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Commonwealth Countries

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2022

We want to see a Commonwealth that delivers greater benefits to all member states across a range of policy priorities, including climate, human rights, health, education and security. We are building long-term partnerships on shared priorities, such as on trade, where we have secured free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand and are presently negotiating further FTAs with Canada and India.

The Commonwealth is a family of nations that shares the UK’s great values, culture, history and language, and I passionately believe that it is a force for good in an ever more uncertain world, and acts as a bulwark against intolerance and authoritarianism. In the wake of our departure from the EU, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to deepen our engagement with Commonwealth on matters to do with the economy, foreign policy, culture and security, because they truly are our brothers?

In an increasingly uncertain world, where sovereignty is challenged, the UK believes that the Commonwealth provides an important network of prospering free nations of brothers and sisters. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June, we agreed funding of £270 million to support girls’ education across the Commonwealth and £15 million to help the Commonwealth countries defend themselves against cyber-attacks, and we are supporting small states through our international climate fund.

One way the Minister could help to support the Commonwealth is to support the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee in Montserrat who has been trying to investigate spending under the Deputy Governor’s Department, but has been told that, constitutionally, that is not allowed, even though a significant amount of taxpayers’ money in Montserrat goes into that budget. Perhaps we could have a conversation about that so that we can support proper financial scrutiny of Government spending wherever it happens in the Commonwealth.

As a former member of the hon. Lady’s Public Accounts Committee, I would be very happy to take that up. I know that Lord Ahmad in the other place would be willing to sit down with her.

One way that we strengthen relations with the Commonwealth is through the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which the Government work with in the UK. You, Mr Speaker, are an extremely supportive co-president and I am proud to be chair. The status of the CPA headquarters as a UK charity is creating significant problems, as the Minister knows from conversations with my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger). The noble Lord Goldsmith has met me to hear the importance of changing the status of the CPA, so that our headquarters can remain in the UK, but we need to move quickly to a resolution. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and Lord Goldsmith to effect that change?

I am happy to commit to that. I know that the Foreign Secretary and you, Mr Speaker, have also discussed this important issue, and I will make sure it is picked up as soon as possible.

The Commonwealth is an incredibly influential body across the whole world and we recognise the good work it does, but we must also recognise the issue of human rights abuses and the persecution of Christians and other ethnic minorities in Commonwealth countries. What discussions has the Minister been able to have with those Commonwealth countries that do not allow freedom of religion or belief and that do persecute people about human rights?

The hon. Gentleman is a stalwart champion on this matter. I can assure him that in all our conversations with the Commonwealth countries within my regional portfolios and those of other Ministers, we always have on our agenda the question of human rights issues. We are a strong and critical friend where we need to be, and that will always continue.

In the Commonwealth we have a unique vehicle with which to engage on the global stage. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comments in his speech yesterday, but while Foreign Office budgets are under continual strain and the Department is beset by strategic incoherence, does he accept that under the current approach, his vision is simply unachievable?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments on the Foreign Secretary’s speech yesterday, which I thought set out very clearly the patient diplomacy that we consider the Commonwealth to be at the heart of. These are long-standing relationships, where we work together to build, to help economies to grow and on mutual security issues. I was out in the Pacific recently, where six of our Commonwealth family are. Working together on maritime security, on climate and on helping them to support their populations for the future is at the heart of what we do.