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20 Mar 2008 : Column 1167

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I rise to support that comment, because I have my own experience of what the hon. Gentleman is describing in respect of Sierra Leone and other west African countries, where the Chinese role is nothing but flagrant opportunism. Everything is being taken out and, as far as I can see, absolutely nothing is being put back.

Mr. Jenkin: At risk of extending my remarks further than necessary, I think that both Chinese and Russian involvement in the African continent presents a potential security threat. It is, of course, a gloomy symptom of that threat that the United States has felt it necessary to open an African headquarters for its military. One is horrified at the prospect of a sort of rerun of what happened in Africa in the 19th century, as dominance over the continent is effectively fought over by proxy by the superpowers once again. If we can possibly avoid that, we should. I submit that there is a huge role for the Commonwealth in trying to prevent that from happening. I ascribe no malicious intent to the Americans, who are reacting in the only way they can; otherwise, the continent will become an unchallenged space for China and Russia.

Engagement with the Commonwealth should therefore be at the front and centre of our foreign policy, beyond the borders of our own continent. Winston Churchill believed that the UK needed to be as committed to its relationship with Europe as to that with the United States and the Commonwealth. Of course, the world has changed greatly since Churchill’s day, but it is striking how, after decolonisation, the Commonwealth as a network of powers is on the march once again. Economic growth and globalisation have the potential to transform the Commonwealth into a body of increasing importance. But I fear—I put this to the Minister—that a speech of just 16 minutes from a junior Minister is an indicator that the Government do not attach to the Commonwealth the importance that it will increasingly deserve. I very much hope that she will recompense us in her closing remarks.

5 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Had the Commonwealth not just appointed a new secretary-general, I would have just heard an extremely eloquent bid from the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) to be considered for that post. I was pleased that he put the case strongly for the Commonwealth to be recognised, valued, appreciated and objectively assessed for the huge benefit that it is and can be.

At nearly the end of an absolutely fascinating debate, I reflect on the fact that eight weeks ago I started my weekly pestering of the Leader of the House for a Commonwealth debate as near as possible to Commonwealth day, not just for this year but as a regular feature of parliamentary life. I hope that hon. Members feel that that request has been vindicated. I agree with colleagues’ comments that Parliament could do even more to recognise the Commonwealth at around the time that it is recognised across the Commonwealth. There is absolutely no reason why we could not have a fixed point in the calendar—just as the second Monday in March is Commonwealth day—which could be protected, as other business can be, to allow us to debate the huge, historic, current and future benefit that
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we have as part of the Commonwealth and that the Commonwealth gives to the world.

A lively debate took place yesterday on the future of the post office network in this country, against the backdrop that many of the post offices that we value will be closed down, which many people regret. The good news is that no one in the House wants the Commonwealth to be closed down—absolutely the contrary. We ought not just to stand up for the Commonwealth, but to reflect on how beneficial it is, and to see whether we can build on its current state, which is already healthy, but it could be an even healthier contributor to the world.

Some particularly notable speeches have been made. I hope that the Minister will feed that back to the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues, so that when he leaves for his Easter holiday, he realises that he is the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, or the Commonwealth and Foreign Secretary, and not just one rather than the other. The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) made a hugely impressive, extremely moving speech about the historic, practical, trade and cultural links between New Zealand and this country. It caused me to reflect that a number of parliamentary colleagues in my lifetime have had a Commonwealth background. Edwin Leather is the first one I remember having been a Canadian citizen and a Member of this Parliament. I am conscious that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has clear links to the Caribbean. We have had members with South African, Australian, Guyanan, Ghanaian, Pakistani and Indian links, as well as New Zealand links—and perhaps other Commonwealth links, too. Ours has become a Parliament that reflects the interchange of peoples, and I hope the Government and all their works understand that.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) make the case for us to be proactive in arguing for Ireland to return to the Commonwealth, a case that I support without reservation. The old reasons for difference have gone now. Yes, we are a monarchy and Ireland is a republic. We are a proud monarchy, and Ireland is a proud republic, but the reasons for the breakdown of relations in the first decades of the last century have gone, and we have moved on. Today the Queen was in Armagh, distributing the Maundy money for the first time in that part of the United Kingdom. That must be a sign that we are ready to return to what was a wonderfully civilised relationship. It does not mean that we must always agree with each other. It means that we can do what my brother did the Saturday before last—go to Croke Park and yell furiously for Wales to beat Ireland, as it very satisfactorily did. We have done that occasionally, and I remember Wales beating New Zealand and Australia as well at Cardiff Arms Park during my youth.

