Motion to Take Note
To move that this House takes note of the continuing and evolving role of the Commonwealth and the United Kingdom’s relationship with it.
My Lords, I am pleased to see so many noble Lords in their places for this important debate. The Government felt that, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the modern Commonwealth and nearly halfway through the UK’s term as chair-in-office, this would be a timely opportunity to update the House on the progress made since the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London last year. To celebrate this positive anniversary of such an important global organisation, with which we have such a special relationship, is surely an uplifting parliamentary occasion in these somewhat sombre times.
Unfortunately, the timing of today’s debate has conspired against my noble friend the Minister for the Commonwealth, who had intended to move this Motion himself. He sends his sincere apologies to your Lordships for not being able to take part. He is en route to New York—indeed, he may already have arrived—to represent the United Kingdom at the United Nations, but I know he will read today’s exchanges with keen interest.
Seventy years on from the London declaration, the Commonwealth has continued to adapt, evolve and respond to our changing world. It has grown into a global institution, representing more than 2.4 billion people in 53 countries, large and small, rich and poor, developed and developing. Significantly, the fact that it continues to attract new and former members to its ranks attests to its continuing relevance and importance. This time of year is traditionally a moment of celebration for the Commonwealth, but this year, together with our fellow Commonwealth family members, we also celebrate 70 years since the signing of the London declaration and the birth of the modern Commonwealth. We celebrate the bonds between people, organisations and Governments across these 53 countries under the theme of “A Connected Commonwealth”. Celebrations of these unique connections have been taking place across the world this month. As we open today’s debate, I will give a flavour of some of them.
Here in the UK, Her Majesty the Queen attended a Commonwealth Day service of celebration in Westminster Abbey. Her Majesty was joined by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall, many other members of the Royal Family, representatives from all Commonwealth countries, the Prime Minister, Members of Parliament, representatives from Commonwealth organisations and over 700 schoolchildren.
Councils across the United Kingdom—from Dorset to Newport to Glasgow; this is global reach—raised the Commonwealth flag, building connections across the Commonwealth at community level. Noble Lords will recall the flags of the 53 nations of the Commonwealth flying on Parliament Square. The flag of the Commonwealth flew at 10 Downing Street, at the Treasury and along Whitehall as a symbol of the UK’s enduring commitment.
Across our diplomatic network, British high commissions and embassies have been celebrating with a variety of events that reflect the diversity of our Commonwealth. In Singapore, our high commission co-hosted with the Royal Commonwealth Society a fashion show that showcased recycled materials. In Zambia, our high commission co-hosted with the Commonwealth Games association a day of activities for schoolchildren. The children took part in a tree-planting exercise and were allocated a tree to take care of. Even embassies in non-Commonwealth countries such as Brazil have been celebrating, by bringing together Commonwealth colleagues to discuss shared values.
These celebrations demonstrate the enduring appeal and attraction of the Commonwealth in its 70th year. It is an organisation like no other. It is rich in diversity but connected by important themes: a common language, common history and common values. Its great diversity and global reach—spanning a third of the world’s population—invests the Commonwealth with enormous opportunity and responsibility.
Commonwealth leaders rightly recognised that responsibility at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, here in London last year. They agreed that the Commonwealth could use its significant influence as a force for good to tackle some of the global challenges of our age, including climate change, plastic pollution and the threat of cyberattack. They agreed that member states should work together to build a world that is more prosperous, more fair, more secure and more sustainable. As chair-in-office and a committed member of the Commonwealth family, we are working hard to achieve those ambitions.
Our approach can be summarised in four words: delivery, voice, solidarity and reform. Delivery means working with the three pillars of the Commonwealth—our 52 fellow member states, the Commonwealth Secretariat, and its organisations and networks—to implement the ambitious commitments made at CHOGM. This work is being supported by over £500 million-worth of projects that enable member states to implement key elements of the Commonwealth blue charter, the cyber declaration, and the connectivity agenda for trade and investment.
I turn to the necessary and important issue of reform. To deliver all these initiatives effectively, the Commonwealth’s unique structures must work in harmony. We are working through all three pillars of the Commonwealth to support improved collaboration, including refreshing the governance of the secretariat so that it is in the best shape possible to meet the needs of its member states as they address the challenges of the 21st century.
On solidarity, our third means of increasing the impact of the Commonwealth, we have strengthened collaboration between member states in international organisations. For example, we have increased information sharing on candidacies in international elections and on issues being discussed in other multilateral organisations.
On voice, not only are we co-ordinating more intensively in international organisations, we are working to ensure that the voice of the Commonwealth is heard in these fora. Aside from the United Nations, no other international body encompasses such a diverse range of nations. When we speak as one, we send a strong message to the rest of the global community about the things we stand for and care about.
These are just some of the ways in which this Government are working to deliver a rejuvenated, dynamic and modern Commonwealth. I look forward to a stimulating debate as we explore these issues in more detail, and to offering the House further information in my closing remarks.
My Lords, this is indeed an important debate, and the Chamber is currently peopled by folk who love the Commonwealth and who, on all sides of the House, see themselves as part of what the Minister has described—we will undoubtedly hear this phrase a number of times in the debate—as the “Commonwealth family”.
Having said that, and having appreciated the upbeat, jolly and positive tone of the Minister—that is how she always addresses the House and we are grateful for it—it is important that we strike a note of realism in this debate. The reality of good families is not how they have a jolly good party, although those are important, but how they cope with disasters. That is how you judge whether or not a family is working well. What happens when you have to deal with something unpleasant? What happens when you have to face unacceptable truths within your own family? How the family reacts to that forms the basis of the judgment you make about its current state of health.
I want to draw the House’s attention to two disasters. One is a natural disaster—albeit clearly the result of climate change, in which man has had a hand—in south and eastern Africa, and the other is an entirely manmade disaster in west Africa. The first is Cyclone Idai. We heard this morning during Questions a good response from the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bates, as to how the UK is responding to that disaster. As usual, DfID has stepped up to the plate and responded effectively and promptly, and the British people as a whole have responded with unparalleled generosity through their giving to the Disasters Emergency Committee.
Having said that, the global response has been woefully inadequate. In the face of what is now widely understood to have been the worst climate-related disaster in the history of the southern hemisphere, given the scale of the disaster there has been a remarkably tardy response from the international community as a whole. As we speak, vast areas of Mozambique are still effectively cut off from relief by the waters. There are communities which it has not been possible for the relief effort to touch. Beira has been devastated, and it will take many years to rebuild it. In Malawi, vast areas of the breadbasket of that country, which has faced food emergencies in the past, have effectively been rendered incapable of producing food for at least the next two seasons. In Zimbabwe, which is already wrestling with a major economic crisis, there has also been great devastation, both to infrastructure and to economic capacity in the affected rural areas.
The response to that has to include a concerted global effort. That has not been forthcoming, and I do not see any sign that it will be without more effort. The Minister said, rightly, that we should judge the Commonwealth by reference to four things: delivery, voice, solidarity and reform. In relation to this unparalleled disaster, which is affecting three original members of the Commonwealth—now, sadly, only two, as one is currently not a member in good order—the response of the secretariat in terms of voice has been to issue one press release. That is simply not good enough. I have not heard a Commonwealth Secretariat official say a single word to call for a concerted international response. That is simply inadequate. Questions must be raised about the effectiveness of the secretariat if that is all it can do. So there are certainly failings with regard to voice.
In the past, the Commonwealth Secretariat has spoken about natural disasters and, apparently, has done a bit more than speak. The previous Commonwealth Secretary-General spoke in response to disasters in the Pacific, and the current Secretary-General has spoken on disasters in the Caribbean, calling for a task force on natural disasters to be established,
“to assist with mobilising international assistance to provide protection and assistance with recovery from the impact of violent storms and similar emergencies”.
Whatever happened to that? Where is this task force? Where is it housed, what action followed the call for such a task force, and, if it exists, what support has it asked for and been offered by Her Majesty’s Government? That is my first question for the Minister. If it does not exist, why is that? We were told that it was being called for and that it would operate. We have never heard anything since.
For those of us who are friends of the Commonwealth —that is all of us in this Chamber—our friendship is unconditional. Looking around, I see friends of the Commonwealth whose friendship dates back very many years. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, who is chairman of the Council of Commonwealth Societies. No one has done more than him over the years, in so many different capacities, to support the Commonwealth. He deserves credit for that, and I know that all sides of the House deeply appreciate him for the work he has done here. As friends, we must be told what the Commonwealth will do about delivering this; the Minister, rightly, cited that as one of the things she was looking for.
So we want more by way of voice, and we certainly want more by way of delivery. If it takes reform, so be it. We would like to know what that reform will be, and we would like Her Majesty’s Government to make a contribution to that reform because, as we all know, reform needs resources. I do not think that anyone in this House expects there to be reform without resource —we have all been around a long time—but, frankly, we cannot apply resource unless we know that there will be reform. That would simply be wasting money, which we can ill afford to do.
Solidarity has been shown by the people and Government of the United Kingdom, and by the people and Government of South Africa, who stepped up to the plate with logistics support at a time when nothing else was forthcoming—there were no ships or helicopters, and South Africa stepped up to the plate. We hope and expect to see that solidarity shown by the United Kingdom and neighbouring African powers demonstrated in a practical way by the Commonwealth as a whole.
I turn from that natural disaster to the entirely manmade disaster in Cameroon. This House has previously addressed the history of that country, and I do not intend to go over old ground. But it is right that we should look at what is happening there now. As we speak, the United Nations has put out a call for some $184 million to address the immediate crisis, identified by the UNHCR, of some 437,000 people who have been displaced by the situation in Cameroon. They have been driven out of house and home—in some instances into the forests and in others into the towns. As we speak, people are facing absolute disaster in their lives, not knowing where their next meal is coming from or whether they will fall victim to either the separatist insurgents or the Government’s own security forces. Both sides have committed appalling atrocities over the past few years, and it has got worse.
Again, a response is called for and, again, the global response has been patchy, to put it mildly. However, there has been a response. The United Nations Security Council addressed this issue, and the United States has taken an assertive line. It addressed the Security Council on the issue, as did our own permanent representative. You hear a lot of criticism of the State Department but actually it cannot be criticised in this regard. It has been remarkably assertive in its Africa policy, and it deserves credit for that. The United States has instituted sanctions against individual military people and other members of the regime in Cameroon. Just days ago, in the UN Human Rights Council, Her Majesty’s Government made, with Austria, a statement on Cameroon, supported by 39 countries in all, raising concern about the deteriorating human rights situation and calling on the Government of Cameroon to establish a credible dialogue.
Civil society has stepped up to the plate, in this country and globally. The churches have been in the forefront of the work within Cameroon to bring together people from all the faith communities—the Christian churches have worked alongside the imams on this issue. Every attempt they have made to bring people together to create a climate in which it is possible to resolve the issues has been sabotaged, either by the Government or by the separatists.
The question, then, is: what is to be done? Cameroon is a member of the Commonwealth. We have repeatedly called on the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Secretary-General to say something about this issue—voice, as the Minister rightly said—and demonstrate solidarity with a member of the family going through hell: an internal division on an unparalleled scale that threatens the whole integrity of that state and the human rights of the Anglophone community in particular. Where is the voice of the Commonwealth on the situation in Cameroon? Where is the delivery?
The Minister referred to our current position of leadership of CMAG—the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. It is to meet in April. Its purpose is apparently to discuss the extent to which Commonwealth values are being upheld. That is its mandate, sole purpose and reason for existence. It is asked to take into account several things in its action. I will touch on only a couple of them. First, there is the postponement of national elections without constitutional or other reasonable justification. We know that the Cameroonian Parliament has already extended its mandate by some 12 months. A second criterion is whether the electoral process is seriously flawed. We know that the presidential elections were seriously flawed. Those are just two issues. We know that civil society is failing to have its human rights respected. All these things we know. What is being done?
I finish on this note: what is being done? Will it be raised in April? If so, under what part of the agenda will Her Majesty’s Government raise it, and, if not, why not? Delivery, voice, solidarity, reform are all called for if this family we love is to work and to prosper.
My Lords, first, I declare my interest on the register as the co-chair of the Commonwealth All-Party Parliamentary Group. I will pick up on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, about the crisis in southern Africa. It was interesting that the Indian Navy was on hand for immediate relief—not enough, obviously, but there was some. I looked a little further into Commonwealth initiatives and found that in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia, New Zealand and a number of other Commonwealth countries are working together on humanitarian relief and aid programmes. There is definitely a case here for the Commonwealth Secretariat to take the initiative and see whether there is scope for a united Commonwealth aid package to deal with the needs throughout the Commonwealth. It may not be possible, but we should at least have a scoping study.
Just over a year ago—on 22 March, to be precise—the Minister for the Commonwealth moved the Motion:
“That this House takes note of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018”.
The report of that debate in Hansard runs to 80 pages. More recently, on 7 March this year there was a debate in Westminster Hall moved by James Duddridge MP, the chair of the executive committee of the CPA, followed by a Statement by the Minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin MP, marking this as the 70th anniversary year of the founding of the Commonwealth.
In many ways these three documents plot the aspirations and course of the themes set out for CHOGM 2018 at the beginning of the process, and the challenges and objectives described in the CHOGM communiqué. They also, by default, highlight issues that appear to have dropped below the radar, which this debate perhaps allows us to highlight.
In introducing the debate on 22 March last year, the Minister stressed the key characteristics of the Commonwealth: it comprises one-third of the world’s population, two-thirds—1 billion—of whom are under 30, and one-fifth of the world’s trade is within the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is committed to values founded on democracy and the rule of law embodied in the Commonwealth charter, with members ranging from some of the smallest to some of the largest countries in the world, with climates ranging from tropical to Arctic.
CHOGM 2018 faced the global challenges of the 21st century with an overwhelmingly young population, under the theme, “Towards a Common Future”. The CHOGM communiqué set out the Commonwealth’s priorities for the ensuing two years, coinciding with the UK’s tenure as the chair in office. It was stressed that the UK intended to play a full and active role in the important work of rejuvenating the Commonwealth, which would require collective effort for many years to come. Progress made in London would be sustained over the coming years, and member states would be supported in honouring their commitments. What was agreed at the summit would go beyond just words and be backed by meaningful commitments and financial support.
