Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the future of the Commonwealth, in the light of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka in November.
My Lords, the timings on this debate are very short indeed. Noble Lords have only four minutes, and I remind them that when the clock says,“4” their time is up.
In just a month’s time the leaders of 53 Commonwealth countries will meet in Sri Lanka. It is an opportunity which Commonwealth Governments must take to add value and momentum to this very special group of nations. It is a British interest to strengthen ties with the Commonwealth and an opportunity for this Parliament to influence progress. I am grateful to all noble Lords who are taking part in this debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Despite centuries of human achievement, we still see endless conflict, death and cruelty, starvation and poverty in so many parts of the world. Yet we in Britain are fortunate to be equal members of a unique group of nations which covers one-fifth of the land of this world and includes more than 2 billion people. It embraces a complete cross-section of the globe, from the Pacific to Africa to the Caribbean, big states such as India and small states such as Trinidad, rich and poor, following many religions and beliefs. We share a common history stemming from our empire, a common language and shared aspirations for good governance, the rule of law, respect for human rights and increased prosperity. Many of us in this Chamber have witnessed in our lifetime the transition from empire to this Commonwealth of equal nations.
Throughout the Commonwealth’s history the Queen has given us the inspiration and the ability to stick together through numerous crises, from apartheid to Rhodesia. During her reign she has made 150 Commonwealth visits. Indeed, she has been the unifying figure of the Commonwealth. The new Diamond Jubilee Trust recognises her special role. We could not invent the Commonwealth today. It stems from our shared history and experience. At its heart is contact between people as much as contact between Governments—links which cover every facet of our lives. The 750,000 Commonwealth immigrants who arrived in this country between 1950 and 1960 symbolised the end of empire and are now an integrated part of our lives in Britain. This Commonwealth migration applies to many other countries as well. Furthermore, the links that have been forged by more than 90 Commonwealth professional bodies cover every aspect of life, from medicine and universities to forestry and the media. Many other noble Lords will demonstrate today as wide a range of Commonwealth links and interests as I have.
All this gives us an opportunity which we either discard or seize—the opportunity to use this organisation to improve the quality of life for all of us, if it is grasped more fully by people and Governments. The British Empire has long since gone but we can still punch above our weight. For example, soft diplomacy is becoming increasingly important. Modern technology gives us the means to use this vast network to our mutual benefit. The Commonwealth is unique. Membership is not a substitute, but complements our membership of NATO, the European Union, or our natural relationship with the United States. Because it is so comprehensive in its range, the Commonwealth does not create a day-to-day impact on people’s lives or headlines in the media, unless there is a crisis, but its significance should not be underestimated.
The main purpose of this debate is to explore how we can all achieve added value from our membership and strengthen the Commonwealth to benefit all members. Let me comment first on intergovernmental co-operation and then people-to-people contact. First, we need to face up to the significance of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka in November. Together with Gambia’s recent withdrawal, the spotlight is indeed on the core values, highlighted in the new charter of the Commonwealth. Sri Lanka’s human rights record in recent times has been disappointing. Our Government have made it clear that we expect to see at CHOGM concrete progress on human rights, judicial independence, free and fair regional elections and proper access and freedom of movement for civil society and the media. The Prime Minister has decided to participate in this conference, while Canada’s Prime Minister will not attend and is reviewing Canada’s funding programme for the Commonwealth. I understand that the Commonwealth has been active in working for reconciliation and improvements in human rights in Sri Lanka. Is there a lesson to be learnt here from South Africa’s successful Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Can the Minister report to the House on the progress that is being made? The reputation of the Commonwealth is at stake.
While on human rights, I ask the Minister to accept that our arguments are likely to be more persuasive if we demonstrate that we are making our own improvements. For example, it would be helpful for our Government to state at CHOGM that we plan to restore the right of return to the British Indian Ocean Territory to those Chagossians who, in the late 1960s, were expelled by us from their homeland to make way for Diego Garcia. This remains a blot on our copybook which we must rectify.
The most important aspect of CHOGM is to pursue the implementation of a series of recommendations from the previous meeting in Perth. These ranged from ways to improve governance, human rights and the rule of law to economic and commercial development and cultural collaboration. If Governments are to get more advantage from this, it is worth stressing how important it is for Ministers in virtually every department to think in Commonwealth terms and to work collectively to that end. One of the agreed recommendations was to strengthen the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to deal with a full range of serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values. The Commonwealth’s ability to deal effectively with conflict resolution could act as a model to the rest of the world. Intervention in the past with countries that have flouted Commonwealth standards, such as Fiji, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Pakistan, demonstrate its value. Other areas include strengthening democracy through the newly-established Commonwealth Network of Election Management Bodies and the monitoring of elections.
The other side of the coin is what we are doing to strengthen development and to help small states with their economies. We need to know, for example, what progress is being made to implement the millennium development goals, universal access to healthcare, plans to eradicate polio and to address malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea and respiratory infections. More widely, there is the question of the empowerment of women, who are vital to economic development, and broad issues such as smuggling, human trafficking, piracy and climate change, which we are all committed to tackle. The Commonwealth ought also to be removing remittance transfer barriers and encouraging the skilled diaspora living in the West to contribute to their countries of origin. In all this, what contribution is DfID making to Commonwealth countries and what form does it take?
Of course, trade and investment is a crucial aspect of development and this year’s theme is “opportunity through enterprise”. The combined GDP of the Commonwealth is more than £6 trillion and it contributes more than 20% of the world’s trade and investment. We have the advantage of common language and some regulatory frameworks which should facilitate trade. However, we could be doing far more in the Commonwealth. Growth rates in many African and Asian countries are improving. Trade opportunities are there to take.
There is of course overlap between the government and non-governmental sectors. I must highlight the role of the Commonwealth Foundation, which deals with the private side of the Commonwealth, of which I had the privilege of being the chair in the 1990s. The purpose of this organisation is to stimulate the role of non-governmental bodies in development. It has embarked on a strategy to facilitate a dialogue between civil society and government. Civil society becomes more robust as the newly educated and professional middle classes emerge and aspire to play a part in the development of their countries. At the same time, there are citizens that remain outside the realm of the policy-making processes. The foundation is there to help strengthen the capacity of organisations that work in these diverse contexts to support Commonwealth principles and values.
Beyond all this there is a whole kaleidoscope of connections between individuals and organisations in the Commonwealth. Much of it is known only to those involved. The Royal Over-Seas League, of which I am president, supports educational projects in Namibia, Botswana and Kenya. The Association of Commonwealth Universities is shortly to mark its centenary. As a former university vice-chancellor, I know the value of meeting with academics in the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Press Union meets to exchange views about how to maintain and build a free press. The Council for Education in the Commonwealth, of which I am a vice-patron, meets to stimulate discussion on furthering educational collaboration. The new Commonwealth Youth Orchestra is beginning to unite people through music.
Education is one of the most important areas. The Commonwealth of Learning, 25 years old and based in Vancouver, uses distance learning to promote education and training. For example, it has a Lifelong Learning for Farmers programme and a Virtual University for Small States.
Another remarkable project has been the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Scheme. In 53 years, some 27,000 people have benefited from this. Many Commonwealth leaders in all spheres were Commonwealth scholars. Mr Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, is one such example. I am glad that the Government have invested £87 million in the scheme over four years to 2015. It is good that there is now an additional Commonwealth-wide endowment scheme, to which we have contributed and which marked Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. Moreover, in 2012, there were 117,000 Commonwealth students in higher education in the United Kingdom.
The important thing is the future. Fifty per cent of Commonwealth citizens are under the age of 25. The Commonwealth will mean something to them only if they have a knowledge and understanding of its value. If our young people are taught about our history and our contemporary Commonwealth, and if it is made a reality for them, then the opportunities are enormous and the benefits immeasurable. Much can be done in a practical way to twin schools and to arrange youth exchanges. I welcome the fact that the Royal Commonwealth Society is this month launching a Commonwealth youth leadership scheme. It is exciting that the BBC and the British Council are playing a leading part in the Commonwealth class project, where Commonwealth identity will be promoted to seven to 14 year-olds by linking no fewer than 100,000 Commonwealth schools online.
The Perth summit also agreed to give priority to youth unemployment, to encourage new entrepreneurial business and adequate vocational training. Will the Minister tell us what action has been taken to encourage and support young people, and what is being done in schools to make the Commonwealth alive for them?
Last week the Queen launched the Commonwealth Games relay baton, which will tour every Commonwealth country before arriving at the Games in Glasgow next summer. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has more than 16,000 members, who exchange visits and meet regularly to discuss global issues or to give practical advice about their parliamentary experiences. It is heart-warming to learn, too, that every local authority in the UK is committed to fly the Commonwealth flag between Commonwealth Observance Day next March and the Commonwealth Games in the summer.
Recently, the Royal Commonwealth Society carried out a Commonwealth conversation which demonstrated that the level of interest and knowledge of the Commonwealth is stronger in small as opposed to larger states. It concludes that by 2050 the Commonwealth might either be a total irrelevance or a vibrant global entity. At the moment, the Commonwealth profile is too low. We need all those who believe in the Commonwealth, from the secretary-general to other leaders, to speak up for the Commonwealth.
Next year we will mark the beginning of the catastrophic First World War. It would be right to remind ourselves that there were 1.5 million Indian volunteers and thousands of servicemen from West and East Africa, the West Indies, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa who fought alongside us, sacrificing their lives in defence of the free world. The tradition continues, for today we have many Commonwealth citizens in our Armed Forces.
The Indian leader Nehru said that the Commonwealth can deal with problems “with a touch of feeling”. Is that not exactly what this world needs? In an exchange with President Nasser of Egypt, Nasser said, “I put my extremists in prison. What do you do with yours?”. Nehru said, “I put mine in Parliament”. This surely is what the Commonwealth is all about.
However, as Don McKinnon, the former secretary-general, said in his recent book, In the Ring:
“The true role of the Commonwealth is to create more and better democracies”—
not modelled on some liberal western template but where all adult people have a say about who governs them and are able to exercise influence over policies of the governing body. The Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, has stressed the link between democracy and development. He said:
“The more democracy you have the more development you’ll get”.
I regard the future of the Commonwealth as one of the most exciting challenges of our time. We have an instrument to hand to make the quality of life better for us all. To take up the challenge requires leadership, inspiration, a strategy from Governments and active participation by our citizens. It is all about people. This Parliament must now give a lead. I look forward to the Minister’s assessment of the strategy. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am honoured to follow in the steps of the noble Lord, Lord Luce, and also of my noble friend Lord Howell, who lead on these matters.
I am a by-product of the Commonwealth. I was brought up in Canada; my family were Australian-Scots; my great-uncle was Stafford Cripps and then Ghana came into it. I feel rather homeless. While I was pro the EU, I am now rather anti the EU and becoming more and more pro the Commonwealth.
In my office I have a large map, a chart, which I look at every day. Most of it is covered in red and it shows the position of His Majesty’s ships at sea and in harbour on the date of my birth. I will not say when that was. That chart reminds me that the Empire, if I may dare call it that, was based upon trade and created added value. I looked at the chart this morning and saw that in those days we were out there not for political reasons but to buy. We took 60% of the tea crop of India; 30% of the tea crop of Ceylon; 27% of the Caribbean coffee production; 42% of Africa’s; 32% of New Zealand’s butter and 60% of its cheese. It went on and on, with wheat, flax, aluminium, zinc, copper and lead from Australia. All these things were creating added value, and that was trade.
As development in the economies grew, so people went out to them to find work. My Scottish family had the opportunity to ship masses of people out to Australia, but they had no back cargo. Then they found that there was meat. British technology developed the chilling machinery so that lamb and other meat could come back from Australia. To me, the Commonwealth should be more about trade and less about politics. But when looking at the world I conclude irrevocably, partly from being a navigator and recognising that Greenwich is the centre of the earth, that the United Kingdom is now in effect the centre of the earth in terms of politics, trade, intellectual property and people.
