Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am delighted to introduce this debate, just over a week after celebrating Commonwealth Day, and with less than a fortnight to go until the Commonwealth Games open on Australia’s Gold Coast. It provides a wonderful opportunity for your Lordships’ House to discuss the future of this great organisation and the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which will take place right here in London, in the United Kingdom, during the week of 16 April.
The Commonwealth is a unique global network. It is home to one-third of the world’s people, contains some of the world’s fastest growing economies and accounts for one-fifth of the world’s trade. With nearly two-thirds of its population—around 1 billion people—under the age of 30, the Commonwealth is well placed to be an influential player on the world stage in the years ahead. Indeed, one could even say that it has a responsibility to play such a role. Its diverse membership is committed to a set of values founded on democracy and the rule of law and embodied in the Commonwealth charter. With member countries that range from some of the world’s largest to some of its smallest, their climates from the tropical to the Arctic, their economies developed and developing, the Commonwealth itself takes its strength from this rich diversity.
Moving on to the summit in April, every one of these countries will have an equal voice at next month’s summit, and it will be a privilege to welcome them all. I am particularly pleased that an unprecedented number of Heads of Governments, Presidents and Prime Ministers will be attending this meeting, along with their Foreign Ministers, civil society leaders, businesspeople and perhaps most significantly—referring to the statistic that 60% of the Commonwealth is under 30—young people, two of whom as a minimum will be part of the official delegation of every country from all corners of the Commonwealth.
This summit will be an opportunity for the United Kingdom to demonstrate the openness of our society, the scope of our ambition for the Commonwealth and the strength of our enthusiasm to deepen partnerships with some of our oldest and closest friends. It will also give all 53 members of the Commonwealth the opportunity to build on the excellent work started in Malta three years ago to rejuvenate this unique organisation and make it fit for the 21st century. This summit and Heads of Government Meeting marks an important moment in the Commonwealth’s history. The Commonwealth has done important work in the past: it has supported countries through their transition to independence, helping them to develop free and democratic institutions, and bringing about an end to apartheid in South Africa. At the last summit we saw how Heads of Government came together to press for an ambitious climate change agreement in Paris, and we have recently witnessed the valuable work of the Secretary-General herself and her secretariat in brokering a political agreement in Zambia.
However, for the Commonwealth to face the global challenges of the 21st century and to truly represent its overwhelmingly young population, it must have a clear purpose, supported by all 53 member states. That is why this summit will focus on four clear priorities, on which leaders will seek to agree action. The first is to build a more prosperous future by making the compelling case for free trade as the best way to promote higher living standards around the world. The second is to build a safer future by addressing the security challenges, such as those posed by global terrorism, organised crime and cyberattacks. The third is to build a sustainable future, including by helping small and vulnerable states to mitigate the effects of climate change. The final priority focuses on building that fairer future by promoting the values of democracy, freedom and good governance set out in the Commonwealth charter. Our ambitions for the summit are encapsulated in the theme “Towards a Common Future”. We want the summit to contribute to rejuvenating the Commonwealth and to help to build a brighter and fairer future for its young citizens. Their interests and ambitions will be at the heart of this summit.
I assure noble Lords that we have been working very closely with member states, the Commonwealth Secretariat and civil society groups to put together a programme for the summit week that will strengthen the prosperity and security of all Commonwealth countries and their citizens. Since my appointment as Minister of State for the Commonwealth last June, I have had the great privilege and pleasure of visiting many Commonwealth countries, including India, Bangladesh, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Ghana. Last September, I had the opportunity to visit the Pacific Islands Forum in Samoa before also visiting Fiji and Australia, and I represented the United Kingdom at the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers Meeting during UNGA week in New York.
Last month, I was delighted to have the huge privilege to be not only the first British Minister but, I believe, the first Minister from any other Commonwealth country to travel to the newest member of the Commonwealth, the Gambia, just days after it had rejoined the Commonwealth. I had the opportunity to meet President Barrow and Minister of Foreign Affairs Darboe, and I held talks with Justice and Trade Ministers. Most significantly, I alluded to the youth of the Commonwealth. I spent some time with youth activists, human rights defenders and faith leaders, all of whom are doing important work in building a new vision for Gambia—one that upholds democracy, the rule of law, human rights and equality for all citizens.
From what I have gleaned from official meetings with government leaders and informal discussions with young people in all the countries I have visited, as well as in the UK, it is my strong belief that the Commonwealth has a powerful role to play in the modern world. People across the Commonwealth are not just genuinely enthusiastic but passionate about their membership of this great organisation, and recognise the part it can play in building a brighter future for their respective countries.
All citizens of the Commonwealth have an important role to play in building that better future. We believe that the Commonwealth can do just that, based on its three pillars: member-to-member state relationships; moving together collectively as 53 member states, as we will do during the summit week and CHOGM; and the incredible third element of the Commonwealth’s network of professions, citizens and civil society groups. It is this third element—the network of people and organisations working together across borders—that gives the Commonwealth its unique character and strength. This human network consists of more than 85 organisations officially accredited to the Commonwealth, as well as many diaspora communities. I am sure noble Lords will join me in recognising the extraordinary contribution the Commonwealth diaspora communities make to our country.
As I have travelled around the UK, I have met some phenomenal representatives from all walks of life. I have travelled across England and was recently in Cardiff and Edinburgh, and I have been inspired by the energy and enthusiasm for the Commonwealth from the people of this country.
The structure of the summit will ensure that voices from all three pillars of the Commonwealth—its governance, its institutions and, most importantly, its people—are heard. The week begins with Commonwealth forums focused on business, people, youth and women. These will take place over three days and, for the first time, will convene in the same venue on one of those days. This will give delegates the valuable opportunity to discuss shared interests, forge new partnerships and celebrate common values. The forums will be followed by Foreign Ministers’ meetings and Heads of Government meetings, which will take place in Lancaster House, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.
Our vision for the summit is for the Commonwealth forums to build meaningfully into the leaders’ event. We therefore hope that the discussions from the forums, as well as the views of other interested groups, will directly inform the discussion by the Heads of Government and shape the outcomes and mandates that leaders will approve. These mandates will be recorded in the communiqué and will determine the Commonwealth’s priorities for the next two years, which, significantly for the UK, will be during our tenure as chair-in-office. I assure the House that the United Kingdom wants to play a full and active role in the Commonwealth during our time as chair-in-office. The important work of rejuvenating this organisation will require a collective effort for many years to come. We will make sure that progress made in London is sustained over the coming years, and we will support member states in honouring their commitments. We will ensure that what is agreed at the summit goes beyond just words and is backed up by meaningful commitments and financial support. The Prime Minister will be making announcements on these commitments and support during the summit week.
In starting this important debate, I say in conclusion that we want this summit to be a memorable milestone in the Commonwealth’s history—the moment when the Commonwealth steps up to show that it can help to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges. I assure noble Lords that Her Majesty’s Government will work closely with our partner member states and across the Commonwealth with other partners to deliver on this ambition.
I look forward to this debate and to hearing from noble Lords, who have vast experience and wisdom, their views on the Commonwealth and on the Government’s plans for the summit. I also look forward to our discussions on the recent report of the International Relations Committee, so ably led by a real ambassador of the Commonwealth, my noble friend Lord Howell. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the Royal Commonwealth Society and shall speak to the Motion in my name on the Order Paper. I thank the International Relations Committee and its clerks, advisers and support staff for their extremely helpful and constructive role in producing this short commentary and report. I also look forward very greatly to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, who has played such a central part in this issue over the years. We all very much look forward to hearing what he has to say.