CHOGM 2018 presented a golden opportunity for the UK Parliament to be at the centre of activities to reinforce parliamentary democracy throughout the Commonwealth. Within the parliamentary forum organised by the UK CPA, 80 parliamentarians attended from 30 different countries as a feed-in to CHOGM. A proposal emerged to establish a virtual pan-Commonwealth monitoring group of parliamentarians to assess the progress of the Commonwealth towards achieving the 2018 to 2020 strategies plan and report back. The ambition was that a Commonwealth parliamentarians forum should become an invaluable feature of future biannual CHOGMs. Can the Minister advise us on progress on what I consider to be an invaluable contribution and ambition?
In March 2018, the Government confirmed that they had launched a Commonwealth education pack for schools across the United Kingdom to inform students and explain the importance of the Commonwealth. At that time, it had been shared with more than 40,000 teachers in the UK and was accessible worldwide. What measures have been taken to assess the impact of this initiative and what do the Government believe were the outcomes?
At this stage, there was talk about potential candidates to join an enlarged Commonwealth, with several cited, including the Republic of Ireland—one of the original members of the Commonwealth before, sadly, it resigned. In recent months, Ireland has become a member of the Francophonie and, bearing in mind the events surrounding Brexit—we had to have Brexit here somewhere, did we not?—does the Minister agree that an application for Commonwealth membership from Ireland is even less likely now?
In her response earlier this month, the Minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin MP, cited the Commonwealth charter as stating that members are,
“opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds”.
Many Commonwealth countries are still dragging their feet in addressing those issues, on the basis that they are bound by 18th century laws enacted when they were colonies. We are now well into the 21st century and the age of the world wide web, with the Commonwealth making an ever more significant impact in world affairs. With members reaping the benefits of a Commonwealth fit for purpose in this modern world, it is surely not too much to ask them to accept the commitments that they entered into in the Commonwealth charter.
I note that in her statement on Commonwealth Day, the Minister for Africa commented that the Equality and Justice Alliance was supported by UK funding in working towards creating a fairer Commonwealth. It was building capacity in civil society and offering technical assistance for legislative development in six countries. Can the Government expand on this important initiative, with details of the anticipated programme and progress by the time we reach the Rwanda CHOGM?
In a similar vein, in answer to an Oral Question on 13 March, I was advised of the supervision structure for the £212 million education programme for girls in nine Commonwealth countries, through our UK Commonwealth envoy. He is a great guy—I am sure that he is doing an excellent job—but I believe that noble Lords would like to have more detail about the conclusions contained in the reports back on the take-up of the programmes, their effectiveness and their quality.
The Minister may be aware that I have recently asked a series of questions on freedom of expression in the Commonwealth, given the commitment in the CHOGM communiqué to strengthen capacity to deliver on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This comes in the appalling context that more than 100 journalists were killed in eight Commonwealth countries between 2006 and 2015 with impunity—not a single person has been brought to book for those offences. I understand that FCO and Cabinet Office officials have been offering advice on the principles of freedom of expression to the Commonwealth Working Group on Media and Good Governance. Can the Minister provide an update on the initiative to hold an international conference in London later this year, with the potential support of UNESCO? The Clooney Foundation for Justice is also active in this field: Mrs Amal Clooney has confirmed to me its concerns over courts increasingly being used as a tool of oppression, and that they have been in discussion with the Foreign Office. Can the Minister provide more detail on these plans?
In November last year, at the launch of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s new report—The Global Human Rights Implementation Agenda: The Role of National Parliaments—the Secretary-General said:
“Commonwealth Parliamentarians have a central part to play in the promotion and protection of human rights”.
She stressed their work to build the capacity of Commonwealth parliaments. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association stressed that it was the role of parliamentarians and parliaments to act as a check and balance on Executive policies. Clearly, Parliaments need to establish mechanisms and oversight committees to do this, yet only 28% of Commonwealth parliaments have established specialised parliamentary scrutiny committees. While chair in office, is the UK giving priority, under the theme of “Building a Fairer Society”, to addressing this deficiency?
The Minister will be aware that paragraph 44 of the CHOGM 2018 communiqué, entitled “Commonwealth Renewal”, notes a request since the Malta CHOGM of 2015 to establish a high-level group to look at the issue. Two high-level reports, which looked at renewal and collaboration with associated and accredited organisations, were issued in late 2018. After four years, high-level reports have emerged, yet there is concern at the apparent lack of application to deepening collaboration, given the UK commitment as chair in office to a strengthened Commonwealth network, working together for the benefit of the people. What are the expectations for deeper collaboration in these reports? What progress is being made to achieve this? How will the outcomes of the high-level report be taken forward in a timely manner, given the significant delay in the start of this work recorded in the CHOGM communiqué?
Noting the importance of the Latimer House group work on the separation of powers described in paragraph 13 of the communiqué, and the funding allocated to these tasks, are the Government confident that the outcomes anticipated by the end of June will be fit for purpose and represent value for money?
My Lords, I declare my interests in the register. I am grateful to the Government for making time for this debate. I was glad to see “evolving” in the Motion on the Order Paper; it brings home to us that the Commonwealth is a vital part of our present and future. It is very much part of the platform for our future, as Her Majesty the Queen observed long ago, and not at all something belonging to the past. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Goldie for her characteristically excellent and clear introduction on the Government’s view of what is happening in the Commonwealth and where we are going.
We should be having such a debate anyway, regardless of the dramas of Brexit—indeed, almost independently of the Brexit event. Why? We are looking at Britain’s position in a totally transformed global context and a new cycle in the history of international relations. This is most visible in east and west Asia, not just because of China but because it embraces half the Commonwealth network, including India and some of the world’s most dynamic countries, such as Bangladesh, which is completely ignored by the British press despite being one of the fastest-growing high-tech economies on earth.
Of course, the Caribbean nations—this side of Asia, as it were—are also vital. Incidentally, almost every one is much-visited by Chinese activity. Canada is a key Commonwealth member, with its great interest in CANZUK, the Canada-Australia-New Zealand-UK network on ideas for a major advance in Commonwealth trade and investment co-operation; again, it is completely ignored by the British commentary but it is vital. In fact, the change of leadership in Ottawa currently being mooted would give a stronger Commonwealth push from Canada than ever.
Then, there is the resurgent Africa, with 19 Commonwealth nations and China as its largest trading partner. It is a continent of huge hope but terrible and severe problems, about which the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, spoke so eloquently. I thank him for his kind personal remarks.
However, the rising, motivated, super-dynamic Asia—both the Asia-Pacific region and central Asia—is shaping our future here in Europe and in Britain. Many areas of the world traditionally considered in the sphere of the West are already turning eastwards and linking up with the emerging Asian system. The Gulf states, Turkey, large parts of Africa, Oman, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, south-east Asia and India, with its Look East policy, all spring to mind. Meanwhile, for those who doubt Asia’s arrival on our scene, we must note Italy’s new deals with China and Asian links all over central Europe. For example, Mr Xi Jinping visited Rome to sign huge new deals with Italy only last week.
Asia produces, exports, imports and consumes more than any other region on earth. It now contains several of the world’s largest economies, most of the world’s foreign exchange reserves, many of the world’s largest banks and industrial and high-technology companies, and most of the world’s biggest armies, with the obvious exception of the United States. It contains most of the world’s new giant cities, many of them with infrastructure unmatched in the West and often a hundred years ahead of anything we have here. Asia is the key to our future. Networks are the key to Asia, and the Commonwealth is by far the biggest network on the planet. A sustainable, prosperous and secure Commonwealth is utterly in our national interest, never more so than now. As chair-in-office, this year is our opportunity to contribute. Given our departure from the European Union—if it happens—and with our alliance with the USA looking increasingly wobbly, this is the clear direction in which our new role and national purpose lies.
A great deal has been done by Her Majesty’s Government, particularly by my noble friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister, who unfortunately cannot be here. He has given real momentum in government, the best he can, to many of the realities we now face, such as the importance of a sustainable, prosperous and secure Commonwealth. He has done very well indeed, and I congratulate him—but there is an enormous amount still to do.
It is not just a question of having a heads of government meeting, black Mercedes cars going here and there, government communiqués and so on. It is not just a question of fulfilling the aspirations and intentions of the communiqués, although many of them are very good. There is a whole list of new goals that we should be working towards to demonstrate and fulfil our commitment to proper engagement in the Commonwealth system: helping to build a new Commonwealth trade and investment agenda; exploiting the enormous digital wealth of the Commonwealth, which is linked to our common language, common law and common standards; fostering more exchange between the creative industries, vastly helped by our common language and part of the new pattern of the soft power age, which we do not fully recognise; making the 70th anniversary a major event, which the Minister rightly said we are getting on with, so that is good; strengthening intelligence, defence, military and naval ties, where there is enormous scope; reducing intra-Commonwealth travel obstacles, both for business—as already occurs among ASEAN businessmen: half of Asia has completely free movement for business—and for dealing with the student situation, which is not at all satisfactory at present. We need a standing body to assess potential new members—of which there are several—and readmissions such as, one hopes, Zimbabwe one day, although clearly not at present and in its present condition. We need to review all DfID and ODA programmes to reverse the shrinking proportion going to the Commonwealth—I think the heads of DfID have grasped this point, but I am not at all sure that that message has reached over to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We need to move forward with our own potential and vastly important membership of the comprehensive, progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, which already includes several key Commonwealth countries.
As with a huge iceberg, the bulk of intra-Commonwealth activity and networking today lies beneath the radar of conventional diplomacy and its media coverage. Experts and opinion-formers, accustomed to looking only at what goes on between Governments and what is fed out at official level, completely miss the new reality: that the world is moving outside the familiar interstate system and that power and influence now flow between new international bodies, networks, interests, professions, businesses, university systems and causes, regardless of national boundaries, on an unprecedented scale. As I hope my noble friend Lord Marland will remind us—he will speak later in this debate, and has done so much to invigorate Commonwealth trade—these are the great, largely non-governmental institutions of the modern Commonwealth. We must work to leave them stronger than when we took them over, when we hand over the chairmanship of the Commonwealth to Rwanda next June.
It is the flexibility and informality of the Commonwealth family that make it so much more resilient than the old, more hierarchical structures of the 20th century that we inherited. Remember that the Commonwealth has no treaties; it is not a treaty-based organisation and is entirely voluntary. This makes it the ideal system for the digital age of massive grass-roots empowerment and connectivity. Of course, all families have their inner tensions and problems, as the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, reminded us. All networks have their problem points. The modern Commonwealth needs new kinds of enlightened and sophisticated governance to guide it through these shoals. A specially appointed—and perhaps rather extravagantly named—High Level Group, of which I had the privilege to be a member, was charged last year with adapting the structures of Commonwealth governance to entirely new world conditions.
In Britain’s case it is no secret that our country is struggling to adapt and redefine its role in a revolutionised world. Looking at the scene from an admittedly selfish British viewpoint, it is clear that the modern Commonwealth provides Britain both with the ideal transmission mechanism for the considerable soft power influence we have and with an excellent opportunity to make the contribution to world peace and prosperity to which the better side of the British character has always aspired. To strike a positive note, it really is heartening to see how the British establishment— wandering for a biblical 40 years or so in search of a narrower European destiny—is now returning to the larger Commonwealth fold, re-forging old links and seeking new ties in a transformed international milieu. Let us wind back two or three decades; frankly, few expected the morning would ever come when Britain would need access to the huge new markets and swelling capital resources of key Commonwealth friends, notably the giant and dynamic new India. Yet now that morning has arrived.
Nobody planned any of this; to use the word from the Motion, it was not planned to evolve this way. There were no blueprints. On the contrary, all too many were ready to write off the Commonwealth as a relic of the past. They did not foresee that networks have their own agendas and their own capacities to mesh together, without waiting for higher instruction, official guidance or approval. They did not foresee that the swirl of communications technology would advance the interweaving process in a manner never matched before in human history, thanks to common language, common law, common standards of accountancy and, above all, a great degree of that invaluable element: trust.
I know that many Commonwealth countries may well now be quizzical about the UK’s newfound enthusiasm for working with them, given the sharp downgrading of UK Commonwealth interest from 1972 onwards. As we return to the fold, our policies and approaches must reflect a suitably condign attitude and a clear recognition that this is not in any way a replay of old relationships. Not only has the Commonwealth of 1949 gone, the Commonwealth of the 20th century has gone and been replaced by an assembly of countries that includes some of the world’s fastest-growing economies and middle-income consumer markets. This is the network of friends and democracies with which we must now face a very uncertain future together. We need to be clear in our minds that we are re-engaging with Commonwealth countries not in some kind of post-colonial paternal role but as a key part of the United Kingdom’s new economic and security strategy in a transformed world. The Commonwealth is a key channel through which to exercise our full responsibilities in today’s disturbed and uncertain world conditions. I hope leaders of all parties and of all great institutions in this country have grasped that this is the path we now have to follow.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction to this important subject and look forward to her response. In addition, I wish the Minister the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, well in New York. It is the greatest pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for—one of many reasons—there can be no greater advocate and friend of the Commonwealth.
As regards the situation in Mozambique and the point the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, raised about the need to raise large quantities of resources for that troubled land, the Government might wish to consider knocking on the door of the United States. That country potentially has large interests, and will be a major beneficiary of the gas extractions and LNG, in Mozambique. It really would behove the United States to come to the fore.
