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Commonwealth Heads of Government

Volume 812: debated on Thursday 27 May 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the progress made on delivering commitments agreed at the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting; and what is their agenda for the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

My Lords, as chair-in-office the UK has worked hard with the whole Commonwealth family to deliver on the leaders’ CHOGM 2018 commitments. This has included over £500 million of UK-funded projects and programmes, as set out in the chair-in-office report, which we published and placed in the Library of this House last September. The United Kingdom will continue as chair-in-office until CHOGM can take place and we will continue to pursue the declared and shared priorities that leaders agreed on fairness, security, sustainability and prosperity.

My Lords, we remain chair-in-office following the cancellation of the Rwanda meeting, so we have an ongoing commitment. I hope that the Minister will ensure that, when we monitor the progress that we have made on those commitments at London, he updates them and ensures that Parliament has access to them—it would be good if we could have a debate—in particular on strengthening democratic institutions. What steps are the Government taking to strengthen the role of civil society across the Commonwealth? This is an important ingredient to guarantee and further the cause of democracy.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the noble Lord did not mean “cancellation”; it is a postponement of the CHOGM. On the second point, which is practical, I assure the noble Lord that, as Minister of State for the Commonwealth, I shall seek to take up all opportunities, including future debates, as long as we remain chair-in-office—and indeed beyond when Rwanda takes over. On the specifics of the agenda, we will continue to support democracy and champion human rights, inclusion and the rule of law, which includes issues of media freedom, LGBT rights and gender equality, as well as 12 years of quality education for girls. On that final element, the joint meeting that we are having with Kenya will bring further focus to that priority.

Last September, the Foreign Secretary claimed that the UK had helped to update laws discriminating against women, girls and LGBT communities in six Commonwealth countries, which he could not mention. Can the Minister, who we know stands up for human rights, now name those countries and confirm that this project is complete and that there is no more discrimination?

My Lords, on the noble Earl’s second question, this is of course ongoing. Dealing with discrimination is never a job done, whether at home or abroad, and we need to remain vigilant on the issue. On the specific countries, some have declared quite openly the reforms that they have undertaken. Others, because of domestic sensitivities, have sought more discreet support from us in that regard, which is why we have not named them specifically. I am sure that the noble Earl is aware of several countries that have declared progress on, for example, the important priority of LGBT issues.

My Lords, there have been a number of Questions in your Lordships’ House about the education of girls, the answers to which usually rely on the repetition of sums of money allocated by the Government. Can the Minister give a concrete example of an action taken to move towards providing 12 years of high-quality education for girls—and indeed for boys? Could he specify a proposal that the UK Government will have on the agenda to move more quickly to achieve this goal?

My Lords, I can certainly share with the noble Baroness, including in my responsibilities as Minister for South Asia, how we have invested specifically not just in school building programmes in Pakistan—a Commonwealth country—but in teaching, textbooks and support, ensuring that there is an inclusivity to the educational agenda. As I said in response to an earlier question, the issue is never done. We need to remain focused on delivering the priority on girls’ education. We have seen over £200 million spent on 11 countries and I would be happy to provide specifics of other programmes to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, the pandemic has shown the devastation that is caused by a global health crisis. What action has been taken since the 2018 CHOGM to address, as promised there, antimicrobial resistance? Has the FCDO assessed what effect the cuts to science and research that it has just carried through might have had on the UK’s contribution in this area?

My Lords, on the first question, we continue to focus on that issue, which has informed much of our research. On spending on research, as the noble Baroness is aware, we have allocated specific sums to research as a stand-alone function in the budget assessments that we have made. Also, across the seven themes and priorities that the Foreign Secretary has outlined, research budgets will be specifically allocated to fulfil those objectives.

My Lords, as part of the task force of the Commonwealth arising out of CHOGM, a commitment was made to allow girls aged nine to 13 to have access to HP vaccinations, as we know that 40% of incidences and 43% of deaths in the Commonwealth are from cervical cancer.

My Lords, on the specifics, I will write to the noble Baroness with an update on vaccines. The commitment that we gave to supporting global health in the context of the Commonwealth remains a priority for us as chair-in-office. Indeed, we are discussing this with the next chair-in-office, Rwanda.

My Lords, I was pleased to see sexual and reproductive health referred to at last week’s Commonwealth Health Ministers’ meeting. Does my noble friend agree that access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and rights and comprehensive sexual education are essential to achieve the aims of the Government and the Commonwealth on 12 years of quality education? If so, will he commit the Government to putting these issues on the agenda at the next Heads of Government Meeting?

I can certainly say yes to my noble friend on the commitment and prioritisation that we need to give and assure her that I will raise this issue directly with Rwanda and press for the inclusion of SRHR in the CHOGM communiqué.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Will the Minister tell me what specific action the Government are undertaking to mobilise delivery of the commitment made in 2018 at CHOGM to halve malaria in the Commonwealth by 2023? Are not that commitment and our credibility undermined by the cuts in bilateral malaria programmes —for example, in Nigeria—occasioned by the abandonment of our 0.7% spending commitment?

My Lords, I clearly recall working with the noble Baroness on prioritising fighting malaria in the run-up to and through CHOGM 2018. We have made some real progress on deliverables across the Commonwealth in raising awareness and on vaccinations. The noble Baroness raises specific questions within country programmes. Those are being finalised, but I can assure her that we are seeking to prioritise health and particularly vaccination.

My Lords, the commitments on education are welcome, even if they have been undermined by the Government’s spending cuts on global education. The last year has shown how important it is to make advances in digital education provision. The Government of Rwanda have prioritised digitisation in public services for their time as chair-in-office. Will the UK Government and the Government of Rwanda work together to ensure that across the Commonwealth we can see an escalation of advance in digitising education provision, so that, should there be a future pandemic, so many millions will not lose out quite so much?

The noble Lord makes a very practical suggestion and I can assure him that we are talking with the Government of Rwanda, with Foreign Minister Biruta and with the Secretary-General—we had a meeting only yesterday. While there has been a postponement on CHOGM, we will continue to work very much in association with the Government of Rwanda. The noble Lord makes a very practical suggestion, which has application not just in the context of what Rwanda may do but in delivering girls’ education and prioritising education in the UK’s overall ODA programme.

My Lords, the theme of the London CHOGM was “Towards a common future”, whereas for Kigali it is “Delivering a common future”. Will the Minister clarify what progress has been made between these finely nuanced positions, particularly for Commonwealth trade compared to the EU? What is the Government’s response to the Economists view that believing increased Commonwealth trade would fill the gap left by the EU was an admirable delusion?

My Lords, I would say that it was not a delusion. We have already seen practical initiatives, including SheTrades, which has supported 3,300 women entrepreneurs. It is good that we see consistency across the piece between the two Commonwealth countries.

My Lords, one of our commitments was to lead and strengthen the structures of the Commonwealth to become a powerful economic bloc. Much of our focus since CHOGM 2018 has been on negotiating a free trade agreement with India, but there are other sizeable economies in south Asia. Will my noble friend tell me what efforts are being made to engage fully with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in relation to trade?

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right that the issue of prosperity was a declared priority. We are working with associations within the Commonwealth, including that led by my noble friend Lord Marland on pursuing trade and business across the Commonwealth. There is a recognition of intra-Commonwealth trade and investment and an ambition has been set for $2 trillion-worth of trade. On south Asia, I can talk with some degree of insight as the Minister for South Asia. My noble friend is correct to point to India, but I can assure her that we are working in very practical terms with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. We are very focused on the trade element, including setting up teams across Whitehall, which include not only FCDO Ministers, but DIT Ministers as well.