Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I declare a general interest and involvement in this subject over many years, although nothing specific in the register. My purpose in seeking this debate is not merely to reflect on the just finished Heads of Government meeting in Kigali in Rwanda but to share some thoughts on how the Commonwealth network fits into the entirely new contours of the international landscape that we now confront and into our own future prosperity, security and influence.
Kigali seemed to go extremely well. Personally, I welcome the outcome that the change of Secretary-General will be orderly and in two years’ time. This prevents further division and gives a chance to the current Secretary-General, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, to overcome her past difficulties and help lift the evolving Commonwealth to its new level of significance in both economic and security world affairs.
A good deal of quiet work has been going on at the secretariat, especially in the causes of women and girls in the changing Commonwealth, in environmental and marine co-operation and in the struggling smaller island states. However, people now look to Marlborough House to give an altogether stronger lead to the network, especially in the face of the new security threats its members confront, to which I will come a little later.
I also salute the work of my noble friend Lord Marland, who I see is here and I hope will speak, whose business forum meeting in Kigali showed how he has injected fresh vigour into expanding Commonwealth trade and investment. The opportunity is certainly there for that when the Commonwealth today contains several of the fastest-growing and highest-tech economies in the world, as well as many of the poorest, which are most threatened by current events, such as the pandemic, energy costs and increased climate violence.
However, I want to come to the future and how the Commonwealth fits into it. I can do that best by asking some basic questions. First, what is the Commonwealth’s purpose today? I begin to answer this by repeating what the Commonwealth is not: it is not a block, an alliance, a treaty-bound organisation, a relic, or a nostalgic leftover of Empire. Indeed, it is an entirely different network today not just from the imperial past but from the eight-member Commonwealth of Nations set up in the 1949 London declaration. It now has 54 members and is about to increase with two more; several other countries indicate a desire to join. That is hardly a sign of a declining system or a fading association, as ill-informed critics like to keep claiming. Indeed, I find my Japanese friends constantly inquiring about it. In better days than now there was quite a strong interest in the Republic of Ireland’s closer association with it—perhaps that will return when things improve on that front. At one stage, even the Americans were asking about the need for a Commonwealth office in Washington. That struck me as a little odd as they fought a whole war of independence to get away from us.
It is also not the case that Britain is at the centre of some kind of hub-and-spoke arrangement, with member states sometimes depicted as outposts. That belongs entirely to 20th-century thinking; it is completely out of date. Networks have strong links all around, but no centre; all are connected to all. Today, the Commonwealth is such a network—indeed, it is the largest that has ever formed in history. Modern, digitally empowered networks work away, grow at every level and never sleep. We must remember that, although Kigali was for Heads of Government, the Commonwealth is primarily a people’s and grass-roots linked system, given new relevance—almost a sort of blood transfusion—by the technology of connectivity, Zoom and the age of the microchip.
That is why, although some Governments may not see eye to eye and some may blatantly disregard the values embedded in the Commonwealth charter, which is always very regrettable, at the non-governmental level, the level of civil society, business and everyday life and work, a binding and integrating process nevertheless continues apace. This may sometimes be difficult for officials and diplomats to grasp, but it draws together a largely English-speaking nexus, with a vast and growing mesh or latticework of common interests in everything from science and law to health and education of all kinds. This includes, for example, the largest long-distance learning system in the world through the Commonwealth of Learning based in Vancouver and the Association of Commonwealth Universities, with 500 or more universities on its books.
Of course, parliamentarians connect through the lively Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which we all know. However, the linkages go far beyond governance to engineering, all kinds of technology and research, education at every level, health and medicine, magistrates and judges, architects and designers, every aspect of our culture, and, of course, sport, as we shall all be reminded shortly at the forthcoming Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Indeed, the linkages go to all professions: the list of Commonwealth professional bodies, most of them now thriving, goes off the page because it is so long.
Her Majesty the Queen described the Commonwealth a decade ago as, in many ways,
“the face of the future”
and that is exactly what the communications revolution has proved as time has gone by. I must say that her comments showed a good deal more insight and perceptiveness than some of her Ministers or some foreign policy experts or think-tank tyros. So that is the scene, but I have to ask my second question. Why does any of this matter to us here today in the UK, as we still seek to reposition ourselves globally after the Brexit drama and other changes?
First, all this activity covers areas where soft power and influence—ours is considerable and usually underrated —increasingly work best. Secondly, it is true that in the last 50 years our trade and investment links with the Commonwealth countries have declined substantially. But now, as Asia rises and becomes the fastest and biggest growth area of the globe—pulling ahead not just economically, but in advanced technology and the education and skills to drive it—and as two-way direct investment flows open up again on a massive scale, the situation is reversing fast.
These are the markets we need to be in and the official intention to join the rather heavily called Comprehensive and Progressive agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership —CPTPP—underlines the fact. Incidentally, if and when we join, and we have the strong support of Japan in doing so, then more than half the members will be Commonwealth states. Beyond the CPTPP lies the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. We are not members of that at the moment but that will be, and indeed already is, by far the biggest world trading network of all. Elsewhere, the new African Continental Free Trade Area opens out big new areas of economic exchange, on a continent all set for an immense population growth to about 1 billion by 2050.
That is the new picture on the trade side but, aside from all that, there is now a new geopolitical and security priority emerging. I very much wanted to get that into our debate today. Today, China is intruding into every part of the Commonwealth; not just commercially or via unrepayable loans but via military matters, officer training and even policing involvement. China understands what our experts often seem to overlook: small island states, far from being strategically unimportant, are now of immense strategic value in controlling maritime traffic, air traffic, GPS systems and even space. Hence, to take a current example, Chinese interest in establishing naval bases in places such as the Solomon Islands and having a footing, or outright control, in 96 port facilities in 53 countries scattered across the entire world, many of them Commonwealth. This is China’s way of extending its naval reach against ours and pursuing its hegemonic strategy of rejecting what it sees as the Western, and especially American, lop-sided dominance of the globe.
Not a week goes by without news of China extending its distinctly military activities into new islands in the South Seas, to the utter dismay of our Australian ally, which takes these things very seriously, or the Caribbean states, or the coastal states of Africa. I am not one of those dogmatic Sinophobes who thinks we have to break all links with China and regard it as a deadly enemy. In some key areas, such as energy and climate, we have to work with it closely and perhaps rather more cleverly than some of the American approaches in recent times. But if we let our Commonwealth network —our best means of transmitting our soft power—crumble or be nibbled away, then that undoubtedly will be a major foreign policy failure.
Meanwhile, China, the Commonwealth and the Ukraine horror weave together. President Biden says that the world is united against Russian brutality. The West may be, but the developing world—so-called—is not. Too many Commonwealth members are reluctant to condemn the unprovoked Russian attack on a smaller nation. Their immediate reasons may be understandable but their preference for a sort of neutrality on Chinese lines, when such actions undermine the entire international order, is deeply concerning. There can be no neutrality between inhuman butchery, unprovoked aggression and ordered governance. No nation is safe from that kind of lawlessness.
Via the belt and road initiative, double taxation and investment agreements and so on, the Chinese influence is creeping onwards. China now has BRI memorandums of understanding with 141 countries, including 38 of the Commonwealth’s total of 54—about to be 56. That indeed is networking, but the wrong sort of networking from our point of view. What should be our chain of liberty against the autocrats, and the best containment of rising Chinese power in Asia and elsewhere, could well be turned on its head, becoming instead a spearhead of Chinese influence across the planet.
My final question is: what should we do now, beyond all the initiatives that we have undoubtedly taken during our chairmanship? I was very glad to see that, at the G7 in Bavaria the other day, the idea of counterinfluence to the tentacles of the belt and road initiative was resurrected and developed. Of course, the Commonwealth is central to this. Using private enterprise in harmony with government policy, we certainly ought to be able to check the global march of the Chinese state and its corporate henchmen across the globe. While not matching all Chinese inducements, we should certainly be containing Chinese ambition.
Further tests of which side one should be on may come up shortly, if and when China impatiently uses force against Taiwan. Are we ensuring that the Commonwealth will choose diplomacy and understanding against brutal aggression on that issue? Have we talked to them? Have we lined up the support of India on this one, in contrast to its wobblier stance on Russia? How does Pakistan fit in with its strong Chinese links, or Sri Lanka as it wallows in debt, or Malaysia or the African leaderships?
We have been told repeatedly over the decades that we lack a role and a vision. To me, the role is now quite clear and has been for some time. At a time of enormous international instability, with old types of primitive warfare and new types of threat multiplying everywhere, our role is to uphold freedom under the law and to stand shoulder to shoulder with like-minded nations, large and small, in fruitful two-way partnerships and coalitions. In doing so, the Commonwealth is the key element of that mission. It is changing all the time and may well evolve into something different—that is possible. If so, we should be at the heart of it, creatively, constructively and imaginatively.
Are we up to it? We should be straining every muscle of diplomacy to ensure that we work as closely as possible with the Commonwealth family. But this family needs to move from being seen sometimes by British officialdom as marginal and a slightly tiresome legacy to being a central component of our strategy, direction, role fulfilment and future security. That is the assurance we need from Ministers: that they understand what is happening and where we are going. As to the vision and presentation of our story in this new world we have entered, I admit that that needs some brushing up, but the time for doing that is now—before it is too late. I hope that this debate will assist in that respect. I beg to move.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, and congratulate him on introducing this debate. We know his interest in the Commonwealth; he has spoken about this on several occasions in this House in the past. He will forgive me if I give a slightly different view and raise questions that have not been raised before about the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth is basically a legacy of the British Empire—of course, not entirely so, because it includes states that were not part of the British Empire, such as Rwanda and Mozambique, and it excludes states that were once part of the British Empire, such as Ireland and even the United States. Nevertheless, it remains the fact that it is primarily a legacy of the British Empire. Given this, we cannot understand it unless we understand the British Empire. What was the character of the British Empire? What was it about? What did it do to those 54 or 56 colonies out of which the Commonwealth came to be constituted?