The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, raised the desperate situation in Cameroon. I will not comment on the detail, as I recently did so in a debate introduced by the noble Lord, but I wish to register this. I am concerned that, when considering yesteryear, our country on occasions does not have the best record. We must keep our hand in and use all best endeavours to support those who have been adversely affected at independence. The Commonwealth can offer a clear contribution in all such matters, and we might wish to consider calling on President Macron of France to work with us to map out a solution to the situation in Cameroon. France probably has more influence than us on the President in Yaoundé. It may well be that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, the Minister, could use some of his time at the United Nations in New York to raise that point and generally get more traction.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with our Commonwealth allies must become a necessary and major plank of British relationship building over the years to come; how the UK best contributes to those relationships will be a matter for ongoing discourse. The Commonwealth provides a platform to discuss values and interests. However, we should be sensitive in recognising that on occasions these go counter to cultures and creeds elsewhere. Discussion and implementing changing philosophies should be viewed as activity in progress, whether it be addressing the bane of corruption, advocating decent levels of human rights, the benefits of social change fit for today’s world or the addressing of one of the great challenges of the age—the need for understanding and interaction in relation to religious tolerance. Whichever way one views it, the Commonwealth combines every aspect of life and is a force for good.
The complexity and scale of the interconnected world has brought benefits but also poses immense challenges. Cyber activity, in this world of obfuscation, is a worldwide phenomenon and affects us all. Given the importance of the Commonwealth in a post- Brexit world, the UK should help review the national cybersecurity capacity of Commonwealth members and improve their capabilities in providing mechanisms to monitor, detect, protect against and repel incursions, with an outcomes-based approach to governance and regulation, and in so doing build resilient digital economies. I encourage HMG to underpin action and exert influence by investing in increased Commonwealth partnerships, developing relationships to build on the levels of cybersecurity necessary to protect Commonwealth partners. Kigali’s CHOGM 2020 could offer a milestone for what progress has been achieved and to further outcomes.
There are many benefits to trade in order to enable relationship building, and as the UK advances on trade relationships around the world we should consider our role as strategic partners. The UK has been the advocate and gateway to access for many Commonwealth states into the European Union. What is to become of our ability to continue effectively in this role given, for example, a determined France on the prowl? I await a response to a Question I raised recently, in that there is disquiet in trade policy circles about a lack of co-ordination over how the Commonwealth fits in the overall constellation of EU to UK FTAs. I also seek a timeline from the Government for improving the unilateral preferences that they grant to the Commonwealth in the longer term, with more clarity on the level of access to be provided to less-developed countries. I would be grateful for clarity on this.
At this stage, I draw attention to a declared interest in that I am the architect of a digital platform, SupplyFinder.com, which has as its core providing B2B access for SMEs for cross-border markets. I naturally have the Commonwealth firmly in focus.
Putting trade into context, intra-Commonwealth trade is projected to reach $700 billion by 2020. This will be accommodated in large part by the Intra-Commonwealth SME Association, ICSA, launched in June 2016. What should be emphasised is the imperative to enhance a trade finance facility allowing small states to access finance needed to develop trade and sustain economic and social development with SMEs failing to maximise their potential. Solutions need to be found to the challenges facing small states—Commonwealth criteria place 32 states in that category—which range from weak credit ratings to a reluctance of global providers and financiers’ wariness of untested goods and services.
A plan was first mooted at the Sri Lanka CHOGM, with the support of India, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Malta, and Malta CHOGM advanced this notion, with India placing an initial contribution of $5 million—currently managed by Standard Chartered Bank, Baroda—to assist in a de-risking exercise, a credit guarantee scheme, that would give access to finance. So the trail is to provide credit guarantee to banks in small states who in turn can then lend to SMEs. This is an excellent initiative of the Commonwealth. However, more needs to be now done to add real teeth. Surely the City of London can see the opportunity, and if not, you would think that it would consider a degree of responsibility and rise to the challenge. If not, then a new financial centre should be devised with this objective as the goal. I am talking to one overseas organisation that has adopted British law and arbitration as the manner of things, all conducted in English.
Before ending with a thought, I draw attention to the second Intra-Commonwealth SME Association trade summit to be held in Nairobi, co-hosted by Kenya, and with expectation that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, the Secretary-General, will participate. The main objective of the summit is to build awareness of existing global standards, as well as to encourage regional and international investments in areas where the countries have competitiveness but lack capacity. Three chapters will be hosted: high-level policy makers; sectoral B2B meetings; and a technology and innovation platform.
As an aside, in my case with SupplyFinder.com to which I have referred, I have built up a research team in Sierra Leone that has the capacity but, frankly, I face a big challenge with internet availability and cost and impediments placed by payment providers to process remittances. With regret, I had this problem with Zimbabwe as well.
For my concluding point, I draw on my experiences in Kazakhstan as the architect of the Aktau Declaration on Joint Actions. That was all about joint ventures and local content, harmonising standards, specifications, organising a single all-purpose pre-qualification data base for suppliers and so negating the need to register multiple times with differing operators and so on. I have little doubt that something of the sort would work well within the Commonwealth and, now I think of it, I might propose that in Nairobi.
My Lords, in approaching the debate this afternoon through the prism of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association I hope it will not be thought that I am being too narrow or niche. More broadly, I endorse the work being done at all levels, from the Government downwards, to strengthen our links within the Commonwealth.
But history still haunts us to some extent. From my time as chair of the United Kingdom branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and as international chairman for three years, there is no doubt that there are still colonial resentments in parts of the Commonwealth which we have to overcome. There is also still a tendency on the part of many to refer to “the British Commonwealth”, which is unhelpful in modern times when we are celebrating 70 years of the Commonwealth. The membership of Rwanda, Cameroon and Mozambique is evidence that we are a broader organisation these days. Of course, a network is developing between and within regions which does not necessarily involve the United Kingdom at every turn.
What worries me more than anything else is the general unawareness in the population as a whole of what the Commonwealth is all about. I was shocked when I led a delegation to India in 2012—I think my noble friend Lord Popat will remember the occasion. On meeting the foreign affairs committee of the Lok Sabha, we were informed that India had no great interest in the Commonwealth. Coming from a senior parliamentary spokesman of the largest democracy in the Commonwealth, that was quite a shock. Then I thought to myself, if I went out into the street, whether in my old constituency of Saffron Walden or anywhere in London, and asked people what the Commonwealth meant to them, I would find an astonishing level of ignorance. That is truly worrying.
Despite all that, our parliamentary model is still seen as an important resource. We are always pleased to welcome delegations from other parliaments from all over the world, particularly from the Commonwealth, who wish to discuss their situations. A week ago, I met a group of distinguished Senators from Malaysia who were considering their constitutional arrangements. On behalf of the United Kingdom branch of the CPA, I explained all about our parliamentary model and the resource it was for them—even as our parliamentary model is being somewhat tested by present events. I wondered whether, when they saw the newspaper headlines the following morning, they could credit what I had said against what they read there.
In all these relationships with Commonwealth countries, I believe there is an expanding agenda for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. One of the things that strikes me is that it is all very well to have the Heads of Government meeting every two years, but there has been little opportunity for a relationship with what I would call the next level down in the democratic system. If it is the Executive who meet at the Heads of Government meeting, what about the legislatures? How do we build a relationship with them? That could lead to the decisions taken at CHOGM being followed, monitored and questioned in the ensuing period, with all parliaments facing continual questioning and debates about the matters on the agenda and agreed at CHOGM.
In fact, it is quite difficult to get debates. It is wonderful to have this one and there was a debate in the other place quite recently but, in the House of Commons, one has to beg for time from the Backbench Business Committee. We ought to have a major day in the parliamentary calendar when the affairs of the Commonwealth are discussed. That would send a message not only to our own people but to all our friends in the Commonwealth. CHOGM should attempt to build a structure that enables legislators to have a closer relationship with them.
Through the CPA, a women’s organisation has gradually been built up over the years and great work has been done to lift the position of women in Parliament and deal with many of the serious women’s issues that have cropped up in recent times, involving modern slavery and other matters. We have also created a network of the small jurisdictions and they now have their own chair, who becomes an officer of the association alongside the women’s chair.
What about young people? I remember that a kind of youth forum with the host Minister was held at CHOGM in 2011. Afterwards, the reaction was, “Will that be the last time we have any contact with the Heads of Government for two years?” Everyone resents being consulted one minute and then ignored for the next hour—or decade—and young people feel that in particular. They feel they have been picked up, put in a particular position and then forgotten about. We need to address that when young people represent a formidable proportion of the Commonwealth population. It is difficult to build it up, but there should be some kind of youth assembly or parliament in each of the Commonwealth countries, which would send a delegation to CHOGM. We should also have a leading person or officer for this in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. That would demonstrate that we are listening to the future citizens of the Commonwealth regularly and trying to involve them.
Continuity is needed. On Monday, your Lordships’ House will discuss the UK’s future relationship with the Erasmus programme in whatever situation we find ourselves with the European Union in the coming months. This is an enormously valuable programme. I do not want to see it go and deny young British people the opportunity to move to European countries. However, should we not try to do more to boost the numbers of people who go to other Commonwealth countries? It would no doubt be more expensive and more difficult to arrange, but should that not be a main purpose if we want young people to believe in the possibilities that proper democracy can bring them in the future?
IT can make a contribution to the practical problem of bringing people from far-off places together to talk to each other. I once saw a scheme in Kenya where a school was linked with a school in South Africa and one in Southampton and they were doing the same project. Every week, they would compare how they were dealing with it. We ought to be able to set up a buddy system for young people in the Commonwealth through mobile telephony, tablets and so on. We must have these ideas if we are to have full confidence in the future.
There is one niggling matter about the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association that I should like to mention: its legal status. It is registered as a charity in the United Kingdom and that irks many of our partners in the Commonwealth. It caused particular problems for me to overcome when I was international chairman. The British Government hold the key to this and have resisted a change in status for 30 years or more. However, a proposal has been put forward to the Minister and I hope it will be dealt with more favourably and imaginatively, so that we can get rid of this irritant, which has undoubtedly affected diplomacy between parliamentarians.
As we know, and as has been mentioned in this debate, there are many great struggles in the world. The one I—and all of us, I am sure—hope we avoid is an entrenchment of a world with a rich half and a poor half. There are appalling levels of poverty in many Commonwealth countries. Within the Commonwealth, we have a framework which can help to address and overcome this danger, by helping people to engage with people, learn lessons from one another and inspire hope that solutions that have eluded them so far can still be found. It takes time, it takes money and it takes commitment. It is particularly difficult for elected politicians, who always have to be looking at those who elected them in the first place, to find the extra time and dimension to reach out across the Commonwealth, but it is one of the most worthwhile undertakings on which we could embark.
It is right that the word “Commonwealth” and the concepts of continuity and evolution are in the Motion before your Lordships’ House today, but it seems to me that we need not just continuity or evolution, but a proclamation. Above all, we must talk up the Commonwealth and make people in everyday life aware of the benefits of this great organisation and the possibilities it holds, as outlined particularly by my noble friend Lord Howell. It has the potential to be a beacon of hope for a better world, and there are many people who need a sight of that beacon.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, for introducing this debate in such a positive manner and so clearly. It is indeed welcome that, nearly a year on from a very successful CHOGM in April 2018, we are debating the continuing and evolving role of the Commonwealth and our relationship with it.
In 2019 we mark 70 years since the London declaration, and it is worth reminding ourselves that this declaration came about because India wanted to become a republic but also to stay in the Commonwealth. India accepted the King as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and, as such, the head of the Commonwealth. India’s first Prime Minister, the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, saw the significance of the Commonwealth as bringing a touch of healing to a troubled world. Seventy years on, India is an important player in the Commonwealth and has the potential to be even more significant. Together, given their respective strengths, the UK and India can be a real force for good for the Commonwealth. It is in our interest and India’s interest to make this relationship more effective and to begin to make sure that modern India and the modern UK develop a positive relationship in the Commonwealth context.
Although the change in 1949 was presented as if it changed nothing, it in fact changed everything, but it was a smooth transition. The Commonwealth became a free association of peoples and Governments, and it is worth emphasising that the association of people came first. Those people were drawn together by history, a common language, common values, and common legal and administrative systems, and were held together by a symbolic head. The declaration provided a new role for the monarchy, independent of the Government, and Her Majesty the Queen has come to epitomise the Commonwealth. Furthermore, as for the countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, a Commonwealth with India in it prevented it becoming a narrow organisation, and marked the birth of the modern Commonwealth of diverse societies and cultures.
For the past 70 years, the Commonwealth has continued to evolve and change. It has remained resilient and dynamic despite predictions of its demise and sometimes denigration, not least in Whitehall and Westminster. In recent years, this has begun to change, albeit very slowly. A lot more needs to be done to make the Commonwealth part of our DNA.
During CHOGM 2018, we witnessed further evolution. In my view, two things were achieved simultaneously. The 2018 CHOGM managed to demonstrate that the modern Commonwealth is truly an association of equals. It focused on some real priorities, and yet it resolved the issue of the succession to the headship without any hitch. This gave it stability and the ability to move forward. The history of the Commonwealth shows its ability to evolve and change without much upheaval.
As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, the Commonwealth of 1949 has gone, and that of the 20th century has also gone. It is now a network of countries which includes some of the world’s fastest growing economies and middle-income consumer markets. It has within it states with new confidence, willing to embrace new ways of working. The modern Commonwealth is massively interconnected, and countries which were not former British colonies have joined, such as Rwanda and Mozambique. Indeed, Rwanda will host the next CHOGM, and I am confident it will bring a very refreshing focus.
To make the best of this new situation, the UK, in its role as chair-in-office, has the opportunity to influence the development and evolution of the Commonwealth, revitalise its relationship with the Commonwealth, build strong links with all member states and re- order its own structures and approach. It is an opportunity to make the most of the modern and expanding Commonwealth for mutual benefit.
The focus on delivering the commitments made in 2018 is commendable. I am aware of the work which is being done to achieve results. I commend the leadership and personal commitment shown by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, which is extremely impressive. But the UK needs to up its game and sharpen its machinery of government to engage more effectively with the Commonwealth. It is vital that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office operates on a pan-government basis, with input from all related Whitehall departments. The Commonwealth should be part of the Government’s overall strategy. We need to think and act Commonwealth; we need to ensure better understanding and knowledge of the Commonwealth.
