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Column 1074at one time as if the Commonwealth Institute might have to close. That would have been a great sadness, but the building itself, which is remarkable in its way, needed major repairs, especially to its huge canopy copper roof.
I am delighted to say that the institute's supporters have devised a new exhibition concept, "Wonders of the World", which highlights some of the great natural wonders in Commonwealth countries. The Government have offered to make £2.4 million available provided the institute can raise £5 million in sponsorship commitments by July this year.
The institute has provided generations of schoolchildren and visitors to London with a window on the world of the Commonwealth. We hope that that can continue, and if the sponsorship target is met that will be a clear indication of the support that the Commonwealth enjoys in this country.
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith): Many of us were very worried when the Commonwealth Institute was threatened with closure. I welcome what the Minister says, and I know from my contacts that there is now hope that it will continue. Many schools now try to arrange exchanges with Commonwealth countries. I know a school near Stroud that is arranging for a group of children to go to India. Far more such activities could be arranged, and they would fit in with the work of the Commonwealth Institute, but the Government must put in more money. Will the Minister consider helping schools to arrange exchanges with other Commonwealth countries?
Mr. Baldry: One of the advantages of the Commonwealth is that much can be done on a voluntary basis. Many exchanges take place around the Commonwealth, but one would have to have regard to where the money was coming from and how the exchanges were organised and attributed. Such schemes look attractive at first sight, but they could have substantial financial implications. Again, that is one of the topics that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee could consider when it studies the future of the Commonwealth. I see no reason why the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member who has ideas about how we could take forward Commonwealth initiatives should not put them to the Select Committee.
Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington): I am glad to hear the Minister say such warm and appreciative words about the Commonwealth Institute. I too have visited it and have been impressed by the determination of Mr. Cox and his staff to take things forward, albeit on the basis of diminishing public financial support, which I believe will be phased out completely by 1999.
In developing his policy on the Commonwealth, will my hon. Friend take full account of the larger role that the Commonwealth Institute could play in acquainting people, especially young people, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said, with the great potential of the Commonwealth? Britain, as the mother country of the Commonwealth, should have a more
Column 1075attractive window on the Commonwealth for all young people. Will my hon. Friend bear that aim in mind when deciding what support to give the institute?
Mr. Baldry: I entirely endorse everything that my hon. Friend says. That is why we have made it clear that we are prepared to support the Commonwealth Institute, but for the institute to move forward it must be viable and capable of demonstrating that it is viable. Sadly, in the recent past visitor numbers have fallen and exhibitions have remained fairly static. All that is now changing, and the institute has suggested advanced and bold initiatives for making itself more attractive. We hope that they will succeed, so as to enable future generations of children from here and elsewhere in the Commonwealth to benefit from the institute's work and from the educational opportunities that it can offer.
Few would dispute the value of the various forms of professional and non- governmental co-operation between the peoples of different Commonwealth countries, but when we ask what the co-operation between Commonwealth Governments means in practice the answer is more complicated. Charges of double standards, of vague and generalised communique s and of exclusive concentration on particular issues at the expense of other matters equally important have in the past had a certain ring of truth. But even if we were to admit those falls from grace, two strands in the shared political activity between Commonwealth countries have proved their worth and will continue to do so.
First, the Commonwealth provides a conduit for a host of links for practical co-operation between Governments--links that otherwise would almost certainly not exist. Secondly and importantly, the Commonwealth as an association has a role in promoting good government and human rights.
On practical co-operation, let me cite just two instances, not of Britain supporting the Commonwealth but of other Commonwealth countries supporting each other. First, there is the interest that the Canadians take in the professional and economic well-being of Caribbean Commonwealth countries. That is not necessarily a logical connection, but the shared values in law, in education and in sport combine to ensure that those Caribbean states, which are small and sometimes vulnerable, can turn to a genuine friend for support. Another example is provided by the programme that the Indian Government provide for African and other Commonwealth military personnel to receive training of the highest quality at the Indian staff colleges. Again, that is not an obvious connection, but the Commonwealth link has made it possible and fostered it. We should not forget, either, the immense network of educational co-operation throughout the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth teachers exchange programme enables more than 400 teachers and their families to swap schools for an academic year.
