In the course of my political years...I have dealt with Foreign Secretaries Hurd, Rifkind, Cook, Straw and Beckett. Naturally, they had nothing but the UKs interests at heart. Within that, they have always been warm towards the Commonwealth, but that warmth hasnt always permeated down to all officials.
There was no mention of the Commonwealth in the Foreign Secretarys announcement of a new strategic framework for the Foreign Office, which was made on 23 January 2008. Perhaps the Minister will explain that oversight.
Will the Minister assure the House that when a new White Paper outlining the Foreign Secretarys new strategic provision for the Foreign Office is finally published, it will include the Commonwealth and go into some detail rather than just including an honourable mention? Does she agree that the 60th anniversary in 2009 of the adoption of the London agreement of 1949, which founded the modern Commonwealth, is an important time to take stock and consider our relationships for the future?
The Foreign Secretary announced on 13 March that the Foreign Office is to stop funding Commonwealth scholarships, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out. In her speech, the Minister outlined the alternatives. However, although I recognise that the Foreign Office budget is under enormous pressure, it sends the wrong signal for the Foreign Secretary to say that that funding, which is in the small change category of the budget, must be reallocated towards the important subject of climate change and global warming. That sends entirely the wrong signal for the sake of a relatively small sum of money. I recognise the fact that the Foreign Office, working with other bodies, has managed to come up with the money, but it would perhaps have been better if the Foreign Secretary, who is interested in education and has a good track record on that subject, had been able to lobby the Prime Minister, who places enormous stress on education, about the importance of the issue.
Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Is there another priority for the Government on the Commonwealth? The Minister made the point that the Government are trying to explore ways to make the Commonwealth more of a force for good around the world, but she did not outline the measures that have been taken or what has been asked of our Commonwealth partners. Will my hon. Friend address that issue and the question whether we can do more as a country to encourage the Commonwealth to be a force for good across the world? Perhaps it could use its influence, or perhaps it could physically put together a force for good, to make a real difference in many humanitarian and economic trouble spots.
Mr. Simpson: My hon. Friend has made a good point. Of course, there is the danger that if Britain were seen to lead on that proposal, a number of members of the Commonwealth would resile from it. It might mean that members of the Commonwealth would think about the operational objectives and size of and support given to the secretary-general of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth secretariat. In the past, the post was almost at the level of a golf club secretary rather than an important chief executive. The new Commonwealth secretary-general, particularly as he comes from India, is likely to make a difference. Those are the things that we should be teasing out, and hon. Members may well have other ideas on the subject.
One important aspect that the Minister mentioned is the role of this House. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has made an important impact on many countries in terms of parliamentary democracy. I know that some of the more cynical Members of the House see the CPA as the sun and surf exchange, and that has undoubtedly gone on. However, a number of hon. Members, including me, have been involved in parliamentary workshops of one kind or another. We should pay tribute to the work of many colleagues and of our CPA secretariat, which has played an important role. It is not for me to suggest how the new secretary-general should act, but that is the sort of thing that he and his colleagues should consider. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) has made an important point.
A number of hon. Members have discussed the more difficult relationships within the Commonwealth. In particular, one thinks of the continuing problems in Kenya, where, fortunately, it looks as though a compromise deal has been made. The Commonwealth undoubtedly played an important role behind the scenes, which involved not only our Government but many neighbouring Commonwealth Governments. Sadly, the Commonwealth has not had such an impact and influence on Zimbabwe. I understand the major problems faced by the Government of South Africa, and Members have mentioned the impact of refugees and the fact that President Mugabe is still seen as an icon in the struggle against colonialism. Nevertheless, some Commonwealth countries have failed to take full-frontal measures to persuade President Mugabe that he is isolated and that what is happening in Zimbabwe is a tragedy not only for the country but for the whole of southern Africa. Of course, we fully support the Government in their efforts to maintain the bar of high standards in democracy and other aspirations. Many Commonwealth countries have
effectively been suspended before, in some cases, being readmitted. Pakistan is an obvious example.
My party and I are warm and firm supporters of the Commonwealth, which is a dynamic organisation. It enables countries from all round the world to come together and discuss many things, and it also means that Britain still has a way to influence events outside the international forums of which we are a part. The Commonwealth is an international asset, and we should celebrate it and look forward to its 60th anniversary in a years time.
Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I congratulate the Government on deciding to have a full days debate in Government time on the Commonwealth. I congratulate the Minister on making a fine speech, and the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on making a thoughtful and fine speech. I also congratulate the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who lobbied for a debate such as this to take place.
As other Members have said, the Commonwealth is the only international forum, apart from the United Nations, that has member states in every continent of the worldrich states, poor states, G7 and OECD members, and many countries that, sadly, are still least-developed countries. It has small island states such as the Maldives and some of the Pacific islandsthe Minister referred to themthat are threatened with extinction as a result of rising sea levels. It has high mountain states such as Canada, Pakistan and India, and it has states in the tropics and the Arctic. Because of its geographical and economic diversity, the Commonwealth is uniquely well placed to understand and deal with problems associated with global warming and the global economy.