This is going to be a summit with a difference. As my noble friend the Minister has just indicated, this is much more than just a meeting of Governments, Heads of Government and diplomats across green baize tables. It is going to be an outreach to peoples, to civil society, to business, to a thousand and one interests outside, because of course the Commonwealth does spread and reach far beyond Governments and has a very different structure to some of the intergovernmental and multinational patterns of the 21st century. We are moving into a new era. I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on the role that he personally has played in getting this new pattern developed. I also congratulate Mr Tim Hitchens as head of the powerful Commonwealth summit unit in the Cabinet Office, reporting direct to the Prime Minister and indicating the enormous weight and attention which Her Majesty’s Government are rightly giving to our relations with the 52 other Commonwealth countries.
This short report from the committee has two messages. First, the Commonwealth is a huge network. It is not just a gathering of Heads of Government. It is mainly non-governmental, grassroots based and multi-linked, as the report says—in the sense that, although Britain is important and the Head of the Commonwealth is of course Her Majesty the Queen, it is no longer the Anglo-centric pattern of the former British Commonwealth. This is about a completely new pattern emerging in the 21st century, which I think a lot of people find difficult to appreciate or understand as something very different from what went on in the past. No one planned this. It was not a blueprint. It was an accidental evolution of the Commonwealth system of voluntary co-operation. Of course, it fits perfectly into the digital age of hyperconnectivity by which all nations are linked, and particularly nations with a common working language, legal system, standards, origins, history and connections through commercial activity of all kinds.
This is a pattern which does not emerge very clearly from public commentary. Unhappily, it is not even reflected in the Library brief which we have been supplied for this debate—that is a pity, because Library briefs are usually superb. The brief does not seem to understand that this is a whole, new pattern. Like an iceberg, it is mostly underwater and the vast amount of professional networks are something entirely new. We can see it in organisations like the Association of Commonwealth Universities, which is not mentioned in the briefing. Every day, this organisation directly and continuously connects 530 universities across the entire planet. Take the Commonwealth of Learning in Vancouver, supported by the British Government. It is the biggest distance learning system in the world. It contacts 30 to 40 million people every day. This is a new kind of connectivity which we have to appreciate as part of the modern world, and the Commonwealth is certainly part of the modern world.
The second message from our brief report is a more selfish one. That is that I think it is right to look on this conference, its outcomes and the specialist areas the Minister has described as a key part of the United Kingdom’s reorientation in the post-Brexit world. There is a lot of talk of becoming isolated—of the dangers of not maintaining a deep and special relationship with Europe, which I hope we do. The reality is that even without Brexit, and before Brexit, the entire world pattern of trade is changing. We have to reorient our trade and our investment patterns; we have to look again at our security patterns in relation to what is happening in Asia and the Indo-Pacific region, where the Indian Ocean is becoming as important in world geopolitical peace and security as the Atlantic Ocean. We have to look at the new links of cyberconnection which spread across the world. Again, it is with the Commonwealth countries, particularly with India, which is at the centre of all these developments, that we have to make new connections. This was coming anyway long before Brexit, but it is now more important than ever.
I am not saying for one moment that the Commonwealth is somehow an alternative to our close relations with our neighbours in Europe; they of course remain vital, but the EU of the 20th century and the Commonwealth of the 21st century are completely different structures and arrangements. What is happening now, which is why I welcome so much what HMG are doing, is that Britain is returning to the nations on which we turned our back in 1972. We thought then that they were not the world markets and that Europe was our destiny. Europe is still vital, but, frankly, the great new growth markets of the next 20 years will be Asia, Africa and Latin America. It will be the Commonwealth connection—it is one of many networks; it is not the only answer—that provides us with the entrée, the gateway, to those new markets where we have to succeed or we will be gravely disadvantaged. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Marland, who has to be at this moment attending the Commonwealth Games in Australia, on the work that he is doing on the business side. Of course, business is only a small part of it; trade comes from all sorts of non-trade sources, including trust, common understanding, common educational aims and so on.
Why are the Government now putting so much effort into this, which I applaud? There are three big answers. First, it is markets. The gigantic markets of the future are, as I just said, in Asia. Europe is important, but proportionally it is a shrinking part of the world market scene. Secondly, it gives us an opportunity to promote our values—I hope, in an exemplary rather than a lecturing way—throughout the 53-nation system of the Commonwealth, because values equal trust. People say, “Well, you can’t eat values on the breakfast table”, but values equal trust; trust equals investment; investment equals prosperity and entrepreneurship; and out of that come the growth and enrichment which produce societies more confident and able to move on from past arrangements. Thirdly, from Britain’s point of view, this is a fantastic opportunity to transmit our immense soft power influence, which we have underplayed and do not use as strongly as we should and which now through the Commonwealth network has a huge opportunity to be expanded and increased confidently.
Finally—this is more a psychological point—there is a lot of talk about Britain having to find a new role as we move into this transformed world which is emerging post Brexit, post Trump, post an aggressive Russia, post a rising Africa, post a rising Latin America and so on. This is where we can find a substantial part of our new role which gives the pride and purpose that we have lacked. In the words of Her Majesty the Queen, it is indeed the “face of the future”. Sixty per cent of the Commonwealth’s population of 2.4 billion is under 30—it is a gigantic organisation of youth; half are women—it is a gigantic organisation of women; it is the face of tomorrow. That is why we should applaud what the Government are doing. I am glad to be able to make these comments and commend my Motion on the Order Paper.
My Lords, I thank the Government, and in particular the Minister for securing this debate and for leading and introducing it so comprehensively. I also thank him for the energetic and very open way in which he has taken the leadership role within the Government on ensuring that the summit and the other forums are a huge success—I am sure that, 10 days out, he is a little nervous about it. In particular, I praise the initiative to involve so many young people from across the Commonwealth. I also express a hope, which he may wish to touch on in his summing up, that during this year’s CHOGM summit the Government might announce an increase in Commonwealth scholarships. That would be very welcome to ensure that the kind of links we have that provide our education system with opportunities for young people across the Commonwealth might be extended in this new post-Brexit age.
I also thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and his committee on the short but clear, appropriate and positive report that it has produced in advance of this debate and the CHOGM summit. The report rightly concentrates on the role of the Commonwealth nations, and the Commonwealth as a whole, in promoting the international rules-based system and the vital importance of human rights issues in discussions at the summit and in the various other events taking place.
In the time available, I want to highlight a couple of points which may not necessarily have already been mentioned. I absolutely endorse the various initiatives and priorities set out by the Minister in his opening remarks and I obviously support the report of the International Relations Committee. I would add to those statements that the summit should have a key role in promoting the Agenda 2030 sustainable development goals. The Minister came along to our all-party parliamentary group on the sustainable development goals just a couple of weeks ago and we had a very positive and energetic discussion. But I was disappointed that when I visited the Government’s website on the CHOGM summit yesterday, I found that Agenda 2030 and the sustainable development goals did not feature on it. In fact, even the Commonwealth Secretariat’s website features it in only a passing reference.
