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The Commonwealth is unique among international organisations in having the Commonwealth ministerial action group, of which we are a member. The group has the power to suspend members who have breached the Harare principles of democracy and good governance
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that guide all member states. We are hopeful that in future the group will do more as an early warning mechanism, providing peer pressure and mediation support in conflict situations.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): The Minister has just referred to good governance, and earlier she talked about the UK’s powerful influence in the Commonwealth, so why is the UK not doing more to put pressure on South Africa to deal with the terrible situation in Zimbabwe?

Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I am sure other Members will want to talk in more detail about Zimbabwe during the debate. We talk regularly to South Africa about the issue. South Africa is experiencing directly the problems arising from the situation in Zimbabwe. Millions of Zimbabweans are coming across the border to South Africa and they have to be supported there. South Africa is taking part in the process to try to resolve things in the region. I freely admit that there has not been as much progress as we want, but we talk to South Africa; it is not a failure of our Government.

Last November, the Commonwealth ministerial action group responded to the state of emergency in Pakistan by setting five conditions to be met within a given timetable. When the conditions were not met, it suspended Pakistan from the councils of the Commonwealth. I think that was helpful in Pakistan. The attempt by violent extremists to derail the democratic process was faced down by the Pakistani people. They showed courage, and in doing so have given Pakistan the chance to build a stable, secure and prosperous future. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that Pakistan should return to the fold of the Commonwealth and I hope we can see that process through in the coming weeks.

In November, the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Kampala acknowledged that climate change is rapidly becoming a defining global issue of our times and a natural focus for the organisation. It was appropriate that the theme of this year’s Commonwealth day was “The Environment—Our Future”. The states comprising the Commonwealth are enormously significant, bringing together a critical cross-section of countries—major greenhouse gas emitters, emerging economies, energy producers and poor and vulnerable states. Climate change affects the member states differently. Some perched only just above sea level, such as the Maldives, which my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has already mentioned, find that their very existence is at stake. Others, including many African states, face higher energy and transport bills, together with the loss of agricultural production measures that will threaten their economic future if they remain unaddressed. In the Pacific island countries even minimal sea-level rises could cause conditions that are likely to force people from their land and create a generation of economic migrants on Australia’s doorstep.

Last October, I took part in the Pacific island forum in Tonga. Like so many Commonwealth member states, the people of Tonga and those of neighbouring
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islands are directly on the front line of climate change. As they live on low-lying islands their whole way of life is threatened, and some fear they may have to abandon their homes if sea levels rise or catastrophic weather events become more frequent.

As the Lake Victoria declaration recognises, climate change threatens the vital national interests of all Commonwealth countries. We all face the same dilemma: how to grow and develop our economies while not destabilising the climate and thereby wrecking the foundations needed for our growth, stability and development. The Commonwealth Heads of Government at Kampala committed to helping each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, to carry out an assessment of the impact of climate change on their economies and development. The assessment is to include how we integrate climate resilience, as well as the transition to low carbon, in our development plans.

The Government believe that the Commonwealth’s very diversity has a role to play in combating radicalisation. The UK supports, and helped to fund, the Amartya Sen report “Civil Paths to Peace”. We think that the countries of the Commonwealth can take forward ideas from the report and continue and expand work in communities to prevent radicalisation from taking hold.

The secretary-general was asked to form a small group of Commonwealth Heads of Government to discuss international institutional reform and make recommendations before the next Commonwealth Heads of Government in 2009. The UK was one of the member states that encouraged that initiative. Effective international institutions are vital in establishing the rules, predictability and norms that underpin multilateralism. The Commonwealth, representing as it does such a diversity of global interests, is a natural forum in which to forge new thinking about how to adapt governance and its functioning to new times.

We believe that the Commonwealth can go from strength to strength. The interest from prospective new members is an indication of the continuing dynamism of the institution, and the UK welcomes the membership report that was adopted at Kampala. Rwanda in particular is keen to join, and discussions about membership have already begun with the Commonwealth secretariat. We welcome the prospect of Rwanda joining.

The Commonwealth matters greatly to Britain. Last November, when the next secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, accepted his appointment, he described the Commonwealth as a “great global good”. That is certainly the view of the Government.

12.36 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): What a pleasure it is to be opposite the Minister again. These little meetings across the Dispatch Box on Thursday afternoons make a middle-aged Conservative MP’s life a little lighter. I am sure that is also true for my male colleagues on the Benches behind me—they may lack femininity, but I suspect that they make up for it with robust style.

As the Minister said in her introductory remarks, Commonwealth day was last week, on 10 March. The Commonwealth is a unique body; it is a voluntary association of states that does not rely on geographical
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links, treaties or constitutions to hold it together. Its 53 member states—African, Asian, Pacific, European, Caribbean and North American—vary in geography from island to landlocked, and in size from India, with more than 1 billion people, to Tuvalu with just over 11,000. As the Minister has said, one of the Commonwealth’s great strengths is that it gives a voice to smaller countries that often are not heard or that are unable fully to bring their voices to bear in various international forums.

