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Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made on building a fairer Commonwealth since the Written Ministerial Statement by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on 14 January (HCWS1247).

My Lords, the Government continue to work with Commonwealth partners to build a fairer future for our citizens. Highlights include, first, the platform for girls’ education, co-chaired by the Foreign Secretary, which published its first report in January, examining the state of girls’ education. Secondly, over 30 highly qualified women peacebuilders have joined the UK-funded women mediators initiative. Just this week, my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon hosted a reception for Commonwealth Ministers in New York to drive forward the women, peace and security agenda.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I commend the Government for their endeavours as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth as we approach the Rwanda CHOGM. The £500 million allocated to the project set out in the ministerial Statement is significant including, as it does, a promise of £212 million to deliver 12 years of quality education to girls across nine Commonwealth countries.

However, we need assurances that these funds are being spent wisely and effectively. What monitoring and oversight procedures, and what management structures, are in place to ensure that the funds expended are targeted effectively and provide a sustainable investment over the longer term? Where does accountability lie?

I thank the noble Lord for raising an important question. Each of the four thematic areas identified at CHOGM—fairness, sustainability, prosperity and security—is overseen by the UK Commonwealth envoy. Quarterly steering board meetings assess progress and beneath that is a raft of other structures. I reassure the noble Lord that the matter is under constant review and a structure ensures that the money reaches where it is intended to go.

My Lords, I declare an interest, as in the register. Does my noble friend agree that the modern Commonwealth is not just about governance and is not a treaty organisation at all? Today, it is just as much a vast network of professions, civic agencies, universities, schools and every kind of professional and scientific or medical interest. This side of it is, in many ways, more important than the headlines we read about treaties, communiqués and so on. As we are the chair in office, does she undertake that we will do all we possibly can to strengthen this side of the Commonwealth, because it is a terrific and major transmission mechanism for Britain’s influence and soft power in a fast-changing world?

I suspect everyone in the Chamber will entirely agree with my noble friend. The Commonwealth is an extraordinary organisation. With over 2.4 billion people, it is home to one-third of the world’s population, 60% of whom are under 30, so my noble friend is right to talk about the potential for influence and opportunity. Underpinning it all is the important component that its people are united by a shared history, language, values and legal system. It is a very relevant, strong and commendable structure.

To pick up the Minister’s point about shared values, before the last CHOGM in London, the Prime Minister quite rightly apologised for the colonial legacy of criminalising homosexuality. The Government have promised to fund and support those countries that wish to change those laws and get rid of that legacy. What progress has been made and can we anticipate other countries decriminalising homosexuality?

The noble Lord makes a very important point. The Prime Minister’s declaration was very positive and well received. The noble Lord will be aware that the Commonwealth Secretariat and associations work with member states to raise general standards on human rights. On his specific issue, it was interesting that the 2018 Commonwealth summit saw the largest ever number of visiting LGBT activists from around the Commonwealth attending all four official forums. Using UK funding, the Equality and Justice Alliance is working to create a fairer, more equal and more inclusive Commonwealth for women and girls and for the LGBT community.

My Lords, I congratulate Her Majesty’s Government on the usefulness of the programmes outlined on 14 January, not least in education. What steps do the Government of Zimbabwe need to take to secure the support of Her Majesty’s Government for an application to rejoin the Commonwealth?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for that question. He will understand that it is not for the UK to decide whether Zimbabwe is to rejoin the Commonwealth; the final decision is for all Commonwealth members. The UK would support readmission only if Zimbabwe meets the admission requirements, complying with the values and principles set out in the Commonwealth charter. I must say, the disproportionate use of force by its security forces, as seen in January, is inconsistent with the charter.

My Lords, there is disquiet in trade policy circles about a lack of co-ordination over how the Commonwealth fits in the overall constellation of EU-UK FTAs. Will the Government set a time limit for improving the unilateral preferences it grants to the Commonwealth in the longer term, with more clarity on the level of access to be provided to less-developed countries?

I thank the noble Viscount. He will be aware of our healthy trading relationships with our Commonwealth members; indeed, he will be aware of what is called the Commonwealth advantage, which is a very important component of those relationships. I do not have any information on the specific issue he raises but I undertake to investigate it. If I find anything out, I will write to him.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chair-in-office of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. Does the Minister agree that it is all very well having these initiatives, but unless the Commonwealth institutions are strengthened to deliver them, they are all for naught? What steps are the Government taking to strengthen those institutions?

At CHOGM, leaders emphasised that the full social, economic and political participation of all—irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status—is essential for a healthy Commonwealth and for democracy and sustainable development to thrive. He may be aware that the UK provided additional funding to the Commonwealth Secretariat to conduct its class-leading electoral observations and engage with Commonwealth electoral management bodies to advise them on improving democratic processes in the Commonwealth.