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The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey spoke about peacekeeping, in which the Commonwealth plays an important role around the
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world. I want to put on record my appreciation of that work: the Commonwealth provides just over half of the world’s peacekeeping forces, and the biggest contributors are India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) argued passionately in favour of Ireland resuming its membership of the Commonwealth. He is not in his place, but if he were, he would be disappointed by my reply, which is that Commonwealth membership is a matter for Ireland. That is not a comment on the British Government’s view of the matter, because Ireland could always apply to renew its membership of an organisation from which it withdrew in 1949. I have not researched the history in detail, but I know that Ireland has the option of applying for Commonwealth membership.

The hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), who is also not in his place, challenged me to say how the Commonwealth is a force for good. I could point to a number of the speeches that we have heard this afternoon, but instead I shall say a little more about education. Various hon. Members asked about Commonwealth scholarships, but I hope that I have made it clear that we must prioritise resources.

That is not something that Opposition Members have to deal with, and even in their shadow policies they struggle at times to be clear whether resources would go up or down. In contrast, the Government have set out our priorities, and we believe it important to ensure that money benefits poorer countries.

I turn now to what the UK is doing for education in the Commonwealth in the wider sense, as scholarships are available only to people who have reached a certain level of education.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) was not denying that it was up to Ireland to apply for readmittance to the Commonwealth. He merely suggested that Britain might like to write to the Irish Government, asking whether they had considered making such an application and making it clear that they would be very welcome in the Commonwealth. Is that an impossibility as well?

Meg Munn: The Commonwealth is not the “British” Commonwealth, so it would be for a range of countries to take a view on that. If Ireland wished to apply, it would be to the Commonwealth secretariat. I am sure that Ireland would meet the criteria, and that if it did want to apply, we would have not objection. We are keen for countries that meet the criteria to join; for example, I shall talk about Rwanda later.

The Government will be spending £8.5 billion on education globally by 2015. At present, about two thirds of our bilateral spending on education is in Commonwealth countries. At the end of 2007, the Government announced a new package of support for education in Nigeria, totalling £106 million. Overall, the Government are providing £50.8 million to support scholarships and study awards over the next three years, increasing our funding to £17.5 million per annum by 2011-12.

In Commonwealth countries, the number of primary-age children out of school dropped by 18 million between 2000 and 2005, but 30 million primary-age children still remain out of school, of
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whom 17 million are girls. We should be extremely concerned about that. At CHOGM in Kampala, the Heads of Government committed to redoubling their efforts to deliver education for all: to enrol the 30 million children now out of school, to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, and to strengthen education systems in countries affected by conflict. The UK will continue to support the Commonwealth in meeting educational aspirations. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that support for children of primary age is particularly important, because if children are not educated at that age they will have no hope of taking a scholarship later on.

Hugh Bayley: I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that the main responsibility for getting children into primary school lies with the Government of their country. Our aid is important, but without the political will of a country’s Education Minister and Head of Government things will not happen. Does that not describe what is so important about the Commonwealth? We in Britain have the aspiration that every Commonwealth child should go to school, and we have a club—an association—where we can talk to those in charge of the Government in countries where that is not the case.

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is entirely right. Once again, he has demonstrated the benefits of the Commonwealth—

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas rose—

Meg Munn: Perhaps my hon. Friend will contain herself for a moment, as before I leave the issue of education, I want to pick up a point that she raised earlier. The work of the British Council is enormously important not only in Commonwealth countries but around the world. I know from my regular contacts with the regions for which I am responsible that those regions value British Council input. Indeed, there are often demands, particularly for help in spreading the learning of English.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: May I provide a word of caution? One of the learning and development goals is to provide every child with a school place by 2015, but if that means doubling classroom capacity so that children are in classes of 160 rather than 80, it will not produce well-educated children. Will my hon. Friend remember that point? We must insist on the fact that we not only want children in school, but want to ensure that the education they receive is of good quality, with some chance of providing them with employment.

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is right that quality of education is important.

I want to address the important issue of the 60th anniversary in 2009, which several hon. Members have mentioned. It will be an occasion to celebrate, but as yet no plans have been made. As hon. Members are aware, the new secretary-general takes office within the next few weeks, and it would be strange to make plans for something as important as that commemoration and celebration before then. The UK Government are keen to discuss with fellow member states how to mark the anniversary; as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk
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(Mr. Simpson) has said, it will be a time to reflect on the progress of the Commonwealth’s work over 60 years and take stock.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about Foreign Office strategy. One of our four policy priorities—we have focused on fewer priorities, as he will be aware—is effective international institutions, which is important for the Commonwealth, too. That builds on the work done at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, where my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was one of the Heads of Government responsible for the new Commonwealth mandate on reform of the international institution. It is important to recognise—this responds to other hon. Members’ comments, too—that under the Foreign Office’s overall strategy, we will move resources from Europe to support our policy priorities. All those priorities are relevant to Commonwealth countries.