Many of us, however, experience such cultural links on a day-to-day basis. Earlier in the debate I estimated that probably a fifth of my constituents, or even a quarter, were Commonwealth citizens, or at least had been born in other Commonwealth countries. There are communities from Nigeria and Sierra Leone—many of those people came here because of the terrible civil war in that country—and from Ghana. Incidentally, we have an outlet for Ghana’s Fairtrade cocoa in SE1, just over the river. There are also people from Cyprus, on both sides of the divide, and from
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Australia. I spent a very loud evening in a local hostelry at the end of last year hoping—unsuccessfully—that England would win the final of the World cup, surrounded by a large number of South Africans because the pub was frequented by people from South Africa. This is part of the warp and weft of our lives, and we are na├»ve if we do not pay it full heed.

As the hon. Member for North Essex pointed out, it is not a question of being pro-Commonwealth and anti-European, or pro-Commonwealth and anti the English-speaking world. We have three political traditions. We have the tradition of what was the empire, became the British Commonwealth and is now the Commonwealth, a fantastic quarter of the world with a third of the world’s population: 2 millionpeople, from the biggest to the smallest nations. We have our continental neighbours, people with different languages but, by and large, a common Christian tradition, although other faiths have joined it. And we have the English-speaking world, which includes our link across the Atlantic.

We should value all those traditions, but in this place we spend far more time discussing European Union issues—not just recently, when we have been discussing them daily, but in general—than Commonwealth issues, and that is to our disadvantage. Our trade, educational, scientific and cultural advantages, and particularly the advantages connected with peace, conflict resolution, development and the reducing of inequality, are best dealt with in a Commonwealth context. My friend the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) rightly reminded the House that, in our early political days, both he and I were very much formed by our visits to South Africa when it was outside the club because of its terrible racist regime. We saw a willingness to understand that that could not be a permanent solution because it denied fantastic cultural opportunities to South Africa, which is now back in the Commonwealth where it rightfully belongs.

I pay tribute to those who work at the centre of the organisation. Our Queen has always seen her job as head of the Commonwealth as central, and I pay tribute to her unqualified support for it throughout her wonderfully long reign, but I also pay tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which does a sterling job in ensuring that bilateral relations continue, and to others who work for Commonwealth organisations.

Last week I went to a service in Westminster Abbey organised by the Council of Commonwealth Societies, chaired by my noble Friend Lord Watson of Richmond. I looked at the back of the service sheet for the observance of Commonwealth day: it was called an observance because it was a multi-faith event. There was a list of 30 organisations that had contributed to that one event —30 Commonwealth organisations. They included the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, the Commonwealth Business Council, the Commonwealth Countries League and the Commonwealth Education Trust. There is a whole network of organisations that bring people together. I have had the privilege to be involved with two of them in particular: the Council for Education in the Commonwealth, which works for the advancement of links between our universities, and the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council.

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The Minister intervened to try to explain the FCO decision of last week to remove some of the funding for Commonwealth scholarships. She wanted it to be understood that they would still be available but from a different budgetary head, because the Commonwealth Foundation would now handle developing countries, and the old Commonwealth countries would—as it were—have to bid for funding in other contexts. It does not appear that that will provide as many opportunities in future. For example, it is my understanding that postgraduate scholarships will not be available. I ask her to talk to colleagues in the education Departments, and also to Members who have made representations that it is likely that the new system will bring fewer people from the Commonwealth to the UK.