The Commonwealth scholarship and fellowship programme enables more than 500 students from Commonwealth countries to further their studies in other Commonwealth countries. The Association of Commonwealth Universities, a superb organisation that is little known outside its field, enables Commonwealth
Column 1076universities to exchange teachers, administrators and ideals. For example, it allows vice-chancellors from the Pacific to share problems with vice-chancellors from the West Indies or Asia. To attend one of the association's conferences is to see the Commonwealth as most imagine it should be.
Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe): Does my hon. Friend accept that the newest Commonwealth organisation, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, which has existed for only one year, represents a new step forward in the way in which we can foster good governance not only at central Government level but at the level of government that matters most to people--local government? Just today the Barbadian delegate to the Commonwealth Assembly asked for assistance in establishing local government in Barbados, which the Government are now seeking to bring about.
Mr. Baldry: I am glad to confirm what my hon. Friend says. Indeed, it was he who took through the House a private Member's Bill enabling local authorities in this country to give technical support to local government overseas. Only the other day, the deputy Minister responsible for local government in South Africa was in London attending a conference with a significant number of local councillors and others from this country. He talked about the local government elections that will take place in South Africa in October, and the support that can be given by this country in many different ways--for example, in terms of technical expertise and monitoring. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to another way in which the Commonwealth can be of assistance. When I visit Barbados later this year, I shall certainly pursue the issue of local government support for Barbados.
A second strand of Commonwealth intergovernmental co-operation, and perhaps the most important, is the contribution that the Commonwealth can and does make to good government and human rights. Of course, there have in the past been some very bleak spots. Idi Amin's Uganda was perhaps the most notorious, but the Commonwealth was able to help put Uganda back on its feet when Amin was overthrown.
Sadly, there are still some bleak spots today. In the Gambia, where the democratic government of Sir Dawda Jawara was shamelessly overthrown in July last year in a military putsch, the timetable for democratic elections, even if implemented, means that they will be delayed by at least two years.
Sadly, in Nigeria, which, rightly, was mentioned in the debate on the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill, the military Government's commitment to return to civilian democratic rule carries as yet little conviction. The pattern of ministerial dismissals, arbitrary arrests and bans on political activity undermines confidence in what the military Government profess to want to do. In Sierra Leone, the Government of Captain Strasser have a programme for elections, but are hard pressed by rebel activity to put it into practice. Those problems actively concern Commonwealth Governments, and we welcome the lead that the Commonwealth
Column 1077Secretary-General has taken in addressing them. The
Secretary-General--himself a distinguished Nigerian--has observed: "Nigeria cannot seriously aspire to wield any appreciable influence abroad or play a leading role in realising Africans' hopes unless it can put its own house in order".
Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Auckland will wish to establish how they can help to reverse those setbacks.
We should recognise that relations between Commonwealth countries, too, have not always been harmonious. The tension between India and Pakistan causes concern to us, and to all other members of the Commonwealth--friends of both countries. Nevertheless, while the problems between India and Pakistan can best be resolved bilaterally, it is reasonable to think that they might have become more difficult if the Commonwealth link had not existed.
It would be idle to imagine that such problems will disappear; the question is, how is the Commonwealth equipped to respond? The picture is encouraging. After the long period during which South Africa preoccupied Heads of Government conferences, a fresh start was made in Harare in 1991 with the adoption of the Harare declaration, a detailed and clear commitment by all Commonwealth Governments to high standards in accountable, just government and the protection of human rights. The Commonwealth now has an objective benchmark against which to assess its own members' records.
In 1991, the Commonwealth Secretary-General launched a major programme to help Commonwealth states to organise multi-party elections in Zambia, the Seychelles, Guyana, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, South Africa and Malawi. Commonwealth election observer groups have been preceded by technical missions to help in the organisation of elections, and by Commonwealth teams that have subsequently arrived--supplemented by teams from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and elsewhere--to assist in putting parliamentary democracy on a firm footing.