The Commonwealth could play a terrific role in trying to achieve the sustainable development goals. The priorities set out for the summit in April tie in neatly and closely with the key themes in those goals: people and planet, prosperity and peace, and partnership. We should work in tandem with the United Nations leadership on this issue, and encourage the whole Commonwealth to be ambitious in setting out paths towards achieving the goals between now and 2030. Can the Minister give me an assurance on whether, between now and the summit, he might ensure that the promotions around the summit adequately reflect the goals and their importance in those discussions?
I will focus particularly on goal 16: on peace and justice, and strong, stable democratic institutions. It seems to me that this is where the Commonwealth could make the biggest difference. The history of the Commonwealth is perhaps mixed. It is sometimes successful in promoting human rights and supporting democratic institutions; at other times the Commonwealth has perhaps found that to be a challenge, given the nature of some of the elected and non-elected leaders we have dealt with over the years. But even with that slightly mixed history surely today, in the 21st century, the Commonwealth could be a beacon for strong, stable, independent democratic institutions. It could be an energetic partner in efforts around the world on post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding. Surely the Commonwealth could share the expertise, professional and otherwise, that would help to build the capacity of developing countries in particular, in addition to post-conflict countries. The Commonwealth could build the capacity in those countries for stability, peace and progress in the future.
The Minister rightly highlighted his recent visit to the Gambia, during which I was able to meet him, as I was there at the same time visiting a number of important development projects. For example, it struck me in the Gambia that an intervention by the Commonwealth as a whole could support that small nation, which has just rejoined it, in a key democratic transition to ensure that it goes not backwards but forwards—that it is able in future to have those strong democratic institutions but also to develop a strong economy. Ludicrously, given the access to the land, the sea and the river that the Gambia has, it imports more than 50% of the food that it consumes. Surely there is an opportunity there for the Commonwealth to support that small nation in its transition and perhaps to use that as a pilot for other forms of support in the future.
Finally, I mention one of my personal preferences, which your Lordships will have heard me mention before. The Commonwealth Games take place in the Gold Coast in Australia just in advance of the summit. They are the friendly Games. They are a fabulous opportunity for people across the Commonwealth, including a three-person team from the Gambia, to come together in a friendly spirit of competition. Yes, they are seeking excellence and achievement, but also a cultural and sporting exchange that benefits everybody.
I would like to wish Team Scotland, with which I am closely associated, all the best for the Games. Their plane arrived in Australia this morning and I wish them all the very best, but also that the other nations— not just of the UK but all the nations of the Commonwealth—have a friendly Games. I wish the organisers—the Minister, Kate Jones, and the chair of the Games, Peter Beattie—all the best, and for the kind of success that we have experienced previously in Manchester and Glasgow and, I hope, will experience in Birmingham in four years too.
My Lords, I start by congratulating the House of Lords Library on yet another excellent briefing. I add to that the efforts of the noble Lords, Lord Ahmad, Lord Howell and Lord McConnell, in amplifying the briefing, which were also excellent.
I also ask noble Lords to share a thought for Vanuatu, the Commonwealth member originally chosen to host the next CHOGM, which was going to be in 2017. The Minister may well have found in his Commonwealth travels that Vanuatu is a string of 65 inhabited small islands, stretching over 800 miles from north to south and lying 1,000 miles to the north-east of Australia. In 2015, Vanuatu was devastated by Cyclone Pam, from which the resulting damage made hosting a CHOGM two years later an impossible task. It fell to the UK to host the CHOGM in 2018 in London instead.
Without wishing to repeat myself from my debate last November, I stress again that CHOGM 2018 is a golden opportunity for Parliament to be at the centre of activities to reinforce parliamentary democracies throughout the Commonwealth, as other noble Lords have said. In this context, there is a unique characteristic to the Commonwealth as a voluntary membership organisation. The nation states comprising the Commonwealth range from tiny Pacific islands such as Vanuatu, to the second-largest country in the world in Canada, to the second-most populous in India. As the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, has implied, large or small, in the chambers of the Commonwealth, each member has just one vote.
I want to emphasise again the interest in opportunities to expand the membership of the Commonwealth. I suggest that they fall into three categories—namely, previous members that have left for various reasons; countries that historically qualify but have not yet raised the issue; and other countries that have expressed an interest. I appreciate that there is a process to be followed, beginning with an appraisal of an application to the Commonwealth Secretariat and ending with a unanimous vote in favour from the membership. Surely, with the CHOGM in London, this has to be the ideal time and place for some serious discussions among member states. Facilitated by the Cabinet Office and with the prospect of a two-year chair in office ahead, it will be an ideal time to take these deliberations forward.
As with Zimbabwe, for example, on which the jury must remain out for the time being, there are a number of other African countries that, at one time or another, have been associated with the UK as provinces, protectorates, colonies or whatever. All would seem to benefit from closer ties to the Commonwealth, particularly in this internet age when distance of travel is no longer a hindrance to communication, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, so ably illustrated. There may well be some local resistance from existing members that are concerned by the possibility of becoming hosts to nearby countries, heavily dependent on them as their larger and more successful neighbours, but if the Brexit treaty can be achieved surely arrangements to broaden the Commonwealth could be managed.
Preceding the CHOGM will be several forums, taking place in London, bringing together representatives from business, civil society or government, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad. In addition, a parliamentarians’ forum took place at the beginning of March and some noble Lords were involved. It was organised by the CPA UK, in partnership with the Cabinet Office Commonwealth summit team. The four-day forum was attended by some 80 parliamentarians from national legislatures drawn from 30 Commonwealth countries. The objective was to strengthen the crucial role of parliamentarians across the Commonwealth.
There were 24 sessions over four days—it was the first-ever parliamentarians’ forum in the Commonwealth, providing an input to CHOGM—and one of the most telling sessions was a debate that included youth delegates, on upholding or challenging the Commonwealth charter in the 21st century. The contributions from the floor offered a number of pertinent perceptions, such as that the charter has no timescale, has no relevance to small states, and was a post-Empire institution, with no clear definition. That reminds me of my old schoolmaster saying, “Now discuss”—and they certainly did. In summary, the delegates were in favour and supportive of the charter, but called for it to be strengthened, expanded, modernised and reviewed. I place on record my congratulations to the CPA UK team, which organised the Commonwealth Parliamentarians’ Forum. For those who were unable to come along, it was efficient, effective and encouraging. They are now working hard on solution-based messages before disseminating the final forum outputs.
The CPA UK team set out to promote the importance of the Commonwealth for a future generation of parliamentarians, to increase their awareness of the key themes of CHOGM 2018—to strengthen capacity and confidence; enable networking and collaboration opportunities between Commonwealth parliamentarians; and promote innovation and parliamentary engagement. They propose to establish a virtual pan-Commonwealth monitoring group to assess the progress of the Commonwealth towards achieving the 2018-20 strategic plan and report back. There is a clear ambition to sustain the Commonwealth Parliamentarians’ Forum and ensure that it becomes an invaluable feature of the biannual CHOGM in 2020 and beyond. I urge noble Lords to give it their full support.
My Lords, last night, here in your Lordships’ House, I hosted a discussion on behalf of the Commonwealth Journalists Association. Its president, Rita Payne, said that in the past five years 57 journalists have been killed in Commonwealth countries. In my brief remarks today, I want to address ways in which the Commonwealth might raise its game in protecting such basic freedoms and in championing minorities, many of whom suffer grievously on grounds of religion, orientation or ethnicity.