Our re-engagement with the Commonwealth should be as an equal member of the modern Commonwealth, working to strengthen it and increase its effectiveness, at the same time ensuring that it is a key part of the UK’s new economic and security strategy and a key channel through which we exercise our responsibilities in today’s world. We should not see the relationship with the Commonwealth as purely transactional. The economic and security strategy needs to be underpinned by support for the non-governmental sector. It is the lifeblood of the Commonwealth and a channel for building trust and vibrant democracies, which are fundamental to developing meaningful trade relations and co-operation on security matters. While the reform of the Commonwealth Secretariat is much needed, as mooted by the high-level group, equally important is the role of the non-governmental sector in building trust and co-operation.
First and foremost, the Commonwealth is a Commonwealth of people. It is a huge mechanism for building trust and co-operation and for exchanging good practice. Contact between people is the heartbeat of the Commonwealth, and modern technology has added momentum to this, transforming connections and networks. The Commonwealth’s distinct advantage is that it is made up of many networks of parliamentary, professional and civil society organisations. These bodies are an integral and indispensable part of delivering the aspirations of the Commonwealth as stated in the Commonwealth charter. Many of these organisations existed before the secretariat and before governmental meetings were instituted. It is this network of civil society organisations which will deliver what the Commonwealth will be in the future. Formal institutions must therefore reach out and work with the informal sector. There should be more emphasis on working with and embracing non-governmental organisations and networks. Supporting and strengthening non-governmental organisations should be an integral part of the UK’s strategy. Investment in these institutions is extremely important.
My hope is that in its remaining time as chair-in-office, and beyond, the UK will raise its game and take steps to ensure that we think and act Commonwealth.
My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to take part in this important debate on the Commonwealth, and I thank my noble friend Lady Goldie for her introduction.
As we know, our voluntary Commonwealth is intended to bring about international co-operation and advance economies, social development and, importantly, human rights in its member countries. The Commonwealth is a 70 year-old association and consists of 53 countries. It has—it must have—a future. Its foundation is based on its history, values and common bonds, but today’s Commonwealth connects all the continents, embraces 2.4 billion people and represents all the major faiths.
Its membership includes many of the fastest-growing and increasingly technologically advanced economies in the world. For the smaller nations accommodated within this structure, it is an ideal place to have a voice and to be heard. Of course, with the Queen at its helm, it is a force for good in the 21st century. It is a driver for developing trade and investment opportunities for the UK and for promoting intra-Commonwealth trade. There is a great emphasis on supporting development programmes and bilateral assistance in Commonwealth countries, to the benefit of social cohesion within British society.
The grouping of countries with a similar or the same legal system and democratic outlook means that the Commonwealth is an ideal partnership for—dare I say it?—a post-Brexit Britain. The more free trade we see within the Commonwealth, the more the UK and Commonwealth countries will gain. Although we hope to invest in post-Brexit trade options with the select group of larger Commonwealth economies, the UK strategically must make sure that smaller developing economies do not lose out.
The 53 Commonwealth countries account for one-third of the world’s population, 40% of people under 30, and 14% of global GDP. It is five times as populous as the entire EU. Post Brexit, we want to see an emphasis on a more outward-looking global Britain. We have to hold a positive, optimistic stance on Britain’s future relations with the rest of the world, looking eastwards in particular. These facts make it a significant future market for most competing international powers. Commonwealth members wish to continue their close ties to Britain. We can remember a time when the UK shed its responsibilities towards them when we joined the EU many years ago.
I had the opportunity last year to visit New Zealand with the CPA and to meet many representatives from the Pacific islands. I witnessed their unwavering respect for the UK, which was still undiminished. Areas of discussion obviously focused on the effect of Brexit on UK-New Zealand relations, on trade policy in New Zealand, the status of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, the trade and investment relationship between the UK and New Zealand, and the economic prospects of both countries and the Pacific islands. The larger members guarantee that even the smallest member countries continue to have a voice to be listened to in shaping the Commonwealth, as the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, mentioned.
However, Commonwealth countries are greatly concerned at the deteriorating health of the world’s oceans, which impacts every country and in particular the Pacific islands. This poses an existential threat to many Commonwealth communities, and it was very much in evidence at the conference. Sea-level rise, acidification, biodiversity loss, overfishing and plastic pollution were raised as some of the most significant pressures requiring urgent action.
The geographical spread of the Commonwealth countries is another major advantage, covering, as they do, both hemispheres. Greater Commonwealth trade can be the jumping-off point for the expansion of British economic activity into the regions they inhabit, and that is certainly not to be underestimated.
Moving to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in April last year, the heads made ambitious commitments to build a Commonwealth that is fairer, more sustainable, more prosperous and more secure for all, with a commitment from the Government to allocate more than £500 million towards projects, as we heard from the Minister.
Finally, I will certainly not forget being part of that CPA delegation last year. It is likened to being in a club, working collectively for future trust and prosperity. It is a Commonwealth to celebrate, and long may it flourish.
My Lords, the Minister of State for the Commonwealth, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, whose presence we miss today, said on Commonwealth Day on 11 March:
“The UK has an unbreakable bond with the Commonwealth; a unique network bound together with the ties between people, common values and shared history. Our common vision for the 2.4 billion people who make up this family of 53 nations is the opportunity for all citizens to thrive regardless of race, religion, gender or any other status”.
In her message, the Prime Minister referred, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, in her opening speech, to this being the 70th anniversary of the Commonwealth. The Prime Minister said, referring to the theme of a connected Commonwealth:
“In an increasingly interlinked world, the bonds between Commonwealth citizens, organisations and governments provide a uniquely valuable network for international co-operation”.
Her Majesty the Queen talks about it being the “face of the future”. As I will come to later, 60% of the Commonwealth’s population of 2.4 billion are under the age of 30.
Huge thanks, credit and respect should go to Her Majesty for the part she has played over 67 years. She has seen this institution grow and develop in an extraordinarily flexible and fluid manner. The combined GDP of the Commonwealth countries is predicted to reach $14 trillion by 2020. Intra-Commonwealth trade, which was $525 billion in 2015, is set to double to $1 trillion by 2020.
His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has said that the Commonwealth is vital to the health of the world and the future of humanity. He is now of course the future head of the Commonwealth and has said that it has been the cornerstone of his life. It is serendipity that at the age of 70 he is now the head of a 70 year-old organisation of 53 countries. His Royal Highness is on a tour of the Caribbean and will visit Cuba, which will be an historic first for a member of the Royal Family. He has said that, representing a third of the world’s population, the Commonwealth has real power to tackle the global challenges that impact on all of us.
At the CHOGM that we hosted here last year, the Heads of State were very worried about the risk of protectionism to the global economy, and they underlined the importance of resisting all its forms. They reaffirmed their commitment to free trade in a transparent, inclusive, fair and rules-based multilateral system. This is where intra-Commonwealth trade and investment is so significant.
We now come to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s global Britain campaign. Building on what the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, said, does the FCO see the Commonwealth as a high enough priority? Is it sufficiently well resourced? I do not think that it is. It could do so much more if it had more finance behind it from all its member countries, including the UK and, in particular, India. It would be able to do so much more than it does at present. It is a great organisation but it is underresourced. To be able to rejuvenate it even further, enabling it to play a role in global Britain, the Commonwealth needs to be better resourced.
On the subject of free trade, we now have the EU trade agreements that need to be rolled over. Can the Minister tell me how many of those agreements exist at the moment? About 17% of our trade is through EU free trade agreements with over 50 countries, depending on how you cluster them; 50% of our trade is with the EU; two-thirds is with or through the EU. How many of these arrangements are ready to roll over should we Brexit?
To put this into context, 50% of our trade—roughly 45% of our exports and 55% of our imports—is with the EU and, as I said, a further 17% is through the EU. Most people do not realise that the whole Commonwealth makes up less than 10% of our trade. That is the reality. It shows how little trade we do overall with the Commonwealth and how much more we could do. There is a Commonwealth advantage, where researchers found that transactions between two Commonwealth countries cost approximately 20% less than those between non-Commonwealth nations. That is of course because of the commonality of our legal systems and English as the language of business that we share.
Today the EU is negotiating trade deals with more than 80% of Commonwealth countries, including India; that has been going on for more than a decade. Deals have just been signed with Singapore and Canada. UK-Commonwealth exports were almost £50 billion with the five larger economies—Australia, Canada, Singapore, South Africa and India—accounting for 70% of our Commonwealth exports and 65% of imports. Of 53 countries, just those five make up the bulk of our Commonwealth trade.
Does the Minister agree that the Commonwealth cannot replace our relationship with the EU? This has been a con. The British people have been sold this myth: “Leave the EU and we will just trade with the Commonwealth instead”. It has never been about “instead” or “either” but always “and”. Generally, what underlines the Commonwealth charter is that it is a force for good. Historically, the accusation was that Britain left the slow-growing Commonwealth countries to join the European Community. Today, we are told that Europe is growing slowly and we should go for the faster-growing countries, many of which are in the Commonwealth, in Africa and Asia. Even if one takes those altogether, one still has to remember the 50% of our trade with the EU, versus less than 10% with the Commonwealth. However much that might grow, there is a big gap that will take a long time to fill.
We have to remember the gravity model of trade, where countries will naturally trade with larger countries close to them. That is why the EU at our doorstep—a trading bloc with 500 million people, the biggest in the world—is where we trade. The same thing goes with countries such as Australia, which are trading more in the Asia-Pacific area using their trade deal. That said, the Commonwealth has always enjoyed strong political, cultural, sporting, family and study links with the UK.
When it comes to studies, our Immigration Rules genuinely hamper our ability to do more trade with the Commonwealth. I speak as president of UKCISA, the UK Council for International Student Affairs—the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, was my predecessor—and as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Students. The APPG produced a report highlighting where we are falling down with our Immigration Rules and how, in particular, if we had reintroduced a two-year post-graduation work visa, we would be able to attract so many more of the brightest students from the Commonwealth, who are now going to Canada and Australia instead.
India of course is the giant of the Commonwealth, making up half the population. This year it will probably overtake the UK in absolute terms as the fifth-largest economy in the world. We have to be real about the position of this country. We have been at the top table of the world, and are still, through the European Union, the Commonwealth and NATO, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and part of the G7, G8 and G20. We punch well above our weight. We are a world player. We are a global power, not a superpower. But being a member of the European Union was never an impediment to carrying on right at the heart of the Commonwealth.
Again, putting things into perspective, Belgium and Germany are bigger trading partners for India than the UK. Italy trades twice as much with Ghana as does the UK. There is a lot more we could do. Going back to history, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, mentioned Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He said that Commonwealth membership meant,
“independence plus, not independence minus”.
It is so important that countries that belong to the Commonwealth do so voluntarily, and that there is no compulsion. Frankly, there is a queue of countries that would love to be members of the Commonwealth. It is spread over a fifth of the world’s land surface, contains a third of the world’s population and produces 15% of the world’s wealth. It is phenomenal.
I cannot resist mentioning that, in 2010, UKIP’s manifesto promised a Commonwealth free trade area that would account for,
“more than 20% of all international trade and investment”.
That would be brilliant, if it were possible. How realistic is it? Well, UKIP’s then leader Nigel Farage later described the manifesto as “drivel”, so let us move on from that. By the time the referendum came around, several prominent leavers including Boris Johnson and Daniel Hannan were happy to say that the UK “betrayed” the Commonwealth when it joined the European Community in 1973 and that now was the time to “embrace the Commonwealth”—again, this nonsense about either/or.
Australia has 1.6% of UK exports out of the 9.5%. To use a specific example of one region—one part—of the United Kingdom where we want to increase trade with the Commonwealth, what of Wales? Wales currently exports more than three times as much to France as it does to Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand, Singapore and South Africa combined. The Commonwealth is not a trading bloc; that is the reality, much as it would be great if it could be. What we have with the EU cannot ever be taken for granted.
The youth of the Commonwealth is also very important. Trade between countries such as India and the 27 other countries of the EU has tripled since 2010. At the same time, UK-India trade has not grown as much as it could and should have; I say that as a founding chair of the UK India Business Council. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, said that,
“whether the UK was within the EU or without the EU, the Commonwealth [trade] advantage would be and is still there”.
This is what I want to stress: it is not either/or.
Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia, wrote an article recently on Commonwealth Day, entitled: “Think the Commonwealth can save Brexit Britain? That’s utter delusion”. It stated:
“Australians want the UK to do well. But there’s no way free trade with us or others can make up for the hit of leaving the EU”.
He goes on to analyse it in great detail. I know from the horse’s mouth that, to India, the EU-India free trade agreement that he talks about is far more important than any potential UK-India free trade agreement.
Can the noble Lord tell us more about this EU-India free trade agreement, which I do not think exists?
The EU-India free trade agreement is what has been tried to be negotiated for over 10 years now.
But it does not exist.
We have been trying to do it for over a decade.
Let us look at the irony of when we joined the EU 46 years ago. The Daily Mail celebrated by saying: “Now we can lead Europe!” The Sun spoke of,
“an unrepeatable opportunity for a nation that lost an empire to gain a continent”.
How things have changed.
Before concluding, I would like to touch on the Memorial Gates at Constitution Hill, the trust on which I have the privilege of chairing. We celebrate the contribution of 5 million volunteers from predominantly the Commonwealth countries to the first and second world wars. The contribution of these individuals was extraordinary and we need to acknowledge that without it we would not have our freedom today. Yet The Royal British Legion says that the treatment of Commonwealth veterans is atrocious. Hundreds of Commonwealth military veterans, who risked their lives serving in the UK Armed Forces, face spiralling debts, being forced to pay “exorbitant” visa fees to remain in the country after their discharge. The fees have gone up by 127% in five years. Since their introduction in 2003, the fees have risen by 1,441%. If the veterans cannot pay, they face deportation. That is awful considering that, looking ahead, we want to recruit more members from the Commonwealth because of recruitment shortages at the moment.