The Commonwealth is not just governmental. It is underpinned by a myriad weave of informal and non-governmental links that can often do much more than official hierarchies and intergovernmental structures. In the words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), it is a “kaleidoscopic institution”. With its unique global, multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious nature, and its emphasis on consensus and multilateralism, it has a key role to play in fostering peace and good relations over a large part of the globe.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I am sure that my hon. Friend, like me, listened with great interest to the Minister’s comments—all 16 minutes of them—so he will probably share my surprise that not once did she mention the contribution being made by Commonwealth citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope that he will join me in commending the fine work of those soldiers. He may also share my surprise that 635 Commonwealth citizens were serving in the British Army in 1998, but that today the number is 7,615. Although those soldiers are excellent, does he agree that it is surprising that the British Army has failed so badly in recruiting UK nationals to serve in our Army?

Mr. Simpson: Having served in the senior service, my hon. Friend has much experience of such matters, and he makes a good point. As the Minister is from the Foreign Office, she may not have believed that the point is relevant, but I think it important and will touch on it later in my remarks.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is significant virtue in incorporating members of the Commonwealth in the British Army? It gives Commonwealth members valuable experience that they may not have had, as they may have small armies in-country. Also, we want to learn more about the challenges that individuals face in Commonwealth countries, and that is a very good means of doing so.

Mr. Simpson: There are two aspects to consider. The recruitment of Commonwealth citizens to the British armed forces is a necessity, and there is no doubt about that. At the moment, we cannot recruit into the British armed forces, and particularly into the Army, enough people to meet our combat requirements. I agree that Commonwealth men and women undoubtedly make a contribution to the British armed forces and take that contribution back to their country. When I was an instructor at Sandhurst, I experienced the contribution that Commonwealth personnel made there and at our other training establishments. That is not to resile from the fact that we face a manpower problem, to put it crudely.

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The Commonwealth covers a quarter of the habitable surface of the Earth and accounts for 30 per cent. of its population. The population of the enlarged EU is about 497 million; the population of the Commonwealth is 2 billion. Members of the Commonwealth do not just speak the same language—English—but share a language of institutions, Parliaments, and legal and educational systems, a point made forcibly by the last Commonwealth secretary-general. As the Minister has said, the Commonwealth is still expanding and developing. There have been five new members since 1990, and others want to join, including Yemen, Algeria and Rwanda.

When looking back over the history of the Commonwealth, I came across two or three small historical facts, and being an old historian—or at least a long-in-the-tooth historian—I thought that I would lay them before the House. First, Ireland was, of course, a member of the Commonwealth until it became a republic in 1949. Although I can understand the sensitivities of the Irish as regards Great Britain, the monarchy and so on, it is open to the people and Government of Ireland to become members of the Commonwealth. Many hon. Members would regard such an application, if Ireland desired to make one, with a great deal of warmth. The Republic of Ireland would contribute massively to the Commonwealth.

Andrew Mackinlay: I hope to catch the Speaker’s eye later and develop that argument. The tragedy is that the British Government, from pride or other considerations, will not take the initiative to invite Ireland to join. As it is a shared Commonwealth, Britain could act with the big players—the Prime Ministers of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and so on—and take the initiative on the sensitive but sensible idea of welcoming Ireland back into the Commonwealth.

Mr. Simpson: It is obviously a two-way process, and I am sensitive to Irish public opinion, but I am sure that the Minister will take that point on board. Given what my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) and the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) have said, we should recognise the tens of thousands of Irish citizens who serve in the British armed forces, and we should recognise that Irish citizens made an important contribution in both world wars to defending democracy and developing the Commonwealth.

The second example that I want to raise is the United States of America. It obtained its independence in 1776, but parts of what is now the USA were effectively within the British empire until about 1846. By every criterion, the United States of America could become a member of the Commonwealth. If it did, it would certainly contribute something, and joining would be useful to it in its attempts to view the world on a multinational basis, as members of the Commonwealth come from the four corners of the world.

If the House will indulge me, I will set out another little-known historical fact. If the United States of America had not been established and the colonies had not sought to secede, or if the British generals had been more competent and the French had not stabbed us in the back— [Interruption.] I see that the Whip, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Roy), is nodding his head in agreement. He comes from the educated side of the Whips Office—I know that he can
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read and write. If the United States of America had not obtained its independence, slavery would have been abolished long before the civil war and much loss of life would have been prevented.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): We should be aware that the American ambassador to NATO recently invoked Washington and Lafayette as the basis for a potential Franco-American relationship. In that regard, is it really possible to imagine a future President Clinton, Obama or McCain bending the knee to a British Head of State? I think not.

