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Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 23 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent discussions they have had with the government of Rwanda and the Commonwealth Secretariat on (1) progress on implementing the action points since the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in London in April 2018, and (2) arrangements for exchanges with Commonwealth Heads of Government as a consequence of the postponement of the June 2020 meeting.

My Lords, as Chair-in-Office for the Commonwealth, we have worked diligently with the Commonwealth family to deliver the heads’ 2018 commitments and regularly update Members on this progress. We are also in close contact with the Government of Rwanda and the Commonwealth Secretariat on rescheduling CHOGM. Commonwealth member states have responded to Covid-19 collaboratively. Commonwealth Health Ministers met virtually on 14 May to discuss the pandemic, and on 28 May I briefed Commonwealth high commissioners on the UK’s international response.

I thank the Minister for that response. Sadly, since Jeremy Hunt left office, we have had little debate or reporting on the Commonwealth. I hope that, through the usual channels, the Minister can put that right. As he said, as Chair-in-Office—and, actually, as Equal Rights Coalition co-chair—we are in a leadership position to ensure delivery on the Commonwealth commitments, especially on human rights. So when will the Government release the urgently needed resources for civil society to help LGBT people survive the Covid-19 crisis and continue to advance LGBT and human rights internationally?

The noble Lord is right to raise the importance of the most vulnerable, particularly in the Covid-19 crisis. I assure him that the UK-funded Equality & Justice Alliance has already helped six Commonwealth Governments repeal or reform outdated legislation that discriminates against or fails to protect women, girls and LGBT people. We have a wide range of deliverables; I will, of course, update the noble Lord on the specifics of what we have achieved since 2018. This includes delivery on sustainability and prosperity, with more than 3,000 women-owned businesses having now been set up through British funding. On security, we have supported the completion of seven national cybersecurity reviews. On whether this remains a priority, we are proud of our role as Chair-in-Office; the Commonwealth is very much a priority within the existing department and, indeed, will remain so in the new department—the Commonwealth remains a key priority for Her Majesty’s Government.

My Lords, this CHOGM will be the first that His Royal Highness Prince Charles will be presiding over. Would it not be a good idea to rethink the location of CHOGM to save any embarrassment to His Royal Highness, given the appalling human rights record of the Government of Rwanda?

My Lords, the decision has already been made on where the CHOGM will be held. We work across the Commonwealth to ensure that the issue of human rights is brought under focus. We look forward, as do all member states, to the rescheduled Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali, next year.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former employee of the Commonwealth and as someone in receipt of a Commonwealth Secretariat pension. The Commonwealth has never been in greater need of stability. Its funding, staff morale and governance are at an all-time low in the secretariat. As Chair-in-Office, the UK needs to announce a quick decision. Does the Minister agree that the current Secretary-General should be appointed until CHOGM next year, where Heads of Government can meet and retreat and arrive at a decision about the future appointment of the Secretary-General? The news media is full of speculation; we cannot avoid saying something about this.

My Lords, the Government are very much committed to reforms within the Commonwealth. As the noble Baroness will know, we led a reform package in 2019. I presided over the Foreign Ministers’ meeting which agreed this across the Commonwealth 53—now 54. On the appointment, or reappointment, of the Secretary-General, that is very much a matter for the Heads of Government; it will be looked at in Kigali next year.

My Lords, the communiqué refers to the role that sport can contribute to the 2030 agenda. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that the work done by the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games Organising Committee and the Commonwealth Games Federation on human rights, the accessibility strategy and the Games-wide sustainability plan is world-leading, showcases what can be done when we organise major international sports along these lines, and should be supported by the Government?

My Lords, I am happy to agree with my noble friend; I also pay tribute to his leadership over many years in this area.

