Foreign Affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 114

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 24 April 2012

Members present:

Richard Ottaway (Chair)

Bob Ainsworth

Mr John Baron

Sir Menzies Campbell

Ann Clwyd

Mike Gapes

Andrew Rosindell

Mr Frank Roy

Sir John Stanley

Rory Stewart

Mr Dave Watts


Examination of Witness

Witness: Ms Ruth Lea, Arbuthnot Banking Group, gave evidence.

Q74 Chair: May I welcome the public to this session of the Committee’s current inquiry into the role and future of the Commonwealth? We intend to focus on the benefits of the existence of the Commonwealth to the UK and will briefly address any reforms needed.

Our first witness this morning to look primarily at the trade aspects is Ms Ruth Lea of the Arbuthnot Banking Group.

Ms Lea: Good morning.

Q75 Chair: Good morning and welcome. You said that you would like to make a short opening statement.

Ms Lea: Indeed I would, and it really encapsulates my written evidence. I take the approach from the economic future of this country. As a country, we need to realign our trading relationships with the growth markets of the future. The Commonwealth countries, of course, contain a lot of those growth markets. Some of them are already very wealthy and some are becoming wealthier, and obviously there is a lot more economic potential there going forward for this country to benefit from.

Of course you have to be careful here, because you do not want to be seen as saying, "Either the EU or the Commonwealth"-I am talking now about maximising our relationships with as many countries as we can-but the EU, by comparison, is set to be a laggard in terms of growth. There is absolutely no doubt about that, and I am not just talking about the current crisis of the eurozone. It is interesting that even on IMF figures, to give some sort of impression, the EU26, that is the current EU27 minus ourselves, accounted for nearly 30%-about 28%-of GDP in 1980. By 2017-18, that will be 15%-so it was nearly 30% in 1980 and it will be 15% in 2016-17. In 15 or 20 years’ time, it will account for about 10% of world GDP. We have to think about that. We have to think about where it is going to go and the implications for us.

I would like to see us build up our trade relationships with the Commonwealth countries. I think that, commendably, the Government are already doing that. I noticed that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been doing these sorts of things. Clearly, and this is the controversial bit, I think that we need to think about having free trade areas with the growing parts of the world economy, including the Commonwealth.

At the moment, we cannot negotiate our own free trade agreements because of our membership of the EU customs union. To be able to develop those free trade agreements, we would have to withdraw from the EU Customs Union. It is interesting to note that even though the EU has been good and very forthcoming in developing free trade agreements with many countries, they are not negotiating anything, as I understand it, with Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America-a very important market for us-or China, which is a very rapidly growing part of the world. To cut a long story short, that is what we need to do. I am looking forward to the decades to come for the economic future of this country. We need to think forward.

Q76 Chair: Thank you very much. If your wish is not granted and we do not come out of the EU Customs Union, how can we best exploit the Commonwealth to our advantage? Let’s put it another way: why is trade so low at the moment and what can we do to improve it?

Ms Lea: Trade, as you imply, is fairly low. I provided some figures in my written statement.

Chair: Yes, that was very helpful. Thank you.

Ms Lea: They show that with some of the Commonwealth countries we traded quite well, but with others-I quote Canada and various others-a lot more could be done. Clearly, what the Government are doing at the moment, by trade relationships and going round and negotiating with countries, is fine, but obviously, from my point of view, there is an element of frustration in all of this because we are restricted in what we can do, because of our membership of the EU. However, I would say to the Government, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and UK Trade & Investment-I used to work for the Invest in Britain Bureau-that what you are doing now is fine, but it is necessarily limited in its scope and objective.

Q77 Chair: So it is "Go on as you are" at the moment. The figures that you helpfully provided paint a picture that suggests that, actually, we are doing a lot more with people outside the Commonwealth than we are with the Commonwealth.

