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20 Mar 2008 : Column 1114

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk made the point that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s budget is under pressure as a result of decisions taken in the comprehensive spending review, and the reduction in the budget for the Foreign Office took place, in part at least, to fund an increase in spending by the Department for International Development. I should like to see DFID respond to that by increasing its own policy commitment to and involvement with the Commonwealth. DFID has a small team of officials in charge of its Commonwealth policy, which needs to be expanded. It is based in East Kilbride but it needs to work with others in the Commonwealth secretariat, which is based in London, and to work more closely with Commonwealth high commissioners who are based in London and with us in Parliament. Some of those staff need to be moved to DFID’s London headquarters.

In the past, DFID left politics to the Foreign Office and concentrated on the technical job of providing development aid and of education and health policy. It has developed a globally respected reputation for the quality of its development work, but development policy does not just take place in a vacuum. Development depends upon good governance, especially when aid is being provided in the form of budget support direct to a Government’s Exchequer. The Commonwealth is a particularly important driver for good governance, and so should be seen as a key partner for DFID.

The DFID White Paper published at the end of 2006 set out three new priorities for the Department: improving the standard of governance in developing countries, and especially the capacity of Parliaments of developing countries to hold the Governments of those countries to account; to make progress on climate change; and to achieve reform of international institutions. The Commonwealth is in a uniquely well-placed position to help achieve British objectives on all three of those fronts. DFID therefore needs to invest more in its relations with the Commonwealth, and to put in as much effort on co-operation with the Commonwealth as it does with other international institutions, such as the World Bank or the EU.

Between 2001 and 2005, UK aid to Commonwealth countries increased by £1.3 billion, but using the leverage that we have over the EU, aid from the European community and other EU states to British Commonwealth countries increased over those years by £3.65 billion, more than twice as much as the British aid increased. We got something extra for Commonwealth countries because of our participation in the EU. DFID needs to invest in its relationship with the Commonwealth, just as much as it does with other international institutions.

I speak as the current chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch, which seeks to make its contribution to strengthening the Commonwealth and supporting Government initiatives in the Commonwealth. In 2005 when the UK Government had made Africa one of its two priorities for the Gleneagles G8 summit, the CPA UK branch held a conference in co-operation with the Inter-Parliamentary Union and others to bring together parliamentarians from G8, EU and Commonwealth countries to look at how we in our respective Parliaments would progress-chase our leaders on the commitments made at Gleneagles and within the EU.

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In most years the CPA holds four seminars to work on similar themes. This year we will be holding five. One will be on governance and another on parliamentary practice and procedure, which the Minister mentioned. We have just held one seminar to drive forward policy in Commonwealth countries on climate change and one on how we can work more closely together to deal with the problem of international trade in illicit drugs, and later this year we will be holding a conference looking at what we can do together to improve development co-operation policy.

Dr. Murrison: I am interested to hear about the gatherings with which the hon. Gentleman is involved. When he has his symposium on climate change, will he be sure to invite the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which I visited on Tuesday and which told me that one of its chief problems at the moment with the many sites that it looks after around the globe is the issue of climate change, which rather surprised me? I am sure that it would make a sound contribution to the gathering that he describes on climate change.

Hugh Bayley: The climate change conference took place just before the UN Bali conference on climate change at which its findings were presented, but I invite the hon. Gentleman to come with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to talk to the CPA UK branch about climate change and other issues that it may wish to raise and with which it thinks we should be involved. We would be willing and happy to meet.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk—with his tongue in his cheek, I hope—said that in the past the UK branch of the CPA had a reputation for surf and sun. I assure him that that has changed; we are no longer an exchange club for Members of Parliament, but a serious player in Commonwealth policy and politics. I should pay tribute to Mr. Speaker and the Lord Speaker for agreeing that from April—the week after next—the House of Commons Commission and its Lords equivalent, rather than the Treasury, will fund the activities of the CPA UK branch. That is an important step forward in making our parliamentary body independent of the Executive, and it will enable us to deliver more for Members of both Houses of Parliament.