My Lords, tomorrow, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies is holding a Zoom conference across the Commonwealth, in what should have been Rwanda CHOGM week. There will be six thematic panels on subjects including Commonwealth responses to Covid-19, democratic government, media freedom, LBGT rights, and colonial reparations. What will be the UK Government’s representation at this virtual conference, to report progress since the London CHOGM and to put the UK position on Commonwealth issues, particularly in the context of the Black Lives Matter campaign?

My Lords, I understand that there is a meeting taking place, but it does not hold any formal status within the context of replacing the Heads of Government meeting; that will take place in Kigali as it is rescheduled by the Rwandan Government. As regards our attendance, we have continued to liaise with the secretariat, and we will certainly be looking forward to the attendance of the Commonwealth envoy and distinguished diplomat Philip Parham, if the meeting mentioned by the noble Lord does go ahead.

My Lords, I declare an interest as in the register. Does my noble friend the Minister recognise that the modern Commonwealth is about a lot more than Governments and officials? It is, of course, not even treaty-based, so even if the Heads of Government meeting is postponed, as it has been, a vast web of non-governmental Commonwealth activity continues and grows. Some would say that this is perhaps a greater and more important part of the Commonwealth network. Will the Government, while we are still in the chair, make an extra effort to support and encourage the mass of civil society grass-roots programmes and projects that make up today’s and tomorrow’s Commonwealth family, of which we are fortunate enough to be a member?

My Lords, I am, of course, happy to confirm that arrangement with my noble friend—I work with him across these institutions. I also share with him that, notwithstanding the postponement of CHOGM, different Ministers, including Health Ministers and Trade Ministers, continue to meet, albeit, in the current climate, virtually.

My Lords, one of the priorities of the Government, along with others, was to drive the reform of the Commonwealth Secretariat. Can the Minister tell the House what progress has been made towards that end and how they will sustain the momentum going forward?

My Lords, I have already alluded to the fact that Ministers adopted a package of reforms, which come into effect once endorsed by the Heads of Government; that will take place at the rescheduled CHOGM.

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on the launch last Friday of the Murad code to help victims of sexual violence in conflict, which is named after Nadia Murad, the inspirational Yazidi survivor. Given the history of Rwanda regarding sexual violence in conflict, will the Government ensure that the Murad code is on the agenda for the Kigali CHOGM next year? Can he also update your Lordships’ House on progress towards prosecuting the ISIS individuals who were responsible for the capture and slavery of so many Yazidi women and girls?

My Lords, in the interest of time, I will write to the noble Lord on his second question, but progress is being made there. On the agenda, I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks on PSVI. As we did previously in London, I am hoping that we will be able to convene a side meeting of leading nations during the Heads of Government meeting when it is rescheduled in Kigali.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. All rights matter: black rights, gay rights, religious rights—all rights matter for the Commonwealth; that is what the Commonwealth is all about.

My Lords, I have a keen interest as a patron of Hong Kong Watch and as vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group. Following the call of 155 Members of both Houses for the UK to initiate a Commonwealth programme giving the beleaguered people of Hong Kong the opportunity of second citizenship and place of abode in a Common- wealth country, and with the continuing erosion of the Basic Law, what are we doing to secure Commonwealth backing for such an international lifeboat policy?

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has already made a comprehensive announcement around BNO. We are obviously looking at the outcome of current Chinese policy on this issue and we will update the House accordingly.

My Lords, for many reasons CHOGM 2020 was important to Rwanda, and now CHOGM 2021 will be possibly even more important. RwandAir has made serious efforts in recent years to cement UK-Rwanda relations by flying directly between Kigali and London Gatwick. Will my noble friend support the request by Rwanda Air for landing spots at Heathrow?

My Lords, I should declare an interest as I was Aviation Minister when we gave landing rights at Gatwick to RwandAir, and I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Popat as trade envoy. The issue of slots at Heathrow is very much a matter for Heathrow Airport Holdings Ltd, but we regard our relationship with Rwanda as a strong one; indeed, only yesterday I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Rwanda about preparations for CHOGM 2021.

My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked and we now come to the third Oral Question, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe.