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I beg to move,
That this House has considered Commonwealth Day 2021.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I want to thank you personally for the work that you have done for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association over many years, as did your father before you. This debate is always an absolute pleasure for me, as it is for colleagues. As I look at the list of speakers today, I see that many have been in touch with the CPA and worked diligently with it and helped it over many years. I am delighted to see so many on this call today.
Some might wonder why this debate is taking place after the formal date of Commonwealth Day. The answer is a very simple and good one: the Commonwealth celebrations clashed with International Women’s Day, and the Commonwealth valiantly supports worldwide women’s issues. It is, after all, led by one of the best and most renowned women in the world, who is totally committed to her job. So we gracefully stood aside for a week, although in my book, and I think in most of my colleagues’ books, Commonwealth Day is every day. The work of the Commonwealth never stops; it goes on.
The Commonwealth brings together the 54 countries of the family—very different nations with enormously different cultures, languages and races of their own. Some 2.5 billion human beings are part of our family. The figurehead of this unique organisation has done what few could ever achieve so well and has led it with distinction over many years. The goal of the Commonwealth has and always will be to unite all of this with three positive aims: prosperity, democracy and, of course, peace. It is a tall order in today’s world, which is less safe than it used to be, but it is worth every ounce of effort. Much of that effort is unsung, unreported and unseen—in my view, that is a great pity—but vital.
A week ago, the media focused on a single American television interview. I barely saw a mention of the new British trade deals agreed with the 27 Commonwealth nations that have already held trade talks with us such as Kenya and Cameroon. Soon Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India and many more are coming on board, which shows that the Commonwealth, which we are a part of, plays a vital role for all of us.
There are critics who will continue to claim that the Commonwealth is just a pale reinvention of the economic model of old empire, but they could not be more wrong and, in a way, arrogant. The whole purpose of the Commonwealth is to stand up to prejudice and promote diversity and prosperity at every level. The Commonwealth is about recognising individual weaknesses and, above all, sharing our incredible strengths. The extraordinary range of study and research delivered by many arms of the Commonwealth organisation has proved to be an immense force for good worldwide—through the Clerk system, Select Committees, our own Hansard, and all the things that we put together in all of our Parliaments to make this work.
The many ways in which parliamentary government is promoted bear mentioning as well. The Commonwealth applauds democracy, and I believe strongly that it helps to make it happen fairly. The Commonwealth is not a single answer to all the world’s ills—of course not: we do not try to be, and we never have. But the role it plays is of very valuable and lasting importance, and sometimes it is too easy to mock. However, its influence and impact are difficult to equal or—I would very strongly suggest—to replace. Next year, the biggest multi-sport event to be held in the UK in 10 years will take place in Birmingham. Thousands of acres of forest will be planted around the city to ensure it meets its target of becoming carbon neutral. I speak, of course, about our very special Commonwealth games, which I first went to as a young boy in Edinburgh.
The practical example behind this spirit of friendly competition is its extraordinary organisation. Such international games have long been favoured by men, as we know, but the organisers and the public are convinced that this time more medals will be won by women. That is because the role of women in sport is now recognised as an overdue, realistic ambition by every nation in the Commonwealth.
The role of women in tackling covid-19 has been a global reality recognised and nurtured by the whole Commonwealth. The great thing is that we in the Commonwealth all believe in equality. We believe in change—the right change; we believe in progress; and above all, we believe in tomorrow. We will continue to play that part. As chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I am more delighted than I can say with my colleagues on the executive committee, which meets tonight, for all the work they put in. However, we do face challenges with the situation of status. The status issue of the Commonwealth has gone on for too long. We all accept that.
At this point, I must pay tribute to the formidable Lord Ahmad, who has been extremely good at helping us to see that we can change the status of the Commonwealth. That does mean that we need parliamentary time and, to that end, I and so many colleagues have been in touch with the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister to see what we can do to foster that change—even if it is through a Private Member’s Bill, started either at this end or the other. We need to make this happen. It is crucial and, quite honestly, as an international organisation we now need to grasp that nettle.
I would like to thank Emilia Lifaka, the chairperson of the CPA. She has done a phenomenal job and is a great friend to all of us. She is a very formidable woman indeed—someone you do not cross. The Commonwealth has been led beautifully the last few years, and I am delighted about that.
I also thank vice-chairperson John Ajaka, who is standing down and leaving Parliament in Australia this year. He has done a remarkable job and, again, we must give our grateful thanks.
Personally, I would like to thank my colleagues on the executive council. It works because we work together, and I am delighted with the vice-chairman, the treasurer, and everyone else—we all know who we are; most of us are on this call—for the work they put in to make sure that we can do what we do.
I am sorry that we have not been able to travel or do everything we would like to do, but today, for instance, we are meeting our Canadian counterparts. The meetings go on and on, and I am grateful to the Clerks of the House, the Select Committee Clerks, Hansard and everyone else who takes part in our Commonwealth meetings for the effort they put in, alongside clerks, reporters, Select Committee Chairs and Members from around the world. We all learn from each other, and we keep on learning.
I would also like to thank the incredible team at the CPA UK branch, led by Jon Davies and Helen Haywood. They have all been remarkable over the past, rather difficult year. They have worked continuously not only to support the executive committee, but to support the Commonwealth generally, and they have done so incredibly efficiently. It has not been easy, and at times it has been intensely frustrating for them, but they have kept their humour and done it with enormous aplomb.
Lastly, I would like to thank Stephen Twigg, our former colleague who took over as the secretary-general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. He has done an incredible job, and I am very grateful to Jarvis Matiya for backing him up and stepping in when it was needed to make sure that everything ran smoothly.
From what we have had over the last few weeks and right across the Commonwealth, one can see the amount that is coming out from the secretary-general—all of it challenging, all of it useful and all of it helpful. I can only say that this is a very strong family led by a remarkable woman, running together for the future of the Commonwealth and the future of the people.
I thank Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger for his speech and for his very kind comments at the beginning of the debate. As Mr Liddell-Grainger has not taken up all the time allotted to him, I am able to give each Member five minutes to speak. I call our colleague from Sunderland Central, Julie Elliott.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am very proud to be the treasurer of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch, and I thank the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing the debate. I associate myself with all his warm words, both to colleagues on the executive committee and to the amazing staff who make our work on the CPA UK branch possible. They do a wonderful job.
This is an incredibly timely debate, because the position that the UK holds in the world and its relationships with other countries have changed demonstrably over the last couple of years. Although we are not here to debate that change or our opinion on whether it was the right thing to do, it is undoubtedly important to refer to the incredibly positive work done through our relationship with other Commonwealth countries and through our partnerships—in this case, therefore, the incredible amount of work done through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I evidently declare an interest.
The CPA gives us an opportunity to work with parliamentarians across the Commonwealth, providing a forum through which we can learn from each other and talk openly about the issues we face and how to solve them. It also gives me an opportunity to connect with women parliamentarians across the world.
The representation of women in politics and democracy is an incredibly important subject to me. Through my involvement with the CPA, I have had the chance in this Session to connect with women parliamentarians in Bangladesh, Sierra Leone and Australia, to name a few. It was an incredible opportunity to learn about their relationship with their democracies and representative structures. I believe such conversations are incredibly important: we may be in different countries, but we are more often than not faced with similar barriers to progression and achievement, similar objections and similar obstructions. Through a constant dialogue, we are able to learn how others have dealt with such situations.