But first I should thank those who have initiated this timely debate. It is a signal honour for the United Kingdom to be welcoming the heads of over 50 countries to the 25th iteration of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. As the Minister said, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, more than ever we need to focus on the common values that we share across these nations—striving together to advance humanity in the face of so many challenges that risk tearing down the global human rights framework on which the Commonwealth is founded.
In the run-up to Easter, our minds turn naturally to one of the values that unites Commonwealth nations—that of faith. From a population of nearly 2.4 billion people—roughly one-third of the world’s population, spanning all six continents—95% of people in the Commonwealth profess a religious belief, representing a huge variety of faiths and traditions. Yet, according to the Pew Research Centre, around 70% of the Commonwealth population live with high or very high government restrictions on the right to freedom of religion and belief. The Commonwealth charter highlights faith or creed as a key uniting force, outlining the indivisibility of all rights and the opposition to any form of discrimination based on religion or any other affiliation. Specifically, the charter refers to,
“the need to promote tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom which are essential to the development of free and democratic societies, and recall that respect for the dignity of all human beings is critical to promoting peace and prosperity”.
The need to promote religious freedom, respect for the “other”, and to defend the rights of all communities was also articulated by Her Majesty the Queen on this year’s Commonwealth Day, when she said:
“The cornerstones on which peace is founded are, quite simply, respect and understanding for one another. Working together, we build peace by defending the dignity of every individual and community”.
With its origins in the horrors of the Holocaust, the political idea of the right to freedom of religion or belief is intended to respect the dignity of every individual and community. As the BBC’s courageous chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, reminds us, this has day-to-day application:
“If you don’t understand religion—including the abuse of religion—it’s becoming ever harder to understand our world”.
Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists on our right to believe, not to believe or to change our belief. It is one of very few non-derogable rights in the human rights arsenal. The drafters of the human rights framework knew its importance. It is not something that we can simply sweep aside, either because some believe it is irrelevant or because others are nervous of the potential for conflict. No, it is a right that must be upheld and promoted for the positive change it brings to the world. Freedom of religion or belief goes to the very essence of our humanity—the right to hold our deep-seated beliefs, think our own thoughts and follow our consciences. Without this right, CHOGM will be unable to answer its own points of focus: achieving a future that is more sustainable, fairer, more prosperous and more secure.
A study by Brian J Grim in 2014 examined economic growth in 173 countries and considered 24 different factors that could impact economic growth. He found that,
“religious freedom contributes to better economic and business outcomes and that advances in religious freedom”,
“successful and sustainable enterprises that benefit societies and individuals.”
High levels of religious conflict create unstable environments that drive away young entrepreneurs, disrupt economic sectors and deter investment. That makes the promotion of religious freedom a contributing factor to a society that is not only more stable but more prosperous, so it should be a high priority.
If we are serious about tackling issues like climate change, which is the route to greater sustainability, it must surely be done in partnership with all elements of society, including religious minorities, who are often ostracised and ignored by those in power and by contemptuous elites. Further, the Commonwealth’s own stated ambition to promote human rights to achieve a fairer future must include religious freedom as a central component. Wilfully keeping the right to religious freedom out of the debates at CHOGM would serve only to hamper the progress that might otherwise be made on the four prioritised issues.
CHOGM is a critical forum for tackling this right up front, not only acknowledging the rights abuses in member states but paving the way forwards, sharing best practice. It goes without saying that the United Kingdom has not always got it right. Coming from a religious minority myself, I am well aware of prejudice, discrimination and persecution—but I am also conscious of the great progress we have made in respecting the dignity of difference and in learning to live together.
Elsewhere the challenge remains—for instance, the assassination of Pakistan’s brave Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, the death sentence imposed on Asia Bibbi, the use of section 295(A) of India’s penal code to attack minorities, and the hunting down of girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria. It is obvious that there is still a long way to go, and that change must come the world over. I therefore hope that the Minister will say something when he replies about how we intend to share best practice and commit to change. I urge him to ensure that religious freedom is prioritised at CHOGM and reflected not only in his reply today but in the joint communiqué and the Prime Minister’s opening remarks at CHOGM.
My Lords, the Anglican Communion extends significantly beyond the nations of the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, for obvious reasons of history, there is a very substantial Anglican presence in many Commonwealth countries. I am therefore pleased to speak from these Benches in this debate—and I, too, look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt.
Within the Anglican Communion we have a rich network of companion links between dioceses in different parts of the world, whereby most Lords spiritual will have an active engagement with the life of at least one Commonwealth country. The nature of the Commonwealth as a network of autonomous free nations also has some parallel with the life of the communion, wherein each province is autonomous yet links together through what one might call family likeness, and the position of honour granted to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The theme of the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, “Towards a Common Future”, resonates with the experience of these Benches. In our relationships with our companion dioceses within and beyond the Commonwealth, we are of course conscious of a shared past. Without it, the relationships would not exist. We are also conscious of some of the ambivalences of that shared past, especially the mixed legacies of colonialism. But these companion links that we nurture are devoted to sharing our common present and building our common future.
We share with the Commonwealth and our companion dioceses a great number of areas of concern and involvement, not least around, as some have already mentioned, climate change, resilience, sustainability, issues of human trafficking, modern slavery and gender violence, the roles of women and young people, and the building of positive frameworks in civil society. We are very pleased that people from across the Anglican Communion will be participating in some of the forums around the forthcoming meeting—for example those from Swaziland, Mozambique and Sri Lanka in the forums concerned with women and young people.
I am very grateful for the contribution just now from the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Unfortunately, it is the case that some of the worst-offending countries when it comes to religious freedom are found within the Commonwealth. In the margins of the Heads of Government meeting, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, working with the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief, is convening a gathering of parliamentarians and religious leaders to discuss over two days how they may, among other things, hold their Governments and constituencies to account in relation to these concerns around religious freedom. I think that some Members of your Lordships’ House will be participating in that event. I trust that the Minister, in responding to the debate and to the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will welcome the initiative of the most reverend Primate and might indicate how these efforts from within the churches and other faith communities in relation to religious freedom might usefully complement the Government’s engagement in these matters within the Heads of Government meeting and in other fora.
My diocese has companion links with two Anglican dioceses in Tanzania. We also have a link with the diocese of Harare in a country that many of us wish to see as an active participant in the Commonwealth once again before too long. In my diocese, well over 30 parishes and schools have active relationships with parishes or schools in Tanzania or Zimbabwe, and I myself will visit both countries later this year.
I state very clearly that all these partnerships hugely enrich our lives and that the benefit is two way. For example, working also with the development agency Tearfund, we are forming relationships and promoting initiatives that seek to enable villages in Tanzania to become self-sufficient, with no dependence on aid. This is about mobilising local capacity and initiative—economic, social and spiritual—to develop agricultural resilience, educational opportunity and economic productivity. Clearly there is benefit to our African friends—I have seen it on the ground; it is immense—but also, because the relationship of dependency is removed as local capacity grows, the relationships become those as between equals, and that is hugely important.
My friend the Bishop of Kondoa in Tanzania leads a diocese in a very rural part of the country where the population is more than 90% Muslim. Neither community compromises on its beliefs, yet there is in many places an ease of relationship and a mutual respect from which we in this country can learn a huge amount. I recall visiting one place where, although it was Ramadan, the Muslim village elders came out in numbers to greet the bishop and me. Indeed, they greeted the bishop as “their” bishop. I learned later that they had donated to the church in that village land on which to build a church building and the priest’s house. In another place, the local councillor—a Muslim—was the first to donate a substantial sum to put a roof on a new church building. In the town of Kondoa itself, the diocesan Bible school, as well as training priests and lay ministers, runs a year-long empowerment programme for young women. On that programme, Muslim and Christian women study together alongside each other. These are practical examples from which certainly I have learned a great deal.
