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Volume 823: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the progress made during their term as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth towards building a Commonwealth that is fairer, prosperous, more sustainable and more secure.

My Lords, over the last four years, the United Kingdom, as chair-in-office, has worked closely with our Commonwealth partners to pursue the shared priorities that leaders set out at CHOGM 2018 in London, with an investment of over £500 million in projects and programmes on girls’ education, trade, human rights and women’s economic empowerment. The UK’s assessment of its delivery of our chair-in-office priorities is outlined in two chair-in-office reports, the second of which was laid in both Houses in May this year.

My Lords, nearly a million girls in 11 Commonwealth countries do not have equal access to education. The UK’s most recent report as chair-in-office—the final report to which my noble friend referred—states that Rwanda is one of the 11 Commonwealth countries that marginalise girls. It is now the chair-in-office for the Commonwealth, so what commitment has it given to the UK that, as chair-in-office, the country will eliminate the marginalisation of girls in education?

My Lords, as my noble friend will be aware, the issue of girls’ education remains—and rightly so—a priority for Her Majesty’s Government and our Prime Minister. I can assure my noble friend that we have had a strong exchange of concerns and views with all members of our Commonwealth family over the importance of education, not least for girls across the now 56 countries of the Commonwealth. We will continue to pursue this objective, not just in our conversations with countries within the Commonwealth but beyond. Rwanda remains very much committed to the values of the Commonwealth family.

My Lords, one of the priorities set by the London CHOGM was LGBT rights. I congratulate the Minister on his work to ensure that this continued throughout the chair-in-office period. What can he tell us about how this work will continue over the next two years? We must bear in mind —as he acknowledged to me yesterday—that LGBT rights are now under threat globally, and we need to ensure that we continue to act.

My Lords, one of the areas we pursued during our time in chair-in-office was to strengthen the voice of civil society within the context of the Commonwealth. Although I was not able to share this with him yesterday, I can now report to the noble Lord that, in the civil society engagement we had, we had well over 10 Foreign Ministers engaging quite directly. There was a quite specific question on the issue of LGBT rights. While it does remain a challenge in a number of Commonwealth countries where backwards steps have been taken, it is also notable that certain countries—including, for example, the likes of Botswana—have taken forward steps on this important issue. We continue, as we have done during our time as chair-in-office, to fund human rights priorities, including those of LGBT rights. They were featured very prominently in the civil society discussions, and I am sure of the important role civil society organisations will play in ensuring that all countries of the Commonwealth will adhere to the values of this important principle, and not just during Rwanda’s chair-in-office.

My Lords, if we are to expect the Commonwealth to remain a strong and influential organisation far into the future—bearing in mind the high proportion of Commonwealth citizens who are aged under 25—would it not be sensible to encourage, perhaps through officers of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the setting-up of a Commonwealth-wide youth organisation, just as has happened with both women, on the one hand, and small jurisdictions, on the other?

My Lords, again I agree with my noble friend. As he will be aware, within the Commonwealth context, there is the Commonwealth Youth Forum. Together with a number of other Ministers, including the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of Rwanda, I attended a meeting where the youth forum delegates were directly reporting back on the importance of their priorities. Of course, 60% of the Commonwealth is under 30— although I think that this House acts as a strong voice for the 40% who are not. Equally, we need to remain focused: the youth forum plays a central role in the thinking on this, and will be feeding not just to the chair- in-office but to the member states as well. In addition, the role of the CPA is well recognised.

My Lords, as the Minister knows extremely well, this week marks a brief lull between the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda last week and the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief in London next week. Given the overlap between those two conferences, what progress has been made on this basic human right, not least given that three of the Commonwealth nations—India, Pakistan and Nigeria—are among the worst when it comes to protecting the rights, and even the lives, of Christians and those of other faiths and beliefs?

The right reverend Prelate raises an important issue. It seems to be a continuum. As someone who is overseeing the FoRB conference as well, I was wondering whether the “Minister for Conferences” is being added to my portfolio. Nevertheless, it is an important area which is of focus to Her Majesty’s Government. I am working very closely with Fiona Bruce on the delivery of next week’s conference, at which over 30 countries will be in attendance. On the countries the right reverend Prelate referred to, I would also note that there are many where there are distinct constitutional protections for all communities and faiths. It is important that all countries of the Commonwealth stand up for the rights of the faiths and beliefs of all.

My Lords, at last week’s CHOGM, the communiqué read that the

“Heads emphasised the commitment in the Commonwealth Charter, to international peace and security, and to an effective multilateral system based on international law.”

What have Her Majesty’s Government, as chair-in-office, and the Prime Minister, in particular, done to talk to other heads of Commonwealth Governments to try to persuade them of the importance of supporting Ukraine and the British position on Ukraine, rather than seeing Prime Minister Modi alongside President Putin and President Xi?

My Lords, the importance of Ukraine—indeed the next Question I will be answering is on that very subject—was a discussion that did not meet with total agreement. I sat through and indeed represented the United Kingdom at the Foreign Ministers’ meeting. Nevertheless, I think we worked very constructively with all partners to ensure that the language on Ukraine was not just sustained but also recognised by all members of the Commonwealth. Our advocacy and that of other partners is important. The Ukraine conflict is far from over as we saw through the attacks only yesterday.

My Lords, the narrowness of the re-election of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth is almost as well known as the strength of Her Majesty’s Government’s opposition to that re-election. Will the Minister please say whether the Government think that the noble and learned Baroness has a mandate for her remaining time in office, and what will his relationship be with her for the remaining two years she has in office?

My Lords, I am sure the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth will share my view that we enjoy a very strong, constructive relationship. That is important to take the Commonwealth forward.

My Lords, I must say that I welcome this, despite one or two difficulties that we have just touched on. I think an orderly transfer of the Secretary-Generalship in two years’ time is a very sensible thing. I also welcome quite a lot of achievement at Kigali. Two new members joined and there were many other successes, thanks not least to my noble friend the Minister sitting here and, on the commercial side, to my noble friend Lord Marland. Looking into the future, did my noble friend see any talk of the increasing Chinese involvement in island state after island state, coastal state after coastal state in Africa in a systematic advance not in just commercial matters but in military and officer training matters as well? Will he tell his expert planners in the Foreign Office that this is a real challenge to Britain’s security, as well as world security, and it needs a good deal more attention than it has had so far?

Again, I agree with my noble friend in his expert analysis and the wise counsel he offers to the FCDO. It is important that we remain vigilant. Indeed, it is not just across Africa, when we see the recent engagement of China across the Pacific and particularly on specific islands. That is why we are, through the announcement of British International Investment, working with key partners in ensuring that there is a long-term structured offer to all members of the Commonwealth in ensuring their sustainability and economic progress.

My Lords, while welcoming the fact that the Commonwealth is still attractive to new members, we are bound to ask whether there are now any relevant criteria for membership such as links with Britain or human rights credentials.

On the noble Lord’s second point, there is a very strong and objective criterion assessment. No new member state joins unless the existing members of the Commonwealth agree. On the issue of past history, I think the Commonwealth is moving forward. Rwanda was never part of our imperial past, but it is very much part of our common future within the Commonwealth family.