Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will ensure that the programme for the Commonwealth Summit in London in 2018 includes a People’s Forum and a Parliamentary Forum, the outcomes of which are recorded in the final communiqué, as has been the case for similar summits in the past.
My Lords, allow me first to offer your Lordships my apologies. This debate, tabled in June, was scheduled to take place in early September, at the end of the Summer Recess. Unfortunately, due to illness, it was postponed until today, some two months later. The good news is that in those two months a good deal of organisational and administrative progress on the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018 has taken place, which this debate can now reflect on. I declare my interests as co-chair of the all-party groups for the Commonwealth and for Africa, the former chair of the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit, and the president of the National Liberal Club Commonwealth Forum.
There have been a number of debates and Oral Questions in your Lordships’ House on the Commonwealth and connected issues over the past year, but I called this debate specifically to concentrate on the importance of parliaments in the process. Over the last two decades or so the importance of strengthening democracy in developing countries, of capacity building and of monitoring Governments held to account by parliaments has been recognised, first in the millennium development goals and now in sustainable development goal 16. Parliamentary forums have been included in international meetings on aid and development effectiveness—for example, at the fourth high-level forum in Busan, where I had the opportunity to present the parliamentary communiqué to the final plenary session of the high-level forum.
Similar procedures were followed at high-level meetings on global partnerships for aid and development—sponsored by the UN—in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Mexico City and Nairobi, and in other meetings. Considering the engagement of parliaments helped to establish that the strength of parliamentary capacity in a developing country was an important indicator in monitoring aid and development effectiveness.
Over time, there was a gradual acceptance in the development and aid community that parliaments as well as Governments had a key role to play in the process. Institutions such as the UN stopped referring to Governments as the custodians of democracy. Instead, they began referring to parliaments as having the authority of a mandate from the people. NGOs, donor Governments, development institutions and parliamentarian organisations now work together more readily on projects for strengthening democracy for the benefits that this can bring.
The forthcoming London CHOGM provides a golden opportunity for our Parliament to be at the centre of activities to reinforce parliamentary democracy throughout the Commonwealth, by example and through opportunity. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on UN global goals found on a study visit to New York in July an intense interest in synergy between the UN’s sustainable development goal 16 and the objectives of the London CHOGM, and liaison has now been established.
Dialogue is now taking place between the various all-party groups, particularly those for the Commonwealth, for sustainable development goals and for Africa. We are engaging with the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK Branch, as well as civil society, in support of the aims of the London CHOGM, the Commonwealth goals and the UN global goals.
Since this debate was first scheduled in June, there has been progress on a wide front; for example, a two-day conference organised by the Commonwealth Round Table and round tables from the CPA in preparation for a parliamentary forum in London in March 2018.
At the last CHOGM, in Malta in 2015, the final communiqué reaffirmed a commitment to the values and principles of the Commonwealth charter. It acknowledged that all human rights are equal, indivisible, interdependent, interrelated and universal. It urged promotion and protection of all human rights and freedoms. Given that such objectives are a major plank in the Government’s ambitions for the London CHOGM, it will be interesting to hear their views on progress so far.
The Malta communiqué observed that good governance and respect for rule of law are vital for stable and prosperous societies and require efficient, effective and accountable public institutions. It called for continued efforts by member states to ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels. The role of parliaments and parliamentarians in monitoring and scrutinising the Executive was clearly promoted and supported. Have the UK Government plans to assess progress so far as part of their preparations for the London CHOGM?
In their preparations for the London CHOGM, the Government have set out four forums: business, people’s, youth, and women’s. The business forum recognises that shared values, regulatory systems and language bring the potential of increasing intra-Commonwealth trade and reducing costs. The City of London Corporation is expanding its capacity to promote UK trade and investment opportunities across Commonwealth member states. As founding partners of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, the corporation has been commissioned to deliver the business forum. The Lord Mayor hosted the Commonwealth Trade Ministers’ inaugural dinner at Mansion House as part of two days of discussions as a precursor to the 2018 CHOGM.
The people’s forum is organised in partnership with the Commonwealth Foundation and provides the single largest opportunity for civil society to engage with leaders and influence Commonwealth policy. It provides a potential platform for parliamentarians to make the case for strengthening democratic institutions, as in the Malta CHOGM communiqué, there being no parliamentary forum as such at the London CHOGM.
At the 62nd Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in London in December 2016, the opening address stated that the CPA,
“provides a unique platform for inter-parliamentary dialogue … on how to strengthen parliamentary democracy Commonwealth-wide and discuss … innovative approaches on how to do so”.
The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, said:
“Thanks to Commonwealth Parliamentarians coming together, law reform and progressive social and economic development are accelerated. Exchanges of knowledge and expertise lead to institutions of governance being strengthened”.
The 2018 CHOGM draws on the Malta CHOGM and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in December 2016 with the theme “Towards a Common Future”. Within that theme there are four principal areas of focus. These include “A Fairer Future”, which highlights the democratic values and principles set out in the Commonwealth charter, our collective commitment to the rule of law and human rights, good and honest governance, and tackling gender inequality. The Commonwealth has a proud history of taking action to promote and protect democratic principles. By upholding and promoting those principles, we can promote a fairer future for all citizens and members of the Commonwealth, and provide an essential platform for sustainable development.
The UK branch of the CPA has come forward with the initiative of holding a Commonwealth Parliamentarians’ Forum prior to the CHOGM summit, in late February 2018. From its excellent concept note, it is clear that there will be a huge opportunity to highlight the prospect of a global Britain and a 21st-century Commonwealth. The aim is for some 150 parliamentarians from across the Commonwealth to engage in the summit agenda themes at the forum. It is hoped that they will then be in a stronger position to press for these priorities at home. This CPA UK initiative is aimed at maintaining momentum through the UK’s two years as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth until 2020, with the belief that effective parliamentary engagement will support better sustainable development outcomes across the Commonwealth.
I opened this debate by describing similar international gatherings under the auspices of the United Nations and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, where parliamentarian engagement continued through the forum to the closing plenary session and into the final communiqué. I noted how important it was that, over time, civil society and parliaments have moved from competition to co-operation in the space for strengthening democracy. To maintain this very positive development, there needs to be the strongest possible link between the Commonwealth Parliamentarians’ Forum and the forums at the Commonwealth summit. Parliamentarians and members of civil society must be able to work together—prior to, during and after the summit—in influencing, scrutinising and monitoring the implementation of the national strategies and policy decisions that evolve.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for securing this debate, and declare an interest as the co-project director of the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion or Belief and co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on that subject.
