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2.15 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I add my welcome to the Bill and commend the skill with which my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has steered it thus far. I am delighted that it is getting a proper, if brief, debate today because that is the way that things should always be. I will not use the P-word that my hon. Friend so sensibly avoided, but any move that seeks to give a genuine degree of independence to something as distinguished as the Commonwealth Institute must always be welcomed, and I admit that it particularly pleases me. I am sure that the institute welcomes the fact that it is managing to get out from under the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—if I may put it that way—although I know that the relationship between the FCO and the institute has always been of the most harmonious.

I hope that the setting of the final seal of approval on the relationship with Cameroon and Mozambique will carry with it the responsibilities that go with Commonwealth membership. I am sure that we all welcome new countries that, as my hon. Friend said, have expressed a wish to be part of the Commonwealth. However, that must be a two-way process, and I hope that those countries accept—as I am sure they do—the very real responsibilities of Commonwealth membership, which is not always without its difficulties and problems, as we all know in a different context altogether.

In that regard, I was intrigued by my hon. Friend's reference to the implications for visiting forces from a Commonwealth country, which he said were part of the thrust of the Bill. I hope that that reference carries an implication not only that visiting forces will be welcome on appropriate occasions but that the new members of the Commonwealth will be prepared to carry their share of the burden where required, where Commonwealth forces may be involved in completely different contexts.

Mr. Willetts: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point; perhaps I may clarify it. In both cases there are powerful historical and geographical reasons for those countries' becoming members of the Commonwealth—full participating members of the Commonwealth, as he is emphasising. Mozambique is, of course, surrounded by Commonwealth countries—South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe—so its membership of the Commonwealth has enabled those countries to form a stronger regional group in southern Africa for mutual assistance and support.

Although I was not aware of the fact until recently, we do have an historical interest in Cameroon, in that for a long period of the 20th century we administered part of it, under a mandate under the original League of Nations. Therefore in both cases there are historical and geographical ties, which I hope and believe will make those countries' membership of the Commonwealth real in exactly the way that my right hon. Friend suggests.

Mr. Forth: Ah, I am always glad to hear about the good old days, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for

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reminding us of them. I have one brief question, which he or the Minister may be able to help me with. As a layman, when I read the list of repeals in schedule 3 and see that the Nigeria Independence Act 1960 and the Sierra Leone Independence Act 1961 are being repealed, I trust that that does not mean that those countries are coming back under our imperial guidance and pleasure. At first glance, the repeal of all those independence Acts would appear to carry with it some intriguing possibilities.

Mr. Willetts: I can assure my right hon. Friend that as we are now in the process of modernising the Conservative party, such a move would be inconsistent with the strategy that our party is now taking, and it is not part of this legislation to reverse the independence of those great states.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I am sure that those countries are equally grateful that their independence is not being prejudiced by the Bill. All in all, I add my welcome to the Bill. I hope that it will safely receive its Second Reading today, and I am sure that it will be properly scrutinised in Committee.

2.19 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) on introducing the Bill. He may have drawn a low place in the ballot, but that does not detract from the importance of the subject that he has chosen to promote.

We have an opportunity in this relatively short debate to stress the importance of the Commonwealth to world society. Around the world, there are detractors who say that the Commonwealth is a thing of the past, but the fact that, in this day and age, two African countries are seeking to join the Commonwealth shows that it has an important role to play, especially in developing the continuing dialogue between the developing world and the western world. The hon. Gentleman has done the House and the countries involved a service in introducing the Bill.

I was very interested to hear what he had to say about the Commonwealth Institute, which is an important organisation. I have visited it on many occasions, and it serves an important and continuing purpose, particularly in relation to some of my younger constituents who were born in the United Kingdom, but whose parents, grandparents and, these days, even older generations may have come from far-flung corners of the world in the days that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) perhaps still hankers after in his inimitable way.

Those places were far-flung parts of the empire and later the Commonwealth but are now independent countries. Those young people have an opportunity to visit the exhibitions and cultural events at the Commonwealth Institute and to learn not only about their heritage but about the relationship of those countries to the United Kingdom—the country of their birth.