The British Empire was very different from the other great European empires, such as the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, the Belgian and many others. That is the first thing to note about the British Empire. However, the second and most important thing about the British Empire is that it was never a cosy affair. Empires involve brutality, genocide, a great deal of violence, and humiliation of the ex-colonies and subjects of the empire. The memories of this brutality and genocide may be forgotten and forgiven by the imperial power, but they are never forgotten by the victims, by those who suffered them; they continue to remember them, with the result that we are often surprised that they do not seem to show sufficient gratitude. For example, many ex-colonies—six in the West Indies—do not wish to be members of the Commonwealth and want to be republics, and we are surprised. They raise questions about slavery during the British Empire and we are surprised. We are constantly surprised by many of the awkward but realistic questions they raise. The question to ask, therefore, is whether our view of the Commonwealth is based on adequate recognition and acknowledgement of what actually went on in the name of the British Empire.
To think of ourselves as a kind and generous people who went thousands of miles to other countries to civilise the natives and came back having done our job, sometimes angry that they were not sufficiently grateful, is not really a proper understanding of what we actually did. So, before we talk about the Commonwealth as a viable force, we ought to understand what the British Empire was about. In the three minutes I have left, or even less than three minutes, I want to set out a very brief agenda in the hope that, in the future, we might be able to take it up.
The first thing I suggest is that there has to be a broadly agreed Commonwealth view of the British Empire. Britain has one view of the British Empire; India has a very different view—partly good, partly not so good; South Africa and other countries have a totally different view. I think the time has come for historians and others from different Commonwealth countries to get together, debate and form a just estimate of what the British Empire really did. That is very important: unless the truth is faced, we are in danger of allowing the Commonwealth to become an irrelevance or a pointless and ornamental appendage.
The second thing it is important to recognise is that, if it is going to be a Commonwealth and not the British Commonwealth, it should not be seen as a property or an extension of British foreign policy. We cannot expect Commonwealth countries to do what we would like to do, in Ukraine or anywhere else. We see the Commonwealth through our eyes; have we tried to look at ourselves through Commonwealth eyes and asked ourselves how we look from that perspective? I therefore suggest that the Queen or her successor should not automatically be the Head of the Commonwealth. As for the modus operandi we should operate, that is something that can be sorted out later.
The third important thing we need to do is to build up an institutional infrastructure, to which the noble Lord, Lord Howell, rightly referred, so we can have co-operative institutions and practices at the level of journalism, sport, education, and so on.
Fourthly and finally, the Commonwealth consists of transcontinental countries. It is the only association I know, other than the United Nations, whose members come from every continent, so it is very important that it should be a pressure group for important global issues such as climate change and others.
My simple conclusion is that, as Britain stretches out to explore its relations with other countries in the context of implementing the Brexit policy, it is very important that it should face the truth, recognise its past and come to terms with it; otherwise, we are in danger of talking about a wonderful picture of the Commonwealth which matches no reality.
My lords, the Commonwealth is very important to people such as me who would not have been here without it. It was membership of the Commonwealth that opened the doors for the people of its member countries to work and settle in the United Kingdom, to rebuild the country after the Second World War. I commend the British people, who welcomed our families with open arms, and in the same breath I acknowledge the adult education service that helped people such as me to work and learn at the same time, to compete in the labour market with the provision of equal opportunity.
The United Kingdom, being the head of the Commonwealth, has a huge amount of respect and influence in the development of its member countries. Under the banner of the Commonwealth all member countries commit to the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all its peoples. In 2018 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, the theme was “Towards a Common Future”. Following the meeting, the leaders adopted a communiqué, which set out a series of political commitments and practical actions that had been agreed. These commitments included strengthening democratic institutions and building peace.
The Commonwealth has a combined population of 2.5 billion people, and approximately 1.5 billion of them live in two member countries: India and Pakistan. A quick glance at the economic condition of these two countries paints a very gloomy picture. According to the recent report of the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, in India 97 million people are living in extreme poverty. According to its classification, “extreme poverty” means individuals who are without income, home, health, or food twice a day. Additionally, people who are bedridden, those who have no facilities to make and eat food, and those who have debts due to health ailments come under this category.
According to UNICEF, less than 50 per cent of the population of India has access to safely managed drinking water. In Pakistan, according to the World Bank, in 2018 46.5 million people—21.9% of the population—lived under the national poverty line. According to WaterAid Pakistan, 21.7 million people do not have clean water; that is one in 10 people. This is only the tip of the iceberg. If you look at other strands of poverty, including health, education, the environment and other areas in these two countries, the situation is alarming.
Yet India’s defence budget for 2022-23 has increased by 9.8% to $70.6 billion, while Pakistan has announced a defence budget of $7.5 billion, a 12% increase on last year. These massive disparities between the levels of poverty facing such a large number of the population of these two countries and their incredible defence spending shows the sense of insecurity and the fragile peace between these nuclear neighbours, who have been at war with each other at least three times, with continued sporadic border skirmishes. Any accident or mistake could trigger an all-out war, with devastating consequences not only for the region but for the world at large.
The main dispute between India and Pakistan is the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, a region that is divided between India and Pakistan and which is waiting for the implementation of the UN resolutions of 1948, 1949 and many subsequent ones to decide its future.
The development of these two countries is held hostage by the continued violence and warlike situation between the two countries over Kashmir. If this was resolved, it would bring an end to the continued suffering not only of the Kashmiri people but of the 1.5 billion people of India and Pakistan. The extravagant amount of money spent on defence could be better utilised for the benefit of the poor people of these countries.
Over the years, many rounds of bilateral talks between India and Pakistan have failed to resolve this issue, and it is unlikely that they will succeed without third-party mediation. Since Commonwealth member states are committed to the development of “free and democratic societies” and the
“promotion of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all the people of the Commonwealth”,
I am mindful that the Commonwealth has a role to bring peace in the Indian subcontinent. Britain, as the head of the Commonwealth, is best placed to help in the mediation for a long-lasting peace that would benefit the 1.5 billion people of India and Pakistan and resolve one of the oldest disputes in the history of the United Nations.
With that background, I ask the Minister: what steps are Her Majesty’s Government prepared to take to bring India and Pakistan to a negotiating table and help to resolve the Kashmir issue in a way that is acceptable to India, Pakistan and the people of Jammu and Kashmir?
My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on stewarding—on behalf of two Prime Ministers—the duties of chair-in-office of the Commonwealth, culminating in a smooth handover to Rwanda. It is a rare achievement for a Foreign Office Minister to participate at successive CHOGMs, and unprecedented for a Minister to be present at two such meetings when they are over four years apart. My remarks focus on three things: identity, agenda and the realms.
First, at last week’s CHOGM, the Commonwealth admitted its 55th and 56th member states: Gabon and Togo. I have the impression that the news excited more interest in Paris and Brussels than in London. Continental observers appreciated that two new members, both part of la Francophonie, were proof of the vibrancy of the Commonwealth. New members necessarily flex to the club they are joining, their presence enriching but not fundamentally altering the organisation, so French-speaking new members must not change the Commonwealth as an exclusively English-speaking organisation. Its meetings are productive because everyone speaks the same language, unhindered by the barrier of interpretation. Enlargement must not change that.
Secondly, in recent years, the Commonwealth’s agenda has expanded, even effloresced. The final communiqué at Kigali ran to 117 paragraphs over 22 closely typed pages. I remind your Lordships that history suggests that the impact of a summit communiqué is in inverse proportion to its length. In the run-up to CHOGM in Samoa, I urge the Minister to help the Commonwealth Secretariat to prioritise.
Thirdly, and perhaps most urgent, is the future of the 14 overseas realms within the Commonwealth. Last week in Kigali, the Prince of Wales said,
“each member’s Constitutional arrangement, as Republic or Monarchy, is purely a matter for each member country to decide”—
clear, selfless, and as much as he could say. This leaves the Royal Family in an invidious position. Having said repeatedly that they will serve for as long as their service is welcome, a change in constitutional arrangements might look like a rejection of the Royal Family. Yet they cannot express understanding, still less support, for a change without looking reluctant to serve.
Her Majesty’s Government can help. First, the Government can explicitly acknowledge the case for change; constitutional arrangements which were agreed in the rush of decolonisation are now out of kilter with the times. It is impossible for us Britons to argue with the sentiment of an Australian republican campaign poster which said, “We want a Head Of State who is entitled to an Australian passport”. Increasingly, the realms want a Head of State who lives among them, and who is able to represent them and only them on the international stage. They want one of their own to occupy the pinnacle position in their country. Secondly, Her Majesty’s Government can state explicitly that a change in constitutional arrangements would have no negative impact on the bilateral relationship of the United Kingdom with any realm that becomes a republic.
Thirdly, the Government can make the Commonwealth the framework for future relations with realms that change their status. India was the forerunner. In 1950, India became a republic and remained a member of the Commonwealth. In many ways, that transition was the founding act of the modern Commonwealth. As the Prince of Wales also said in Kigali:
“arrangements such as these can change, calmly and without rancour.”
Since Her Majesty became Queen, 18 realms have become republics, the latest being Barbados last year. Debate is hotting up in the remaining realms. Logically, the accession of a new monarch would be a moment for them to take stock. On the first day of this month, Matt Thistlethwaite was sworn in as Assistant Minister for the Republic in Australia. The direction of travel is clear.
It is vital that any change be consensual and harmonious. It would be monstrously unfair for change in multiple realms to be presented as a stampede for the exit or a personal rebuke to the new monarch. In many ways, change is overdue. The unique arrangement of having a Head of State residing thousands of miles away in a separate sovereign country persists primarily out of respect and affection for the Queen. I conclude that Her Majesty’s Government can de-dramatise the impending and, I would say, inevitable change by joining the conversation already begun and stressing the importance of the Commonwealth as the vibrant, indeed irreplaceable, framework for the future.
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for securing this timely debate. There is a tension throughout the history of the Commonwealth in its structure between cohesion and comprehension; between the fullest capacity to relate, and demands of function and utility. When the Imperial Conference of 1926 adopted the London declaration that the United Kingdom and dominions were
“autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs”—
comments which I think still resonate in terms of the last speech—the competing argument of imperial federation was in terminal retreat.
Since then, despite the closest bonds in war, despite the Ottawa agreements on trade, and despite the sterling area, the pressure in the Commonwealth has remained relentlessly centrifugal: legislative independence under the Statute of Westminster, the arrangement of the London declaration in 1949, the readmission of republics and the strategic decision of the UK to align itself with both the European Community and the United States. A vigorous UK foreign policy in the 1980s conflicted with much of the rest of the Commonwealth and tested the partnership to its limits. Yet, and notwithstanding the very significant questions about the legacy of Empire asked by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, the Commonwealth endures and flourishes. Why should this be?