The debates that have happened about the place of women in society—the most recent is something of which we are all aware—show how important it is to have women in positions of decision making and supporting other women across the world. Through the Commonwealth, we are able to work with women parliamentarians and show solidarity in an increasingly fractured world, so I return to the original point that I was making about a post-Brexit world. As we reset our relationships with other countries, the Commonwealth provides existing strong bonds with a whole host of other countries. Although the UK is just one equal member among 54 other equals, it has a unique prominence and significance that must be made the most of, for a range of different reasons.
Finally, there are many issues that simply go beyond borders, much like the issues of representation and equality of women, as I have mentioned. Two further examples are climate change and modern slavery, which the CPA has done a lot of work on. These are issues that simply cannot be solved unilaterally. The Commonwealth, with the bonds and relationships that it provides, is an extremely important forum in which we can work with others, learn what works and what does not, and ensure that progress is made for the benefit of all. Even if the debate is taking place a little after it happened, this Commonwealth Day is a chance to celebrate what joins us together and the support that we give each other.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this Commonwealth Day debate. I do so as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to South Africa.
Africa is, of course, home to a number of Commonwealth countries and it is a continent of enormous opportunity. Today, the continent accounts for 17% of the world’s population but only 3% of its gross domestic product. By 2050, more than a quarter of the world’s population will be African, and that population will be overwhelmingly young and middle class. The continent is experiencing the fastest growth of the middle class in the world. Its collective gross domestic product is nearly $7 trillion and is among the fastest growing in the world. Business opportunities are soaring at an unprecedented rate.
All this presents an enormous opportunity for the businesses of the United Kingdom. As we trade and invest in each other’s economies, the United Kingdom looks forward to making our trading partners richer as our own prosperity grows. South Africa is the United Kingdom’s largest trading partner in Africa and we do trade together every year worth £8 billion, which I look forward to seeing increase significantly as we both emerge from the covid pandemic.
The United Kingdom is a major investor in South Africa, with almost £15 billion in investments, and many South African businesses invest here in the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom is mobilising UK expertise and capital to support President Ramaphosa’s ambitions for infrastructure to act as a flywheel of recovery. That represents a major commercial opportunity for UK businesses, with a pipeline of billions of pounds’ worth of orders.
The United Kingdom is also seeking opportunities for commercial partnership to support South Africa’s transition from coal-based energy generation to renewables. The South African Government will be seeking proposals for 2.6 GW of solar and wind energy under round 5 of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer programme. I am also keen to see what collaboration the United Kingdom can put in place to help South African coal miners and others in fossil fuel industries to transition to high-skilled, highly paid renewable energy jobs.
We already have existing partnerships between the United Kingdom’s further education colleges and South Africa’s technical vocational education and training colleges. I would like to see that collaboration enhanced.
South Africa remains a very attractive proposition for UK businesses. It is the most diversified economy in Africa, drawing heavily on UK legal and financial systems. It uses English as the language of business and it is on a similar time zone. Its role as a gateway to Africa will continue, particularly with a strong investment in the African continental free trade area.
I am, however, disappointed that so many British businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, are unaware of the enormous opportunities in Africa generally and South Africa in particular. I hope that businesses in my constituency and across the United Kingdom will grasp the opportunity to trade with and invest in South Africa as South Africa continues to invest in the United Kingdom, so that we can be trading partners of choice for each other in the future and for many years to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to speak in today’s debate. At a time when increased global co-operation is vital in tackling the coronavirus pandemic, it is right that we celebrate our union on this Commonwealth Day, as well as the fantastic work of our Commonwealth Parliamentary Association as we look outwards to our family of nations.
It would be wrong, however, to celebrate the global diversity of our Commonwealth without acknowledging Britain’s legacy and standing in a post-covid and post-Brexit world. Much has been documented on the historic scourges of slavery, colonialism and empire, but I do not believe that the current Government are doing themselves any favours by creating their own scourge: the hostile environment policy towards immigrants, a points-based system, issues with students and tourists, and the recent accommodation of asylum seekers in disused military barracks. That is to say nothing of the Government’s missed opportunities to trade closely with the likes of India, which previously was one of our largest trading partners, because we refuse to make allowances on our immigration legislation. It would also have been appropriate for the Government to stand fully behind Commonwealth nations and others for a waiver to access much-needed vaccines and treatments during the covid crisis. Sadly, that opportunity to combat inequalities in global vaccine distribution was missed, and I fear that it will only harm us all.
I want our celebration of the Commonwealth to be a renewal of our commitment to making things right for everybody across the world. I therefore fear that the Government may at times remain tone deaf to the global needs of the wider world and the Commonwealth. Members may have heard me speak with pride about my Ghanaian heritage, and will continue to do so. Like many people of Ghanaian heritage in the UK, however, I was appalled to see Ghana’s LGBTQ centre in the capital, Accra, close only one month after opening its doors to the community. There is a worrying trend of homophobia and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people by Government, religious institutions and the media across some Commonwealth countries. No law in Ghana states that being LGBTQ+ is illegal, but outdated colonial law validates that unjust treatment, because it is deemed to be “unnatural carnal knowledge” and a misdemeanour offence with a penalty of up to three years’ imprisonment. Since the closure of the centre by national security forces, we have seen members and leaders of the Ghanaian LGBTQ community being persecuted, and fearing for their own lives as a result.
That is why I was proud to join prominent Britons of Ghanaian heritage—including Edward Enninful, the editor of Vogue, Naomi Campbell and Idris Elba—in expressing my dismay at the ongoing situation and calling for the country to create a pathway for allyship, protection and support for this marginalised community. It is important that at this time we praise the work of organisations that continue to go above and beyond in supporting LGBTQ people right across the world, such as UK Black Pride and its formidable leader, Lady Phyll.
The Kaleidoscope Trust is also an LGBTQ+ international human rights charity that continues to work to uphold human rights in the Commonwealth—it actually hosts the Commonwealth equality network as well as being its secretariat. The Kaleidoscope Trust is the only accredited human rights-based organisation focused on these issues. The Government in the UK must continue to do all they can to put pressure on any country that is causing issues with the human rights of LGBTQ people right across the world. It is right that we use our influence and continue to do so with equality. As we celebrate Commonwealth Day, it is important that we are 100% behind all of those who may face any sort of persecution across these countries and right across the world.
I am delighted to see you in the Chair, Mr Paisley, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger) on obtaining this important debate. He is obviously key, given his position. Now that I have started to speak, it is clear that I have an interest: I have dual nationality. I carry a New Zealand passport from one end of the world, and a UK passport from this end.
As everybody has pointed out, and will continue to do so, the Commonwealth is a unique worldwide family. It is international, colourful in every way, and a fantastic mixture of races, religions, languages and creeds. It is based around the United Kingdom and the Queen. In saying that, I cautiously recognise that New Zealand’s near neighbour—that little island called Australia just off the shore of New Zealand—occasionally has a few republican problems. Ask any New Zealander and they will explain that merely being an Australian is a problem in itself.