Last Wednesday, the all-party group launched a new report, Article 18: From Rhetoric to Reality. At that event my noble friend the Minister highlighted the Government’s commitment to freedom of religion or belief and promised to “take this commitment further”. Last Shrove Tuesday the Prime Minister said:
“We must reaffirm our determination to stand up for the freedom of people of all religions to practise their beliefs in peace and safety. And I hope to take further measures as a government to support this”.
So I trust that my noble friend the Minister will outline how the Government will use the Commonwealth summit to take this commitment forward.
The Commonwealth is a mixed picture when it comes to upholding Article 18, and the problems are not restricted to one faith or country. Pew research from April 2017 shows high levels of government restrictions in India and Pakistan and medium levels in Kenya. It is sobering to note that the same research highlights high and rising social hostilities based on religion here in the UK, shown especially in levels of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
Two of the Commonwealth’s most populous states are witnessing increasing problems. In India there were 316 attacks on Christians in the first five months of 2017, compared with 365 incidents in the whole of 2016. In Nigeria, according to the International Crisis Group, recurring violence between the Muslim Fulani and Christian settlers resulted in more than 2,500 deaths in 2016. This is the reality for too many young people growing up in the Commonwealth. According to Aid to the Church in Need, about 15,000 children have become orphans in conflicts relating to religious intolerance.
Violations of Article 18 can of course be barriers to education—one of the key sustainable development goals that the Government are committed to achieving. According to the Hindu American Foundation and the Aurat Foundation in Pakistan, around 1,000 young Christian and Hindu girls are kidnapped, forcibly converted and raped each year. This has led to many Christian and Hindu families being too afraid to send their young girls to school. On 27 August this year in Punjab, classmates beat a Christian boy, Sharoon Masih, to death after they had initially bullied him for being a Christian and told him not to drink from the same glasses as Muslims.
More than 60% of the Commonwealth is under 30 years old and the Prime Minister stated on September 19 that,
“we will put young people at the heart of the Commonwealth”.
But it seems that too many young people are growing up in the Commonwealth without their Article 18 rights, while thinking that those who hold no faith or a different faith to theirs are somehow other. Can my noble friend the Minister please assure this House that the UK will ensure that freedom of religion or belief is in the summit communiqué as a priority for the Commonwealth, under the Fairer Future theme? It is important that freedom of religion or belief comes under this theme as it highlights its role in building an equitable and prosperous future across the Commonwealth, and that freedom of religion or belief is valued as an inherent good in its own right rather than being subsumed into a wider counterextremism agenda.
While this is a Heads of Government meeting, it is vital that the resource of parliamentarians is harnessed, as the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, outlined. There are many MPs who are champions of human rights and freedom of religion or belief within the Commonwealth. In Pakistan, the NGOs Asia Foundation and Pattan—financed by the Canadian Government—helped to resource parliamentarians to engage in debate and legislation around religious freedom. As a result, religious freedom caucuses were established in two provincial assemblies—in Punjab and Sindh—to promote interfaith harmony and highlight issues affecting minorities. Through my own involvement in a panel of international parliamentarians, I have seen representatives of the National Assembly of Pakistan form a model of an all-party group within their assembly. It is important that this best practice is spread across the Commonwealth.
It is also important that freedom of religion or belief is on the parliamentary forum’s agenda in February, and that that forum feeds directly into the communiqué. Her Majesty’s Government rightly spend UK taxpayers’ money on parliamentary training through the laudable auspices of CPA UK and CPA International. While the UK chairs the Commonwealth between 2018 and 2020, it is important that this training should become increasingly professionalised and linked, where possible, to the very best the academic world has to offer. This is one of the reasons why the Commonwealth initiative I outlined is based at Birmingham University. Surely, to make full use of the ongoing CPA training a parliamentary forum should become a feature of future Commonwealth summits. Will my noble friend outline whether Her Majesty’s Government are speaking to the Government of Malaysia, which will host the 2020 summit, to press for a parliamentary forum as part of the next Commonwealth summit?
I have no doubt of my noble friend’s personal commitment to the issue I have outlined. I hope that the Commonwealth summit and our chairmanship will see more reality than rhetoric on Article 18, which is what so many young people in the Commonwealth need to ensure a fairer future.
My Lords, if there was any need to have the relevance of the Commonwealth pointed out, it was underlined powerfully by the noble Baroness who has just spoken—but then, she always speaks powerfully.
I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for having given us this opportunity because he is a lifelong champion of the Commonwealth. All of us in this House, and any intelligent person in our society, are concerned about global security. The world is totally interdependent and we have to work out ways in which we can handle effectively the governance of that reality. The Commonwealth has an important part to play.
Of course, international terrorism is part of that global reality of interdependence. If we are to look at the causes and underlying reasons that lead to abominations such as international terrorism, for a start we have to face up, just as an indication, to the size of the global refugee problem.
We touched on this in an earlier debate this afternoon and I do not apologise for repeating one point that I made in that debate: there are 65.6 million totally displaced people in the world; there are 22.5 million people who are refugees; and there are 10 million people who are stateless. How on earth can we have a hope of a stable, secure world while that social reality with all its dangerous consequences still exists? The Commonwealth contains very many of the people to whom I have just referred.
The issue of refugees is one to which we have to face up. I do not think it altogether encouraging that in the agendas so far the issue of refugees, with its massive significance within the Commonwealth, is not spelled out specifically and clearly enough as an objective for the Commonwealth to tackle together. I would like some reassurance from the Minister this evening, and I will take this opportunity to say how glad I am to see the Minister handling the issue of the Commonwealth as I know he is deeply committed.
Then there is the issue of climate change. We played a very big part in the success of the Paris conference. The Commonwealth summit is a great opportunity to generate more momentum and more commitment to the objectives of the Paris agreement. Can the Minister tell us a bit more about the meaningful package on climate finance? What are we doing within the Commonwealth to generate support for that? On disaster preparedness and risk reduction, what is being done within the Commonwealth to tackle the issue of humanitarian aid to help less advanced countries meet their role within the overall situation? If we are going to remain committed to low-carbon prosperity, would this not be an ideal opportunity to see a strengthened commitment coming from the Commonwealth conference?
