships all referred to the Republic of Ireland and the Commonwealth. I would have to say from this Dispatch Box that it is of course entirely a matter for the Government in Dublin and the Republic of Ireland to decide their attitudes towards these matters, but I put down a marker that there is obviously a strong consciousness and interest in this House about that matter. It is a rather fascinating thought when one puts it in its historical perspective.
My noble friend Lord Chidgey, who is very active in all these fields, mentioned the need to commit ourselves to the EPG aims. We do. The establishment of a commissioner is just one of them; the charter is another. There is a whole string of ideas and proposals for upgrading the Commonwealth, for giving the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group—CMAG—more teeth and making it more proactive, and for bringing home to everyone in the Commonwealth the idea that reform of the Commonwealth will help.
The noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and several others, pointed out that these are two sides of the same thing: more democracy and more commitment to values and the rule of law equals more attraction for investment, more trust, more trade, more people ready to commit their resources to a country where they know there will be no knock on the door from the police in the middle of the night or some corrupt device removing investments and assets from the person who owns them.
Trust is the key to this. There was some derision of the new language in talking about badges and brands for the Commonwealth, but in this transparent age that is really what is needed. There should be trust among business investors as to which countries they can safely operate in and which less so. With high standards, the Commonwealth becomes a sort of brand—dare I say, a sort of kitemark—for investment, which alone will be the main driver in lifting nations out of poverty and low-income.
The right reverend Prelate was the first to raise the big theme of young people in the Commonwealth. Half the Commonwealth are very young people. The case for more linkages and even involvement in the national curricula of the Commonwealth is a very good one, which I have made to the Department for Education here myself. He also mentioned, as did many others, the climate and energy issues. That is a fascinating area, because many smaller Commonwealth members face a hideous dilemma: how do you find the energy and power—electricity, if you like—to start the development that lifts villages in remote areas out of poverty in a low-carbon way? It has to be an inexpensive way, as they cannot afford the expensive diesel and other fossil fuels that they are having to import. They need low-carbon green electricity, but of course green power is very expensive. There is a gap to be filled there and the Commonwealth can play a part in that. I think it will be on the agenda at Perth.
My noble and learned friend Lord Howe told us about yet another fascinating element of his glittering career, when he led an African military operational unit. He then turned to the issue of Somaliland, which my noble friend Lord Luce also mentioned. There is a difficulty. First, Somaliland is obviously not a nation at present, so even if the 54 nations of the Commonwealth were to consider it, it would not qualify. The question then arises about the recognition of Somaliland as separate from the whole Somalia complex. I ask noble Lords to consider the dangers that if one goes for fragmentation in that area, plenty of other bits and pieces there would also fragment with very great dangers, possibly with bloodshed pursuing.
Meanwhile, to put a positive note into this, there is just a chance that the new Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu is at last getting established. The al-Shabaab terrorist groups have withdrawn from Mogadishu. There is a possibility that Somaliland would be able to find the right relationship of reasonable autonomy within the Somalia complex. It would be a pity at this very moment to turn things in another direction, so one has to be very careful about encouraging any fragmentation trends in that area.
Fiji, and the attack on the Methodist community there, was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths. We are working with Commonwealth colleagues. I was personally involved in these matters down in Vanuatu last year at the Pacific Islands Forum. My colleague Jeremy Browne is down there this year, at this moment, trying to see how we can get ways of getting better dialogue and bringing home to the Fijians that their pattern of government really must be less dictatorial. It is not at all easy, but the pressure is there and is organised. Both we and Australia, and other countries in the area including New Zealand, are very much involved in seeing how this can be carried forward constructively.
My noble friend Lord Roberts mentioned that he was the second Welshman to speak in this debate. Well, I can tell him that here is the third Welshman speaking now. The carnival of Commonwealth music sounds a terrific idea and I hope I get the chance to visit it.
I have a number of comments on the very interesting ideas from the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, about unifying health education and health training for graduates throughout the Commonwealth. I am advised that the Commonwealth scholarship system provides for UK medical professionals, while the Commonwealth Health Ministers meeting gets support from the Commonwealth Secretariat for its dialogue on medical issues. That does not quite meet what I think the noble Lord was saying and I would like to write to him on his interesting and precise details. I am very glad that my noble friend Lady Gardner is here. She described the ways in which that was a little precarious at times, but it has come out the right way and we enormously value her contributions on the Commonwealth, of which she is such a distinguished member. The Commonwealth Foundation came into the debate from my noble friend Lord Luce. That is being reset. There are new ideas, which will be brought forward at Perth, about how that foundation, which has been through some difficult times, can be strengthened. He also mentioned the Somaliland issues, which I have dealt with.
My noble friend Lord Sheikh, who stands on a marvellous platform on these issues, mentioned Sri Lanka. We want to see Sri Lanka come up to Commonwealth standards and to position itself so that it can be a responsible host for a future CHOGM in two years’ time. However, there are of course difficulties and we are trying to develop a much better dialogue than we have had in the past. On South Sudan, yes, we support its membership. It is of course up to the whole Commonwealth, all 54 members, but we think it is a good idea and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said so in terms.
Is there a loud enough voice in the Commonwealth, asked my noble friend Lord Glenarthur? No, I do not think that there is; the Secretariat must speak up. The Commonwealth is emerging as a major force in dealing with global trends, of which one is the Chinese developing their interests all over the Indian Ocean. What is the alternative to that Chinese interest? It is no longer America or the Atlantic but possibly the great Commonwealth unity of nations. We need a stronger voice in the Commonwealth for what we stand for, and for how we can bring the stability and relief from poverty to this modern world more effectively.
I mentioned agriculture, which my noble friend Lord Gardiner quite rightly referred to. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, was right to emphasise the rule of law. My noble friend Lord Flight talked about Hong Kong, which is very interesting. It is a gateway to China and a former member of the Commonwealth. Some of its members still turn up on an informal basis at Commonwealth meetings, which is a very good linkage to have to the great Chinese markets. Generally, I agree with my noble friend that there is ahead a vast expansion of intra-Commonwealth trade and that some of the figures mentioned may not be so wide of the mark. New trade routes are opening up all the time, criss-crossing between members of the Commonwealth. They are not necessarily coming through London but developing an entirely new pattern of development, trade and investment in capital flows.
My noble friend Lady Benjamin talked about celebrations outside London. These already happen in Cardiff on Commonwealth Day and should happen elsewhere so that other cities can be encouraged to participate. She mentioned the vexed question of passenger duty. I can tell her that a process of consultation on the structure was launched and is under way and that the APD has been frozen for this year, so the Government are looking at this and are well aware of the feelings of unfairness about the structure.
My noble friend Lord Lexden asked whether this was a turning point for the whole Commonwealth. I believe that it is and that we are going into an entirely new pattern that is much more associated with the fabric of international relations than in the past. As the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, said, the Commonwealth has a powerful future and it could, as my noble friend Lord Popat said, be a driver for economic development and for liberalising trade. The Foreign Secretary has emphasised those points.
Action is needed and not just words, said the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, quite rightly, reminding us again of the link between democracy and rule of law on the one hand and economic development on the other—the two go together. There is also the support of the Commonwealth for gender equality and other social aims, which are sometimes not given enough prominence in international or United Nations circles.
The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, gave us his unique historical perspective, as he often does, and reminded us about the criss-cross nature of trade within the Commonwealth. I have already mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Black, but he made some very powerful points about human rights. Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, asked questions about young people. Half the people of the Commonwealth are young. We have to deliver real Commonwealth gains, and not just rhetoric and high-sounding speeches, for young people in employment, education, opportunities and travel.
We have mentioned the climate issues, which are very important for the smaller nations. There is a whole organisation focused entirely on migration problems throughout the Commonwealth, which are considerable but which I do not have the time to go into. He raised the issue of Somaliland again and what sanctions we can bring to bear on the miscreants—the Zimbabweans, who walked out in a huff but would have been sacked anyway—and Fiji, which is suspended. These are problem areas that can be addressed by careful Commonwealth co-operation and subtle dialogue and pressures. They are matters that will all be on the agenda at Perth.
Perth could be a defining moment for the Commonwealth. Heads will need to take bold and vital decisions in response to the EPG recommendations, which will shape the role of this unique organisation, so that it may have more impact in the future. None of us should shy away from the difficulties that will be involved in the EPG proposals when they come to be discussed by 54 nations; we should be quite frank about this. Alongside the Heads of Government Meeting there will be a meeting of the Commonwealth business forum and a number of other meetings of Commonwealth organisations, all of which will help to reinforce the realisation that the Commonwealth has a powerful role and place in the future.
I repeat that the CPA has an integral role in reinvigorating the Commonwealth and helping to put the Commonwealth and its networks on a firmer footing for the future. My right honourable friend, the Foreign Secretary, said the other day:
“The Commonwealth not only occupies a special place in our affections and our history here in Britain; it is a cornerstone of our foreign policy, alongside our role in the EU”—
which the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, mentioned—
“our membership of NATO and our Special Relationship with the United States of America. It plays a key role in our thinking as we adjust to the new international landscape and the rise of the emerging economic titans of Asia, Africa and Latin America”.
As Her Majesty the Queen said, the Commonwealth is,
“in lots of ways the face of the future”.
The Government share Her Majesty’s ambition that the Commonwealth becomes a central platform of the international landscape, representing an enlightened and responsible association that plays an active role in shaping the direction that our world is moving in and the destinies of this nation as well.
My Lords, this debate has amply fulfilled my hope that a wide variety of issues would be raised by those with a real personal knowledge and background in them. We have heard about healthcare, agriculture, climate change, specific projects, voluntary groups and partnerships. I was particularly fascinated to hear about the diocese of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London and its relationship with Mozambique, one of the newest members of the Commonwealth. The consensus over the importance and value of education at all levels must be followed up to ensure that it is promoted by the Commonwealth in appropriate ways. I am glad to hear from my noble friend that the Commonwealth scholarship scheme is to be extended.
I particularly liked the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, referred to the role of the Queen as the ingredient that makes the chemistry of the Commonwealth work. The Queen plays an invaluable role and is much loved and appreciated throughout the Commonwealth.
Today is a Conservative day for debate and I am most grateful to the Government Chief Whip for making it possible at such a suitable time after the CPA conference in July and just before CHOGM. I am also delighted that the tone of the debate had a very cross-party feel, which I feel was entirely appropriate. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, on stepping in so admirably at the last moment, and I thank the Minister for his comprehensive wind-up. Finally, my thanks go to all your Lordships for your support and rich contributions to this important debate. I beg leave to withdraw the motion.
Health Professionals: EEA and Non-EEA Citizens
My Lords, I am very grateful for the opportunity to initiate this debate and particularly grateful to those noble Lords who will speak, as notice only came last Thursday because of the Recess.
I call attention to the disparity of treatment of health professionals trained within the EEA and outside it. It is particularly marked in the case of nurses, but applies to a greater or lesser degree to all healthcare professionals. I am deliberately omitting mentioning doctors in great depth as I know distinguished doctors taking part in the debate will speak with authority on this subject. The Nursing and Midwifery Council—the NMC—is responsible for the registration of and setting standards for all nurses throughout the United Kingdom and the islands. There is no better way of viewing this disparity than through the eyes of the NMC and I make no apology for taking that route myself.
Let me summarise the main differences. Nurses from outside the EEA have to take the overseas nursing programme as part of registering. This is a comprehensive 20-day course invoking professional competency and, where applicable, a period of supervised practice of between three and six months in length. All applicants have to undergo the International English Language Testing System. The NMC is therefore in a position to exercise total control over the registration of these non-EEA applicants. Contrast this with healthcare professionals trained within the EEA, who are subject to the Commission’s mutual recognition of professional qualifications directive of 2005. Under this directive, healthcare professionals seeking to register and practise in another EEA member state have the right to do so provided that their qualifications meet the minimum standards as laid out in the directive. If these standards are met, the member states’ competent authorities—I shall refer to them as regulators, as it is rather easier—must automatically recognise the qualification and register those professionals as fit to practise in their countries. They have no option. Regulators are not allowed to undertake further competency checks, including checking whether practice competencies had been kept up to date or the applicant has basic communications skills in English.
Thus the directive does not require a migrating EEA nurse or midwife to demonstrate that they have kept their practice up to date since obtaining their training qualification. At the same time the NMC has no option but to register automatically EEA nurses and midwives, even those who may not have practised for, say, 20 years. Indeed, I am advised by the NMC that over the past year it had applications from over 1,400 EEA-trained nurses and midwives who have not practised for at least four years. Another proposal by the Commission—it is part of the revision of the directive, about which I will talk later—that causes concern is the principle of partial access. The Commission, in an otherwise well thought-out document, has suggested that professionals who have shortfalls in training that cannot be compensated by an adaption period should be registered with limits to their practice. This is simply not practicable in the case of nurses and midwives, who in the case of A&E nurses, for example, must often make ranges of critical clinical decision quickly and in pressured situations. I urge the Government to strongly resist this proposal.
I wish to cite a number of examples where, in the case of EEA applicants, the directive causes the registration process to be inadequate. First, member states’ training standards can vary greatly. For example, different countries put different emphasis on the importance of record-keeping. In inquiries that I made, I was amazed to find that several advanced countries did not have a tradition of patient notes such as we have in this country. While training in a large number is comparable to that in the UK, this is not the case with some of the newer accession countries. EEA standards for general nursing and midwifery date back three decades and do not account for fundamental changes in the professions over this time. Those changes include the use of new technologies and evidence basis, the shift from acute to community nursing and the move in some countries to a degree-level standard of training.
As regards language testing, as I said, under the directive EEA nurses and midwives applying for registration cannot be systematically tested for language competency. This is in stark contrast to the IELTS for non-EEA applicants, which includes even those from English-speaking countries. I consider that this is illogical and inefficient. Your Lordships will be aware that the directive places the onus of measuring language competency on employers rather than regulators. This has a number of practical defects, the first and crucial one being the lack of uniformity. For instance, hospital B may refuse an applicant on the ground of language competency, but that applicant may have come from hospital A where there was no problem. Not all hospital personnel departments are experienced in spotting language deficiency. A significant number of cases certainly slip through the net. The case of Dr Daniel Ubani is well known. In that case a patient died through an incorrect drugs dosage which was traced to the doctor’s inadequate command of English. Too much should not be made of this case as it was, after all, one isolated incident. However, for the reasons that I have just outlined, I suggest that there is another disaster waiting to happen. I know of one hospital where a number of consultant surgeons have refused to perform operations unless every member of the theatre team has English as his or her first language.