I should explain that point a little. These two old Commonwealth nations in the south Pacific have had a huge rivalry for probably a century or longer. The insults and jokes between them are phenomenal, but every joke can be turned round and played back the other way. The two have huge battles, particularly in sport and most especially in rugby, yet in normal work and normal life, and especially in times of war, these two old Commonwealth nations work extremely closely, and particularly as part of the British Commonwealth. Along with Canada and South Africa, Australia and New Zealand make up what I call the old Commonwealth. They have a Commonwealth link, reinforced by huge kith and kin links, and a two-way flow of tourism and migration dating back almost two centuries.
The biggest examples of kith and kin links involves times of conflict. In the first world war, there was Gallipoli, which led to Anzac Day, the antipodean equivalent of Remembrance Day. Anzac Day there is very important. The people in these countries remember the soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought for the United Kingdom as part of the Commonwealth. I found it hard to understand as a child. I remember living in my little village, and I do mean a little village in the north of the south island of New Zealand, and we had a war memorial. The war memorial walls were covered with the names of soldiers who had died—hundreds and hundreds of soldiers, just from that little village.
I have visited Monte Cassino, the scene of the battle for Rome in world war two, which took place between 17 January and 18 May 1944. In fact, four battles were fought there. The soldiers involved on our side were called allied troops. With the exception of the Polish forces, who finally went over the top, they all came from Commonwealth countries. A total of 54,000 men from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Canada died at Monte Cassino, plus quite a number of Gurkhas. The reality of what happened there came home to me during a visit, and I recommend anybody who is in the area to go and visit, too.
These Commonwealth countries were not particularly happy when the United Kingdom went into the Common Market. However, rather than sitting and moping, they set about making trade deals with many nations, rather than just suffering from the loss of trade with the United Kingdom. Brexit and our eagerness for free trade deals will now enable us to use our Commonwealth ties to obtain trade deals more easily with Commonwealth nations.
Australia and New Zealand are formidable agricultural producers. Fortunately, rather than seeking to dominate the UK market in agriculture, they wish to work with our farmers to fulfil the trade deals that they themselves have with other nations, such as China and those in the EU.
The opportunities that these Commonwealth countries offer for our manufactured goods are also formidable. Neither Australia nor New Zealand have their own home vehicle production, and I believe that the same is true of Canada. They could and should be formidable markets for British-made cars, particularly Jaguar Land Rover cars.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) about immigration. When I first came to this country, immigration was easy, or at least easier, if someone came from a Commonwealth country and had professional training. Now that we are looking after our own immigration, we will be able to return to using the expertise that we can gain from abroad, particularly from the old Commonwealth nations, and the national health service in this country will benefit dramatically.
The possibilities that a partnership between Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK will bring for this country, and the access that it should help to provide to the trans-Pacific partnership, are also of great interest. Being a Commonwealth of nations must grease the wheels just as we desperately need trade—indeed, it is starting to work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. It is also a pleasure to follow the opening speech in this debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), who is proving to be an excellent chair of the CPA. I well remember the last time I attended a CPA conference in 2014, with him and other colleagues, in Cameroon. I had come from a visit to Kenya, which, given the health issues in Africa at the time, with the Ebola virus, ended up as a single-handed visit, but I was able to use the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and its offices and get support from the British high commissions in both Kenya and Cameroon to advance the values, objectives and soft engagement—the connections and everything else—that the Commonwealth brings to us. It is an institution of enormous value in that soft sense, but it can also have a slightly harder edge.
We ought to note that the Commonwealth appeared in the conflict, stability and security fund for the period between 2018 and 2020. There was a fairness programme, aimed at Commonwealth nations, that focused on supporting universal access to justice; effective, accountable and inclusive legal institutions; democratic participation and inclusive decision making; transparent Government and trade; fundamental freedoms and non-discriminatory laws and policies; and promoting greater civil engagement among young people and disadvantaged groups.
The advancement of those values, and of institutions on those lines, is hugely important for the future of developing nations, because once they get those things right, international investors can take advantage of the labour price advantage of those countries, if they see it, knowing that their investments will be secure in those nations and that they will not be subject to the terrible economic price that can be paid through corruption in the governmental and political process. The way would be open to enable those countries to move rapidly towards greater economic equality with us. That is a huge security interest to the United Kingdom, and it would begin to address the issues raised by the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) about immigration pressures on the United Kingdom.
Fairness and equality are a central economic interest, and the values and policies to secure that can be advanced by the institutions of the Commonwealth quietly coming together and engaging us, parliamentarian to parliamentarian, civil service to civil service, as well as through the excellent Clerks’ programme about the management of Parliament that the chair of the CPA promoted.
I will now focus on the announcement we will get today from the Prime Minister on the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. To a degree, that is the conflict, stability and security fund writ large as our policy. By bringing together elements of expenditure around goals, values and the promotion of institutions that deliver security as well as the harder edge of security for the United Kingdom, there will be many advantages, and that will hopefully be a significantly better way of managing the security challenge that is inevitably linked to values.
On values, I chair the all-party parliamentary group on global LGBT+ rights, and I am delighted that we have had a really good take-up for our parliamentary liaison scheme, which will use the informal links we have as a nation and as parliamentarians—the hon. Member for Streatham, with her Ghanaian heritage, made that clear—to find individuals to help institutions in those nations representing LGBT groups who have been criminalised and oppressed. It will quietly make links with those parliamentarians to keep an eye on the British high commission and embassies to ensure that we are standing up for the values that we profess as a nation and actually deliver them in practice. The Commonwealth is a fantastic vehicle for doing that. As I said, it is a delight to take part in the debate.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing this important and timely debate, as Commonwealth Day was last week and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2021 is due to be held in Kigali, in Rwanda, this summer.
CHOGM, in my view, is an excellent opportunity for the UK to lead by example in the Commonwealth, including by raising the importance of girls’ education, international conservation and women in trade, all of which should be critical to the Government’s global Britain agenda. I welcome the Prime Minister’s ambition that all girls should receive 12 years of quality education, and I commend the Government for the work they are doing on the SheTrades programme throughout the Commonwealth. I was honoured to have been appointed as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Kenya, and I am particularly pleased that, in this role, I am able to work with such a crucial Commonwealth country, and to connect with its citizens.
Let me start by recognising the devastating impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had, and not just on my constituency of Stafford but throughout the Commonwealth. According to a recent report from the OECD, covid-19 has now pushed the number of people living in extreme poverty in Africa to over 1 billion. The immense scale of the challenges that lie ahead demand collaboration across the Commonwealth, and I am determined to ensure that our countries work hand in hand so that, together, we can build back better, stronger and greener than ever.
At the end of last year, I attended the signing of the UK-Kenya economic partnership agreement, where we were fortunate enough to host Cabinet Secretary Maina, in person, at the Foreign Office. This new trade deal between Kenya and the UK ensures that, as the UK forges a new path outside the European Union, businesses in Kenya— such as those selling tea, coffee, food and flowers—can continue to enjoy duty-free access to the UK market, supporting jobs and livelihoods in both our countries. Trade deals such as this have now been replicated with countries throughout the Commonwealth, and much of this, I believe, is due to the strong existing diplomatic ties that the UK has with our Commonwealth partners.
I was also pleased to attend the Africa investment conference in January, where it was clear to me that the Government remain absolutely committed to the Commonwealth and to delivering a global Britain agenda. At the inaugural UK-Africa investment summit just last year, which was hosted by the Prime Minister, I was pleased to see deals facilitated that totalled more than £6.5 billion and spanned sectors from infrastructure to retail, technology and energy.