On human rights, there is so much that can be said. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 2016 publication dealing with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights stated:
“The authorities in many countries actively persecute LGB&T people. Consensual same-sex relations remain criminalised in 75 jurisdictions, including the majority of Commonwealth countries. Even in countries where consensual same-sex relations are legal, many people still face violence and discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity”.
What are we doing at this meeting of Commonwealth heads to face up to that reality and generate a genuine commitment?
Then there are all the issues of effective justice, security sector reform to ensure that what happens in the security sector is not counterproductive, and all that is necessary in education, health and employment.
I shall finish with one reference. We should also see the Commonwealth conference as a great opportunity to generate real commitment and action on conflict resolution and pre-emptive diplomacy. What is the Commonwealth doing about the ugly situation which is developing within the Cameroons?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, on obtaining, at last, this important debate and endorse what he said about the importance of parliamentary democracy and of strengthening that within the Commonwealth. I know from my own visit to the Sierra Leonean Parliament—I have visited twice, but once was a CPA mission to run a workshop on strengthening the committee function—how underresourced some Parliaments are and how difficult it is for individual MPs to hold their Executive to account. We cannot overestimate the importance of putting resource into that sort of capacity-building.
However, that is not the main thrust of what I want to say in my brief contribution today. I should declare an interest as the vice-chair of the All-Party Group on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases. I want to speak this evening about the opportunity that CHOGM offers to make an extraordinary advance in the fight against malaria globally. I thank the Minister in particular for his courtesy in agreeing to meet me and a group from Malaria No More, which has been putting forward the plans and the proposal to have a focus on malaria at CHOGM next year.
Much has been said in the planning for CHOGM about the importance of ensuring its relevance to the individual citizens of the Commonwealth, particularly young people. I believe that a determined focus on malaria next year, and an active programme throughout the two-year leadership that follows, would fulfil that desire. Ninety per cent of the 2.4 billion Commonwealth citizens live in countries affected by malaria. That represents a third of the world’s population, but two-thirds of the world’s malaria burden.
Within the Commonwealth, we have a range of experiences in malaria. We have the countries for which malaria is a distant memory, but which are donors, the homes of scientific advance or the homes of businesses that are involved in producing new diagnostics, new medicines and, hopefully, new vaccines; the countries that have enormously high burdens of malaria, such as Nigeria and India; those that have recently eliminated malaria, such as Sri Lanka; and the countries that have ambitious plans to eliminate it, particularly Malaysia.
The Commonwealth represents the breadth and weight of the malaria burden, and some of the best examples of the determination, science and innovation that will help us to defeat it. It is a disease that kills people but also causes school absenteeism and poor productivity, and it is a barrier to economic development and fostering trade links. This disproportionate burden, its intersection with social and economic issues, and the sheer ambition to eliminate the world’s oldest disease make it a fitting choice for the Commonwealth’s next grand challenge.
The UK is a global leader in the fight against malaria. UK innovation, through firms such as GSK and through academic institutions of excellence in Liverpool and London, has had a major role in cutting deaths from malaria by over 60% since 2000, saving some 6.8 million lives. It has been calculated that every £1 spent fighting malaria delivers £36 of economic and social benefits. Yet, despite fantastic progress, a child still dies every two minutes from malaria, and a disease that costs $1 to diagnose and treat will kill 500,000 people this year. We also know that if we do not keep up the investment in fighting malaria, we could see all those hard-won gains disappearing.
The proposal for a focus on malaria at CHOGM has brought together a range of our Commonwealth allies, global civil society, business, global health institutions and philanthropy to support what could be a really innovative and exciting development. Given the UK’s leadership on malaria across scientific research, business innovation, development programmes and investment in the Global Fund, which made it clear at a meeting in Westminster this week how much it supports this proposal, we are extremely well placed to convene partners on this vital issue.
The collective power of the Commonwealth to galvanise action on the world’s biggest challenges has been demonstrated through the successful efforts to end polio. Putting the world on a path to end malaria is a fitting choice for the Commonwealth’s next great challenge. I hope the Minister will give us some encouragement that we may find a place for that focus at next year’s conference.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, on introducing this debate and on his exemplary work in the Commonwealth. I thank him for his truly excellent speech, which perfectly made the case for a parliamentary forum and for strengthening parliamentary participation to help parliamentary democracy and the capacity-building that the Commonwealth so desperately needs. I congratulate the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association on holding a Commonwealth conference before the Commonwealth summit, which will be a useful prelude if a forum can be established.
The evolution of this extraordinary organisation into a free association of nations encompassing a family of 53 nations and one-third of the world’s population spread across six continents is a story of a remarkable institution that is not looking to the past but is firmly engaged in defining the future. The Commonwealth summit has accordingly reached a high level of expectation and is well placed to exceed that, not least if it addresses the issues that have been raised in this debate and are to come.
I am pleased that the Government are deeply committed to the summit’s success and that the Minister is strongly committed to it. There is much that denotes the progress and development taking place across the Commonwealth, and it is important to expand our participation and co-operation with it. There is progress and reform, not least to fulfil the promise of the 1 billion young people across the Commonwealth. There is progress and development in areas such as health and education. With this year’s theme of a peacebuilding Commonwealth, much can be achieved. The Commonwealth’s work on counterextremism and establishing a unit to deal with it also shows some good progress.
While there is clear progress on good governance and universal standards, that does not mean that all standards are where they should be. There are different circumstances and stages across the Commonwealth, and occasionally some setbacks. However, ambition, stronger institutions, greater co-operation, dialogue and open exchanges will bring inclusivity, prosperity and opportunities for all. In that regard, the reforms to the secretariat are also to be welcomed. Indeed, I welcome the articulation by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, of a very forward-looking vision. There are many excellent staff in the Commonwealth Secretariat, not least the great ambassador for the Commonwealth, the deputy secretary-general Josephine Ojiambo.
While there is some way to go to develop trade on a fair and secure basis across the Commonwealth, there is much promise. The projection that trade across the Commonwealth will reach £1 trillion by 2030 illustrates that opportunity. I look forward to the business forum and to being able to participate in it. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Marland, on his work, which has been truly outstanding.
The Queen’s “Commonwealth canopy” was launched at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta in 2015. This network of forest conservation initiatives, which involves almost all the countries of the Commonwealth, is to be welcomed, and I hope the Commonwealth summit will be able to mark all countries in the Commonwealth being committed to it, marking Her Majesty the Queen’s service to the Commonwealth while conserving indigenous forest for future generations.
