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School twinning and similar projects do a great deal, and it is a two-way process. Teachers get an opportunity to see the extraordinary skills of some of those working in the most difficult conditions. I remember a little village school that I went to see, where the facilities and resources were practically nil. The teacher had painted Pythagoras’ theorem all around the blackboard because the school could not afford to have it printed out. He had painted it for his children on the walls. That is
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remarkable testimony to how extraordinary people are and what they will do with the most meagre resources to make things better.

Returning to the progress that has been made in Rwanda, the Minister will be delighted to know that 48 per cent. of Members of Parliament in Rwanda are women. Women play an extraordinary role there. There are 1 million widows, as a result of the genocide. The chair of the Conservative Women’s Organisation, Fiona Hodgson, spent a great deal of time over the two weeks in Rwanda working with women right across the board, from those in prison to those in ministerial office. Their contribution to the recovery of Rwanda is so important.

That country has been through unparalleled troubles. Through their president and their Government, and through their own commitment and that of people from outside, the people of Rwanda are making something of themselves. What a wonderful addition to the Commonwealth they will make. They can contribute so much from their history and background, and I very much look forward to their joining.

My final point relates to future development. In the debate we have spoken about climate change, but we have not spoken a great deal about pressure on other resources, which is becoming frightening. Because it will affect the Commonwealth so much, I shall ask the Minister at the end of my remarks to what extent consideration of that problem will form part of the Commonwealth’s drive for development in the future, and how the Commonwealth will react to the pressure on the resources of the planet and the way that they are being used.

I appreciate the help of Professor Chris Lever of Oxford university, who recently gave a presentation to Members of Parliament, in assembling some key facts. In 1927 the world population was 2 billion, in 1960 it was 3 billion, and today it is 6.5 billion. It is increasing by 70 million every year. It has doubled in about 50 years and by 2050 there will be 9 billion people on the planet, many of them in the developing world, and many in countries that are members of the Commonwealth.

Over that period, what has happened to the resources to feed those people and meet their other needs? If we consider the past 100 years and the impact on land, about a fifth of the world’s topsoil has been lost through erosion and salination. About a fifth of agricultural land has been lost. A third of the forests have been lost. One estimate suggests that 50 per cent. of arable land may be unusable by 2050 because it has been over-irrigated and over-grazed.

Pressures are increasing and almost all the increase in demand will come from developing countries. The livestock revolution is changing the demand for cereals, which is affecting wheat prices as we talk today, and the House can imagine what the situation may be like in 30 years’ time. The competition now between crops and biofuels will add to the problem. To feed 9 billion people in 2050 without allowing for additional imports of food, Africa will have to increase its food production by 300 per cent., Latin America by 80 per cent. and Asia by 70 per cent.

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We are running out of water. Worldwide, more than 70 per cent. of food production is dependent on irrigation. The depletion of aquifers is occurring at twice the rate required to recharge them. Salination and desertification are major consequences of irrigation.

As so many of the effects of those uncomfortable truths will be felt in Commonwealth countries, to what extent is the Commonwealth taking a lead in combating those pressures on resources? This is not just about climate change or environment; it is about how a developing world that wants to catch up, and which in many ways has an absolute moral right to catch up, with everything that we have taken for granted for so long, will be able to do so, and how the world’s resources will stretch to achieve that. What is the legacy for the grandchildren of the Commonwealth of those of us who are here today? I should be grateful if the Minister in her concluding remarks would consider that and what might be done in the future.

Despite the joke at the beginning of my speech, we are all aware of the importance of the Commonwealth, but it is probably true that there is a danger that the British people are at some risk of forgetting its historical significance and not appreciating its vibrancy for today. We must not forget that we fought two world wars together with Commonwealth countries, as the cemeteries in France and Belgium show. My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley paid tribute to the Anzacs at Gallipoli. Gallipoli is remembered in very few places in the UK today, except Bury, my home town, which was the garrison town of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who famously won six VCs before breakfast, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) would inevitably know, and he would presumably be able to quote the names of all those who won them. Bury is intimately tied up with Gallipoli where so many men from the town died. Those links must never be forgotten, and that is why my hon. Friend spoke so movingly about the length and depth of the relationship between Australia and New Zealand and this country. There exists between us a deep historical and unique link that we would be foolish ever to forget.