Many characteristics within the Commonwealth draw this diverse family of nations together. We have to a considerable extent a shared language and a shared education system. Many millions of students in other Commonwealth countries take A-levels and GCSEs; some still take O-levels, which I know will be seen as a positive thing by some educational traditionalists in this Chamber. Many Commonwealth universities started off as colleges whose degrees were validated by British universities. The university of Durham played a particular part in this respect. Many universities in this country still maintain and are still developing close academic links with universities in other Commonwealth countries.
We have to some extent a shared legal system. Many Commonwealth countries base their legal system on the principle of common law. I am always surprised when I go abroad to see in Ministers or Attorney-Generals offices copies of British law reports. They have them because questions determined in the British courts are used as legal precedents in their own countries.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD):
It is interesting that although in many ways, our legal and education systems are shared across the rest of the Commonwealth, we do not necessarily have that arrangement within the United Kingdom. Scottish law
is quite different from English law in a variety of areas, and A-levels and GCSEs tend to be replaced by standard grades and highers in the Scottish system.
Hugh Bayley: With respect, we do have a shared system. Nobody is saying that Canadian law, Kittician law or Jamaican law are the same as British lawof course they are not. They are probably more different from British law than English law is from Scottish law. Indeed, there may well be more differences between their education systems and ours than there is between the English and Scottish systems. I stand corrected, but there are similar characteristics in the education systems north and south of the border, just as there are similarities with other Commonwealth countries.
We share to a considerable extent our culture and history. Kipling, Doris Lessing and Ben Okri are all great authors who are read and admired throughout the Commonwealth. We also share to a considerable extent links of kith and kin. Using that phrase often brings to mind the courage and heroism of sons and daughterssons particularlyof British émigrés to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, who in two world wars rallied to the flag and came to fight to maintain the freedom of this country. We must remember, too, that many Indian and West Indian citizensWest Indian subjectsand Africans also came and fought for Britain during the two world wars.
Nowadays, we mean something very different by kith and kin. There are many Indians and Africans living in this country who came from other Commonwealth countries, and their links of family and history are just as strong and important to the Commonwealth as the links of those who are the sons and daughters of émigrés from this country. Of course, people also inter-marry. I am married to a woman who was born in a Commonwealth countryin the Nevis part of St. Kitts and Nevis. Of course, this is not uncommon and it is part of the cement that binds the Commonwealth.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I accept that there are similarities across the Commonwealth, but does the hon. Gentleman not accept that there are distinct differences in the political anthropology of the various countries? In some countries, the main pattern of political loyalty is through the tribal structure, rather than through a class-based or devolved class-based structure. Perhaps studying those variations within the Commonwealth could inform the Government on how better to handle situations in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, which also have a tribalor biraderipolitical structure, rather than a class-based one.
It is important to realise that tribalcertainly ethnic and religiousdifferences have been a factor that has marked, and still does to some extent, politics within the United Kingdom. As the chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Associations UK branch, I should point out that we have on a number of occasions brought delegates from other Commonwealth countries to Northern Ireland to talk to politicians and others there about how one can use politics constructively to create a bridge between those from different ethnic or religious backgrounds. So I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Commonwealth is highly diverse. How could it
be anything else, being an association that encompasses more than a quarter of the worlds population? However, we have things to learn from each other, which is one of the values of a commonwealth.
Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman will know as well as anybody, given his family arrangements, that many Commonwealth citizens who are now part of the community in the UK have retained their Commonwealth citizenship. The debate about the rights of people to vote or to become British, for example, should take into account generations of people who have come and settled in the UK and contributed here, but who still technically may not be British citizens because they have kept their link with another part of the Commonwealth in another part of the world.
Hugh Bayley: That is one of the issues that we must grapple with. When we in this place determine our immigration and nationality rules, it is important that we take account of the links that the United Kingdom has with other Commonwealth countries. However, we need to take account of those links with all Commonwealth countries, and not pick and choose.
I relate that comment to what I said earlier about kith and kin. That is not just about links between white people within the Commonwealth. It is about family links between people from a wide range of cultures, nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. That is one of the features that makes the Commonwealth so special and gives it a vitality and relevance to the present, which it would not have if it was simply a reflection of a colonial past more than 50 years ago.
At the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association seminars that we hold in London, one sees that shared heritage bubbling to the surface. One sees people wishing to learn from each other. Delegates from Commonwealth countries that have suffered from ethnic or tribal conflict want to learn from us about how we dealt with difficulties in Northern Ireland, and from South Africa about how people from different races have been reconciled in the new multi-ethnic South Africa.
The one thing that unites Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegates more than anything else when they meet is a shared commitment to democracy. Countries cannot belong to the Commonwealth, unlike the United Nations, without a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Pakistan was suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November last year.