The CPA UK branch has taken a step forward in participating in an organisation called the Westminster Consortium, which brings together a range of bodies that provide advice, assistance, training and resources to Parliaments in Commonwealth countries, to help strengthen their capacity to hold their Executives to account. The other bodies include the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which I also chair, the National Audit Office, the Clerks Department’s Overseas Office, and others.

Together those organisations have made a bid for money from DFID’s global transparency fund to do work to strengthen the capacity of Parliaments abroad. The consortium has parliamentary functioning work in hand at the request of the Parliaments of Guyana, Uganda and Kenya. The Kenyan Deputy Speaker came across a couple of weeks ago, and the Kenyan Speaker will come to the UK next month to discuss what we can do to help the Parliament of Kenya deal with the problems that arose following the country’s elections.

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It seems clear that the fundamental problem in Kenya was that the elections were not run by an independent electoral commission. A day or two after the president of the electoral commission of Kenya had announced that President Kibaki had won the election, he said that he had done so under duress. That is hardly surprising, as a year or so before, the President had packed the commission with a partisan team of his own supporters. If the next Kenyan elections are to have credibility among the Kenyan citizenry and the international community, they will have to be run by an independent electoral commission.

The law on the commission needs to change, and the people with the responsibility to make law in Kenya, are, of course, those in its Parliament. It is a hung Parliament; no party has an overall majority and its members represent a wide range of different parties and different points of view. It is important that they should exercise their authority over the Executive and ensure that a newly formed electoral commission of Kenya has representation from the whole spectrum of political parties and, I would advise, from Kenyan civil society too—although that is their decision, of course, not mine.

In some developing countries, Parliaments are intimidated by powerful Presidents, and if we in the Commonwealth genuinely subscribe to the democratic principles that underlie our membership, it is important that we work with colleagues to ensure that Parliaments have the strength, capacity and confidence to challenge the Executives in their countries and hold them to account.

Many other Members want to speak and I have probably spoken for too long, but I should like to mention one other piece of work, in Sierra Leone. It was commissioned by DFID and implemented by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. A few years ago, Sierra Leone was a country destroyed by conflict and violence. The United Kingdom—including, of course, its armed forces—played an important role in bringing that conflict to an end and developing the capacity of the civilian Government.

Before the elections in Sierra Leone last year, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy was asked by DFID to work with each of the political parties in the country to help them present their cases to the electorate in policy, rather than ethnic or tribal, terms. To begin with, we worked with all the parties; towards the end we spent more time working for the four largest parties. We helped them to use techniques common in this country. Pledge cards were produced so that politicians could explain in an emblematic, totemic form to their electorate what they would seek to do if elected. We persuaded the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service to run an “Any Questions?” programme. In Africa, it is quite a unique idea that members of the public should be able to question members of or candidates for Parliament about what their policies would be and what they had done in the past. It was a tremendous success.

The training was done on a cross-party basis; trainers came from the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties. We asked each opposition party to consider what it would do in its first few weeks of government if it was elected. Then we asked President Kabbah’s ruling party what it would do if it was not
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elected and became the opposition party. What would its role be as the leading opposition party? In the elections, something happened which is unusual in Africa: there was a revolving door—the ruling party was voted out and another party was voted in. The country had been involved in the bloodiest conflict just a few years ago, but it did not go back to that. The door revolved—a new party went in and the old party came out and took up its role as an opposition. That shows the genuine things that can be done by parliamentary capacity building, and that is immensely easier to do in a Commonwealth country.

I said that I would sit down, and I will. The final thing that I want to say is this. Don McKinnon provided outstanding leadership as the secretary-general of the Commonwealth in the past eight years. I offer him my best wishes for whatever he does from now on and give my congratulations to Kamalesh Sharma, the new secretary-general. I wish him good luck in keeping the Commonwealth in good shape in the years ahead.

1.38 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), who has done excellent and serious work as the chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. His speech was very well made. I hope that he did not mind my intervention too much; as the only Scot in the Chamber at the time, I felt a duty to make the point that I made.