In November, I also attended the UK-Kenya economic development forum, which was also attended by the UK’s Africa Minister, who is here with us today. I was pleased that the UK announced so much funding for trade and investment opportunities, which really showed the Government’s commitment to this region.
Last month, I hosted my first virtual visits to Kenya, where I saw at first hand the aim of this year’s Commonwealth Day, which is a theme of delivering a common future. I first met the UK-backed TradeMark East Africa to see the excellent work that it is doing to improve trade infrastructure and improve the goods flow for British businesses. I also held discussions with the Kenyan Insurance Regulatory Authority about how it is increasing financial inclusion, particularly in rural Kenya. I also visited the Durham School, which I commend as the first British school to open in east Africa, to see this international school’s partnership with the UK in transforming education opportunities for children in Nairobi.
Finally, to coincide with International Women’s Day, I held a roundtable with the British Chamber of Commerce on female businesses in Kenya. We had a very interesting discussion about inclusive leadership, supporting SMEs and how to get more women involved in businesses.
I was reminded of the connections between the Commonwealth and my constituency when I spoke with the executive director of General Electric in east Africa, as many of my constituents are employed in its Stafford-based facility, and it is of course exporting generators to these less developed countries, creating jobs both at home and abroad. It is very clear to me that increasing trade can lead to business opportunities across the Commonwealth, from Kenya to Stafford, helping both to build back better. The Queen said in her Commonwealth message last week:
“Looking forward, relationships with others across the Commonwealth will remain important as we strive to deliver a common future that is sustainable and more secure”.
For me, that is the key message. Our Commonwealth community is immensely valuable and we must continue to increase trade for the UK, and throughout the Commonwealth.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for her speech. I also pay tribute to the chairman of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger). He has done a brilliant job, with the entire team, to unite the UK in terms of our relationship with the Commonwealth. It is of course right to pay tribute to the leader of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty the Queen, and the entire royal family, who do so much good work, across the world, bringing together our disparate nations.
The Prime Minister will set out Britain’s relationships across the world in the integrated review. It is right that we will return to many of our historical links, which we unfortunately turned our back on, in many ways, when we joined the European Union. I am struck by the fact that on visits to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the feeling was generally that the United Kingdom had turned its back on its historical ties. It is vital that we reunite and redevelop those ties.
I want to concentrate on the Indian subcontinent. I have the privilege of representing a constituency with people from every country on the planet and every faith on earth. We have a heavy concentration of people whose families originate from the Indian subcontinent. Later this week we shall debate human rights in Sri Lanka. There is no doubt that in 2016 CHOGM helped in trying to isolate and highlight the problems in Sri Lanka after the bloody civil war. I shall not dwell on that longer.
On 26 March we shall celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of Bangladesh as an independent state. It is a cause for celebration. The United Kingdom was instrumental in assisting Bangladesh to become independent and develop as a nation thereafter, and our strong links must remain. I have had the opportunity, with others, to visit Bangladesh to participate in social action projects to help to improve the life of ordinary Bangladeshi citizens. Parliamentarians are right to do that.
Our relationship with India goes back more than 300 years and it is fascinating that even now India is the third biggest investor in the United Kingdom. We used to be the third biggest investor in India, but I am afraid we have slipped down the leader board. There is much to recover. I look forward to the fact that in addition to visits by the Foreign Secretary and the International Trade Secretary the Prime Minister will, probably in April, visit India to set out our new relationship as we go forward in the world. It will incorporate international trade—and of course we have done new deals around the world—combined with security, defence and other aspects of our relationship. That will enable and entitle citizens from India and across the Commonwealth to come here and study, and our citizens to study in India and other countries around the world. It is vital to allow and encourage young people to build up friendships and relationships across the world, so that we and other countries will be friendly and well disposed towards each other.
That is part and parcel of the work that we have to undertake in the Commonwealth. It is an institution with no parallel anywhere in the history of the world. We are now in reality equal partners—different countries coming together because we have a shared past, but also a shared future.
As we pay tribute to the Commonwealth, let us unite in ensuring that we do so by encouraging diversity, and encouraging different people from different backgrounds to celebrate the fact that we are one Commonwealth. When we look at sport, recreation, education and trade, we realise that this is an unparalleled opportunity, and we must grasp it for the good of not only our citizens, but the citizens of the world.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this great Commonwealth debate, Mr Paisley, which I think was started shortly after I was the inaugural chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Commonwealth, as the Minister, who is in his place, will remember. It is wonderful to hear so many colleagues talking about their positive experiences with, and feelings for, the Commonwealth. We are, in one sense, all children of the Commonwealth—in my case, like one or two others, literally. My first years were spent in Kenya, where I later served as a diplomat and, perhaps even more importantly, was married, so our children, too, are children of the Commonwealth.
Today, I want to focus on one particular link that I think is very important, which is the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in the Commonwealth; I speak, obviously, as the chair of the WFD. This is particularly relevant with the Minister in his place, because he will remember vividly how in 2017, when he was chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—a role now ably held by our hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), who I congratulate on securing this debate—we forged the Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy, or CP4D, between his organisation at that time, the Westminster Foundation, and two other partners.
At that time, during our period as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth, we did some remarkable work in 15 different Commonwealth countries and 30 legislatures. Above all, we promoted the incredibly important values of inclusion and participation in democracy by those with disabilities, those who are female, young people, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, as well as increasing accountability through effective and transparent parliamentary practices. If, during those two years, we did achieve some valuable things, can I encourage the Minister to consider—even though we are in more strapped times today—the idea of a daughter of CP4D, and not letting go of that precious momentum of inclusive and transparent democracy throughout the Commonwealth?
However, even sadder would be the complete withdrawal of the WFD from our current Commonwealth programme. That is, sadly, a possibility unless the funding is secured by the end of this month for our activities in the remainder of this year and the years ahead. Currently, we run the Commonwealth Equality Project, which is a £1 million project in 15 Commonwealth countries. We work in participation with decision makers and civic society to make meaningful progress on gender equality and LGBT issues, which have been mentioned by several colleagues already this morning, and there is a strong need for that programme, as various Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), have stressed. The UK has led real efforts to address these gaps.
The funding for this programme ends on 31 March, so I must be blunt in saying that unless we have confirmation of funding for the Westminster Foundation within the next few weeks, there is a real danger that this programme will come to an end, and the WFD will not be able to run programmes in the Commonwealth at all. This would be particularly sad for women and girls and marginalised groups, who benefit directly from this programme, as those in the CPA who were fortunate enough to meet some of the beneficiaries who visited here in 2019 will vividly remember.
I will finish by saying that this is a wonderful debate; I am delighted it has been secured, and we should maintain this practice every year. There is masses we can all talk about in terms of the Commonwealth. I would love to have time to mention Malaysia, a great Commonwealth country in the far east, where I had the honour of being the Prime Minister’s trade envoy, and which is still doing great things—there was a very successful visit by the Prince of Wales only a couple of years ago—but today I have one clear plea for the Minister: please make sure that the Westminster Foundation’s funding can continue after the end of March, to maintain these valuable programmes in the Commonwealth.