Here I come to the blunt instrument which will be familiar to those experienced in these matters. Until recently, the NMC required all applicants, including those from the EEA, to demonstrate at least 450 hours of practice in the three years prior to their application. However, over the past two years the Government have had no option but to request the NMC to drop this requirement as it affects nurses coming from the EEA on the ground that it is incompatible with the directive. I am told by the NMC that it has reluctantly had to comply.
On a more encouraging note, the Commission, the Department of Health and BIS are well aware of the urgency of the language and other competency risks I have discussed. Many of the risks to which I have referred could be mitigated through changes to the existing directive. A review of the directive is under way and is due to be completed by 2012. The NMC is leading a group of 25 European nurse regulators to co-ordinate their responses through the review process. As part of the review the European Commission released a Green Paper in June exploring changes to the directive. The Green Paper suggestions have gone some way to addressing concerns but they are still not clear enough. It is worth summarising what the NMC wishes to see in nurses from within the EEA registered in the United Kingdom. This is taken from its submission to Sub-Committee G—I am very pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, in her place—and is an excellent summary of what is expected from a nurse or midwife from the EEA seeking to practise in the UK. They should be trained to a level equivalent to that of training in the UK. They should be fit to practise within the scope of practice of the professions in the UK and they should be able to communicate effectively in English.
In the light of this the NMC has a “shopping list” which I respectfully bring to the Minister’s attention. First, minimum training requirements should be modernised to reflect the changing roles of nurses and midwives, potentially to a degree-level standard. I am talking about other EEA members here. Secondly, all EU regulators in the Community should be required to implement continuous professional development to ensure that competencies are kept up to date. Thirdly, the principle of partial access must not be applied to the healthcare professions. Finally, and most importantly—this is at the heart of this debate—regulators must be allowed to satisfy themselves of language competence at the point of registration, and employers should be allowed to undertake competency checks.
BIS, supported by the Department of Health, has recognised throughout the review process the unique position of healthcare professionals and supports many of the changes proposed by the NMC. I think that it also appreciates the urgency of the situation. The Government are to be commended for their recent efforts to strengthen a local-level system of language competency checks to be put in place at an early stage and operate until a full-scale revision of the directive is completed, which will take a number of years. I urge BIS to continue to reflect the concerns of the nursing profession in its submission to the Green Paper consultation, which closes on 21 September. I also urge the Government to continue this support when draft legislative changes to the directive are made later this year for consideration by the European Parliament and in due course by the Council of Ministers.
I hope that a feature of this debate will be patient safety. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that he and his colleagues in BIS will keep up the pressure on the Commission not only to set up an interim regulatory system but to ensure that the directive as revised emerges as helping to maintain the traditionally high standards of nursing in the United Kingdom rather than acting as a hindrance, which it sadly does at present. As with any measures taken to prevent or minimise accidents, tomorrow may be too late. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I remind noble Lords that this is a strictly time-limited debate and that therefore when the clock reaches four, noble Lords will have had their time. To go further will take either from the time of other noble Lords or of the Minister responding at the end.
My Lords, in January 1944 the American VI Corps of the Fifth Army was engaged in a bitter struggle at the Anzio beachhead when a doctor, Henry Knowles Beecher, ran out of morphine. In his field station with these desperately wounded patients, his nurse in desperation decided to put up a drip for each patient and tell them that inside the saline drip was a powerful pain reliever. The remarkable effect on these soldiers was such that very few of them complained of the pain, the amputations and the other horrific surgery that they were undergoing. Beecher founded in consequence the randomised control trial, which—the Minister will be aware—led to our partial understanding of the placebo effect. It was very clear that the communication with those patients was the key issue.
Since that time, Dr Bensing in the health service’s research department in Utrecht has looked at the growing tendency in medicine towards the business-like interview between patient and doctor, and has taken video tapes over some 20 years showing that. They show a gradual deterioration in the kind of care that is going on—probably throughout Europe. Bensing’s work is really very interesting. This is not due simply to a placebo effect. There is a very important publication from as long ago as 1976 by Patel and Daley showing that 77 per cent of hypertension patients’ condition improved simply by talking to the doctor and the doctor listening to them in great detail. It is obvious that this was not a placebo effect because in the main these patients did not require drugs afterwards to suppress their hypertension. Most of them required at least a reduction in drugs and some needed no drugs at all. What is impressive about the study is that that effect continued for at least six months or a year.
That is something that we will come back to during our discussions on the health Bill. Communication between the patient and the professional is vital. We run the risk of losing it with nurses who cannot speak English and who have been trained in a different way. I am particularly concerned about nurses coming from the eastern bloc of Europe—for example, from Romania or Bulgaria. Having been extensively in the far east of Europe when we were still in the Cold War with my research, I am well aware of the limited communication even in their own language that healthcare professionals had. If we are not careful we will increase that in our health service.
I hope that we will make sure that that, plus the fact that record-keeping is not fully understood by those nursing staff, are aspects that we will fight on in the European Union. I know that the Minister is caring and responsible, has high integrity and communicates and listens brilliantly. I understand that it is not entirely his problem because he has to communicate with BIS to represent our views in Europe. As he knows, Europe has already threatened our health service in other ways and I hope that we can make the strongest case possible to ensure proper communication between patient and carer.
My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for securing this very important debate.
Since the inception of the NHS in 1948, it has relied heavily on overseas-trained nurses and staff to bolster its workforce. The NHS was built with the help of immigrant workers and professionals from across the world when the call went out around the empire that the UK needed their labour. Thousands of doctors and nurses migrated here from the West Indies, as it then was, Pakistan, India, and elsewhere during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. They were recruited in response to a health service in desperate need of health professionals in the post-war years. The value of their huge contribution has always been recognised, and it is that diversity on which the NHS was based and is now run. It has been a success story.
We know that more than 30 per cent of NHS professionals were born overseas. Without them, the NHS would come to a standstill. In some cases the NHS is now less reliant on overseas trained professionals to deliver services, but international recruitment has been regularly used as the main option for employers trying to fill vacancies in both health and social care, and in professions and specialisms with recognised shortages. Many Asian and black health professionals have been the backbone of the NHS, often concentrated in the lowest paid roles, the least glamorous specialisms, and in the least popular parts of the country. Some have faced racism and, for many, there has been slow promotion in their working lives.
There are legitimate concerns that the countries from which the nurses and midwives are recruited suffer from a knowledge and skills drain, reducing their capacity to provide healthcare to their own populations. But there have been huge advantages when professional staff have returned to their country of origin, taking with them the skills and development that they have acquired here. No one is advocating uncontrolled immigration but the introduction of a cap on non-EU health workers is insulting to those doctors and nurses who came to work in Britain’s hospitals. Many of them have faced difficult circumstances but have made enormous contributions. In light of the increasing evidence of how reliant we are on migrant workers, the cap could have unintended consequences by blocking much needed specialist workers from settling in Britain when they are vital for our economy and public services.
Social care is another area which is being hit by these procedures. It remains one of the lowest-paid sectors, and it is notoriously difficult to recruit for here in the UK. The National Care Association paints a rather stark picture of the policy's impact on social care. It is already complaining that the care sector cannot get the workforce needed to deliver services in this country. It is estimated that 1 million extra workers will be needed to support the UK's ageing population by 2025. In 2007, one in three care workers was recruited from outside the UK, while an estimated 60 per cent of London care workers were non-EU migrants. Meanwhile, we have the same problem with children's services where there has also been a cap, putting vulnerable children at risk because of the shortage of qualified and experienced social workers in some parts of the country, particularly in London. While measures put in place to train people from the UK and EU for roles now filled by non-EU migrant workers will help, it will take more than three years to have enough suitably qualified candidates to fill these positions.
I believe that successive Governments have failed to put the compelling case to the UK public that communities, from hospitals to schools, right through to local authorities, need to be encouraged to develop a more realistic understanding of immigration matters in this respect, and of how reliant we are on skilled migrant workers for our public services. In addition, we need to shape a practical, common-sense approach to this issue, one that reflects our heritage and our values.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for securing this debate, as it gives me an opportunity as chairman of EU Sub-Committee G on Social Policies and Consumer Protection to let your Lordships know of the some of the aspects of the inquiry the committee has just completed. I very much look forward to seeing the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, on our committee in the near future.
We launched this inquiry into the mobility of healthcare professionals in June and received a substantial amount of written and oral evidence which has informed our response to the Commission’s Green Paper—mentioned by the noble Viscount—on the modernisation of the directive which governs intra-EU mobility of professionals. The report has not yet been debated by Select Committees, and we anticipate publishing it some time in early October. I am going to draw on some of the evidence we have received to point to the particular aspect which the noble Viscount has drawn to our attention.
The inquiry heard from the major regulators of healthcare professions in the UK, including the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council. They expressed serious concerns that discrepancies in a number of areas were forcing them to admit to their registers individuals who did not meet what they considered the necessary standards for safe practice, thereby putting patients at serious risk. For example, the Nursing and Midwifery Council said it had concerns about the decisions it was forced to take in favour of certain EU applicants, and that it was absolutely certain that many of these would not have been admitted to the register if they had been UK applicants. Similarly, the GMC pointed out how countries joining the EU changed the requirements for doctors applying to work in the UK. Whereas previously applicants would have had to take an exam, which many of them failed, once they were from member states, the GMC’s ability to question their language, knowledge and skills was severely restricted.
It is right that there be some differences between EEA and non-EEA applications. For example, automatic recognition of professions is based on the fact that there are harmonised, minimum training requirements for these professions which do not exist for third countries. The majority of witnesses felt that the problem was not one of differences per se, but that the system lacked the necessary flexibility to take account of the specific nature of the healthcare professions, and did not reflect the nature and requirements of modern practice.
In certain areas, regulators argued that they should be able to apply the same standards to EU and non-EU applicants—for example, systematic language testing, as has already been indicated—at the point of registration. Others simply wished for greater freedom to decide what was appropriate in each case; for example, the ability to test more widely when they had doubts.
The fact that the Commission is looking at the issue is clearly welcome. However, there will need to be some far-reaching changes to ensure that intra-EU mobility of healthcare professionals maintains the confidence of patients and professionals alike. Mobility can bring significant benefits: exchange of ideas, new treatments, and so on. But as has been emphasised by all the witnesses, patient safety is the most essential thing and should be the priority over mobility.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I spent many years on Sub-Committee G and I regret not being there while she was chairman.
Professionals holding specific qualifications and currently registered with a competent authority in one member state can register to practise in any other member state without having to satisfy further tests or formalities. Automatic recognition of qualifications under the directive 2005/36/EC is about granting access to professional registration, not about suitability to undertake a particular job. It is up to employers to ensure that the applicant has the necessary skills and competencies to perform the role for which they are applying. In the limited time available I will make some general remarks about issues that affect the dental profession. I declare an interest as a former dental practitioner.
Registration of non-UK dentists with the GDC is dependent both on the individual's nationality and the country in which they qualified. Dentists who are EU citizens with degrees obtained within the EU benefit from automatic registration based on the rules of free movement of EU citizens. Subject to proof of identity, degree and good standing in the home country, dentists are able to register with the GDC without further exams. A directive defines the minimum training standards required within the EU. All degrees of current EU countries comply with these requirements, although some member states require their dentists to undertake a period of clinical work experience in addition to the degree before they can work independently. In these cases, the requirement may apply also to registration with the GDC.
There are regulations for dentists who are EU citizens with degrees obtained outside the EU; regulations for dentists with a qualification gained before and after 01/01/01 from Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia; and regulations for dentists who are not EU citizens but who have obtained degrees within the EU. I would like to have had the time to explain this more fully. The regulations are considered to work well, both with regard to the minimum training standards and the compensation measures for those countries that joined the EU more recently and did not at the beginning comply with the directive. A consultation is currently taking place with a view to modernising the directive.
The main concerns for dentistry have been the lack of language testing at registration points and the lack in some countries of practical training involving seeing patients. In the current review there is a welcome option for more formal language testing. I suggest that there is also a need to update the minimum training standards in accordance with the latest science.
Another concern that is not directly related to registration with the GDC is the fact that dentists from Europe are exempt from the requirement to undertake vocational training. UK-qualified dentists as well as non-EU dentists are required to undertake this training, while EU dentists are able to register without further training on a local performer list. All dentists should be required to undertake such training. However, to ensure fairness of the system all places would have to be funded. EU dentists are eligible to apply for foundation training but, if allocated a place, take it away from a UK graduate. There is high competition for these training places across the UK.
The overseas registration exam for non-UK dentists is designed as a competency test set at the level of a UK undergraduate. The pass rate is not high. Concerns over the exam remain with regard to appropriate provision of exam places, as there continues to be a waiting list. Dentists who are not EU citizens are required to undertake vocational training or foundation training through an equivalence route before they can become independent performers. My time is up: I look forward to hearing from the Minister.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Viscount on having secured this important debate. I will confine my remarks to medical practitioners and declare my interest as a practising surgeon.
For practitioners who have qualified outside the European Union, the situation is clear: our national regulatory body, the General Medical Council, is obliged to test their language skills and competency and is fully entitled to inquire into the content and quality of their medical education and training. For practitioners from the European Union, this is not the case: the GMC is not able to test language skills, is unable to make an assessment of their competency and is unable to inquire into their training and education. Clearly this is not acceptable, but the situation is worse even than that because, for practitioners who are registered elsewhere in the European Union and who, as we have heard, are entitled to come to the United Kingdom and practise, and for whom the General Medical Council is obliged to provide the opportunity for automatic registration, there is no obligation on the part of their home regulatory bodies to report any concerns that they may have about the practice of the individual—whether they have been suspended or whether there are any inquiries into their practice. That is an intolerable situation. It is not right for fellow practitioners who have to work with these individuals, but most of all it is not right for the citizens of our country who, at times when they are unwell and are becoming patients in our healthcare system, need to be absolutely certain that the practitioners to whom they are exposed are competent, meet the standards required of medical practitioners in our country and therefore can, with certainty, provide the quality of care that citizens in our country deserve.