However hesitant and faltering those efforts may seem, they represent a collective act of will by 51 diverse Governments, with the moral authority that that commands. In a post-imperial world, that role for the Commonwealth should not be underestimated: we attach the highest importance to it. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister attends the Heads of Government conference in Auckland in November, the Commonwealth's role in sustaining democracy will be at the forefront of his priorities.
Nor should it be forgotten that Commonwealth countries play a full part in United Nations peacekeeping. Five of the top 10 contributors to UN peacekeeping are Commonwealth countries: ourselves, Pakistan, Canada, Bangladesh and Ghana. Commonwealth troops are currently in Kuwait, the former republic of Yugoslavia, Georgia, Rwanda, Western Sahara, Tajikistan, Liberia, Haiti, Angola, the Golan Heights and El Salvador. Commonwealth troops are making a major contribution to UN peacekeeping around the world.
An aspect that has tended to be overlooked in recent years is the importance of Commonwealth countries as trade and investment partners. The Commonwealth includes five of the world's 10 fastest-growing
Column 1078economies since 1985: Singapore, Mauritius, Botswana, Belize and Hong Kong. Commonwealth countries generally are now pursuing policies of political and economic liberalisation; exports to the Commonwealth, far from declining since our entry into the European Community, have grown by more than 20 per cent. in real terms since 1983. The dynamic emerging economies of Asia--Malaysia and Singapore, for instance--have contributed to our economic growth in recent years. In the past five years, our exports to Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia have increased by 100 per cent. India, too, shows signs of becoming an increasingly important trading partner as the benefits of economic reform take effect. The Indo-British partnership initiative has been a great success, and South Africa and Pakistan clearly also have export potential. More than 60 per cent. of our exports to the Commonwealth are now to the "new" Commonwealth.
But it is not all one way. In 1993, Britain was a major importer from 35 of the 39 Commonwealth countries for which we have up-to-date statistics. Our balance of trade with the Commonwealth is healthier than our balance of trade with the European Community or the rest of the world. Commonwealth countries are an important recipient of British investment: some £36.8 billion, nearly a quarter of our investment stock, is held in those countries, over 40 per cent. of it in the new Commonwealth.
Britain's entry into the EC has been seen by many Commonwealth countries as a benefit, not only for their exports to the UK but because it opens up new European markets. The absolute level of trade with Commonwealth countries has held up well since Britain joined the EC. We argued for the creation of the European Union banana regime in the face of virulent opposition from some of our European partners which have no special links with traditional banana-producing countries.
We hope that the regime has given the Commonwealth countries a breathing space during which they will restructure their industries and make their economies more competitive--a process with which we are willing to assist them. There will be further threats to the regime, both from within Europe and from further afield, but we remain committed to defending the fundamentals of the regime to protect the interests of our Commonwealth friends.
Rum is one of the industrial successes of the Caribbean Commonwealth. We have argued strongly for the ending of the anomalous arrangements under the Lome convention, which restrict rum exports from African, Caribbean and Pacific countries to the European market. EC quotas on "light rum"--90 per cent. of ACP production--have now been abolished; as a result of determined UK pressure, the quota for "traditional rum" has been set at three times the level originally proposed by the Commission. With further increases of 3,000 hectolitres each year before total abolition in the year 2000, we believe that that offers the Caribbean rum industry the opportunity and incentive that it needs to continue its successful development. Those are two instances of the way in which our membership of both the Commonwealth and the European Union has enabled us to play a constructive
Column 1079part. A third and more recent contribution was made in the recent fisheries dispute. I think that I can best summarise that contribution by reading a communique given to diplomatic editors today by the Canadian high commissioner in London. It states: "The Canadian High Commissioner, the Hon. Royce Frith today (Thursday, March 16) phoned the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to thank the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for his very helpful role in bringing the parties to the negotiating table, as the British and Canadian governments had sought to achieve from the beginning." That is another instance of the way in which our membership of both the Commonwealth and the European Union enables us to play a constructive part.