I have an interest to declare: I am the president of the Commonwealth Jewish Council, which was established in 1982 to support and develop Jewish communities in Commonwealth countries, and to cultivate constructive relationships to help further the goals of the Commonwealth. We have a number of substantial communities and pockets of small communities across the Commonwealth. In some 37, we embrace the organised communities, and there are much smaller outlying groups of Jews across a further half a dozen countries.
The Commonwealth Jewish Council demonstrates a particularly strong connection between Jewish communities and the Commonwealth by its commitment to values. Indeed, at its heart, the Jewish tradition has always seen as one of its great contributions its history of thought and participation in society. The Commonwealth values, which are set out so well in the charter of 2013, chimes with that tradition and how we can help work towards a sustainable world, a redistributive world and a fair, peaceful and ideal world.
In that regard, I have a few observations from my journeys and I hope the Minister will be able to address these. In recent times, many of the communities have been hit hard by events, such as Hurricane Irma. Indeed, our work in some of those communities hit by that and in the wider society will be needed for some time. Much can be achieved by the Commonwealth countries having a means of creating systems for support in such circumstances, and I hope that may be considered during the Commonwealth summit. That would be for the benefit of all.
I also wish to raise frozen pensions, which many people who have lived and worked in Britain but have now chosen to live in the Commonwealth suffer from. I hope the Minister might provide an update on the Government’s thinking on this matter.
Finally, I am encouraged by the expansion of the Commonwealth with Mozambique and Rwanda joining in recent years. South Sudan and the Gambia are in discussions about joining. On the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, I hope that the conditions will soon present themselves for Israel to join the global family. I look forward to participating in all the events around the Commonwealth summit in 2018 and believe that the great potential of this family of nations has so much to fulfil. Next year we will see much more clearly and in all dimensions the vast opportunities ahead.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for securing this important debate today.
The Government are to be applauded for including in the forthcoming Commonwealth summit “A Fairer Future”, covering the democratic principles that emphasise the importance of good governance, human rights and the rule of law to which we all subscribe, and at a more prosperous future for all Commonwealth citizens. These are primary principles on which we should all strive to build better lives for all citizens regardless of their country of origin, their gender, religion or social status. Certainly, with an estimated population of nearly one-third of the world’s total population, the Commonwealth is well placed to act as a global player and catalyst for change.
I commend the Government for putting together an agenda for the four forums, as we have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey: civil society, youth, women and business. These forums will get to the heart of core issues that have a deep impact on all of us today. I will focus on the women’s forum, which is very close to my heart. It is also deeply integrated into the other three forums.
I hope that the issue of modern slavery will be high on the agenda for the women’s forum, as it affects so many women in so many countries. It is imperative that we start to ensure that countries and societies are well placed to root out this evil and stop it from taking hold and devastating the lives of innocent and vulnerable women. Many other women’s issues are long-standing and can often be traced back to age-old, historical attitudes that have no place in our modern world.
While there may be some way of alleviating the situation of many women today who suffer injustice, inequality and sexual harassment, there is a section of women who find themselves even more burdened, discriminated against and lacking opportunities. These women are widows—women who, through no fault of their own, become victims of physical, psychological and sexual exploitation. They are often ostracised and deprived of fundamental freedoms and human rights, often leading to modern-day slavery. I declare my interest here as founder and chairman trustee of the Loomba Foundation, which recently published the World Widows Report, which has revealed that there are over 258 million widows and 584 million of their children around the world. Many of them are suffering from poverty, illiteracy, diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, conflict and injustices. Sadly, their numbers are increasing because of conflict in different countries. All these issues feed into the United Nations sustainable development goals, but the ability to achieve them by 2030 is a mammoth challenge.
Can the Minister tell us what strategies the Government can form to help the most impoverished and disadvantaged women and girls, including widows, so that they are empowered, able to earn money, become self-reliant and lead a life of dignity and, likewise, so that their children are educated, provided with skills training to enable them to get jobs or start their own business, gain economic independence and break the shackles of poverty?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, on securing this debate and introducing it with such charm and erudition. Anything that is done to improve the role and functioning of the Commonwealth is to be greatly welcomed, especially if it brings it closer to the people who live within it. We have learned this lesson particularly painfully in the case of the European Union, which has become increasingly detached from the people and therefore no longer commands—as it should—the loyalties, sentiments and affections of its people. The Commonwealth, however, is increasingly setting up people’s forums and parliamentary forums, which are intended to draw people into its own working and give them a certain stake in and emotional commitment to it. I greatly welcome this and I very much hope—as the Question set out—that the final programme of the summit will include a people’s forum and parliamentary forum.
These forums do two things. First, they provide networks across countries and, therefore, make the Commonwealth a genuine reality. Secondly, they bring people into direct contact with policymakers and the people in power, so that the people in power are able to listen to those who would suffer from the consequences of their actions.
I welcome all this, but I want to say something briefly about why the Commonwealth is so important. It has to be dusted and taken off the shelf where it has been lying ever since we joined the European Union, and I want to say something about the consequences of having neglected it for so long and now having to dust it down. It is a most valuable organisation with 52 members and 2.4 billion people, half of whom are under 25, so the future belongs to them. Rwanda and Mozambique are already members, although they were not part of the British Empire. There will be trade within the Commonwealth worth £1 trillion by 2020. The UK exports £60 billion-worth of goods to various Commonwealth countries and the combined GDP of the Commonwealth is no less than $10 trillion. That is the organisation we are talking about. This organisation somehow fits in with the British character and is naturally close to Britain: first, because it is an association of nation states and has no intention of seeking ever-increasing union; secondly, because it is an association left behind by Britain as part of its legacy, and therefore Britain can take a kind of parental pride in it without hammering that home too often; and, thirdly, because Britain has the largest economy of the Commonwealth and therefore is able not only to command respect but to feel a certain sense of pride and superiority. Therefore, there is no doubt that the Commonwealth remains an organisation close to Britain’s history and traditions.
I want to explore why many of the opportunities that the Commonwealth offers have not been fully tapped and mention three or four in passing. It would be a wonderful idea to have a Commonwealth university. Just as there is in India, for example, Nalanda University, which includes people who were part of the Buddhist empire, a Commonwealth university would include students and faculties drawn from within the Commonwealth. Those students would be able to study together and get to know each other. Likewise, just as the European Union has its own newspaper, I cannot see why there cannot be a Commonwealth newspaper and TV channel, whose job it would be to get each country interested in the affairs of the other.