But it is also clear from contributions from all parts of the House that as well as the past there is a present vibrancy to the Commonwealth as it considers its future and plays a more substantial role. I firmly believe that it may find its fullest and most important voice in development and resource issues, because so many of its citizens will suffer if we fail to deal with the threats of environmental damage and resource depletion that face us today.

4.38 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I was caught off guard to be called now, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I naturally assumed that a colleague of greater seniority would catch your eye before me, but I am most gratified by your beneficence. It is a great pleasure to take part in the debate. We are a few days late for Commonwealth day. I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Minister for myself being a few minutes late for her speech, but I was a little surprised that she sat down so soon after I arrived. Perhaps she
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will enlighten us with further thoughts when she responds to the debate, because this debate is about an important topic. The Commonwealth is always in danger of seeming like no more than a hangover from bygone days, a fading institution, and those who talk about it are often caricatured as latter-day blimpish figures harking back to the glory days of empire. However, the reality of the modern world creates potential for a 21st-century Commonwealth that far exceeds anything that most people associate with it today. We have heard a lot in this debate about kith and kin, historical and cultural relationships, and development. We have heard powerful speeches on those issues, but I wish to turn principally to the economic relationships.

Let me say at the outset that I do not claim originality for the fundamentals of this idea, which have been expounded in many articles and speeches by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Howell of Guildford. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has just graced us with a powerful and profound speech about the challenges facing the modern Commonwealth and modern world. However, I take exception to his assertion that the world is increasingly breaking into power blocs. Lord Howell makes the opposite observation: he has marked the transition of global trade and politics from the superpower blocs of the cold war to what he calls a “network world”—one in which global communications technology is progressively neutralising many of the limitations imposed by geography that we grew up with and accepted as fact. It is a world in which, to quote my right hon. and noble Friend:

Alistair Burt: May I add to that argument? I completely understand my hon. Friend’s and Lord Howell’s point, which is perfectly sensible. What I worry about is that we see world conflicts beginning to centre around the availability of resources. Under that pressure, will what my hon. Friend has described break down and will people go back to the power blocs with which they are familiar—based on ties, geography and economics? We might have to contract to deal with the problems of the future.

Mr. Jenkin: I understand my hon. Friend’s point, which is about protectionism. We must guard against that, because protectionism will lead to precisely that kind of unhealthy competition between nations, as opposed to the healthy competition that derives from a system of free trade.

The Commonwealth could rapidly become an ever more powerful alliance without the disadvantage of a single dominating state, as there is in NATO, or a dominating group of states, as there is in the European Union or the United Nations. Such an alliance could be bound together by common interests to do with promoting free trade, democracy and international security. Furthermore—we must say this deferentially
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and with tact—as an English-speaking alliance, much of the Commonwealth reflects British values of freedom, democracy and tolerance and retains a high regard for the United Kingdom and the role that we play in the world.

My central point today is that the Government, Parliament and the nation are not paying sufficient attention to the Commonwealth and that a more positive UK engagement with the Commonwealth would greatly benefit this nation, our trade, foreign policy and defence relationships, and the world.

The Commonwealth exists primarily because of trade, as did the empire that preceded it. Long before the Raj, the British were in India for trading purposes, and that was the case across the globe—British trade came before British governance. British governance has long since been confined to the history books, but the opportunity remains for British trade to flourish. As we have heard today, the Commonwealth comprises an amazing array of nations—rich and poor, large and small. The UK already trades extensively with Commonwealth countries. It is clear that Commonwealth countries, led by India and alongside China—with which the UK also shares a special relationship by virtue of our former colony, Hong Kong—are the coming force in the global economy.

EU gross domestic product is $14.5 trillion, slightly more than that of the US, which is $13.9 trillion. The combined GDP of the Commonwealth is already $7.8 trillion, or 16 per cent. of the global economy in 2006, and growing faster than that of the EU or the United States.