Commonwealth countries are close trading partners. Many are countries whose further development we seek to encourage through our aid budget. It is our policy to maintain a large and effective bilateral aid programme; because of our historical links, it is right that the largest share of British aid should go to Commonwealth countries. Of the top 10 recipients of bilateral aid in 1993-94, six--India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Uganda--are Commonwealth members. Bilaterally, we also have large "good government" programmes in a number of Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth as an institution has also provided us with a useful opportunity to emphasise the need for good government, and the importance of economic and political reform.
In 1993-94, £625 million, well over half our gross bilateral public spending on aid, went to Commonwealth countries. In the context of multilateral aid, our objective is to ensure that Commonwealth aid programmes meet real needs in developing countries by providing assistance- -such as aid to small island states--that lies within their areas of comparative advantage over other aid agencies.
In that context, it may be helpful if I reiterate our position on the European development fund and Lome . We have announced our intention to contribute a substantial sum to EDF VIII. It will be a significant reduction in cash terms on our contribution to EDF VII. We are not taking a position on the overall size of EDF VIII; nor are we making a judgment on the quality of the EDF. The reduction has been made because we are trying to achieve a better balance between multilateral and bilateral aid.
We expect multilateral aid to reach around 60 per cent. of total British aid in several years' time; EC aid alone will be more than 40 per cent. of the total UK aid programme. We also need to contribute to a substantial replenishment of the International Development Association both this year and in three years' time. Multilateral commitments are growing all the time.
Against that background, our objective is to maintain a substantial bilateral programme. We intend to continue to be a major contributor bilaterally to the development process in ACP countries, particularly in Africa. Our commitment to Africa remains strong. We are giving £850 million of bilateral aid to the special programme of assistance for Africa, which is a multi-donor effort
Column 1080co-ordinated by the World bank. A strong bilateral programme ensures that we have the ability to make the decisions to support countries in the Commonwealth.
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point): My hon. Friend shows great mastery of his brief. Does he agree that Commonwealth countries might take great comfort from our taking between £8 million and £11 million from our Overseas Development Administration bilateral aid budget and using it to rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation so that we could further promote education, science and culture?
Mr. Baldry: We will need to consider whether to join UNESCO on its merits. As my hon. Friend knows, we left it because we did not think that it was serving its purpose well. In due course, we will have to consider whether to rejoin UNESCO. We have to take each organisation on its merits and consider whether it serves well the interests of those whom it has been set up to serve.
Our bilateral aid is very much valued and appreciated throughout the Commonwealth. It might be of interest to the House if I read what the Ugandan Minister of Finance wrote only a matter of days ago to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He said:
"I would like to express to you and to Her Majesty's Government the most sincere gratitude of my own and that of the Government and people of Uganda for the vital concern which Great Britain has shown consistently about the crushing burden of debt which Uganda and other Sub-Saharan African countries are shouldering.
As you know, the first fruits of your most commendable efforts came with the write-off of the greater portion of our Paris Club debts this month. For my part, I can only promise you and Her Majesty's Government that the generosity of the Paris Club members to Uganda will not be frittered away. We shall stay the course of economic reform and liberalization upon which the growth of our economy so critically depends.
We trust that with an expanding economy, Uganda will progressively fend for herself and eventually meet her international obligations.
Once again, thank you so much."
Uganda and many Commonwealth countries which we support with development aid recognise that Britain has taken a leading role in tackling the problems of debt. They recognise that our bilateral programme of aid is of great benefit to them.
We also support the Commonwealth secretariat. We contribute up to 30 per cent.--just less than £3 million--of the secretariat's programme and running costs, which in 1994-95 will amount to £9 million. Those links are reinforced by regular ministerial contact between members and fellow countries in the Commonwealth. During the past three years, there have been ministerial visits to 41 Commonwealth countries. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been to Canada, Cyprus, India, Malaysia and South Africa, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and Ministers across Government remain in close contact with Commonwealth colleagues on matters of common concern. We have frequent visits from Commonwealth Heads of Government to the United Kingdom.