There is a simple way forward. On language testing, I understand that a change in domestic legislation will allow immediately for the General Medical Council to move forward and assume responsibility for ensuring language competence. On professional competence, there will need to be changes at the European level. I know that the General Medical Council—and I am sure medical practitioners in our country—would warmly encourage the Government to pursue discussions at a European level of professional competence training, but in the mean time it would be most helpful if Her Majesty’s Government would consider looking at language testing and determining whether a change to domestic legislation could ensure that that particular problem is overcome. Ultimately this should not be a matter of politics or even of European relations: it is simply a matter of patient safety and providing for the people of our country the certainty they deserve in knowing that when they are unwell, the practitioners who will look after them all meet the same standard, whether they have been trained in the United Kingdom, in a European country or elsewhere in the world.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a practising solicitor and partner for more than 40 years in the international commercial law firm Beachcroft. This debate gives me a wonderful opportunity, first, to thank my noble friend Lord Bridgeman for having introduced such an important subject, and also to support my chairman on Sub-Committee G and say to my noble friend Lady Young of Hornsey that I warmly applaud everything she has said. I am delighted that our overall chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Roper, is listening to this, because I think that everyone agrees that this directive needs modernising and urgently so. I agree with many of the points already made. There is, sadly, insufficient confidence among patients, professionals and regulators in the current framework. I think that everyone agrees with that, so what are we going to do?
There are two areas of concern upon which I agree with my noble friend Lady Young of Hornsey. The first is the diversity of regulatory systems and approaches to registration right across the European Union. The second is the variation in the competencies of individuals, even where they hold the requisite qualification. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, that right at the heart of all this is patient safety. In the limited time I have, I want to make two points. First, I am concerned about the lack of what is called continuous professional development. There must, surely, be a CPD requirement. I agree with the Nursing and Midwifery Council that the idea that we have automatically to register all EU nurses and midwives who meet EU minimum requirements, even those who may not have practised for 20 years, makes it sound as though there is something fundamentally wrong. We need to get this right. Secondly, as I complete six years as chairman of the English Speaking Union, I have to refer to communication skills. I do so by quoting from the Guardian. An article in the Guardian recently said:
“As Good Medical Practice makes clear, communication skills are fundamental to a doctor’s work and the success of many doctor-patient relationships is often determined by the doctor’s ability to communicate effectively with patients, particularly when obtaining consent or if something goes wrong”.
I am very grateful to the Medical Defence Union for making me aware of the statistics. Its journal of June 2011 revealed that around 30 per cent of complaints notified to the MDU by its GP members involved allegations of poor communication. This is such an important subject, and it is about time that we started to make sure we get it right across the European Union.
My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, for bringing this important matter to your Lordships' House. Although this is a short debate, it is none the less of huge importance. I am very keen to identify these Benches with the need to resolve this matter. A Health Select Committee report last year looked at the death of David Gray as a result of Dr Daniel Ubani and said then that this is a matter of great importance and urgency. How much more so now? That report stated that if the GMC had been able to carry out language and competence tests on EEA doctors wishing to practise as GPs then that life and perhaps other lives would have been saved. The Select Committee was keen to see the issue resolved then.
We know that the Government need to press for change to the relevant EU directive to enable the GMC to test the clinical competence of doctors and to undertake systematic testing of languages. I was very pleased to see that Sub-Committee G of our European Union Committee has taken evidence on this matter and will be reporting. That helps to strengthen the case. It would possibly have been helpful if it had reported before the deadline for the Green Paper, which is 21 September, but the fact that the evidence that has been given to it has been made public is very important. I knew that it was considering these matters, but I read with alarm some of the reports about the evidence that it had received. Dickon Weir-Hughes said to our Select Committee that the Nursing and Midwifery Council had to operate a two-tier system because of EU rules on the free movement of workers. In evidence to the same inquiry, the GMC revealed that a foreign doctor’s husband had contacted it on her behalf to register her for work because she could not speak English. It went on to report that the Nursing and Midwifery Council is now admitting people who have not been near a patient for 20 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said in his speech.
We know that the GMC and the NMC have huge responsibilities for patient safety and we know that we must listen to them about this problem because this is about risk to patients. The problem we face is that this directive is an overarching document based on the principle of freedom of movement in the internal market and applies to several hundred professions, not just to those in the healthcare sector. While we on these Benches of course support the principle of freedom of movement and recognise the positive contribution of European Union nurses, midwives and doctors in the provision of healthcare in the UK, as the noble Viscount said, freedom of movement should not take precedence over patient safety. That is the challenge facing the UK Government in these negotiations.
I hope that this debate will help the Minister in his representations to BIS on behalf of the Department of Health about why this review is so important and why we have to stand firm on it. I join other noble Lords in urging BIS to continue to reflect our concerns in its submission to the Green Paper consultations and I urge the Government to continue their support when the draft legislation changes are made later this year for the consideration of the European Parliament and Council of Ministers.
We also know that the wheels of European directives move exceedingly slowly, which is why the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, and others about addressing this issue in the mean time, if we possibly can, are also important. I would also like to identify these Benches with the call to do that.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Bridgeman deserves our thanks for tabling this very useful debate and for introducing the subject so ably. As he and other speakers have rightly indicated, there is considerable disquiet about the implications of European law in respect of the free movement of healthcare workers. I should particularly like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, on her committee’s very helpful report and on her concise remarks today in support of it.
Several healthcare professional regulatory bodies have expressed concerns about whether we have the right safeguards in place to check whether European Economic Area migrants wishing to work in the UK are fit to practise. They have called for new powers for checks on such migrants. Under European directive 2005/36/EC, many EEA migrants will automatically have their professional qualifications recognised by the relevant UK regulatory body, whereas healthcare workers from countries outside the EEA will generally be subject to checks upon their competence and communications skills before they are allowed to register.
Any EEA national whose qualification is automatically recognised must hold a European qualification which conforms to the standards set out in the directive. Picking up the point so well made by the noble Lord, Lord Winston, this should ensure that, for example, a general care nurse’s qualifications broadly attest to his or her competence, but it is then up to whoever employs, or contracts with, the nurse to make sure that the individual in question has the right skills and qualifications for the role. My noble friend Lord Colwyn made this point very well in the context of dentists.
The UK system of health professions regulation largely treats registered professionals equally, regardless of their nationality and background. The differences lie primarily in entry to the profession—that is to say, entry into the register. In looking at the directive, our view is that elements of it need strengthening but overall the system for mutual recognition is effective. I can, however, reassure my noble friend Lord Hunt that we are absolutely committed to making the European system as strong and robust as it can be.
This summer we have been working constructively with other government departments and the health regulators themselves to formulate our response to the European Commission’s Green Paper on reforms to the directive. On that Green Paper there is very little on which the department and our partners disagree regarding areas of the directive that need strengthening. We agree that the harmonised training standards underpinning automatic recognition need updating and that a mechanism for regular updates is required. We would also like to see a focus over time on competencies in training rather than particular length of training.
My noble friend Lord Hunt referred to continuous professional development. We think that all member states should be required to have a system of CPD in place for the healthcare professions on their territories. Out-of-date training for the health professions can pose a much greater risk than for other professions covered by the directive. We agree that that issue needs to be tackled in a revised directive. We would want to ensure that EEA migrants subject to CPD requirements in their home state are obliged to demonstrate they meet such requirements when they register in another member state.
My noble friend Lord Bridgeman mentioned the principle of partial access. We share his concerns. The concept exists in European law through case law, whether we like it or not. The current case law allows that partial access can be denied if there are overriding reasons of public interest. We would argue that this means that it is not applicable to the health sector, particularly where harmonised training requirements apply. However, to avoid doubt about this, we wish to see explicit provision in the directive to clarify this point.
My noble friend and the noble Lords, Lord Winston and Lord Kakkar, referred to the issue of language checks. In fact, I think all speakers did so. Article 53 of the directive also states that those benefiting from automatic recognition,
“shall have a knowledge of languages necessary for practising”,
in the relevant member state. However, case law from the Court of Justice of the European Union precludes systematic language testing at the point of registration, and European Commission guidance states that the lack of language knowledge cannot be a ground for refusal of recognition of qualifications. So while a competent authority could test the communications skills of a healthcare worker from a non-EEA country, it could not routinely or systematically do the same for an EEA healthcare worker. Furthermore, such checks could not act as a barrier to recognition of their professional qualifications. However, both the directive and case law support language checks before a professional takes up a particular role provided that checks are not systematic, are proportionate and reflect individual circumstances.
In the UK, we have implemented a system of checks at a local level through duties on primary care trusts and guidelines to local NHS employers. The noble Lord, Lord Winston, is totally right to say that this is an issue of major importance for the quality of patient care. We have already taken steps to strengthen the system, and since January all designated bodies have been required to nominate or appoint a responsible officer—for example, a medical director in an NHS trust. In England, the responsible officer’s duties include ensuring that medical practitioners have the qualifications and experience necessary for the role and that references are checked. However, we think that we can and should do more, so we are working with the GMC to develop further proposals that will build on these existing duties.
Work is currently focused on the medical profession because risks there are perhaps most acute, especially in the context of general practice. However, we will also work with the relevant healthcare professional regulatory bodies and the European Commission to explore how a strengthened system of proportionate local checks might be introduced for other professions where there is evidence of justified concerns about patient safety.
The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, referred to the unfairness to migrants from non-EEA countries. I think the issue here is that regulators have to reconcile the need for fairness and reasonable treatment of migrants seeking registration with their principal objective of protecting public health and safety. International migrants, as the noble Lord said, may undertake training in a very different cultural context—for example, in relation to child protection. For that reason it is essential that robust checks on professional competence are undertaken. At the point of entry to the UK, the regulator may seek confirmation from the home member state, if it is an EEA candidate, that there are no known concerns about the individual. Our concern relates more to the need for a proactive duty to share information when concerns actually arise.
My noble friend Lord Colwyn spoke about dentists in his customarily authoritative way. We consider that there is an opportunity here in the context of the proposal to update the minimum training standards in the directive to address the long-standing concerns that some newly qualified EEA dentists do not have the same level of practical training at the point of qualification. It will, however, remain essential that PCTs and other contracting or employing bodies ensure that any person they appoint to their performers list is appropriately trained and qualified for the role to which they will be appointed.
On the issue of our interaction with the EU Commission and the efforts by my department and those of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, I can reassure noble Lords, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Winston, that the two departments have been working very closely together on the production of a response to the Green Paper. The closing date for responses to the Commission is 20 September. The Government’s response is being finalised more or less as I speak.
My noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece was correct in what she said. There is no question that, overall, the UK healthcare system benefits from the free movement of professionals and has done for many years. Thankfully, the NHS is moving more and more towards self-sufficiency in terms of its workforce but her point was very well made.
However, perhaps I may conclude by re-emphasising one issue. It is essential that there are effective checks on the suitability of all healthcare professionals for the specific jobs that they are going to undertake. In that context, there has to be, as there is now, a key role for those employing or contracting with healthcare professionals in undertaking those same checks.
My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I am slightly disappointed by the Minister. I understand that he is hamstrung by the requirements for the language testing. However, I draw the attention of your Lordships to the Green Paper where a number of quite constructive options are set out. I hope that, with tremendous support, the Government will pursue these with great vigour. I am particularly grateful for the Minister’s reassurance on the question of partial access. I think noble Lords will be reassured on that.
Turning to my noble friend Lady Hussein-Ece’s point, it is essential that the free movement of all health professionals is not impeded. I am confident that in due course satisfactory checks as to suitability and language will emerge. I should also like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for her kind words of welcome and I very much look forward to serving on that committee with my noble friend Lord Hunt. I have seen the submissions, which are of very high quality. We can expect some very interesting results. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Baha Mousa Inquiry
My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Corporal Mark Palin from 1st Battalion The Rifles, Marine James Wright from 42 Commando Royal Marines, Lieutenant Daniel Clack from 1st Battalion The Rifles and Sergeant Barry Weston from 42 Commando Royal Marines, who were killed on operations in Afghanistan recently; and Senior Aircraftman James Smart, from No. 2 (Mechanical Transport) Squadron, RAF Wittering, who was killed in Italy on Wednesday 20 July while supporting Operation Ellamy. My thoughts are also with the wounded and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude in which they face their rehabilitation.
I should now like to repeat a Statement made in the other place by the Defence Secretary. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, with permission I would like to make a Statement on the report into the death of Mr Baha Mousa in Iraq in 2003. In any conflict, no matter what the reason for our country’s involvement and no matter how difficult the circumstances, what separates us from our adversaries are the values with which we prosecute it and the ethics that guide our actions.
To represent Britain, in war as well as in peace, is to represent our inherent democratic values, the rule of law and respect for life. When those values are transgressed, it is vital that we get to the bottom of what has happened, are open about the issues and their causes, make sure that what reparations we can make are made and do all we can to prevent it happening again. Only in that way can we ensure that those values hold firm, in how we think of ourselves and in how others perceive us.
I am today laying before the House the independent report published this morning by Sir William Gage as chairman of the public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr Baha Mousa in Iraq in 2003. I am grateful to Sir William and his team, who have produced a report that is sober, focused and detailed. Above all, I believe it to be both fair and balanced. It is, however, a painful and difficult read. As the report sets out, Baha Mousa was subject to violent and cowardly abuse and assaults by British servicemen whose job it was to guard him and treat him humanely, and this was the primary cause of his death.
This inquiry was rightly set up in 2008 by the previous Government with the intent to shine a spotlight on the events surrounding the death of Baha Mousa and to provide the most definitive account possible in the circumstances. It does that comprehensively. What happened to Baha Mousa and his fellow detainees in September 2003 was deplorable, shocking and shameful. The Ministry of Defence and the Army have previously made a full apology to the family of Baha Mousa and to his fellow detainees and have paid full compensation to them. We can take some limited comfort that incidents like this are extremely rare but we cannot be satisfied by that.
Given the seriousness of this case, there is a series of questions that I have asked myself and that others in this House will ask, too. Among these are, ‘Who was responsible and what happened as a consequence?’, ‘What action has been taken to prevent a recurrence?’, ‘Do we have the right protection in place today in Afghanistan?’, and, of course, ‘How will the Government respond to the recommendations made in the report?’.
First, on responsibility, the report makes clear the extent of the failings of individuals, the Ministry of Defence and the Armed Forces at the time and in earlier years. In addition to the shocking displays of brutality for which individuals are responsible, it is also clear that there were serious failings in command and discipline in the 1st Battalion Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. There was a lack of clarity in the allocation of responsibility for the prisoner-handling process, and sadly too there was a lack of moral courage to report abuse. However, it must be acknowledged that a small number behaved with both integrity and courage in reporting what they had witnessed. They are examples of how others should have behaved.