At risk of slightly breaking the irenic tone, there is one little matter I wish to raise with the Minister relating to the mutuality of hospitality, or some of the restrictions on it. It is, of course, the vexed issue of visas. I may travel and people from my parishes may travel freely to Tanzania. It is not always possible for people to come back the other way, and we feel somewhat embarrassed about that. It is easy enough to get visas for bishops to visit: it is the ordinary people, very often. Whatever guarantees we may give, many of these people lead subsistence lives in a subsistence economy and would not have any need for a bank account, and thereby find it hard to demonstrate, as it were, their bona fides. If we could have some further conversations with Her Majesty’s Government about that, we would be hugely grateful.
From these Benches, I welcome the opportunities we have to take forward our work of partnership within the wider context of Commonwealth relationships, and I wish the Heads of Government well for their forthcoming meeting.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for setting out so clearly the UK’s ambitions for CHOGM, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Howell and his Select Committee for their report. Clearly, we are all looking forward to seeing London and Windsor host CHOGM next month and to hearing how the Commonwealth plans to work towards a common future. It is an important network to promote shared values and interests. It can indeed be a force for good around the world by promoting freedom, democracy, human rights, development and prosperity.
The questions we should address today are: just how good is it at being a force for good; and how can we ensure that this year’s CHOGM turns warm words into real action? When giving evidence to the Select Committee, Tim Hitchens stated that, as chair in office over the next two years, the UK would,
“make sure that the things that are promised in London are delivered on time, and that, if they are not, people are held accountable”.
How do the Government intend to fulfil that commitment?
Today I will focus on two areas of human rights in particular: gender equality and LGBTI discrimination. Last week I went to New York to attend the UN Commission on the Status of Women. It is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women. When I look at the three-day programme for the Commonwealth women’s forum, I see that it covers exactly the same issues as we tackled in New York. That is good, not bad. It means that the Commonwealth is indeed reflecting global concerns, such as achieving gender equality and economic empowerment of all women and girls, gender parity in education, ending violence against women and girls, women’s peace and security, and women’s leadership. It is indeed an encouraging agenda.
It is vital that the Heads of Government not only listen to the views expressed in the fora, but then act to implement policies that reflect them. It was a pleasure last week to hear my noble friend Lady Williams of Trafford, Minister for Equalities, talk about the importance of women achieving financial independence. She told us about Innovate UK, a funding competition and support package to encourage more female-led innovation and start-ups. Are we in discussion with other Commonwealth countries to encourage them to do the same?
Earlier this year, I was delighted to hear my noble friend the Minister announce that he and the Foreign Secretary will focus on ensuring that girls in the poorest countries of the world receive at least 12 years of quality education. Have we had discussions with Nigeria about this challenging objective? I focus on that country because last week in New York we were advised that there are more girls out of school in Nigeria than in any other country in the world, even though the Government there want to make progress. The Nigerian ambassador acknowledged that conditions in his country have made girls and women particularly liable to exploitation and abuse, and that in some communities girls of primary school age are forced to sell goods on the streets instead of attending school. On my visit to Abuja and Kaduna, I was aware that valuable work on these challenges was being carried out by DfID and our excellent high commissioner, Paul Arkwright. That was just over years ago, however; I am out of date and would value being updated by the Minister on what is happening now.
I turn now to the issue of decriminalising same-sex relations, which should be an important objective of our work within the Commonwealth family. Thirty-six Commonwealth countries continue to criminalise same-sex relations, and more than 90% of Commonwealth citizens live in an area that criminalises LGBT people. Paul Dillane of the Kaleidoscope Trust believes that the economic argument has proved the winning one thus far in Mozambique, Seychelles and Nauru—the Commonwealth countries that have voluntarily decriminalised homosexuality in the past three years. In Nigeria, however, there currently seem to be no prospects for reform. Indeed, the original penal code prescriptions inherited from us have, I understand, been strengthened by harsh new legislation. Have the Government discussed these developments with the Nigerian Government so that we can understand better why they have occurred and help them to find a way of moving towards decriminalisation?
The good news is that the Commonwealth People’s Forum programme at CHOGM has a session on legislative reform in the Commonwealth and it is co-curated with the Commonwealth Equality Network. Last year, the Commonwealth approved the accreditation of TCEN—the first time an LGBTI-focused organisation has been officially accredited by the Commonwealth. I met TCEN representatives earlier this year and I am grateful to them for updating me on their pre-CHOGM work. What discussions have the Government had with TCEN recently, for example about the Commonwealth People’s Forum events, and what support are we able to give to the proposals they put forward?
Finally, I pay tribute to Her Majesty the Queen. She has been steadfast in her support for the Commonwealth. She has helped it to develop from just seven members in 1952 to the global organisation of 53 countries today, spanning every continent, all the main religions, and almost a third of the world’s population. It is a remarkable achievement that everyone can celebrate.
My Lords, I join the noble Baroness in paying tribute to the Minister and to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for providing such a good foundation for this debate. CHOGMs have had a mixed history. Sri Lanka in 2013 was an unmitigated disaster because of the human rights record of the host country; it had limited participation. Malta in 2015 was a qualified success. Now, we are in London next month. Clearly, it has been extremely well-prepared by the Government and again, there is talk of the turning of the tide and new beginnings.
Colleagues will forgive me if I say that there is an element of “we have been here before”. I was spokesman on the Commonwealth for the Opposition during much of the 1980s. I have been a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association executive for over 25 years and chaired that organisation for four years. I saw at first hand parliamentary diplomacy at its best and the value that so many parliamentarians attach to the Commonwealth. I was also in the margins of the special Commonwealth conference on apartheid at Marlborough House in 1986 when there was a real danger that the Commonwealth would collapse. That same Conservative press that now trumpet the possibilities post-Brexit were urging us to leave what was deemed to be a “useless organisation”.
It will be interesting to learn what the public response is to the Government’s strenuous efforts—for example, how many big lunches will there be?—and to look at the press coverage of CHOGM. Mr Hitchens of the Cabinet Office told the IRC that the UK’s aim was to ensure that what was agreed at CHOGM was,
“not just words but has money and commitments underneath it”.
Clearly, he accepts the need to distinguish between the Commonwealth of declaration and the Commonwealth of reality.
I want the Commonwealth to move forward successfully, but surely the best starting point is to avoid exaggerating what the Commonwealth can do. Realistically, the Commonwealth is not and cannot realistically aspire to be a political bloc. Diversity has its advantages, but there is increasing evidence of a north-south divide within its institutions, particularly on human rights. For example, I understand that there is no attempt at caucusing at the United Nations General Assembly because each of the Commonwealth countries gives greater priority to its own regional organisation or to the non-aligned movement.