It is a great pleasure to be called to speak in this very important debate on Commonwealth Day, Mr Paisley. As we know, the Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 sovereign states—it is pretty impressive. It covers almost 30 million sq km, with almost 2.5 billion people, and stretches across the entire globe, covering 21% of the world’s land area. Along with Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, the Commonwealth will have a larger share of the global population as time passes. Given that the majority of member nations are developing, the Commonwealth share of global GDP will also increase. Combined GDP was £10.4 trillion in 2017, moving to an estimated £13 trillion in 2020. The Commonwealth is a big beast.
Importantly, politically, no one Government within the Commonwealth exercises power over the other members. It is not a political union. The Queen exerts no political or Executive power; she merely occupies a symbolic position. Rather, this is an international organisation made stronger by the social, political and economic diversity of our members, where all are regarded as equals. We operate with common values and goals and we do a lot of work on the promotion of individual liberty, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, good governance, equality before the law, free trade and world peace, so it is very persuasive.
I want to make three points today. First, politically, we have a golden opportunity now with our position as a strong voice within the Commonwealth to forge closer links with the many up-and-coming nations that we share this membership with. In the post-EU world, the UK is the diaspora—we have people from all over the world and the Commonwealth living in the UK—and with this group of countries having a GDP of nearly two thirds of that of the EU, it is a fantastic opportunity to forge closer links. I am really pleased that the Government have made great progress this year and last year in new free trade deals around the world, but so much more can be done. I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to enhance mutual prosperity through trade with our Commonwealth friends.
Secondly, the Commonwealth games, due to be held in Birmingham in 2022, are a fantastic opportunity. We must showcase what we do. It is good for Birmingham, good for the Commonwealth and good for sport. I urge the Minister to ensure that the Government back the games fully. If we need more money, so be it.
Lastly, I have been made aware of significant issues facing Commonwealth soldiers in our armed forces and Commonwealth veterans. It frustrates me deeply that their service to our nation has yet to be fully rewarded with a clear offer of right to remain. As the commanding officer for 27 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps in Aldershot only a few years ago, I was very proud to command the biggest and most diverse regiment in the British Army, with soldiers from more than 40 countries serving in that regiment. My view is quite clear: if you wear the uniform, go on operations, serve the Crown, serve Her Majesty, you are British—fact. These guys are not mercenaries; they are British.
I urge the Minister to help make two things happen. First, I want to see informal resolution for the eight Fijians who recently lost their court case. Notwithstanding the outcome from the court, it is really important that we recognise their service with an offer of indefinite right to remain. Secondly, I urge the Ministry of Defence to consider a much better offer for our foreign and Commonwealth soldiers. How fantastic would it be for these guys who serve our country, who serve our Crown, to be given what they rightfully deserve?
Today, I will not be calling for city status for Southend, because I know that will happen in any case, but I will be celebrating with others Commonwealth Day.
The CPA is a wonderful organisation; the Minister is a former chairman and is my parliamentary neighbour. Over the years, I have been fortunate to visit many Commonwealth countries. Her Majesty the Queen does a brilliant job in leading the organisation.
I will concentrate briefly on two countries: Sri Lanka and the Maldives. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a supporter of British Tamils, especially the Tamil community in Southend. My constituents have raised the issue of how Mrs Ambihai Selvakumar is being treated and her hunger strike. She is protesting at the violations of human rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and I want to raise that today.
I have recently written to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office about the hunger strike and the destruction of Tamil memorials in Sri Lanka. I was pleased to table early-day motion 305 in support of improving water quality in northern Sri Lanka, where the Tamil community is disproportionately affected. As a nation, we should help those individuals in Commonwealth countries, and improve their quality of life and access to freedom. That most certainly includes the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The Maldives is a wonderful country; I have been the chair of the all-party British-Maldives parliamentary group for a number of years, and we held the AGM yesterday. Last year, the Maldives was readmitted to the Commonwealth, so one nation leaves and another one joins. That has been a long-term goal for the nation for several years and it is a testament to the high regard in which the Commonwealth is held that membership is so important.
The benefits of membership have included the promotion of mutual understanding and friendship between its member states, giving increased opportunity to strengthen conservation, democracy and human rights. On a lighter note, the Maldives will also participate in the Commonwealth games next year in Birmingham.
When people think of the Maldives, they first think of luxury holidays, with sandy beaches and all the rest of it. However, that does not present an accurate reflection of the way people live in the Maldives. Tourism counts for nearly two thirds of the GDP, and covid-19 has forced the Maldives to close its borders and tourism industry for months. GDP was forecast to contract between 11.5% and 29.7% in 2020. The country is now in debt to the tune of 128% of GDP.
The Maldives’ main industry, after tourism, is fishing. I have had useful meetings with two of my hon. Friends who are the responsible Ministers. The fishing industry employs around 30% of the country’s population and is responsible for virtually all of the country’s exports. Last year, due to the pandemic, the tuna industry was the sole contributor to the Maldives economy.
The vast majority of the fish caught are tuna, all of which are line and rod caught, which is much better than the other method of, frankly, hoovering them up. The Maldives tuna industry has gone five times beyond the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission’s requirement to reduce overall catch of yellowfin tuna. The way the fish are caught and the scale of fishing make the industry entirely eco-friendly and sustainable. Women have always participated in the fishery sector. Although industry is dominated by men in most of the world, in the Maldives the current fisheries Minister is a woman. Women also make up the majority of employees at the fish-processing plants.
The Maldives is part of the Commonwealth Blue Charter action group on sustainable coastal fisheries, which aims to support ongoing fisheries programmes and the sustainable management of coastal marine resources. That is central to the sustainability of the country’s fishing industry in the face of climate change.
Given the importance of the fishing industry to the Maldives economy and how sustainable and equal it is, one would have thought that the United Kingdom would have a good trading deal with the country. However, the UK currently imposes import tariffs of 20% on tuna. The Maldives is the only comparable Commonwealth country where that happens. Almost all of the 38 small island developing states have a preferential trade agreement with the UK, and the Maldives is the only Commonwealth country that is not accorded preferential trading.
I have yet to hear a good reason for that; it is such a shame. Considering how sustainable the fishing industry is, I hope the Minister will pass that message on to other Ministers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. It is also a pleasure to contribute to this debate and to follow a number of interesting contributions from various points on the political compass. As my party’s foreign affairs lead at Westminster, I am fond of the idea of the Commonwealth. I am glad to see 54 sovereign states working together, proving that post-independence countries do work together closely to achieve common endeavours, can co-operate, and maintain bonds and the ties of affection that we all want to continue.
Post-independence, which is my party’s proposition, we will seek to join the Commonwealth as an independent state in our own right—making it 55. We want to maintain the bonds that we have and work together, but we want to work together as sovereign equals because my party has a different vision of Scotland’s best future, and that is a lively debate within Scotland parallel to Commonwealth membership.
Joining the Commonwealth is part of our foreign policy stance going forward, but it is part of our foreign policy stance, not the main one, frankly. The cornerstone of Scotland’s foreign policy will be EU membership. The cornerstone of Scotland’s defence policy will be NATO membership. The cornerstone of our trade policy will be EU membership, because it is possible to have the best of both. It is possible—as the UK enjoyed until recently—to be part of the Commonwealth and part of the EU, as has been proven.
We will look at the Commonwealth on its merits, but the EU is our focus. We want to regain the real-world practical advantages of individuals as citizens able to live, work, study and retire across the whole of the European continent, and to maintain the good relationships with the Commonwealth going forward that will also be useful.