One feature, I believe, is Her Majesty the Queen, who now in the 71st year of her reign is still holding true to the pledge she made on her 21st birthday in Cape Town in 1947. One part of the speech tends to be quoted, but in another the Princess Elizabeth assured us:
“If we all go forward together with an unwavering faith, a high courage, and a quiet heart, we shall be able to make of this ancient commonwealth, which we all love so dearly, an even grander thing—more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world—than it has been in the greatest days of our forefathers.”
She said this on the cusp of momentous change, both in her own life, and in the life of this country and the Commonwealth itself. None the less, as Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen has lived out what she commended to us. All of us, I suspect, have coins about us, and those coins bear one of the royal titles: “F.D.”—Defender of the Faith.
Increasingly, commentators down the years have noted the Queen’s personal commitment to the Christian faith. It is also true that she has never lost faith in the Commonwealth and never wavered in her outward support or active engagement, even when the subject became controversial. Indeed, her steadfast belief has been key to the survival and development of the partnership. What others have identified as a key weakness—its absence of a power structure and capacity to project influence—allows it to focus on relationships, providing a non-threatening forum for smaller states to engage with larger ones on an equal footing. Hence its expanding number, with applications from beyond the former territories of the British Empire. What is inconceivable to the authors of journal articles on international relations and practitioners of realpolitik is seemingly all too evident to the leaders of Mozambique, Cameroon, Rwanda, Gabon and Togo.
There are two causes for optimism going forward. One is the flexible nature of the Commonwealth, which allows it to survive without threatening its members, especially the smaller ones. This is particularly valuable in the arena of co-operation necessary to meet global and individual state targets to tackle global warming. Such flexibility will enable the Commonwealth to develop rather than atrophy. Secondly, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales will bring his own particular quality of commitment and service to succeed that of the Queen when he, in due course, becomes Head of the Commonwealth—a decision agreed at the 2018 London Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting; it was not automatic.
Two further things are necessary. One is to nourish the Commonwealth organisations that facilitate relationships and outcomes at an entirely different level, from the Commonwealth Association of Tax Administrators to the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association. Secondly, we should increase rather than decrease our support through the Foreign Office and Diplomatic Service for our international relations at this time. The threat of cuts to the Civil Service will, I hope, be prevented in the Foreign Office.
I hope that, going forward, Her Majesty’s Government will give powerful and tangible evidence of their engagement with member states of the Commonwealth, and that the depth of our commitment will match the warmth of our words.
My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Howell on securing this debate and on his wise, perceptive remarks. He has personally made a distinguished contribution to the Commonwealth in various capacities. I also pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Marland’s work for the Commonwealth Business Council, whose activities have burgeoned under his leadership; I look forward to his speech. It is a great privilege to follow the wise words of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark.
The Government’s recent UK Commonwealth Chair-In-Office Report tells an impressive story and is a comprehensive rebuttal of the case of those who say that the Commonwealth is an amorphous anachronism doomed to atrophy. The British Government’s role in supporting Commonwealth work in global health security, most recently during the pandemic, has been vital—especially in delivering vaccine doses, where there is still much more work to be done. In addition to allocating core funding for the secretariat, the Commonwealth Youth Programme, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth of Learning, the Government have supported 32 other projects, from good governance and parliamentary accountability to countering violent extremism. Some may say that future government support for the secretariat should be accompanied by even more persuasive advice in the future than there has been in the past; I could not possibly comment.
Important progress has been made in many areas. Commitment to human rights and the rule of law was marked by the delivery of the first Commonwealth statement in the United Nations Human Rights Council. Trade barriers have continued to be lowered, an area where further progress can and should be made. The Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub gives vital support to some of the most climatically vulnerable countries in the world, again with essential British financial support.
The examples of British government support are legion but, as my noble friend Lord Howell rightly pointed out in the debate in your Lordships’ House last July, the binding ties of a voluntary non-treaty global organisation such as the Commonwealth rely less on Governments than on links between businesses, non-governmental organisations, the professions, educational and scientific institutions and in sport, culture and the arts. That remains the reality.
The Commonwealth’s priorities—economic development, global health, security, human rights, good governance, the rule of law, an international rules-based system, climate change and protection of the environment, and a more secure world—will all continue to need the contribution of Governments, including our own, and non-government participants. The Commonwealth is well endowed with all such participants and has demonstrated clearly the collective will to drive those priorities forward. It has much to be proud of. It also has formidable challenges ahead. I hope and believe that we shall meet those challenges.
I look forward to hearing from my noble and learned friend the Minister, to whom the Commonwealth is greatly indebted, as the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, has said, for his work over the last few years, as indeed is your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2022 was postponed and postponed, and finally took place in Kigali, Rwanda, from 20 June to 25 June. The Commonwealth is a free association of sovereign states. It is a development of free and democratic societies, a promoter of peace and prosperity to improve the lives of all people in the Commonwealth. There are now 56 countries in the Commonwealth; it has a population of 2.5 billion, of which India, one country, makes up 1.4 billion. More than 60% of the combined populations of the member states are 29 or under, so it is a young Commonwealth.
Its combined GDP is $13 trillion, estimated to rise to almost $20 trillion by 2027. Her Majesty the Queen is Head of the Commonwealth. Even if all the remaining countries became republics, I would have no concerns whatever. They would continue to be members of the Commonwealth, just as India has.
The theme of the 2018 CHOGM was “Towards a Common Future”. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who has been a great champion of the Commonwealth. In a debate on UK Commonwealth trade, he summed it up beautifully, saying that
“in the age of networking and digital connectivity, the binding ties of a voluntary”—
“voluntary” being the key word—
“non-treaty, global organisation such as the Commonwealth are sealed as much by enterprise and trade, civil society concerns and common everyday life and work interests as through government channels”.
He talked about its vibrancy and brought it alive as never before, as
“the nexus of non-governmental organisations, professions, business interests, education at all levels, science, law and hundreds of informal links, not to mention sports connections and the enormous and expanding range of arts and cultural links of every kind, that are increasingly at the core of the Commonwealth.”—[Official Report, 8/7/21; cols. 1456-57.]
It was absolutely brilliant.
Talking of sport, I am the proud chancellor of the University of Birmingham. We are hosting the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July and August this year, and the university will play a role like never before. At the heart of the Games, the athletes’ village is on our campus, as are squash and hockey. We sponsored the baton relay that went around 76 countries and territories of the Commonwealth, and a non-Commonwealth country; it went to Dubai in the UAE, where I was present for the opening of our new campus—the first Russell group university to open in Dubai. Birmingham is, of course, a vibrant, relatively young city. It will bring out the best of global Britain and showcase the region’s strengths, and I am really looking forward to a fantastic Games.
Her Majesty’s role is championing the Commonwealth and its people. It has been agreed that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales will continue this role in the future. This year is special for the Commonwealth Games because they happen in the year of Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee. What a great celebration we have had.
Global health and security have been at the heart of the Commonwealth, particularly at this time. What better example of cross-border collaboration in the Commonwealth is there than the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, developed by Oxford and AstraZeneca headquartered in Cambridge, in conjunction with the Serum Institute of India—the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world, even before the pandemic—based in India? That is a Commonwealth project. Two billion doses have been produced by the Serum Institute of India.
We have British International Investment, BII, previously known as CDC, mobilising up to £8 billion. The UK is increasingly the headquarters of green finance for the world. Once again, the Commonwealth is at the heart of it. Also, the more digital we get as a world, the more vulnerable we get, and we have agreed to the Commonwealth Cyber Declaration.
CHOGM 2022 was about delivering a common future: connecting, innovating, transforming, protecting natural resources and increasing trade. Sir Partha Dasgupta’s report, The Economics of Biodiversity, from the University of Cambridge, is a must-read, applying to the whole world as well as to the Commonwealth. It describes nature as our most precious asset.
How wonderful it is that the position of one of our own, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth has been renewed for a second term.
Right in the middle of this period, a free trade agreement is being negotiated with India. I request an update from the Minister on how well it is progressing. As a former president of the CBI, I have been at the heart of these negotiations. There is huge potential with that free trade agreement. I took an active part in the Australia and New Zealand free trade agreements with the UK, and I believe the India one should be as comprehensive as possible, as well as hopefully being completed by the end of this year.
The reality is that in total the Commonwealth accounts for only 9% of the UK’s trade. Trade with five Commonwealth countries—Australia, Canada, India, Singapore and South Africa—accounts for over 70% of this. So the potential to increase trade between Commonwealth countries is absolutely phenomenal. We are just scratching the surface and we need to continue to press for increased trade between Commonwealth countries. It is an open goal. With 20 of the global emerging cities in the Commonwealth, next month we will publish the Oxford healthy cities commission, of which I am a commissioner. Again, that can help in a big way. I am a great fan of the Commonwealth, which has huge untapped potential.
My Lords, this summer sees the coming together of three significant international gatherings, following the restrictions of the pandemic years. One of them was the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda last week—some of the background to this debate. Another is the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief next week in London. A third is the Lambeth Conference, bringing together bishops from all but three of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion, which starts in late July. In each case, the leadership of these significant meetings is being provided from within these shores.
There are many parallels between the Commonwealth and the Anglican Communion, which is unsurprising, given our shared history. Both draw together autonomous units of nations and provinces. Both are held together by what the Prime Minister described last week as the
“invisible thread of shared values, history and friendship”
and what the Anglican Communion describes as our “bonds of affection”. Both have inevitable stresses and strains. Both need to work hard at developing a sense of mutual interdependence, not least because of the complexities of this nation’s imperialistic past—so graphically portrayed by the noble Lord, Lord Parekh—and the huge financial disparities between the members of each body. In particular, we in the UK need to recognise that although western secular values have a great deal to commend them, other nations can look on in horror on occasions at our individualism, materialism and religious indifference, and the breakdown of our family and community life.
One of those western secular values to which I am sure everyone in this House is committed is the theme of the meeting next week and will play a major part in the Lambeth Conference too. That is the human right not to be discriminated against, let alone persecuted, on the grounds of religion or belief. I have a particular interest in this subject, both historically and in the present, not least because we in the diocese of Guildford are twinned with Anglican dioceses in Pakistan and Nigeria—Commonwealth countries that come seventh and eighth respectively in an annual register of the nations in which it is most dangerous to be a Christian.