I very much agree with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst when he talks about the countries that have joined the Commonwealth accepting the responsibilities of Commonwealth membership. Membership involves rights as well as responsibilities—the time-honoured phrase of new Labour. Cameroon and

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Mozambique are contrasting countries, and the Commonwealth can offer them, and they can offer the Commonwealth, different things in their different ways.

In preparing for today's debate, I read about the problems in Cameroon, where the human rights record is poor. Its approach to democracy is a little lacking. However, I was pleased to hear that a new electoral commission was established at the end of last year, although whether it will be able to play a role in the forthcoming elections remains to be seen. When one reads of detention without trial, torture and extra-judicial executions, one wonders whether that is in the long-standing tradition of the Commonwealth. Although that might be the case in one or two countries, it is certainly not what the Commonwealth is about, and I hope that a longer membership of the Commonwealth for Cameroon will lead it towards greater participation in democratic principles.

Mr. Willetts: The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. Of course, membership of the Commonwealth requires participation in basic standards of human rights. He is absolutely right to say that it is important—whether in Cameroon or, dare I say, Zimbabwe—that those standards are upheld, and I am sure that all members of the Commonwealth wish to ensure that they are.

Mr. Dismore: If we contrast the problems in Cameroon with the position in Mozambique, we can see what can be achieved in a relatively short time. Mozambique has suffered from decades of civil war. It was starting to recover economically, but a couple of years ago was hit by terrible floods, which we all saw on television. Despite that, it has still been able to make a very successful transition towards democracy. Mozambique has the fastest-growing economy in Africa; perhaps it is catching up after those years of being held back by the terrible civil war and the troubles of the region. It was knocked back by the floods—nevertheless, it is able to go ahead.

I am very pleased about the role that our Government are playing in developing the economy. The Government are, I think, the biggest bilateral donor of international aid to Mozambique. It is one of the heavily indebted countries, and we are doing an awful lot to try to deal with its long-standing international debts. If we can help to free Mozambique from the shackles of debt, which has held it back for so long, we will have a very important international partner. It is not one of our major trading partners, but I hope that by strengthening its links with the Commonwealth we will develop commercial as well as diplomatic ties and provide a great future for a country that has been held back for so long, for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Havant. I support the Bill, which I believe has all-party support, and congratulate him on raising such an important subject for debate.

2.25 pm

The Parliamentary Under–Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I congratulate the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) on his success in the ballot. The Government warmly welcome it. It has our full support and we hope that the House will also support it.

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As we have heard, until January 2000 the Commonwealth Institute was a non-departmental public body under the direction of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have not even heard of, let alone visited, the restaurant of a similar name to which he referred.

The chairman of the Commonwealth Institute approached the previous Government back in the mid-1990s with a proposal to change the institute's status. We examined the initiative and agreed to support its bid for greater independence. As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, that independence has been extremely successful. The progress has been encouraging and the institute has transformed itself into a pan-Commonwealth educational resource centre. It will be a major player in the jubilee weekend events in highlighting the Queen's role as head of the Commonwealth. It has also successfully built new relationships with new funding partners.

The severance and the institute's continued co-operation with the Government have been successful. The only outstanding issue that needed to be resolved was the repeal of legislation that linked it to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is one reason why we welcome the Bill.

The second part of the Bill ensures that the admission of Cameroon and Mozambique into the Commonwealth is properly recognised on the statute book. As hon. Members said, the applications of those two countries reflect once again the recognition of the value of the Commonwealth as an international organisation. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said how important it is that the relationship is a two-way process. They also mentioned human rights. I agree with everything that they said.

Cameroon joined because President Biya wanted it to be part of an association committed to good governance and to development, and to extend his country's international links. We firmly believe that membership of the Commonwealth can help to address some of the problems and challenges raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon.

Mozambique also joined in 1995. Although it has no traditional links with the Commonwealth, as the hon. Member for Havant said, it attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings for many years because it was surrounded by Commonwealth countries. Its membership arose in large part from its status and special relationship as one of the front-line states and its active engagement with the problems in what was then Rhodesia and in South Africa. I can reassure the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that schedule 3 does not mean that all former members of the empire who have won independence will again be subject to direct rule; it merely repeals legislation in small ways.

With the advent of majority rule in both countries, Mozambique sought a formal role in the Commonwealth, of which it has been, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said, a constructive and enthusiastic member. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

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