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Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018

Volume 777: debated on Monday 5 December 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure the involvement of Commonwealth parliamentarians during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018, hosted by the United Kingdom, and whether they will use the opportunity provided by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference on 11–17 December to consult Commonwealth parliamentarians in advance of the Heads of Government meeting.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I draw attention to my Commonwealth-related interests in the register.

My Lords, in planning the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018, the department will engage with a full range of Commonwealth stakeholders. Through our high commissioner network, we have regular discussions with parliamentarians across the Commonwealth. I welcome the CPA conference and its focus on a collaborative Commonwealth. Unfortunately, overseas travel commitments prevent my attendance, but I look forward to meeting CPA UK and the CPA in January as part of my engagement with Commonwealth organisations.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her Answer. Many Commonwealth parliamentarians seek to come to the UK specifically to be trained in a key part of their role, which is how to hold their Governments to account. Can my noble friend please outline what mechanism the UK will model to ensure that parliamentarians can do that and address the assembled Foreign Ministers and Heads of Government while in the United Kingdom, building on CPA UK’s work?

My Lords, I welcome the idea that my noble friend proposes about how the parliamentarians from overseas may use CHOGM itself. It is important that our colleagues around the Commonwealth—the other 51 countries—are exposed to the views of their own parliamentarians and take note of them but are also exposed to the views of civil society. In my negotiations and my contacts with my colleagues around the Commonwealth, as we talk and consult with them about the agenda, I shall certainly take forward my noble friend’s idea.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the CPA UK executive. Since the Commonwealth consists almost entirely of parliamentary democracies, should not there be much more involvement of Parliaments in CHOGM? There is very little at the moment, and there has been very little. Surely, the fact of it meeting in the United Kingdom provides us with the opportunity to set a very good example.

My Lords, I hoped that I had just expressed the view that it is important that the parliamentary democracies at CHOGM in the UK in 2018 have a way of communicating with the event. Clearly, as the noble Lord will know from his experience, the agenda itself is agreed by consensus of all members of the Commonwealth. What I have just said is that, after listening to my noble friend and, indeed, to the noble Lord, in discussions with my colleagues around the membership of the Commonwealth about CHOGM, I shall certainly take forward the idea of how best we can ensure that there is parliamentary engagement.

A number of developing countries in the Commonwealth are worried that Brexit may damage their ability to trade into the EU, especially with the removal of the United Kingdom and the protective shield that that has given them. Given that, does not this meeting seem an excellent time to assure them that their interests are being addressed?

The noble Baroness raises a vital point. Throughout the summer, in my engagement with high commissioners, Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers from around the Commonwealth, I made it very clear that I am listening to their concerns. Although there is no formal consultation process, it is absolutely crucial that, as one of the members of the Commonwealth, we take their views into account and shall continue to do so.

I declare an interest as president of the Royal Commonwealth Society. My noble friend Lady Berridge is to be congratulated on raising the issue. My noble friend the Minister is Minister for the Commonwealth. Has she read the interesting speech by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary last Friday—a strategic speech about Britain being at the centre of global networks? I am sure that she did read it; it was in many ways a good speech. But does not she agree that it is rather a pity that at no point in that speech did the Foreign Secretary mention the Commonwealth? He spoke about many Commonwealth countries, but there was no mention of the Commonwealth itself. When she goes back to the office, could she point out to the Foreign Secretary that unfortunate omission?

I find the Foreign Secretary great to work with, a great team leader, prepared to listen and give as good as you get. Ministerial team meetings are highly productive, and I shall certainly reflect on what my noble friend has said. For the sake of accuracy, I point out that I am Minister for the Commonwealth as an institution and for the Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean directly, but of course other of my honourable and right honourable colleagues in the Foreign Office have geographical responsibilities for individual countries. That is why we are able to engage so consistently and completely with all Commonwealth countries.

In last Friday’s debate, the most reverend Primate spoke compellingly about the engagement of civil society in changing attitudes. Will the Minister undertake to repeat a round-table exercise about LGBT rights, similar to the one at the last CHOGM, particularly as so many countries in the Commonwealth criminalise LGBT people?

My Lords, as I mentioned a moment ago, the agenda is agreed by consensus, but the noble Lord has raised a vital point. Having committed ourselves very closely to combating discrimination and violence against LGBT people throughout the Commonwealth, and having used every opportunity at the last CHOGM to highlight our belief that the Commonwealth must stand up for human rights, including LGBT ones, we are working out our plans to ensure that these important messages are delivered when we host CHOGM in 2018.

My Lords, last year in Malta many Commonwealth heads expressed a desire for CHOGM 2018 to be held in the UK but outside London, as there is a concern that the Commonwealth is becoming a London-centric organisation. In the light of this, and Belfast’s expertise in countering violent extremism—the main point on the upcoming agenda—what consideration have the Government given to CHOGM 2018 being held in that city?

My Lords, the noble Lord has made a very strong case for the idea that CHOGM should be held outside London on this occasion. I know that strong representations have been made by other parts of the United Kingdom including, for example, Manchester and Birmingham, and Downing Street is considering them all very carefully.

My Lords, during the discussions, will the Government put on the agenda the issue of frozen overseas pensions which is really affecting Commonwealth countries, especially the poorer ones, and the overseas territories?

My Lords, CHOGM has an agreed agenda but I am sure this is something that other members will wish to raise; they have certainly come forward on these issues before. The voices of the overseas territories were heard very strongly at the recent joint ministerial council in November, when I was pleased that a Minister from DWP was present to listen and respond to their views.