The other Commonwealth nation that appears in the top 10 is India, which reminds us that even functioning democracies can move in a sharply negative direction over a short period if religious intolerance, combined with a strongly nationalistic agenda, is really given its head. In India especially, that intolerance extends to Muslims and those of other faith traditions, although statistically it is Christians who bear considerably the greatest weight of religious intolerance around the globe.
The three regimes, of course, are very different. In Pakistan, a beautiful country I was privileged to visit in 2019, there is systemic discrimination against Christians and other minorities when it comes to further education and the availability of quality jobs, as well as a periodic misuse of the blasphemy laws and the all-too-regular shooting or lynching of Christians and others, especially those accused of converting from Islam. In Nigeria, where I am travelling in November, there are almost daily attacks by Fulani tribesmen on Christians in the middle belt—which sometimes, it should be acknowledged, provoke a measure of retaliation—along with the continuing problems with Boko Haram in the north, which are clearly religiously motivated, despite protestations to the contrary. The president of the Nigerian national humanist society has also just been given a 24-year prison sentence, off the back of alleged slurs against Islam.
In India, which I visited in 2017, both Christians and Muslims are suffering from incendiary rhetoric from some members of the ruling BJP, resulting in often violent and well-targeted attacks on Christians and other minorities and a plethora of anti-conversion laws, which ostensibly prohibit forced conversions but can all too easily be abused.
Here is where the Prime Minister and the British Government possibly missed a trick when it came to the first of those conferences. They rightly highlighted shared concerns, such as global warming and educational discrimination against women and girls—as we will also do at the Lambeth Conference—and addressed issues of food security in the wake of the war in Ukraine, but the issue of freedom of religion and belief seems hardly to have featured in those conversations, despite its terrifying and growing prevalence in the three Commonwealth nations with the largest populations of them all.
Persecution is persecution, whatever its cause, but with the sheer numbers involved there is no question but that persecution on the grounds of religion or belief is uniquely widespread and deadly. While I am delighted that we will be hosting the global conference on that theme next week, and I applaud the seriousness with which this is treated in this House and the other place, I also believe we need a joined-up approach that brings this to the fore in all our discussions with our Commonwealth and trading partners, so as to create a better and fairer world for all.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Howell for his kind and generous remarks, as I am to my noble friend Lord Goodlad. I agree with every single word my noble friend Lord Howell said, with one exception: Kigali was not about Heads of Government; it was about a business forum, which I was privileged to chair, a youth forum and a women’s forum. They were very vibrant events.
The business forum is an extraordinary event. Where else, apart perhaps from Davos, can you attract 1,700 businesses from 60 countries, 20 Heads of State, the president of the World Bank, the president of FIFA even and the secretary-general of the World Health Organization? It was an incredibly vibrant event, probably because there was pent-up tension after four years of us sitting with Covid and not meeting each other face to face, but also because it was in Africa. The Commonwealth had not been to an event like this in Africa for well over 10 years and it was a terrific credit to our hosts, the Rwandan Government, that it was such a resounding success.
Rwanda has proven to be a country of formidable leadership. It was safe, secure and clean and has a fast-growing economy lifting its people out of poverty. The statistics for trade in the Commonwealth and business are well known. It is 20% more competitive doing intra-Commonwealth trade because of common law, a common language and common trade agreements, and therefore the British Government should be well set to take benefit from it, but I am afraid to say that they have been asleep on their watch. They have inevitably been encumbered by the post-Brexit situation and subsequently Covid, but they have not taken full advantage of their last four years as chair in office.
That manifested itself in the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the extension of the Secretary-General’s contract where the UK led a campaign to change the Secretary-General, but it failed. The task ahead for the UK Government is to repair those bridges and play catch up. There are signs—I thank the Minister, who has been a stalwart supporter, and the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, who kept us afloat while we needed it by sending provisions down, and I am very grateful to them both—but the opportunity has been missed and we must now turbocharge the relationship.
We must ensure that the Commonwealth takes advantage of the showcases that are available. One of them, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, said, is the Commonwealth Games. Where I say there are signs of it happening, I am co-chairing with the Department for International Trade a business forum at that event which will involve the noble Lord’s university.
It is important that the UK now starts to prioritise the Commonwealth. It is not an alternative to the European Union, but it is a vast and available market. There are other problems ahead for the Commonwealth because Samoa is the chair in office designate. It will be a difficult place for people to visit—it is a long way from anywhere—but it that in itself is an opportunity. With the Chinese invasion of the Pacific, raised by my noble friend Lord Howell, Samoa could be a pivotal place for the UK and other Commonwealth countries to establish the power of democracy.
The second opportunity that presents itself is Sri Lanka, a country which is now on its knees with financial difficulties. It has sought succour from China for its investment. It gives western democratic countries, led by the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, an opportunity to support it and help it reinvigorate its economy.
Finally, there has never been any mention of empire, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, suggested—there was not for the three or five days in Kigali, I am happy to say. I am happy to say that His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales arrived in triumph and left in triumph. That is one of the great advantages this country has, as well as the Minister who has carried out an excellent job on behalf of the Commonwealth for all these years.
My Lords, the Commonwealth and its various associated organisations may sometimes be perceived as belonging to a colonial era. Its work goes largely unnoticed until CHOGM comes round every two years—then we have the usual debate about its relevance and effectiveness. The large umbrella of the Commonwealth Secretariat, with all its internal and external politics, tends to overshadow the work done by myriad Commonwealth network organisations. I have had close associations with many of them throughout my career: Commonwealth associations of lawyers and media practitioners, Speakers associations and, most of all, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. The constant theme of these groups, so evident at their meetings, is friendship, understanding and an eagerness to share good practice and uphold government accountability.
I do not think that any of us should minimise the value of getting together and sharing views. We live in a world where, increasingly, electronic communication is king, but sitting around a table with our Commonwealth colleagues or together in working groups as well as the grander occasions of major conferences, with all the opportunities for bilateral exchange, is invaluable. For example, while a member state may have publicly expressed anger about a particular instance, such as the showing of a TV programme in the UK which has offended that state, subsequent meetings between parliamentarians continue as before, often without even mentioning the so-called offensive incident. The Commonwealth in all its dealing emphasises that there are official views and personal links, and that these do not necessarily have to coincide. This is a vital component of soft power.
As we all know, there are global and pressing issues at the moment that require a concerted approach. These now include food availability and distribution, economic recession, climate change, security and slavery. An organisation of 56 member states is a good place to begin the dialogue that will provide the basis for global agreements and action.
Despite the potential and actual advantages of the Commonwealth network, it is itself under severe strain, both economic and political. Like all mulitilateral bodies, it faces change and renewal. In which direction should it go, where can it be most effective and what kind of changes might be undertaken in the immediate future? By way of answer, I would like to refer to the work undertaken by the CPA.
A gradual change of emphasis championed by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association towards more practical workshops, the prioritisation of women parliamentarians at all levels and modern slavery has resulted in tangible changes. I have participated in small workshops examining government accountability through the CPA programme on Public Accounts Committees. Almost all Commonwealth countries have such committees, but their effectiveness varies. What has become abundantly clear is how much our colleagues welcome such practical sessions where there can be learning from and between many different systems. The CPA has now produced an online course fashioned from lessons learned during these workshops. Similarly, the mechanisms to protect and promote women whether against violence, online abuse and/or slavery, and towards parliamentary involvement, are widely welcomed.
It is these smaller, less highly publicised networks that constantly meet and deliberate on how better to implement the Commonwealth charter on the democratic process, that should be fostered. The funds needed for these programmes are minimal in comparison to those of the umbrella Secretariat and the outcomes are impressive. Perhaps the essential changes should lie in the direction of increasing the work of these networks with the attendant opportunities for exchange, fostering friendships, sharing practical methodology, monitoring elections and providing guidelines for government policy and action. Inevitably, there is internal wrangling within each member state and sometimes between states, but the undercurrent of fellowship between members of the Commonwealth is sustained by the work of the networks as a whole, and this quietly provides the continuity that is the essence of the Commonwealth.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Howell for bringing this debate forward, and for his lifelong dedication to the work of the Commonwealth. Before going to Kigali, the Prime Minister set out, in an article for the Telegraph, how the invisible thread of shared values, history, institutions, and language that binds the Commonwealth creates a trading advantage. As a network of countries and of civil society built around the shared values of the Commonwealth charter—democracy, human rights, tolerance and the rule of law among them—the Commonwealth also has the potential to be one of our greatest tools in facing the key challenges of the 21st century.
As last year’s integrated review recognised, we are in an age of systemic competition. Authoritarian states seek to extend their influence and to challenge the international rules and norms that underpin our security and prosperity. The Commonwealth can be a bulwark against this. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s vision of the Commonwealth as a counterweight to authoritarian regimes but, as our values come under greater pressure, we cannot be complacent.
My noble friend Lord Howell rightly pointed out that the influence from China extends through the Commonwealth. Many Commonwealth members are part of China’s belt and road initiative. Beijing has even gone as far as cultivating ties with Commonwealth country’s armed forces. Can my noble friend tell the House what discussions he and other members of the UK delegation had in Kigali about countering this influence from China, and what practical steps the Commonwealth can take to limit this?
Winning a systemic competition requires us to prove that our system is better. We need to show what we know to be true: democracy, human rights and the rule of law give us a competitive advantage. In order to show this, we need to be faithful to those values. The Kigali communiqué states:
“Heads renewed their commitment to the Commonwealth’s fundamental … values of democracy … They further reiterated their commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
But, in too many countries, human rights are being rolled back. In Freedom House’s annual ranking, 23 Commonwealth members were found to be not free or only partially free.
The Commonwealth’s largest member is often billed as the largest democracy in the world, but I fear it is increasingly at risk of losing that title. It is deeply concerning that Prime Minister Modi’s India is becoming less tolerant, more autocratic and less safe for millions of its own population, including minorities—Christians, Muslims, et cetera. NGOs have faced restrictions. Human rights advocates, such as Aakar Patel, the chair of Amnesty International’s India board, have been subject to travel bans. The Editors Guild of India is calling for the immediate release of Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of a fact-checking site who has been at the forefront of countering fake news and disinformation, and who was arrested earlier this week. He joins other journalists and human rights defenders, including Khurram Parvez, the chair of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances and a leading campaigner against human rights violations in Kashmir.