Wider than the battalion, there were also deficiencies in policies, orders and training relating to detention at that time. The chairman notes that there was inadequate doctrine on prisoner handling. There was a ‘systemic failure’ that allowed knowledge of the prohibition on abusive techniques made by the Heath Government to be lost over the years. The report confirms that the Army was underprepared for the task of handling civilian detainees, having expected after the end of war fighting to provide humanitarian aid rather than become involved in counterinsurgency activities.
Since this incident in 2003, six different Defence Secretaries have stood at this Dispatch Box. I am sure all will regret that it has taken so long to get to the bottom of what happened, and that even now the refusal of some involved to tell the whole truth means that it has not been possible to establish the full extent of the culpability of individuals. Their behaviour is a matter for their own consciences, but others must take responsibility for the wider failures and deficiencies.
This report does not mean that our investigations of the mistreatment of detainees are over. The evidence from the inquiry will now be reviewed to see whether more can be done to bring those responsible to justice. It would therefore not be appropriate to comment here in the House of Commons on specific individuals and the role they played in this appalling episode. Where individuals are still serving, I have asked the Chief of the General Staff to take urgent action to ensure that the Army’s ethical standards are upheld. That action is now under way through the chain of command.
The investigations of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, IHAT, which started work in November last year, are now well under way and are revealing evidence of some concern. It is too early to comment on what the conclusions of the IHAT investigations might be, but cases will be referred to the Director of Service Prosecutions if and when there is sufficient evidence to justify this.
Since 2003, action by the Ministry of Defence and the Army to address failings as they were identified has touched every aspect of the prisoner handling system, from policy and doctrine to ground-level directives as well as training and oversight. The changes wrought have been fundamental. The Army inspector’s report in 2010, validated by an independent expert adviser, is one example of the detailed scrutiny applied to the training and doctrine for handling detainees. I can assure the House that there is a commitment to continuous improvement at all levels inside and outside the Armed Forces.
As the report acknowledges, further positive changes have been made as a result of matters that emerged from evidence heard during this inquiry’s final module, module 4, which was a thorough scrutiny of our current detention policies, practices and training. The Minister for the Armed Forces and I take a close personal interest in detention matters in Afghanistan. I am confident that our approach to detention in Afghanistan is now markedly improved from the period rightly criticised in this report. But we are in no way complacent about the issues identified by Sir William. I can inform the House that I am accepting in principle all of his recommendations with one reservation. It is vital that we retain the techniques necessary to secure swiftly in appropriate circumstances the intelligence that can save lives. The recommendation that we institute a blanket ban during tactical questioning on the use of certain verbal and non-physical techniques referred to in the report as the harsh approach, I am afraid, I cannot accept. However, I share some of Sir William’s concerns and I have asked the Chief of the Defence Staff to ensure that this approach only be used by defined people in defined circumstances.
Let me conclude by saying this. In Iraq, between 2003 and 2008, 179 British personnel were killed serving their country and many more returned injured. In autumn 2003, the 1st Battalion Queen’s Lancashire Regiment faced an immensely difficult challenge as they attempted to bring law and order to a large area that had been subject to a brutally oppressive regime for many years. As Sir William acknowledges, the issues addressed in his report,
‘need to be understood in the operational context in which they occurred: the tempo of operations; the poor state of the local civilian infrastructure; a daily threat to life from both civilian unrest and an increasing insurgency; the deaths of fellow service personnel and incessant oppressive heat. In combination these factors made huge demands on soldiers serving in Iraq in 2003’.
There are few of us sitting in the comfort of the House of Commons who can claim to understand what that must have been like. However, the vast majority of Armed Forces personnel faced these same challenges and did not behave in the way outlined in this report. They represent the fine ethical values found day in and day out in our Armed Forces, and we must not allow the unspeakable actions of a very few to damage the reputation of the whole.
I want to make it clear that Baha Mousa was not a casualty of war. His death occurred while he was a detainee in British custody. It was avoidable and preventable, and there can be no excuses. There is no place in our Armed Forces for the mistreatment of detainees, and there is no place for a perverted sense of loyalty that turns a blind eye to wrongdoing or erects a wall of silence to cover it up. If any service man or woman, no matter the colour of uniform that they wear, is found to have betrayed the values this country stands for and the standards that we hold dear, they will be held to account. Ultimately, whatever the circumstances, rules or regulations, people know the difference between right and wrong. We will not allow the behaviour of individuals who cross that line to taint the reputation of the Armed Forces, of which the British people are rightly proud”.
I commend this Statement to the House.
My Lords, we also wish to express our sincere condolences to the families and friends of Corporal Mark Palin, Marine James Wright, Lieutenant Daniel Clack and Sergeant Barry Weston, who have lost their lives in operations in Afghanistan recently, and Senior Aircraftman James Smart, killed in Italy in July while supporting Operation Ellamy.
I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place by the Secretary of State and for giving me sight of the lengthy inquiry report. I have not been able fully to digest its contents, but the Minister is in the same position. However, even sight of the summary of the report and its conclusions is enough to know that a small group has acted in a shocking, brutal and totally unacceptable manner and, as the Minister has said, that there were serious failings in command and discipline in the 1st Battalion The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment.
I would like to add my thanks to Sir William Gage, the chairman of the public inquiry set up in 2008 by the previous Government into the events surrounding the death of Mr Baha Mousa, and to the members of his team for their detailed and thorough report. The report had to be painstaking, thorough and detailed because it appears that getting at the truth was not made any easier by the difficulties that some appeared to have in telling the truth.
The report makes it clear that the brutal and shocking behaviour was not just in relation to Mr Baha Mousa whose death occurred in British custody but also to other detainees. Other allegations of maltreatment are still being investigated by the Iraq historic allegations team, whose creation was announced in March 2010, which started in November 2010. Presumably, any further allegations will be investigated by this body.
A small group has acted in a way that is totally alien to the manner in which our Armed Forces conduct themselves and the standards they uphold, and is totally alien to the professionalism and bravery of our Armed Forces personnel, all too many of whom have given their lives or suffered life-changing injuries, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan or over Libya. This report does nothing to diminish our pride in our Armed Forces. It is precisely because what happened is so far removed from the standards demanded and upheld that this inquiry has taken place, and why its findings will cause such dismay.
There are one or two points that I wish to raise with the Minister. As he has said, the Secretary of State has accepted all the recommendations except one, which was in relation to a blanket ban on the use of certain verbal and non-physical techniques referred to in the report as the “harsh approach”. Can the Minister say a little more about the reasons for not accepting this recommendation? Clearly, if such techniques are to continue to be used, there will be a need to have in place very firm and precise safeguards, to make sure that all concerned are fully aware of the limits of what can be done, and that those limits are not exceeded, however difficult the circumstances may be at the time.
Can I also ask the Minister if he is satisfied with the action that has been taken or is still to be taken to ensure that, as far as is humanly possible, there is no repeat of the unacceptable actions spelled out in the inquiry report, in Afghanistan or anywhere else? It is not just about making sure that appropriate processes and procedures are in place. It is presumably also about making sure that people who do have immediate responsibility for detainees have the qualities needed to meet the high demands that this role can place on the standards of behaviour of individuals concerned, particularly in the kinds of conditions and circumstances that were faced in Iraq, and also on their strength of character, to speak up if actions are being taken which they must know are unacceptable. It also means that those at the highest levels of command take a direct and active interest in what is actually happening to detainees, as opposed to what should be happening to them according to the rules and procedures. Can the Minister say what importance is attached to the role of being responsible for detainees, and whether he is satisfied that relevant checks or assessments are made of those who are given this onerous responsibility?
I want also to ask the Minister whether in the light of the inquiry report it is felt there is a need for any legislative measures to strengthen the position in relation to the treatment of detainees or the powers and duties of those who have responsibility for them. I ask that in the context that we currently have the Armed Forces Bill going through your Lordships’ House, and since there will presumably not be another one for five years, action on this point ought to be taken now if it is considered necessary.
The inquiry referred to an “inadequate doctrine” on prisoner handling, as the Minister has said, and also to a “systemic failure” that allowed knowledge of the prohibition on abuse techniques to be lost over the years. The 1972 Act banned certain interrogation techniques, but it appears from the inquiry report that the terms of the Act have been overlooked when it comes to training policies and orders relating to detention. Will the Minister give an assurance that the Act will be enforced, including the cultural change needed to ensure that?
A third point I would like to raise, and without asking the noble Lord the Minister to refer to any specific individuals mentioned in the report, is whether legal action will be taken, or is being considered, against any of those involved. I appreciate immunity from prosecution was given, but that presumably related only to an individual’s own evidence. Will the Minister say how many of those referred to in the report who are still currently serving have been suspended or have had other sanctions taken against them?
We support the statement the Minister has made. We are proud of our Armed Forces. We will not allow unacceptable and shocking behaviour by a small number of individuals to tarnish the reputation of our Armed Forces, and those who breach the standards we uphold must be held to account.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support for the Statement and for the chairman’s thorough report. It is clear that what happened in 2003 was utterly deplorable, and we have apologised wholeheartedly to the detainees and to Baha Mousa’s family for that. As the noble Lord said, lessons must be learnt.
As the noble Lord said, there were serious failings in command and discipline in the 1st Battalion The Queen’s Lancashire Regiment but this shameful episode should not be a reflection on the Armed Forces in general. Indeed, we must not forget that over 120,000 British troops served in Iraq and that the vast majority conducted themselves with the highest standards of integrity and professionalism, often in difficult and dangerous circumstances. We are grateful to them and it is deeply regrettable that they have been let down by a very small minority.
Turning to the noble Lord’s questions, he asked first why we have rejected recommendation 23. As the Secretary of State said,
“It is vital that we retain the techniques necessary to secure swiftly in appropriate circumstances the intelligence that can save lives. The recommendation that we institute a blanket ban during tactical questioning on the use of certain verbal and non-physical techniques referred to in the report as the harsh approach, I’m afraid I cannot accept”.
He went on to explain, however, that he shared some of Sir William’s concerns and has,
“asked the Chief of Defence Staff to ensure that this approach is only … used by defined people in defined circumstances”.
The noble Lord asked whether we have taken action, as the previous Government did, to ensure that there was no repeat of those terrible circumstances. This is a very important question. We have moved on since Iraq. Questioning secures information that is vital for force protection and saves life. The questioning is highly regulated and important safeguards are in place, including the recording and monitoring of all interrogation sessions. Detainees are given ample opportunity, at various stages of the detention process, to raise concerns about their treatment. Very few concerns have been raised, and where there are any each is investigated by the Royal Military Police special investigation branch.
The chairman has recommended that we cease using the so-called “harsh approach”. The old harsh approach is no more but, as the Secretary of State said, we need to keep a broad range of techniques to allow us to extract intelligence that helps to save lives. The controlled use of short spells of shouting and a sarcastic, cynical tone of voice still have utility in questioning in certain circumstances. We have combined these elements into an approach that is now called challenging, which is very carefully defined and taught. It is designed to get detainees to focus on the questioning that they are undergoing. We will look again at our training and practices to ensure that any approach which challenges detainees conforms scrupulously in letter and in spirit to international humanitarian law.
The noble Lord asked whether those guarding detainees are given sufficient training. All personnel who deploy now have a good level of training in detention, because anyone could become involved in this activity. The Military Provost Staff, who are the detention experts, are highly trained professionals. They are deployed in Afghanistan to provide advice. Regimental provost staff also receive training in managing custody facilities, which has an operational element.
The noble Lord asked whether we needed to legislate to make any changes. I can confirm that we are looking at this. At the moment, we do not believe that we will need any legislation. The noble Lord asked if any legal action is being taken or considered against any of those involved. The service police will review the chairman’s findings on individuals—serving and non-serving—to establish whether any further investigation might be necessary. The military chain of command will also consider whether action should be taken against former, or serving, personnel. I anticipate a number of suspensions imminently of serving soldiers. Finally, as the noble Lord said, there is an awful lot to read in this excellent report. I would be very happy to organise a briefing in the Ministry of Defence on 18 October, when officials and the senior army officer most closely involved with the report will be on hand to brief Peers and answer any questions that they have.
My Lords, first, I join these Benches in the earlier tribute. I, too, thank my noble friend the Minister for repeating the Statement and for the offer of the briefing on 18 October. We have only had a few hours to study the 1,400 pages or so of this report. Clearly, in that time, one has only been able to skim through certain sections of it. It makes sickening reading. The horrifying thing is that, had Mr Baha Mousa not died, there would not have been an inquiry, a report or this Statement. Neither would there have been the 73 recommendations which, we hope, will prevent a ghastly act like this happening again.
I ask two specific questions. First, there has been a certain amount about Afghanistan in the press. What is the position in relation to our forces handing over detainees to the Afghan authorities and do we have any ability to monitor what happens to them when they are in Afghan hands? Secondly, would it be possible for the Ministry to investigate, possibly using closed-circuit television in some of our detention centres overseas or in our overseas prisons to give us an ability to monitor the behaviour of our troops and the treatment of detainees? If we had CCTV in this particular situation, perhaps this ghastly incident would not have happened.
I agree with my noble friend that this report makes ghastly reading. We monitor very carefully the detainees that we hold and we hand over detainees to the Afghans only very carefully. To the best of my knowledge, we do our best to monitor the detainees that we hand over to the Afghans. However, I will undertake to write to my noble friend on this point.
My Lords, I was the Chief of the General Staff in 2008 when, in conjunction with the then Secretary of State for Defence, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, it was agreed that the inquiry that has reported today should be convened. We knew that at some point in the future today would come and that this report would be difficult and a very uncomfortable experience. The inquiry reports on grave and shameful events but rightly says that they are a shocking deviation from the normal standards of behaviour expected from the Army.
We have rightly apologised to and compensated the family of Mr Baha Mousa. Of course, that is no real compensation for what happened. Does the Minister agree with me that today’s report would not have come about had the Army not been open and transparent prior to the inception of this inquiry, and that it was only the publication of the Aitken report—we commissioned that internal report ourselves as we were already disturbed by what we had learnt—that brought about the decision by the then Secretary of State for Defence, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, to instigate this report? I offer that comment and look to the Minister for agreement simply to enable me to say that we do not, and will not, tolerate disgraceful behaviour from any rank in the Armed Forces or the Army. High standards, according to our core values and standards, are absolutely key when we deploy on a foreign operation, and do so in a position, whether wittingly or unwittingly, close to the moral high ground, and knowing that when actions like this occur we fall from the high ground to the valley in a trice under the full glare of the media.