May I add a plea to that? To my certain knowledge, the funding of the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council has been frozen, or frozen in real terms, over many years, but it has done wonderful work in making sure that youngsters from the UK go to places as remote and far away as Tuvalu to learn what life on the other side of the globe is like. I went to a wonderful gathering it organised in Sunderland of young people from all over the world. It showed the sheer excitement, and the learning and benefit, that can come from people from so many different and diverse cultures coming together at such an early and informative stage of their lives. I hope that we will continue to support such organisations, and I formally ask the Minister to review the funding of those Commonwealth organisations that have had their funding held, or held in real terms, to see if we cannot give them more investment in future.

There is a statistic that I did not know until I discovered it in preparing for today’s debate: apparently, two thirds of all schoolchildren in this country have a family member who either lives in or came from a Commonwealth country. If that is the backdrop to the UK of today, I hope we will build very positively on what are already strong links. It is a time of change: that, rightly, was the Minister’s tribute to the outgoing secretary-general of the Commonwealth, who stands down in a few days—on 31 March. Don McKinnon has done a relentlessly professional diplomatic job in all his time in that post, and I pay tribute to him. We also congratulate the outgoing Indian high commissioner in London, who has been appointed to succeed him at the beginning of April. It was, indeed, the incoming secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, who said that the Commonwealth is a unique force for good; they were not originally his words, but he repeated them.

If we look back at who has been the chairman-in-office of the Commonwealth over the years, we realise what a high-powered organisation it is, and that we must never underestimate it. It must be said that some former chairmen-in-office have slipped from grace: Mr. Mugabe was the chairman-in-office before power went to his head in a very tragic way. However, other chairmen-in-office include such people as Lee Kuan Yew, Pierre Trudeau, Michael Manley, Jim Callaghan, Kenneth Kaunda, Malcolm Fraser, Indira Gandhi, Lynden Pindling, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney. They are all serious, internationally big players with a huge amount to contribute. We must never forget that this is not just a club of the former colonies, but an organisation with highly astute and respected political leadership.

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On 12 March, there was in this place a half-day conference chaired by Baroness Prashar about the impact of the Commonwealth on Parliament and the constituencies. Among others, Lord Howell of Guildford, who has already been mentioned, spoke at that conference. He argued passionately that we should be more effective in engaging in the affairs of the Commonwealth and trumpeting what it does.

James Robbins, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, who chaired a session at last week’s meeting, was reported as saying:

A set of things that the Commonwealth does goes unrecognised, but the world needs those things to work well. The programme of what the Commonwealth secretariat did in its last reported period contained 15 subject headings: good offices for peace; democracy and consensus building; rule of law; human rights; international trade; investment; finance and debt; public sector development; environmentally sustainable development; small states; education; health; young people; gender equality and equity; and capacity building and institutional development. That is a serious agenda for ensuring that the world is a better place, a better governed place, a more peaceful place and a place where conflicts are resolved more effectively.

As my main request to the Government, I want to echo the conclusions of last week’s conference. These points were also made in a debate in the House of Lords last year. Ahead of next year—the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth’s creation—the UK Government should reassess how we can support the Commonwealth better and engage with it more effectively. I know that we make the largest contribution to the secretariat, but two thirds of UK bilateral aid goes to Commonwealth countries. That is a serious reason for ensuring that we examine the whole picture. While keeping an eye on a country such as Nigeria, which has the largest number of people in poverty of any African country, we must not take not take our eye off a country such as the Maldives, which must address governance issues and severe threats from climate change.

I want to flag up the issues at home and abroad simply by recognising them rather than detaining the House by developing my points at length. We ought to build up the duties of Commonwealth observers at elections. It ought to be a matter of course that such work is done by Commonwealth members for Commonwealth countries and that it is seen to be an important part of the democratic process.

I would like us to be more active abroad in offering Commonwealth support for resolutions of conflicts. We still have not resolved the conflict in Cyprus; the conflict in Kashmir, which affects India and Pakistan, remains unresolved; and we must also deal with the terrible and continuing conflict in Sri Lanka. Of course there are diplomatic difficulties in all cases, and Governments have perfectly understandable views
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about their sovereignty, but valuable Commonwealth resources could be deployed to better effect.

