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Commonwealth Summit: Faith Leaders

Volume 788: debated on Monday 15 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will ensure the engagement of faith leaders in events around the Commonwealth Summit in April.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and draw attention to my registered interests.

My Lords, we look forward to hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in April this year, when faith leaders, civil society, business leaders and young people will come together to debate, celebrate and renew the Commonwealth. I shall engage fully with faith leaders in encouraging them to hold side events and to participate directly in activities in the run-up, because it is important that we offer important faith perspectives on ensuring a fairer and more secure, prosperous and sustainable Commonwealth.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for his Answer but only a few weeks after the summit we will celebrate 70 years since the arrival of MV “Empire Windrush”. The Commonwealth migration that took place then has transformed many of the UK’s own faith communities. What plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to support the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s faith in the Commonwealth initiative, in particular to meet those UK faith leaders who are of Commonwealth heritage or whose communities are of Commonwealth heritage to promote the fact of the summit and outline how they can engage practically?

I assure my noble friend that we are working directly with the Secretary-General and the Commonwealth Secretariat on the very important point that she raises about faith communities. I believe that we all would acknowledge—indeed, celebrate—the fact that over the decades and centuries we have seen diaspora communities contribute incredibly to Britain. The faith communities are part and parcel of that. I look forward to working with them in the run-up to the Commonwealth summit, during the summit and, indeed, afterwards, when the UK has the chair for two years.

My Lords, I very much welcome what the Government have been doing to ensure that civil society is fully engaged in the Commonwealth summit. Certainly, the fora are very important. The Minister’s predecessor, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, undertook to meet the TUC to ensure that all aspects of civil society are fully engaged. Can he update the House on what further meetings have taken place to ensure that civil society in the broadest sense is represented in all the fora?

I assure the noble Lord that, as the Minister for the Commonwealth, I have been engaging in various round tables with civil society leaders across the piece in all elements of ensuring that civil society is fully engaged. Most recently, I met the organiser of the Commonwealth People’s Forum to ensure diversity of participation, both in terms of those participating but also in that the agenda reflects the important priorities of all people represented through civil society across the Commonwealth.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the presence of faith representatives should go beyond the side events to actual opportunities to discuss human rights conditions and infringements of religious liberty in different Commonwealth countries, and engage with representatives of the countries concerned?

I assure the noble Lord that faith representatives will play a key role. I would add that, as I am sure he recognises, when we talk about the Commonwealth 52 there is a wide representation of people of different faiths and strong convictions, who will of course participate in all elements of the discussion around the Heads of Government Meeting and the surrounding fora.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the co-chair of the Commonwealth All-Party Parliamentary Group. Does the Minister recognise the support and leadership given by Members of this Parliament to parliamentarians throughout the Commonwealth? Will the Government therefore explore opportunities which would enable Members of both Houses to become involved with the UK CHOGM process? In particular, will the Government consider how best the CPA UK members can engage with delegates registered with the various forums that will support the CHOGM themes?

I would of course be delighted to work with the noble Lord in this respect but, as he will be aware, I have already written directly on a couple of occasions to all parliamentarians across both Houses. I have met on a systematic and periodic basis with all the chairs of the various APPGs leading on the Commonwealth, including the chairs of the Commonwealth APPG, and we will look to host specific parliamentary events during the week of CHOGM.

My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. Will my noble friend accept that the move by the Government to engage business, civil society and other interests in the forthcoming summit is extremely welcome but that the need now is to begin to focus on outcomes and positive results from the summit, not just on prosperity and trade, security and defence, the promotion of human rights and gender equality but in a variety of other areas, particularly those which benefit the United Kingdom itself?

My noble friend speaks with great experience and I totally agree with him. The Government, along with the secretariat and the Secretary-General—and, it would be fair to say, member states across the Commonwealth—are focused on ensuring that the summit’s outcomes will drive the agenda for the UK’s two-year chairmanship.

My Lords, the Minister may not be aware of the initiative of the lord-lieutenant of County Durham in having a schools conference in the lead-up, which will end up in Durham Cathedral. Will the noble Lord commend the work in schools, cathedrals and other major places of worship to engage in such things to enhance the Commonwealth conference?

I was not aware of the event that the right reverend Prelate points out but I welcome it and congratulate all its organisers. I open up this invitation: where events are happening, please let us know. They can be reflected as part of the Commonwealth timetable and I will be writing shortly to all leaders of local government across the UK to ensure that we celebrate Commonwealth Day on 12 March appropriately.

Are the Government aware that faith representation is highly gendered and that, on the whole, women are not represented? Is any care taken to ensure that women, who have a very different perspective on religion, are also represented?

The noble Baroness raises an important point and I assure the House that, along with the rest of the Government, I am committed to that objective. In respect of that, a specific women’s forum will take place as part of the four fora during the Commonwealth summit.

The importance of freedom of religion and belief is a priority for this Government. As the Minister responsible I am meeting with all groups, including people of no faith and the humanist society, to ensure that the agenda at the Commonwealth summit and the programme for the UK’s two-year chairmanship of the Commonwealth reflect those priorities.