Column 1081All Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in New Zealand will have an interest in the implementation of the Harare declaration. It would be neither credible nor worthy to ignore those countries whose Governments fail to match principle and practice. The Commonwealth would be false to its vocation if it failed to respond meaningfully, convincingly and effectively to the challenges posed by military Governments. Other members will have their own priorities for the meeting in Auckland. Some will have an interest in helping Fiji to return to the Commonwealth. Fiji has begun the process of reviewing its constitution.
The summit will also have to deal with Cameroon's application to join the Commonwealth. Two years ago at Limassol, Heads of Government said that they would be ready to welcome Cameroon at Auckland, provided that by then its efforts to establish a democratic system, consistent with the Harare declaration, had been completed. We think that Cameroon may still have some way to go to meet that requirement, but it is of interest that there are countries that wish to join the Commonwealth.
We cannot anticipate the agenda at Auckland, but at the meeting in Limassol two years ago, for example, the Prime Minister, with Mr. Keating, the Australian Prime Minister, was able to persuade the conference to adopt a short declaration on the GATT Uruguay round, to launch a Commonwealth mission to press for its conclusion and to allow that Commonwealth mission to speak on behalf of Commonwealth countries as a group. That was a useful initiative, which demonstrated the ability of the Commonwealth to respond to concerns of the day.
Provided the Commonwealth adheres to realities and achievable goals, and eschews the temptation of grandiose or hollow declarations, it can and will remain a force for good. It is in that spirit that we approach the next Heads of Government conference in New Zealand in November. The conference will be the first to be attended by South Africa since 1961. That will give the Auckland meeting a special character. Given the attention that the Commonwealth has paid in the past 30 years to South Africa, it would be entirely proper for the Commonwealth and its members to continue its special efforts to meet South Africa's post-election needs, as it has done for other countries after independence.
If South Africa remains stable and prosperous, the whole of southern Africa --Commonwealth countries in large part--will benefit. If South Africa fails to realise its potential, the prospects for Africa as a whole, much of it Commonwealth Africa, will be diminished. The Commonwealth as an association remains engaged in South Africa at a moment when practical support may make a decisive difference. Between now and November, new issues may well arise on which the Auckland conference can usefully comment. We certainly see scope for the Commonwealth working together, doing more to combat drugs, drug trafficking, money laundering and organised international crime as a whole. At the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in Canada last year, that issue attracted the support of parliamentarians right across the Commonwealth. We will be talking to our
Column 1082Commonwealth partners about our ideas on how we can work together better to handle drugs and international crime between now and next November.
The Commonwealth has no big battalions on its own account. It cannot enforce, it cannot direct and it operates by consensus. In a world of strains and conflicts, the Commonwealth helps to promote a sense of shared values, shared responsibilities, shared histories and shared experience. There is much that the Commonwealth can do together and should do together to promote shared values.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): I join the Minister in welcoming the debate and in thanking the Leader of the House for the allocation of time for it. It is the first debate that we have had on the important topic of the Commonwealth since 1987, and a great deal has happened since then.
There will be a great deal of bipartisanship in the debate. The Minister, knowing me, would be disappointed--
Mr. Foulkes: --devastated, indeed, if the debate was completely bipartisan. He will certainly not be disappointed. The temptation in a debate on the Commonwealth is to make a tour d'horizon--if my French is acceptable--of the 51 states and give some commentary on each one. Hon. Members will be glad to know that I intend to resist that temptation.
As I was not able to attend the debate on the South Africa Bill last week, I should like to take this opportunity to welcome South Africa back into the Commonwealth fold after an unfortunate isolation of more than 30 years. The elections in South Africa last year and the resulting end of a universally despised apartheid regime were welcomed by all, particularly by those in the Commonwealth and by those in this House who made it their especial task year after year, Question Time after Question Time, debate after debate, to highlight the divisions and the racial injustices in a society which offended human and democratic values. It has been a long and painful journey for the people of South Africa, and it is by no means yet complete. We have a great deal more to do to help the people of South Africa. I am glad that South Africa's re-entry into the Commonwealth family has been precipitated at a very early opportunity. It will enable the Commonwealth to further its common values in a country which was devoid of such principles during its long isolation. A stable South Africa will benefit other nations of the Commonwealth especially, as the Minister rightly said, in Africa, which is dominated by Commonwealth countries.