Ms Lea: Well, where we-

Chair: And, as we are focusing this inquiry on the Commonwealth, do you think there is any scope for improving the relationship with the Commonwealth in a certain way that you can suggest that would promote trade?

Ms Lea: I think I have already said that we are restricted in what we can do, but what the Government are already doing, no doubt, is on the right lines. The Commonwealth Business Council and all these organisations do a good job, but to me, as an economist looking forward, with these enormous tectonic shifts in the world economy, it just is not coming to grips with the reality of the 21st century, to be frank. Of course, as we know, one of the main reasons why the European Union will be a shrinking part of the world economy-indeed, Commonwealth countries are going to expand-is the demographic factors.

The UN figures, which I give in my written evidence, are absolutely stark. By 2015, you will see that the German working population will be down by 25%. The Italian will be down by 21% and the Spanish, by 14% -I quoted the figures. To me, it is a matter of saying to ourselves, in a way, "Forget history. Forget that we had the great empire. Forget the history of the 20th century." It is where this country needs to be placed as we go forward. I think, with the current political restrictions, it is going to be very difficult to maximise the potential benefits.

Q78 Chair: Your message is that the future is the Commonwealth, not the European Union.

Ms Lea: The future is the Commonwealth, the United States of America, and China and a lot of the other developing countries. The European Union-it is not even a matter of being a Eurosceptic; it is a matter of looking at the figures. The IMF figures are absolutely stark. In fact, when I look at them I can hardly believe them, but that is where the IMF is, so who am I to disagree with the IMF?

Chair: I could think of half a dozen questions that would distract us completely from the subject matter today, so I will move on.

Q79 Mr Baron: Ms Lea, some scorn has been poured on the idea of a Commonwealth free trade area. From what you say, I personally agree that we should be gearing up more towards areas of the global economy that are growing and expanding, and the Commonwealth has its fair representation in those areas, which is marvellous and we should be taking advantage of it, but the simple fact is that something like as little as 8% of our trade is with the Commonwealth. What can we do? What should we be doing to put that right? Is a Commonwealth free trade area the answer, and what is stopping us from doing that?

Ms Lea: I think a Commonwealth free trade area would be a huge step forward. Of course, I am aware that industrial tariffs are already fairly low, but when you look, for example, at agricultural produce, the EU is a highly protectionist organisation. Quite a lot of the Commonwealth countries and, indeed, Latin American countries are part of a Cairns Group that is always castigating the EU-and by the way, Japan, Switzerland, and the United States-for being so protectionist. So, if you go for a fully-fledged free trade area covering all goods, you can see that that would be, I think, a very beneficial step forward. A lot of evidence shows that when free trade areas are put together, they are beneficial. It was interesting that when the North American Free Trade Agreement was started, of course, Ross Perot said that there would be a "giant sucking sound" of jobs from the United States into Mexico. It did not really happen that way, and the Congressional Budget Office has given some evidence that NAFTA has helped the United States of America-perhaps not hugely, but it has helped.

The other component of NAFTA was Canada, which already had a free trade agreement with the United States and to some extent that was dampened. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that free trade agreements between countries, and especially countries that have different industrial make-ups-it is called trade creation rather than trade diversion-are helpful. I find it frustrating that no serious study has been done into the potential benefits of a Commonwealth free trade agreement. Perhaps that is something that I could recommend the Committee to consider.

It would be interesting if the Commonwealth Secretariat sat down to see what the potential benefits would be but, if I may say so, it must start with a blank sheet of paper of our leaving the EU’s Customs Union. Once you are part of a customs union-it is not only the EU27 that are part of that union, but also Turkey and San Marino and one or two other micro-countries-the EU Trade Commissioner negotiates on your behalf about what the trade agreement would be. As I have said, they are not even thinking about negotiating anything with Australia or New Zealand.

To cut a long story short, there is a lot of potential there and I would love to see a serious study done. However, we have to face up to the fact that it would mean quite a major change in our relationship with the EU. You cannot beat around the bush about that.