I offer my apologies, as I will not be able to stay for the whole debate due to a commitment arranged some weeks ago. I intend to be back for the wind-ups. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) on his tenacity over several weeks in lobbying to get this debate, and I congratulate the Government on agreeing to have it in their time. Given that Commonwealth day was last Monday, the debate is timely.

Last week, I had the wonderful experience of going on a trip to the United Nations organised for parliamentarians by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—so I was in New York on Commonwealth day. On that day, the British deputy permanent representative to the UN was hosting a reception to celebrate a new report about peacekeeping. At the reception were a variety of ambassadors and figures from member states of the UN and, particularly, member states of the Commonwealth. It was particularly moving that the Ugandan permanent representative to the UN read out a statement as part of a celebration of Commonwealth day. When I talked informally to representatives from a variety of Commonwealth countries, I was struck by the great value that they too placed on this association, this network, this great organisation and this lasting set of relationships. It is important that our debate is underscored by that.

Any debate entitled “The United Kingdom and the Commonwealth” will be wide-ranging, and it is welcome that so many different issues have been raised. I would like to confine my remarks to a few key
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points—the importance of the Commonwealth and the roles that it can play in resolving conflict and tackling climate change, and the rights of Commonwealth citizens in this country.

We have already heard about the great importance of the Commonwealth. Two billion people live in Commonwealth countries, of which there are 53 across the globe, with a great mix of north and south, and a diversity of ethnicity, race, religions and cultures that are different across the countries and within them. They cross all the continents of the world, going from very large countries with huge populations, such as India, to very small island states.

The Commonwealth provides a welcome alternative international forum for discussing a range of issues. We have already heard about the millennium development goals and about climate change. While we have our formal structures through the EU and the UN, it is complementary to have, alongside those international governance structures, different groupings of countries coming together and engaging in dialogue.

We know about the great contribution that people from the Commonwealth make to the UK, with many thousands of Commonwealth citizens living and working here and contributing day in, day out, as doctors and teachers, or setting up businesses. They are choosing to make Britain their home, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said, not always necessarily taking up British citizenship, which can create difficulties.

Ms Abbott: In the context of the very live debate that is taking place about citizenship and nationality, how immigrants have to be encouraged to feel British, and so on, no group of immigrants is more passionate about Britain and more passionately proud of being British than those from the Commonwealth. I think that the generation who came from the West Indies in the 1950s are almost more proud of Britain than those of us in this Chamber, and I would like to place that on the record.

Jo Swinson: I welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention. I will pick up on that point when I come to the rights of Commonwealth citizens. There are many reasons why somebody living in Britain might want to retain the links with their home country and therefore not take up British citizenship, and that should not necessarily be to their detriment as regards their rights in this country. As we have heard, 7,000 of our armed forces come from Commonwealth countries. Strong links are created by the people from the Commonwealth who live here but retain family connections in other Commonwealth countries, and by the UK citizens who go and live in other Commonwealth countries, which is becoming increasingly important. All those factors help to bind the countries together.

I am pleased that the Minister mentioned the Commonwealth games, which are due to be held very close to my constituency, in Glasgow, in 2014. We are very much looking forward to that. Sport, like other cultural activities, provides an opportunity for countries to come together and share experiences. We should not underestimate the value of events and institutions such as the Commonwealth games.

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In preparing for the debate, I did some research and managed to print off from the website a list of the Commonwealth countries, as well as their flags, which will no doubt stand me in good stead for pub quizzes or “Trivial Pursuit” questions. Looking down that list, I was struck by the sheer diversity of countries. Many of them I have visited and are very familiar and commonly talked about; some are more remote and far flung, and my opinions of them, like those of many other Members, I am sure, come from what we see on the news, read in the newspapers and, personally speaking in the case of Botswana, from the fabulous literature series “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”, which paints vivid pictures of that African country. I have to put my hands up and confess to some ignorance, because when I saw the state of Kiribati listed, I scratched my head and was not sure where it was. I have asked several people since and have not managed to get an answer. The Minister may be able to fill us all in on that one and stand us in better stead for trivia quizzes.

Meg Munn: I will happily respond. It is pronounced, so I am told, “koobats”, and it is a Pacific island. I met a delegate from there when I was at the Commonwealth meeting of Women’s Affairs Ministers. As my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) said, it is a low-lying area and one of the many islands that are at risk.