We have huge and wonderful opportunities with the Commonwealth, but they are not instead of the relationship with the European Union. I conclude with Her Majesty the Queen’s Commonwealth Day message, where she said that,
“many millions of people around the world are drawn together because of the collective values shared by the Commonwealth … We are able to look to the future with greater confidence and optimism as a result of the links that we share, and thanks to the networks of co-operation and mutual support to which we contribute, and on which we draw”.
In the words of the Booker prize-winning author Ben Okri, as inscribed on the Memorial Gates:
“Our future is greater than our past”.
My Lords, my speech will be rather brief because I always believe that in these debates most things that can be said about the Commonwealth will be said more eloquently than I possibly could. I declare an interest as a trustee of Commonwealth Walkways, a programme of walkways around cities in the Commonwealth; it is gathering great momentum, and I would like to draw it to the attention of the UK Government as something that they may wish to support—keeping the Commonwealth fit and walking. It is refreshing to be talking not about Brexit but about Brentrance, Brentry or any other phrase that you might like to use. But of course this is re-Brentry, where the UK Government start to man—or woman—themselves up to their role and responsibility within the Commonwealth, which I fear has passed them by for many years.
I also declare an interest as chair of an organisation called the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. Our mandate from the Commonwealth Heads of State is to promote trade and investment in the Commonwealth. I co-chaired the business forum with the UK Government, as the arrangement was, and with Malta previous to that. We attracted 1,500 people, including 25 Heads of State, 25 Trade Ministers and Foreign Ministers, billionaires, multibillionaires and, of course, the Royal Family. There are very few forums that could muster that sort of engagement from such a wide range of people.
During our four and a half short years of existence, we have established six hubs across the Commonwealth —in Lagos, Malta, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Sri Lanka and, soon, India—and the City of London has been a marvellous strategic partner. However, we are one of the few well-funded organisations within the Commonwealth. The secretariat is under great pressure for funding, while the Royal Commonwealth Society, of which my noble friend Lord Howell has been a valiant president, is also suffering from underfunding. The UK talks about “global Britain”, “GREAT Britain” and similar mantras, but I have to say that I am yet to see that in action from the Foreign Office. When one visits one of its embassies, one finds it focused on cost-cutting and reducing its outreach because the Treasury is refusing to fund it. That, by the way, is despite the valiant efforts of those in the Commonwealth; my noble friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister, is a valiant supporter of it, and Mr Parham, the Commonwealth envoy, is doing a valiant job against the restrictions of the Treasury, which as yet has not understood the importance of global Britain for driving finance into our great international outward-looking departments to help them with their cause. I am delighted to see in her place the Minister for International Trade; that is another department that is suffering problems of investment to make us a global Britain.
The news that the UK was becoming Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth was therefore manna in heaven for the UK. Here it was, with one-third of the world’s population at its feet and an opportunity to rebuild bridges with many Commonwealth countries, which it had destroyed when it joined the EU, and to take this matter seriously. There was an announcement of £500 million of funding over two years into various projects, but to date I am totally unaware of any Commonwealth organisation that has been vested by the UK Government to deliver these projects. How on earth are such organisations going to deliver Commonwealth-initiated projects without having the institutions to do it?
To put that into context, the British Council gets £1.16 billion of funding and the African Union gets $416 million a year but the Commonwealth Secretariat gets about £40 million, of which £5.6 million comes from the UK. The CPA, of which the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, is of course an excellent co-chairman, received £2 million of funding for its outreach programme. Our own organisation requests only £60,000 a year from the Government to support it but the payment of that has been delayed by nine months.
I am flattered to be able to speak on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who is the Secretary-General’s appointee to the board of the Commonwealth of Learning. He has been closely involved in the decision on whether the institution should advantageously purchase a permanent site in its hometown of Vancouver. He tells me that the business case has been pored over in tortuous detail and supported by the relevant committees and donor countries. To arrange all this in an orderly manner requires a decision to be ratified ahead of the next annual meeting in June. What is at stake here is HMG joining the major donor nations of Canada, Australia and New Zealand in displaying a firm long-term commitment to the development of education as the central plank of Commonwealth activity. Our present inability to make a decision on this issue can be interpreted in only one way: as representing a lack of conviction, in the sense that we continue to hedge our options when it comes to putting money where we claim our convictions lie. When I say “we”, I am afraid that I refer to the UK Government. I invite my noble friend the Minister to look into this to see whether we can get a decision on whether HM Treasury will fund this £100,000-plus amount to support the Commonwealth of Learning. There have been massive commitments to support it in government announcements.
I do not wish to stand up here and criticise the UK Government any more than anyone else does. They have a lot on their plate at the moment and it is not easy going for them. But unless they take the opportunity of the next year, with the sands of time running out until they pass their responsibilities on to Rwanda, and invest in the Commonwealth institutions, we can talk Commonwealth until we are blue in the face in this House and the other place, but it will not survive without vibrant institutions to deliver what everyone in this Chamber has been talking about so eloquently before I spoiled it by getting to my feet.
My Lords, we are all grateful to Her Majesty’s Government for initiating this debate. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is unable to be present, but I welcome his capable last-minute replacement, my noble friend Lady Goldie. I put on record that my noble friend Lord Ahmad, as other noble Lords have said, deserves our great praise for his strong support of the Commonwealth and overseas territories. I must confess to be rather a newcomer on this subject compared with many speakers, such as my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford, who is president of the Royal Commonwealth Society, and my noble friend Lord Marland, of Odstock, who is chair of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council—both marvellous ambassadors for the association.
At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in April 2018, the Prime Minister said, “I agreed concrete steps to achieve a fairer, more secure, more prosperous future for the group’s 2.4 billion people”. As many other noble Lords have said, the themes of the meeting were environmental sustainability, fairness, security and prosperity. Among other commitments in the 12-page communiqué were agreements on the need for democratic, accountable institutions, justice for all and encouraging trade among members.
In March 2018, the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, the former chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, talked of,
“the need to distinguish between the Commonwealth of declaration and the Commonwealth of reality”.—[Official Report, 22/3/18; col. 438.]
So does the Commonwealth survive, according to a Guardian article of April 2018, due to its,
“dogged and unlikely persistence as an international grouping, for permitting the British delusion that old imperial patterns of trade can replace the present arrangements with the EU”?
Or is it, as my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford recently stated,
“not just about governance and … 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”.—[Official Report, 13/3/19; col. 1017-18.]
I will look first at a main CHOGM theme—trade. According to the ONS, in 2017 UK exports to the Commonwealth represented 9% of all UK exports. In contrast, exports to the EU were 44.5%. Thus, the UK exported nearly five times as much to the EU as to the Commonwealth that year. According to a Financial Times article of April 2018,
“Most of the countries involved are small; almost all of them are far from the UK … proximity still matters in trade …The Commonwealth … does not function as a trading area”.
My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford and some commentators place faith in a “CANZUK” bloc emerging, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. I hope that they are right, but Canada’s most important trading partner by far is the USA. Its regulation and trade policy are oriented towards its southern neighbour. Australia and New Zealand are closely aligned with each other, but beyond that they are far more concerned with China and other Asian markets than English-speaking countries on the far side of the world.
The UK’s decision to join the EEC in 1973 dealt a severe blow to the likes of New Zealand, but in truth a global trading bloc anchored on the UK was already disappearing. The “sterling area” of fixed exchange rates that had facilitated trade within the British Empire had been severely weakened when the UK was forced to devalue the pound in 1967. Thereafter, the Commonwealth as a meaningful trading area began to cease to be so important. Poorer countries, especially in Africa, retain access to the UK through preferential EU trade agreements but have relatively little to sell. The UK can do little more than replicate those EU deals. The biggest non-EU economy, India, is emerging only slowly from the protectionist regime it maintained under the Congress (I) for decades since independence in 1947. It certainly dislikes signing trade deals and bilateral talks with the EU have stalled for years. Canada, apart from its NAFTA and Trans-Pacific Partnership commitments, has already signed a bilateral deal with the EU, which the UK will hope to replicate. The same is likely to be true with Australia and New Zealand, which are in the process of talk with the EU. I noted my noble friend Lord Marland’s comments in a TV interview that the UK should consider joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I ask my noble friend Lady Goldie whether this would be possible.
So what were the other three themes the Prime Minister talked about? The first was environmental sustainability. In a Written Answer in November 2018, the Foreign Office Minister stated:
“Twenty countries, over a third of the Commonwealth, have now signed up to the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance – the Blue Charter Action Group co-chaired by the UK and Vanuatu to tackle marine plastic pollution”.
The Prime Minister announced that the UK would make up to an additional £5 million available to provide technical assistance to developing countries that join the initiative. She also announced a young leaders’ plastic challenge badge, working in partnership with the UN—among others—to help an estimated 50,000 young leaders in Kenya and two further African countries to become leaders in raising awareness about the importance of reducing plastic consumption. Importantly, in a Written Answer last July, the Foreign Office stated that the Indian Prime Minister had announced a ban on all single use plastics from 2022. Vanuatu has also made huge progress in this area. I note that many Commonwealth African countries have been helped financially to gain access to clean water and sanitation.
With regards to the second theme—fairness, democracy, good governance and human rights—I have struggled to find much in the way of progress. I see that £212 million has been given to support nine Commonwealth member states to deliver 12 years of quality education. Can the Minister let me know what other progress and measures have been achieved or are in progress in these areas? I see that £1.8 million has been given to the Commonwealth’s electoral observation programme, but I could not find much else.
On the third theme—security, unity against cybercrime and violent extremism—I note from a Written Answer from the Foreign Office last November that:
“In support of the Commonwealth Cyber Declaration, the UK has partnered with the World Bank to deliver national cyber security capacity reviews in 11 member states. With support from Oxford University’s Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre and Australia’s Oceania Centre, we are now well placed to meet the commitment for every Commonwealth country to voluntarily undertake reviews by CHOGM 2020”.
In total, the UK has given £37 million under the security theme, but the total amount given by the UK Government, of £500 million, as many other noble Lords have said, is absolutely minor compared to our overseas aid budget of £13 billion. The Foreign Office has a budget of over £1.3 billion. These budgets must be increased and, as other noble Lords have said, there must be more co-ordination between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, DfID, the Department of International Trade and trade envoys, rather than all of them being in a narrow silo pursuing their own interests.
Perhaps the most significant outcome of the 2018 meeting, in terms of attendance, was the decision of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to attend. When I went to India in 2017 as part of an all-party delegation, we asked him what his views were on the Commonwealth. I remember his words exactly. He said: “Well, they are nice people to have a cup of tea with” —hardly a ringing endorsement. Also, as other noble Lords have said, he was very upset with the UK’s attitude towards limiting numbers of international students studying in the UK—a short-sighted policy supported by almost no one in Government except the outgoing Prime Minister. Therefore, I was mightily and pleasantly surprised that he attended CHOGM. The director of the Royal Commonwealth Society said last year:
“As India cements its status as an economic superpower, it is increasingly apparent that they are starting to see the enormous potential of the Commonwealth as a ready-made soft power network”.
Professor H Pant, professor of international relations at King’s College, London, has stated:
“As a rising power, India too is looking at those avenues where its status as an emerging power is recognised during this period of unprecedented global structural changes and shifts in balance-of-power equations. The Commonwealth … provides India with a platform to engage with a wide array of states across the world with similar political cultures. … it needs its own arenas and platforms, especially ones where China is not a member. Modi’s renewed look at the Commonwealth may well be an indication that New Delhi is eyeing the organisation as a prospective forum for its power projection. To actualise this, however, New Delhi will have to invest diplomatic capital to remould the platform according to its own strategic needs. Modi’s London visit, in this context, could be considered as a step in that direction”.
An Indian official put a slightly different slant on the reason for Modi’s presence, saying:
“The Commonwealth is useful to us because it gives us a chance to talk to fellow Asian countries without China being in the room”.
Finally, what is the soft power aspect that is so important about the Commonwealth? UK Commonwealth envoy David Concar put it very succinctly in a 2015 interview, almost reiterating the words of my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford. He said:
“there is no other international organisation like this. It is not a military or security organisation... It is not an economic grouping… it’s a soft-power organisation, a network of countries that share the same values, have the same common law heritage. It is also unique as it is not just an inter-governmental organisation. It has very significant networks in Civil Society Networks through the Commonwealth Youth Program and others. … The Commonwealth includes all the world’s major religions and an immensely diverse range of countries. It is well placed to act as a platform to promote tolerance and respect. This can help young people in communities resist radicalisation”.
I think this is a very good summary.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate as the Commonwealth approaches its 70th anniversary. The Commonwealth is something we can all cherish and support and which has, especially through Her Majesty and her work, had a positive lasting impact on the lives of many people around the world. The Commonwealth is, as its name suggests, a wealth of things we have in common: things we can all nurture and sustain such as democracy, the rule of law and adherence to the upholding of human rights.
It is now almost a year since the very successful Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in our country. After that meeting, the Commonwealth Women’s Forum issued an outcome statement outlining its achievements and the work that needs to be done to address some of the issues that are not always on the right side of our shared values and sense of common purpose. These issues, such as empowering women and girls, were addressed by the forum:
“Recognising that despite the concerted efforts to transform the subordinate position of women and girls in many societies and the progress made so far towards gender equality, the advancement of the status of women and girls has been slow and uneven”.
These issues are at the forefront of many agendas across the globe, not just in the Commonwealth; but recognising that inequality and sporadic success highlights a growing disparity between what is needed and what is actually being achieved. It is here I have learned that one of the best ways to make progress is through education and assisting the younger generations, who can make change happen.
If we are truly to make progress, challenge cultural practices and relinquish the chains of male-dominated societies, we need to start at the beginning and ensure that education is key for the new generations; and that women of the future do not face the same issues and limitations that held back their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and so on, especially violence, subversion and coercion. These issues are extremely important in the context of the sustainable development goals and achieving 50/50 by 2030.