Q80 Mr Baron: No, absolutely, but can I explore that? A study sounds eminently sensible, but can I come back to the central issue of our relationship with the EU? Presumably, you are not suggesting withdrawal from the EU but from the EU customs union. To what extent could we try to ride two horses, or do you think that it is not possible and that it has to be one or the other? Can you give us some concrete examples of where the EU would make it almost impossible for us to explore a free trade area with the Commonwealth?

Ms Lea: I think it is absolutely the case that if we were free to develop our own free trade agreements, many countries, including those in the European Union, would wish to have a free trade agreement with us. Look again at some of the figures that I produced and at the huge current account surplus that the rest of the EU has with us. If I may say so, they would be cutting off their nose to spite their face if they told us that they did not want to trade with us-it would be just unreal. Added to that are the overall WTO rules in which various countries do their trade.

There is no reason why a country such as this, which has a terrific global heritage, should not reach out to any country and propose a free trade agreement that would be mutually beneficial. We are a rich, important market for an awful lot of countries, and that in itself is an attraction. The idea that you would have to trade with this person or that person-that is not how world trade works. Businesses look for trading opportunities and comparative costs and profitability-you know that as well as I do. If we developed a free trade agreement with Canada, Australia or India, there is no reason why we should not continue to trade fully with the EU countries, as indeed Switzerland does. Switzerland, of course, is not a member of the EU but it thinks that it has a mutually beneficial arrangement, and so it proves to be.

Q81 Rory Stewart: I am trying to understand why you think that the detail of our relationship with the Commonwealth is so promising. Is there something about the comparative or competitive advantage of Britain in relation to Commonwealth countries that makes it a more attractive trading partner than, for example, China or Brazil?

Ms Lea: Yes, indeed there is. After the 1997 CHOGM, a study was done to estimate what they called the "Commonwealth Advantage" of doing business with other Commonwealth countries, compared with non-Commonwealth countries of a comparable size. The authors at that time-again, I quote this in my written evidence-concluded that business costs could be 10% to 15% lower when dealing with Commonwealth countries because of the commonality of heritage law and language, than with non-Commonwealth countries.

Q82 Rory Stewart: And yet only 8% of trade is with the Commonwealth, which might imply that something about the structure of our industrial base, or the nature of the two economic systems, means that despite that 15% saving, we are not trading as much as you would expect.

Ms Lea: I think it tells me-again, I think I implied this-that we are not dealing with the Commonwealth as much as we could.

If I could just finish on this business about "Commonwealth Advantage" and the idea of business cultures, as you may know, I worked for a Japanese bank for five years very profitably. I respected Japanese business culture hugely, but I was always aware that it was in some ways different and there could be misunderstandings. I have to say that when I deal with Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians or indeed Indians, I do not find that level of potential misunderstanding.

I think you have hit the nail on the head. At the moment, clearly, for one reason or another-perhaps because it has been rather focused towards European markets and the United States of America-British business has taken its eye off the ball when looking at the other developed economies, particularly economies such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. But it is not just this advantage in terms of business cost that makes the whole thing so appealing, but the fact that these are growth markets. You just have to look at the demographics and the way that these countries are growing in terms of GDP-African countries too, which we have hardly mentioned-to realise that they are the growth markets of the future.

Q83 Rory Stewart: You understand this stuff much better than I do. Is it not possible that it is something to do with the structure of our economy that means that we are not trading very well with Commonwealth countries? Hypothetically, Germany may have things that India wants to buy, which Britain does not have. Is it possible that we work better, let’s say, with the economy of the United States in terms of the kind of goods and services that we provide, and that there is no demand in the Commonwealth for the stuff that Britain is good at?