As Britain is short of doctors, there is no reason why a delegation from here could not go to India, advertise, recruit, say, 100 doctors and bring them here for two years. That would meet Britain’s need and that of the Indian doctors as they would be given two years of training before they have to go back to India. There is no reason why in our times of need we cannot draw upon Commonwealth countries in this way.
Likewise, I think exporting democracy is a silly idea but we could export concepts such as the rule of law or human rights, which can easily be grasped. That kind of concept can easily be cultivated, and Britain has an important role to play in that regard.
While saying all this, I want to alert us to the dangers that we face if we are not careful about how we conduct our relations with the Commonwealth. There is a fear in Commonwealth countries of being used after Brexit. Some of our Ministers have talked about using the Commonwealth for this or that purpose, as if it is an instrument to be used. I do not think that is a particularly good idea or particularly useful rhetoric.
I share a thought that I picked up when I was talking to an Indian diplomat. There is a certain degree of unease at Britain’s claim to be the sole spokesman of the Commonwealth at the European Union or other places, as if Britain is saying, “Look, if you want to know the Commonwealth, we are the conduit through which it speaks”. I do not think that is a good idea, certainly not as regards countries such as India, Canada and Australia, which have their independence and pride.
Likewise, I think that readjusting trade will not be easy because trade, like any kind of business, requires decades to settle in. Therefore, if Britain expects to pick up trade in India or elsewhere, it should not expect that to be easy. Britain’s obsession with reducing immigration at any cost will also stand in the way. It will not be easy to rejuvenate the Commonwealth when people start coming in and we say, “No, there are too many of you. You can’t come in”. So some difficulties arise from Britain’s attitude as well as the context in which we are likely to rejuvenate the Commonwealth. It is dangerous to expect a smooth sailing.
My Lords, it is a pleasure and a delight to follow the noble Lord, Lord Parekh; I may return to some of his remarks later. I thank my noble friend Lord Chidgey for a speech that was delivered with the authority which comes from his long experience of the Commonwealth. When you ask a question, it is always good when half the question is already answered. Interestingly, we received a good briefing from the City of London, which he referred to, and which explained how the corporation is getting behind the idea.
I will make one comment as background to this debate. There is a newsreel clip which will be shown many times between now and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next year. It is of the young Princess Elizabeth, in South Africa on her 21st birthday, pledging that her whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to the service of the British people and what is now the Commonwealth. Thankfully, the caveat about “long or short” has proved unnecessary, so the meetings in the spring of next year will be a celebration—as the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, indicated—and a thanks for a promise so magnificently honoured for the last 70 years that have followed that pledge of service. In South Africa Her Majesty referred to the “imperial family”. Thanks in no small part to the Queen’s leadership, that “imperial family” has transmuted and transformed into a Commonwealth of Nations.
This debate calls for the meetings planned for next year to be more than Heads of Government meetings. We have already had indications that they will not be. Yesterday I attended a meeting in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Room here in Westminster Hall to hear about what the CPA was planning for next year. I was much encouraged to hear of work already in hand for meetings of parliamentarians as part of the programme, as well as other ideas about young people and communities, which have been referred to. This is all excellent news. I hope that the Chambers of both Houses and Westminster Hall can be used for such meetings. This building has much symbolism throughout the Commonwealth, and I think the groups covered by this debate today would welcome the opportunity to speak and take part in events in the mother of Parliaments.
Education has always been part of the cement which holds the Commonwealth together. I have the honour, along with the noble Lords, Lord Judd and Lord Luce, of being a patron of the Council for Education in the Commonwealth. Earlier this year the CEC held a very successful conference in Namibia and is already planning a series of seminars and lectures that look forward to the 20th Commonwealth Education Ministers’ meeting in Fiji in February 2018. They will be looking at the skills required for the jobs of tomorrow and the financing of higher education and early childhood education, and will feed those ideas into the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
The Commonwealth is at its best when it focuses on real problems and brings shared experience and expertise to a problem. It runs into problems when we start to lecture or patronise each other. I remember when I was a Minister at the Ministry of Justice attending a meeting of Commonwealth Justice Ministers, and my brief had me advocate no longer using the death penalty. This ran me into quite choppy waters with the representatives of Commonwealth countries that still retain the death penalty. It was a useful reminder that although we have many shared values, there is still a diversity of views on many issues in the Commonwealth.
I return to what the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said. I thought I might be the only one to be the party pooper. If I have any advice to Ministers about the coming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, it is on the need for some deft diplomacy and to resist trying to turn it into a showcase for the new, shiny, post-Brexit global Britain. Almost all Commonwealth countries are members of their own regional economic co-operation organisations. They will not take kindly to some kind of PR stunt through which the British Government try to package the Commonwealth as some ready-made alternative to our EU membership.
We must remember that it is the Commonwealth of which Britain is a proud and active member, not the British Commonwealth, and that next year we are hosting a conference, not a durbar. I trust the Minister to use his influence over some of his more exuberant colleagues to get the balance right. With that Gypsy’s warning, I look forward to a Heads of Government meeting where real work will be done and where we can say a heartfelt “Thank you, Ma’am” to Her Majesty, putting in place a programme of work that plays to the Commonwealth’s strengths as we grapple with the multifaceted problems of the 21st century.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for securing this timely debate. I am also delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who made such powerful points.
It was Henry Ford who said:
“Don't just find fault, find a remedy”.
We have all attended conferences and summits which have been more talk than walk and more activity than action. That is why it is vital that there be real outcomes from the next Commonwealth summit, encompassing the findings of the people’s forum and the parliamentary forum. It is essential because there are compelling facts about the Commonwealth, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, reminded us. It makes up nearly one-third of the world’s population, and trade within the Commonwealth is projected to be worth $1 trillion by 2020. It has a shared history, yet is so diverse. Every four years, the Commonwealth Games present an attractive window through which that good news is viewed. Furthermore, the summit itself is an important marker of the issues and future direction of the nations that the Commonwealth oversees.
But more than the facts, the Commonwealth is a family. My father came to Britain in the late 1940s after serving as a sergeant in the British Eighth Army in the Second World War. As a Jamaican, he was a member of the Commonwealth and, in coming to England, he did not see himself as travelling to foreign parts. He was coming home—to the motherland.
Sadly, although he was a qualified accountant, the only job he could get was as a toilet cleaner at a factory in Birmingham. However, his fortunes changed when Warwickshire County Cricket Club discovered that he could play cricket. The headline in the local Sports Argus was, “Warwickshire sign Jamaican immigrant”, but the following year, in 1949, when he scored 121 not out against Leicestershire, the headline read, “Warwickshire saved by local Brummie Taylor”.