The Commonwealth Women’s Forum also called on the Commonwealth to:
“lead the world by creating and strengthening an enabling environment for women’s empowerment, for a sustainable, secure, prosperous, and fairer society—that is free from violence and coercion, focuses on actions to mainstream gender in all government programmes, policies and initiatives including gender budgeting”.
Given the UK’s role as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth until the next summit in 2020, we now have the opportunity to grasp the nettle and address these various and serious issues head on, and to make some impact and progress so that all citizens of the Commonwealth feel safe and secure, whatever their standing and beliefs, especially when it comes to human rights abuses and inequality against women.
The women’s forum acknowledged that women face bias along multiple identity dimensions, including gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and age. With an estimated 2.4 billion people making up the Commonwealth, and nearly half the world’s population being female, it is not hard to see that addressing many of the issues that females face and supporting women and girls will bring about enormous and beneficial change for all concerned. With small states making up 60% of the group, it is important that those countries are supported properly in addressing the aim of the Commonwealth of “a fairer future” with gender equality and inclusion at the fore.
While we all recognise the issues that women face—many of them have been debated separately in this Chamber—it is actions more than words that will help. It is here that the work of DfID could be put to better use. If our aid budget were targeted more at Commonwealth countries, we could ensure that our friends and partners gained the best support possible.
It is good to know that we are opening more diplomatic missions in Commonwealth countries to forge better and closer ties with everyone. We can use the time as chair-in-office to bring all the countries closer together, to unite and to show solidarity; indeed, other countries such as Brazil, which has just marked international Commonwealth Day, are realising the importance of the Commonwealth. At a time when there is so much uncertainty in our world, it is comforting to know that there is a group of nations that together can show leadership, express common sense and unite in a sense of purpose that may seem lost in today’s fast-changing world.
I would like to ask the Minister whether it is possible to have specific, up-to-date aid spending figures for Commonwealth countries on educational projects targeted at women and girls. What is DfID doing to ensure that 50/50 by 2030 means just that for Commonwealth countries and all their citizens?
My Lords, when you are one of the last speakers in such a debate, there is very little to say because everything you want to say has been said. However, having heard so many speeches, I think we can agree that the case for closer relations with the Commonwealth has rarely been so compelling.
I have always said that the Commonwealth is more than a network. The noble Lord, Lord Boateng, described it as a family; yes, it is a family of 53 nations. Like all families, we are much more than the sum of our parts. We have a duty of care to all our members; to people, to hearts and minds, and to the beautiful and diverse cultures and narratives, all of which are united by the shared bonds of history.
I am a child of the Commonwealth: born to Indian parents, raised in Uganda and educated in Britain. My story, and perhaps those of others here today, is not untypical of the journey that many Commonwealth subjects have taken. The different experiences and broad perspectives we have gained have shaped not only our values but our very identities.
It saddens me, however, that people look to the Commonwealth as a relic of a bygone era: as something that is, at best, sentimental, and, at worst, a little shameful—but mostly, as insignificant in the modern day. Such views fail to grasp the strategic importance of the Commonwealth; the incredible economic potential which can provide much comfort in uncertain times; the power of old partnerships to address new challenges; and the boundless opportunities for co-operation in some areas of life. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Marland and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for their outstanding commitment to UK-Commonwealth relations. My noble friend Lord Haselhurst has been a great bridge between us and the Commonwealth for the past four decades.
As head of the Commonwealth, Britain remains an active world player, with our impressive soft power, historic relations and commitment to aid and trade. However, we have many friends within the Commonwealth who have felt let down by us. They have felt, and continue to feel, that we have turned our backs on them; that we—I am ashamed to say this—even look down on them. Try to arrange a visa for an African national to come to the UK and you will understand what I am talking about. Africans are being denied visas at a much higher rate than people from other parts of the Commonwealth. This is having a negative impact, not only on our trade relations, which we claim we want to build, and on tourism, which we claim we want to encourage, but on relations with aid agencies, the clergy, the arts and politics. The Ugandan Prime Minister was even denied a visa at one point. What sort of message are we sending out?
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, mentioned India. UK-India relations is another area that we need to promote. India is the Commonwealth’s biggest democracy, with 1.3 billion people, and an economic powerhouse. Britain and India could play a leading role in helping to realise the Commonwealth’s wonderful potential.
Many noble Lords know that I am a trade envoy to Uganda and Rwanda. Promoting UK exports is my major line of interest, but promoting bilateral trade with these two markets has opened my eyes to the resentment that the UK’s retreat from the Commonwealth platform has caused among our most natural allies. A few months ago, I hosted a business event with President Museveni of Uganda, here in the House of Lords. One of the audience members asked a question about the role of China as a dominant economic player in Africa. President Museveni’s response was very telling. He said: “I do not speak Chinese. I speak English. But the Chinese are the ones who offered to build our factories. The Chinese are the ones who came in with investment. Where was Britain?” This was a powerful point that struck at the heart of the issue: the Commonwealth’s shared history should be used to build shared prosperity. Britain’s great history should thus be our great advantage.
Uganda is a country that has been transformed under President Museveni. It has been through revolutions, dictatorships and civil wars. Today, it is stable and ambitious. In trading terms, there are £20 billion-worth of opportunities in oil, gas and infrastructure. The UK is finally breaking ground, and the Ugandans are happy to see us back there, but there is more work to do to restore good will. If we are serious about taking the Commonwealth to the next level, or even reforming it, we need to take more responsibility. I fear that what we lack is the political will.
I turn to Africa, because I am genuinely passionate about its potential. It has 1.2 billion people and a young, fast-growing and ambitious population. Six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world are there. It has some of the most innovative and largest cities, 60 of which have a population of over 1 million, and is home to a third of the world’s natural resources. As I have said many times in this Chamber, Africa is the new frontier for trade and investment. If you want proof that Africa is the continent to watch, look no further than Rwanda. One of the smallest countries on the continent, with one of the fastest growing economies, Rwanda has achieved success against great odds, in defiance of all predictions and in the face of unspeakable national tragedy.
Next week, I will be travelling to Rwanda with a parliamentary delegation to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide. It will be a sombre and reflective occasion, but it will be a chance to see how, out of that very dark chapter, Rwanda has transformed itself in the most remarkable way. It has democracy, no corruption, a thriving business environment—it is rated 29th for ease of doing business—and modern infrastructure. It is no wonder that it has been selected to host next year’s CHOGM, and I guarantee that it will be a summit to remember. I say to the Minister and to all noble Lords that if Rwanda is a glimpse of what is possible, then Africa has a wonderfully bright future ahead. What is really interesting about Rwanda is that it chose to join the Commonwealth. It chose us—our family. Why? Because it likes us, trusts us and believes in us: Rwanda believes in Britain and in the Commonwealth, and it is time that we believed in ourselves.
For the past 46 years, we have been very insular and too continental. Brexit is an opportunity to transform the Commonwealth into a global trading body that reflects the vast opportunities on offer, but there is a lot of work to do. It is essential to have the right infrastructure in place so we can deliver UK goods to Commonwealth markets. It is on this that the UK needs to focus, and the first priority is aviation. We used to have a bridge between the UK and Africa; today, we can barely catch a direct flight to an African capital. This is problematic, because ease of access is a central consideration for exporters. In the simplest terms, if we want to encourage Britain to do business with Africa, we need to connect British businesses to Africa. British Airways used to fly to Lusaka, Entebbe, Dar es Salaam, Freetown and many other African cities. After 60 years, it will stop flying to all those places. This is problematic, because we need those flights to do more business in Africa. Since I helped RwandAir launch its London-Kigali route, I have struggled to help it secure the slots it needs at Gatwick. Capacity continues to be a major problem. There is no question that we need more runways, but, if we are genuinely outward looking, we need reinstate direct flights to Africa as a matter of urgency.
Further, we need the right financial infrastructure. We are the world’s number one financial centre. Banks, like air routes, are the bridges of which I speak. We should be building bridges, not dismantling them. Further down the line, as I have previously argued, we should consider establishing a Commonwealth bank. For now, I tell noble Lords that the exodus of iconic British brands, such as Barclays and BA, does not inspire confidence in African Commonwealth countries that the UK is fully open for business. Barclays Bank is leaving Africa after nearly 100 years. Such things do not help. It is being replaced by Chinese and Indian banks.
Finally, the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, mentioned SMEs. We have 5 million SMEs in the UK, fewer than 1% of which export. There are 30 million SMEs in the Commonwealth; again, less than 1% of these export. I am glad that my noble friend the Minister for Trade is here. One thing we can do which will cost the Treasury no money is to double UK export finance to Commonwealth countries, to encourage more trade and investment. UK Export Finance is an outstanding organisation within government and, frankly speaking, it makes a profit. Two years ago it paid £1 billion in tax, so why not lend more money to Commonwealth countries to encourage more trade and help our SMEs to export more?
I finish as I started. The Commonwealth is our family. Like all good families, it is not without its complications, challenges, differences and disagreements. But also like all good families, we must stick together and work together through the good times and the bad. This is our next great task. The Commonwealth is our past and I believe it is our future.
I thank noble Lords for giving me permission to speak during the gap. I need to do so to raise an issue that has come to light in a Commonwealth country in the past day.
Many noble Lords have spoken of the Commonwealth as a family. A family supports and nurtures its members and shows love to them, but it also sets out the acceptable values and moral framework within which those members should work. As a family of nations, the Commonwealth does that through its charter, which says that there will be a,
“pursuit of common principles and values”.
In the section on human rights, it says that no discrimination may take place on any grounds. One of the key issues in any family is what happens when one member steps out of that moral framework and does not live up to its values. How do families work to ensure that that important framework is kept?
I will talk about what has happened in Brunei in the last 24 hours. On the website of their attorney-general, a little notice has come to light that from next Wednesday, 3 April, those found guilty of practising gay sex will be stoned to death. Those found guilty of adultery will be stoned to death. This is a backward step. It is not the moral framework which we would expect a member of our family to act within. It is abhorrent, and goes against every value that we hold as a nation. As chair-in-office at the moment, we have a strong moral duty as the head of the family to ensure that everything possible is done to stop this family member going down this road.
Therefore, I ask the Minister what action the Government are taking as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth to rally the members to ensure that this abhorrent approach does not take place and that human rights will not be abused in this way. Also, what international action will the Government take? Brunei wanted to do this in 2014, but when the international community came together it was stopped.
My second question is important. If Brunei decides that it will stone to death those found guilty of practising gay sex or adultery, is that grounds enough for the Commonwealth to say that it should not be a member at the moment? Will the Government support that action if Brunei decides to murder people by stoning them for practising gay sex or adultery?
My Lords, I thought I had put my name down to speak, but I then discovered that I was not on the list. I was told I could speak in the gap because I was here in the first debate and for a number of other contributions that followed it. As an early Commonwealth person in this House—I have been here since 1981—I have felt as an Australian living here all this time that Britain and Australia are, and have been, so closely linked.
I will comment on the excitement when the Queen first visited Australia. People must never underestimate how important she and the Royal Family are to the Commonwealth. There is a genuine affection for them. Things got quite hysterically excited when the Queen came in, I think, 1954. There were several questions; one was that everyone knew she had glorious skin, but the Australian sun is so bad for producing skin cancers and all sort of nasties that people wondered how she would get around it. The tradition is that her face has to be visible to anyone looking at her. If she wears a hat with a big brim, you will not be able to see her face, and if she wears one without much of a brim, the skin on her face might be quite dangerously cooked. The discussion raged. By the time she appeared at the Government House garden party in Sydney, she had come up with the clever answer of a semi-transparent, broad-brimmed hat, which kept the sun off, and on which three feathers of different bright colours were spread around. She had come up with the answer to the problem in that you could still see her face and yet she was protected.
People were so excited. In Melbourne, when the Queen first arrived—I think it was Melbourne, but I may have the wrong sequence because it was a long time ago—everybody wanted to get a view of her. I had a brother-in-law of six foot three, and when she arrived, someone put a ladder up against his back and ran up the ladder to see her over the top of the crowd. This is how excited people were. When she came to Sydney, at the Government House garden party—I was fortunate enough to be asked to it, because my family had always been very political in New South Wales: Labor, I should admit—people were hanging out of the trees in the grounds of Government House to get a view. There was such a crowd of people who wanted to see her that many could not get a view of her.
I will comment one more thing. This is a long-standing relationship. Last November, I went to the celebration of 100 years since Australia House was built on the Strand. It took five years to build, but it is quite remarkable; I had no idea that it was such an old building. The celebration was very good, and well attended, and the Prince of Wales came to it. Everyone thought that was marvellous, because part of his education was in Victoria, so it was rather good to have him there.
I followed Baroness Trumpington as the UK representative on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, where I heard an interesting comment from an African woman delegate. She said, “The trouble is that they send us money. They shouldn’t send us money. If they sent me soap, I could wash my children, but if they send us money, I never see it; no one sees it”. This is a very important thing, and we have to work out whether it is sustainable.
I will not speak any longer, but I was going to say that the Prince of Wales made a speech and it was the best one I had ever heard him make. Clearly, the Commonwealth means a lot to him, and I am glad that I have had the privilege of being a Commonwealth Member here since 1981.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, for putting down this topic for debate, and the noble Baroness for so effectively taking on his mantle. I also thank the Minister for her willingness over this last year to involve parliamentarians in the various events surrounding CHOGM and afterwards. It was astonishing to be able, for example, to sit in a meeting of African leaders and to hear African presidents and Prime Ministers informally discussing among themselves the newly agreed free trade agreements across their continent, and much else besides.
As we have heard, the Commonwealth is currently made up of 53 countries, ranging from the largest and most populous, such as India, to some of the smallest, such as the tiny Pacific island states. It has a population of approximately 2.4 billion—more than one quarter of the world’s total population—and 60% of its population is under the age of 30. That is an astonishing grouping, with much that is shared, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, emphasised. As the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said, there can be no greater advocate for the Commonwealth than the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and I pay tribute to him.