The evolution of the Commonwealth is progressing at a pace which is quicker than ever. The changing nature of an institution born of British imperialist tendencies is marked and the opportunities for Britain and for our Commonwealth partners, economically, politically and culturally, are there to be grasped. The Commonwealth is no more a crude remnant of colonialisation or, as Disraeli once described it,
Column 1083"a millstone around our necks".
Mr. Foulkes: In 40 years the Commonwealth has grown from a few dominions to 51 wholly independent members with populations ranging from a few thousand people to several hundred million. With a total population of around 1.5 billion people, the Commonwealth is the largest multilateral organisation in the world, other than the United Nations, and covers a quarter of the world's land area. I agreed with the point made by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink) about the need for us to rejoin UNESCO, and I was disappointed that the Minister did not give a more positive reply; it is good that some of his Back Benchers keep reminding him.
The Commonwealth spans a quarter of the world's land area and its peoples derive from all five continents and from every major regional bloc and economic zone. It makes up 25 per cent. of the United Nations General Assembly, uniting large and small, developed and developing nations. There are still remnants of the empire, of course, in the shape of the dependent territories. I do not intend to deal with all of them, but from what my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) said just now, it seems that he intends to spend some time talking about them if he catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Sadly, as we all know, one dependent territory--Hong Kong--is to leave the Commonwealth in 1997. I hope that the Minister recognises the concerns of hon. Members of all parties for the maintenance of democracy and human rights in Hong Kong after 1 July 1997. China has agreed to one country and two systems. The system in Hong Kong is a matter not just of capitalism as opposed to communism but of democracy, which is an essential part of that system and must not be tampered with. I hope that the British Government will make that clear to the Government of China.
I shall not dwell on the Falklands, a group of islands on which I have had enormous pleasure on occasions, but I shall briefly mention the Caribbean dependent territories. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office should spend more time looking at the future of those territories. Labour Members accept that those territories should not be pushed unwillingly to independence, but there should be maximum internal autonomy. I have been concerned over the past few years by the actions of governors in relation to the elected Governments of those dependent territories. It is a delicate relationship, and middle-rank Foreign Office diplomats do not always possess the necessary sensitivity to deal with it.
Some people describe the Commonwealth as lacking a modern role and as needing revitalisation and energy. I understand their concerns, but a role is being fulfilled. There have been whispers of the demise of the
Column 1084Commonwealth based on the old view of it. There is a feeling--I hope that it is not shared by anyone in this House-- that since South Africa has sorted out its immediate problems, our work is complete. Neither of those assumptions is true. Indeed, as the Minister rightly said, more countries are seeking to join the Commonwealth. He mentioned Cameroon, but Mozambique, Eritrea and Angola also want to join. Namibia, of course, has already joined.
The Commonwealth has committed members around the globe, particularly in Africa, who are also involved in their own regional organisations. The Minister rightly mentioned the role that the United Kingdom can play as a bridge between the Commonwealth and the European Union. I welcome what was said by the Canadian high commissioner. I certainly do not criticise our Government over what was done.
Equally, all other Commonwealth countries have their own regional networks to plug into. There is the North American free trade agreement, the Association of South-East Asian Nations, the Pacific rim, the preferential trade area for eastern and southern Africa, and many more. The Commonwealth transcends those groupings and provides opportunities--multilaterally and bilaterally--in areas of economic aid, of trade and of global security.
Many advantages of membership are evident. The Commonwealth's very diversity can often be its strength. The Minister mentioned the multi-faith service. The development of understanding between, for example, Islamic Pakistan, the Christian Caribbean, Buddhist Sri Lanka, and the commitment to opposing racial prejudice has been significant in the Commonwealth's approach.