Having been brought up in Canada, I have wondered whether I am a Commonwealth citizen. If I am a member of the Commonwealth, why can I not have a little tampon or stamp for my passport saying, “Commonwealth citizen”? In the early days of immigration and migration, people wondered why we could not give precedence to people who were from the Commonwealth nations, but as time moves on, I realise that politics comes into this. For example, we seem to be a bit worried about the Gambia at the moment.
In my days in the banking world, I thought it would be a good idea to look at all countries, not just the Commonwealth countries which seemed to have run out of money. I wanted to get back as much money as possible from Claude Cheysson at the Commission, who was spending it on French projects around the world rather than on British ones. I went on a trip. My noble friend Lord Moynihan will recall that we had a great mentor in the person of Lord Jellicoe. I went to west Africa with Lord Jellicoe and the Duke of Kent to visit the French territories and I found myself being adopted by Société Commerciale de l’Ouest Africain. The society asked me to help it in Senegal, saying that there was a problem with the British territory over on the other side of the water. I went on holiday to Senegal with my wife and small son because people are kind to children when you are travelling abroad and not being too commercial. Later, back at my bank, I looked into the possibility of creating a “Senegambia”. That was because the Frenchman I met wore a rather smart khaki bomber jacket-type uniform, while the other one was dressed in what was in effect British gear. I use that just as an aside, but the idea behind it is that we should co-operate with France as well.
My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Luce, on bringing forward this important and timely debate. I am also pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, in admitting that I, too, am a child of the Commonwealth. I am of mixed heritage, having been born on a tiny island in the Caribbean sea between Guadeloupe and Martinique—the island of Dominica. That mixed heritage very much reflects the heritage of the Commonwealth. I, too, believe that if the Commonwealth did not exist, we would have to create it because it provides an opportunity for people of disparate beliefs, from different backgrounds and with different histories to come together.
Traditionally, the link of the Commonwealth was the fact that many of the islands and countries that formed it were British in character. Our union was a very valuable, attractive and compelling one. It was a loose but supportive Commonwealth family although, as with any family, disagreements would arise. There were robust challenges, questions and arguments, as well as solutions. What is unusual about the Commonwealth family is that new people are constantly trying to join it. We had Mozambique in 1995 and Rwanda in 2009. Many noble Lords will know that I am part French because I have a French grandfather. I cannot stress enough to your Lordships how much ire has been aroused in my French cousins by the fact that Rwanda has adopted English as its official language since joining the Commonwealth.
What binds the Commonwealth together is not just a shared historical connection with Great Britain, but a shared commitment to the rule of law, human rights, the protection of freedom of expression and minority rights. In 1991, the Heads of Government of the countries of the Commonwealth met in Harare and signed the Harare Commonwealth Declaration. As we all remember, that declaration was signed in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I think that it is actually a very beautiful document. If we had had more time, I would have liked to have read into the record its principles, because they are the principles to which we should all adhere. They renewed international optimism about the spread of democracy and human rights. As the noble Lord, Lord Luce, has said, this year, for the first time in the Commonwealth’s 64-year history, these values have been set out in one document, the Commonwealth Charter, which was signed by Her Majesty the Queen on 11 March, which is Commonwealth Day. From that eclectic mix and through its shared experience of heritage and aspiration, the Commonwealth has an extraordinary ability to meld together diverse and challenging histories into something that is capable of delivering unity, peace, tranquillity and productivity.
That productivity has been profound. Commonwealth countries make up 26% of the world’s population and account for 15% of global gross national income. The total gross domestic product of the Commonwealth is greater than that of the European Union and is predicted to grow by 7.3% between 2012 and 2017. Trade in goods within the Commonwealth is now worth about £250 billion each year to its members. There are huge positives to be gained from being a member of the Commonwealth. As we have heard, our exports to India are increasing, as they are to Canada and Australia. As the trade envoy to South Africa, I want to mention that we are hoping to double trade with that country by 2015. Within the Commonwealth itself, trade between other Commonwealth members is up by 50%.
Before I close, I want to mention the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Trust. We hope that, through the trust, great benefits in the Queen’s name will be able to be given to the whole of the Commonwealth. We will make a decisive contribution to the global efforts now under way to eliminate avoidable blindness by the year 2020. We seek to build up a new cadre of young leaders. I believe that the Commonwealth is healthy, but it will need all of us to ensure that it does that which it can do so as to heal many of the ills that are afflicting us. To borrow from Martin Carter, one of the greatest Caribbean and Commonwealth poets:
“I do not sleep to dream, but dream to change the world”.
The strength of the Commonwealth family is in the depth of the talents of its members. I hope that this House will dare to plan a future for the Commonwealth that will make all those dreams come true.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Luce, on bringing this debate to the Chamber. He has an unblemished record of many years of service not just to this House but to the Commonwealth as well. Wherever you go in the Commonwealth, his name comes up—always favourably, which is not the case for everyone.
Over many years, the Commonwealth has brought together in a constructive way the diverse perspectives held by its membership on global economic, financial, social and environmental developments. There have been significant collective Commonwealth actions to identify and raise interest in global issues. These include climate change, multilateral debt, migration and skills, the unique disadvantages of small states, aid effectiveness, poverty reduction, transforming economies and achieving sustainable development. Since 2009, the Commonwealth Heads of Government and Finance Ministers’ meetings have all highlighted the potential of the Commonwealth to play an important role as a forum in which members and non-members of the G20 can work together on global economic policy issues. The 2009 London summit announced fiscal stimulus packages which have indirectly helped poorer countries, injected more liquidity into financial systems with guarantees for poorer countries, and have agreed with some success not to increase protectionism.
The 2010 Toronto summit established a working group on development with a mandate to create a development agenda and multiyear action plans, to be adopted at the Seoul summit. The Commonwealth has been actively encouraging G20 leaders to think beyond national concerns to the needs of those not present at their G20 table. Canadian Prime Minister Harper took the significant step of starting a dialogue between himself, as the 2010 G20 chair, and the secretaries-general of the Commonwealth and La Francophonie.
In 2013, the Commonwealth charter was adopted, setting out the core principles of the Commonwealth, including democracy, human rights, the rule of law and good governance. It formalised the advantages shared by member states: a common language, a common rule of law and—not to be undervalued—a common system of accountancy. Despite the charter’s intention to strengthen the Commonwealth, the controversy over Sri Lanka hosting this year’s CHOGM while claims of war crimes committed against the Tamil Tigers remain unresolved threatens to undermine the Commonwealth’s fundamental values. The Prime Minister of Canada, with a nod to the large Tamil community in his country, has withdrawn from the CHOGM, as we have heard. However, there is a much larger Tamil population in southern India, and should India choose to respond to the general concerns, it could have a far greater influence.
The relationship between the Commonwealth and the G20 can potentially grow further and deepen, building on a unique set of Commonwealth advantages and promoting the Commonwealth’s wider impact. The Commonwealth can advocate globally for the inclusion of resilience and vulnerability aspects in the G20 development plans: asking for trade liberalisation from G20 members towards all developing countries; ensuring the proposed financial safety net covers small states and, potentially, all external shocks; promoting additional debt relief for small states who have large debts; promoting aid for trade, as this is especially effective in small states; and linking small states’ networks to a G20-supported knowledge-sharing network.
The Commonwealth has a long record of building consensus around global challenges and is well placed to provide both analytical and practical insight into the debate, based on the extensive experience of growth and development within the unmatched variety of its membership. In the governance of the Commonwealth, whether you are a small island nation, a huge landmass or a leading industrial nation, you have one thing in common—just one vote.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Luce on obtaining this debate. I am very glad that he mentioned the Commonwealth charter, because it seems to me that one of the great values of that charter is that it sets out very clearly the core values that unite the member nations. Two of them sprung to mind when preparing for the debate. The first is where it says:
“We will be guided by our commitment to the security, development and prosperity of every member state”.
Then, there is the second:
“We support international efforts for peace and disarmament”.
Early in my military career, I had the great privilege and pleasure of serving in the King’s African Rifles, which used to have battalions in every colonial territory in east Africa and served in both world wars, but which at that time was confined to Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika, which we were helping to independence. Thanks to the initiative of my noble friend Lady Flather, every year on Commonwealth Day, a number of us are able to assemble at the Commonwealth Gates and lay wreaths in honour of regiments such as the King’s African Rifles. I am always very moved that one of the things that happens is that the guard that is on its way from Knightsbridge to Horse Guards always salutes those assembled at those gates.
I say that because, since serving, I have had the great pleasure and privilege of seeing Commonwealth troops deployed in various conflict resolution positions around the world, for example in United Nations operations. I have always been struck by the particular way in which the corps of values that unites them has influenced the contributions to conflict prevention, post-conflict reconstruction and the other aspects of conflict resolution. I well remember talking with Admiral Howe, the American commander in Somalia, and asking him if he had any wishes. After saying he wanted a British officer in his headquarters, he said that the contingents trained by us had a very much better approach to the task in hand than others, citing Malawi and Botswana.
I mention the corps of values also because, currently, I am a member of the Committee on Soft Power, which is looking at how British influence in the world might be spread by the soft diplomacy that my noble friend mentioned. Earlier this week, we had the great pleasure of taking evidence from the high commissioner from Mozambique, one of the most recently joined members of the Commonwealth. What I found very revealing was his description of what membership of the Commonwealth meant for Mozambique. He mentioned, of course, the help that it had received from the United Kingdom but also made the very pointed suggestion that it was membership of the partnership of all the other nations in different parts of the world—the Commonwealth is represented on every continent and subcontinent—that made the most difference for Mozambique and encouraged them the most.
If I may end on a slightly depressing note, I thoroughly echo the remarks made by my noble friend about the Chagos Islands. I declare an interest as one of the vice-chairman of the all-party group. Expulsion of people from their homeland is not only a contradiction of just about every human rights document that there is, from Magna Carta to the United Nations charter, but is contrary to the core values that we have mentioned and which are contained in the Commonwealth charter. Our continued procrastination over this issue is nothing less than a national disgrace and something that we really should move very quickly to deal with, if it is not to undermine our reputation among the very people with whom we wish to promote it. Can the Minister give an assurance that this issue will be tackled with urgency?
My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust, one of the venerable professional institutions that the noble Lord, Lord Luce, mentioned in his compelling speech. I join other noble Lords in thanking him for securing this debate at this time.
Born in its modern form on 28 April 1949, the Commonwealth next year reaches pensionable age, and 65 is a good opportunity for reflection. In so reflecting, we can point to important accomplishments: giving, as we have heard, a united voice to countries that share a common history and language and working hard to make progress in areas ranging from encouraging the leadership of women to strategic thinking on ocean governance. However, any reflection must lead us also to the conclusion that, unlike some younger institutions, such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the African Union, which are relevant to members because of their heavy focus on economic development, the Commonwealth suffers from one great defect: its failure ever to establish a central mission. In an overcrowded market of international organisations, you need a unique selling point. The Commonwealth does not possess one.
The central reason for that is the diversity of its membership. Building a core mission that is as relevant to the people of Canada and New Zealand as it is to the people of Zambia and the Solomon Islands is exceptionally difficult. However, if the Commonwealth is to have a future in a rapidly changing world, then it must develop clarity about its aims and its mission.
The Commonwealth charter, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, is an admirable attempt to do that. It is a statement of rights and responsibilities broad in scope and noble in ambition. However, the problem with it, of course, is that it is worthless if members simply pay lip service to it and no one—through persuasion, leadership or even disciplinary action—tries to ensure it has force.