Jo Swinson: I thank the Minister for informing us of something that some of us may not have known before.

Several countries on the list have been in the news often recently. That is where the Commonwealth has had an important role in safeguarding peace and security and sometimes stepping in and playing a role in resolving disputes. Kenya has been mentioned already. For many years, Kenya was a great success story in Africa, with a burgeoning economy and a stable political system. Indeed, the elections in 2002 were widely praised for the fair and free way in which they were undertaken. It was in that context that we all saw, to our horror, the events unfolding late last year and early this year, with violence and people being killed and having to flee their homes as a result of the conflict after the disputed elections.

However, we have also seen, and should take heart from, the value of international diplomacy, with the action taken not only by Kofi Annan but by a variety of countries behind the scenes, including Commonwealth countries. That has managed to bring Kenya back from the brink of disaster and, it is to be hoped, to create a platform for a peaceful resolution of the tension and to prevent further violence. We are still in the early days of the power-sharing agreement between the two parties, but we all hope that we will be able to secure a stable future for Kenya, that it will get the constitutional reform that is needed, and that the Commonwealth states will be able to continue to support it and see it returned to its former role as a successful figurehead country that manages to be an example to other countries in the region.

Another somewhat fragile state is Pakistan. In the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto we have had many debates and questions in this House. It caused a great deal of concern, particularly in the run-up to the elections on 18 February. It is pleasing that those elections passed off with relatively little disruption. The new political mix marks quite a change in public
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opinion in Pakistan, with the parties of Sharif and Zardawi working together. There may be some hope that Pakistan has a somewhat brighter future, although, again, we are very much in the early stages. I welcome the Minister’s comment that the Commonwealth hopes to be able to support Pakistan to fulfil the conditions needed to become once more a full member of the Commonwealth and embrace democratic representation and the rule of law.

Sierra Leone is another great success story for international co-operation. The strong links between the UK and Sierra Leone through the Commonwealth were clearly part of the motivation for the UK to intervene to end the crippling civil war that was taking place in that country. At the end of last year, I had the great privilege, along with the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who I hope will share those experiences with the House later, and the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), of travelling to Sierra Leone with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy as one of the later parts of the project that the hon. Member for City of York described. I did not really know what to expect from a visit to the third poorest country in the world, which had been ravaged so recently—within the past five or six years—by a devastating civil war. I had not expected to find the great positivity, which was absolutely everywhere, whether in the smiling faces when we went into the Parliament building or in the streets with the coconut sellers and the bustle that was going on. There was such a sense of optimism, given the horrors that every family has experienced, as we learned when we spoke to people when we were waiting for the ferry or travelling around. Everybody had lost a brother, a father, an uncle, a mother or a daughter in the civil war, if not several relatives, yet they managed to have this wonderful outlook. That can-do attitude will take Sierra Leone far, but we have to recognise that it has been made possible by interventions. Indeed, they feel strongly full of thanks for the UK’s intervention, and the Department for International Development is still the biggest development agent working out there at the moment. I am sure that we will hear more from the hon. Member for Crosby about Sierra Leone because I know that she is a frequent visitor to that country.

While we can recognise the successes internationally, we also, sadly, need to recognise where we have failed. Zimbabwe is a case in point. The hon. Member for City of York shared some horrifying statistics with us: inflation, depending on which figures we believe, stands between 7,000 per cent. and 13,000 per cent.; four out of five people are living below the poverty line; and a quarter of people have had to flee their homes. It is a truly horrific situation brought about by the destructive impact of Mugabe’s regime. It was right that, in 2003, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting—CHOGM, which is an interesting and amusing acronym—focused on the role of Zimbabwe and considered whether suspending it would be the right way to bring the Commonwealth’s influence to bear. Of course, at that point Mugabe decided that he would take Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth. It is regrettable that we have not been able to gain greater influence on that country, and that we have not used our abilities to talk to neighbouring countries to get them to bring more pressure to bear, because it is the people of Zimbabwe who are suffering.

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