Today is a desperately sad day for the reputation of the Army and for a number of members of it who know that their conduct has been less than it should have been and can be described only as disgraceful. However, we have tried to cover up nothing. The Aitken report laid the foundation which gave the previous Government the opportunity to instigate this inquiry. We fully accept its outcome.
My Lords, of course, I agree entirely with the noble Lord. The Army has been very open and transparent and we should congratulate it on that. The noble Lord said that this is a sad day for the Army. It is a very sad day for a small number of people who behaved outrageously. The Army should be congratulated on the very open and transparent way in which it has reacted. The noble Lord said that he was the Chief of the General Staff when the noble Lord, Lord Browne, set up the report. I compliment the noble Lord, who is not in his place, on setting up this very important report.
My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will not misunderstand me. My reading of this is that the behaviour was unforgivable, but we are not discussing the behaviour of professional interrogators. Interrogation is a subtle art. There is the problem of when discomfort becomes torture. If we were to introduce draconian legislation in relation to the interrogation processes and techniques that our professionals use, we would be in danger of hamstringing ourselves in obtaining the intelligence that is needed. We have to be very careful here because if we do not get the intelligence that we need—often time is of the essence—another of our airliners will fall out of the sky and a chunk of one of our cities or utilities will be destroyed. Certainly, if there is a threat of an action about to take place involving some chemical mixture which puts the population at risk, the interrogation teams, who are very professional—there are strict rules—must not be hamstrung so that they cannot get the relevant information. This is a very delicate subject but national security is paramount. Under the very careful rules that apply, we have to make certain that the interrogation system in our country gets the vital information that saves lives and stops terrorist and criminal activity.
My Lords, the noble Viscount makes a very important point and I quite agree with him. The ability to seek and obtain intelligence from detainees is too important but we will always seek to ensure that it is done within the constraints of the Geneva conventions. The UK Armed Forces are at all times subject to English criminal law. MoD policy reflects applicable international law, including prohibitions on torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
My Lords, I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the Statement. It has been said that today is a sad day, but I have to say that I feel extremely proud of being in a nation that allows such an all-embracing report to be produced. I am extremely proud of being a member of the Armed Forces of this nation where the vast majority of them perform amazingly and with all the constraints that they should in very difficult circumstances. Does the Minister agree that I should feel that way?
My Lords, I quite agree with the noble Lord and feel very proud to be a Minister at this time. I congratulate the previous Government on what they did to initiate this report; as the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said, the Army has been very open in the way in which it has followed up on these terrible deeds.
My Lords, I apologise, too, for not being here at the beginning of the Statement but I have been able to read it. There was misinformation about what time the noble Lord would be standing up.
I welcome the Statement and the report. I ask the Minister, first, to consider whether he agrees that it entirely vindicates the decision taken, although criticised at the time, to bring prosecutions. Secondly, would he also agree that there remain questions to be answered, which Sir William Gage said were not a part of his inquiry, as to how the criminal investigations took place? The Minister may recall that he and I have debated these matters before on concerns that I have in relation to that. Thirdly, would he agree—I have in mind statements that he himself made in July 2005 in this House on a debate on prosecutions—that it would not be right in the light of these findings to describe a need to look at these matters in the light of law as anything to do with political correctness? What undermines respect for the discipline and for the armed services is not trying to uncover what took place and to deal with it, but the sort of circumstances that sadly we now know from Sir William Gage did take place and with at least the absence of knowledge of senior officers, standing by and not doing anything.
My Lords, I am conscious that we are running rather ahead of time and that not everyone is here for the next debate, although I note that the Leader of the Opposition is. I suggest that we adjourn for five minutes to enable everyone to join us.
Multiculturalism: Interfaith Dialogue
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I am quite overwhelmed by the response of noble Lords to this debate. I am sure that the next 90 minutes are going to be both illuminating and enhancing. I know it is only four minutes per noble Lord, but I am sure it is going to be a good debate and I thank everybody for participating.
I was on holiday during the August riots, but even following events on the internet, one incident made a huge impression on me. Tariq Jahan had just lost his son, Haroon, who was murderously mowed down when he and his friends were trying to protect local shops from looters. Mr Jahan’s words were haunting:
“Why do we have to kill one another? Why are we doing this? Step forward if you want to lose your sons. Otherwise, calm down and go home, please”.
I have twin sons who are the same age as Haroon, and I very much doubt whether I would be so generously minded were the same thing to happen to one of my boys. His words are seared on to my soul. Tariq Jahan said more about inter-communal dialogue in those few words than any of us could do in a lifetime.
Two weeks earlier, in a senseless act of Islamophobia, a white supremacist slaughtered 77 white teenagers at a political holiday resort in Norway. A white killing whites: how can that be Islamophobic, you might ask. Anders Breivik saw the Norwegian Labour party’s policy of defending diversity and tolerance as being supportive of minorities, which indeed it is, and therefore, in his twisted mind, worthy of the terrible carnage that he wrought. His gun was aimed at whites but his true targets were Norwegian Turks. With the tenth anniversary of 9/11 almost upon us, we all know too well that murderers and madmen are everywhere. When we learnt that Breivik had strong links to the extreme right-wing and racist groups in our own country, we knew that we must be on our guard. Indeed, the community response to the English Defence League protest in the East End of London last weekend is a testament to the strength of this vigilance.
The Prime Minister in his speech in Munich last February addressed racism, terrorism, and the failures of multiculturalism. Addressing the issues of extremist ideology, he concentrated on two platforms. The first was to tackle all forms of extremism; the second was to encourage stronger citizenship. He coined the phrase “muscular liberalism”. I would like to introduce a third component: greater understanding. I confess that, for much of my life, every time I heard the word “interfaith”, my heart sank. I saw it as the language of do-gooders—people who speak well and do nothing. My gradual immersion in the world of interfaith dialogue has been a personal journey of overcoming my prejudices. The more I am exposed to the subject, the more convinced I am that it is a crucial way to achieve greater understanding in our society.
Like many noble Lords speaking today, I am a descendant of immigrants. I am Jewish: my grandparents and great-grandparents emigrated to this country from eastern Europe during the 19th century. They trod a well worn path. Like Huguenots and Irish Catholics before them, and Caribbeans, Indians and Pakistanis after them, they came to this country for a better life. Some came to escape persecution, others for the opportunity to participate in the freedom and prosperity that this country has to offer—but all of them came to be part of our nation. When I hear people say that immigrants are lazy scroungers, I look at what the children of immigrants have achieved in business, science, sport, the arts and entertainment, and the professions. This country has been enriched by us all. I do not know this for sure, but I would bet that getting on for 15 per cent of your Lordships' House can trace their ancestry back to relatively recent immigration. What an achievement and what a statement about our country.
In Mr Cameron's view, our multiculturalism has failed because we have,
“encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream”.
In truth, I agree with him. Like three other Lords in your Lordships' House, including the noble Lords, Lord Sacks and Lord Young of Graffham, I went to a grammar school in Finchley called Christ's College. The name is ironic given that all four noble Lords are Jewish, as were at least 50 per cent of boys at the school. Even though we did not attend Christian prayers, we had religious studies on the syllabus. We learnt about the New Testament and Christianity. I am glad to have a good understanding of what is still the dominant and established church in this country. Has this made me a lesser Jew? I think not.
Today, it seems that many minority faith schools pay only lip service to understanding other religions and customs. How can a child from one faith understand a child from another if they never mix, play together or visit each other's homes? Many people from minority communities are worried that their children will become assimilated and their culture diluted. In the UK, more than one-third of young Jews are marrying non-Jews: but this is no reason to live in hermetically sealed silos. For this reason, I feel very uncomfortable with faith schools, although I concede that on this matter and in the Chamber this afternoon I am probably on a losing wicket.
Our ignorance of each other's religions and traditions is shameful. I find it amazing that Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Pesach—major Jewish religious holidays—are simply blurs to most non-Jews. But then, what do I know about Islam and Muslim holidays, or Hindu or Buddhist? Not much, I grant you, but these days I am trying hard to learn. I would like to see the Government begin a programme of instruction to develop interfaith understanding. I would like to see schoolchildren really immersed in other religions so that they know what being a Muslim or a Hindu is really about. I would like to see university administrators and faculty members, school teachers and civil servants versed in minority religions. Here I must pay tribute to the Three Faiths Forum, which does sterling work encouraging school teachers to understand other faiths.
Dietary rules are very important to observant Muslims and Jews, so campus administrators and employers need to know about halal and kosher. It is outrageous that universities still hold exams on major minority religious holidays and then claim, as I have heard them say, that they had no idea. The Coexistence Trust, which I chair—I declare my interest—has a very focused remit. We seek to bring greater understanding between Jewish and Muslim students on our university campuses. Many people are surprised when I tell them that among the Jewish community several universities have been considered no-go areas. They are also surprised to learn that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia exist not just among the students, but among the faculty. I do not want to overstate the case, but the fact is that it lurks below the surface and comes to prominence every time there is an incident in the Middle East. Many faculty members and university administrators have a curious attitude towards these anxieties. They say that universities are not only places of learning, but also places of intellectual challenge. Students, they say, must be prepared to hear things that they do not like, things which may cause them distress; such is campus life. Who will disagree with that? However, when administrators and faculties believe that the laws of the land are somehow not relevant in the campus, as I have witnessed, we have problems. Free speech is of paramount importance, but it has to exist within the law. Universities also have a duty to ensure that hate crimes and racial slurs are not committed. They also have a duty of care to all their students.
How do we go about trying to change these attitudes? The Coexistence Trust addresses issues between Jews and Muslims on 12 of our national campuses. We confine our activities just to Jews and Muslims, just to universities and just to 12 campuses—we have limited resources and we have to be very focused. We set up the trust in such a way that it reflects a balance between both communities. Our trustees, many of them speaking this afternoon, are all Members of your Lordships’ House. Three are Jewish and three are Muslim. Our employees also come from both communities. Our donors are nearly balanced between Muslims and Jews. It means that I can face down anyone who says that we have a bias in either direction. On each campus we have student ambassadors whose function is to engage with both communities. The National Union of Students positively encourages our work, as does the Union of Jewish Students. We are progressing in our links with the Federation of Student Islamic Societies in the hope that they, too, will back us. Our employees and campus ambassadors are taught conflict resolution, which they will need when the situation arises. They are taught leadership skills, which will be required when they enter the workplace. They are our leaders of tomorrow and what we are doing is really making a difference.
Finally, last April I was invited by the British consulate in New York and the British Council, also in that city, to tell the American Jewish community about our activities. There were many misguided opinions about Britain, some quite absurd, but I think that we did a great job of convincing them that we are robustly addressing the problem and when we pushed hard we were astonished to learn that American campuses, too, face many of the same issues that we have in the UK. Anyhow, they must have liked what we said because the FCO and the British Council are encouraging us to set up a partnership with CAUSE-NY, New York—an important example of transatlantic collaboration on intercultural issues. It is a British export of British ideas.
Changing deep-seated opinions and prejudices is not easy. I believe to my innermost core that meeting each other, working with each other and understanding each other’s cultures through interfaith dialogue is a vital way to reduce tensions and make our country a happier place.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, for bringing forward this debate today and I declare an interest as a trustee of Coexistence Trust. I pay tribute to the work and the way in which he has transformed the trust over the past few years.
There are three monotheistic faiths. All have the Bible in common, all believe in the same creator, yet so many have suffered down the centuries through ignorance of each other. I am first generation. My father was an immigrant. He came here in 1905 aged five. His elder sister, who was three years older, came with him and kept a diary. She recounted how at night they crept out from the village where they lived, how they were smuggled across the border and how, after a difficult journey, they arrived here and found to their amazement that they could speak the language—they arrived in the Pool of London, the East End was next door, and the language was Yiddish. She quickly learnt that there were other languages. By the early 1920s, my father was playing club cricket and keeping wicket. Never did they wish to give up on their religion, but they were proud to be English. They regarded themselves as English Jews and never forgot their debt of gratitude to this country that gave them shelter and relief from persecution and pogrom.
My noble friend Lord Tebbit has a very succinct way of expressing ideas. His idea of the cricket test—that when you come somewhere, you should follow its side—is one that my father passed with flying colours, but I must confess that I have not yet heard of Lithuania playing test cricket. When they arrived, they expected to conform. They expected to rely on themselves or their coreligionists, for this was decades before Beveridge. However, many decades have passed, and after a period of what appeared unrestrained immigration we are where we are with some parts of our country appearing like another country and another culture, and that is not something that we can just accept.
To declare an interest, I am chair of the Jewish Museum in London, and I commend it to your Lordships' House. Please pay it a visit because it is a museum that shows the experience of an immigrant population that came here and subsumed itself in the life of the nation. Indeed, when our patron, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, came to visit us last November, he was met at the door by a group of 30 schoolchildren under 10 singing Hebrew songs, and they were, without exception, Christian and Muslim. I see the museum as a powerful force in order to spread knowledge of each other’s faiths. Every quarter, 100 Met officers who deal with immigrant communities come through. We have visits from many Muslim schools to better understand our faith. As soon as they see what our religion is about, they realise the similarities with their own religion and how similar the concepts are.
The only antidote to prejudice is knowledge and familiarity. I believe that there is an obligation not so much on the Government, although the Government have their role to play, but on each and every one of us as citizens of this country to reach out where we can to immigrants who arrived after us to show the way and to show how to play a part in the full life of this nation. We intend to widen our board to bring in others of different faiths, and although I may have referred mainly to the Muslim community in what I have said today, because that has been the greatest point of tension, I welcome very much those from the Hindu and Sikh communities.
My Lords, my noble friend’s debate begs the question: why do we need interfaith dialogue? After all, no religion preaches hatred of our fellow men. Indeed in ancient times, Rabbi Hillel famously summarised the whole of the Torah with the words,
“What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow men. The rest is but commentary".
This compassion is emphasised across all the major religions, so the answer to my question is that it is not the faiths that need dialogue, but the faithful. It is people.