I must correct what the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk saidPakistan has not yet been readmitted to the Commonwealth, but it has held elections and it is well on the path to readmission. I look forward to the day when Pakistan is readmitted as a full participating member of the Commonwealth, as I look forward to the day when Fiji and Zimbabwe meet the conditions for full participation in the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is a family of nations and we do not sever the links, even when we have differences that are so severe and significant that they lead to a country being suspended.
Zimbabwe still receives a great deal of aid from this country because there is a humanitarian need to support the Zimbabwean people. Indeed, as the state of Zimbabwes economy has deteriorated, UK aid has
increased. In 1997-98 we provided £13.7 million of aid to Zimbabwe. In 2006-07 we provided £33 million of aid. Zimbabwe needs help. A third of the populationabout 4 million out of 12 millionreceive food aid from the World Food Programme. Life expectancy for women in Zimbabwe has fallen to below 34 years. One child in five dies before the age of five. There are 1.8 million orphans or other vulnerable children.
But British aid and aid from other countries can make a difference. The Department for International Development has provided £35 million of aid to Zimbabwe since 2002 to respond to the catastrophe of HIV/AIDS, and will provide a further £47 million over the next three years. Zimbabwe is the first country in southern Africa to see a fall in the HIV prevalence rate: two years ago it stood at 20 per cent. and now it is down to 15.5 per cent.
The Commonwealth matters enormously to the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk made the point that there are more than 7,000 Commonwealth citizens in the UKs armed forces, and the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) observed that that number has increased sharply in the past six or seven years.
Hugh Bayley: The subject has been addressed. There are difficulties, undoubtedly, in recruiting UK nationals to the armed forces, in part because of recent conflicts, and in part also because we have full employment, and it is always harder to recruit soldiers at a time of full employment. All of us in the Chamber would agree that the Commonwealth provides a real service to the UK because it enables us to recruit people whom we need in our armed forces.
Dr. Murrison: I agree. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Commonwealth citizens who serve in the armed forces. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to be a little bit careful? If there is a rich seam, so to speak, of potential recruits to the British Army, it is less imperative for the Government to make sure that the terms and conditions for indigenous recruits are good to the standard that will attract them into our armed forces?
Hugh Bayley: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that as a potential problem. I would be shoulder to shoulder with him in making the case for the very best terms and conditions for all members of the armed forces, whether they are UK nationals or nationals of other Commonwealth countriesor, indeed, from Nepal. Without that commitment, we will not have the armed forces that we need, with the support and commitment from their members that are currently displayed. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must not fall into the trap of creating cheaper armed forces staffed by foreigners. Despite the huge commitment that 7,250 Commonwealth citizens make to our armed forces, they are a relatively small minority out of, I think, a little below 200,000 members of the armed forces.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): We all agree that we want our armed forces to have the best possible terms and conditions, but nothing should take away from the bravery and commitment of the Commonwealth soldiers who serve in our armed forces. I remind the House of the most recent winner of the Victoria cross, the first person to win the Victoria cross in a very long time, for extraordinary gallantry, who was from Grenada in the Commonwealth. Although we want good terms and conditions, soldiers from the Commonwealth have served and continue to serve with outstanding gallantry and to the highest standards in the world.
Hugh Bayley: I utterly agree. Private Beharry has given tremendous service to this country and acts as a role model for young people from all cultures and races in the UK. We are rightly proud of him and the contribution that he and other citizens from Commonwealth countries make to our armed forces.
One of the lessons that we should learn from Iraq and Afghanistan is that there are limits to what military power can achieve. The UK also needs to exercise soft power, influence within the world, and the Commonwealth provides enormous opportunities for the exercise of soft power. Before last years CHOGM in Kampala in November, the UK set out a number of objectives for the conference to win support from other Commonwealth countries for the UKs and the EUs position on climate change, to win support for the Prime Ministers call for action that he made in July 2007 for implementation of the millennium development goals, and for there to be pressure on President Musharraf of Pakistan to step down as head of the armed forces, to lift the state of emergency and to hold elections in Pakistan. When the Prime Minister made a statement to the House on 26 November on his return from Kampala, he was able to report that progress had been made on all those fronts. Of course, the progress in relation to Pakistan had been to suspend Pakistan from the Councils of the Commonwealth, but that does matter, especially in a club, society or association such as the Commonwealth. As a result of that we have seen President Musharraf stepping down as the head of the armed forces in Pakistan and elections taking place. I am sure that Pakistan will soon be readmitted to the Commonwealth.
One area where the Commonwealth is particularly important is in development assistance. The UK won support from other countries in the G7 and EU in 2005 for doubling aid to Africa, and in 2006-07 86 per cent. of all UK aid to sub-Saharan Africa went to Commonwealth countries£2.5 billion out of a total of £2.9 billionand 63 per cent. of all UK aid worldwide went to Commonwealth countries. That is logical and sensible. We are providing aid for countries where we are best able to help. I am pleased that during the last decade aid to the Commonwealth has increased greatly. In 1996-97, some £669 million of British taxpayers money was used in aid in other Commonwealth countries and by last year that had risen to £3.083 billion, almost a fivefold increase in aid to the Commonwealth, and that money is well spent.