Ms Lea: That obviously is an element, but let’s be frank: if we were in some sort of free trade agreement, you would see that with the relevant advantages of dealing with Commonwealth and other non-EU countries as opposed to EU countries, the balance of advantage would begin to shift. I have little doubt that as these Commonwealth countries grow and expand, there will be plenty of potential in the British economy for expanding its trade with those particular countries. It is not a matter of saying, "We are here and now, and this is where we will be for the rest of eternity," but a matter of looking forward and saying, "This is what we should do to enable trade and improve, and look for the advantages and benefits therein."

Q84 Sir John Stanley: The livelihoods of very significant numbers of people in the Commonwealth are very dependent on the ability of their countries to export agricultural products to the EU. In the evidence that you have just given, you have described the EU as a highly protective organisation where agricultural products are concerned. Can you give us any specific measures that you would wish to see the British Government taking with EU member states to try to make tariffs, anti-dumping provisions or quotas fairer and more reasonable to Commonwealth countries in the agricultural sector?

Ms Lea: The reform of the Common Agricultural Policy has been on the cards for as long as I can remember-probably ever since we joined the EEC back in 1973. Indeed, when Tony Blair, the previous Prime Minister but two, was dealing with the last negotiations on the budgetary contributions, I understand that reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and its protectionism was meant to be part of the deal. But as far as I am concerned, very little progress was made on that. I think it is true to say that within the EU, Britain’s voice when it comes to agricultural policy can be quite vocal, but it does not tend to be terribly influential. I fear that the situation will be very difficult to change. At the end of the day-again, this is not meant to be a comment against the French, whose country I admire greatly-serious reform of the CAP, I suspect, will never happen while France is so determined to support its farmers.

Agricultural policy in the EU is clearly a problem. I have made that point already in connection with the so-called Cairns group. It is not just the Commonwealth, but most of Latin America, Indonesia and various other agricultural exporting countries. It has been a real issue with them that the EU’s protectionism is a problem. We could argue too that the Doha, the current round of trade talks, has tended to grind to a halt, which partly reflects the problems.

Q85 Sir John Stanley: I asked whether you had any specific proposals.

Ms Lea: I have no specific proposals because the truth is that we have tried. It is just against a political block at the moment.

Q86 Mike Gapes: Can I take you back to your assertion that somehow we could get a Commonwealth free trade arrangement? If you are withdrawing from the EU Customs Union, you are actually going further than withdrawing from the EU. Turkey is not a member state of the EU yet it is in the Customs Union, so actually that is going further.

Is not the big issue how we increase our bilateral trade with India? India’s trade is going up. India is one of the BRIC countries. India is one of the dynamic economies. It is the only one of those major economies-the new emerging economies-that is a Commonwealth country. The real question is whether we should use our UK Indian diaspora and other connections to massively increase trade with India. Is not the big problem there that India itself is not very keen on having free trade arrangements with other countries because India is still largely protectionist, particularly with regard to agricultural issues?

Ms Lea: You have almost answered your own question, if I may say so.

Q87 Mike Gapes: You agree with me, then?

Ms Lea: Of course, but it is not just India. Do not forget that, when it actually comes to per capita incomes and, indeed, other measures of wealth, the really rich Commonwealth countries are Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They still are. I take your point that India, as it develops no doubt, will wish to become less protectionist, and that we honestly, through our trade missions or whatever, will aim to develop links with India. Again, the Foreign Office is on to this one. There is no question about that. I have already said so.

It is not a matter of just dealing with India. You want to think of the whole of the Commonwealth bloc. We have barely mentioned Africa this morning, yet there are economies in Africa-South Africa, for example, is a member of the G20, and is potentially a very important economy. You do not want to just be picking one particular Commonwealth country off, as a star. You want to be looking at the strengths and potential of all of them. Obviously, they differ hugely, but do not just think about India. That would be a strategic mistake.

Q88 Andrew Rosindell: Can I just clarify one or two points, Ms Lea? You talked about the Customs Union, but you are not talking about ending trade with the European Union. You are talking about enhancing trade with the Commonwealth, but also having more flexibility in who we trade with and what trade agreements we make. Is that correct?