The Commonwealth is indeed a potentially powerful alliance. We have heard of wide-ranging aspects of it. My noble friend Lord Chidgey, the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, and the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern, rightly emphasised parliamentary links. The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, emphasised non-governmental and civil society links as being vital to the consolidation of the Commonwealth. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, rightly emphasised how important it is that we continue to attract students and that visa challenges must be tackled. I love the way that he has a pile of press cuttings, journal articles and charts and gives a lucid speech despite the fact that he has 55 sheets of paper.
The Commonwealth charter, which was adopted in 2012, outlines the core values to which the Commonwealth aspires. These include democracy, human rights protection, good governance, tolerance, non-discrimination, sustainable development and environmental protection—pretty vital, and pretty comprehensive. The general aim of these values is to support,
“the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all peoples of the Commonwealth”.
And yet, as we have heard, there is a long way to go in this regard. About two-thirds of Commonwealth member states still criminalise LGBT people. These laws date back to the British colonial era and, as my noble friend Lord Scriven said, the Commonwealth charter prohibits discrimination on any grounds. Although that was an important move forward—I remember when people were arguing the case for it—it has not been properly delivered.
There have been some moves forward, which should be welcomed: for example, changes in employment law in Botswana, Seychelles and Saint Lucia; repeal of colonial era laws in Mozambique; Supreme Court judgments upholding rights in India and Pakistan; and new legal provisions in Malta. But there have also been steps backwards in some Commonwealth member states, such as the repeal of same-sex marriage legislation in Bermuda in 2018, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins —my noble friend, as I think of him—has emphasised. My noble friend Lord Scriven just flagged up some horrendous developments in Brunei. Why did the UK Government not follow through on a simple promise to publish a guide on international best practice on sexual orientation and gender identity to coincide with CHOGM in London—although the guide was published later in the year?
On gender rights, we see some positive movement in an area in which, again, there is much to do, as the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, emphasised. The SheTrades in the Commonwealth initiative aims to increase the participation of women in international trade. That is to be welcomed. The programme is focused on women living in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Bangladesh. I also welcome the Government’s commitment to provide funding for good quality girls’ education across nine Commonwealth countries through the Platform for Girls’ Education.
It has been suggested that Commonwealth countries could link up more effectively on global issues—something of key importance now that we lack US leadership. I note the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, at the secretariat’s apparent lack of engagement as disaster hits southern Africa.
The Commonwealth Secretariat attends international meetings such as the UN climate change conferences to advocate on behalf of its members. To what extent does it ensure that Commonwealth countries speak with one positive voice in such an important area? The importance of tackling climate change was a high priority for some of the countries attending CHOGM; hence the focus on oceans. The Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, which the UK co-chairs, is focused on tackling marine plastic pollution. I ask, as did the noble Lord, Lord Northbrook: what specific action is now taking place? To what extent do Commonwealth countries work together through the Commonwealth structure on other international commitments, such as implementing the SDGs?
On trade, it has been argued that Commonwealth countries might make up in trade for what we lose from the EU—if we leave. As my noble friend Lord Chidgey pointed out, it should not be a case of either/or. We should strengthen our relationships with Europe and the Commonwealth; the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, emphasised the same point. However, although the Commonwealth is a potentially significant alliance when it comes to trade, being a member of the Commonwealth has not yet increased trade between its members. In 2017, as the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Northbrook, emphasised, the Commonwealth accounted for only 8.4% of the UK’s total trade. That figure is small compared with our trade with the EU, as other noble Lords have noted. There is no Commonwealth trading bloc: each member state pursues its own national interests in trade. As a result, intra-Commonwealth relations seem to have had little effect on trading partnerships thus far, although I hear what the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Lords, Lord Howell, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Marland, hope to take forward. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, it is notable that Germany and Belgium are both bigger trading partners for India than the UK. There seems to be little or no tangible benefit to being a Commonwealth member in terms of trade.
The EU has trade agreements with 23 Commonwealth member states. The UK’s trade relations with many of them are through EU EPAs and the EU Generalised Scheme of Preferences. In the light of Brexit, there are plans to roll over these agreements, at least in the short term, but there is little clarity on the long term. Post-Brexit mechanisms in this area are especially important for a number of developing Commonwealth countries, such as Mauritius, Fiji and Sri Lanka, which rely heavily on the United Kingdom for their exports. What plans are there for our future trading relationships in the longer term? Clearly, we need to encourage trade globally, regardless of whether we are in or out of the EU; good will is a start. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Marland, emphasised, it is vital to promote the City of London as a key centre, given the strength of English law and the use of English language in commerce.
In that context, I want to mention Angola. I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy from the UK to Angola and Zambia. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Marland, for having the foresight to set up the trade envoy scheme; I also thank him for playing a part in my appointment to that scheme. I salute my fellow trade envoy, the noble Lord, Lord Popat, for all he does; he is incredibly dynamic in his markets. For example, we are both battling to get British Airways back into our respective markets.
Angola is the third-largest economy in Africa. As I am sure noble Lords will know, it came out of a long and exceptionally bloody civil war in 2002. It had been a Portuguese colony, is Portuguese-speaking and was orientated towards eastern Europe, Portugal, Cuba, Brazil and China. Since the election of a new President in 2017, there has been a tremendous amount of reform. The change has been very impressive; we certainly hope it continues. UKEF is helping with that even though it is not a Commonwealth country. Angola is now looking to the English-speaking world in trade, investment and education. The President has said that he wants Angola to join the Commonwealth, just as Rwanda and Mozambique chose to do. I realise that admission to the Commonwealth is a collective decision of all countries and is not in the UK’s gift, but how do the UK Government view Angola’s wish to join? I hope that the Minister will be very supportive.
The debate has been wide-ranging, as I expected, reflecting the long and diverse engagement with the Commonwealth represented here. The Minister faces a challenge in covering all the issues raised in her response, but I look forward to her reply.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, for tabling this debate, and the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, for her excellent introduction. As she said, this year’s annual Commonwealth theme is “A Connected Commonwealth”, encouraging collaboration among the people, Governments and institutions of the Commonwealth to protect natural resources and promote inclusive economic empowerment so that all people—particularly women, young people and marginalised communities—can benefit equally. I will return to that theme as I progress through my contribution.
We have heard about the size of the Commonwealth —2.3 billion people, a third of the world’s population. That can obviously play a key role in supporting each member in addressing the challenges facing the world. The themes of this year build on the goals agreed at CHOGM 2018, most notably adopting the Commonwealth Blue Charter on sustainable development and protection of the world’s oceans; committing to ratify and implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; adopting the Commonwealth Cyber Declaration with a common commitment to an open, democratic, peaceful and secure internet; and respecting human rights and freedom of expression. All of this is complementary to the United Nations 2030 Agenda, specifically the commitment to leave no one behind.
As we have heard, the UK has the Chair-in-Office role for two years. The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, laid a Written Statement in January updating Parliament on the Government’s delivery of the goals agreed at CHOGM. He stated that the United Kingdom is determined to work closely with its partners to maintain momentum following CHOGM and to revitalise and reform the Commonwealth. The Statement included updates on supporting education programmes and sustainability projects and building a more secure and prosperous Commonwealth.
I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, for the involvement of parliamentarians in CHOGM and the side events. I was extremely grateful to him for inviting us to a detailed briefing at the FCO updating us on the specific programmes and projects. As we have heard in this debate, and as Harriett Baldwin said in the other place on 7 March, it is “a huge agenda” with “lots more to do”; the Minister added to that. Harriett Baldwin summarised the Government’s objectives in four words:
“delivery, voice, solidarity and reform”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/3/19; col. 1218.]
Delivery is about implementing over £500 million of projects and programmes, including £200 million for the support of girls’ education in nine Commonwealth countries, as we have heard from noble Lords. In the debate in the other place, Harriett Baldwin also mentioned,
“collaboration between civil society and Commonwealth countries wishing to address legislation that discriminates on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/3/19; col. 1219.]
She highlighted the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and paid tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Like the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, I share those sentiments wholeheartedly.
But, as the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, said, delivery cannot be left to Governments alone. That is why we need to nurture and develop all aspects of civil society. The CPA does amazing work across the Commonwealth to advocate for and provide training to achieve more inclusive and effective Parliaments. It also reaches out beyond that and beyond formal structures, and I had the good fortune to mark Commonwealth Day by meeting young Commonwealth citizens on youth-led climate activism. They did not see the Commonwealth programme as being simply about their Governments. It was also about how they influence everyone within their society, including the private sector, which has a huge impact on things such as climate change and on other areas too. I will return to that issue.
My point is that we need to recognise that the ingredients of a thriving democracy are not limited to Parliaments and parliamentarians. Civil society, from churches to trade unions, remains an important part of democratic life and a guarantor of human rights. I echo the sentiments of my noble friend Lord Boateng in relation to Cameroon, where we have seen evidence of the importance of civil society trying to bridge communities and to ensure that the actions of the majority Government do not tread on the interests of the minority. I hope that the Minister will respond to the specific points made by my noble friend.
One thing we learned from CHOGM was that we would hear about the newly funded work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us about how that new work on promoting democratic engagement, particularly in civil society, will engage with trade unions as well. Far too often we talk about civil society and trade unions are ignored.
As we heard in the debate, despite the Prime Minister’s welcome speech at the summit, in which she apologised for the colonial imposition of anti-LGBT laws that still persist in many Commonwealth countries, there was no follow-up agreement among the attendees to do away with those laws. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for raising the case of Brunei. Brunei is a small country but incredibly wealthy. Its sovereign fund owns many luxury hotels. I wonder how many customers of those hotels realise what the owners are doing back in Brunei. Certainly, the hotels hold LGBT events. I find it amazing that we still have these horrendous penalties for simply loving somebody else. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that.
But, as the Minister pointed out recently in the Chamber, CHOGM was an opportunity for civil society on LGBT issues to come together. One of the good things about the four forums is that that engagement was not limited to the democracy forum. We had high attendance of LGBT activists from around the Commonwealth who certainly engaged in all four forums. I very much welcomed the United Kingdom’s support for the Commonwealth Equality Network, which has representatives across the Commonwealth—local LGBT activists who are engaged not just with their Governments but with all aspects of civil society.
The Government have promised to fund and support those countries that wish to change those anti-LGBT laws and get rid of the colonial legacy, and I hope that the Minister will be able to update us on what progress has been made on those projects and whether we can anticipate more countries decriminalising homosexuality.
The noble Lord, Lord Popat, referred to the important work he is doing in Uganda. I completely support his activities. He mentioned the visit of the President of Uganda to this House. I made a public comment at the time that may have been viewed as a criticism of that engagement. I wanted to make sure that the President of Uganda fully understood our views about the increasing homophobic attitude that is leading to not just increased criminalisation but violence against people who happen to be homosexual. When CHOGM took place, I was totally in favour of engagement, but with the support of the TUC I organised a forum on the side of the event, for African trade unionists. About 30 African trade unionists came to a meeting to talk about workplace rights, focusing particularly on diversity and LGBT rights. They may have come to that meeting with a view that it was something that they did not want to be part of, but they left with a better understanding of why equality and diversity are so important to economic success.
I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Judd, is in his place and I hope he recalls that we went to see the Speaker and the President of Uganda during the IPU conference to speak on this subject. Every time I see President Museveni, I mention this. Quite often with African leaders, we have to mention it gradually and more or less educate them and explain to them. Same-sex marriage came up in our Parliament not long ago. Uganda is a young, small democracy and a strict Catholic country. There is no new legislation in Uganda to punish these people; the legislation is what Uganda inherited from the colonial time.
The noble Lord will remember that our visit to Uganda together was very difficult in some ways. There was a profound feeling among British parliamentarians about the treatment of homosexuals in Uganda. We had to handle this very prominently during our visit. When we talk about common values, we must be more honest about what are common values and what are not.
I thank the noble Lord and my noble friend for their interventions. They might mean that my contribution will go on a little longer, so I hope I shall be forgiven for that. The point I am trying to make is that it is not a matter of us simply imposing or even saying that we are right and they are wrong. By engaging in economic activity and making the case for diversity and equality, we are saying that business will do better and people will be more productive. That is what I want to hear every time the noble Lord meets the President of Uganda or anyone else. Certainly there is a strong business case: the United Nations business case for diversity and equality. I hope all our trade envoys are making this case because we want not just the noble Lord to say it but for the private sector and investors to say it. That is when we will see proper change.
At Oral Questions on 13 March, the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, sought assurances on whether the $500 million spent on projects and programmes initiated since CHOGM was being spent wisely and effectively. He asked about monitoring and oversight procedures. The Minister responded:
“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”.—[Official Report, 13/3/19; col. 1016.]
But what of accountability? Surely we can improve on what the noble Baroness told the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey. I would hope that, as a minimum, the briefing initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, could be put on a regular footing so that we engage with parliamentarians of both Houses on what progress we are making in our position as chair-in-office. Seeing how we succeed will make the Commonwealth more relevant to parliamentarians.
We have heard a lot about trade, and certainly, following the EU referendum, the importance of trade within the Commonwealth has been stressed. I agree with noble Lords: trade with the Commonwealth is something that we should talk up as much as possible, irrespective of the debate about the European Union. It is a vital element for us. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, member states have a “Commonwealth advantage”, where shared values, regulatory systems and language have the potential to increase intra-Commonwealth trade. Incidentally, I do not think we should talk about promoting trade simply in the context of the UK’s interests; we should talk it up more loudly.
I think the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, referred to the fact that at Commonwealth ministerial round tables there has been an agreement to increase intra-Commonwealth trade, with a projected increase to $1 trillion by 2020. A year ago, my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland said that the Commonwealth is likely to miss that target. She predicted a figure of around $700 billion. What are we doing to engage on that? What is the Government’s assessment of how to overcome trade barriers facing Commonwealth countries? At CHOGM in London last year—the first since the Brexit vote—I would have liked to hear a louder declaration of that. Sadly, the noble Lord, Lord Marland, is not in his place, but at CHOGM and today, as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council—I have heard his arguments many times—he talked about the barriers to trade, including abuse of the rule of law, lack of trust in trading partners and so on. He has argued today, as he has before, that we should focus on building the capacity within the Commonwealth to ensure that businesses confronted by such obstacles are supported.