I will outline two pertinent examples. First, Article V of the charter states clearly that the Commonwealth is,
“committed to peaceful, open dialogue and the free flow of information, including through a free and responsible media”.
However, Commonwealth countries are littered with colonial laws that stifle the free flow of information and muzzle the media, including criminal libel and state licensing of journalists—although none of them yet has a royal charter. In Uganda, Cameroon, Bangladesh and Rwanda, to name just a few, the state of press freedom is parlous and punitive laws are deployed to stop the development of an independent media and to punish journalists. Sri Lanka, Singapore and Rwanda languish near the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders 2013 World Press Freedom Index. Although there have been improvements, there is still a tragic problem with the safety of journalists, six of whom have been killed this year in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Media freedom is fundamental to the charter, because the right of free expression is one on which all others rest, yet the record of the Commonwealth here is lamentable.
My second example is Article II, which states that the Commonwealth is,
“implacably opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed [or] political belief”.
But how can the Commonwealth be “implacably opposed” to discrimination when a disgraceful 80% of Commonwealth countries have laws criminalising consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex, punishable by imprisonment or even death? Is it so “implacably opposed” that, only a few years ago, CHOGM was hosted in Uganda, one of the most brutal regimes for gay men and women on the planet? No, for “implacably opposed”, read “turn a blind eye”.
We are discussing the future of the Commonwealth. That future must be established on the rock of a core set of beliefs and a zeal to uphold them. The charter is an admirable attempt to do that, but at the moment is sadly no more than empty words, as the journalists who die, the gay men who are persecuted, the women who are denied life-saving HIV drugs and others testify. If the Commonwealth is to have a future—everyone speaking in today’s debate will passionately believe that it must—it must show the leadership, courage and determination to begin the process of turning the charter into reality. Let that please be the message to CHOGM from today’s debate.
My Lords, I, too, join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Luce for having secured this important debate and, in so doing, declare my own interest in the register with regard to healthcare but particularly as a serving officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health and the UK business ambassador for healthcare and life sciences.
We have heard that the Commonwealth is uniquely diverse in geography, ethnicity and stages of economic development. That represents an important challenge in terms of the delivery of universal healthcare, an objective which must be attuned ideally with the objectives or one of the themes of this year’s Heads of Government meeting, with growth and equality defined in terms of equality of development.
It is clear that the 54 current member states of the Commonwealth are diverse also in access to healthcare, the burden of disease that the populations of those nations experience and the outcomes. It is quite striking, for instance, that although 40% of the world’s population lives in Commonwealth nations, the Commonwealth carries 60% of the burden of HIV and AIDS.
In terms of access to healthcare, there is a 300-fold difference between Malta and Tanzania, for instance, in the figure for doctors per 100,000 of population. In terms of outcomes, a woman is 300 times more likely to die from complications during childbirth in Sierra Leone than in Singapore. There is therefore much to do. Focusing on the delivery of healthcare is an important opportunity for the Commonwealth to demonstrate to each individual citizen the real benefits of being part of an organisation and entity as diverse as the Commonwealth.
A focus on healthcare, in terms of education, innovation, research and the delivery of high-quality care, is nothing new for Commonwealth nations; indeed, throughout its 64-year history there have been important exchanges of medical practitioners and other healthcare professionals between Commonwealth countries. So many citizens, doctors and nurses of Commonwealth countries have come to serve in our own NHS and have returned to their own home countries, having learnt much and applied it, and taken on leadership roles to develop healthcare in those nations. Our own practitioners and doctors have gone to other Commonwealth countries and been able to learn much and bring it back to improve the delivery of healthcare in our own country.
How do we take these opportunities forward? How do we ensure that, with modern technology, and a focus on high-quality education, innovation and reverse innovation, healthcare is better for all Commonwealth citizens? I had the privilege of addressing the Health Ministers of the Commonwealth earlier this year at their annual meeting and was able to propose the creation of something known as Common Health—a hub for exchange of educational materials, best innovative practice and life-saving information, made available at the fingertips of every healthcare practitioner across the Commonwealth through modern communications technology. If this initiative were able to go forward—indeed, it was endorsed to do so—it would provide an opportunity to ensure that everything that we have learnt and that has been validated in each Commonwealth country, having been shared among the learned societies and professional organisations for healthcare practitioners in those countries, could be shared broadly across a community of practitioners, numbering possibly some 2 million doctors and some 15 million other healthcare professionals. That would be unique and it could provide the opportunity to change in a material way the lives of every Commonwealth citizen. Will Her Majesty’s Government’s consider such initiatives, focusing on the provision of improved healthcare, as an important objective of our contribution to the activities and work of the Commonwealth?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord whom I follow on his choice of subject today and of course issue the same congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, who comes from a long tradition of family service to the Crown and to the Commonwealth overseas. I think that he is himself the last member of the Overseas Civil Service to sit in Parliament—I notice him nodding—and he was exactly the right person to open this debate.
Four years ago, I closed my speech in a debate on the Commonwealth initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, with reference to the career of a Mancunian non-conformist missionary who had devoted his career to teaching the Admiralty Islanders the commandments of God and the laws of cricket. I do not propose to repeat that today, but his sporting avocation is a key to the Commonwealth. I offer a coincidence of a startling and anticipatory kind. Our Library’s well balanced brief tells us that Lord Rosebery, in 1884, made the first allusion to the Commonwealth of Nations. Simultaneously, at the Oval Test in 1884, the English wicket-keeper, Alfred Lyttelton, achieved what remains the greatest bowling feat by a wicket-keeper in Test cricket. With Australia at 532 for four, he took off his pads and took four for 19, bowling underarm. Lyttelton’s relevance does not end there. He was Secretary for the Colonies—note the portfolio—in Arthur Balfour’s Administration and remains the only British Cabinet Minister ever to have played in an Ashes Test. Cricket remains a good bond and omen. I shall return to cricket in my fourth minute.
This debate has been overshadowed by the dilemma of the location for CHOGM when the host country is still being investigated for the origins of past tragedies. I imagine that most of those taking part in this debate will want to declare where they stand on the dilemma. I ought, in that context, to declare an historical interest in that my brother is a former executive vice-president of the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association. There is something Shakespearean, not to say Sophoclean, about the location dilemma, and my interest is in damage limitation, perhaps leading to the ground hills of a solution, the die seemingly having been cast as to the location. The Canadian leadership will still be metaphysically present because of its financial conditions, but how the Sri Lankans play their hand matters more than the views of the rest of the Commonwealth, although we have clues as to the sensible way that our hand will be played.
My personal particular hope is derived from my experience when the late, great Sir Keith Joseph delegated to me the responsibility of representing the United Kingdom Government at the Commonwealth Education Ministers’ Conference in Nicosia in 1984 and at the subsequent meeting in Sofia in 1985, which Sonny Ramphal sandwiched into the margins of the UNESCO meetings in Bulgaria that year. The agenda was dominated by the United Kingdom having imposed full cost charges on overseas students. It was effectively a rerun of the battle of Rorke’s Drift, with us cast as the garrison and everyone else except the Canadians and the New Zealanders playing the Zulus.
What was striking, and what I hope can be repeated in Colombo, was the astonishingly good humour with which the action was played out. The British ambassador in Sofia, who joined our delegation there, said that it was his first experience of a Commonwealth occasion and that it was unique in its friendliness. As to the verdict on the dilemma, I revert to the spirit of the time-honoured mantra of all cricket umpires that, at this stage, we should give the batsman at the wicket the benefit of the doubt and thus that, in that spirit, the match should go on.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Luce, on securing this timely debate on the future of the Commonwealth and on his excellent opening speech, which so well set out all its merits and the issues confronting it.
It is the Commonwealth charter, adopted this year, as we have heard, which, in the words of the Commonwealth Secretariat,
“brings together the values and aspirations which unite the Commonwealth—democracy, human rights and the rule of law”.
As the Foreign Secretary said in welcoming it:
“Strong, clear values are crucial to the future credibility and success of the Commonwealth”.—[Official Report, Commons, 4/3/13; col. 56WS.]
On the eve of its Heads of Government meeting, how is the Commonwealth measuring up to its new charter and entrenching those strong, clear values? It is clearly a work in progress for many members.
Human Rights Watch, for example, has concluded that in Pakistan last year, the human rights crisis has continued to worsen in Balochistan and that in Bangladesh, the overall human rights record worsened in 2012. Amnesty has criticised the use of torture by security forces in the Maldives and serious failings in the justice system after what seems to have amounted to a coup against the democratically elected president. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Black, about the appalling record of many member countries towards gay men and women. Of course, our record is not unblemished. We have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Luce and Lord Ramsbotham, and I associate myself with their remarks about the position of the Chagos islanders.
Of course, the Commonwealth has not always vigorously enforced those strong, clear values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. There is always a case for constructive engagement, which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has just set out very well, and encouraging those who transgress gently and gradually towards redemption.
However, too much constructive engagement can be misread as validating breaches of those strong, clear values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. In my view, that is the case when Sri Lanka, which has shown contempt for those values consistently, despite many international representations to it about its conduct, is still being allowed to host this Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and so shortly become the Commonwealth chair-in-office, voicing in international forums the Commonwealth position, including, presumably, the articulation of those core values.
The Sri Lankan Government host this meeting having made scant effort to secure accountability for the appalling atrocities committed by their forces in the brutal civil war, graphically documented by the UN and by the Channel 4 film which showed the deliberate targeting of hospitals by heavy artillery, deliberate denial of food and medicine to civilians in the no-fire zone and summary executions of civilians. Despite considerable international pressure on them to mend their ways, the Sri Lanka Government continue to target journalists and human rights activists. There are well substantiated reports of enforced disappearances, and the Government orchestrated the impeachment of the Chief Justice after she ruled against the Government in a key case.
No doubt the Minister will say that she deplores all that and that the Government will continue to make representations to the Sri Lankan Government about their concerns— at least, I hope that she will say that— but I hope that she is in no doubt about how that Government will present this Government’s decision to attend the Colombo meeting. When the then Culture Secretary decided to spend his Christmas holiday in Sri Lanka, just six months after the end of the civil war and all those atrocities, the state-run broadcaster in Sri Lanka claimed that “his arrival despite the accusations made by the British government on the human rights record of Sri Lanka is an indication that the charges have not been authenticated”. What does the Minister think the reaction in Sri Lanka will be when the visitor is not just the Culture Secretary but the Prime Minister and the heir to the Throne as well?
As we have heard, the Canadian Prime Minister has understood the significance of attending this meeting. He is not going because, he says, “It is clear that the Sri Lankan government has failed to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values”'. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain exactly why the Government have not adopted the principled stand of the Canadian Prime Minister. If the Sri Lankan Government continue to refuse to show greater commitment to these Commonwealth values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, how long are the Government going to continue to make representations before they conclude that they have failed to make any progress, and then what will they do? What damage does the Minister think will be done to the credibility of the Commonwealth when those strong, clear values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law are being flouted in the country which is the next Commonwealth chair-in-office?
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Luce’s initiative in holding this debate could not be better timed in that it enables this House to look at the wider issues and future development of the Commonwealth, as well as addressing some of the short-term matters arising in connection with next month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka. Too often in the past, those short-term issues have obscured the need for us to take a clear-eyed view of the role that the Commonwealth should play in the overall picture of Britain’s external relations. Too often also, successive British Governments have approached a heads of government meeting with either a spirit of damage limitation or excessive expectations. Neither of those approaches is a good guide to long-term policy-making.