Climate change and environmental issues are huge threats to many Commonwealth countries. If ever there was a reason for those issues to remain at the top of the G8 and UN agendas, the same one would apply in respect of their remaining at the top of the Commonwealth agenda. I hope that we will never forget the health agenda, particularly the need to eradicate malaria and tuberculosis, and the battle against HIV and AIDS. That is not just an African agenda issue; it is also an agenda issue in Asian Commonwealth countries, Caribbean Commonwealth countries and elsewhere. It would be a valuable help if the Government were to make those issues a priority.

The Government would be wrong to do away with the rights in relation to citizenship that people have traditionally had because of their Commonwealth links. Other hon. Members have flagged up their concern, and I wish to join them today, although I will also join in the formal consultation response. I can tell the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington that the first people to protest personally to me about the prospective change were from the Jamaican community, not the New Zealand community or the Australian community. They see it as a lack of recognition of the contribution that they have made over generations to this country. We have to listen to their voices. We talk about community cohesion, but people have to feel valued. People who have been here for generations should not have to ask for that, but should have it as a right.

I would be very troubled if we took away the right to vote from Commonwealth countries, as Lord Goldsmith’s report suggested. I understand that it could be viewed as anomalous, but people from the Commonwealth have stayed here and retained their original nationality because they knew that we gave them a special status, with which came the vote. I hope that we can retain that status and that we will soon have a full debate about those rights.

I also hope that we can make it a routine that before the Heads of Government conference—it was in Uganda last year—we have a proper debate about Commonwealth issues on the Floor of the House. Then when the Prime Minister returns, he can report to the House and take questions, just as he does after a European summit.

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is a very valuable organisation. I have had the privilege of going to Sierra Leone and having some involvement with supporting the offshoots of its political parties, both here and there. There is a huge amount of work to be done, but the hon. Members for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and others know how a little investment of money and time can give such encouragement to, for example, women who would not have thought of getting involved in politics, or to young people who have visions for changing the world but do not know how to go about it because they do not have the skill set. I want more researchers to share their experience with other countries. Parliamentary staff are now beginning to do that, as are people in local government, so good national and local leadership can be shared with other Commonwealth countries.

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The message from this debate has been clear, although it has been put in different ways. There is huge affection for the Commonwealth and it is also highly valued. The Minister will have heard the message that we would like her to ensure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office achieves a greater balance between the two parts of its responsibilities. We think that the Commonwealth is a very worthwhile body. It is a privilege to be part of such a wonderful worldwide organisation and it is a great force for peace and prosperity. I hope that the reaffirmation of that by this House of Commons will send a welcome message to the outgoing secretary-general and all his staff, and encouragement to the incoming secretary-general and his team. I hope that it also encourages us to ensure that we do not let these matters slide from the agenda for as long as they have done in the recent past.

5.23 pm

Meg Munn: This has been an excellent debate, with hon. Members presenting a wide range of issues, as I expected. It is difficult to do justice to the breadth of possible issues, even in a full afternoon’s debate, but I was somewhat surprised by the churlish comments by the hon. Members for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and for Westbury (Dr. Murrison).

My opening remarks set the context for the debate, and it is especially interesting that the hon. Member for North Essex chose to comment, given that he managed to miss most of them. I wished to reply to all hon. Members in my closing contribution, and it seemed right to ensure that Back Benchers had the maximum opportunity to contribute—we have heard some very good speeches as a result. I pay tribute to the persistence of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who has pushed for this debate. In his speech, he did justice to the case for the Commonwealth.

As I said in my opening remarks, I attended the meeting of Women’s Affairs Ministers that preceded the Commonwealth Heads of Government talks in Kampala last year. I was able to experience at first hand the real benefits of talking to other Ministers in the Commonwealth, as we shared our experiences and looked at how we could continue to build our relationships. I assure the House that, as a Minister, I value the Commonwealth. My departmental colleagues do too, and we are conscious that the proper title is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The word “Commonwealth” is an important part of that title, and it will remain so.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) has said that the Commonwealth is a diverse family of nations, and I cannot improve on that description, which really sums it up.

The hon. Member for Westbury, who is not in his place, talked about the important role played by Commonwealth citizens in our armed forces. I recognise that role and pay tribute to them, as I also pay tribute to Private Johnson Beharry, who was recently awarded the Victoria cross.

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