Like the grandfather of the noble Lord, Lord Young, I came here aged five—yes, from Lithuania. I am ancient enough to remember people being openly anti-Semitic, openly talking about the Jewish conspiracy to gain control of the world by corrupting non-Jewish society. The Council of Christians and Jews recognised that dialogue could help deal with this, and it has been arranging dialogue ever since I can remember. Vatican II was also the result of dialogue. Thankfully, this dialogue has been extended to the shared values which apply to all three Abrahamic faiths.
I do not say that anti-Semitism has entirely gone away. I agree with my noble friend Lord Mitchell: it is much reduced; it is not expressed openly any more. It is sometimes expressed in terms of criticism of Israel and it has also gone on to the internet. What has replaced it is Islamophobia. This is discussed openly. In 1997, the Runnymede Trust coined the expression to capture the already growing animosity towards Muslims. In a way, Islamophobia has replaced anti-Semitism. It is as dangerous to our society and our civilisation now as anti-Semitism was then and it should be fought with equal determination.
How do we fight the ignorance and prejudice of the faithful? We do it with dialogue. The work and initiatives of my noble friend Lord Mitchell’s Coexistence Trust and others is crucial. Then there is the law. As my noble friend has said, we have very powerful laws on the statute book regarding hate crime and they need to be enforced and made more known. We are also a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, which has plenty to say about respecting each other’s faiths and traditions. The faith communities themselves must try to understand their own communities better. I declare an interest as Honorary President of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, which is using the recent census and a parallel survey to better understand the nature of the Jewish community. This work is important because the data can be used to both inform dialogue within faiths and inform interfaith work and policy.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Mitchell that publicly funded faith schools act as a barrier to dialogue and the Government should not encourage them. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Rees, will tell us that science can help. Maybe modern genetic science, modern body chemistry and our better understanding of behaviour can help. Most important is the internet, as a means both of dialogue and of expressing prejudice. The Arab spring and the recent riots have demonstrated what a potent force it is and the power that it gives to the internet generation.
My approach to interfaith dialogue was inspired many years ago by Isaiah Berlin. There are no moral absolutes, he said. There is no absolute mercy, no absolute justice, no absolute compassion. We just have to work it out together—through dialogue.
My Lords, I apologise for being a couple of minutes late to this debate. The Government have a clear responsibility to support greater interfaith dialogue in Britain today. It has never been as critical as it is now to recognise and value the importance of the diversity and richness of a whole variety of cultures which now make up the wonderful tapestry of modern-day Britain.
However, the Government are not the only body to have such responsibilities. Many local authorities are doing splendid work in promoting interfaith dialogue and supporting community-based projects that promote diversity, harmony and mutual respect. Those local authorities need to be encouraged to continue their support for such projects.
However, the Government should pay particular attention to those local authorities which are not doing enough in this regard. We must be careful not to use this debate to place the burden of dialogue solely on faiths associated with settled communities, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism et cetera. This can lead to stigmatism and isolation within what should essentially be an inclusive debate. It is therefore just as important to get Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Methodist and other Christian denominations talking to each other as it is to get Sunni, Shia, Wahhabi and other Muslim groups communicating and promoting understanding.
My home town of Luton often gets headlines for the wrong reasons and ends up getting more than its fair share of negative publicity. At times, it gets branded as a stronghold of the BNP and the English Defence League; at others, as a hot bed of Islamic extremists. These images exist only in the media and are far from reality. I can proudly say that Luton is a shining example of multiculturalism and is able to display some excellent examples of multifaith dialogue and co-operation.
Luton has many multifaith projects which are run by the Luton Council of Faiths. It successfully organises an annual peace walk, where representatives from a variety of faiths walk together from one place of worship to another. It enables people of different faiths to observe the Holocaust memorials together. It holds open days in mosques, churches, Hindu temples and other places of worship so that believers of other faiths can visit and gain knowledge and understanding of each other's faiths. It holds evenings of learning, sacred music events and diversity weeks.
The incredibly hard work of Luton Council of Faiths has been fostered and encouraged in Luton by both Labour and Liberal Democrat administrations in the town hall for the past 20 years. These projects help to promote the whole process of bringing people together from different faiths and cultures and allowing them to appreciate the value of what each other has to offer. Luton Borough Council has also launched the Luton in Harmony initiative, which is a unique campaign to draw diverse communities together to work in partnership and challenge extremism. It is precisely because of the success of this hard work that extremist organisations such as the English Defence League and the British National Party, and Muslim extremist groups such as Al-Muhajiroun, enjoy very little support in the town.
Improving cultural awareness should also be higher up the agenda in schools. Education regarding faith and culture should comprise visits by faith representatives to share their beliefs and practices. In addition, pupils should undertake faith tours, comprising visits to key places of worship.
All initiatives should most definitely be community led and remain completely independent of local and central government control. Anything other than this approach is likely to damage the credibility of faith bodies and will most definitely hinder the great work already being carried out in numerous places across the land.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, for initiating this important and necessary debate. I go back to words said by an expert on the subject 2,600 years ago. His name was Jeremiah and he became known as a prophet of gloom. Were he to return to life today, doubtless he would be an economist. He was the first person to analyse the situation many find themselves in today of being a minority in a culture whose beliefs are not their own.
Jeremiah wrote a letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon in which he said:
“Seek the welfare of the city to which you have gone and pray to God on its behalf, for in its peace and prosperity you will find peace and prosperity”.
He told them in effect: “Maintain your identity while contributing to the common good. Be true to your faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith”. That is the challenge today. The good news about religion is that it creates communities based on altruism and trust. It teaches people to make sacrifices for the sake of others. It builds social capital. The bad news is that every community divides as it unites, because for every “us” there is a “them”—the people not like us.
The best way to improve interfaith dialogue in multicultural Britain is to create a sense of national identity so strong that it brings different ethnic and religious communities together in pursuit of the common good—not just the good for “my” group, but the good for all of us together. A nation should respect its faiths, and faiths should respect the nation. That is the only way we will achieve integrated diversity and the dignity of difference, in which we see our differences as contributions that we bring to the common good.
In yesterday's Times, Daniel Finkelstein wrote a moving tribute to his late father, who came to Britain as a Jewish refugee in World War II. He wrote:
“He lived here proud of the nation that let him live, let him learn, let him teach, let him practise his religion. And ultimately let him die in bed, loved by his family”.
That is what Britain means to us in the Jewish community, and surely to the vast majority in all our faith communities. It is vital that we teach all our children, whether in faith schools or not, to honour this country, respect its traditions, contribute to its welfare and show the same respect to others as we ask others to show to us.
Therefore I have a simple proposal. I believe that all Britain's faith communities should be invited to make a voluntary covenant with Britain articulating our responsibilities to others and to the nation as a whole, so that we can be true to our faith while being a blessing to others regardless of theirs.
My Lords, it is a very great privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, because I think that he has done more than almost anybody to provide us with a vocabulary—a grammar— that commends and communicates the dignity of difference. I know that I speak for many people when I say how grateful we are.
I declare an interest as the president of St Ethelburga's Centre for preventing and transforming those conflicts that have a religious dimension. The centre was established in a church bombed by the IRA—of course there is a conflicted history there—with the support of Cardinal Hume and indeed of the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, who is Chief Rabbi, and various Muslim friends as well. I mention that not just to draw attention to a piece of work that is relevant to the debate initiated—for which we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell—but to acknowledge a recent shift in attitudes that, I am glad to say, has already been reflected in government policy. After the very serious disturbances in the northern cities, the subsequent reports and discussion tended to suggest that religion was a problem and that faith schools were a problem. Of course, faith schools are rather different from the church school that the Chief Rabbi attended. It is a quite different idea. We resent very deeply being lumped into that constituency. However, after the northern cities, there was quite an emphasis on religion as a problem.
What happened at the riots in August? Religious tensions did not play a part. Actually, parishes and religious communities were in the forefront of trying to help. That enormously impressive plea from the father of that young man, with the subsequent prayer meeting, was an example of that. Here is another extraordinary example from Tower Hamlets. Already the provocative demonstration of last weekend has been described. A woman member of the EDL got detached from her company and was assaulted not by someone from a different faith but by a totally apolitical ruffian of the borough. He went for her. She was rescued by stewards of the Muslim forum for Europe, who threw a cordon around her and escorted her politely to the Underground station. It is a wonderful vignette of community relations in Tower Hamlets, which, like Luton, sometimes gets a very bad press.
It seems to me that often we have a suggestion that members of certain faith communities are hostile to what are called western values such as freedom and tolerance. In my experience, it is not so much that there is a hatred of our values, but people are appalled by a vacuum of values and an absence of moral true north of the kind visible on our streets in August. That is where there can be a useful partnership between government and faith communities. It is clearly desirable that there should be religious literacy at all levels of government, not least in local authorities, with the capacity to distinguish self-appointed community leaders from people with real followership and commitment to the common good.
I pay tribute to the work that has already been done by government thinking and planning on social cohesion in this area. I am grateful in particular for the Near Neighbours programme, which recognises the positive capacity of churches, mosques, synagogues, gurdwaras and temples to engage with one another across confessional boundaries, and to build alliances in the interests of the common good. I believe that we are in a new world.
My Lords, first, I thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, on securing this timely debate in view of the challenges that we face—not just in Britain but across the globe. Notwithstanding the hundreds of differences we have between us, people of faith all believe in God, in creation and in the Creator. After all, we belong to the same denomination. We are all God’s creatures. We belong to the same race—the human race. As inhabitants and citizens of the same country, we are mutual neighbours. That applies to all communities.
This requires that we build understanding and friendships with each other based on the purity of heart and sincerity of intentions. We dispose kindly towards one another. In the difficulties pertaining to religious and worldly matters, we should exercise empathy, sympathy and understanding towards one another’s views. After all, a religion which does not inculcate universal compassion is no religion. Similarly, a human being without the faculty of compassion is no human at all. If someone questions the possibility of reaching reconciliation where differences have occurred—indeed, religious differences—because they perceive that it is playing a negative role such as dividing hearts and minds, it can succeed only if it is not based on human values. All religions are based on common, human values. That what binds us is greater than what divides us. It is a danger to our community, to our nation and to the fragmentation of our society if we let those who seek to divide us come forth. Differences can only destroy communities and nations if the process of reconciliation results in some people resorting to insulting and being blasphemous towards the views and religions of others.
Perhaps I may suggest to my noble friend the Minister some practical steps. The Muslim community in which I grew up had a concept of religious founders’ days. A common theme is chosen, such as peace or humanity. All faiths are invited to present. But here comes the special ingredient. The Christian will present the Hindu’s view on peace or humanity. The Muslim will present the Jewish perspective and so on. This does not only broaden horizons among people; it educates and teaches not just tolerance but respect and reverence towards the beliefs of all.
The second element I would suggest to the Minister is this. I had the pleasure of following her as the Conservative Party’s vice-chairman for cities, yet when I travelled the country I saw divisions. Under the guise of inclusion we allowed children to be excluded from schools. A child who did not wish to attend a religious education class was allowed to sit aside, but what kind of inclusion is that? Like many others, I am a product of a Church of England school. I learned the Lord’s Prayer. Did it make me any less of a Muslim? As the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, suggested, not at all—it broadened my understanding and taught me about other faiths and communities and, most importantly, respect for all faiths.
The final component is that we must continue to stand up against extremists of all kinds. We should be intolerant of those who are intolerant towards others. If a person wishes to exclude someone, that is the time to instead exclude them.
In conclusion, I am an optimist but I am not complacent. I defy those who say that problems are caused by faith, which means that communities cannot ever work together. I defy those who say those of faith cannot work with those of no faith—they can and our country is testament to that. Faith matters and religion has the solution to build new communities. I accept that we have challenges but they will be overcome. Those who refute the diversity of strength in our faiths and our communities and indeed our nation should look no further than to your Lordships’ House, which is reflective of the strength and the success of our nation—our country—Britain.
My Lords, I join those who pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Mitchell for having given us the opportunity for this debate.
Globalisation is a tough reality. One of its consequences is a sense of powerlessness among increasing numbers of people who feel marginalised and threatened. We therefore have to be very careful about condemning the concept of multiculturalism. My own conviction, from years of working in this sphere, is that multiculturalism can enable people to find a sense of belonging and significance. The challenge is to lead on from that sense of identity and belonging to the realisation that the problems of the world cannot be solved by individual communities. They can be solved only by co-operation. The challenge, therefore, is not to deny multiculturalism but to lead it into dialogue about the realities of the very difficult complexity of modern society and the need for us all to co-operate.
It has been interesting to note how much common ground there has been in this debate and how clearly the voice of moderation and reason comes across. As an extremely liberal Anglican—I hope the right reverend Prelate will forgive me for the description—I feel strongly that one of the greatest God-given realities is the power of reason and intellect. It is almost sacrilegious to deny the development of reason and intellect. It is by fulfilling that potential for understanding that we can be true to what we see as the foundation of our particular faith. We also have to be careful not to let it become a rather comfortable middle-class prerogative to discuss relationships between different religions.
I was glad yesterday to be at a very special occasion in Portcullis House where there was the launch of a book by a policeman who had worked all his professional life in Special Branch in the realm of community relations. He ended his career very effectively as head of the Muslim relations unit at Scotland Yard, and had done a tremendous amount of community work in Brixton. His name is Bob Lambert. I commend to all Members of the House his book about his life’s experience because one of his most important messages is that we must be careful not to accentuate exclusion by allowing the already privileged and articulate to monopolise the debate. He believes strongly that there is always a need to reach out and bring in to the dialogue people who are extreme in their beliefs. It is important to get to the young who, in their isolation and insecurity, have sought refuge in oversimplified and bigoted interpretations of the faith they claim. Bob Lambert has devoted his professional life to doing this and now he has written about it. He is currently involved in immensely important work at both Exeter and St Andrews universities. We need to listen to that kind of experience.
I end by saying that, for me, truth is something for which we are all searching. We have chosen different routes, but whatever route we take, we must always remember that other people in all sincerity have picked other routes. It is by working and talking together that ultimately we will reach an understanding of the truth.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Mitchell on this timely and useful debate. As the threats to our daily lives have increased, many of us have sought to understand the message of faiths other than our own. Many eyes have turned in the direction of Islam from whose corner a spate of tragic events has emerged. I make this statement with the declaration of being a Muslim myself. Therefore, in looking at Islam through its main reference source, the holy Koran, we see a religion completely at odds with the actions of the perpetrators of the vile acts of violence and terrorism committed in its name.