The first step in taking that wider view is to rid ourselves of two misconceptions. The first is that the Commonwealth is in some way an alternative for this country to its membership of the European Union. It is no more that now than it was when the Macmillan and Wilson Governments concluded in the 1960s that it was not a viable alternative. Indeed, it is even less so than then. So far as I can see, not one Commonwealth Government wants Britain to leave the European Union and most would deeply deplore it, as the Australian Government—not the most enthusiastic supporter of Britain’s original membership back in the 1960s—made clear in a recent submission to the Government’s balance of competences review. Looking ahead, we should surely conclude, just as the French have done over the Francophonie, that this is not an either/or choice but a both/and one.
The second misconception is the tendency for Britain to take a proprietorial view of the Commonwealth. We may have founded the organisation but it does not belong to us, any more than it does to its other members. When we talk about the Commonwealth as being a soft-power asset for Britain, which I believe it is—and which I am sure the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, will find it to be—it can only be so to the extent that it is a soft-power asset for all its members.
Has the Commonwealth expanded too far? I do not believe so. It was right to respond positively to the membership bids by Mozambique and Rwanda. The Commonwealth of the future should not be regarded simply as a prolongation of an imperial colonial past. If one day in the future a democratic, human-rights observant Myanmar were to wish to join, I hope we would welcome it with open arms. We must certainly not abandon the hope that one day Zimbabwe, too, will want to—and will be able to—rejoin.
In what way should we be trying to strengthen the Commonwealth? I certainly do not believe that we should give up the aim of making the Commonwealth a more effective guarantor of the human rights of its citizens. That aim was checked at the last CHOGM meeting in Perth. The holding of the next meeting in Sri Lanka will certainly not strengthen its credibility, but we should persevere in the effort in the medium and long term. We need to build up that network of professional cultural links, which are such an important part of the Commonwealth’s value to its members.
In that context, the Government’s immigration policy, which seems to be having a disproportionately discouraging effect on the movement of professionals—it is certainly doing so in the field of higher education, where large drops are occurring in the intake of students from a number of the larger Commonwealth countries—surely needs to be reviewed. There is a contradiction between the Government’s support for the Commonwealth and the effect of their immigration policies. Surely, too, we should be expanding further the grant of Commonwealth scholarships in this country and not limiting them to its developing members.
The Commonwealth has many achievements behind it, not least the remarkably effective stand that it took against apartheid in sport. I would be confident that it has many more ahead of it, so long as it does not compromise its values, and that it will remain for the foreseeable future an indispensable part of Britain's international relationships.
My Lords, I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for introducing this debate. He was critically influential in providing guidance and assistance to me exactly 30 years ago when I was elected Member of Parliament for Lewisham East, for which I thank him. His wise counsel continues to illuminate subjects dear to his heart and his family history, notably in the context of the Commonwealth.
While this House focuses primarily on legislation in its capacity as a revising body, it occasionally takes on the important role of offering advice and steering policy, particularly when the timing of debates is fortuitous. The Foreign Secretary was right to say,
“From our very first day in office I pledged to put the ‘C’ back into the FCO”.
For it is a striking fact that even though the Commonwealth has its historical roots in the 19th century, it is perhaps one of the international organisations or platforms that is most suited to the world of the 21st. One great characteristic of CHOGM is that, similar to the hosting of the Olympic Games, the spotlight of the world’s media comes to shine into the recesses of that country. In the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, it focused on Tibet. Now, increasingly, it is focusing on the question of why the Sri Lankan Government have not yet independently or credibly investigated the allegations of war crimes; why there continues regrettably to be a lack of accountability for human rights violations; why the concerns of UN human rights chief Navi Pillay have not been addressed in full; and why political intervention with the media and judiciary go, as my noble friend Lord Black stated, far beyond the norms of acceptability.
As a number of noble Lords have commented, this year marked the adoption by all member countries of the Commonwealth charter, which sets out for the first time in a single document the Commonwealth’s core values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and commits its leaders to upholding these values. If, in year one of the existence of the charter, Sri Lanka does not recognise that the brick that has been removed from the base of the Commonwealth edifice by the decision of the Canadian Prime Minister may not be the last one, as my noble friend Lord Chidgey hinted, and that the organisation is structured on values, any further “tinkering” or “inconsistency” by Commonwealth leaders—I quote the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee report—will not number among the last steps taken. If Sri Lanka does not recognise these realities, it is blind to its own destiny.
It is critical that the values of the Commonwealth, which are under scrutiny, are brought under the international spotlight and that the Government of Sri Lanka are encouraged to respond positively. When the current emphasis of the Commonwealth is, rightly, on young people, we must convey to them the values of, and describe the institutions that underpin, the Commonwealth. Now is the time for stronger diplomatic intervention by Commonwealth leaders and a determined response by the Sri Lankan Government.
We should not turn a blind eye to the dogmatic reaction from Keheliya Rambukwella that Prime Minister Harper’s decision not to go to CHOGM in Sri Lanka is “a lone battle”. In fact, the lone battle is that being waged by the Sri Lankan Government. At this stage, the answer for me is a protracted and absolutely necessary process of diplomacy and engagement, not isolation. Now more than ever, the Commonwealth must stand in defence of freedom and respect for human dignity. Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, was right when he stated that:
“The meeting … is a chance for the Commonwealth to show that its stated principles actually mean something”.
We owe that to the wider world of the Commonwealth, and we owe it to the young people and the athletes of the Commonwealth, including those from Sri Lanka, who will be gathering in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games next year. These issues must be resolved by politicians and diplomats, and must not lead to the easy resort of some politicians to call for sporting boycotts.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, in this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, and congratulate him on securing this timely debate. I agree with him that for the Heads of Government convening in Colombo in November there is a significant history to be celebrated and a narrative that is redolent with optimistic potential, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, reminded us, as did my noble friend Lord Wills, there is also a narrative of challenge.
The latter is a familiar narrative for this part of the 21st century for organisations such as the Commonwealth. It is a narrative of challenge of reform and renewal, particularly a narrative of re-establishing trust among current Commonwealth countries and Governments in the credibility of the organisation, as well as rebuilding confidence in the delivery mechanisms of the secretariat, which involves dealing with institutional reform, developing leadership and showing a degree of resolve. The nature and scale of this challenge should not be underestimated despite the obvious achievement. For example, 70% of the Commonwealth secretariat’s budget is contributed by only three, possibly now only two, countries, and 30 out of 54 countries—or 53 as it is now—in the Commonwealth are in arrears in their contributions to it. There is a manifest north/south divide in the narratives of the Commonwealth. It was exemplified most recently by the differential narratives of the Canadian Government’s decision and the Gambian Government’s decision. This narrative is blocking relationships between countries. It is being exploited by others outside the Commonwealth, as the Library note makes clear in relation to China, and involves a significant deterioration in relationships. Polling shows that there is a lack of knowledge about the Commonwealth among the public of its member countries, and why would there not be when a majority of Governments do nothing to explain, promote or support the Commonwealth? None of this is new, and these challenges are not even comprehensive.
What is new is that part of the process of reform and renewal was to be the relaunch of the Commonwealth as a partnership of nations committed to upholding the Commonwealth values as set out in the new charter signed by Her Majesty in March. These values of democracy, human rights, the rule of law and good governance are all to be seen in a shared vision of bringing together better opportunities for people around the world. This is a challenging ambition in itself. Just how challenging has been exemplified by some of the references that have already been made to the varying views about the rights of citizens in the Commonwealth and by the evidence in pages 8 to 12 of the Library note, which make shocking reading, about the behaviour of some Governments in Commonwealth countries. The issues that frame this challenge for the Commonwealth are identified in the EPG’s report and recommendations. If we were to look for an agenda for the future of the Commonwealth, we could do worse than just to take that report and its recommendations as the agenda for the CHOGM.
How is that consistent with the question that has already been asked by convening this important relaunching of CHOGM in Sri Lanka at this time? How can we not be appalled by the idea of doing that, as the Canadian Government were? There is only one justification in being present there, and that is encapsulated in the Answer that the Prime Minister gave to a Question at Prime Minister’s Questions on 9 October. In response to a Question about attendance, he said:
“I think it is right for the British Prime Minister to go to the Commonwealth conference because we are big believers in the Commonwealth … but … we should not hold back from being very clear about those aspects of the human rights record in Sri Lanka that we are not happy with”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/10/13; col. 160.]
The Prime Minister has set a challenging ambition for our attendance at that conference, and I invite the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for whom I have enormous respect, to spell out in more detail exactly what our Government will do during the time that our senior representative, our Prime Minister, is there to live up to the challenge that he has set for himself.
My Lords, I wanted to take part in this debate more to listen than to speak, and I have been wonderfully rewarded so far. I come at this as rather a newcomer to the Commonwealth, or to the issues of the Commonwealth, although, of course, I was born a Commonwealth citizen. A lot of people in this country do not pay a great deal of attention to the Commonwealth. I have been paying attention to it only since I started working in health in Africa in the past few years. I shall say a few words about health, following my noble friend Lord Kakkar.
My first point is about links. As the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said in his excellent speech, there is a kaleidoscope of links between our country and all the Commonwealth countries. I was in Uganda yesterday for the launch of the Uganda UK health alliance, which brings together about 200 British organisations working in health in Uganda. The speech given by the Minister of Health there was very much about our shared legacy, our friendship and what we can do together and the future. Anyone who works in health in Africa will be aware of the painful legacy of colonialism that is still there, but the mood music is very much about the shared future that we have together.
If, in Uganda, there are 300-plus links between hospitals, schools and churches, all working on the desperate health problems of countries like Uganda, we can see how many links there are around the world and how important they are. I chair Sightsavers—its proper name is the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind—so am involved with a great deal of other links around the world. I was delighted to hear what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, said about the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust and its approach to eliminating some of the avoidable blindness in the Commonwealth. That would be a most remarkable impact.
In addition to the wealth of links that bind us all together, the Commonwealth is a truly remarkable organisation because it brings together rich countries, poor countries and fast-growing countries, and it is not geographically bounded. It is important to Africa. As my noble friend Lord Kakkar has already mentioned, the Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting is one of the great meetings for Health Ministers in Africa. They see it as an opportunity to influence the agenda because they are sitting down together with rich countries and having a major impact. In parenthesis, I very much support the noble Lord’s proposal which was made there, and would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
The Commonwealth is also important to us on health. It gives us access to learning and development of all kinds of approaches to health around the world. It is based on a shared history and largely shared values. I say “largely shared values” because I am very conscious of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Black, and others about, for example, the attitudes in some countries towards gay men and women, and to women in some others.
The single point I really want to make on this is that it is a rapidly changing world. We in the UK have our traditional ways of doing things, but we can learn from people without our resources—particularly in health—about how to do things differently, and how you use the community, to take that example from Africa, in things such as health and education in ways which we simply do not do in this country. It is in our interest to promote these links and the Commonwealth more generally, both for that self-interest and for our co-development with our partners in the Commonwealth.
Finally, I come back to the people-to-people aspects which the noble Lord, Lord Luce, mentioned right at the beginning of the debate. We underplay the Commonwealth. I am not at all unusual in not having thought much about the Commonwealth at all beyond, perhaps, the Commonwealth Games and a few other things like that. It has been, to put it slightly rudely, something that the enthusiasts have understood, and if you know about the Commonwealth you know about the Commonwealth. The profile needs to be raised in many different ways, as the noble Lord, Lord Luce, again said. With that comes the scope for greater shared growth and development in a wide range of different countries.
My Lords, I spoke in my noble friend Lord Sheikh’s debate of December 2009, and I will repeat a bit of that today. It is important to know the history of how the Commonwealth Members are entitled to sit in the House of Lords. Things seemed to have gone desperately wrong in 2009, when it looked as if we had been barred from sitting. Inadvertently, the Labour Government claimed, and I am sure that that is right, they had forgotten to renew the clause giving Commonwealth citizens the right to sit in the House. This was all printed in the Hansard of 10 December 2009.