The communiqué from Rwanda tells us that
“Heads stressed the importance of … freedom of expression”—
yet they stand by as the free press faces attack in the Commonwealth’s largest member. I know that my noble friend the Minister takes this issue seriously and that the British high commission in India is supporting interfaith work, but can he confirm whether the Prime Minister discussed freedom of religion and human rights with Mr Modi in India in April or in Kigali last week?
For many in the United Kingdom, CHOGM was unfortunately overshadowed by the Government’s new refugee offshoring policy. Rwanda is a good example of the grey areas of foreign policy: it is at once a symbol of huge achievement, recovering from genocide, but also a country with an alarming human rights record of political repression, kidnappings and assassinations. Debating the provisions for refugees in Rwanda under the offshoring scheme is a distraction from the more fundamental point: shipping asylum seekers elsewhere fundamentally neglects our responsibilities and duties, which we signed up to and which were not imposed on us.
There is substantial evidence to suggest that the offshoring scheme will be expensive, inefficient and ineffective. It breaches our international legal obligations. The UN Refugee Agency has stated that the Rwanda plan is
“inconsistent with global solidarity and responsibility-sharing”
“does not meet the requirements necessary to be considered a lawful and appropriate … arrangement.”
Shared burdens and respect for international law are surely the epitome of Commonwealth values—yet, with the Rwanda plan, we have somehow set them aside.
Sometimes, we seem to think that we can urge others to improve their record on the rule of law, human rights and democracy without respecting and protecting these values ourselves. Underpinning warm words about shared values are real rights and freedoms, which intimately affect the lives of the Commonwealth’s 2.5 billion people. If we are serious about the Commonwealth as a bulwark against authoritarianism and a promoter of human rights, democracy and the rule of law—the values that make it successful—we need to strengthen those rights at home and strongly argue for them abroad.
My Lords, I hope that your Lordships have noticed how much of the Commonwealth is represented in your Lordships’ House today. It shows that we are interested in knowing what is happening to the Commonwealth, as much as we want to share.
One of the things which I feel were done incorrectly was line-drawing on a map. People were not consulted on whether they would like to be with each other, and some of the countries have had problems as a result, not to mention India and Pakistan. In India, we did not have the line of separation until a month before it came into force. We were very close to the line, so my family was very anxious, because they wanted to know where they were going to live. In the end, we were refugees in Delhi. We were not against an old building but we were still refugees, because my father left everything he owned behind.
My main feeling about the Commonwealth is that its members have not learned to understand one another, because until you do that, you do not do things together. When I first went to one of its meetings some years ago, the French-speaking and the English-speaking members had very few ways of communicating with one another. I hope that that has gone, but it is an example of how things can go wrong without meaning to go wrong. If there are two tribes who do not like each other, you do not want to put them in one country. I do not think that any research of that kind was done before the lines were drawn on the map. It is one of the weaknesses of the Commonwealth that I am not sure that everybody likes everybody else who lives next door to them.
As for India and Pakistan, first of all, it was going to be Muslim countries together and Hindus separate. Kashmir is a Muslim region, and it should definitely have gone to Pakistan; it has no business to be given to India, but it was not given to India either—it does not belong to anybody except itself. There is no end of problems with it, and they will not be resolved unless some definite action is taken. The UN said that we could have a plebiscite. We should have one. That would resolve the question of who it wants to be with. That is not for me to resolve, because I have no power to do anything. If I did, I would say, “Have a plebiscite.” The other thing we could do is try to increase the trade links, which we do not—we have a lot of army links, but no trade links, and that is not very good either. It is a big mess and I do not know whether it can be resolved. People have pretended to try to resolve it, but they have not been able to. Maybe the new generation, such as the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, will have something to do with it and resolve something that is terrible.
A very senior Pakistani general said to me, “There’ll be no more war between India and Pakistan—a proper war—because we know we can’t win.” That is true—we are so much bigger than them—but imagine making a Pakistan whose main part was in one place and another little part, Bangladesh, was 1,500 miles away. How can a country work like that? It cannot work as a country if you have two very definite, separate bits, and it did not, so they attacked Bangladesh, which did not go down too well with India.
Anyway, here we are. That is what we are left with, so we have got to make the best of it.
My Lords, the House of Lords would not be the House of Lords without a debate on the Commonwealth, and perhaps vice versa: the Commonwealth seems to need people like us to restate and support its aims and objectives. It is not a very visible organisation; it does not set out to proclaim its importance. In fact, the media are not kind to it: I had high hopes of reading a report in the FT, but I still cannot find one. My noble friend Lord McDonald has explained why the communiqué has taken so long. However, this debate has more than compensated for that.
Having heard and learned from the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on various occasions, I do not personally need any more convincing of the value of the Commonwealth. He rightly refers to connectivity and informality, and I understand the arguments put forward by my noble friend Lady D’Souza about soft power and quiet diplomacy, but surely the Commonwealth could sharpen up its act a little and explain to the world what it is about?
We have heard a lot about the Commonwealth’s successes, but the principal success story is quite clear: the contribution of Her Majesty the Queen. Her role has been properly recognised through the Jubilee and, above all, from her own remarkable performance as an individual as well as a monarch. Where would the Commonwealth be without her? I therefore personally expect, and indeed look forward to, a more piano contribution from the UK in future. It was an enterprise started by this country—as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, reminded us—but I see no reason why the UK should not retire a little more from the stage and encourage others to come forward. I am sure that the reappointment of the secretary-general will assist in that process. Prince Charles himself set the tone when a new Head of State replaced the Queen in Barbados last November; he said it was “a new beginning” and acknowledged the appalling atrocity of slavery. Anti-racism and decolonisation are rightly going to be continuing themes.
I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, that we must see more effort from the Commonwealth on human rights and governance. This is the Minister’s proper area of responsibility, so could we do more about this? Will quiet bilateral diplomacy or a new trade agreement ever be enough, for example, to change Prime Minister Modi’s discrimination against minorities and the media in India? The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford has spoken on Pakistan in this respect.
Human Rights and Democracy, the FCDO report published in July 2020, contains some powerful statements of hope, some by the Minister himself in his foreword, which I recently reread. There is a comprehensive list of priority countries, including, I am glad to say, the two Sudans, where the FCDO remains active. I asked the Minister earlier this week whether any African member states were backtracking on issues such as abortion and gay rights, and he replied that
“one important thing about networks such as the Commonwealth is that they allow us to look at a broad range of human rights issues in a progressive and productive way.”—[Official Report, 28/6/22; col. 577.]
Fair enough—not a direct answer, but a very positive one.
Climate change and oceans are issues already pursued by the Commonwealth, but smaller member countries and islands need to take up climate change more aggressively. This is not so much for themselves, since their carbon footprint is in most cases minimal; but for some, climate change is an urgent question, and they need to persuade we larger gas-guzzling nations to take more action in prevention and mitigation. We will have to help pay for this. Australia’s new Prime Minister, as my friend the noble Lord, Lord Goodlad, knows better than any of us, will be bound to help in that operation.
Under Paul Kagame, Rwanda has made great strides since the terrible 1994 massacres, but few are under the illusion that his Government are now squeaky clean; opposition leaders are imprisoned and branded as terrorists. The most prominent case is that of Paul Rusesabagina, who was sentenced to 25 years. Can the Minister say whether the Commonwealth or the FCDO have done anything for him or for human rights in Rwanda? He will already know that 24 human rights agencies have written to Commonwealth leaders asking them to speak up on this issue.
I end with a quotation from a friend who attended CHOGM, who said, “It was wonderful to see African countries taking the lead in Kigali, not least Rwanda but also the new members of Gabon and Togo. The success of the Commonwealth in moving beyond its roots in former colonies depends on the secretariat and its most powerful member counties carefully listening to all members, big and small, and allowing its newer and smaller members to take the lead in equal partnership, not on driving the interests of a few.”
My Lords, let me concentrate on the problems and not the virtues of the Commonwealth because I have only five minutes. First, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, and others, there was a great constitutional change when India became part of the Commonwealth, as a republic could continue to be part of the Commonwealth which, after all, is an association of the former colonies of the United Kingdom. That was very welcome. Now, any country which was formerly a part of the British Empire could become a republic and still be a member of the Commonwealth. That is very straightforward.
Secondly, the fact that CHOGM took place in Kigali gives notice that there are non-British Empire countries that want to join the Commonwealth. That is a very welcome sign and a very good thing, because the Commonwealth is one of the few associations, apart from the United Nations, which straddles all five continents. But, at the same time, there is a difficulty: whether the traditions of the British Commonwealth, which have been talked about quite a lot this afternoon, will continue to be adopted by people who are not formerly from the British Commonwealth. We shall see.
Her Majesty the Queen, as many people have said, has been a very strong influence in maintaining the Commonwealth. Her reign of 70 years has more or less corresponded with the new Commonwealth. The problem is—and we have not actually talked about it—that the decision made in 2018, at her request, that Prince Charles continue to be the Head of the Commonwealth after she has gone was a mistake. I am sorry, but I have to say that that restricts the future of the Commonwealth. It would have been better had the Commonwealth decided to rotate its headship among other countries besides Britain. That would have been more democratic and more egalitarian. We should not always assume that the Commonwealth has to be led by the British Head of State. Of course, people will not protest too much but when tensions grow—especially because some countries will have problems with that, or there may be differences—that will be a major point of disagreement. Why should Britain always be the head of the Commonwealth? The Commonwealth should be a truly democratic association of countries which want to be members together.
Looking at the Commonwealth, it is a miracle that it has survived for so long. It is quite astonishing that countries which were not part of the British Empire have chosen to join it. That is very interesting and I continue to contrast the Commonwealth with, say, the UN, which is a very badly organised body. It is run by an oligarchy of five permanent members, which can plead that they are totally above international law, as they have done with a veto, for example. The Commonwealth does not have that defect and has been able to expel members that violated the Harare Declaration. From that point of view, the Commonwealth has some advantages. The question is going to be, how can the Commonwealth go on maintaining that advantage? A little bit more equality among members and making the role of Britain more ordinary, like other members, rather than special and always at the top, would be a very welcome change. I do not think it will happen, but it would be good if it did.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for introducing this topical debate following the CHOGM in Kigali last week. The noble Lord has played a pivotal role in promoting the role of the Commonwealth as well as the challenges that it faces. As my noble friend Lord Bilimoria mentioned, the Commonwealth represents 2.5 billion people, of whom 60% are under the age of 29.