The holy book of the Muslims begins with the concept of God as not hurting, harming or cruel, but as beneficent and merciful. It talks of Islam as a religion of peace and not war, for every time a Muslim takes the name of the holy prophet Mohammed, he adds the words “peace be upon him”. The Koran also instructs the believer to be tolerant and compassionate, and to extend a helping hand to the sick and infirm. It commands the pursuit of knowledge, with respect for scholars, women and minorities in any land. The Koran also instructs Muslims to respect other faiths and to live with them as good neighbours in peaceful coexistence. Therefore, strapping oneself with explosives to kill others in an act of suicide in search of martyrdom is totally un-Islamic and against the instructions of the Koran, the holy book that all Muslims must obey.
We have here in the United Kingdom a multi-religious and a mult-ethnic society. Here, dialogue is the only way forward in addressing our differences. We ought to celebrate our commonality and discuss our differences based on mutual respect and trust in each other. It is imperative that we engage together in a continuing dialogue. This dialogue is no longer a luxury of a few well-meaning individuals, it has become a necessity demanding action, without which only catastrophe stares us in the face.
The word “phobia” in the Oxford English Dictionary is described as an extreme and irrational fear or dislike of a specified thing. Thus noble Lords may have heard the term “Islamophobia” being bandied about against Islam, leading to prejudice and a generalised hatred or fear of Islam and its followers. The media around the world have to bear a share of blame for drip-feeding into the minds of readers of newspapers and journals and television viewers regular doses of anti-Muslim material, not to provide factual reporting but to create public excitement and sensationalism to enhance the number of their readers and viewers. The widespread damage that this does to society at large is incalculable. The resultant pressure on Muslim families leads to anger, confusion and frustration at the resulting acts of violence. God’s vision of a just and compassionate human society remains unfulfilled. This in turn leads impressionable young men, low in self esteem, frustrated with unemployment and ostracised by society, to become the best recruiting grounds for the sergeant-majors of terrorism.
We should agree to a broad consensus for more engagement between different cultures and faiths through dialogue. This would be a body blow to extremists. My Lords, your participation and goodwill would be of enormous value to all of us in this task ahead.
My Lords, I was brought up in Uganda, where there were people of different racial and religious backgrounds. I learnt to speak several languages and developed an understanding of, as well as respect for, all religions. I am a patron of several organisations which include Muslims as well as groups of other religions.
I believe that there are more similarities than differences between people and we should highlight similarities in order to establish closer links between communities. I feel that the lack of understanding leads to suspicions and divisions between people. Islam teaches us to celebrate the difference and diversity that God has created in our world. Despite the image portrayed in some parts of the media, Islam has a long and proud history of tolerance of and respect for people of all faiths.
Islam is one of the Abrahamic religions and, according to Islam, people of the book are Muslims, Jews and Christians. The books of Allah are the holy Koran, the Torah, the Gospel of Jesus and the Psalms of David. I may add that in the holy Koran there is a whole chapter on Mary, the mother of Jesus. There are a number of similarities between Sikhism and Islam, and I would like to state that the foundation stone of the golden temple was laid by Mian Mir, a Muslim holy person.
I am chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum and membership of the forum is open to everyone. At all our meetings, we invite persons of all faiths and racial origins. Our guests include members as well as non-members of the Conservative Party. The Conservative Muslim Forum is an active organisation and a substantial part of the work that we do is promoting harmony among various racial and religious groups.
We recently held a meeting at which the two main speakers were an Arab lady and a Jewish lady, both of whom talked about peace between people. The Arab lady was from Gaza and had lost several members of her family during the fighting in Gaza following the Israeli invasion. A book has been published which highlights cases where Muslims saved Jews from the atrocities of the Nazis in the Holocaust. I am in fact launching this book in the House of Lords next week.
Unfortunately, there is a demonisation of Islam in certain quarters, and it is important that the media act in a responsible manner in this regard and avoid use of inflammatory language. In regard to suicide bombings, Islam forbids suicide. In the holy Koran it is written that,
“whoever kills a human being … it as though he has killed all mankind, and whoever saves a human life, it is as though he saved all mankind”.
This saying is similar to what is written in the Talmud, where it is written,
“if you save one life, it is as if you have saved the world”.
I am proud that this country has a longstanding respect for pluralism and tolerance, grounded in a firm respect for liberty. I am also pleased that we seem to have moved away from the concept of what was termed “state multi-culturalism”, whereby the Government decided what was good, and sought to impose their vision. That resulted in an unhealthy degree of intolerance in the name of tolerance: what we should be seeking to build is dialogue and understanding, not an imposed vision decided by Ministers. The best way to challenge extremism is to promote integration and cohesion. That is not something that Ministers or Parliament can impose from Whitehall or Westminster.
In his speech in Munich, I believe the Prime Minister was right to focus on eradicating the things that tear us apart. Separation can lead to extremism, and extremism can be a very unpleasant spectacle. That means that we need to focus on what brings us together, rather than obsessing about what makes us different. We need therefore to talk about integration, which was the real message underpinning the Prime Minister’s speech in Munich.
Finally, I am looking forward to receiving my noble friend the Minister’s comments as to the initiatives the Government will implement in strengthening interfaith dialogue.
My Lords, an increasing number of people are now describing themselves as spiritual, but not necessarily religious. They are able to see the spirituality in all faiths, and in the traditions of the East, and in the new scientific models of the universe. This new cultural approach is welcoming of diversity, inclusive and holistic.
In the past year I have witnessed this at a meditation of thousands of people with Deepak Chopra, in Alternatives in Piccadilly; at the wedding of my niece, Becky Cantor, at Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in the UK; and at the ordination of a multi-faith minister, David Wetton, at the Second Church of Christ. Only last month, for three days, at the Global Retreat Centre of the Brahma Kumaris, I met with 30 experts from 18 different countries—swamis, rabbis, Muslim Sufis, Archbishops, Buddhists and, of course, several Hindu and Brahma Kumari. In a session with Sister Jayanti and Marcus Braybrooke, the president of the World Congress of Faiths, we discussed how to integrate spirituality into our life and work. The major faiths, with differing road maps, all want to instil the qualities of love and compassion, and much interfaith dialogue consists of comparing those road maps. We discussed whether interfaith dialogue could actually lead to something more binding, that is, inter-spirituality.
At this point, I must declare an interest: I have been working with a group for over two years, planning to build and develop “Space to Contemplate” in Britain. This will be a visitor centre, as big as the Tate Modern, where people of any faith, or none, can enter a variety of carefully built rooms, to express the essence of spiritual existence. We intend to trigger for people a brief encounter with what we might call the numinous, or the divine, or the universal force. It will offer a selection of methods learned from human traditions going back thousands of years, through the Abrahamic faiths, the pre-monotheistic traditions, the philosophies of the East, and secular sciences, art and music. The project is a work in progress, and next weekend over 40 experts and practitioners from all over the world are gathering for three days in Oxford to discuss the concept. Those involved believe that such a facility is a key ingredient for building communities, and, in doing so, it will enhance our social capital. It will open up the experience of spirituality to tens of thousands of individuals, young and old, from all walks of life. Cumulatively, it will change people’s perception, and thence, perhaps, help them to choose to live lives that are of service.
I would suggest to the Minister that the Government do have a huge part to play here, as this is so important to civil society. I suggest that, in those areas where I have some little experience, the Government should continue to develop mindful strategies. For example, with regard to education, humans are known to have a rudimentary moral sense from the very early start of life. We must develop this using methods whereby children as young as eight, university students certainly, and people in lifelong learning, can absorb knowledge not only from a physical and intellectual level, but also from experiencing a different type of awareness and consciousness, connecting humanity to the whole universe and thus bringing to the fore values of how we think, speak and act.
On health and well-being, I am pleased that within our health service we are beginning to focus, with the help of a charity I chair, Healthtalkonline, on the whole patient and their experience as a human being. Meanwhile, in the creative industries the Government should support those innovative centres such as Imperial College and the Royal College of Art that have together formed Design London, recognising that there is huge potential in tapping into the inspiration where science, art and consciousness come together in a broader awareness. Finally, on conflict and its avoidance and resolution, both at home and abroad multicultural and interfaith dialogue can bring people together in deeper, more sympathetic understanding. Also, when we have to go to war to defend those principles, even that can be done mindfully.
In conclusion, I suggest that while interfaith dialogue is important we should all support the millions of open-hearted people—and their projects—who recognise that at the core of all religions and within the new, scientific understanding of the universe there is a common experience of the sheer wonder, energy and mystery of existence and its interconnectedness. It is this that holds us together in the diverse fabric of life. Thank you, and Om Shanti.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, for this debate and I very much appreciated what other noble Lords have said. I have been involved in interfaith work for some 40 years now and have been hugely enriched by that experience. In this short debate, I want to approach the subject in a slightly oblique way. My starting point is the positive attitude by both the previous Government and this present one to faith communities. I very much want to affirm that stance and outline why it is of such importance at present.
Michael Sandel, in his Reith lectures and writings, has shown decisively that the combination of social and market liberalism which has dominated the West in recent decades, if taken by itself, totally fails to reflect our deepest convictions as human beings. Furthermore, a number of secular academic thinkers such as the late Tony Judt have argued passionately for a much stronger ethical framework for our economic, political and social life. More than this, the distinguished German sociologist Jürgen Habermas entitled a recent book An Awareness of What is Missing. In this, he argued that all our most fundamental concepts such as community, person, and solidarity are rooted in religion and, more than this, he refers to what he calls “the unexhausted force” of religion to continue to nourish and help shape the values and life of our society.
In drawing attention to this, I do not want in any way to underplay the contribution of secular thinkers to our society or ignore the huge contribution to the common good made by people who have no religious faith. I do not think that religious bodies have any claim to the high moral ground; indeed, as we all know, their record is a mixed one. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore a range of distinguished secular thinkers, with no religious axe to grind, who are worried not just about the actual state of our society but about the total lack of a coherent and consistent overriding moral framework for it. Seamus Heaney, the Nobel prize-winning poet, wrote that he thought that our society was running on an unconscious provided by religion. He went on to say that he thought his grandchildren would not have that.
We have already heard of the deeply moving attitude of Mr Tariq Jahan after the death of his son in the riots in Birmingham. It has been pointed out to us that this was not an isolated reaction. In Southall, I understand that the Sikhs and Muslims guarded each others’ place of worship at times of prayer during the riots. If religion sometimes leads people to take up extreme attitudes, infinitely more it motivates ordinary people to live out their highest ideals, sometimes with great courage. It might interest noble Lords that Mr Tariq Jahan has already indicated his intention of coming to speak under the auspices of the All-Party Interfaith Group, which I have the privilege of chairing, to talk about constructive reactions to the riots—as has a reading Sikh.
In contributing to this debate, I want to emphasise not just what the Government can do in relation to interfaith dialogue but their whole stance towards faith communities in every aspect of government policy.
The fact is that there is a huge amount of interfaith dialogue going on at every level from universities to neighbours in streets. However, this is only one aspect of what faith communities do. It is the attitude of the Government, not least in education, that is so important. There are a number of strident secular voices in our society that like to erase religion from life altogether and banish it from the public sphere. Therefore, we cannot take the positive attitude of the Government for granted. We should very much welcome it. I particularly look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in particular in relation to interfaith work.
I, too, would like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, for instigating today’s debate. I apologise in case I missed the first few seconds of the opening remarks. It is not always easy to discuss or defend faith in modern Britain. I can understand why individuals or particularly the Government decide not to “do God”, as the previous Prime Minister put it. I am often concerned that we do not have a suitable platform on which to discuss faith in this country. Too often we are scared to discuss faith for fear of offence or because we do not understand things. This is not helped by a media that are often very negative to faith and the positive roles that faith can play.
However, for those of us who believe in faith and know what identity and strength faith can provide, avoiding these discussions would be a great injustice for society, and so I fully welcome today’s debate. As a proud Hindu who attended Catholic school in Uganda, I always consider it a great honour to sit on these Benches and attend the daily prayers. Faith is a great inspiration to me. We are very fortunate to debate in a House that praises God at the beginning of every day. I find our prayers energising, and a great inspiration for the day ahead.
Interfaith dialogue and co-operation is an essential part of building real communities. We should not isolate ourselves and build barriers through religion. However, to prevent these barriers arising, it is essential that all of us, including the Government, engage openly in discussions of faith. We cannot rely on the Government alone. Interfaith dialogue can be truly successful only at a grassroots level. I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, who said in a recent article that we need more faith leaders and faith communities not just to stand up and speak out in defence of faith, but to explain it properly as well.
For interfaith dialogue to succeed, faith leaders need to explain their religion in a way that people of all faiths, and of no faith, can understand. I firmly believe that many, if not most, religions share similar values at their core, yet people of faith still feel distant from one another. We in the Hindu community have been very lucky to receive excellent guidance in the past from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. I have always believed that no faith has a monopoly on the truth and that, when we respect other faiths, we are in fact showing respect to our own faith, which teaches us to respect other faiths. Through respect, love, compassion and dialogue, we can all become more enlightened through each other’s faiths.
I am encouraged by the approach that our Government have taken to faith and in promoting interfaith dialogue. Faith groups are now treated with respect. Their work is welcomed. How many of us have seen churches or faith groups working in their community to help people who others have abandoned? This Government have been quick to identify the positive work of faith groups in communities, particularly in school and charitable work. I support the Government’s more open stance to suitable faiths and faith groups; their inclusion makes us a stronger and better society.
However, the Government have also been clear that our faith is subordinate to our nationality, our common values and the law and that extremists of any religion must not be tolerated. Faith groups, or faith communities, that wish to work with, live in or rely on the British state must also respect core British values—values that are envied around the world. I was proud to be an instigator of the Hindu Forum of Britain, adopting the slogan “Proud to be British, proud to be Hindu”. It is a phrase that I believe strongly echoes the position that the Government are moving towards and must continue to support.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Mitchell for initiating this important short debate. It is even more pertinent given that we are approaching the anniversary of 9/11. That should focus all our minds on the central importance of mutual understanding and tolerance. I am honoured to be a trustee of the Coexistence Trust. My noble friend has said much about that trust. There is a long and proud tradition in this country of interfaith dialogue and co-operation. The previous Government sought to build on this in the excellent report, Face to Face and Side by Side, with its focus on partnership working in a multifaith society. The report primarily concerns how faith communities, government and wider societies can work together. It was a bold initiative from a Government.