His story and that of many immigrants to Britain from the rest of the Commonwealth builds upon that concept of family and belonging, so it was a personal joy and honour for me, 54 years after my father had left Jamaica to live in England, to visit Jamaica myself to open a new orthopaedic hospital in Kingston. The hospital staff were rather surprised when I mentioned that I lived near Kingston, so I had to clarify that I meant Kingston upon Thames.
Although the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is essentially a political and diplomatic event, it should recognise that the various faith groups in the Commonwealth have a role to play in its future. In Britain, as in other Commonwealth countries, there are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and other faith communities that are networks of leadership and expertise. There needs to be more of a partnership between government and such groups in tackling issues such as terrorism, migration, human rights, poverty and equality.
In Britain alone, there are about 5,000 black-majority churches. Black churches attract thousands of people to each service. The congregations are mainly from Africa and the Caribbean. I have had the honour of being a keynote speaker at many of these churches, including at a major church congress in Lagos, Nigeria. Many of these faith groups are made up of professional people. They are part of the wider Commonwealth diaspora who live and work in Britain and are waiting in the wings to help with the ongoing problems articulated in this debate. Will the Minister indicate whether the Government have a strategy to embrace the potential contribution of these faith groups?
As we know, the CPA UK will be hosting the first ever Commonwealth parliamentary forum next year. The people’s forum will be CHOGM’s platform for civil society groups across the Commonwealth to engage with leaders and influence society. The parliamentary forum’s main themes are very much about the future, as we have heard. They will encompass gender, youth and diaspora engagement. I understand that the CPA UK will soon be meeting with the head of programmes of the people’s forum to discuss their respective agendas.
There will also be a parallel Commonwealth business forum and youth forum at the time of CHOGM. I know the CPA is keen that the parliamentary forum effectively influence discussions at CHOGM, but more importantly that it has a long-term impact beyond it in holding member states to account on their objectives. I, along with the CPA UK, am keen to hear the Minister’s views on how this can be done effectively.
By listening to the voices of the people as well as the parliamentarians, we can ensure that the summit will be about value and not just volume.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, on initiating this debate and his eloquent introduction. I refer your Lordships to my register of interests, in particular as an officer of the All-Party Group on Global LGBT Rights.
I wish to record my thanks to the Commonwealth Secretary-General, my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland, who has placed human rights at the forefront of her tenure and presided over a culture shift so that LGBTI rights are no longer an afterthought to be discussed in the shadows.
I also want to thank and recognise the extraordinary work of the Maltese Government, who hosted CHOGM meetings in Valetta, for their inclusive and positive outcomes, not least in the people’s forum which for the first time explicitly listed LGBTI issues in its agenda and discussions. The work of civil society, LGBTI activists, the Commonwealth Equality Network and others has ensured that LGBTI issues are once again on the agenda and must be maintained in the forums and summit here in Windsor and London in 2018.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Prime Minister Theresa May, who in her speech to the PinkNews Awards gave a commitment to undo the negative legacy of colonialism and, as she stated on Commonwealth Day, to reaffirm the shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
As others have said, the Commonwealth is a family of nations, but for us LGBTI people it is not a family where we are treated equally or with dignity. As my noble friend Lord Judd said, in 36 of the 52 states of the Commonwealth homosexuality is criminalised and same-sex relationships are banned. Although this was imposed by Great Britain during its colonial past, these countries cling desperately to this colonial heritage and are increasingly defending it and advocating further repression, often citing culture or religious belief as an excuse. All too often, organised religions and religious leaders condone such repression or acquiesce with their silence. This is unacceptable and it is shameful. As an atheist I will always defend religion and belief, but never the right to impose them upon another, especially when such imposition diminishes the rights of another human being.
The discrimination meted out against LGBTI people attacks not only their liberties and freedoms and that of their families but their health and the health of others. One startling example in a report prepared for the Human Dignity Trust is that the HIV infection rate among men who have sex with men in the English-speaking region of the Caribbean is one in four, whereas in the non-English speaking region it is one in 15. The difference is that the former criminalise homosexuality, except the Bahamas, and the latter do not.
This trend echoes across countries where they criminalise and repress. People are driven away from health support, prevention and cure and pushed underground. Recently in Tanzania, we have seen the arrest, detention and misrepresentation of a group of people solely on the basis that they wanted to legally challenge the Tanzanian Government’s restrictions on access to HIV clinics. I express the deep concern of the All-Party Group on Global LGBT Rights as well as my own about the ongoing actions against these people.
There are human rights, health and economic consequences arising from inequality and discrimination against LGBTI people. The positive case for equality is made by the organisation Open for Business, working with global corporations. The case is made also in the five standards of conduct which was recently published by the United Nations Human Rights Office in collaboration with the Institute for Human Rights and Business to support the business community in tackling discrimination against LGBTI people The Commonwealth should work closely with the UN and the European Union on this issue and recognise the economic benefits that flow when equality flourishes.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government propose to ensure that LGBTI discrimination is addressed within the forums, as there is connectivity between all four as well as a need to address the multiplicity of discrimination. There is a pressing and urgent moral case to end the discrimination faced by LGBTI people and the UK Government can place this at the centre of the summit and the forums of CHOGM in 2018. The Government should lead by example and apologise to the Commonwealth countries for these negative laws which we imposed on them. They should explain that we wish to work with the Commonwealth and the UN to lead in the decriminalisation of homosexuality worldwide. Further, they should work to end the discrimination that blights and destroys the lives of bi, transsexual and intersex people.
The task is not too great. It is not neo-colonialism. It is the decent and just thing to do—and, as a country, we should have the courage and the guts to do it.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap. I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Chidgey for securing this debate.
In order to bring a common peace, prosperity and future this summit should include efforts to minimise the prospects of any war between member states and to protect human rights in their respective countries. In this respect I draw your Lordships’ attention to the continuing warlike situation between two nuclear nations—India and Pakistan—in the Kashmir region. If one goes on the internet and types the words “cross-border firing” one will find that over 90% of the incidents listed in the past two years refer to India and Pakistan. This could lead to a full-scale war at any time.
The core issue between these two countries is Kashmir. The people of Jammu and Kashmir were promised a plebiscite or a referendum by the United Nations nearly 70 years ago. That was agreed by India and Pakistan. That is the very right we provided to the Scottish people and the British people enjoyed that right over Brexit. Kashmiris asking for the same right are met with live bullets, detention, torture, rape and disappearances, with thousands of mass graves identified by international human rights organisations.
As both countries are members of the Commonwealth, will Her Majesty’s Government use their good offices to bring both countries, with which we have friendly relations, round the table to resolve the Kashmir issue through negotiations, and to bring to an end any prospect of a war as well as the suffering of the Kashmiri people?
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for initiating this debate and for his tenacity in ensuring that it has eventually taken place. We have been waiting some time for it—but of course what he has been able to do is ensure that this important issue remains on the agenda.
Earlier this year, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, set out how the Government would take a fresh look at CHOGM’s format, working in partnership with the secretariat, political parties here and wider Commonwealth parliamentarians, as well as with business, non-governmental bodies and civil society. We have now seen the fruits of this thinking, with the Government setting out four key themes—prosperity, security, sustainable futures and fairness—they want reflected not only in the Heads of Government meeting but in the youth, business, women’s and civil society fora. These themes of course embrace the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets aimed at resolving issues such as poverty, ill health and inequality, with the specific commitment to leave no one behind.
To deliver on these, we need to nurture and develop all aspects of civil society. That is why the summit’s fora will be so critical to the success of CHOGM. I welcome the initiative of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in developing the parliamentary forum. I also attended the meetings in the CPA’s rooms. However, what I argued for and what I am hoping for is that the association should not restrict itself simply to the role of parliamentarians.
The ingredients of a thriving democracy are not limited to Parliaments and parliamentarians. Civil society organisations such as churches and trade unions have been and remain an important part of democratic life and are frequently the only guarantor of human rights in society. At Malta, the Commonwealth reaffirmed its commitment to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to support the empowerment of women and girls. The Leaders’ Statement also recognised the economic potential that can be unlocked by tackling discrimination and exclusion. Yet in the Commonwealth many women, disabled people and too many minorities are discriminated against and denied access to their fair share of goods, services and opportunity. Economic growth has the potential to be the engine to drive change, but growth without jobs, inclusion, healthcare, education and human rights will not deliver for the many. Can the Minister tell the House whether practical support will be given by the Government to ensure that trade unions, women’s associations and other civil society groups will have their voice heard in all the fora of the summit?
As we heard from my noble friend Lord Cashman, LGBT rights remain a major source of division among Commonwealth members. We do not have the right or the opportunity to force states to decriminalise, but we can work with them so that they understand the economic as well as the human rights issues involved in making necessary changes. I also agreed with the Prime Minister when she said at the PinkNews Awards last month that the anti-gay laws were a legacy of Britain’s colonial past, so the UK has a special responsibility to help change hearts and minds. She committed to ensuring that these important issues are discussed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. I welcome that commitment, but I hope that the Minister can tell us whether steps will be taken to ensure that this and other equality and human rights issues, as my noble friend also suggested, will be on the agenda of the youth, business, women’s and civil society fora. There are connections here and it is important that these rights are considered in a broad context.
My noble friend also referred to last week’s Commonwealth equality network of activists and non-governmental organisations, which met in Malta to discuss how to reverse the oppression of gay people in too many Commonwealth countries. Can the Minister tell us about its outcome and how it can be fed into the summit?
As we have heard, good governance and respect for the rule of law are vital for stable societies. The Commonwealth agreed to make anti-corruption work a priority, committing to strengthen efforts to tackle corruption, including through increased transparency and co-operation among law agencies. Can the Minister update the House on how that will be addressed in the summit, what has happened since the UK’s anti-corruption summit and how that can be made a priority on the CHOGM agenda?
The noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, summed up about how we ensure that the innovations we have seen being developed for the forthcoming CHOGM will continue in the future, not only for the next CHOGM but on an ongoing basis. We want to see a family of nations with democratic and human rights, and access to all public services, fully enshrined for the future.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, for his tenacity—as it has been called by some—and his commitment to this important agenda. I am greatly privileged to answer a debate of this nature. From the contributions we have seen across the Chamber, it is clear that we all align ourselves with the unity behind not just the virtues and values of the Commonwealth, but its purpose.
As several noble Lords have alluded to, next year the UK will have the deep honour and privilege of welcoming the Commonwealth family; I use the word deliberately. I assure all noble Lords—particularly the noble Lords, Lord McNally, Lord Parekh and Lord Taylor—that when we talk about family, we can all personally account for the strength of the family and at times perhaps need look no further than your Lordships’ Chamber to see the great wealth of the Commonwealth. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, talked about his family experiences and the diaspora of communities here in the UK. Again, that is a huge opportunity to demonstrate the strength of everything that defines the family that is the Commonwealth when we look at our own country, and indeed the city of London, in terms of its diversity and depth and the richness of its diaspora. I often joke with my children about the great heritage of the Commonwealth, as they are products of the Commonwealth who can claim heritage from Australia, the UK, India and Pakistan. I will come on to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, but there are family ties on the issue he raised. That issue is a pertinent and important one: he mentioned Kashmir and the bilateral relations between India and Pakistan. Fora such as the Commonwealth—he mentioned the United Nations as well—provide a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom to play its part in making sure those two countries, which share so much in terms of culture, community, faith and language, can join together and resolve something that ensures and upholds the rights of all citizens, irrespective of what region or part of the Commonwealth they belong to.
As we have heard, next year, attendees will include Heads of Government, foreign Ministers, civil society leaders, businesspeople and, perhaps most importantly, young people from every corner of the Commonwealth. I have been greatly inspired by meeting all the Commonwealth networks for young people. Let us not forget that 60% of the Commonwealth is under 30. Regrettably, I do not think there is anyone in your Lordships’ House at this time who can claim to be part of that cohort. That provides a huge opportunity and we must engage directly with the youth. Therefore, we have shared with our partners that official delegates from across the 52 nations should also include at least one individual from that particular age group to ensure, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, we set the agenda not just for April or for the two years that the United Kingdom is in the chair, but to attract the youth so we can truly address what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said about the global nature of the world we live in. It is right that we engage with the youth directly on this important issue.