At the outset, I congratulate the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, on her re-election as Commonwealth Secretary-General and express my regret that our Government chose to oppose her re-election. In her manifesto for her second term, she highlighted the need to deliver a smart, connected, digital Commonwealth that can unleash the talents of the population as well as close the Commonwealth digital gap in health, education and trade, building the digital infrastructure to boost connectivity between Commonwealth countries. It is to this that I want to devote my remarks in my short time, as well as the need to promote more education on the impact of climate change within the Commonwealth and what its members can do to mitigate it.
As technology continues to build our digital economies and value continues to move into the development of digital systems, promoting technological standardisation and regulatory harmonisation that fit the digital world is essential in enabling a collective and productive global economy, particularly among Commonwealth members. We must look at the innovators who are looking at architecting both financial systems and decentralised systems of co-ordination to unlock new value networks and optimise the very fabric of society and common nations. We are witnessing a new renaissance in how we organise people, societies, systems of government, supply chains and systems of value creation and distribution.
Compliance data networks can facilitate greater national security, reduce the cost of cross-border co-ordination and system co-ordination, and provide a platform for the Commonwealth to unite its members and citizens. I have for many years advocated and promoted digital ID, which helps vulnerable populations in the developing world to gain access to global services and provides aid and resources to assist with education and technology capabilities.
To fight crime, reduce corruption and enable more privacy, we must look to how the Commonwealth can build universal policies and digital regulations to streamline economic co-operation and growth globally. Embracing new technologies such as blockchain can assist in creating more transparency and accountability, as well as enforcement. In this regard, I warmly support the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda to boost the digitisation of economies and potentially achieve the $2 trillion target in intra-Commonwealth trade by 2030. I join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Marland, on his able chairmanship of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, as well as the business forum.
Finally, though much was achieved last year at COP 26, much more needs to be done now to follow up on the initiatives and resolutions. As the Commonwealth represents one-third of the population of the world, I hope that more initiatives can be taken to educate the youth on the impact of climate change and what can be done to mitigate it. We are sadly seeing an increasing frequency of climate change catastrophes which are invariably impacting on the poorest people in the world. Apart from education, what can be done to incentivise financial tools such as green bonds? Time precludes me from elaborating on this subject. Long live the Commonwealth. I look forward to the answers of the Minister.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, with the great experience on these issues, particularly in Africa, which he brings to bear in the House. I join him in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on bringing this debate. This is not the first debate on the Commonwealth he has brought to this Chamber and I hope very much it will not be the last. It has been of interest to me that the debate has been a realistic one, not on the history alone but also, if the Commonwealth is to remain relevant, the characteristics that it will need to display to do so.
I also pay tribute to the Minister for the Commonwealth who I had the pleasure of being with in Kigali last week, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Marland, and his very able private office. The Minister is remarkable for looking fresh after having programmes outside this country which have been so hectic. I pay tribute to the hosts, Rwanda, and the amazing army of young people who were so helpful and supportive of the hosts. I will return to some elements of our relationship with Rwanda in a moment.
I am a supporter of a Commonwealth which the nations choose to be part of and where they should be equal. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai, that while equality on paper is impressive, the reality is sometimes different, even in the visuals, when we look at the choreography of the pictures of those heads of state and government there. The real strength of CHOGM, as the noble Lord, Lord Marland, indicated, was the preceding fora—the business fora that he led so ably and that I was a delegate to, the women’s forum, the youth forum and the people’s forum—and the ability to allow debate about civil society with representatives from across the various family networks and a level of open discussion and debate of some of the realities, that, for example the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, who I regret to see is not in his place for the winding speeches, indicated.
When I chaired the commission for the All-Party Group on Trade out of Poverty, working with the Nigerian Trade Minister on inter-Commonwealth trade, a witness said something that has always stuck in my memory. She said that the Commonwealth has two major strengths. The first is that China is not a member and the second is that the USA is not a member. I think the ability for a network of consensus, seeing the value of a non rule-making but consensual body, shows its strength.
Of course, there are others: the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, talked about La Francophonie and interaction between the two. I do not see the Commonwealth as an English-speaking network; I see it as a network where language and other elements are a common and binding factor. It is of interest to me that very close allies of the UK, such as the UAE and Qatar, are associate members of La Francophonie, not of the Commonwealth. Ukraine has had observer status to La Francophonie since 2006. So there are multiple networks around the world, of which the Commonwealth is a very strong one but not unique in some areas.
Where, perhaps, the Commonwealth is unique is that it can bring together the most innovative places in the world, but also those with the greatest developmental challenges. It has some of the most open societies, as well as some where being gay is still a crime, capital punishment can be used arbitrarily and opposition political parties are often either banned or restricted. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, in this regard: we have to see our relationships with our friends, but not through rose-tinted glasses.
I was a member of a small delegation from the All-Party Group for Africa visiting Kigali last week. We met an opposition member who is banned from meeting members of her own political party in public discourse in Rwanda. After our meeting with her, where we stayed there were individuals who did not identify themselves but asked for reports on our activities as British parliamentarians. We have to understand that even though we received a very warm welcome from Rwanda, Rwanda does not meet the norms that we in this country would consider to be those of a free and fair and open society.
On visits that I have made to friendly Commonwealth nations, one of which was through the aegis of the All-Party Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty, I was told by the leaders of the Anglican community in that country that they welcomed my visit to campaign against the death penalty, but on condition that I did not campaign for LGBT rights. We have to be open and aware that the communiqué issued from CHOGM was weak in this regard. It condemned discrimination in all forms but was not able to single out where there have been the most egregious abuses.
The communiqué was also of interest to me as there was no mention of any condemnation of Russia—that was symbolic in its absence—but it is also useful to say what was in it. On a positive, women’s empowerment and gender equality, as well as moving on trafficking and forced labour, youth development and tackling some of the climate challenges are all, I think, joint priorities, and the communiqué was strong and forward-looking in those areas. I commend the Minister and the UK envoy Jo Lomas for the work that they have done in preparing that.
Our All-Party Group for Africa, with Jack Patterson so ably supporting us in that role, was able to participate in the forums, and we were able to work and discuss as equals with others from around the Commonwealth development issues, climate, trade and the common future. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Marland: it was appropriate that many of these discussions were taking place in Africa. That continent is now seeing, for the first time in a decade, the potential for famine—famine in a near-neighbour of a Commonwealth country. The climate challenges for that continent in particular are going to be immense, and the future that will be sapped away from its young people should be our focus.
However, on trade I share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Marland: I think that the UK’s time as chair-in-office has been a missed opportunity. We had the opportunity to turbo-charge intra-Commonwealth trade and reduce trade barriers, systematically removing them. Although the communiqué has indicated that we want to see greater interconnectedness in trade agreements, it has been a frustration to me that in the agreements that the UK has negotiated and signed with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and the EPAs, there has been no mention of intra-Commonwealth trade facilitation.
My final point is linked with the visit to Rwanda, and I will close with some reflections. It is not directly related to CHOGM, but it is my first opportunity to report to the House on a visit that I made to the Hope Guesthouse. The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, mentioned the MoU with Rwanda; I visited the centre where those individuals would have been sent. The MoU, which is not a treaty, has no legal underpinning. I visited a centre which is a private limited company, on a one-year rolling contract; has facilities which, under my examination, had no areas for those suffering trauma or for those potentially on suicide watch; is on an agreement which has not been disclosed; and where there is no limit as to who else may be put in the Hope hostels, other than those who will be coming from the UK scheme. This obviously was an area of debate and discussion among the civil society groups that were there.
I believe that this policy is a stain on the UK. That is not a criticism of Rwanda; it is a criticism of the UK Government. There are, I am afraid, so many areas, such as the UK’s slashing of overseas assistance and the immigration agreement, where, apart from ministerial diplomacy, the UK is letting down its position in the world.
Finally, if the Commonwealth is to reinvent itself and be relevant for the future, it needs to embrace more of the fora that are there, invest in our youth, and have joint and equal consensus on many of those challenges. An Indian delegate at the people’s forum said that while we share a common history, we also have common pain—but we need to find common solutions to the common problems that exist.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for his excellent introduction to this debate. The noble Lord is a constant factor in debates on the Commonwealth—joined, of course, by the Minister, whose record of being able to stay in office for so long is incredible. Do not get me wrong: I wish for that to continue.
As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, reminded us, this CHOGM had been postponed since June 2020. I am pleased that the 26th meeting finally took place, with the fitting theme:
“Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming.”
The fact that it was hosted in Kigali by Rwanda, the latest addition to the Commonwealth, which joined in 2009 without historic links to the UK, was a reminder that the summit is about diversity. That is what makes the Commonwealth what it is. It is the difference that unites us; that is very important.
CHOGMs present an opportunity for members to work together on shared ambitions and to consider what has been delivered since the last summit. At the London CHOGM in 2018, the UK Government announced a series of projects in support of the outcomes, later itemised in a Ministerial Statement by the Minister in January 2019. I will return to a number of those specific projects later. I suppose I am old-fashioned in this regard, but I think it is important to understand what we set out to achieve at the last meeting, and then consider what was achieved. We seem to constantly reinvent the wheel when it comes to CHOGMs. So, I hope the Minister can tell us how many of the projects announced in 2018 were implemented. Is there a reason why we did not get an update on the 2019 Ministerial Statement at the end of our period as chair-in-office?
As we have heard, the 56 nations which constitute the Commonwealth cover a population of 2.5 billion but, both within and between the constituent parts, we see massive inequality, as highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain. I am therefore pleased that the communiqué noted the 2030 agenda for sustainable development—sadly, a theme that could have been better reflected in this debate—as well as the opportunity to accelerate progress, but it was disappointing that the agreement did not state explicitly any concrete steps to realise those opportunities. Nevertheless, the discussions showed that leaders are engaging on the subject, but I hope the Minister can elaborate on what exactly was discussed on the sustainable development goals, and whether there was any serious analysis of the progress in meeting them.