Ms Lea: Absolutely. If we did withdraw from the Customs Union-I know that that is the big "if" and the political problem; I am not unaware of that-you develop your free trade agreements with whichever country you consider to be a favoured country. For reasons that I have already given several times, obviously I think that many of the Commonwealth countries have huge potential, as does the United States of America. There will be a lot of other developing countries that one simply should not ignore.

As I have already explained, if we withdrew from the EU and the EU Customs Union, I would certainly consider having a close free trade agreement with-

Q89 Andrew Rosindell: Switzerland?

Ms Lea: Like Switzerland. I think that Switzerland has managed to develop a very good relationship with the EU. In fact, economically it is more integrated in the sense that a bigger proportion of its trade is with the other EU countries than us because we have such a big economic link with the United States of America. That is the main reason for that. Again, people say to me, "You’ve heard this. They won’t trade with us." Well, I have already said that of course they will trade with us. If they have a £30 billion trade surplus, they will trade.

In any case, there is the notion that countries trade with each other. Countries do not trade with each other; businesses do. If we said to Germany, "Well, I am sorry, but we are not going to buy any more of your Mercedes-Benz cars or your BMWs," I suspect that Mercedes-Benz or BMW would be quite upset about it and might actually knock at the door of the German Chancellor and say, "Look: this is not good enough." What you want is to free yourself as a country to be able to have the trade agreements that-

Q90 Andrew Rosindell: Flexibility.

Ms Lea: Absolutely.

Q91 Andrew Rosindell: Just one other quick point. How important are the special factors of our heritage, our language and common legal system-all those things that these countries have inherited from Britain-to developing a new free trade agreement with the Commonwealth?

Ms Lea: I think it is considerable, as I explained to Mr Stewart. There was this estimate of the "Commonwealth Advantage"-the advantage being trade-and that was done after the 1997 CHOGM in Edinburgh when the business councils and various other things were put together. It seemed to me that that particular CHOGM really was on the right lines. Perhaps the Commonwealth has drifted away from the trade and business angle, but there was certainly an estimate then that you could keep your business costs down, because of the commonalities that you were referring to.

Q92 Sir Menzies Campbell: Why do you think the Commonwealth drifted away after 1997 from the direction that you preferred it to take?

Ms Lea: Again, I am not an expert on this sort of thing, I have to admit. I am wildly speculating now, so please delete from the record if it is completely wrong.

Q93 Sir Menzies Campbell: We are used to that.

Ms Lea: I speculate that perhaps the Government had got other priorities, but I really do not know. It is just a reflection of mine. If someone said to me, "They are still there beavering away at economic and business things," I would say it’s a fair cop.

Q94 Sir Menzies Campbell: I think we understand the advantages of the common heritage, but the possible disadvantage is that although the common law is throughout the Commonwealth, the way in which it is observed is not always uniform, and of course there is also the question of corruption in emerging economies. Do you think a different emphasis on the rule of law than we, for example, would expect, and also the incidence of corruption, may have an inhibiting effect on trade with the Commonwealth?

Ms Lea: I think it is inevitable that we are where we are, to use a phrase. We can all build up our own perfect worlds, but we live in the real world. What may be seen as corruption by our standards may not be seen as corruption by other people’s standards. I accept that. As a pragmatic economist, you accept the world as it is. Even so, you say to yourself that the potential is still there, but more could be done if we could build up our relationships, as I have suggested, whatever the other problems happen to be. That is the situation. You just take that as a factor and then move forward as best you can.

Q95 Sir Menzies Campbell: It is a well-honed political cliché that it takes two to tango. Did you detect any enthusiasm on the part of Commonwealth countries for the kind of free trade area you have discussed?

Ms Lea: Certainly. I remember, when I was running the Centre for Policy Studies, we had some people over from Canada, including one of the former Trade Ministers from Canada. The Canadians were incredibly enthusiastic.

Q96 Sir Menzies Campbell: Was that before or after NAFTA?