The ideals of the Commonwealth are also those of democracy and the democratic process, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, just and honest government, fundamental human rights, equality for women, universal access to education, sustainable development, the alleviation of poverty in member countries, protection of the environment, and the promotion of international consensus on major issues. It sounds a bit like our new clause IV-- [Interruption.]
All those ideals, however, are not prevalent throughout all the Commonwealth countries. Indeed, they are not all prevalent in the United Kingdom. I could spend some time addressing that topic, but I shall not do so. Instead, I will refer to events such as the military coup in the Gambia and the human rights abuses in Nigeria. I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) raised the latter point in the previous debate.
I was also pleased at the way in which the Minister spoke about Nigeria as there is great concern about the situation there. Lord Avebury, as chairman of the parliamentary human rights group, has written to the Nigerian high commissioner expressing concern about the arrest of General Obasanjo and the health of Chief Abiola. I hope that the Minister will follow up his very welcome expressions of concern by making direct representations to the Government of Nigeria through its high commissioner.
Column 1085The Commonwealth ideal is not yet universal even within the Commonwealth countries, although much has been achieved over the past few years and many groups have worked hard to further the core Commonwealth ideal of democracy. As the Minister said, in the Seychelles and Ghana, we have seen a return to multi-party democracy after one-party rule. In Lesotho, military rule gave way to a democratically elected Government. In Guyana, where I was present during the elections as an observer, and in Pakistan, many election observers witnessed peaceful changes of Government by democratic means: all progress in the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth secretariat, which was set up during the first Wilson Government in 1965, has advanced the democratisation of countries and, as the Minister said, it plays a substantial role in combating drug trafficking and abuse, in attempting to help the wave of refugees, in problems of third-world debt, in technical and medical co-operation, in environmental strategies and much more. Many hon. Members, especially those who have turned up for this debate, will have witnessed the work that the Commonwealth secretariat and other Commonwealth organisations are doing at first hand and will wish to refer to that aspect.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is an organisation of which I have a special knowledge and for which I have special affection. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) knows, I am the joint honorary treasurer; the other is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, so the House will appreciate that I do all the work.
I see the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) in his place; he is chairman of the United Kingdom branch and I know that he welcomes the fact that a Scotsman is joint honorary treasurer. I welcome the Minister's statement that he is willing to talk about supporting delegations, seminars and further activities because, throughout the Commonwealth, those help to strengthen political, cultural and economic links among all countries and help us to encourage the development of democratic ideals.
The CPA provides a permanent parliamentary focus for the most diverse group of nations within the United Nations and is the sole means of regular consultation among members of Commonwealth Parliaments. The membership continues to thrive here in Westminster, highlighting the extent to which hon. Members and peers value its work. We have more than 565 members in the Commons alone and I hope that hon. Members who are not yet members will soon join.
In an intervention, the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Lester) rightly mentioned that the democratic process has to move further down to the grass roots within the Commonwealth. The need for local and regional government has long been recognised in this country. Sometimes we have wandered--the previous Prime Minister started to abolish some of our local government, but it has been generally recognised as an area in which the Commonwealth can further its ideals.
Column 1086Although in its infancy in some developing countries, the democratic process can be given the wealth of experience that is present in other Commonwealth states. Local democracy is a key element of the democratic process. As a former councillor, I know that. The Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Anyaoku, recognised that fact when, in addressing the 40th CPA conference in Banff, Canada, he referred to the "effective devolution of power" and said:
"a rigorous and strong system of local government should contribute to, and strengthen parliamentary democracy".
