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Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

Volume 731: debated on Monday 17 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what they hope to see achieved at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth.

My Lords, we believe that the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Australia, could and should be a significant moment for the future of the Commonwealth. The modernisation of the Commonwealth, based on Heads of Government agreeing the Eminent Persons Group core recommendations, is our priority. A reinvigorated Commonwealth with increased trade and investment flows is good for all its members and can help uplift prosperity levels for all its 2 billion citizens.

I thank my noble friend for that positive response and I am sure we all wish the Commonwealth Heads of Government a successful conference at the end of the month. My noble friend will be aware that the UK Government have led the way in the polio eradication programme and that earlier this year the Prime Minister announced a doubling of the funding for it, which will lead to an additional 45 million children being vaccinated over the next two years. Can my noble friend confirm that, while he is in Australia, polio eradication will be on the agenda and that he and his colleagues will encourage other Governments, notably the Australians, to be similarly generous in their approach?

I can confirm that that will be on the agenda and that the Australian Government, the hosts for this Heads of Government meeting, have taken a lead in proposing it. It will certainly gain discussion and, I hope, intensive development and improvement at the CHOGM.

My Lords, with 100 days to go, the noble Lord said that he thought it would be a vital meeting for the relaunch of the Commonwealth, and with 50 days to go, on 9 September, he said that it would be a “defining moment” for the Commonwealth with “bold and vital decisions”. Can the noble Lord be somewhat more specific today? What are the two most important decisions that could be taken and how confident is he that the preparatory work means that they will see the light of day?

I certainly could be a lot more specific if I had more time because an enormous number of important objectives will be pursued. Among them, as I have already indicated, we are keen that the upholding of the Commonwealth core values of human rights, good governance, the rule of law, democracy and parliamentary development should be pushed very hard indeed, and that new machinery may be needed in the Commonwealth to do that. I do not guarantee that all these things will be accepted exactly as they are proposed by the Eminent Persons Group or the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which is proposing similar ideas, but these matters will be pushed extremely hard and are a very high priority for Her Majesty’s Government.

Does my noble friend agree with the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, which I understand shares the view that the current failings of the Commonwealth Secretariat are the result of long-term underinvestment over many years, and that one of the ways forward is to enable it, through better funding, to recruit more capable and perhaps well recognised staff to undertake the functions better? In that context, can my noble friend tell us whether the Government will endorse the report of the Eminent Persons Group and support the range of essential recommendations? He has already mentioned human rights, but there are many other important issues, particularly the publishing of the group’s report.

My noble friend is right. There are 106 recommendations in the EPG report and many more in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group report. There are funding implications for the Secretariat and for the machinery of the Commonwealth, and we are looking at those very carefully. We will have to evaluate them and decide what we can do, given the inevitable limits of resources. One also has to remember that a large part of the Commonwealth is both bilateral between Commonwealth countries and, even more important, separate from government. The unique nature of the Commonwealth is its huge latticework of professional, business, scientific, medical and judicial relationships that exist in no other multinational organisation. Those, too, will need to be developed and encouraged.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that bilateral relations between India and Pakistan have been frozen into almost Cold War attitudes ever since those nations came into being? Would the Perth meeting not be a very good opportunity for getting them to thaw out a little?

One naturally hopes and, indeed, urges that the Commonwealth can provide an envelope in which to resolve tensions of that kind between countries which, although fellow members of the Commonwealth, may have very different agendas—indeed, even hostility to each other—but that issue is obviously between the two countries concerned. Their highest representatives will be at Perth; I hope that they can get together at that and other opportunities to resolve the problems that face those two great nations.

My Lords, the Perth CHOGM may be make or break for the Commonwealth, which is currently marking time. Two key tests are the strengthening of the Secretariat—are the Government prepared to fund the Secretariat more generously?—and human rights. Will the proposed commissioner be independent of the Commonwealth Governments and not beholden to them as the European High Commissioner for Human Rights is to European Governments?

Yes; these matters are yet to be decided, but the recommendation is that he or she should be independent. I do not agree with the noble Lord that this is make or break; there are huge forces at work which are creating demand for the kind of network which the Commonwealth produces today, both at governmental and non-governmental level, and that will go ahead regardless of what final decisions are taken between Governments. When we are dealing with a global network of this kind, Governments cannot always decide everything by their own writ, so the great forces at work mean that the Commonwealth is a very necessary network for the 21st century. I would even go as far as to say that if it did not exist it would have to be invented. I have already acknowledged that there are funding implications; we will look at these carefully. Not everything is solved by more and more secretariats and central organisation, as we well know from our European Union experience, but funds will certainly be needed to make this whole programme go forward successfully.

Will the Minister accept from me first-hand, as I have just come back from Australia, that it is very much looking forward to the meeting, largely because its people all love the Queen very much, and her role as Head of the Commonwealth is particularly important? I did not meet anyone who was so excited about the Minister’s own visit.

My noble friend is absolutely right that the position of Her Majesty at the Head of the Commonwealth is an immensely valuable binding force and, in the dark days of the past when the Commonwealth was grossly undervalued and its potential ignored, it was Her Majesty who kept the lights burning for the Commonwealth. Of course, Australia sees this as a huge opportunity to assert its rising role in the world and its key position in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which are becoming the centres of great consumer markets of the future and the centres of our future prosperity.