No mention has been made of development and the CDC, for example. I welcome the Government’s potential increase in investment for the CDC, but that leverages more capacity in the private sector. We need to see how its activities are linked to sustainable economic growth and not just one-off investments. That is the problem with a lot of Chinese investment. I was in Zambia before Christmas and witnessed some of the impact of Chinese investment, with fridges being built entirely by Chinese labour. There was no local, sustainable employment. We can do better than that and we should be focused on it.
I conclude by making a plea. We have the anti-corruption strategy and we have had anti-corruption summits. According to the World Economic Forum, corruption is the single greatest obstacle to economic and social development around the world. Every year, $1 trillion is paid in bribes, while an estimated $2.6 trillion annually is stolen through corruption. That sum is equivalent to more than 5% of global GDP. We would not need ODA if we tackled corruption. We could have stronger economies in Africa. I should like to hear from the noble Baroness how we are committed to tackling tax havens and international finance policies that have resulted in developing countries haemorrhaging billions of dollars in taxable financial resources.
I am sorry to have gone on for so long but I was interrupted twice.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, identified a logistical problem. I have notes here equivalent to Bleak House, although much cheerier; I will see what I can do to address the points raised.
First, this has been an uplifting and encouraging occasion. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed their knowledge, views, experience and expertise to this excellent and wide-ranging debate. I want to expand on my introductory remarks to the debate by addressing some of the salient points that have emerged. I will try to group these around the four themes of delivery, reform, solidarity and voice, as many of the contributions touched on one or other of those themes.
On delivery, my noble friend Lady Redfern raised the important issue of our oceans, which she encountered on the CPA visit last year to, I think, New Zealand. This topic was also referred to by my noble friend Lord Northbrook and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. Various things are happening to build a more sustainable future, but 25 member states have now joined the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance and are taking action to eliminate all avoidable single-use plastic waste and reduce the amount of plastic entering our oceans.
To build a more secure future, we are working with member states and international organisations such as the World Bank to help protect our people and businesses from ever-more sophisticated digital threats. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, raised this point. I say to him that, as we speak, the UK is hosting 19 Commonwealth African countries at a regional workshop on cyber incident response in Ghana. This work will support the development of national cybersecurity reviews, which have already been delivered in Nigeria, the Gambia, Mauritius and Lesotho. UK-funded training and events will directly benefit the cybersecurity of 37 Commonwealth countries.
Regarding a more prosperous future, I turn to the contribution of my noble friend Lord Howell, which I found cogent and compelling on the new economy. If I remember correctly, he said that Asia is key to our future and observed that the Commonwealth has a tremendous capacity to influence and participate in that new horizon. He is absolutely right to say this. We need to recognise the new economic reality, and I know his wise words will be heard.
We are working with partners to boost intra-Commonwealth trade and investment—a point raised by a number of your Lordships. Last week, the UK and South Africa co-hosted the first meeting of the Digital Cluster of the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda in Durban. This new initiative will help more people to join the digital economy as part of our commitment to reducing poverty through trade.
To build a fairer future, we are working to promote inclusive and accountable democracies. My noble friend Lord Haselhurst spoke of the role of Parliaments. In a perverse sense, the tumult that we are experiencing so close to home is perhaps a reminder of how fortunate we are to have parliaments and democracies. We may have our own opinions on how they function from time to time, but none the less they exist as one of our essential freedoms. I say to my noble friend that, last month, the UK-funded Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy hosted a two-day conference at the Malaysian Parliament in Kuala Lumpur to promote women’s political leadership. As part of the same initiative, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s UK branch hosted the first of a series of workshops with the Commonwealth Association of Public Accounts Committees in Fiji. These workshops will enhance the capacity of Pacific Island Public Accounts Committees to scrutinise and oversee public finances.
It is clear that your Lordships take a keen and committed interest in the organisations and institutions of the Commonwealth. Noble Lords are right to do so, and may that continue. Reform was raised particularly by the noble Lords, Lord Boateng and Lord Chidgey. The UK remains a major contributor to the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation, and is the second highest contributor to the Commonwealth of Learning.
As I have set out, the UK has actively sought to work with Commonwealth organisations as delivery partners for our many programmes, but to achieve more than the sum of their parts, those parts need to be functioning effectively in their own right as well as together. So we agree that there is room for improvement and more effective collaboration.
The Commonwealth Secretariat’s board of governors recently agreed recommendations that will take us towards these goals, and we hope Ministers will approve them soon. I must pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford for his significant contribution as a member of the high-level group mandated to report on these issues. His is an authoritative participation. In the same vein, I recognise my noble friend Lord Marland and the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who continue to make significant contributions to the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council and the Commonwealth of Learning respectively.
Noble Lords will recognise the Commonwealth’s long history of working with international partners to shape and drive change in response to global challenges. We have therefore sought to strengthen co-operation in international organisations. In practical terms, that has meant more frequent Commonwealth discussions ahead of WTO and Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva, and increased co-ordination at the recent International Telecommunication Union elections in Dubai.
At this point I want to mention what I thought was a very passionate contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, who spoke of the terrible ravage wrought by Cyclone Idai. It has been a desperate experience for so many countries, as he rightly said. I thank the noble Lord for his helpful remarks about the DfID response. He raised the issue of a global response, and made an important observation about the obligation on what he describes as “a family”; a term that some noble Lords have alluded to and something that we can all identify with. The obligation on the family is to speak when other members of the family are affected and when disasters occur. That is a reasonable expectation and an aspect of solidarity. I am sure his powerful call will have been heard by all component parts of the Commonwealth. He also raised the issue of the task force. My understanding is that it is a US-led initiative. I understand that my noble friend Lord Bates is writing to Peers to provide details about the UK and international response to this international disaster, and I hope further information will be available to all your Lordships from that source.
As I said earlier, we are not only co-ordinating more intensively in international organisations but working to ensure that the voice of the Commonwealth is heard in these fora. At the United Nations General Assembly last September, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister spoke as chair-in-office on behalf of the Heads of Government of the 53 Commonwealth countries—and that is one-quarter of the United Nations membership. She spoke to reaffirm their support for the rules-based international system. Significantly, that was the first time that the Commonwealth’s collective voice had been heard in that way at the General Assembly, and I think that is a very positive development. We are committed to ensuring that the Commonwealth is heard more often, clearly and decisively in international fora. The UK is well placed to advance that objective, and I think your Lordships would support such an approach.
On the matter of voice, the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, mentioned the situation in Cameroon, as did the noble Lord, Lord Collins. He mentioned the human rights situation in the anglophone regions of Cameron. We are deeply concerned about the deteriorating situation in that region. We have raised our concerns with the Government of Cameroon; most recently, the Minister for the Commonwealth did so at the Human Rights Council on 21 March in a joint statement with Austria that was supported by 39 countries.
I look now at my stack of noble Lords’ contributions, and I will try to work my way through it as best I can. If I speak very rapidly, please bear with me. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, raised the matter of the parliamentary forum. The UK Government were delighted to see such strong parliamentary interest in the run-up to CHOGM, to support the CPA UK parliamentarians’ forum in February last year and to support the UK parliamentary delegation. We will continue to work with the CPA while we are chair-in-office, and we have encouraged Rwanda to consider how it can involve parliamentarians at its CHOGM in Kigali next year.
The noble Lord raised the issue of a free and inclusive media environment, which, it goes without saying, is extremely important. The Foreign Secretary is hosting an international conference in July and we will be encouraging Foreign Ministers of every member of the Commonwealth to attend. The UK supports the Commonwealth working group on media and good governance, as it develops Commonwealth principles on freedom of expression. We hope to see a full discussion of these principles ahead of adoption at CHOGM in 2020.
The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, my noble friends Lord Haselhurst and Lord Northbrook, and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, all raised the important issue of young people. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Haselhurst impressed me greatly by talking about some form of digital buddying—I did not realise that he was so down with the kids. It is a very good suggestion. I can say to your Lordships that my noble friend Lord Ahmad recently convened Commonwealth youth leaders for a roundtable discussion that was also attended by the Commonwealth youth ambassador, His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex. We are working closely with the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Youth Council to realise the vision of young leaders.
The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, raised a number of other important questions, on which I will write to him, if I may.
My noble friend Lord Haselhurst raised a very specific issue relating to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s request to change the status of the Commonwealth from a UK charity to an international organisation, with functional privileges and immunities. I pay tribute to my noble friend’s tireless work with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I commend the work it does and continues to do. We received the business case to support this charitable status change, and it is currently being reviewed by our protocol and legal teams; that is where it has got to and I am afraid there is nothing more I can add at this point.
I think it was the noble Lord, Viscount Waverley, who raised freedom of religion and belief. He will be aware that heads of the Commonwealth have recognised freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and freedom of religion and belief as cornerstones of democratic societies. The UK-funded Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy is promoting freedom of religion and belief in the Commonwealth during our chair-in-office.
The noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, raised a very important point about what I think she described as a pan-Whitehall approach to the Commonwealth by the UK Government. Her concept was that this has to be woven into all the activities of government. I know that we try to do that, but I fully accept that perhaps we can do better. I shall take that suggestion back. She said, and I think that I am quoting her correctly, that, “We need to think and act Commonwealth”. I agree.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, my noble friend Lord Marland, who is no longer in his place, and my noble friend Lord Northbrook raised the whole issue of funding. I will not go over the details, but your Lordships will be aware that the UK is the significant funder of the Commonwealth Secretariat. We provide approximately 33% of total assessed contributions and voluntary contributions of up to £9 million per annum for programmes. As to overall funding, I think the point being made was that there needed to be a broader reach of funding, which might be desirable but is something that only Commonwealth members can resolve, and they need to do that by debates. But I have heard the point clearly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, specifically asked whether the UK is looking to replace EU trade with the Commonwealth. As we are aware, approximately 9% of UK exports of goods and services go to the Commonwealth and 8% of UK imports come from there, so there is a growth potential and it is right to identify it. But is also important to recognise that the Commonwealth is not an alternative to the EU; they are very different organisations that do different things. Many members are also part of other groupings.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, asked how many EU free trade agreements with Commonwealth countries are ready to roll over on exit. I think I would have to roll over if I tried to reply to that. I will need to find more specific information and write to him, if I may.
The noble Lord also raised an important point about what we are doing to help veterans from the Commonwealth who are living in poverty. From April 2019, UK aid will protect more than 7,000 Commonwealth veterans and widows who have served with the British Armed Forces. We will try to protect them from extreme poverty. The £18.2 million programme, working with the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League, will support 4,500 veterans and 2,500 widows of veterans in the countries that are eligible for official development assistance.
The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, raised the very important issue of women, as did a number of other noble Lords, not least my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes, who exemplified what a remarkable woman is by reference to Her Majesty the Queen—though I might say to my noble friend that it takes a remarkable woman to recognise a remarkable woman. The place of women is very important. There is a network of peer-to-peer learning for women peacebuilders across Commonwealth countries, which is supporting women to build their capacity through training and mentoring schemes to secure mediation roles internationally, and building local peace. That has recruited over 30 well-qualified members out of a target of 50 by March 2020, so progress is being made.
The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, raised the issue of UK aid to Commonwealth countries. Our bilateral aid for 2017 was £1.945 billion. In 2017, eight of the top 20 recipients of UK overseas development aid were Commonwealth countries. He wants more specific information; I shall investigate and try to provide that.
My noble friend Lord Northbrook raised the matter of Indian visas. For the last four years, over half of all skilled workers’ visas issued here have been given to Indians, who provide vital and appreciated work across the UK economy. Around 19,000 student visas were granted to Indians in 2018 alone, a rise of 33% from the previous year. I do not have the exact figure, but it was a rise, so that is going in the right way.
More generally, I absolutely agree about the central importance of India in the modern Commonwealth, and it is right that we note Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the UK for CHOGM as an important step. I can update my noble friend: the UK Commonwealth envoy visited New Delhi and Hyderabad in January to encourage continued Indian engagement, and we are already engaging closely with the new Indian High Commissioner, who presented her credentials to Her Majesty the Queen just yesterday.
My noble friend Lord Northbrook raised an issue about the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership; I propose to write to him about that. My noble friend Lord Popat, who is the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Uganda and Rwanda, for which I thank him, raised the important matter of intra-Commonwealth trade. As he knows, developments have taken place within the Commonwealth, with the goal of boosting intra-Commonwealth trade to $2 trillion per annum by 2030. He also raised the question of visas, which I think I have dealt with, and of a Commonwealth bank—an idea we are aware has been circulating and which has been discussed with relevant experts at the secretariat. Our judgment is that the Commonwealth is well served by the existing range of multilateral development banks, including those focused on infrastructure.
I want to conclude by addressing the very important issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lords, Lord Scriven and Lord Collins, regarding the development in Brunei relating to corporal punishment. Let me make it clear that these penalties are alien to our British values. They are a stark contravention of human rights and, of course, are banned in the UK. We regularly encourage Brunei, and many other countries, to remove corporal and capital punishment from their statutes, and we will continue to do so. Capital punishment—for any crime— goes against our national values. It has been prohibited in the UK for decades. We are very clear in voicing our utter condemnation of capital punishment, wherever it is occurring in the broader world.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised a number of important issues and I commend him for his work in relation to LGBT rights. He referred to the meeting he held, and I thought his comment that educating to understand equality can lead to economic success was very informative. We all appreciate the link between the two things, and the UK is doing what it can to encourage that work.
I seem to have run out of time and I apologise, because this has been an absolutely marvellous debate. I will look at Hansard and address in correspondence any points that I have not managed to deal with from the Dispatch Box. I think I can speak for us all when I say that this has been a vibrant debate full of positive thoughts and, yes, realistic concerns, as the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, said. But there has also been an awareness that we are part of something very important, which has a very positive future. We all want to work hard to make sure that that future is realised in the optimal fashion possible.
House adjourned at 5.30 pm.