Dialogue means talking to one another and to do that we must have a shared language. Yet it is sadly still the case that many imams in mosques around the country do not speak English. As a Muslim, I encourage trustees of mosques who bring in imams from overseas to make sure that they can speak English and know the traditions of our country. I would like to see more young Muslims, especially young Muslim girls, taking their place alongside young people from other faiths in promoting interfaith dialogue and collaboration.
Islam teaches peace, affection and brotherhood. We can all learn from each other. With free and open dialogue we will reach greater understanding and tolerance. I hope the Minister agrees that that is an important issue which needs to be addressed. For my part, my foundation has provided substantial funding to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, especially to train local imams to promote the scholarly study of Islam in contemporary Muslim societies. It is also important to acknowledge that there are some excellent British imams and mosques undertaking tremendous work to break down barriers, and who use their influence to promote dialogue and understanding. We must stand up to the extremists and pedlars of rubbish and discontent. The Government must be strong in their opposition and not mollycoddle the uneducated, imported priests who are doing the damage.
A truly religious person who believes in divine justice will not be unjust to others. We must work towards justice for all. In that context we must understand the problem of Palestine and work towards implementing a just solution. Real or perceived injustice is one of the main causes of extremism. Extremism feeds on prejudice. This must be countered by a commitment to the truth—truth about oneself and one’s relations with others. Extremism thrives where there is an absence of knowledge and reasoning. Respectful public debate about the truth of religious claims would be one of the best antidotes to religiously motivated violence. At the same time we must reject disrespect of any religious symbols. In this country we have taken a stand against dictators and tyrants at great personal cost. Extremism thrives when people do not have legitimate ways of expressing their individuality, unique perspective and common grievances. However, I remind every Muslim that the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, said that whichever country you go to and whichever country you live in, you should be loyal to that country.
I hope that through debates such as this we can keep alive the idea that it is not just religious leaders who need to be engaged in interfaith dialogue; it is also crucial to have government, politicians, parents and young people involved in this work. That is the true meaning of interfaith dialogue partnership. I am sure that the Minister will respond positively to this call for more action.
My Lords, speakers in this debate have focused on the crucial need for dialogue among the different faith traditions but we are an increasingly secular nation. I speak as an unbeliever but one who has been nourished by the cultural, musical and liturgical traditions of the English Church in which I was brought up. Many Jews sustain their Friday ritual in their homes, even though they describe themselves as atheists. By analogy I am a tribal Christian, practising but not believing.
I speak today because I am concerned about a troubling trend spearheaded by some scientists—vocal intolerance of those who profess any faith. This kind of stand-off between science on the one hand and faith in general on the other is harmful to both. Science should be a unifying force. It pervades all our lives and it is a truly global culture. Protons, proteins and Pythagoras are the same from China to Peru. The pursuit of scientific understanding straddles all barriers of nationality and faith. We can all share the wonder and mystery of the natural world.
Charles Darwin said about religion that,
“the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can”.
That is, of course, a glaringly different stance from that adopted by some of Darwinism’s most strident proponents today.
Of course, we should all oppose the teachings of views manifestly in conflict with the evidence, such as creationism. But we can aspire to peaceful coexistence with the less dogmatic strands of mainstream faiths. Indeed, many researchers and teachers of science are religious. They have no problems with Darwinism; they can study cosmology and at the same time proclaim that the,
“heavens declare the glory of God”.
Indeed, I think that it is teachers with faith who can be most effective in defending evolutionary science against attempts to inject creationism and intelligent design into the school science curriculum. A less conciliatory approach can backfire. If scientists take the uncompromising line that Darwinism is incompatible with any belief, many young people raised in a faith-based culture will stay loyal to their religion and be lost, quite unnecessarily, to science.
This stand-off is counterproductive for another reason. Extremist zealots imperil us all, whether they are traditional fundamentalists or new-age cults, and we need the broadest alliance we can muster against them. That alliance should surely include the adherence of most mainstream faiths that support science and who are equally anxious about extremism. Indeed, we are fortunate in this nation’s current religious leaders who all elevate the tone of public debate. Their role is crucial. Society must be guided by the knowledge that 21st-century science can offer, but even a secular society needs the idealism, vision and commitment that science alone cannot provide.
My Lords, this has been a very fine debate thanks to the Motion tabled by my noble friend Lord Mitchell, and the wealth of experience in this Chamber. In this House we are fortunate to have noble Lords of so many faiths, and none. Shortly we will have a new colleague who is a Sikh and I am sure that we all celebrate that.
Interfaith dialogue and action have taken place for many centuries—indeed, millennia, as the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, informed us. I mention Emperor Akbar the Great who encouraged tolerance in Mughal India which was, and is, a hugely diverse nation. Acts of violence, including wars, have also taken place over the centuries in the name of religion. The need for interfaith action and dialogue continues. I suggest that in our globalised world, more and more people migrate for economic and social reasons, and for security when their own states become fragile, and that need will increase. Indeed, when one considers poor harvests, escalating water shortages, and the effects of climate change, especially in coastal areas, there are bound to be more tensions in our world, more migration and more diversity in our societies. As a result, the mutual understanding and tolerance that come from interfaith dialogue grow more and more significant. As we have heard this afternoon, interfaith is not just about religion; it is about building bridges within and between diverse communities; it is about health, education, poverty, hunger, and so many other things; it is about action. As Gandhi said,
“What is faith if it is not translated into action?”.
We have heard some superb examples this afternoon of interfaith dialogue leading to action and to real change in people’s lives. Thanks to a conversation with the former Bishop of Coventry some years ago, I learnt of the interfaith work that they have nurtured in Kaduna, Nigeria. I visited both Christians and Muslims in that area, and learnt that lives have been saved there thanks to the interfaith dialogue that has taken place. Only a couple of months ago I was in Bradford with the Muslim Women’s Council, a feisty bunch of confident women who I am sure are well known to the Minister. They are leaders in their community, and some are actively engaged in interfaith dialogue. I say to my noble friend that they certainly are encouraging young girls to engage in dialogue with people of other religions.
I was much taken by the Coexistence Trust mentioned by my noble friend who chairs it and by so many others. I am delighted that it is being encouraged by the FCO and the British Council to set up a trust in the United States, and I wish it well. I hope that it is asked to take root in other countries. As an aside, I have to say that I have concerns about some religious schools. Like my noble friend, I wonder how closed institutions that educate children of one faith only can contribute to combating ignorance and lead to a more tolerant society in which the traditions of this country are honoured and respected.
President Kennedy said:
“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s one beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others”.
Tolerance is at the heart of our debate this afternoon. I hope that our society is becoming more tolerant, including of science. A recent poll said that 88 per cent of people of faith supported the previous Government making incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation unlawful. I think that is a great way forward. I am proud to live in a country where, for the vast majority of the time, we celebrate our communality and respect our differences.
We live in a richly diverse and multicultural society that we celebrate, but we live in difficult, often divisive, times. For many reasons, our communities are sometimes fractured and people feel insecure and burdened. The values that underpin our society sometimes feel more fragile than they should, and some citizens, of all religions and origins, feel that the cultural and religious values that they cherish are under threat.
I agree with the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, that the liberal, unregulated market economy that we have been living with has failed us, and that we need to build a more ethical framework for our future. I think that interfaith dialogue can help us in that. As has been said, interfaith dialogue nurtures understanding, promotes tolerance, and fosters our confidence to be proud of who and what we are in a diverse society. It contributes to the common good, but it must be inclusive. Therefore, interfaith dialogue is and must be one of the means by which our communities are strengthened in our increasingly complex world.
My Lords, I begin by paying tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, not only for initiating this important debate but also for the work of the Coexistence Trust which he chairs with such energy. I have worked with the noble Lord for a number of years and have seen first hand the good work he does in promoting understanding between followers of the Islamic and Jewish faiths, especially among the young. He has an amazing ability to speak frankly and robustly, and with a genuine, deep understanding.
In September last year, I made a speech about faith at the Anglican Bishops’ Conference in Oxford. I believe that it was the first time a Cabinet Minister had spoken so frankly about faith for many years. I said that this Government would “do God”. I thought long and hard before I said what I did. As my noble friend Lord Popat said, it is not always easy to speak openly about faith. I tried to make an evidential case for faith in our country and stated that, contrary to popular belief, it is certainly not fading away. I explained that faith inspires many people to do good works and gives rise to huge numbers of personal kindnesses and other civic contributions. Faith shapes beliefs and behaviour, offers a sense of purpose and, ultimately, helps build a bigger and more just society in the positive ways referred to by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries of Pentregarth. I announced that the aim of this Government was to help rather than hinder faith communities in the good works they did. Looking back, I believe the impact of the speech was positive. Again today, I welcome the positive remarks about the Government made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. The main thing that I discovered by making the speech was that there is a large, untapped appetite for a more mature discussion of faith in our country. It was important to take stock of where Britain was with faith.
This brings me to the topic of this evening’s debate: interfaith dialogue, collaboration and activity. Interfaith dialogue helps raise the standard of all faith-based debate in our country. The UK is home not just to Christianity but also to a host of the world's great religions and faiths: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and many more. Britain's faith communities come from a huge range of different ethnic backgrounds and religious traditions, and this gives our country strength. I profoundly believe that there is far more that unites faith communities than divides them: common bonds that should be the basis for better understanding. This sentiment was put far more intellectually by the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that we must not accentuate exclusion but seek to be more inclusive.
Despite what we may read in the papers or see on our television screens, we know that the vast majority get on and live together as peaceful neighbours. We must recognise and pay tribute to the role of the established church and its Christian values in making Britain a welcoming and tolerant society—and all noble Lords know the value of having bishops in the House. The church has always been at the forefront of providing support to our communities, both established and newly arrived. There are many excellent examples of Britain's strong tradition of good neighbourly relations and our strong record of harmony within and between faith communities.
This brings me to the point raised by my noble friends Lord Young of Graffham and Lord Hussain about the work of faith communities. Faith communities make a vital contribution to national life and have done for centuries: guiding the moral outlook of many, inspiring great numbers of people to public service and providing help to those in need, as well as providing much needed knowledge about their own faiths. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the tremendous work that my noble friend Lord Hussain continues to do in very difficult circumstances in Luton. I know from my own visits how difficult Luton can be.
Faith is not just a belief or a theory: it is about how we live, how we shape our lives and how we work together to serve those in need. Across the country people from different faiths are working hard together in countless churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras, synagogues, charities and community groups. They are inspired by their faith to address often the most deep-seated problems in their local communities. Unfortunately, in the past, this has not been sufficiently recognised by Governments of all colours.
I have worked with the Church of England for a number of years and I am constantly amazed by the work that it does throughout the country; for example, by providing education, supporting the homeless and helping those recovering from the problems of drug abuse and other addictions. Through the Government’s £5 million investment in the Church Urban Fund's Near Neighbours programme, we are putting our money where our mouth is—not through a top-down intervention but by using the existing infrastructure of the Church of England to build productive local relationships between people of different faiths in four key geographical target areas. People of any religious background will be able to bid for that fund through their local Anglican parish, to run projects that improve their local neighbourhoods with people from all faiths working alongside each other. The programme is an excellent example of partnership working.
I come to the point raised by my noble friends Lord Sheikh and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, and by the noble Lord, Lord Noon, about interfaith dialogue. There is a great deal of work going on locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. Some projects are supported by central government, some by local government and some by faith communities themselves. There are 25 national interfaith bodies, such as the Joseph Interfaith Foundation, the Christian Muslim Forum, the Inter-faith Council for Wales and many others, which exist to promote interfaith engagement.
I note with interest my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon’s comments on the Lord’s Prayer. My daughter has her own version; she says that she ends her Lord’s Prayer by saying “Ameen” and thereby makes it her own.
The noble Lord, Lord Hameed, spoke about interfaith dialogue being a necessity in today’s times and I agree with him. He will be pleased to know that local interfaith groups have grown significantly over the last few years. There are currently more than 220 local interfaith bodies in the UK as well as 15 regional ones. There is also an increasing number of interfaith groups in schools, colleges and universities, and seven educational and academic institutions now exist with a particular focus on interfaith issues. Our country is a world leader in interfaith activity; indeed, our officials working in this area have often been approached by other countries to ask how we do it.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of the alleged negative effect of faith schools on integration. This Government greatly value the contribution that faith schools make to the education sector by providing high-quality school places and choice for parents. Faith schools have been and remain an important element of that provision and this Government remain committed in our support for that. We do not accept that faith schools are divisive and promote segregation. They are no less committed to community cohesion than other schools. What matters is not the school one attends, but the understanding taught in these schools, as was so beautifully put by the noble Lord, Lord Sacks. I also note with interest his idea of a covenant of Britain. I would welcome a further discussion with him as to what role government can play.
I also note and welcome the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and his concerns about the rising level of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hatred, issues that I raised earlier this year myself. The Government are doing much to support interfaith work and interfaith activity, whether that is interfaith dialogue; a continuation of support for the Inter Faith Network, despite the current economic climate; or the further support for Inter Faith Week, when, last year, 435 separate events were hosted around the country, including many supported by government. This year, Inter Faith Week will take place between 20 and 26 November. We are continuing to support the Near Neighbours programme, which I have mentioned, and, of course, there was a clear interfaith element to the papal visit of last year. I take on the further suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Stone of Blackheath.
I welcome the way that this debate has been conducted, especially by the Benches opposite. In conclusion, interfaith work has been going on for a long time, but it needs to be more meaningful and more practical. Of course religious leaders have spoken to each other for many centuries but, interestingly, it occasionally appears to be dialogue around my understanding of your version of your god, and your understanding of my version of my god. It has to be much more meaningful than that; there has to be respect for my understanding of your god in the way that you view your god. And it has to go beyond religious leaders; congregations must actually work together, not just in interfaith dialogue, but in interfaith activity; congregations must get together and do meaningful activity within their communities, because the best way to understand a person is to work with them, to eat with them, to create a friendship. The noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, will remember that we spoke some time ago about the challenge to the Coexistence Trust and to many interfaith bodies in going beyond what I used to define as “samosa and chai parties” into more meaningful interaction. I am delighted with the work that the Coexistence Trust has continued to do in light of those discussions.
I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that the Government have taken a very clear stance in relation to faith, the importance of faith, the importance of faith in the public sphere and our support for interfaith activity and dialogue.
Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill
Returned from the Commons
The Bill was returned from the Commons with an amendment. It was ordered that the Commons amendment be printed.
House adjourned at 6.15 pm.