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Commonwealth Summit 2018

Volume 787: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, in the interests of broadening Commonwealth influence, they propose to provide observer or similar status to non-Commonwealth member countries to attend the 2018 Commonwealth Summit in London.

My Lords, only sovereign states can become members of the Commonwealth and attend Heads of Government Meetings. Establishing a form of observer or associate status is not within the gift of the UK Government alone; it would need to be agreed by all 52 Commonwealth members. We therefore cannot provide observer or associate status to non-Commonwealth countries to attend the summit.

I thank the Minister for that interesting reply. The 14 British Overseas Territories, the Crown dependencies, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are all members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, supporting good governance, democracy and the rule of law. First, the CPA is of course an international organisation, so why do none of those countries appear to be represented at the forthcoming parliamentary forum and the London Commonwealth summit? Secondly, noble Lords will know how frequently politicians around the world, with or without historic links to the UK, express interest in membership of the Commonwealth. While that is not in the UK’s gift, as the Minister quite rightly says, what action are the Government taking to identify and develop those interests in Commonwealth membership to our mutual and long-term benefit?

If I may take the noble Lord’s questions in reverse, I agree with him on his second question. We need to identify new members; he will be aware that the Gambia has applied and is currently going through the process of rejoining the Commonwealth. We hope that will happen in the early part of the new year, in time for the summit. Representation of the overseas territories and the devolved Administrations very much forms part of the UK Government’s thinking. We are their voice and we are engaging directly with the devolved Administrations; further to that, as the Minister responsible for the Commonwealth, I will visit the different parts of the United Kingdom in this respect. We are also talking directly to the overseas territories to see how we can engage more effectively with them, and perhaps involve them in some of the other events around the Commonwealth summit, such as the four fora which will take place during Commonwealth week.

My Lords, I wonder whether this is quite the right approach. The Minister will appreciate that at least six countries are interested in having associate status with the Commonwealth. He is absolutely right that it is not in Britain’s gift alone to deliver that but, on the other hand, we are the host of a vast summit. The Question rightly asks whether we could invite countries as observers. Is it not in our interest to develop the point that the Commonwealth is a vast transmission engine of potential soft power by this country? Should we not invite as many guests as possible to observe and be involved in some aspects, if not with full membership, of the Commonwealth summit?

I agree with my noble friend’s sentiments. On soft power, I am sure he saw a survey last week showing that Britain retains its top position on the global stage in soft power. On the Commonwealth specifically, I am talking to the Secretary-General, the Commonwealth Secretariat and other member states to pick up some of the very points that my noble friend raised. We will see how we can engage more effectively with countries which are indicating their desire to join the Commonwealth family at some future time.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the civil society fora. I welcome the Government’s initiative on this and their thematic approach. One thing that concerns me is ensuring that we get full attendance of civil society players. Many of them, particularly LGBT communities, live and work in very hostile environments. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the civil society fora are attended by everybody possible and that hostile Governments do not put a stop on them attending?

The noble Lord raises an important issue. He will know that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and I have had conversations about the importance of ensuring the representation of civil society groups, including those from across the Commonwealth which very vocally, and often with great courage in dire domestic circumstances, represent important issues of LGBT rights. We are clear, and I am sure the sentiment is shared by all noble Lords, that LGBT rights are human rights and that those voices need to be heard. We are working with the Commonwealth Secretariat to ensure that right is preserved and discussed at the Commonwealth summit.

My Lords, the Minister kindly met me and representatives of Malaria No More to discuss the proposal for a global malaria summit during CHOGM next year. Given his earlier comments about involving people in the fora, does he agree that such a global summit would be an excellent opportunity to engage with other countries and to show Commonwealth leadership on an issue of world- wide concern?

The noble Baroness will know that I totally agree with her sentiments. Indeed, we have had a very constructive meeting with Malaria No More. We are working through the practicalities and ensuring that our intent, which is to focus on key issues such as fighting malaria, is reflected in the wider Commonwealth. The noble Baroness will understand that I cannot give a firm commitment that it has been agreed because we are waiting for responses from all 52 member states to the secretariat on the final agenda for the summit.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the concern in a number of Commonwealth countries about their position in terms of trade should the UK leave the EU? He will know the economic impact on almost all Commonwealth countries of tariffs both into the UK potentially and onwards into the EU. Can he reassure them at CHOGM?

First, I hope the noble Baroness has been reassured by the efforts of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in getting that first deal with our colleagues in the European Union.

I hope that was a real roar of appreciation from the Lib Dem Benches. Let us be clear that the Commonwealth is an important issue. Our partners across the Commonwealth are also very clear about Britain’s important position within the family of the Commonwealth. Yes, we will be leaving the European Union, but we will retain a relationship with it, albeit a new one. In terms of our relationship with the wider Commonwealth, I have had the good fortune in my role as Minister for the Commonwealth to travel quite widely, from the Caribbean through Asia to Australasia. All countries are very keen to work bilaterally and collectively through the Commonwealth. There is a huge opportunity, and we all look forward to next April, when we can welcome a real revitalisation of the Commonwealth family.

My Lords, will the Government ensure that there is a full discussion at CHOGM about the delivery of the sustainable development goals and will they perhaps take the opportunity, in advance of CHOGM, to publish a full and complete UK strategy for delivery of the goals by 2030?

I am sure the noble Lord is aware that sustainability is one of the key pillars that the Commonwealth will be discussing in that respect.