Again, the Commonwealth cannot aspire to be an economic bloc, although Commonwealth members do belong to a number of regional trade blocs. There is scope for increasing intra-Commonwealth trade, which should be exploited. But there are major links between the European Union and Commonwealth countries, now particularly with Canada after negotiations for CETA lasting seven years. Preparations have recently been concluded for the EU to begin negotiations with Australia and New Zealand. Again, there is an economic partnership between the European Union and South Africa and the SADC countries. India has been negotiating an FTA with the European Union since 2007, but is basically protectionist and would demand major migration concessions from the United Kingdom post Brexit. India has blown hot and cold over the Commonwealth for some time. As in politics, the EU has more negotiating clout than bilateral Commonwealth deals, so we must avoid the illusion that the Commonwealth could be an alternative to the European Union. That is why all the Commonwealth leaders I have been able to trace are remainers. It is particularly true that some of the smaller countries, such as Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, saw the UK as a bridge to the EU market and as an advocate for them in Brussels.
Declarations on human rights there are aplenty—from Harare to the charter—but press freedoms are threatened in India and Pakistan, capital punishment is legal in 36 Commonwealth countries and in many it is difficult to be a Christian. After the Eminent Persons Group report, the Commonwealth shot down the attempt to have a commissioner for human rights. Why? Because it would have shone a searchlight on practices which would have been embarrassing to so many countries.
If we are, as I hope we are, committed to the Commonwealth, what about additional resources for the secretariat? At the moment, we pay one-third of the budget; two-thirds of the budget is paid by us, Canada and Australia; while India pays 4%, Malaysia 1.6% and Nigeria under 1.4%. Will the Government encourage other Commonwealth countries to pay more to the secretariat?
I mention these negative features as an antidote to overblown assumptions, but we should remember that one test of the value of an organisation is that other countries are seeking to join. There are at least seven such countries, Gambia has rejoined and Zimbabwe is reconsidering its position. Some examples of the benefits of membership include the good offices of the Secretary-General, particularly notable in Chief Emeka Anyaoku concerning South Africa; the informal Commonwealth network, which has been mentioned, and the Commonwealth’s role in fragile states, particularly in helping post-conflict countries such as Sierra Leone. The Commonwealth consensus on climate change was an essential prerequisite to the success of the Paris conference. Small countries walk taller in the Commonwealth.
I have a few final questions. First, does the Government favour the establishment of a new associate status and was Ireland invited to this CHOGM? Do the Government hope that relations with la Francophonie will be developed? How will they evolve? As part of her campaign to be Secretary-General, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, published her ambitious manifesto. She deserves the full support of Parliament and the Government, and I hope that will be forthcoming.
My Lords, after four months of mutely haunting this Chamber, listening and trying to learn, it is with some trepidation that I utter my first words into the record of your Lordships’ House. I am very glad to be doing so on the occasion of a debate on the Commonwealth, with which I have been closely associated for many years. I was until recently private secretary to the Queen, the Head of the Commonwealth, and refer noble Lords to my declared interests both as chairman of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust and, in the company of three other Members of your Lordships’ House, as a trustee of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust.
I have been shown very many kindnesses, including reassurance and much encouragement, by fellow Members of your Lordships’ House during my short time here. There is comfort to be had in the knowledge that every noble Lord and noble Baroness was new once, though I worry that I may feel and behave like a very new parliamentarian for rather longer than them. I have also been greatly struck by the care, thoughtfulness and powers of forgiveness of the staff who have gently inducted me into the ways and labyrinthine geography of this House. I am enormously grateful to all those I have met and regret only the inevitable discourtesy of having failed to introduce myself more assiduously to others.
I am not entirely a stranger to this House. As the Queen’s private secretary, I would duly process into this Chamber at the State Opening of Parliament and end up pressed against the officials’ Box. There I would gently poach over the hot air vent. The very minor practical contribution of a private secretary to the proceedings of a State Opening of Parliament is as the bearer of a second copy of Her Majesty’s Speech. It is of course a role in the category of what one might call “highly unlikely contingency”. But, had the Lord Chancellor, resplendent in gown and tights, kneeling before his or her sovereign, reached into the purse only to produce a dry-cleaning ticket, I or my predecessors might have had our brief moment of glory. Alas, we have been thwarted by the always flawless organisation of that occasion by Black Rod and others. In his time as Lord Chancellor, no such drama befell the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who did me the great honour of supporting me on my introduction and whom I am delighted to see in his place today. I am very grateful also to my noble friend Lord O’Donnell, my other supporter, who was a sage and generous mentor to me as I learned the ropes of my previous office.
This debate is a timely appetiser for the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting next month. The Minister, with whom it was my pleasure to have worked at an earlier stage in the preparations, has outlined what by any measure will be a colossal piece of high summitry. I join other noble Lords in commending the work of the secretariat supporting this effort, and indeed also the efforts of the Royal Household, to achieve what we all hope will be an outstanding success.
I am also very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, for the initiative of the International Relations Committee and its members in stimulating this debate. I yield to none in my admiration for his tireless work in promoting so thoroughly and positively the great work of the Commonwealth’s global network. The recent publication, The Commonwealth Transformed, is a brilliant collection of his many wisdoms on the subject. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, has already—and, I am afraid, with far greater erudition—saved me from speaking to the grand sweep of the Commonwealth enterprise, so I wish to make just three points of my own.
First, the intergovernmental grandeur of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting will of course have its own effect in the high councils of Commonwealth jurisdictions around the world. It may not, however, of itself initiate, invigorate or renew deeper popular awareness and interest in the Commonwealth in this country. There are, of course, prominent pockets of favourable sentiment and reservoirs of knowledge about the Commonwealth up and down the country—the Minister referred to some of his visits in that respect—but those pockets are patchy. Despite the very considerable funding that has been properly directed by the Government to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and indeed to the Commonwealth in general, it is not yet the case that the Commonwealth message can be said to flow universally through the capillaries of the nation, to put it mildly. Were the message to be more keenly and widely felt, however, I firmly believe that it would inform and improve the United Kingdom’s appreciation of itself. It might also license the muscularity that the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, has suggested the Commonwealth might be capable of as it goes about its business around the world.
It is perfectly reasonable and useful for the United Kingdom to evangelise with full throat about the merits, virtues and—above all else—the rich potential of the Commonwealth. Indeed, from my own experience, I have seen a rudimentary understanding of the Commonwealth being often far more apparent in other Commonwealth jurisdictions than our own. The Minister made reference to the passion that he has witnessed in the wider Commonwealth and I would commend that same passion in our jurisdiction with equal vigour. It is a puzzle, although not an insoluble one. Actively sustaining attention in the Commonwealth is, of course, as much a matter for the non-governmental apparatus and networks of the Commonwealth as it is for Her Majesty’s Government. Nevertheless, I believe that one should never underestimate the power of a British governmental lead to help flatten the sine curve of interest in the Commonwealth between summits. May I therefore encourage the Minister to use the forthcoming period of the United Kingdom’s role as chair-in-office vigorously and imaginatively and, where necessary, in partnership with other actors, to promote the Commonwealth to an often-ignorant domestic audience as well?
My second point picks up briefly on the evidence submitted to the International Relations Committee. Tim Hitchens, the previously mentioned chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018, made reference to the outstanding work done recently to combat avoidable blindness, particularly blinding trachoma, right across the Commonwealth. Much of that work has been the responsibility—and achievement—of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, which has programmes established in 12 Commonwealth countries and has deployed the convening power of association with the Queen’s name to great effect. I endorse without reservation the case for using the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to give these initiatives a significant push and add my encouragement to the leading voice that I know the Minister will give to the chorus. It is worth emphasising that tackling the widespread affliction of avoidable blindness is precisely the kind of highly effective Commonwealth work—in this case of potentially global application—that thrives within, but especially outside of, a governmental apparatus. To my first point, this redoubles the case for maintaining the highest possible profile for the Commonwealth outside of the intergovernmental rhythm of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings.