Mr. Simpson: There are other republics in the Commonwealth, and the issue does not pose a problem for them. I thought for one moment that my hon. Friend, who normally responds to any mention of France or the EU, was going to mention the French. Another interesting point about membership of the Commonwealth is that in 1940, Winston Churchill, then the newly appointed Prime Minister, suggested fusion with the French empire as a way of keeping the French in the war. The French decided not to go down that path. In 1955-56, the French considered becoming members of the Commonwealth, so there is an interesting link there. The Commonwealth is a dynamic organisation. It is not particularly restricted, and it is in many respects unique.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): The United Kingdom allows Commonwealth citizens to vote in UK parliamentary elections. I think that that is anomalous; I would like to see UK citizens voting in UK elections. As a master of little-known facts, does the hon. Gentleman know whether any other Commonwealth countries give the franchise to Commonwealth citizens?

Simon Hughes: Yes, quite a few.

Mr. Simpson: Yes. I cannot list them, but there are a number of them. The Commonwealth is partly a uniquely English institution—

Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): British.

Mr. Simpson: When I was a Whip, Whips kept quiet, but now all they want to do is talk—I have been told that it is called “doing an Ed Balls”. I take the point made in the sedentary intervention—of course I mean British. I apologise for offending the sensitivity of the Scottish Whip.

Simon Hughes: On the intervention by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), I understand, from briefings that we have been given, that Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Christopher and Nevis, Guyana, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, New Zealand, Malawi and Namibia allow citizens of other Commonwealth countries to vote in their elections, so about a fifth of Commonwealth countries have a reciprocal arrangement.

Mr. Simpson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those details. The Commonwealth is a great asset to the United Kingdom. All the member states except Mozambique have experienced direct or indirect British rule, or have been linked administratively to
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another Commonwealth country. The Commonwealth is one of Britain’s three key relationships or circles of influence—Europe, the transatlantic relationship and the Commonwealth. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said at the Conservative party conference in 2006:

More than 7,000 individuals from Commonwealth nations have served in the armed forces since 2007, a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): Given my hon. Friend’s comments about Britain’s unique position in the Commonwealth, does he share my concern that there is a danger that Britain is taking its position in the Commonwealth for granted, and does he agree that we must forever be vigilant to ensure that we continue to cultivate our relationships with other Commonwealth countries? If we do not do so, countries such as Canada and Australia will try to take that pivotal role away from us.

Mr. Simpson: I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is correct. Successive British Governments have been very sensitive to the fact that although it was originally the British Commonwealth, it is now the Commonwealth. Her Majesty the Queen is head of the Commonwealth and is in a unique position. She is, in her own way, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Commonwealth. If one talks to Commonwealth Heads of State now, they find it awe-inspiring that Her Majesty will refer to leaders of their country whom she met 40 or 50 years ago. She is an historical continuity.

The important factor, as far as the Commonwealth is concerned, is that we have a leading role but are not necessarily the formal leader. Indeed, that kind of role is a great strength to us. Any attempts by Britain to try to replicate the role that we had 50 years ago would be disadvantageous.

Mr. Vara: Perhaps I can clarify my earlier remark. Given Her Majesty’s role at the moment, there is much talk among some of the other countries—I have mentioned Australia and Canada—to the effect that when, in due course, Prince Charles becomes King of England, they will not accept a British Head of State as head of the Commonwealth. They are thinking about manoeuvring in their own people on a rotating basis, which is certainly an argument. My comments are particularly directed towards the future, and we should not take our current relationship for granted.

Mr. Simpson: My hon. Friend may be right, but I suspect that the matter is rather like reforming the House of Lords: ultimately, failure to agree means that the status quo continues almost indefinitely.

We recognise that the UK’s important relationships involve more than NATO, the EU and our transatlantic partners. The Commonwealth adds something specific for Britain and for our foreign policy and trade. The African members of the Commonwealth are also members of the African Union. The south-east Asian Commonwealth members are also members of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Cameroon,
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Vanuatu, St. Lucia and Canada are all members of La Francophonie as well as Commonwealth members. Finally, Canada, like the UK, is a member of the Commonwealth, the G8 and NATO, to name but a few of our shared associations.

We also recognise that the UK has an historical predicament relating to the Commonwealth, which was accurately and colourfully summed up by the former secretary-general of the Commonwealth, who said that if Britain

He also recalled reminding a British official at a Commonwealth meeting that

A strangely unique relationship, with good and bad sides, came out of our empire.

What do the Conservatives want the Government to do in the future as far as the Commonwealth is concerned? First, despite what the Minister said, we need to reappraise our future role in and attitude towards the Commonwealth. In June 2007, the former secretary-general of the Commonwealth said:

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