When we compare economic growth rates in Europe with those of the Commonwealth, it is painfully obvious that the Commonwealth presents the most fruitful opportunities for the expansion of British trade in the future. Since 2000, growth in the eurozone has averaged 2 per cent. per annum, but in Canada the average has been 2.9 per cent.; in Australia, 3.3 per cent.; in New Zealand, 3.4 per cent.; in South Africa, 4.2 per cent.; in Malaysia, 5.4 per cent.; in Nigeria—one of the growing number of African countries that is now a net exporter of capital, which is not what we expect—5.5 per cent.; in Singapore, 5.7 per cent.; and in India, 7 per cent. Many Commonwealth countries are becoming the motors of the global economy of the future. The Commonwealth also contains 13 of the world’s fastest-growing economies. They also comprise, outside the US and Japan, all the key cutting-edge countries in information technology and e-commerce.

We are not yet making the most of these opportunities. In 2006, the UK exported £26.8 billion of goods and services to Australia, Canada, Malaysia, India, Nigeria, Singapore and South Africa—barely more than the £24.1 billion that we exported to Ireland alone. The combined population of these Commonwealth countries is 1.38 billion, compared with 4.3 million in Ireland. We share an affinity with Commonwealth countries every bit as potent as, say, with Ireland. I am much taken with the idea that we should invite Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth, and I hope that that point, which was made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), will be taken up by the Minister. These relationships are all the more potent because we can be the Commonwealth representative in the EU as well as being the Commonwealth representative as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

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Hugh Bayley: One of the great benefits of the enlargement of the European Union is that three Commonwealth countries—Malta and Cyprus, as well as the UK—are now members of the EU, and we should be working together to deliver Commonwealth policies in Europe.

Mr. Jenkin: I do not quite see a Commonwealth axis emerging in the European Union, but I entirely agree with the sentiment expressed by the hon. Gentleman.

The point about the Commonwealth countries is that there is a natural commonality of language, law, accounting systems and business regulation that lends itself to trade between those countries. As these countries grow richer, is there any reason why they should be less attracted to British goods and services than, say, European countries? The Prime Minister tells us that 3.5 million jobs depend on trade with the European Union, but there is a danger that by focusing too narrowly on European trade we are ignoring the possibility of creating millions more jobs with our Commonwealth partners. Indeed, the Prime Minister himself has said that

I commend those words, but there is a danger that we are missing that boat.

This prompts the question of what a British trade policy might be were we to develop more freedom under the EU customs union and therefore be less obliged to apply a purely EU tariff regime to all imports from Commonwealth countries. As the EU continues in relative decline and the Commonwealth and China roar ahead, how is the balance of advantage for British trade likely to shift in that environment? It is ironic, amid all the talk that we are hearing about aid, that the EU is in the process of imposing so-called economic partnership agreements on many Commonwealth countries—not, I imagine, something that the UK Government are entirely happy with. Many African, Caribbean and Pacific countries have refused to sign the pro-forma agreements offered by the European Commission, resulting in a tangle of separate and complex agreements for different, often neighbouring nations. We are therefore likely to see increases in tariffs on exports from some of the poorest countries in the world.

Much has been made of British and EU aid flows to Commonwealth countries, but in the longer term the trading relationship could be far more important than the aid relationship. I hope that our European Union partners wish us to be a good member of the Commonwealth as much as they want us to be a good member of the EU. That should not present any sort of conflict, nor should positive membership of one lead to neglect of the other.

Trade is vital to our prosperity. Napoleon derided the English for being a nation of shopkeepers only because the UK was so good at being a trading nation. But in these uncertain times, the Commonwealth offers a vehicle for political co-operation and international action that is unparalleled by any other global institution. The Commonwealth is an institution with members in all continents. It has more than 500 million Muslim inhabitants, for example, and it supports
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democracy throughout the globe. Freedom House, the US-based non-governmental organisation, produces an annual freedom index based on the political rights and civil liberties of each nation’s population. In 2008, there are 54 countries outside Europe that Freedom House reckons to be free, and 26 are members of the Commonwealth. A further 18 Commonwealth countries are reckoned to be partly free and only five are judged to be not free. The Commonwealth, therefore, is a beacon for democracy and human rights in parts of our world where that light is sometimes at its dimmest. Six of the 11 free nations in sub-Saharan Africa and eight of the 16 free countries in the Asia-Pacific region are in the Commonwealth.