We think it is a potentially useful forum, but I must say—striking a slightly more critical note—that it is also an opportunity missed, and some of the praise that we have heard for the Commonwealth today needs to be balanced with some of the reality that we need to see far greater progress. In 2013, the Commonwealth adopted a charter on justice, democracy, human rights, tolerance, the rule of law, the promotion of women’s rights and others—all laudable aims and very much to be supported.
What we have not seen, however, is the progress towards those aims that needs to actually happen to effect real change in the lives of the people of the sovereign countries working together towards those aims. For Commonwealth countries, the reality is that far too many still fall far too short of the standards we need to see on women’s rights, LGBTI equality and the rule of law. The Commonwealth has been far too quiet in that discussion.
I appreciate keenly that the Commonwealth is not about telling one country or another how to run its affairs, but where there are common aims it is incumbent upon the centre to speak with a loud voice when those standards are falling. We have seen the Commonwealth being far too quiet and too little resource being put into the Commonwealth secretariat. We are seeing a UK that is walking away from its official development assistance commitments in terms of the 0.7%, which really is the gold standard of decency internationally. The gap between perception and reality is what we will be focusing upon and upon which the Commonwealth can do much better.
However, I believe in engaging to make things better. I think the Commonwealth is a potentially useful forum, and we wish it well on Commonwealth Day, albeit recently passed. I look forward to an independent Scotland being part of that co-operation where we will be an enthusiastic voice for precisely the things that we all say we want to see happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship today, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for securing this debate and for his work with the CPA, and the excellent contributions from a number of Members, including my hon. Friends the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) and the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy).
The Labour party has long been a supporter of the positive agenda of the Commonwealth going back decades and we remain a strong supporter today. Many of us will have heard Her Majesty the Queen’s powerful words for Commonwealth Day last week reflecting on the impact of the pandemic on the Commonwealth, where she said
“as we celebrate the friendship, spirit of unity and achievements of the Commonwealth, we have an opportunity to reflect on a time like no other… stirring examples of courage, commitment and selfless dedication to duty have been demonstrated in every Commonwealth nation and territory”.
I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments.
I also begin by expressing my personal and family connections and affection for the Commonwealth, having visited members from Canada to Malawi to Cyprus to New Zealand, and the many meetings and events I have also had the pleasure of doing with the CPA. As a 16 year old, I studied in Canada, my brother lives and works there and my father worked with the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council for 40 years, helping link young people from Cardiff and Wales to Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and all over the world. My constituency in the proud dock city of Cardiff has been shaped by Commonwealth influences from south Asia to the south Pacific, from Africa to the Caribbean. We are also proud of our historical links to European Commonwealth members such as Malta and Cyprus and, of course, the strong links between Malaysia and Cardiff City football club.
The CPA has been rightly praised by many Members. I fully support its work, supporting and strengthening parliamentary democracy throughout the Commonwealth and particularly its key themes in relation to women in Parliament, modern slavery, financial oversight, security, and trade. I was pleased to take part recently in an event with Sierra Leonian parliamentarians through the CPA. I am proud of our overseas territories family too. The CPA UK Overseas Territories Project, now in its second phase, is a particularly important programme supporting public financial management across our overseas territories.
We have heard of the breadth of the Commonwealth, the 2.4 billion people, the voluntary nature of the association and, of course, that countries have joined the Commonwealth that are not formerly part of the British empire, including Rwanda and Mozambique. Others are also seeking membership or observer status, including Somaliland, on which I declare my interests, which the Minister knows. Throughout its history and its proudest moments, the Commonwealth and its citizens have united to create more prosperity through trade, challenge those who undermine human rights and democracy, share knowledge and inspire young people, share culture and act as a key player on trade and climate change.
The work of the Commonwealth is as broad as its membership, from the work of the CPA to the Commonwealth Foundation to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to the Commonwealth games to the Commonwealth Development Corporation, to name but a few. There is much that is positive about our continued relationship with the Commonwealth, but there are also examples of where we have failed and continue to fail. Look at the Windrush scandal. Look at the inequitable treatment of Commonwealth armed forces personnel and veterans, as rightly pointed out by the hon. and gallant Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and which I and others raised in the Armed Forces Bill. Look at the proposed cuts in aid to our Commonwealth partners, which were extraordinarily ill-judged when they face such pressures on health and covid-19, education, challenges facing women and girls, climate change and conflict.
It was particularly saddening, in that respect, to hear this weekend that one of the UK’s genuine national treasures, the Voluntary Service Overseas, is under threat because of uncertainty about its FCDO grant. Its work among 9 million people, the majority of it in Commonwealth countries, stretches back to the early days of the Commonwealth in 1958. Without urgent clarity from Ministers, VSO tragically says that it will have to immediately halt its covid-19 response work, close 14 of its country programmes, including across the Commonwealth, and make 200 of its staff redundant. That would be a genuine tragedy and I hope the Minister can provide some reassurances on that matter. This is an organisation that has had cross-party support for decades.
The political power for change that the Commonwealth represents was highlighted at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2018 in the UK and it was a stepping stone on crucial issues, such as the future for young people, who make up 30% of the Commonwealth population, the advancement of rights of women and girls, fighting gender-based sexual violence, improving education around sexual and reproductive rights, strengthening democratic institutions, fighting climate change and, of course, increasing trade. It was a successful summit.
My personal reflections on that event, however, include a meeting I had with LBGTQ+ activists from the Commonwealth Equality Network and organisations such as the Kaleidoscope Trust at the Speaker’s House here in Westminster. We heard powerful speeches from the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham, and the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) on that issue earlier in this debate. It is currently tragic that 35 Commonwealth member states criminalise same-sex activity in some way and persecute LGBTQ+ people across the Commonwealth.
That is a toxic legacy of colonial laws and ideas introduced predominantly by this country during the British empire and we have a particular responsibility. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), the former Prime Minister, spoke powerfully in 2018 saying she deeply regrets the role the UK played in criminalising homosexuality abroad and stating,
“Those laws were wrong then, and they are wrong now.”
We have seen in recent days and weeks unacceptable attacks on LGBTQ+ organisations in Ghana, a media campaign and attempts by lawmakers to bring in laws to further discriminate and restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ citizens in Ghana. Such things are not in line with the principles of the Commonwealth nor, indeed, with other United Nations human rights institutions. I hope the Minister can explain whether he has raised this issue with the Ghanaian authorities, what representation our high commissioner has made and what work he will do across the Commonwealth to strengthen human rights and rights for the LGBTQ+ community and other groups.
Thank you, Mr Paisley. Turning to more positive matters, we cannot debate the Commonwealth without mentioning the Commonwealth games. I was inspired as a child by people such as the two-time Commonwealth champion, and now one of my constituents, Colin Jackson. With the youth of the Commonwealth being so important, sports are an increasingly important part of the life of the Commonwealth. Commonwealth parasport is also inspiring millions of young viewers around the world. It was a particular delight to hear that the medal event programme for the Birmingham games has been revealed with more parasports to take part in than ever before and more events for women than men—an incredibly important signal to send.
We are all excited about the progress towards in the games in 2022 when, I hope, we will have made enough progress against the pandemic to be able to welcome back athletes from around the world for a time of celebration and inspiration. Will the Minister update us on the latest planning for the Commonwealth games?
While speaking about youth, I should mention the role of the Association of Commonwealth Universities which provides 100 million students with the opportunity to study in universities across the Commonwealth. Will the Minister say what role it will play in the Turing scholarship scheme?
Trade has been mentioned many times and there are many aspects of important trade in the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth trade in goods and services was approximately $560 billion in 2016, and projected to reach $700 billion by 2020. The value of UK exports to the Commonwealth has increased in the last few years, and so has the value of imports. That shows us the importance of the trading partnership which the Commonwealth provides.
However, the partnership must also be based on equity and fairness. The UK Government sadly started the year by letting down Commonwealth citizens and producers in Ghana over the tariffs on fair trade bananas, with the price being paid by the workers and producers. I praise the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) in raising this issue. Like him, I am a Co-operative MP and deeply concerned about the issue, as is the Co-operative party.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) made important points about the Maldives and fishing, which have also been recently raised with me. Will the Minister explain how he will work with his colleagues at the Department for International Trade to ensure that development, sustainability and workers’ rights—highlighted to me by many trade union federations from across the Commonwealth in meetings I held a few months ago—will be at the heart of our trade deals going forward?
The climate change programme of the Commonwealth secretariat is an important player in helping member states work towards building resilience, adaptation, and mitigation in response to climate change. The Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub has aided many countries in accessing finance, especially small island developing states such as Tuvalu. In 2018-19, it helped countries receive $24 million to fight climate change. That is particularly important when countries such as Bangladesh, Tuvalu and other small island states across the Commonwealth face inundation from rising sea levels and, of course, storms. We know the terrible legacy of the hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean in 2017 when huge damage was done. In response to that, Commonwealth funds helped, for example, Antigua and Barbuda receive a grant of £20 million from the green climate fund. Will the Minister set out what role the Commonwealth and its members will play at the upcoming Conference of the Parties in Glasgow? The issue is absolutely critical, not least given the unique risks faced by some of the Commonwealth members by nature of their geography.
I have two final points. First, on human rights and democracy, the political influence that the Commonwealth has had over its member states over many decades is showcased by many interventions made towards members who have not held up the core values of the Commonwealth. We think historically of the Commonwealth’s powerful role in relation to South Africa and apartheid and in relation to Zimbabwe, Fiji and other regimes and putting in place systems for ensuring that democracy is respected in member states. There have been observations of over 70 elections since 1990 and programmes promoting judicial and public administration reform and civil society development.
However, there are many unanswered issues currently across the Commonwealth: the repression of the opposition in Uganda; the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Nigeria; the repression of the opposition in Tanzania; the rights of Indian farmers protesting in recent months; Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and forced marriages of girls from religious minorities; and the allegations in Sri Lanka, raised by the hon. Member for Southend West opposite, which I know will be debated later this week?
On the borders of the Commonwealth, we see instability and allegations of human rights abuses and humanitarian catastrophes in places such as Ethiopia which could risk destabilising our Commonwealth partners. Will the Minister explain how he is working through the Commonwealth to tackle threats to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, especially in relation to what we have seen in Uganda in recent days? I hope he will say something specifically about that.
There are shocking reports today from Mozambique—one of most recent members of the Commonwealth—of Islamist militants beheading children, according to Save the Children. Furthermore, nearly 1 million face hunger in that country alone. The Minister revealed to me that across sub-Saharan Africa there are, I think, 95 million people facing food insecurity, with many people already in famine conditions. This is not the time to be cutting our aid and disengaging our support for food, for education, and for healthcare, especially given our particular responsibilities and relationships with our Commonwealth members and partner countries.
In conclusion, Mr Paisley, there is much to be proud of in our Commonwealth membership and Commonwealth relationships and the role that Her Majesty the Queen plays in leading the Commonwealth, and it is crucial to our mutual interests in relation to development, trade, security, climate change and human rights and democracy. It is a shame, as we head into the 2021 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda, that the Government should be breaking its promises on 0.7%, apparently reducing focus on Africa, which we will see later today in the integrated review, and failing to join up strategies on trade deals. Will the Minister commit to maintaining our ODA commitments to our Commonwealth partners? Will we be able to hold our head high as we attend that CHOGM in Rwanda and hand over the chairpersonship? In a post-Brexit world, the Commonwealth should be at the heart of our global Britain strategy, and it is at the heart of the name of the Minister’s Department, but will it be at the heart of the integrated review announced later today?
Thank you, Mr Paisley. As already referenced, thank you for your personal work on Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, although I appreciate that you are here in a different guise chairing this Westminster Hall debate, which confusingly is not in Westminster Hall.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) for bringing us this debate. I must say, he is a great improvement on his predecessor, and I can say that with absolute clarity, given that it was me. I was proud to serve the organisation and I took over the baton from him and passed it back when I became Minister for Africa for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Many people pray in aid of their country of birth, but my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) even got married within the Commonwealth. There is a very rich history. We have had a veritable smorgasbord of interventions and speeches covering many of the 54 countries, 30 of which I have visited. Of the 19 African Commonwealth countries, I have had the pleasure of visiting 17, and I very much look forward to visiting Cameroon and the Seychelles at some point in the future.
May I take this opportunity to thank the CPA for all its work, along with other organisations that serve the Commonwealth so ably, such as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy? I thank the trade envoys that have contributed across the Commonwealth, but specifically in their country, linking back trade to the United Kingdom and their own constituencies, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke)? We have also heard a lot from chairs of the all-party groups that are involved across the Commonwealth. I am particularly minded of the references to the LGBT community and the problems they face, and I would like to reach out, as I have done in the past, to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and his excellent work on matching parliamentarians with countries, because one size does not fit all in terms of HMG’s best response to these issues. A much more nuanced approach works well, and I have discussed with him a number of times that we want to reach out as Minister and do that within a plethora of countries, but specific issues were raised around Ghana and Uganda.
It is brilliant to be celebrating Commonwealth Day. We are slightly restricted because of covid, but it is good to celebrate the values enshrined within the charter. It is good to be part of an organisation that people want to join and rejoin. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) said, the Commonwealth has many nations and is a convening body across the globe for 2.5 billion people, bringing us together. It has many of the world’s young people, half of the top 20 emerging cities around the world, and a quarter of the nations of this world. The UK is immensely proud to have been the chair over the past three years—a slightly extended period due to covid. We brought all our energies and commitment to deliver a more secure, prosperous, fair and sustainable future for the Commonwealth. In June, we will pass the baton to the chair in Rwanda. As mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is in Kigali, which is a good opportunity to review what we have done over that extended period and what baton we are passing on.
Many of us watched the wonderful celebrations on television last Sunday, with Her Majesty delivering the traditional Commonwealth message—this time from the magnificent St George’s Hall in Windsor Castle—among the 54 bright flags of the Commonwealth. For the first time in 72 years, sadly there was no service in Westminster Abbey, which I know is a critical moment of celebration in most hon. Members’ diaries each year, but it was reassuring to see the flags flying in Parliament Square as they normally do. It was really good to see that, even during covid times. The Commonwealth flag was flown across Whitehall and in many of our high commissions on the six continents, in celebration of that day.
Nearly 50 Heads of Government and Foreign Ministers came together at CHOGM 2018. I was part of a parliamentary delegation, and many hon. Members who spoke during the debate also attended CHOGM as parliamentarians and in other capacities. We announced £500 million of programmes and projects, and our delivery against these commitments was detailed in the Commonwealth chair-in-office report, which was published last September. That was notified to the House in a written ministerial statement from Lord Ahmad, the Minister for the Commonwealth in the other place, and I recommend reading the report to look at what we did over the period of three years.
Our activity was focused on four key areas: sustainability, fairness, security and prosperity. A sustainable future is the only way forward. We built a Commonwealth partnership to protect the ocean, and we have looked at plastic pollution. A number of hon. Members have mentioned climate, and it is absolutely critical that we look at climate through the G7 and the Commonwealth Heads of Government, but also through COP26 later this year, and we will use the Commonwealth to do that.
The Commonwealth finance access hub in Mauritius was co-founded by the UK and has mobilised much money to support 23 projects in climate-vulnerable countries such as Antigua, Barbuda, Jamaica, Barbados, Fiji and Tonga, focusing particularly on the issues affecting small island states, which have been raised by a number of hon Members. All too often we forget that the Commonwealth is a very diverse organisation, from India and Canada on one end of the scale, to the small island states and countries such as Eswatini, where I used to work. It is a broad and diverse family that was brought together in London and will be brought together again in Kigali.
We worked with our partners to secure a fairer future for all Commonwealth citizens. I will take forward the comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell on the armed forces, and I will discuss the issue of the court case, which he raised so eloquently, with the Minister for the Armed Forces, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey). I am certainly happy to do that. It is the right thing to do, and I will certainly go forth and do that.
We cannot have equality without proper security. During our term in office, we focused particularly on cyber-security, which I suspect we will hear more about today in the integrated review. We shared our expertise and trained over 1,000 individuals in the Commonwealth.
I am very proud of the work that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has taken forward, and I am conscious of the issue of status. I am more than happy to discuss that with Emilia Lifaka and Stephen Twigg, formerly of this place, in his new role working with Emilia Lifaka for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association on an international basis. As has been mentioned and celebrated, we have also funded standards networks to support the Commonwealth in reducing and bringing down trade barriers, particularly through our trade envoys. I commend in particular the work of SheTrades in Kenya, which has been mentioned.
In the extended 12 months, we were able to address the impacts of covid, and work together with the Commonwealth to build resilience in vulnerable countries, to ensure that no one was left behind. In October, the Commonwealth Heads of Government agreed a very strong statement on racism. That was initiated by the UK, but it was by the whole of the Commonwealth.
Human rights were mentioned by a number of Members. Although this is a bit of a love-in—no one has spoken against the concept of the Commonwealth—the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) is right to challenge us not to rest on our laurels and to see what more we can do as parliamentarians across the diverse range of the Commonwealth. There are opportunities for trade, and for people to travel and work here. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), I am optimistic about bringing very strong people from the Commonwealth, and moving them around the Commonwealth, to share and bring different experiences together. During covid, we have also supported our Commonwealth partners, through COVAX. A number of Commonwealth countries are already vaccinating, which is good to see, as part of the Commonwealth response.
India was mentioned by the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), as well as by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and others. There is a massive opportunity to do more trade in India, and I will reflect on their comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East mentioned that he has been to Australia and New Zealand, so perhaps he can liaise with my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley on the ongoing conflict of jokes, puns, innuendo and discussion between those two countries.
I encourage trade envoys to double down on the work that they are doing, not only on the trade side, but as our eyes and ears. The previous trade envoy to Angola, which is outside the Commonwealth, visited that country 10 times. Trade envoys can visit a lot more frequently than Ministers, so they are the eyes and ears, and we encourage them to do more.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) made a number of points. The Turing scholarship scheme will clearly involve the Commonwealth, and, alongside Chevening, will open up Commonwealth scholarships. I have dealt with the issue of climate change. I take seriously the issues in Uganda, and like the hon. Gentleman, I am very concerned about the situation with Bobi Wine. Only yesterday, I was discussing that situation with our high commissioner in that country. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the situation in Cabo Delgado, which the report this morning said is often forgotten, but not by me. I am very engaged on these issues, through the high commissioner there.
I think my hon. Friend Member for Gloucester claims credit for this annual debate, and I look forward to the next one. I suspect that it goes back many moons, but it has occasionally fallen into disrepair. In many ways, he has brought it back front and centre. I remember advocating for it to become an annual debate when I was on the Back Benches and chair of the CPA. I am now perhaps hoist by my own petard in having to respond for the Government, but it is has been a pleasure and, slightly belatedly, I wish all Members of the House a happy Commonwealth day.
Thank you, Minister. I think you covered practically everything that was raised and more, so very well done. Before the curtain falls, we have the opportunity for a swansong from the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset. I call Ian Liddell-Grainger.
Thank you, Mr Paisley, and may I thank you once again for all your help with the CPA? I also thank the Minister. He has been very self-deprecating, but he was an extremely good chairman. I was his deputy, and we worked well together. I have many fond memories of the work that we did, but there is also the work that he is now doing, and I thank him for his reply to this debate. Crucially, a lot of the things that were brought up today need to be actioned, especially with regard to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) made very powerful points about that. It is an incredibly important organisation.
There are also the trade envoys and the APPGs. Everybody works together, and the CPA is always glad to help where it can to ensure that the trade envoys or APPG chairmen and members are able to use our facilities to help get them what they need and want. As the Minister rightly said, quite often trade envoys can visit many more times than a Minister can.
I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) made some very good points. I am afraid a lot of them I do not understand, but they are obviously serious and need to be looked at. Every Member mentioned, one way or another, trade, access, prosperity and human rights. I was very taken by what the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) said. She made very powerful points about her heritage and gave information that, again, surprised me but needs to be addressed. I am delighted that she had the chance to talk in this debate about what is certainly one of our great colleagues and countries—Ghana. I am very pleased that she was here.
I was disturbed to hear what was said about VSO, which has a huge history in this country; it is a phenomenal organisation. I hope that the Minister will take the comments on board, because doing VSO is an important part of being British. I never did VSO, but I know many colleagues and friends who did. They came out of it better people and learned an awful lot about other countries and the aspirations of people in those countries.
I pay tribute again to Lord Ahmad, because the sustainability issue, as my hon. Friend the Minister has said, is incredibly important. It is something that my hon. Friend was addressing when he was chairman, and I will certainly continue to do so. All of us know that change has to come and therefore, working with Lord Ahmad, we will try to achieve that.
I look forward to the year ahead, especially as we will have the Commonwealth games next year—all colleagues are aware of that—and, hopefully, we will be getting trips back up and running, so that we can visit the Commonwealth countries and help to continue to strengthen our family and the family of nations that make up this incredible organisation. I also look forward to being able to talk to as many countries as we all do—so many people on this call and colleagues outside this call have taken part in these discussions—and to reaching out to countries that we normally cannot get to. We have been able to do that through the rather bizarre format of Zoom and whatever the other one is called—Teams—and all the rest of it. It does work, albeit it is not the same as a personal visit; it is very good. There was mention of some of the more remote Pacific islands, which we can talk to now. Instead of having to fly out, which is a bit of a nightmare, we can talk to them. That is crucially important.
I would also like to thank the Labour party for its support and, in particular, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) for his work.
Thank you very much indeed, Mr Paisley. This has been a great debate, and I thank all my colleagues for their incredible kindness to the CPA. I wish you well, Mr Paisley, and everyone else.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Commonwealth Day 2021.