Unfortunately, the Commonwealth is still off track in meeting the goals, with progress still stalling as a result of the pandemic. The 2022 Commonwealth SDG tracker shows that the countries which make up the group are lagging most with SDG 9, industry, innovation and infrastructure, and SDG 10, reduced inequalities. On the latter goal, I hope the Minister can update the house on the SheTrades Commonwealth programme, announced following CHOGM in London.
However, there is room for optimism. More progress has been made on SDG 12, responsible consumption and production. I hope the noble Lord can tell us whether the Government have made any assessment of the reason for this. Can the Minister update the House on progress on climate change and implementing the ocean protection agreements, again made at the London summit?
Overall, the tracker shows that collective progress on the SDGs slowed significantly for Commonwealth countries over the past year. Can the noble Lord give us a better indication of what steps the FCDO is taking to ensure greater progress, especially considering that the Prime Minister did not mention the SDGs or sustainability in his opening remarks at CHOGM?
I would like to move on to the question of equality and human rights, raised by many noble Lords today. The communiqué’s focus on human rights was largely intertwined with the concept of the rule of law, with the main action encouraging
“the establishment and strengthening of … Human Rights Institutions”.
It is slightly disappointing that, as part of this, there was only a brief mention of civil society, although we have heard a lot about it in today’s debate. We have heard about the events prior to the meeting—the Commonwealth Youth Forum; the Commonwealth Business Forum, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Marland; the Commonwealth Women’s Forum; and of course the Commonwealth People’s Forum. As is the case with all summits and international institutions, we should be cautious that the involvement of civil society is not merely a tick-box exercise. The fact that these forums were held is good, but let us see what was heard from those forums and how they were engaged.
In response to my Oral Question on Tuesday, the Minister said that
“one of the areas … pursued during”
“time in chair-in-office was to strengthen the voice of civil society within … the Commonwealth.”
He said that “over 10 Foreign Ministers” engaged “quite directly” with civil society at the CHOGM meeting. Perhaps he can tell us a bit more in his response what form this took. The noble Lord also asserted that the UK continued
“to fund human rights priorities, including those of LGBT rights. They were featured very prominently in the civil society discussions”.—[Official Report, 28/6/22; col.539.]
Can the noble Lord therefore tell us exactly how much of that funding has reduced between the London CHOGM and this CHOGM? I am concerned that the very groups that we have been trying to support have had their support substantially cut. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, mentioned LGBT rights in particular, and his visit.
I was really concerned to read that, in support of the New Plan for Immigration that will fix our broken immigration system, someone who sought refuge in this country because he was gay was last night put on a plane and sent back to Nigeria, where the penalty for being homosexual is up to 14 years in jail. This individual, outed in Nigerian newspapers, has also had several death threats. It is not uncommon for lesbian and gay people to be subject to those horrific sorts of abuses.
I hope that the Minister will take my comments on board because we cannot say one thing to people then do the complete opposite. We have to be consistent, as the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, said, in support of our obligations to protect people. I hope that the Minister will take that back to his ministerial colleagues.
One thing we have heard earlier this week was the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, which she raised in her Oral Question on the Commonwealth. Her particular concern was that since Rwanda hosted this CHOGM, it was in a host country that has failed to take further the opportunities for women and girls. Again, I hope that that will be a priority.
I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said in relation to the reappointment of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland. It is absolutely right to provide that continuity and that there should be a successful, sensible handover of power and responsibility. However, I cannot fail to express our disappointment that the UK Government sought to undermine her position and seek her removal. I hope that we can overcome that and work together. I heard the Minister’s assurances earlier this week about how we will continue to work with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, to ensure that the Commonwealth can focus properly on the 2030 agenda.
My Lords, first, I join noble Lords in genuinely and sincerely thanking—I say this from the bottom of my heart—my dear noble friend Lord Howell, who has been an incredible champion of the Commonwealth and remains so. I thank him for tabling this debate in such a timely fashion as we return from Kigali. I also thank him for his dedication to the Commonwealth, including as a Minister, as the honorary president of the APPG and through the various other Commonwealth organisations that he has led with great leadership and aplomb.
From the outset, let me say that I very much welcome this important debate. I recognise the important and valuable work of all the noble Lords who contributed, strengthening not just what the Commonwealth stands for but, through this debate, its importance to a progressive, forward-looking, open United Kingdom as we strengthen our relationships across the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about the 2018 CHOGM. I put on record my deep thanks to the many noble Lords who mentioned my old role and longevity in office; whenever that is mentioned, I wonder—because our debates are followed—who is listening, and where and when. As a Minister, one should always practise one important attribute: keep your bags packed. That is perhaps for another moment but I am really grateful for their kind words. Equally, in expressing those words, I understand noble Lords’ dedication and devotion to the Commonwealth in this respect.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned each deliverable. After 2018, a specific spreadsheet on every single line of the communiqué was set up. It was included in the annexes and addenda; if the noble Lord will allow me, I will share and circulate them again. This was intended exactly so that we did not lose sight of them. I also worked directly with the Rwandans over our extended period of office to ensure the very continuity mentioned by the noble Lord and others, such as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, from one CHOGM to the next. Yes, we had a slightly extended stay as chair-in-office, but we used that time to strengthen the deliverables for Rwanda, including on some of the Covid protocols at a time when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting had to be postponed.
I will come on to the issue of leadership and the Secretary-General but I assure noble Lords that, during that time, notwithstanding the different perspectives that prevailed, I always took a view based on practicalities. We worked closely with the Secretary-General and the secretariat on the delivery and handover of the chair-in-office role.
I come to a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, whom I thank for talking of me as part of the new generation. When you reach a certain age, that is a quite welcome remark. I have said before that the issues and history of India and Pakistan, and the wider subcontinent, are defined in my very being. As someone who has heritage and strong connections to both sides, I feel it is important that we look towards the future. In recognising the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, I say to him that ultimately it must be for those countries to decide on, as we say in the Commonwealth, “a common future” which brings people together. There is so much between not only India and Pakistan but the 56 countries across the Commonwealth that ties us together. The issue of the English language, raised by the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, and others, remains central. I quote the Secretary-General, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, on the importance of the English language in defining where the Commonwealth is and how it will remain.
At CHOGM in 2018 the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, mentioned the British Empire, the role of the Queen and history. I greatly respect the noble Lord and say to him that I have been Minister of State for the Commonwealth for five years. It has been a matter of great pride and honour to serve in that capacity, as well as in other areas, because the Commonwealth is about the here and now and the future. The fact that Rwanda, a country that does not have the history of the old empire, and other countries that have no history with what was the British Empire, wish to join, including one of the new members, is a sign of the vibrancy of the Commonwealth network of states.
At the start of CHOGM 2022, President Kagame said:
“The fact of holding this meeting in Rwanda, a new member with no historical connection to the British Empire, expresses our choice to continue re-imagining the Commonwealth, for a changing world.”
That underlines the perspective of many a Commonwealth country. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for qualifying that the decision for the Prince of Wales to succeed Her Majesty the Queen was not that of one country, Britain, but came from the consensus of all members of the Commonwealth. I was there at CHOGM when these discussions took place, and it is right that the Commonwealth is defined by the important issue of consensus.
I have mentioned the Secretary-General, the secretariat and the member states. Equally I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for her incredible work within the Commonwealth network. She mentioned the CPA. It was lovely seeing Stephen Twigg there, though we did not get a chance to sit down. There were a few respective taps on the shoulder as we rushed from one meeting to the next, but I recognise fully the important role that the CPA and the CPA UK play in strengthening inclusive and accountable democracy across the Commonwealth. Other networks play an equally important role. The youth and women’s forums, the business forums and civil society forums were mentioned by noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and my noble friend Lord Marland. Yes, they did feed back directly. I will come on to the important role of civil society, which is central.
We were represented in Kigali by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, and the Prime Minister, as well as by me and the COP president, Alok Sharma. Returning, we reflected and talked of the four years but, more importantly, it was an opportunity to look to the future and foster a renewed sense of unity and purpose for the Commonwealth at a time of great change.
I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord St John, mentioned the importance of digital. I will come on to some of the points that we discussed but, equally, in our report as chair-in-office, we focused on initiatives such as cybersecurity, to demonstrate the importance of the Commonwealth. What is the Commonwealth? If you are a small island developing state such as Vanuatu, you will not have the capacity and technical expertise to deliver. That is what the Commonwealth delivers, in bringing people together.
It is about the future. It is not a legacy of the British Empire of old. The vibrancy of discussions demonstrates that, as well as the issues that we discussed. Climate change is becoming increasingly important for small and less-developed states. Of course, Covid-19 remains very much alive and part of us in terms of its impact on us all. Therefore, even notwithstanding the Covid lockdowns, the Commonwealth family acted together on these important issues, including in a statement. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, highlighted, from academia to private sector engagement and manufacturing, it saw us and India come forward with an important and lasting partnership, tied together by the fact of the Commonwealth’s advantage. There was the ability of companies within those two different countries to be tied together by the common contractual nature of green contracts and common languages. That has also resulted in benefit not just to India’s manufacturing but to inward investment in the United Kingdom and a lasting partnership.
The Commonwealth family makes up a third of the world’s population and 30% of the votes of the United Nations. The United Kingdom over the past four years has had a role in strengthening the voice of the Commonwealth within the context of the United Nations. Perhaps I may share a personal note, since the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, was mentioned. Prior to the closed session, where the Secretary-General issue was taken, the United Kingdom did not hold back. During an earlier session when I attended the last meeting of CMAG, the governing council, I made specific announcements on the United Kingdom’s continued support for the Commonwealth Small States Office in Geneva, which is carrying out important work on human rights issues. I therefore hope that I have given a practical perspective; while different perspectives or differences may arise, in terms of practicality, the United Kingdom has always sought to, and will continue to, engage directly and constructively with the secretariat on all aspects of the Commonwealth institutions.
The CHOGM 2022 programme was also varied. My noble friend Lord Howell rightly highlighted the importance of our global soft power, as the Commonwealth network was very much in play. As Minister for the Commonwealth, I had direct bilateral meetings. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned human rights issues but it is not always a question of collective discussions. The Commonwealth is also defined by opportunities for world leaders, Ministers and others to come together sometimes to discuss some of the more sensitive issues around human rights—at times candidly, constructively but also privately. The Commonwealth network also provides for such discussions to be undertaken.
