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Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

Volume 812: debated on Monday 17 May 2021

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what their priorities are for the Commonwealth in their capacity as Chair-in-Office preparing for the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to be held in Rwanda.

My Lords, the UK looks forward to the gathering of the Commonwealth family in Kigali and to a smooth transfer of the Chair-in-Office role to Rwanda. As my noble friend knows, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has been postponed a second time because of the pandemic, and we remain as Chair-in-Office. We will continue to pursue the shared priorities which leaders set out on fairness, security, sustainability and prosperity at CHOGM in 2018.

My Lords, delegates at this month’s meeting of the Commonwealth Women’s Ministers Action Group committed to putting women’s issues at the very top of the agenda for the next CHOGM. Do the Government support that proposal? What are the Government doing to support the reform of laws in those 35 Commonwealth countries which still give husbands some form of exemption—a “get out of jail free” card—from prosecution when they commit criminal sexual offences against their wives?

My Lords, I assure my noble friend—I am sure she is already aware—that we have put the issue of gender-based violence at the centre not just in terms of planning the handover to Rwanda but at the heart of the work we are doing within the G7 and our presidency, and we will continue to do so. In terms of our own commitment to fighting gender-based violence in the Commonwealth, preventing sexual violence and girls’ education, they will remain priorities during our continuing role as Chair-in-Office.

My Lords, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2013, heads agreed to work

“to improve the monitoring and documentation of cases of sexual violence in armed conflict without fear of reprisal and empower victims to access justice”.

Can my noble friend tell the House what efforts have been made for this commitment to be renewed and treated as a priority for the Commonwealth nations?

My Lords, in part I think I have already addressed my noble friend’s question. The issue of sexual-related conflict and preventing it across the world remains a key priority alongside, more broadly, gender-based violence and girls’ education. This is all part of addressing the core challenges we face, not just within the context of the Commonwealth but across the world.

My Lords, I hoped that the Commonwealth would be recognised for its even-handed condemnation of the abuse of human rights—but this is not so. We stridently condemn human rights abuse in China or Myanmar but are comparatively silent when Muslims in India are called “termites” by the Indian Government, laws are passed to deny them citizenship and forced conversions take place in Pakistan. Today, the common ethos of the Commonwealth is common hypocrisy. Will Her Majesty’s Government take urgent steps at the meeting in Rwanda to reverse this trend?

My Lords, if I could give a personal reflection—as someone who is Muslim by faith, Indian in origin from my father’s side and Pakistani in origin from my mother’s side—I assure the noble Lord that this remains a priority for myself and stress the equality and rights of every citizen across the Commonwealth, irrespective of faith, creed, sexual orientation or any other definition. It is important that we stand up for all citizens across the Commonwealth and for equal rights.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that specific actions are needed—as called for by CHOGM in 2018—to provide 12 years of quality education for girls in particular, as this will be the surest way to work towards both global social justice and greater equality? If so, what specific actions will Her Majesty’s Government support and pursue?

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have already supported girls’ education through £200 million of funding for nine Commonwealth countries. We are holding the global education summit with a Commonwealth country—Kenya—in July this year, and these issues will remain key priorities. It is a priority for our Prime Minister.

My Lords, the London CHOGM made a commitment to meet the SDG charter to end modern slavery, which affects 16 million people, or one in every 150 citizens in the Commonwealth and throughout Africa. The Government have already invested some £15 million in the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, but will they now use the extended period as Chair-in-Office to strengthen the resolve of their Commonwealth partners where, at the last count, only 29 out of 54 had national guidelines on identifying victims of slavery and to carry forward the London commitment as an essential priority at Kigali?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that this will remain a key priority during our continuing role as Chair-in-Office, including during our handover discussions with Rwanda.

My Lords, as Chair-in-Office, the Government set a number of priorities following on from the last CHOGM. Can the noble Lord tell us what assessment they have made of progress on these priorities in preparation for the next CHOGM—particularly the priority of ensuring the decriminalisation of homosexuality across the Commonwealth? There is a key role for civil society, so will this include a commitment to fully support the Commonwealth Equality Network?

My Lords, it is not often that I say “Yes, yes and yes” to a Member of the Opposition, but I do so in this particular instance. We have prioritised this. Three countries have decriminalised homosexuality. We continue to work across the board. Yesterday, as the noble Lord will know, we announced both our commitment to hosting an LGBT conference and the appointment of my noble friend Lord Herbert of South Downs as the PM’s special envoy on LGBT rights and the important role of civil society. The noble Lord and I have discussed this matter extensively; I know that he has been a champion of it. It demonstrates the strength of this House that we are seeing progress in this very sensitive but important area.

My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. Does my noble friend accept that the enormous Commonwealth network never sleeps and that, despite the regrettable postponement again of the Heads of Government Meeting, vigorous Commonwealth connectivity continues at all levels and has in fact been intensified greatly over the past year or by Zoom technology? Does he also accept that the Commonwealth is a major transmitter of Britain’s soft power as well as a growing source of our security? Further, although my noble friend himself has been thoroughly assiduous in everything to do with Commonwealth matters, does he accept that a good deal more could have been done during Britain’s chairmanship and should now be done not just to fulfil communiqués but to strengthen the institutions of the Commonwealth family?

My Lords, on the personal note that my noble friend raises, having just come out of Ramadan and having been in Rwanda during Ramadan, I fully appreciate the importance of day and night work on the important agenda of the Commonwealth. However, we have published what we have achieved, including our progress on the important issues of Covid-19, girls’ education and cyber—which is demonstrable of the prioritisations that we agreed in 2018.

My Lords, I commend the Minister and his team on the work that they have done in their capacity as Commonwealth Chair-in-Office. However, does the Minister agree that hosting COP 26 will be a good opportunity for the UK to engage the Commonwealth and set an ambitious agenda? Can he tell the House what steps he and his team are taking to ensure that the Commonwealth is fully involved in COP 26?

My Lords, we are doing just as the noble Baroness suggested. We are engaging directly with different regions of the Commonwealth on the important priorities in the lead-up to COP 26.

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely correct that the Prime Minister regularly expresses a firm commitment to girls’ education; he did so again last week. Given that that is the case, why on earth are the Government cutting the budget by hundreds of millions of pounds?

My Lords, as the noble Lord will know, we have committed £400 million to girls’ education this year, and we will continue to bring added focus during the Global Education Summit later this year.

My Lords, quite rightly, the integrated review stressed the importance of global rule-making. Will the Government use CHOGM to pay particular attention to the sourcing and trading of precious and rare metals and gemstones? This is one area where trading security and fairness are often overlooked.

The noble Baroness raises an important point. I will certainly write to her on the specific work that we are doing in that respect.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that our leadership of the Commonwealth provides an excellent platform for global Britain to encourage a common approach to free trade, especially in agricultural products, which would do so much to boost development in the poorer member countries? Does he wish to see a commitment in principle to a zero-tariff, zero-quota Commonwealth free trade area, to be introduced in stages over time?

My Lords, I cannot go into the specifics of my noble friend’s suggestion, although it is a practical one and I will certainly reflect on its importance. We are signing a raft of free trade agreements across the globe, including with Commonwealth friends and countries. I assure my noble friend that we will use our continuing role as Chair-in-Office to ensure that the ambitions to enhance trade and co-operation and boost intra-Commonwealth trade—for example, through the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda—remain key priorities. We have set an ambition, which we hope to achieve, of $2 trillion of trade between Commonwealth countries by 2030.

Sitting suspended.