I had telephoned the Clerk of Parliaments, because I was speaking in that Commonwealth debate, as always, and said that I would like to know which Act I was sitting under. He said, “It was always the 1981 Act. Unfortunately, that has gone and been replaced by the 2006 Act”. I could give noble Lords the names of these Acts but there is no time. “As a result,” he continued, “your position is anomalous, to say the least”. Anyway, I mentioned it in the debate and the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, replied to say that they had a few months previously discovered, three years after the Act, that Commonwealth Members were not listed and had no rights. However, she confirmed that they would correct this error before the next election and that I should keep coming, which of course I did.
However, after that, time passed by, and the issue was to be brought back in the Constitutional Reform Act. We got the agreement through in the last hour of the last day of the previous Parliament. Many noble Lords will remember what a day it was. Everyone was arguing about whether we should touch the Bill at all, having brought such a major constitutional Bill to the House, and how we could be expected to deal with all the stages on one day, when everyone thought that it was about three weeks’ work. It looked as if we would not get anywhere. However, the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, spoke up for the Civil Service, I spoke up for the noble Lords who would lose their right to sit here, and another noble Lord spoke up in favour of standards. A number of noble Lords spoke.
I pay tribute to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, who managed to persuade noble Lords to put the matter aside and bring in Jack Straw, who was the Lord Chancellor, and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, who were both marvellous throughout this whole procedure. They came with all the members of the various parties and we returned to the Sitting at 12.05 am on the last day, which was the day of Prorogation. It was almost the very last thing that went through, and I am very glad that it did. Looking around the Chamber today, I could not tell you who is Commonwealth-only, as I am, and who is Commonwealth but also has British citizenship. It is good that we have that variation.
Time is short, but I must also say that the Commonwealth as a whole has a huge regard for the Queen and there is a great deal of affection there. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, whose past three conferences I have attended, is in a worrying position. The rest of the world and all the Commonwealth believe that you must have internal audit, and there has been a resistance to that. However, Alan Haselhurst has now persuaded the CPA executive committee to accept that a formal internal audit is required. As noble Lords will know, Australia has withdrawn from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association but is still completely devoted to the Commonwealth. However, it has withdrawn. I am told that it was bipartisan and that it withdrew because of this lack of efficiency and proper administration, and that the internal audit is so essential, worldwide, in everything—giving transparency and clarity on these matters—and so that had to be resolved. Until that is resolved, I see no prospect of Australia returning, which would be a great pity, as it can be a very good organisation. I have attended the past three conferences, including one in Sri Lanka. There is no time to say more, but I am very hopeful that CHOGM will go well.
My Lords, we have had many valuable contributions to this debate. I am sure that we are all delighted that the noble Baroness was made constitutionally legitimate by a Labour Government.
I pose the question: what is the Commonwealth for? What, according to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Black, is the central mission? That question is not asked of other international organisations—NATO or the UN, for example—but a substantial answer was given by the noble Lord, Lord Luce, in his excellent opening. There are real problems of definition, which become more acute at the time of CHOGMs. Of course, there is no lack of aspiration, grand declarations or inquiries, such as the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, and now, of course, we have the charter.
I pose the question: what are the tangible benefits for us and for other members of the Commonwealth relationship? Is it to be seen in political solidarity—one for all and all for one? We would expect that, for example, on controversial matters such as, for us, the Falklands and Gibraltar. Alas, I do not see such solidarity among Commonwealth members because, understandably, they give a higher priority to other organisations of which they are members, such as regional organisations.
We should ask whether there should, as a matter of course, be meetings of Commonwealth members at all—or at all relevant—international fora before and when those meetings are held. Equally, the fact of the exchange of views between finance Ministers and others has the effect of influencing both us and our Commonwealth partners. Do we see strong advantages to members in trade and economics? There is some evidence of trade co-operation, but there is no Commonwealth preference and, as we saw over the recent order for aircraft by India, where, oddly, the French aircraft was chosen over the Typhoon, Commonwealth countries take hard-nosed decisions over such purchases. Currently, President Hollande is in South Africa, and there have been major French trade missions to India. On aid, DfID’s multilateral aid review concluded that the Commonwealth was poor value as a mechanism for the distribution of aid.
What of human rights, which has been the core function of the Commonwealth? I recall that the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee in 2012 concluded that it was disturbed to note the ineffectiveness of the mechanisms for upholding Commonwealth values. The Maldives is a member of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, yet it has an appalling record on women’s rights—and, of course, 60% of Commonwealth countries still have the death penalty. The major recommendation of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group relating to a human rights commissioner was rejected. Clearly, it is the view of the majority that the Commonwealth is a loose club from which they benefit.
Next month’s CHOGM is in Sri Lanka. In my judgment, it was sad that that venue was chosen, and a mistake on the part of the Government to be represented by the Prime Minister. If we are to be represented at all, perhaps it should be by a junior Minister. It is absurd also that Sri Lanka will now be the chairman in office, and, equally, will be a member of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, when the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka has made it clear that the country wants no interference from outsiders.
Where, then, is the purpose of the Commonwealth? We should be realistic. We should see the overall potential. It is not our principal international organisation, but it is unique. With all its problems, other countries still want to join. Perhaps it is in the Commonwealth network—often technical, often professional, as was mentioned by my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland, and the noble Lords, Lord Kakkar and Lord Crisp, and often enabling relations between professionals—that the value of the Commonwealth is best seen. Surely our message should be: be realistic, do not exaggerate the potential of the Commonwealth, but acknowledge that, for all countries, extra value and an extra dimension is provided by membership of the Commonwealth club.
My Lords, I have always associated the noble Lord, Lord Luce, with the Commonwealth. I know that his father, too, was involved in it—although probably it was not called that at the time. I am from the Commonwealth. I have kept my links with my country of origin, India, and I also visit Africa frequently.
Many speeches this afternoon were in praise of the Commonwealth: in praise of what is going on and in praise of what is possible. I am sorry that my speech may not be quite in that vein. I have in my hand the 16 items of the charter. They are like apple pie and motherhood. Anybody could use the charter, in any country, as a model. There is nothing in it with which you could possibly disagree. However, words do not make reality, and I fear that that is what the charter will be: no reality, only words.
I will tell the House why I say that. Noble Lords may have read recently that the Indian Government had decided to give a lot of money for food for the poorest. The view is that it is not getting to the poorest, and that either the money or the food is disappearing to the middlemen. That is one thing. The second thing is that, if the food does get to the poorest, everybody assures me that it will not get to the women and girls; it will go to the men and boys. This is the reality of the Commonwealth. India has the largest number of undernourished people in the whole world, but look at the money that has come into that country and its economic prosperity. However, that money has gone mostly to Switzerland. There are trillions of dollars in Switzerland belonging to Indian businessmen, which is very depressing.
As regards Africa, I was in Uganda last year. Every time I saw a good farm or a good building, I discovered that it belonged to the president’s wife. I think that she owns about a third of the best assets in Uganda. That, again, is very depressing. Who is carrying the loads? It is the women. Where are the men? They are in the shops. Nothing has changed and I fear it is very likely that nothing will change. We cannot influence that. The saddest thing is that there is no desire to improve the situation of women because clearly that does not suit the men. If the women slave all day and ask for nothing, is that not the best thing for the men?
Somebody referred to women’s economic contribution. Indeed, without them, these countries would not function. When I was in Jamaica, I suggested to the women that they should go on strike for a day and the whole country would come to a standstill. Women make an economic contribution but it is not recognised. They are not entitled to anything and they are not given anything. People need education and food. An item in the charter refers to food, shelter and education. Instead of having 16 items in the charter, we should have two very important ones and try to put them in place.
I am a great admirer of all the links we have with the Commonwealth. I hope that that will continue and grow. I belong to two organisations. One educates very poor girls in the Commonwealth—girls only, please note—and the other supports a disabled children’s centre: the only one in India which trains women and men from other south-east Asian countries. We should continue with all the things that we can do as individuals or groups. However, I am not sure that the Commonwealth will do much for the people who need its help.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Luce, has done us a great service in securing this debate at this critical time. I fully support the sentiments and hopes for the future of the Commonwealth which he expressed so clearly today.
My focus is on education. I echo much of what has already been said on that, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Luce, in his splendid opening speech. I hope that when the Commonwealth Heads of State meet in Sri Lanka, they will find time to consider and acknowledge the role that co-operation in this field has to play. The shared language, values, standards and heritage that bring the Commonwealth nations together need to be nurtured and future generations have to be helped to recognise that it is these factors that mark out the Commonwealth as a relevant and unique institution today which continues to evolve and change to meet new challenges.
The UK Government clearly acknowledge the importance of education, and of international co-operation in this field. We are all aware of Ministers who go on overseas visits and seek to recruit students from all over the world to come to attend our universities and other institutions. As 33% of the world’s population lives in the Commonwealth, and 50% of those are aged under 25, there is plenty of scope in that regard. I hope and trust that priority is given to Commonwealth students and, indeed, to Commonwealth teachers. However, we should not forget the overseas territories. Students from those tiny territories were at one stage expected to pay full overseas student fees until our campaign happily succeeded in putting them on the same basis as our home students.
I know that my own University of Southampton has welcomed Commonwealth students over the years and that it currently has 1,607 students enrolled from Commonwealth countries. I mention this simply as an example. However, that university is eager to do more. This is where the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, already referred to, comes in. It was established in 1959, is funded by member Governments to provide an international programme of exchanges and scholarships for Commonwealth citizens, and has been a huge success. Like, I am sure, many others here, I have had the same opportunity to meet some of the students who are over here to benefit from this programme. Their enthusiasm for and commitment to the Commonwealth cannot be in doubt. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, that many girls have figured in that programme. I hope that the Minister can assure us that UK funding via the Department for International Development and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will be fully maintained and, if possible, increased to build on this programme.
Other organisations and networks make important contributions, of course. For example, the Association of Commonwealth Universities, which is currently celebrating its centenary, is due to meet later today in London, and some of us may be there. The Commonwealth of Learning in Canada celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, as the noble Lord, Lord Luce, has said. I should also mention my special interest because, as the then Education Minister in the Lords, I followed in the footsteps of my noble friend Lord Brooke and attended the Commonwealth Education Ministers’ conference when the Commonwealth of Learning was conceived.
I cannot conclude my remarks without paying tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, of which I am an active member and which continues to play a vital role in the development of the Commonwealth and the wider field of education by ensuring that the democratic values and traditions that we all share as member countries are kept alive in the hearts and minds of successive generations of elected politicians and the officials who serve and preserve democratic institutions. In that, the UK branch of the CPA plays a very important role.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Luce, on introducing this very timely debate.
I have shared my life almost equally between two member states of the Commonwealth and have been an ardent supporter of it. At the outset, I want to express my admiration for both the concept and the institutions of the Commonwealth. Conceptually it is unique—a voluntary association embracing a diversity and fraternity unusual in today’s world. This outreach, extending to every region of the globe and including the largest spectrum of nationalities and faiths, gives the Commonwealth a rare stature. It is an invaluable asset that can and should be more vigorously employed in contributing to the resolution of international issues.
Nowadays, international opinion is at long last beginning to have a serious influence on the behaviour of states. This is evident in the situation that prevails in the host country of next month’s meeting, Sri Lanka. That is also true of other countries hitherto impervious to world sentiment. It is now timely and appropriate for the Commonwealth as a collective to be more assertive in its diplomatic endeavours. The Commonwealth would become even more persuasive if it were to mobilise and utilise the services of its many elder statesmen whose credentials carry significant authority. I therefore urge the Government’s delegation to CHOGM to think along these lines and seek the collaboration of other nations in making the Commonwealth more effective in contributing to peace, justice and freedom.
As members of a freedom-fighting family, we were surprised and delighted when, at the time of Indian independence in 1947, India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took the decision for India to stay in the Commonwealth. This encouraged the notion of a multidimensional organisation, diverse in its activities and membership. Institutionally, the Commonwealth has accomplished much through its secretariat and associated groups. I am particularly encouraged by its activities in the education sector. Being actively engaged in the work of several schools and universities in India and this country, I can testify to the value of such initiatives as the Commonwealth of Learning and the Commonwealth scholarships.
However, institutions are most successful when they engage the broadest constituencies. The Commonwealth draws its life-blood from the Governments of its members, but it has been sadly lacking in connecting with ordinary citizens—in establishing wide popular support. Therefore, I hope that the institutional structure will increasingly involve the public of the member states—for instance, in supplementing English as the official language of Commonwealth communications. This can only enrich and strengthen interactions.
The Commonwealth is at an interesting moment in its evolution. To continue its mission, it must change, adapt and grow. If it does not, it will become less relevant and marginalised. That is a fate that its distinguished record does not deserve and to which I hope next month’s gathering will give some serious consideration.
To date, the position of head of the Commonwealth has been vested in the monarch of the United Kingdom. It has been admirably filled by Her Majesty the Queen, to whom we are all indebted for her wholehearted commitment and genuine interest in the Commonwealth. She has set an extraordinary precedent. Looking to the future, I think that what needs to be considered is a clear succession protocol or procedure.
My Lords, in this debate, kindly made possible by the noble Lord, Lord Luce—I join others in thanking him for it—I should like to return briefly to an issue which I raised in a debate that I initiated a year ago. It is an issue that should trouble us profoundly. Allusion has already been made to it by my noble friend Lord Black and the noble Lord, Lord Wills. Millions of our fellow Commonwealth citizens live under laws that brand them as criminals because of their sexual orientation alone. Their offence is the homosexuality with which they are imbued and by which their lives are inevitably shaped. The numbers criminalised in this cruel fashion are very large because so many Commonwealth countries defy the obligations placed on them by international law.
People in Britain rarely guess the proportion that adhere to these obligations correctly. They are reluctant to believe that more than a small minority of Commonwealth states could behave with such inhumanity in the early 21st century, when the need to respect human rights is so widely accepted. The shocking truth is that more than three-quarters of our Commonwealth partners—41 states out of 52—put homosexuals outside the law. In some of them, the punishments that can be imposed are almost unimaginably harsh. Life imprisonment is the penalty in Sierra Leone; in Malaysia, it is 20 years in prison with flogging. One’s heart goes out in particular to the young people, who, as we have heard, are so numerous in today’s Commonwealth.
The number of lives wrecked by these inhumane laws is not to be measured simply by sentences imposed on, or by unchecked persecution endured by, homosexuals. The widespread criminalisation of homosexuality has been a great driving force in the spread of HIV/AIDS, the worst pandemic of our times. A single appalling statistic underlines the extent of the suffering that has been inflicted on so many of our Commonwealth partners as a result. While the Commonwealth accounts for nearly 30% of the world’s population, it also contains more than 60% of the people living with HIV across the globe.
How is a route out of this suffering and oppression to be found? In a number of countries, including Belize, Jamaica and Singapore, brave individuals are challenging the violation of their human rights in the courts. Powerful legal assistance is being provided to them without charge through the International Commission of Jurists, the Human Dignity Trust and the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association. There could be no finer example of a Commonwealth partnership in the cause of human progress. Success in one state could embolden the judges in other jurisdictions because of the similarity of their laws inherited from the British Empire. However, this is the moment when the central institutions of the Commonwealth should assert themselves with vigour and authority.
It is now two years since the report of the Eminent Persons Group recommended that Heads of Government should take steps to encourage the repeal of discriminatory laws. An appropriate form of words was included in the Commonwealth charter, although it contains no specific reference to the decriminalisation of homosexuality. But it has been decided that:
“Member governments have the discretion to identify which, if any, laws are considered discriminatory, and the steps deemed appropriate to address these”.
This is a formula for inaction, and it must be overturned. Do the Government intend to make a statement on homosexual equality before next month’s meeting? Millions of criminalised homosexuals look to the Heads of Government for an unequivocal commitment to their basic human rights, and to the Commonwealth Secretariat for an effective strategy to secure them—a strategy devised in close consultation with LGBT organisations throughout the Commonwealth who are increasingly working together for the common good.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for introducing this timely debate. At present, the future of the Commonwealth looks precarious and its moral authority appears to be under siege. Some of this is exaggerated—for example, the suggestion that the Commonwealth may well disintegrate. The Commonwealth’s current situation should not be seen as a reason for its disintegration but as an urgent signal for the people and Governments of the Commonwealth to strengthen their resolve to reassert its unique features, rigorously implement the reforms recommended by the EPG in its report, A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform, and consider further radical changes to enable the Commonwealth to realise its full potential, which it has in abundance.
The strengths of the Commonwealth have been eloquently expressed. They include its reach. It is guided by values and principles, which were reasserted and enshrined in the charter of the Commonwealth and endorsed by all 54 Governments in March this year. These values are the hallmark, strength and anchor of the Commonwealth. It is not just an intergovernmental association but a people’s Commonwealth, with myriad professional organisations and civil society bodies doing excellent work. The noble Lord, Lord Luce, listed them, and we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, about the mutual learning that can take place.
I shall mention a couple more examples. There is the Commonwealth Environmental Investment Platform, launched earlier this year, which connects entrepreneurs, investors, innovative technology and business across the Commonwealth. Secondly, as we have heard, there is the Commonwealth Class, a joint project with the Secretariat, the BBC and the British Council in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games. The Commonwealth is an organisation of networks which moves freely at various levels, recognising that delivering sustainable change belongs to the whole society and not simply to Governments. However, these strengths must be built upon; we cannot just live on affection for the Commonwealth.
What is needed is hard-headed action and a rigorous enforcement of the charter and its values. We need radical reform of the institutions of the Commonwealth. In the last debate in this House on 7 March, I suggested:
“Now that we have a charter that provides a strong framework of core values, should we not be thinking of creating regional Commonwealth hubs, or at least offices, in three regions … with a slimmed-down secretariat in London? This may seem a bold suggestion but it would enable the secretariat to respond to the relevant needs and priorities of countries in those regions within the framework of the charter”.—[Official Report, 7/3/2013; col. 1696.]
It would develop a very meaningful relationship with civil society organisations. In response to my suggestion, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, said that,
“Her Majesty’s Government would welcome such a development if viable proposals were put forward”.—[Official Report, 7/3/2013; col. 1705.]
I would like to hear from the Minister whether any action has been taken.
The Commonwealth Secretariat, civil society and professional organisations need adequate resources. We have heard about the level of expectation that is put on the Commonwealth; the current budget of the secretariat is tiny and civil society and professional associations are not well supported. Some are even having their grants withdrawn. The Eminent Persons Group report’s recommendations which were not accepted should be accepted, because it was an impressive report.
In a lecture this week, Sir Ron Sanders, a member of the EPG said,
“with regard to the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office ... the EPG ... recommended to the last Summit in 2011 that ... the position of the two-year Chair-in-Office and the Troika of the past, present and future Chairs of Commonwealth meetings be abolished”.
That was rejected, but he said that
“had it been accepted, the Commonwealth would not now be subjected to the criticism of the President of Sri Lanka being Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth while he and his government defend themselves in the United Nations Human Rights Commission”.
The fact that the President of Sri Lanka will become the chair-in-office after CHOGM for two years is a matter of grave concern. CHOGM is an opportunity to rethink. It is an opportunity to set in motion changes and reforms which will reassert its moral authority and make it more responsive. I would very much like to hear from the Minister what steps Her Majesty’s Government are taking to urge and influence the reform agenda.
My Lords, as the House may know I am chairman of the All Party Sri Lanka Group, which I started in 1975. I try to go to Sri Lanka once a year. My very best friend is an active Tamil living in the south of the country, leading the campaign for the rebuilding of Jaffna hospital, so I do not take all my information from the high commission in London.
Let me say at the start that Sri Lanka is a founder member of the Commonwealth and a very proud member. It is even more proud to hold this CHOGM convention. There are four core values: democracy, freedom of the media, human rights and trade. Let us start with democracy. There always have been elections in Sri Lanka. Only once, under JR Jayewardene did the then president decide that, because he had done so well in the provincial elections, he did not need to rerun to be president. Nevertheless, the turnout embarrasses us. It is more than 80%, nearly 90% quite often. Its register embarrasses us—it is better than ours. No one, so far, in Sri Lanka has been prevented from voting, as happened in parts of the United Kingdom in our last general election. In addition, it has had two female presidents. So far, we have had only one female leader.
On the media, there was censorship during the war; of course, there was. We had censorship in the United Kingdom during the war. When I went there just over a year ago, I saw every leading editor in the English language press, including from the Sunday Leader, which is every bit as strong as Private Eye, the New Statesman, or any other publication. When asked, individually, in a room that was not bugged, not one said that they suffered from censorship. There is no censorship. Yesterday I telephoned the Sri Lankan Government and asked about CHOGM. The statement that I was given was that all accredited media will be given access to CHOGM. I believe that that is absolutely fundamental, and I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench makes a note of that.
Human rights are a challenge; of course they are. After 26 years of war that decimated the top half of Sri Lanka, it is as bad as Germany was in 1945. There are huge problems of infrastructure that are now being addressed. I hope that everybody who goes there will look at the way in which it is being rebuilt. There are new homes, new schools, the reopened railway line, and so on. We can travel up and down Sri Lanka, as the cook of another friend of mine did all the way from Jaffna by bus, without being stopped once or needing papers. People can go where they like and every member of CHOGM can go wherever they like or see whoever they wish. There are still challenges. The LLRC, which was boycotted by the human rights groups, has gone quite a long way and makes further progress each month.
Of course, other areas have still to be addressed. There are two outstanding: one is alleged war crimes. We are beginning to get the answers from the census—the first census done by Tamil teachers in the Tamil area showing that in the last days of the war somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 people were killed. That confirms what the in-country UN report says—not the external report that is being advised by the Global Tamil Forum and other parties; it is what the in-country report says about the same figures. So we are beginning to get somewhere there.
As to the Chief Justice, all I can say to my noble friend is that I am not a lawyer. However, I have now checked the constitution and there is provision in it for the Chief Justice to be removed, and that provision has been followed. We should remember that the Motion to remove her was initially moved by the Opposition.
There are problems still but they are being worked on. Trade will provide a wonderful opportunity.
The members of CHOGM will be very welcome in this beautiful country where, thankfully, they nearly all speak English and foreigners will find it much easier. The delegates will be able to go anywhere and see anyone they like and they will be greeted by just one word, “ayubowan”, which means “welcome” in Sinhalese.
My Lords, if ever the Commonwealth needed a champion, the noble Lord, Lord Luce, would be exemplary as such a person. He constantly holds the flag high.
We live in a great paradox. The processes and institutions of globalisation have made individual people feel less and less significant, more and more marginalised and, indeed, alienated. There is a tremendous need to build up a sense of confidence among people. In the face of this reality I have described, there is a tendency to take resort in nationalism and ethnic groupings. We should not condemn that because if it enables people to find a place in which to feel personal significance it can be a good thing. However, the paradox is that we have never lived in an age in which interdependence globally was more real. This is true in economic terms, in migration terms, in climate change terms and the consequences of the movement of peoples, in security terms—it is true in almost any dimension you may wish to consider. In fact, there are very few major problems facing our children that can be solved in any way other than by effective international co-operation at the global level.
It is a mistake to see the Commonwealth as a rival or a potential alternative to existing institutions. That does no one any good whatever. Regional groupings such as Europe are crucially important, as are regional groupings in other parts of the world. There are the ad hoc groupings on issues such as defence and so on, and NATO has been mentioned already in this debate. However, the Commonwealth can bring a free association of diverse nations and people who have decided, for one reason or another, that they want to belong to each other in a closer relationship. That can be tremendously important in the deliberations of these other institutions. It is not a substitute for them—it cannot be a substitute for them—but it can be a way in which you can strengthen a spirit of co-operation and mutual understanding.
That is why the work with youth is so important; that is why the work that goes on in the exchanges of communities, professionals and different elements of public services and so on is very important. The building of this sense of mutuality and understanding can be the spirit surrounding the formal negotiations that go on in the other crucial institutions I have mentioned.
Of course, if we want to make that contribution as a Commonwealth club, if I may use the phrase, we should try from time to time, as long as we do not become over-introspective, to ask ourselves what we feel as a group are the things that matter. We attempted that in the Harare declaration in 1991 and it proved a sad experience. I could not have put it better myself, if I am allowed to be so arrogant, than Hugo Swire, the Minister of State, writing in the Parliamentarian recently, who said:
“We have been all too aware that if the Commonwealth cannot protect democracy and stand up for human rights, then it is losing credibility and becoming untenable”.
That is a sobering but very accurate observation.
We have now had a chance to revamp all that with the charter, which again emphasises the principles and values that we are trying to work on together. Human rights, as has been mentioned, are crucial, but they are not something on which one nation should lecture another. They are a struggle for us all. There is not a single member of the Commonwealth or, I would dare to say, a single member of the international community who does not have to face issues of human rights. We are in a mutual struggle to enhance the human condition and build the stability and confidence that comes when human rights are being fulfilled. We all know that the absence of human rights leads to insecurity, danger and extremism. The Commonwealth, as a resource of human co-operation within the crucial but essentially more formal international institutions, has a big role to play. I do not believe that we have begun to realise that potential.
My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend for introducing this topical debate ahead of the CHOGM meeting next month. While clearly there is enormous support throughout the House for the role and importance of the Commonwealth, some noble Lords have rightly pointed out the questionable human rights record in Sri Lanka. However, I listened with great interest to the glowing account given by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby.
A theme which has been taken up is that there is certainly scope for improvement in the Commonwealth so that it can be more effective, and that it is in need of some reform. Some have referred to the Commonwealth as a social club, but almost everyone agrees that it has been extremely effective in its soft power and diplomacy. I am a firm supporter of the Commonwealth and I agreed with my noble friend Lord Luce when he said that we could not invent the Commonwealth today. With a membership of more than 2.2 billion people worldwide, my specific interest relates to the role and value of the Commonwealth in improving the lives of its 18 member states in Africa, now that the Gambia has recently left.
Somewhat controversially, and despite the questionable recent election in Zimbabwe, I share the views of my noble friend Lord Hannay, in that I hope the time will come when Zimbabwe will rejoin the Commonwealth family. With the theme of this year’s CHOGM conference focused on growth, equity and inclusive development, this is a particularly important priority for the people of Zimbabwe where the unemployment rate is estimated to be running at 85%, with the majority trying to work in the informal sector. The country is possibly facing another economic disaster, so there is a desperate need for more international investment and support. Rising food prices in many Commonwealth countries threatens disaster and, with that, unrest. I hope that the challenge of food security will be addressed at this year’s meeting. There also needs to be more consensus on measures to reduce levels of national debt, especially in some of the smaller Commonwealth states, which continue to be a major impediment to sustainable economic development.
The digital revolution has promoted huge improvements in communications and has increased business between Commonwealth networks, yet youth unemployment remains a major challenge for most Commonwealth members. It is on the subject of digital inclusion that I wish to address my remarks in the limited time available. It is extremely encouraging to note that up to 80% of all Africans have access to a mobile telephone. The digital economy provides huge scope for improvements in access to education, better healthcare, business information and other benefits. However, all this depends to a large degree on access to reliable and affordable broadband. While the CDC Group has achieved a lot in making infrastructure improvements in many Commonwealth states, access to broadband, particularly in Africa, remains extremely poor. Despite the fact that several large fibre optic cables now service the African coastline, fewer than 5% of the population of Africa have access to broadband.
In conclusion, although there is scope to reform and improve the effectiveness of the Commonwealth, this year’s CHOGM meeting is not just an opportunity for leaders to hold discussions, exchange views and build consensus on topical and challenging issues, it is a pivotally important meeting to establish and consolidate the credibility of the Commonwealth family for the future.
My Lords, there could hardly be a better time for this debate, just a few weeks before CHOGM. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for introducing it, not least for his magisterial summary, inevitably repeated in part by other noble Lords, precisely because it was so comprehensive.
We live in an increasingly multipolar world, which makes it of greater importance all the time to understand multinational organisations, including the Commonwealth. I must say at this point that I share the points made by noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Judd, about other regional organisations. It is not a competition and there are perfectly good roles for each of them. There are other kinds of network as well, which are having a growing impact. The world is highly connected and networked—the Commonwealth has become, as the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, described it, a people’s Commonwealth, not least because of that.
The Commonwealth’s strength is a history of shared experience. The commitment in the modern period, at least for the most part, is to shared governmental standards, economic development and the rule of law. There is a sense that, together, we are stronger and that we gain great strength through co-operation. All of this is cemented together not just by elements of common language but if, and only if, we have a common commitment to exacting standards of conduct in each individual—and equal—nation.
I am wholly with the noble Lords, Lord Luce, Lord Crisp and Lord St John of Bletso, when they make the point—which I share enthusiastically—that nobody starting today could create the Commonwealth or, indeed, probably the Francophonie; or the curious circumstances in which some nations are members of both. History has dealt a particular hand, which has a new modern life. Nowhere could you achieve this blend: large and small nations, some as small as Tuvalu; some of the largest economies and some of the most modest; developed and developing countries; and predominantly Hindu, Muslim and Christian countries—some deeply religious and some essentially secular. The common ground for all 53 is in the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law; themselves the building blocks of peace and current and future prosperity. I wholly endorse the point made by my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland that they were summed up, in words at least, in the Harare principles, even if people have not wholly lived by those principles.
It is easy to understand why anyone who has served as Minister for the Commonwealth feels the honour of that role. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that I do not recall in the Foreign Office ever leaving the “C” bit out. The Commonwealth had that importance for all of us. There are many examples of why we should feel proud, such as the scholarships and the involvement in higher education. There are many examples of positive co-operation programmes, such as the 2008 secretariat initiative, which assisted many countries to innovate in order to enhance healthcare provision, promoting e-health. I was very intrigued by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, about the imperatives for life-saving information and the possibilities of sharing them. Assisting the Seychelles in its path to WTO accession demonstrated what can be offered in the financial sector.
Centrally, the work of the Commonwealth and its Eminent Persons Group in sustaining the core values is critical. Where nations, for whatever reason, resile from these values, reform and reinstatement of the values is a key Commonwealth function, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, was quite right to mention the influence of the charter in this.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, mentioned the exacting standards of solidarity and trade and asked whether these are key functions of the Commonwealth. Well, maybe not enough, but the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place has rightly described what may be a key function of Commonwealth membership; that is, as a badge of honour and,
“implying a guarantee that a country is upholding high standards in democracy and human rights”.
Membership is voluntary; members choose of their volition whether they intend to uphold those values.
However, I also feel, as do some noble Lords, that because we see so much that is positive—and this debate has proved it—we may be too relaxed, a little too complacent, about some of the new thinking needed to sustain the health of this key multinational organisation. Having a critical and friendly edge generates renewal, as the noble Lord, Lord St John, said—I think that he was also looking for a slightly deeper review. If we took any other view of the Commonwealth, it would soon be portrayed as not much different from some of the other multinational organisations that do not succeed.
As my noble friend Lord Browne, said, there are fundamental financial issues and contributions to be dealt with. There are fundamental issues with some of the countries. I do not accept the Gambian president’s allegation that the Commonwealth remains colonialist—the evidence does not support it. There is an increasingly authoritarian regime there with a history of human rights violations which fears that it may be judged to fall outside the standards of the charter which were adopted in 2012 and signed off by Her Majesty on 11 March this year. The president claims that he—and I mean he—can cure AIDS and infertility with herbal concoctions, and that homosexuality is one of the three biggest threats to human existence. Perhaps he decided to jump before he was pushed. Let me be clear from these Benches that I am wholly in sympathy with the noble Lords, Lord Black and Lord Lexden, in what they said about the necessity to address these issues squarely.
However, it is right, given the history of the Commonwealth, to continue to review whether there are colonial frames of mind, patronisation and condescension. It is essential to listen to a diverse membership, not to be paralysed by anxieties but ready to hear the perceptions of those who may be critical. We have to be attentive to the continuing stress lines between members. We must use our best endeavours to assist. We are familiar with tensions between India and Pakistan and must continue to be. There are other tensions; for example, economic rivalry between the economic powers of Africa. South Africa and Nigeria reflect on occasions rather more tension than is perhaps normal in commercial competition.
There have been some prized initiatives. The Maltese CHOGM emphasised e-networks—the noble Lord, Lord St John, also talked about digital inclusion. That initiative was launched with great élan and then more or less vanished. We could look at a number of programmes across the Commonwealth and say with an element of regret that the infrastructure around them has not been capable of sustaining them. That has been true in the case of youth development, on which there was a report on 17 September; on education, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, drew to our attention; on health, employment, civic and political participation; and on the subject of press freedom, where I again find myself in strong agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Black. I would be grateful for the Minister’s views on all this. The upcoming CHOGM will bring some very important difficulties to the surface and we had better face them squarely.
I have a lot of time and respect for the current Secretary-General, but he and others must recognise a growing sense that the Commonwealth is not as fully committed to its core values as it should be. In a number of areas, I hear a discussion where the view is expressed that we overlook, or respond too weakly to, human rights abuses by members. Key recommendations of the Eminent Persons Group on reform have either not been implemented or been implemented very slowly. My noble friends Lord Wills and Lord Browne have rightly focused on this, as did my noble friend Lord Paul when he argued that the Commonwealth should be more assertive. That is absolutely right.
It is fundamental to the role of the Commonwealth that it addresses human rights violations and does not ignore them. The apartheid Government of South Africa negotiated their own departure not least because of the terminal international isolation that they faced. The Commonwealth was among the leading forces that produced that isolation, and that is greatly to its credit.
Let us be frank about Sri Lanka and the confounding decision to hold CHOGM in Colombo. The regime stands credibly accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes, of ongoing perpetration of the most serious human rights violations, suppression of opposition, media comment and the rights of free assembly. Those will increase during CHOGM as it tries to ensure that it is not disrupted in any sense. That is obviously what led to Canada’s decision, and I do not want to comment further on that.
My right honourable friend Douglas Alexander summed it up in clear terms up in March when he said:
“I have called previously on the British Government to use the prospect of the summit to encourage Sri Lanka to meet its international obligations and to address concerns about on-going human rights violations”.
He repeated that six weeks later. I fear that, although there has been a response to Questions in the other place, it is at best muted. It needs to go far further.
Surely, the response to date cannot be regarded as adequate to the circumstances pertaining in Sri Lanka. First, the United Kingdom delegation could not be more heavyweight: it includes the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State. In my view, the Government took the decision too early, before they could have taken effective soundings, six months ahead of the summit. Why was the decision taken before the facts were known?
Secondly, the Government have said nothing so far about the Sri Lankan President becoming the Chairman-in-Office of the Commonwealth for the next two years. From a Commonwealth point of view, I believe that that is simply unacceptable and I am eager to hear what is the Government’s position on that. Thirdly, what will the Government say to Sri Lanka about civil rights abuses, the restrictions being imposed during CHOGM and the planned restrictions on the international media? Just getting the licence to go there is not the issue; it is whether you can then perform the functions of a journalist. Let us be clear: journalists can often get permission to go somewhere; it is whether they can perform the functions of a journalist that matters.