The geographical, racial, cultural and religious diversity of the Commonwealth is one of its great strengths. Its values are our values and we must remain fully engaged with it if we, other member countries and the rest of the world are to continue to benefit from it. The Minister mentioned climate change as an initiative to be pursued through the Commonwealth and we can do a great deal to address that agenda, along with the promotion of biodiversity, the saving of rainforests and other environmental initiatives.

As these nations grow in economic significance, so their influence, military and aid capabilities are likely to grow. We are already joined with Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth nations in military operations in Afghanistan, for example. Canada is a member of NATO; Australia is obviously not, but that suggests a huge potential for NATO to develop more formal association agreements with a range of non-Euro-Atlantic powers for the purpose of multinational operations. Some Commonwealth countries are already represented at NATO headquarters at Mons in Belgium. Perhaps there is even a case for the Commonwealth flag to be flown on Commonwealth peacekeeping operations.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the type of Commonwealth countries that he thinks ought to be part of an economic trading agreement? Do they include, for instance, countries that could be classified as post-conflict or fragile states, and what sort of criteria would he expect to have in place that would allow those countries to participate in the trade that he is talking about and of which I know they would like to be a part?

Mr. Jenkin: I am an advocate of free trade, and ultimately, I would like a barrier-free world. The ideals of an open and free market that we have pursued in the European Union were ahead of their time. They foreshadowed globalisation, and the Commonwealth is an opportunity to extend such freedoms beyond the shores of Europe. I do not see that we need to categorise particular nations as post-recovery and so on. We have to be careful, however. The problem with the economic partnership agreements is that they require reciprocal liberalisation of a nation’s tariff regime alongside that of the EU. That makes demands on some poorer countries that are impossible for them to accept. Their tariff regimes often provide an important component of their income and removing that would rob their Governments of their means of self-sustenance because they do not
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have a natural indigenous tax base. Secondly, they have fledgling industries that are often not very competitive, which would simply be swamped. We remember the business of the substitute milk products that flooded some African economies and destroyed indigenous production of food for children and babies.

As those countries emerge from being so far behind economically, the sort of agreements we need with them will have to tolerate a degree of protectionism for those economies until they emerge strongly enough to take part as full members of the global economy. I hope that that answers the hon. Lady’s question. It was a very complex one, so I doubt that I have answered it as fully as it deserves.

I was coming on to the sort of defence relationships that could develop throughout the Commonwealth. I would point out that there may be a case for the Commonwealth flag to be flown over Commonwealth military bases in certain peacekeeping operations. If it is okay for the EU to fly the flag over military operations, why not the Commonwealth? We have more in common with many Commonwealth nations than with many EU nations, so we should not be confined by a narrow Euro-centric view of potential threats to our security or of the possibilities of resolving them through co-operation with nations beyond the EU or NATO. That should be attractive to the US and to European nations seeking to widen the burden sharing of multinational security operations as well as to those who want to encourage groupings to emerge that will counterbalance the tendency of the US to dominate militarily in the world.

There is a danger, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office directing too little of its attention towards the Commonwealth part of its remit. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Howell of Guildford suggests that it should be called the Commonwealth and Foreign Office in order to concentrate the minds of Ministers and officials. Unlimited hours of officialdom have generated reams and reams of paper about our relationship with the EU—we are all guilty in this House, me included, of giving so much attention to that relationship—yet relatively little effort is devoted to the Commonwealth and the huge economic and political potential it represents in the 21st century.

It is, of course, right, given our role in the EU, that the FCO should be concerned with our engagement with that institution and our partners in it, but I would suggest that more attention needs to be paid to the Commonwealth and how that institution can be developed and strengthened. Otherwise, we run the risk of being too parochial, too narrowly European and not global enough in our outlook.

Other countries recognise the political and economic importance of Commonwealth countries and are investing in them. Some of that, such as the American engagement with India, is welcome. Other developments, such as the massive Chinese investment in sub-Saharan Africa, are not so welcome, and The Economist recently described that as marking the Chinese out as “the new colonialists”. They are ruthlessly and single-mindedly exporting their population to many African countries in order to exploit their mineral and natural resources, often with little regard for the long-term environmental consequences or, tragically, for the human rights of either their own people or the indigenous populations.

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