My third point is really just an observation, and probably an impertinent one at that. I of course share the view so powerfully expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay; the Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth, has been one of its greatest strengths and stays for more than 66 years. During his own lifetime, the Prince of Wales has given highly active and enthusiastic support to Her Majesty in this role, as well as in all others. His Royal Highness’s wealth of experience in Commonwealth matters is a deep echo of the Queen’s own commitment. In these later years of Her Majesty’s reign, I occasionally accompanied the Prince of Wales as he represented the Queen, such as at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka in 2013. From my vantage point, it was striking to observe His Royal Highness’s own dedication to and lifelong affection for the Commonwealth.
My Lords, I am very honoured to find myself among your number. I aspire to contribute usefully to the business and reputation of this House. The territorial designation of my title is Crobeg in the county of Ross and Cromarty, a place which Dr Johnson would have recognised as a “tack” in the old Highland system. It describes a place across the Minches, in the Outer Hebrides, where I live and farm, and to which my forebears were deeply rooted. The Isle of Lewis is where I grew up and is the hinterland from which my own erratic journey to this House has proceeded.
I am grateful to noble Lords and to the wonderful staff of this House who have made me so welcome. In the language of my distant corner of the kingdom, I simply say, “Tapadh leibh, a h-uile duine”—I thank them all.
My Lords, it is a very great privilege to follow my noble friend Lord Geidt in his Maiden Speech to this House. For four years early in this century—it sounds like a long time ago, but it is not that long—I had the great pleasure of working with him when I was Lord Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household and he joined us as an assistant private secretary to the Queen. Before that, he had served for many years in international affairs of one kind or another, most notably in the Balkans, of which he has great knowledge. It was no surprise to me when he followed my noble friend Lord Janvrin as private secretary to Her Majesty in 2007 and served her for no less than a whole decade. Like his predecessor, he showed immense wisdom and common sense in serving the Queen. I suspect that historians will judge that he showed great skill too in the advice he gave in 2010 when there was a hung Parliament.
Many people know that he worked tirelessly to promote and strengthen the Commonwealth and thus reinforce the remarkable role that Her Majesty has played as Head of the Commonwealth over 66 years. I believe that he will be remembered as an outstanding private secretary to the Queen and a great public servant. I have to warn him that he has more to offer to this country in the years to come, not least in this Chamber, where we shall all look forward to his contributions.
I reinforce the congratulations to the Minister on his commitment to and enthusiasm for the Commonwealth. I hope that commitment and enthusiasm is now being reflected by other Ministers in the Government. Almost every single department—not just the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—needs to be committed in a collective sense to the Commonwealth. As always, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Howell, who has been a tireless reminder of the potential of the Commonwealth. He has done this with a broad perspective of what value it can and must be to us.
I reflect what the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, said. There have been many occasions in the past when there has been great anticipation for summits and CHOGMs, when people have expected great success. In my view, we have been disappointed many times that they have not moved forward as we would have liked. Now we have yet another—very important—opportunity to revitalise the Commonwealth. I am sure that I shall be challenged by historians, but I wonder what other empire over the centuries has managed to transform from an empire into a commonwealth of equal nations in the way in which it has happened in our Commonwealth. We have evolved as a kind of family club or voluntary association. As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, we are not a substitute or replacement for the European Union; we are something quite different. This is thanks to Nehru, who arranged and persuaded the Commonwealth that Her Majesty should be its head, as she has been for 66 years. She has demonstrated this culture of personal rapport with people and Heads of Government that is at the heart of the Commonwealth. We have seen the emergence of India, which is absolutely central to the future of the Commonwealth. I hope that we shall see it play an increasingly important role in the future. We have this opportunity to translate ideals into action. We need more action and a greater battery of measures transforming these ideals into something practical. I hope this will emerge from the summit.
Many noble Lords have referred to the role of professional bodies. They have a vital role to play. There are one or two—I would say perhaps 10 or 12—very successful ones, such as the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association, the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust and, of course, the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, led by the noble Lord, Lord Marland. The Commonwealth Foundation, of which I had the privilege of being the chair in the 1990s, deals with the non-government side of the Commonwealth and must give as much encouragement as it can to the proliferation and strength of these bodies. The non-government side of the Commonwealth matters as much as the government side.
Lastly, I want to touch on young people. As we have heard, 60% of men and women—two in three—are under 30. I feel that we have failed our children and our school students in this country. There is a remarkable lack of knowledge and understanding of their own history—transforming from an empire into a commonwealth—and what it must mean for them. I hope that we shall be able to strengthen the curriculum and teach our children more about the Commonwealth. Things such as the Commonwealth Class—a practical, technological way of linking up schools throughout the Commonwealth—as well as Commonwealth scholarship and fellowship schemes, must and I hope will be strengthened. Maybe the Minister will comment on this at the summit meeting
There is the whole question of youth and the emphasis on business creation and entrepreneurship and training for employment skills. Here, I want to express my pleasure at the Commonwealth of Learning to which the noble Lord, Lord Howell, referred. It is putting forward proposals for teaching employable skills to 15 to 25 year-olds in the Commonwealth. Skills and reskills are essential to getting jobs in Africa or on the Indian sub-continent. I hope that distance learning technology is something that will be pursued at the summit. We have a fresh opportunity this time. Let us take it.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to speak after my noble friend Lord Luce and after the hugely impressive maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt. He has been a huge force for good, supporting Her Majesty the Queen over many years. We look forward to many more contributions from him in this place, where we will hear his wisdom, intellect, skill and wit. How right the noble Lord, Lord Luce, is: the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, is only a fraction of the way through his life and he has much more to offer. As chairman of King’s College London, he has already made a tremendous impact in a relatively short time. Linked to this, I recognise the huge influence of Her Majesty the Queen, who for 66 years—with her personal authority, friendship, influence, example and steadfast dedication—has seen this institution grow and develop in an extraordinarily flexible and fluid manner. We have also heard the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, about the similar dedication of the Prince of Wales for a newer generation. The Commonwealth has long been one of his key priorities.
The difficulty of a debate such as this is that so many kindred spirits—noble Lords with whom one has a shared past and, hopefully, future—make wonderful remarks which it is difficult not to endorse. Thirty-five years ago, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, was my neighbour, my guiding light, my source of wisdom and inspiration. Whenever I had an insoluble constituency problem, I would just pop over the border and ask the noble Lord, who immediately had the answer. What is so remarkable about him is that he is a visionary. He is forward-looking. So many people, as they move into their anecdotage, become natural remoaners. We should remember the noble Lord’s book, Old Links and New Ties: Power and Persuasion in an Age of Networks, published five years ago, which used language that was not commonly used then about the connectivities, fluid networks and markets of the future, and so it has proved to be. How right it is that the Minister should describe him as the real ambassador for the Commonwealth.