The members of the Commonwealth cover more than a quarter of the world’s land mass. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, and others, trade adds up to incredible amounts. It will grow to $1 trillion by 2020. The Commonwealth is home to more than 2 billion people. These figures show its immense global potential for influence and demonstrate why it is important to the UK. It is about not just our strong cultural and personal ties, which some noble Lords alluded to, but the common future, a common partnership and common hopes for all Commonwealth members and more. I noted the words of the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, in this respect. If we have 52 nations today it will certainly be more by the time of the summit. We need to look to the future to ensure that we really make the Commonwealth representative of the world as it is today.
We have seen the tremendous impact the Commonwealth has when it acts as one. We are all aware of the important work it did historically, looking back to recent history in South Africa, with its transition from the great injustices of apartheid to a free and democratic society. We see how Heads of Government came together in Malta in 2015 to press for ambitious climate change targets. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that that remains a priority at this Heads of Government Meeting. There is the important pillar of sustainability. Let us not forget the UK’s work, with other nations, following the impact of the hurricanes—I was in the Pacific Islands when the hurricanes hit—and the importance of working together. In that regard, I pay tribute to the Commonwealth Secretariat, in particular to its Secretary-General, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, for the co-ordination and co-operation we saw with Governments across the Pacific and the Caribbean. I also pay tribute to her recent work brokering a political agreement in Zambia. This demonstrates the strength of the Commonwealth at its best.
We want next April’s summit to drive further progress towards realising the Commonwealth’s true potential. We are pleased that all member states and Heads of Government have agreed that the summit will focus on four common challenges. At a reception for Commonwealth leaders held recently during the UN General Assembly in New York, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, Mrs May, outlined these challenges and opportunities. They are: how to make the compelling case for free trade and promote higher living standards around the world; how to address new security challenges, including cyberterrorism and online extremism; how to mitigate the effects of climate change, in particular—as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, drew attention to—on small and vulnerable states; and, as we heard from many noble Lords, the importance of human rights and how to protect the values we all share to create a fairer, freer and more tolerant Commonwealth.
We hope the theme of the summit, “Towards a Common Future”, encapsulates our ambitions. We want the summit to revitalise the Commonwealth and to build that brighter future. Preparations are under way. We are already working closely with member states, the Commonwealth Secretariat and, importantly—to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and my noble friend Lady Berridge—with civil society groups to put together a programme for the summit that will strengthen the prosperity and security of all Commonwealth countries.
I have had the great pleasure and privilege of representing the UK and meeting with our Commonwealth partners across the world. In recent months I have travelled to India, Bangladesh and Ghana. As I alluded to, I visited the Pacific Islands, including Fiji, and Australia, which is hosting the next Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. We are delighted that we shall host the ones after that in Birmingham. It is an opportunity to bring our country together. My interactions with government leaders and young people in all of these countries have strengthened my belief that the Commonwealth has a powerful role to play in the modern world.
To turn to some of the fora talked about, and to directly answer the Question before us, there will be a people’s forum. This will be the biggest meeting of Heads of Government that the UK has ever hosted. However, we believe the Commonwealth, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, so articulately put it, is not simply a collection of member states and a secretariat. It is so much more. A fundamental part of the Commonwealth is its people-to-people links, as we know from the extraordinary contribution the Commonwealth diaspora makes to British society. We see the Commonwealth’s strength and uniqueness as being in many organisations. That is why it is at the centre of this particular event.
The people’s forum is the single largest gathering of civil society representatives from across the Commonwealth. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and others that I wish to work with Members in this House and the other place to ensure that we get those representative voices at the people’s forum as we develop the programme. I would be pleased to meet noble Lords in that respect.
Alongside the people’s forum, as we have heard, there will also be a business forum. I join the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, in paying tribute to my noble friend Lord Marland for organising it. There will be a women’s forum. I assure noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, that women’s issues will be front and centre. It is not just about the education of young girls but the empowerment of women, and we will be looking to work together in that respect.
Our co-operation with the CPA is already part and parcel of our thinking. I assure noble Lords that I have already met not just CPA UK but the international CPA, and I am delighted that we will be playing a key part in the February event. I have noted the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally—to whom I always listen very carefully, not least because I was his Whip once upon a time—about how we might perhaps use this Chamber for events.
Various issues were raised around the freedom of religion and belief. My noble friend Lady Berridge will know that this is very much part and parcel of our thinking. The fairness pillar within the Commonwealth summit allows us to develop this further. My noble friend also talked about how to ensure a continuation with Malaysia at the parliamentary forum and CHOGM. Malaysia has indeed put itself forward and we will be looking during our two years in the chair to ensure that continuation of key themes in the summit.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, talked about refugees and asked where we were on that. It is a timely opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to the values we share across the Commonwealth. I will write to the noble Lord in response to his letter—my letter is on its way, I assure him.
We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, about health and education. We had a very constructive meeting on the issue of global malaria. As we have heard, malaria is a key issue for many Commonwealth citizens. We are working with member states and the Commonwealth Secretariat to examine the options for the summit agenda. I will keep the House updated as this takes shape. I assure the noble Baroness that the UK has already pledged £1.1 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria over the next three years.
I have already mentioned issues around climate change. The important issue of LGBTI rights was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Judd, Lord Cashman and Lord Collins. We are committed. We have heard the words of the Prime Minister. I assure noble Lords that the Foreign Secretary and I are equally committed to combating discrimination in all its guises, including violence against LGBTI people, throughout the Commonwealth. We used every opportunity at the previous CHOGM in Malta to highlight our belief that the Commonwealth must stand up for human rights, including the rights of the LGBTI community. The detailed forum programmes are still being developed but we are confident that LGBTI issues will be a substantive area of discussion.
There were a couple of other questions. The noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, asked about pensions. He will be aware that this issue has followed various Governments around for the past 70 years. The UK state pension is payable worldwide but is uprated abroad only when there is a reciprocal legal requirement to do so. Currently there are no plans to review this.
It was a great honour to be appointed Minister for the Commonwealth, particularly at such an important time for the organisation and the UK’s relationship with it. This is not about the UK’s role alone but about an equal partnership of 52 nations and—who knows?—more in the future. We want this CHOGM summit to be a milestone event in Commonwealth history—a chance to truly demonstrate how the Commonwealth can help mitigate the major challenges: the issues of security, climate change, fairness and equality for all its citizens, and the important elements of human rights and fairness. We will continue to work in close partnership with the Commonwealth Secretariat, member states and our partners across civil society to ensure that it is a great success. When representing the UK abroad, as I have the honour to do, I often say that the great strength of our nation is its diversity. The same is true of the 52 members of the Commonwealth.
House adjourned at 7.49 pm.