The establishment of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum in 1994 as a new Commonwealth body to promote local democracy and community development is greatly to be welcomed and I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Broxtowe. We now have 77 organisations with Commonwealth in their title and the number is growing at the rate of three per year. As the Minister said, they are responsible for the Commonwealth games, the Commonwealth human rights initiative and others. The Commonwealth Local Government Forum will significantly strengthen the Commonwealth's ability to encourage the development of local government, and Opposition Members welcome it. The forum works closely with local government in the United Kingdom and will allow effective utilisation of the provisions of the hon. Member for Broxtowe's Local Government (Overseas Assistance) Act 1993, under which local authorities can become actively involved in overseas activities. We shall have to be careful which authorities they are. To take a random example, Lady Porter's would not be an obvious choice, and I am sure that Conservative Members have other suggestions. To date, the CLGF has undertaken initiatives in countries such as Malawi, Tanzania and South Africa, where the focus is on induction programmes for newly elected councillors. I have concentrated on democracy at national and local level, but, however important, it cannot alone answer all the problems of our developing partners in the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth recognises the essential link between democracy and socio-economic development. The Commonwealth and the heads of each of its Governments should accept that there are developing countries which have maintained impeccable democratic credentials, but which are still struggling with crippling developmental problems.
Our calls for increasing and improved democracy must be accompanied by effective co-operation in tackling those major socio-economic problems. Poverty and hardship can breed social unrest, disillusionment with the democratic process and rejection of the principles that we value so highly. The culmination can often be extremism of the left or the right, or military takeovers--the rise to power of the sort of Governments that the Commonwealth has sought to eradicate. That is a very real problem as people are overwhelmed by the weight of poverty that ensues.
Whatever the Minister said--with all his fine words--the only answer is one that has seemed to elude Conservative Governments in the past 16 years. Since 1945, the Conservative party has been perceived as resisting the tide of decolonisation and staying true to the ideals of imperialist Britain and the 19th century Conservative objective of
"upholding the Empire of England."
Mr. Foulkes: I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman of Baroness Thatcher's struggle to avert pressure on white South Africa, which epitomised that trend. If she had had her way, we would not have put pressure on white South Africa to end apartheid. Her understanding of the Commonwealth principles of democracy was shown in her message to the Commonwealth conference in 1987, when she said:
"Anyone who thinks that the ANC is going to run the Government in South Africa is living in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land".
The right hon. Baroness is the one who is living in cloud cuckoo land. Some Conservative Members, including most of those here today, have had a more enlightened attitude, but she was the Prime Minister and the Head of Government.
The manner in which the Heath Government entered the European Community caused some resentment among our Commonwealth friends, but equally--I know the background of the hon. Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber), the parliamentary private secretary, and his family history--the view taken by some Conservative Members that we can return to a position in which the Commonwealth is seen as a substitute for Europe is not realistic. The Commonwealth recognises that it has changed its role. It is of growing political influence, but not an economic grouping for its members' self- interest. The question of Europe or the Commonwealth was rightly described by Chief Anyaoku, who said:
"Europe and the Commonwealth cannot be adversaries, but partners in a common cause."
The Government are not heeding the message that democracy on its own is not enough for our developing Commonwealth neighbours, despite the Minister's fine words. Overseas Development Administration bilateral aid to Commonwealth developing states has dropped nearly 30 per cent. I have the statistics here, so the Minister cannot deny that. Aid to Commonwealth multilateral bodies has also declined. The Commonwealth's multilateral aid arm, the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, is also suffering from the restricted budget.
The Commonwealth gets some large sums of money from the aid and trade provision budget, however. For example, £234 million was wasted on the Pergau debacle and £2.9 million was wasted in Botswana on a flight information project--money that should have been spent on basic human needs such as health, education, safe water and sanitation, things that the countries of Africa desperately need. I have one simple statistic--the £234 million wasted on Pergau is close to the £215 million that was cut from the Commonwealth aid programme to Africa in 1992-93, which shows the Government's priorities. When we look at the social and economic statistics for some of the developing countries in the Commonwealth, we can understand why those prestige projects are viewed with such contempt. Many countries, including Bangladesh, Malawi, Swaziland and Tanzania, still have an infant mortality rate of more than one in 10; five countries have a life expectancy of less than 50 years; and the number with access to safe drinking water is less than 20 per cent. in some of the rural populations of Africa.