The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) raised the issue of ancestry visas, as did a number of other hon. Members. As I said earlier, I have been lobbied on that issue by the New Zealand high commissioner, and I understand that he submitted a substantial document to the consultation. The high commissioner also raised with me the matter of visas for visitors and the need to return to New Zealand to reapply—a subject referred to by the hon. Gentleman—so the issue has been raised with us. The Foreign Office is in close touch with the Border and Immigration Agency, too. A consultation is being held, and no decisions have yet been made.

The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) mentioned an issue that he persistently raises and about which we have had a number of discussions—overseas territories. He spoke about the Cayman Islands and hurricane preparedness. I, too, have visited the Cayman Islands. As he will remember, Hurricane Ivan devastated the whole area, and the Royal Navy initially went to help another island that was suffering to a much greater extent in terms of the immediate need for humanitarian aid—fortunately, there were only two deaths in Cayman Islands. I know that there was huge devastation—I saw the pictures myself when I was there—and we are conscious of the importance of good preparedness for disasters in all our overseas territories, particularly those in the area to which we are referring. I am certain that our plans are much more developed than they were at the time.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned his concerns about the flags at the trooping of the colour and wreath-laying by the Foreign Secretary. I have offered to have further discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), particularly on wreath-laying. The issue was last looked at in 2004, as I understand it. I am happy to have further discussions, and I am happy for the hon. Member for Romford to join them, if my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley has no objections. I am sure that the hon. Member for Romford has had the issues concerning the trooping of the colour explained to him, and we can discuss that subject, too.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey raised the important issue of the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council, and I pay tribute to his work as a council member. We support the excellent activities that the organisation undertakes.
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In particular we support the Commonwealth youth forum, which the council organises and which meets at the margins of every Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Representatives from the youth forum relay the conclusions of their discussions to Foreign Ministers at CHOGM, allowing the politicians of the Commonwealth to hear directly what its young people are saying. I also commend the council’s work in creating strong, lasting links between young people in every part of the Commonwealth. The hon. Gentleman asked some questions about funding, and I am happy to get further information on the points that he raised. Perhaps he can give me details after the debate on areas of particular concern to him, in which case I could respond more fully.

Before I move on to give a little tour of the world, let me respond to the question, “What good is the Commonwealth doing?” which was asked by the hon. Member for Billericay. I referred in my opening speech to the report by Amartya Sen called “Civil Paths to Peace”.

The Government were a major funder of the Sen report and in CHOGM in November Heads of Government mandated the secretary-general to work up an action plan to implement the recommendations from “Civil Paths to Peace”. We are now engaged in putting together examples of best practice in countering extremism in UK communities. All member states are doing the same and the results will be pooled next year.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey mentioned the rights of Commonwealth citizens and the right to vote. As he is aware, the independent report produced by Lord Goldsmith is before the Government, who are considering it. In fact, it is with the Ministry of Justice and no final decision has yet been made.

A number of hon. Members, unsurprisingly, mentioned climate change. As hon. Members will be aware, it is one of the four policy priorities for the FCO. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) talked about the need for greater urgency. We are considering the issue very carefully, which is why we are moving resources into that priority in our missions around the world. At the initiative of the UK, Commonwealth Heads of State launched the Lake Victoria action plan on climate change at CHOGM. That major statement from a quarter of the world highlighted the urgency and gravity of the situation. The UK was delighted that the Commonwealth was able to commit in the action plan to the pursuit of ambitious solutions, in particular through the UN framework convention on climate change, to promote a better understanding of climate change and its impact and to address mitigation and adaptation challenges.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) mentioned climate change in relation to the Caribbean. I know that she is aware that I visited the Caribbean, because I was surprised to be told that a guest at a reception at the residence would be my hon. Friend. She will have seen the impact of Hurricane Dean, as I did. Thankfully, the human impact was limited, but one thing that I discovered that I did not know before was the impact
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on such things as coffee growing. Although the damage looked relatively minor, because the roots of the coffee plant need to be kept secure such weather could impact on coffee growing and therefore on Jamaica’s trade for a considerable time to come.

When I visited the Dominican Republic and went on to the Cayman Islands, I was caught up in tropical storm Olga—I was not sure whether I was following it or it was following me. Although that storm was relatively minor compared with a hurricane, there were still deaths in the Dominican Republic. I saw at first hand what climate change and the increase in the number of storms means. The storm should not have happened, because it was December—the storm and hurricane season is supposed to end in November—so the changes in climate are impacting on these regions.

Ms Abbott: As well as the effect on the economy in terms of coffee growing, tourism and so on, another effect of climate change in such islands and small island states across the world is that people who have built their houses in exposed parts of their country have to keep rebuilding their homes year after year—sometimes after less than six months. We need to provide more support and the technical infrastructure to avoid such devastation.

Meg Munn: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I was just about to talk about some of the development issues that were raised so eloquently by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt).

The Commonwealth has a fund for technical co-operation that is the development arm of the Commonwealth secretariat. It is a key area of activity. Recently, that fund was subject to an independent evaluation, which recommended that it should link programmes to national development strategies and to the plans and priorities of other agencies. The Government will work with the Commonwealth secretariat to help it to focus on better co-ordination with other development partners to allow a greater development impact. I agree with hon. Members that one way in which we can be most helpful to a number of Commonwealth countries and to our overseas territories might not be through direct financial support but through providing the technical support and guidance that is not necessarily available.