We live in turbulent and disturbing times. Many are concerned that the principles of democracy are under threat and that populism, nationalism and self-interest are in the ascendant. Only last night, James Harding, former editor of the Times and head of BBC News, delivered the Hugh Cudlipp lecture, “Is technology Destroying Democracy?” How apposite that is in the context of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal. Here again perhaps, the Commonwealth has a unique potential. Enshrined in the 1971 Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles is the support for democracy and for the inalienable right of every citizen to participate in framing the society in which they live. But, my goodness, in 2018, there is an undeniable global democratic threat. The annual Freedom in the World report by Freedom House shows that 2018 marks the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. In the last year alone, more than twice as many countries showed net decline rather than improvement when measuring their political rights and civil liberties. This message is reinforced by the democracy index of the Economist Intelligence Unit, which reported that a majority of countries received lower scores in 2017 than they had a year before.
While the world may be facing a crisis, we recognise that the Commonwealth promotes democratic consolidation. It is beyond coincidence that membership of the Commonwealth correlates strongly with the presence of democratic processes and institutions. I acknowledge the valuable work of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth election management bodies. I echo the comment made by others about the encouraging developments in the Gambia, enabling it, through internationally applauded, neutral and transparent parliamentary elections, to rejoin the Commonwealth. However, human rights remain a concern. The Prime Minister said that Britain has a special responsibility to change hearts and minds, but not to preach or be Anglocentric, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said. But the fact is that elections in certain countries have been overshadowed by behaviour which is highly detrimental to fair contestation and inclusivity: for example, politically motivated arrests in Uganda and widespread election rigging in Bangladesh. Many Commonwealth countries fail to reach acceptable standards in freedom of the press. Brunei, Rwanda, Swaziland and Bangladesh are all in the lowest quartile of countries in the world for press freedom, and Malaysia, the Gambia, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are not far above them.
The 2013 CHOGM in Sri Lanka was boycotted by India, Canada and Mauritius over human rights concerns, particularly the abuse of opposition journalists and politicians, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, recalled. He referred to the record on religious freedom, a point about which I feel most strongly. The Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief is incredibly important, because, as the right reverend Prelate rightly said, faith groups and faith relationships are a huge force for good. The right reverend Prelate and the Church Mission Society articulate the work they do spreading values which are really Commonwealth values—they are not the same but have a great deal of similarity—and so do other faith groups. This is a subtle balance that should not be underestimated. Capital punishment is still disproportionately high and too many Commonwealth countries still criminalise homosexuality. We have an important part to play in this.
Finally, as Britain re-evaluates its position in the world and its relationships, we know that the markets of the future are in Asia and Africa. We also know that you do business with people you like and trust. I feel that prosperity for all is the best determinant of enlightened and responsible behaviour. Through this unprecedented business event, with 800 CEOs and non-executive directors gathering, I hope that we can re-energise prosperity, well-being and trust across the Commonwealth. There has been an extraordinary degree of preparation and I praise my noble friend Lady Anelay for her work before the Minister took it on. With so much work and effort, this really is an opportunity to create a more prosperous, safer, sustainable and fairer Commonwealth.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Geidt, on a most excellent maiden speech. However, I have to say to him that the idea of him standing in the corner and poaching away very slowly is not one that will leave my mind too quickly.
I congratulate the Minister on opening the debate and the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on opening the debate on the report of the International Relations Committee.
I have spoken many times in your Lordships’ House on the Commonwealth, particularly in relation to human rights and civil liberties, especially those not enjoyed by some minorities, or, indeed, by those who form the majority on our planet: women. In defending and promoting human rights, civil liberties, fundamental freedoms and universal values, we must apply the same principles whether here in the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, in the European Union, or indeed across the globe. To do otherwise is to undermine the principle of the universality of human rights. It is in the context of human rights and civil liberties for all, regardless of difference, that I wish to approach this debate.
As we approach CHOGM in London and Windsor, I again pay tribute to the exceptional work undertaken by Malta during the summit in 2015. I also recognise, and pay tribute to, the work undertaken by the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland, who has placed human rights at the forefront of her tenure, including LGBT rights, so that they are no longer an afterthought to be discussed in the margins of the summit. In this respect I know that she faces some opposition, but I know my noble and learned friend well and believe that she is well adapted to pursue this case vigorously.
Between 16 and 20 April, the United Kingdom will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit and it will focus, as we have heard, on delivering four outcomes under the theme of working towards a common future. Preceding the Heads of Government meeting, there will be four forums and inclusivity must be the key to all of them. They must not be a way of managing subjects into the shadows because some Heads of Government would rather not have the summit discuss the issues at all. Sadly, I have been reliably informed that certain minority issues, such as gender identity and lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people’s rights, will be sidelined in the forums, and that the Heads of Government will not discuss the discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people and gender identity issues. That would be a travesty and a totally unacceptable outcome, particularly given the lead by the Maltese Government in 2015. However, I recognise that the Prime Minister, Mrs May, has already given a lead on inclusivity. Indeed, in her PinkNews Awards speech, she gave her commitment to undo the negative legacy of colonialism and, as she stated on Commonwealth Day last year, to reaffirm the shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Democracy, human rights and the rule of law must include everyone; there must be no exceptions.
As other noble Lords have said, the Commonwealth is a family of nations, but for many of us, including LGBTI people, it is a family where we are not welcomed, are not treated equally or with dignity, and often are denied our liberty. In 36 of the 53 states of the Commonwealth, homosexuality is criminalised and same-sex relationships are banned. Although these laws were imposed by the United Kingdom, these countries cling desperately to this alien imposition almost as a badge of honour. The repression is not diminishing: in some countries, people boast of it, often citing culture or religious belief as a reason or an excuse. Sadly, all too often, organised religions and religious leaders condone such repressions actively or by their silence.
I defend religious beliefs and always will—even as a born-again atheist—but I will never defend the right to impose such beliefs on others when in so doing it diminishes the rights or protections of another human being. We absolutely need the voice of religion and religious leaders, and we need them in support of equality and non-discrimination, regardless of difference. That which we demand for ourselves we must demand for others.
I therefore come to the following observations. The Commonwealth Business Forum must address the reciprocity of rights of all people. Transnational corporations and business developers must recognise that discrimination and the denial of rights and equalities would prevent some inward investment and would certainly prevent the transfer of key business development staff to countries where they would lose not only the rights that they enjoy but potentially their liberty. The Commonwealth People’s Forum must also address the rights of LGBTI people and others who are oppressed if we are truly to achieve the prospect of an inclusive global community. It would be unacceptable if the Commonwealth Youth Forum failed to discuss gender identity and LGBTI people, particularly when one of our goals is that everyone should achieve their unique potential.
The women’s forum has a vast area of inequalities to address. Here again, no one should be left out. In all the work that we do, we need to recognise the multiplicity of types of discrimination that one person might face. Sadly, as I have said so often, to do nothing about one aspect of discrimination faced by an individual is to make redundant all the good on the other aspects that we have attempted.
Finally, no one should be left behind. Difference is not to be feared: it is to be embraced and celebrated. That is the nature of family; indeed, it is the essence of the human race. I pay tribute to those women and men and their allies from across the Commonwealth who face almost unimaginable situations in campaigning for the simple virtue of equality and inclusion. LGBTI activists from the Commonwealth Equality Network were here in London only a few weeks ago, hosted by the brilliant Kaleidoscope Trust.
I wish to remember, too, the brave and brilliant Ugandan activist David Cato, who was murdered because he dared to campaign for equality. We must remember him and, because of the rights denied to people, we must be determined to make certain that the Commonwealth is fit for purpose and fit for the modern world: open, inclusive and a beacon for democracy, human rights and the rule of law for all.