I personally represented the United Kingdom in a number of ministerial meetings, negotiating on key issues. A point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, about the language on Russia and Ukraine, as well as on climate. I assure the noble Lord that I sat through the Foreign Ministers’ meeting and while there were differences of views and opinion, the Commonwealth is defined by consensus. The agreement in the communiqué that the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, rightly highlighted, ran to several pages. While it was perhaps not reflective of what was achieved under his stewardship as PUS at the Foreign Office during our time, it was important that there was a leaders’ statement summarising some of the key issues. That reflects a learning and constructive carry-forward by Rwanda of something that we started in London back in 2018.
I also had the pleasure of being invited to the business forum, which was a grand affair; prior to that, I went to the exhibition of businesses. It was profound and on one of the biggest challenges, as my noble friend Lord Marland said. I pay tribute to his stewardship. We talk about longevity; he is another example of someone who has banged the drum of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council—and rightly so. It was an incredible event but I was taken by the businesses there, which were providing practical solutions to food security and climate issues. I say to the noble Lord, Lord St John, that many companies there, including British ones, were showing expertise in digital.
I also took part in the intergenerational dialogue about sport in the Commonwealth. I met the England goalkeeper David Seaman, among others, and the FIFA chairman. These events, as highlighted by my noble friend Lord Marland, brought together businesspeople, youth and sport. We look forward to the hospitality of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, when we all go to Birmingham for the Games. Indeed, I am going there on Saturday; I will be attending meetings of the OSCE that are taking place there. I am very much looking forward to Birmingham hospitality.
On the leaders’ statement, the UK Government believe that the Commonwealth gets stronger as it grows. It is about encouraging other countries—
I still have about seven minutes on the clock and will certainly get to that. Human rights are an important agenda item.
The interests of countries across the Commonwealth were also reflected, including—it literally says this in my notes—on freedom of religion or belief. These were discussed bilaterally. I assure my noble friend Lady Helic that human rights were discussed; I will come on to issues around the communiqué and the statements and commitments made in a moment.
There was a selection process for the secretary-general. There were two very capable candidates. Kamina Johnson Smith, the Foreign Minister of Jamaica, was very close in the ballot that took place. Nevertheless, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and all noble Lords, as the Prime Minister said, that we will work very constructively with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, as we have done before. I have always said, even given the differing perspectives we have—I note the comments of all noble Lords—that her advocacy of the Commonwealth, what it stands for and its values, is well respected by many across it.
On announcements and delivery, I thank my noble friend Lord Goodlad for his touching remarks about my time as Minister. He also knows Australia well. The noble Lord, Lord McDonald, mentioned an Australian Minister for the Republic asking whether there would be a time when the monarch of the United Kingdom holds an Australian passport. I have to give full disclosure as Minister of State for the Commonwealth: Lady Ahmad of Wimbledon actually holds an Australian passport, having grown up in Australia. That reflects the vibrancy of the Commonwealth.
The United Kingdom made a series of announcements on five new virtual centres of expertise. I will provide the details to the noble Lord, Lord St John. They reflect digital and our platinum partnerships initiative in support of economic growth. We also announced the launch of the UK’s developing countries trading scheme, with simpler and more generous trading arrangements, including for 18 Commonwealth members.
The noble Lord, Lord McDonald, talked about the identity agenda and realms, some of which I have already touched on. As far as the realms are concerned, we have addressed Barbados and Jamaica, and this is important. I pay tribute to Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for the leadership they have shown and the full warmth they have demonstrated in our engagement with those countries, as they seek to show change in their overall progress towards becoming republics. As India has notably shown, this does not change the warmth, affection and strength of the Commonwealth family.
On trade, we showcased investment with Commonwealth partners. As my noble friend Lord Marland reminded us, the Commonwealth advantage knocks 21% off the cost of trade. UK trade with the Commonwealth was worth over £120 billion last year alone and we have made progress: we have signed free trade economic partnerships with many Commonwealth countries and secured free trade agreements with 33 Commonwealth countries, including EPAs covering 27 African, Caribbean and Pacific countries. This is notwithstanding the challenges we faced with Covid and the limitations that imposed on us.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, mentioned the FTA. The second round of negotiations concluded on 17 March and the third round will begin shortly. During his visit to India, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Modi set a recognised challenge to everyone to achieve this by Diwali.
There was also a British International Investment announcement at CHOGM 2022. Through BII, we will provide £162 million of capital investment to the hydropower sector in Africa, to note one example. A number of other announcements were also made on that front.
My noble friends Lord Howell and Lady Helic talked about Chinese influence on the Commonwealth. The UK has invested £30 billion in FDI and bilateral ODA in Commonwealth countries and we are working with key partners across the Commonwealth to provide a structured and managed alternative to the reliance on China.
Turning, in response to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford, to the important issue of human rights, the communiqué noted that freedom of religion or belief is a cornerstone of democratic society. Indeed, the human rights language in the communiqué from CHOGM 2022 further reiterated the Commonwealth’s commitment to human rights enshrined in international instruments, underscored the vital role of a vibrant civil society, including human rights defenders, in protecting democracy and urged good co-operation between member countries and their respective national human rights institutions; and there is more specific to that.
LGBT rights were raised by a number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins. Since 2018, the United Kingdom has invested more than £11 million in programmes to support the promotion and protection of LGBT rights across the Commonwealth. We continue to work with Commonwealth Governments and civil society partners. There are challenges. Some countries have moved forward, some have stayed still and some have moved backwards: that is a candid assessment of where we are. At CHOGM my right honourable friend the Prime Minister announced a further package of investment worth more than £2.7 million to continue to promote and protect the rights of LGBT+ people across the Commonwealth. I will share full details of our human rights perspectives with all noble Lords.
Progress has been made on human rights, and I hope my noble friend Lady Helic, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, recognise this. We are building on progress together, as a constructive partner and friend to Rwanda, during our term in office. There are girls’ education programmes worth more than £200 million. I have mentioned the LGBT communication, and we working with India, for example, on a new joint UK-India diplomatic training programme for Commonwealth members.
In the limited time I have had, I hope I have been able to give noble Lords a flavour of what has been achieved, what was discussed and what continues to be delivered, and of our continued commitment to the incredible institution—the network of families—that is the Commonwealth. There are undoubtedly differences on issues between member states, but the Commonwealth provides an opportunity to come together, for civil society to talk directly to Ministers, for specific feedback to be given and for interactions to take place. We are truly delighted to be hosting the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next month. We look forward to welcoming our Commonwealth friends and family to the UK.
As we reflect on our four years in office, it is not customary, but I think I should do this. I pay tribute to the incredible team we have had at the FCO/FCDO leading on this: Philip Parham, who was the Commonwealth envoy, and Jo Lomas, who is sitting over there in the Box, together with Sarah Lingard. What can I say? They were incredible officials and a great source of support during the Commonwealth meeting, along with Harriet Mathews, our director-general, and Laura Hickey, who did amazing work on various aspects of the communiqué. Popping his head over the Box is my ever-resilient, ever-working private secretary Alex Fanshawe, together with Nick Catsaras, who is the Foreign Secretary’s private secretary. They are unsung heroes. Too often I get the credit for the work they do, and it is about time that they are also named for the record—
So I hope noble Lords will excuse me for doing so. It is great to hear the longest, loudest “hear, hear” from the former PUS at the FCO, who did incredible work in strengthening our time as chair-in-office.
To all noble Lords in all parts of your Lordships’ House, and to the right reverend Prelates who bring into focus the moral compass of the responsibility we have—I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Southwark and the Bishop of Guildford, who have taken part today, for their direct accountability —I say that it is right that the Government are held to account. We look forward to your contribution to the four events later this week. I assure the House that we remain committed to the Commonwealth and wish to play our part as a partner in the Commonwealth.
Finally, the Commonwealth is about the here and now, but it is also, importantly, about the future and how we continue to strengthen economic resilience and security; to step up action on climate change; to become a force for good in standing up for human rights for all and for freedom of religion for those who are oppressed; and for the LGBT community, women’s rights, girls’ education and the Commonwealth family. There are differing perspectives and different periods of travel, and different pathways may be taken; but most importantly, as a network, it allows us, as a Commonwealth family of 56 countries, to come together for that common vision and common future.
My Lords, I give the Minister more credit for his excellent summing up and for all the work he does to promote and develop Commonwealth links of every kind. I thank everyone who has spoken in this debate for, on the whole, a very positive tone. This is a very difficult time; the world is changing fundamentally. Obviously, I see the Commonwealth structure itself evolving, as it has evolved. We have to think very hard about how we can both benefit from that as a country—why not?—and shape and benefit the Commonwealth and the whole geopolitical situation.
I say to the Minister: we have to follow through on what the Chinese are really up to. I notice that, over the weekend, they have been having their BRICS meeting for 3 billion people. It must be a rather odd meeting with India and China there when they have recently been at war with each other. I do not really know what went on, but we have to watch the Chinese. They are trying to rebalance the world in ways that are not good for freedom and democracy at all. We look to Marlborough House to be more vital now that the Secretary-General issue is solved.
The noble Lord, Lord McDonald, raised the issue of the realms versus republics and other kingdoms and sultanates. That will sort itself out. It is really a media muddle, because they do not understand the difference between the Queen as Head of State and the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth—the answer is that there is not much difference at all, but the media get very muddled.
Finally, we all have to think in terms of constant new initiatives to develop further. As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, says, there is much more work to be done. Some of us are planning to raise the idea of a brand-new Commonwealth centre at the end of the Elizabeth Line. We have our eye on the Woolwich Barracks that are now vacant. It is a vast area, a little bit of which, as an exhibition centre, would make a magnificent place representing the whole Commonwealth. The Minister will, I am afraid, hear more about that.
Generally, the world is changing so fast. The digital relationship is altering international relations so greatly that we can now confidently look at the model of the voluntary non-treaty Commonwealth, in all its diversity, as something that will shape the international future rather than just be part of the international past. I thank all my friends and colleagues and your Lordships for applying their minds to that prospect this afternoon.
House adjourned at 5.12 pm.