I am now going to try to cover the range of countries that Members took us round. I am somewhat relieved that we did not quite get to all 53, because I certainly would not have had time to respond on all of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire both spoke about Sierra Leone. My hon. Friend’s speech was very powerful and extremely interesting. The UK is Sierra Leone’s largest bilateral donor, as I think she said. We have given £210 million to it in development assistance, and this financial year the Department for International Development will give up to £50 million. Up to £15 million of DFID’s annual assistance is in the form of direct budgetary support; the remainder is focused on a set of programmes that are improving governance, tackling corruption, promoting pro-poor sustainable growth and supporting basic service delivery and human development. It was heartening to hear from my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady about their
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direct experiences of discussions with the new parliamentarians. As I said in my opening speech, the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is to be applauded. That parliamentarian to parliamentarian link should not be underestimated, and I was heartened by what my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady saw and told us about.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the special court—a tribunal created to prosecute those with the greatest responsibility for crimes committed during the country’s civil war. We have provided £5 million toward its running costs. This year, the UK also contributed £13 million and 72 personnel to the UK-led international military advisory and training team. In providing us with that information about Sierra Leone, my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady have done us all a great service. However, it demonstrates that there is still a long way to go, and we need to maintain our involvement and to keep encouraging the move toward good governance and development in that area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington spoke movingly about the Caribbean. She set out her concern that it has slipped down the agenda, and I am sure that she is not surprised to hear me say, as the Minister with responsibility for the Caribbean, that I dispute this. I will be making my third visit to the Caribbean next month because I do feel that this is an important region. There is a range of issues that we need to tackle there, and support that we need to give. I do not think that my hon. Friend was in the Chamber during my opening speech, when I spoke about the Prime Minister’s meeting with the Caribbean Heads of Government. We should also note the very important UK-Caribbean ministerial forum that will be taking place this summer in London, the agenda for which will focus on climate change and economic development.

Mr. Jenkin: The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) spoke very eloquently about how the social and drugs problems in the Caribbean finish up in our own cities. What is the prospect of the United Kingdom’s providing the Caribbean guardship that we used to provide on a far more extended basis for anti-drug work in the Caribbean, which we do not seem to have the resources to provide now?

Meg Munn: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will come in a moment to the issue of drugs and crime, which I was going to cover in any case.

Ms Abbott: On the forthcoming UK-Caribbean forum, such forums are very much enjoyed by the Caribbean Heads of Government who go to them, but people have noted that nothing seems to come of them.

Meg Munn: I am disappointed to hear that, and I should be interested to have some more detailed feedback. I will certainly give my commitment, as the Minister currently responsible for our relationships with the Caribbean, to seeking some positive and tangible outcomes from that forum.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the Caribbean Board. I agree with her assessment that now is a good time for us to look at its role and to consider whether, in its current format, it is the best way for Ministers to
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be informed about issues relating to the Caribbean by the wide range of people with Caribbean backgrounds and experience who live in the UK. My hon. Friend knows that I am always keen to hear from people outside London, as well as from those who have easier access to Ministers. We are actively exploring wider opportunities around the country and perhaps also in Scotland to talk to Caribbean people throughout the UK and hear their views. I should be interested in her ideas about that.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is extremely concerned about the issue of crime and drugs. Hon. Members know that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who has many other areas of responsibility, takes the lead on drugs and crime, and visited Jamaica in the relatively recent past. A great deal of work has been done to disrupt the drugs trade and deal with the crime issues. The UK provided £96 million directly and indirectly to the Caribbean in 2006-07, including £36 million directly through DFID programmes and resources to the Caribbean Development Bank. That covers some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington about the importance of developing the economy and opportunities for young people to work.

Ms Abbott: On the interception of drugs, my hon. Friend knows that one of the major sources of drug problems in the Caribbean is cocaine, which comes across from south America and is then shipped out. It comes across on fast speedboats, which are faster than anything that the Jamaican defence forces have. As I said earlier, we could do a lot more to offer them support in the form of equipment to intercept those speedboats.

Meg Munn: I shall look further into the issues that my hon. Friend raises. We have had some success in disrupting the drugs trade but it is a serious problem. We are also working in some south American countries to try to stop production. The role of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East is important in that respect.

As part of the support that we give, we waive £5 million to £6 million of Jamaica’s debt annually and we provide 13 per cent. of the EU contribution to Jamaica. Major projects include assistance to the programme to reform the Jamaican police force, programmes related to social development, support for the public sector reform programme and assistance to the private sector to enhance the competitiveness of Jamaican exports.

The hon. Member for North Essex spoke about broad trade issues and about economic partnership agreements. The economic partnership agreements that have been negotiated, particularly in the Caribbean, are important as they will increase access to EU markets and can bring positive benefits to the economies of Commonwealth countries. I am aware of the tariff issues that he raised. There have been detailed discussions to try to reach a satisfactory outcome. A good Doha deal would benefit Commonwealth countries, rich and poor alike.

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