Those are the issues. If we want renewal, if we want bolstered trade, if we want to ensure that trade reduces or eliminates poverty, if we want to make health and education policies a reality, the Commonwealth is a great forum to do that. These are the areas in which our judgments will have to be made.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for introducing this timely debate and all noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions, especially my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes. I particularly enjoyed listening to my noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville. I am not sure that any Cabinet Minister can live up to the reputation of playing in the Ashes, but I once umpired a UK-Bangladesh parliamentarians one-day match. Perhaps that is my contribution.
At the outset I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Paul, and use this opportunity to put on record our appreciation for the tremendous role that Her Majesty plays in leading the Commonwealth. Her role as an example to us all and we hope that she continues to lead the organisation for many years to come.
The Government are a strong supporter of the Commonwealth, and the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka is an opportunity both to reaffirm the importance of the Commonwealth to member states and to maintain efforts to strengthen and reform the organisation to ensure that it retains its relevance and impact in future. This Government have strengthened the UK’s engagement with the Commonwealth. We firmly believe that it is in our interests that we have a strong Commonwealth. The Commonwealth bridges all of the continents, embraces 2 billion people and represents all of the world’s faiths. Its membership includes many of the fastest-growing and increasingly technologically advanced economies in the world. I endorse the description of the Commonwealth of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman.
However, to remain relevant to its people today and to continue to have a real impact on the international stage, it must respond to the changing world that it inhabits. That is why the UK has played a leading role in efforts to reform the Commonwealth. Since Commonwealth heads last met in Perth in 2011, the Commonwealth has embarked on an ambitious but necessary programme of reform. Member states have been implementing a series of important recommendations made by the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group in its report, A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform, which was agreed following the Perth CHOGM. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford who, as Minister for the Commonwealth, made an essential contribution to that process, but I accept the strong words of my noble friend Lord Lexden that we need to go much further.
We have seen some important milestones for the Commonwealth during the past two years. Perhaps the most significant has been the agreement of the Commonwealth Charter which gives the organisation, for the first time, a single document setting out its core values. This was referred to by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and others. The Government want the charter to become an established, recognisable statement of what the Commonwealth stands for. The charter should be accessible to all Commonwealth citizens and used as a means to protect and promote the core democratic values which underpin the organisation. It is an indispensable tool for reform both now and in the future but we recognise, as the noble Lord, Lord Browne, detailed in his speech, that the charter remains an aspirational document to many Commonwealth member states. Its signature is therefore only the start of a longer process of reform. It remains crucial, as we lead up to CHOGM, for the Commonwealth to ensure that human rights and values are at the forefront of its work.
As we have heard today and previously, given the human rights situation in some Commonwealth member states, some question the credibility of the Commonwealth as an organisation founded on values. We recognise these concerns but we should recognise, too, that there are also mechanisms at the Commonwealth’s disposal such as the charter which can be used to help challenge, influence and, ultimately, effect reform. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, clearly put that view. Through signing the charter, for example, all member states have agreed to oppose,
“all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds”.
However, my noble friend Lord Black was right to say that the charter now needs to be put into practice, so it is for the UK and countries with similar views to keep making the case for acceptance and integration. We will continue to press other states to recognise that the LGBT community, which has come under particular pressure in some Commonwealth countries, deserves the same protection as all others.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group is a further mechanism at the Commonwealth’s disposal. The Government strongly supported the recent reform of CMAG, which enhanced its mandate as the custodian of Commonwealth values. The UK is not currently a member of CMAG. However, the Government have consistently called for CMAG to exercise its strengthened mandate. I have raised these issues personally with the current chair of CMAG, Dipu Moni, as has my right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Commonwealth. We have also raised our concerns with the Commonwealth Secretary-General. We want to see CMAG demonstrate that it plays a valuable and effective role in addressing situations of concern.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, my noble friends Lord Chidgey and Lord Brooke, the noble Lords, Lord Wills and Lord Hannay, and my noble friend Lord Moynihan all raised the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka. At this year’s meeting, we will look to the Commonwealth to assess the progress it has made since Perth, to identify areas where further work is needed and to be ambitious in what it hopes to achieve in future. In particular, CHOGM is an opportunity for the Commonwealth to work collectively to influence a number of crucial issues unfolding on the global stage. One, which this CHOGM will discuss, is the post-2015 development agenda following the publication of the report of the UN high-level panel, co-chaired by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. Commonwealth member states should take this opportunity to ensure that the views of the Commonwealth on this vital subject are reflected in the final framework. Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers have regularly raised our priorities with the secretary-general and fellow Commonwealth Ministers, and my department’s officials have co-ordinated a cross-Whitehall approach to the meeting. We will continue to work with key stakeholders up to and beyond CHOGM.
Given the considerable importance that the Government place on the promotion and protection of human rights in the Commonwealth, some have quite rightly questioned why my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will attend this year’s meeting in Sri Lanka. We will attend CHOGM because it is the right thing to do for the Commonwealth, but in doing so we will take a very clear message. It is a message that the British Government have given consistently in this Parliament and in our contacts with the Sri Lankan Government at every level: that Sri Lanka must make progress on human rights, reconciliation and a political settlement. It is also vital that the media are able to travel to Sri Lanka and report freely. I hear what my noble friend Lord Naseby said, but we will continue to press the Sri Lankan Government to honour their public assurances on this matter. CHOGM will highlight the work yet to be done to achieve the aims to which the Sri Lankan Government have agreed, in follow-up to their own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s report. The Commonwealth should look closely at what it can do to help to support Sri Lanka in making the progress that we all expect.
The noble Lords, Lord Wills and Lord Browne, specifically raised the question of our approach to CHOGM. Our approach can be reflected in the way in which we have handled the situation in other fora. At the Human Rights Council in March this year we co-sponsored the resolution on Sri Lanka. It is important to recognise the progress that has been made—for example, on reconstruction and de-mining—but I accept that much more needs to be done. The Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and others will deliver a strong message to the Sri Lankan Government on our concerns and the need for progress, but we feel that engagement is the right way forward.
Noble Lords have also raised the Gambia’s decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth, a decision noted by this Government. It is too soon to say what the Gambia’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth will mean for the organisation or for the Gambia and for its people. The Commonwealth is of course a voluntary organisation, so any decisions on membership are a matter for each member Government. However, we should not let this detract from the simple fact that membership of the Commonwealth remains a genuine aspiration for many countries. The Commonwealth continues to attract interest from potential new members. Indeed, we understand that applications for membership from South Sudan and Burundi are currently being considered by the Commonwealth Secretariat.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, raised the issue of the UK’s funding to the Commonwealth. The UK remains the largest single donor to Commonwealth organisations. During the financial year 2013-14, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development expect to contribute around £45 million to Commonwealth organisations and programmes. That includes around £8 million of support for the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, around £1 million for the Commonwealth Youth Programme, which helps young people across the Commonwealth contribute to development, and another £1 million to the Commonwealth of Learning, to enable poor people across the Commonwealth to access open and distance learning opportunities in formal education. Of course, we also make large payments in bilateral programmes in many of the individual Commonwealth countries. These are significant commitments, so we continue to encourage Commonwealth organisations to look to make more effective and efficient use of the resources that they are given, and to focus on reforms that affect core strength and comparative advantage.
My noble friend Lord Selsdon raised the issue of trade. There is great potential within the Commonwealth to promote the long-term prosperity of its members. The Commonwealth is a natural place for the UK and other member states to do business. Our shared principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, combined with our similar legal systems, provide a solid foundation for doing business—a platform for trade, investment, development and prosperity. Among its members are some of the world’s most dynamic and fast-growing economies such as India, Nigeria and Malaysia. As a whole, the Commonwealth accounts for one-third of the world’s population and its economies export more than $3 trillion in goods and services each year. The organisation has a strong presence in groupings such as the G20, leaving the Commonwealth well placed to influence key decisions across the global economy.
The noble Lord, Lord Luce, also raised the issue of education about the Commonwealth within the UK. The new history curriculum is less prescriptive than before and gives teachers more freedom over the content that should be taught. While it does not make explicit reference to teaching about the Commonwealth, there is nothing that precludes schools from teaching about it if they choose to do so. At key stage 3, for example, pupils should be taught about the challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world from 1901 to the present day, and we think therefore that that will include the study of the Commonwealth. I take the point that noble Lords made about reflecting the Commonwealth contribution during the First World War as we approach the centenary commemoration next year, something that I personally been involved with.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and my noble friend Lord Chidgey raised the issue of the British Indian Ocean Territory. On 18 December 2012 the Foreign Secretary said that he was going to review policy towards the resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory. This review has been under way since then and we have been in touch with all those with an interest, especially the Chagossian community here in the UK, in Mauritius and in the Seychelles. Ministers have agreed that we should have an independent study that will, with as much transparency as possible, properly explore what might be possible, what is realistic and what it would cost. I am sure that I will report back to the House when that is concluded.
I thank the noble Lords, Lord Kakkar and Lord Crisp, for their contribution on healthcare. The UK Government have put improving health, especially the health of women and girls, at the heart of their work, especially the work within DfID. DfID is providing direct support to countries to enable them to move more rapidly towards universal health coverage. This includes technical assistance and financial support and is focused on helping countries to strengthen their health financing systems and their service delivery. We continue to see an important role for the Commonwealth Secretariat in advocating the recommendations in the high-level panel report on health in a post-2015 framework, which is where we think this can be brought to the fore.
My noble friend Lady Hooper and the noble Lords, Lord Hannay of Chiswick and Lord Paul, asked about Commonwealth scholarships. The UK supports two scholarship programmes open to Commonwealth students: the Commonwealth scholarship and fellowship plan and the Chevening scholarships. DfID has increased funding, providing a total of £87 million for Commonwealth scholarships for developing countries over a four-year period until 2015. This corresponds to some 800 new scholarships per year. Her Majesty’s Government have been keen to ensure that the wider Commonwealth scholarship and fellowship plan is genuinely Commonwealth-wide in nature. More than 150 Chevening scholarships have been awarded to citizens of Commonwealth countries during the year 2013-14.
The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked about immigration policy and the impact on travel from the Commonwealth. The Government take every opportunity to make clear that Britain remains open for business. As the Prime Minister said, we want the brightest and the best to help create the jobs and growth that will enable Britain to compete in the global race, and that of course includes students.
The noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, asked about Zimbabwe. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth in 2011 agreed to look forward to the conditions being created for the return of Zimbabwe to the Commonwealth and continue to encourage the parties to implement the global political agreement faithfully and effectively. Any application from Zimbabwe to reapply for membership of the Commonwealth would be a matter for all 53 countries to decide. It would be reviewed in the light of the Government of Zimbabwe addressing the issues of concern and the breaches of Commonwealth fundamental values which led to Zimbabwe’s suspension and withdrawal, including the removal of repressive legislation and guarantees on the freedom of the press.
The debate today has been wide-ranging and balanced. I value the injection of realism in the speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Flather. The UK remains fully committed to the Commonwealth. We believe it is an organisation that makes a positive and tangible impact on the world stage and that it has an important role to play in advancing democracy, human rights and sustainable development across the globe. As a network, the Commonwealth continues to provide an established forum that cuts across the traditional UN voting blocks and the developing/developed country divide, but we need to ensure that, through this year’s CHOGM and beyond, member states work together to make the Commonwealth more efficient, more focused and more relevant in today’s world.
My Lords, it remains for me to thank noble Lords enormously for their contributions to the comprehensive debate about the Commonwealth today which shows what a comprehensive association of nations it is. I am very grateful to the Minister for her long and full reply to the debate and for showing her commitment and the Government’s commitment to the Commonwealth.