Ms Lea: Oh, afterwards, because NAFTA was back in the ’90s. It was quite a long time ago, whereas this was four, five or six years ago. They were very enthusiastic. In fact, I was amazed by their enthusiasm. It almost fired me up to start thinking about it as well. It was they who actually pointed me in this particular direction. I think it was because they wanted some sort of sense of identity beyond just being north of the 49th parallel.

Q97 Sir Menzies Campbell: Well, they have lived with the problem of having the United States as the permanent elephant in the room.

Ms Lea: It was partly that as well. Whatever the reasoning, it seemed very pertinent that that should be the case. When I talk to my Australian colleagues-I talk to Commonwealth and Australian groups quite frequently-there is a general sympathy and understanding for it. They said, "You’ve turned your back on us." I have heard this so many times. "You’ve turned your back on us and gone off to Europe, and you ignored us in the 1970s. You don’t really think this is a possibility, do you?" I said, "I don’t know." That is all I can say. But there is an enthusiasm there.

Chair: Ms Lea, thank you very much. Time is up and we have two more witnesses to come. We appreciate your time. It has been very helpful.

Ms Lea: Thank you.

Examination of Witness

Witness: Mr Mark Robinson, Chair (UK), Commonwealth Consortium for Education (CCfE), gave evidence.

Q98 Chair: May I welcome Mr Mark Robinson, who is the Chair of the Commonwealth Consortium for Education? I do not need to explain anything to you, Mr Robinson, as you have represented two seats here in the past. I gather you would like to make a short opening statement.

Mr Robinson: If I may, just to put us into context. I am the alternate chair of CCfE because the actual chair is Colin Power who is former Deputy Secretary-General of UNESCO and is based in Australia, so it is natural that he needs a counterpart here. I must also present an apology from Peter Williams, the founder of CCfE and the Secretary, who is out of the jurisdiction today, although he very much wanted to be here. I said I would pass on his apologies. He has been the prime mover in the establishment of the CCfE, which is an organisation of 20 Commonwealth education NGOs-the numbers vary a bit from time to time. We have a co-ordinating role.

That is all in the paper that has been presented and I am not going to go through that, except to say that not all the members are based in the UK. Some are based in Australia, Barbados, Canada, Jamaica, Kenya and South Africa. We are also privileged to have the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Commonwealth of Learning among our members.

We are active in all aspects of education, not just primary or secondary - tertiary and beyond. Commonwealth Education Ministers’ meetings have been going on for 50 years. It is the second largest Commonwealth gathering, after CHOGM, and has parallel forums. This time it will include stakeholders, youth, teachers and tertiary education. Last time it was Commonwealth vice-chancellors. Of course, education goes to the heart of development throughout the Commonwealth.

We also have a record of helping to get things done. It was at the Commonwealth Education Ministers’ meeting in Edinburgh in 2003 that we set up a group that led to the production of the Commonwealth Teacher Recruitment Protocol, which when we arrived in Edinburgh was firmly opposed by the then Secretary of State for Education. By the time Charles Clarke left, he was firmly in favour of it and it has gone from strength to strength.

We are very supportive of the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, which has up to now around 26,000 fellows. You never know where you might meet them. I found myself in Great Richmond House in Tobago just before the Trinidad CHOGM and my host was Professor Hollis Lynch, a distinguished octogenarian Harvard professor. We had been talking for only three minutes when it suddenly came out in conversation that he was one of the first seven Commonwealth scholars, and he said, "I have never forgotten the Commonwealth from that day to this." When I told him that the Foreign Office had withdrawn its £2 million funding, the poor man nearly had a coronary.

I mention that because, although the Foreign Office did in 2008 withdraw that funding, it has been made up for: £400,000 now comes from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and the rest is made up by our key universities in this country, which have regard for the pan-Commonwealth nature of this programme. The Foreign Office was helping us fund fellows from the developed as well as the developing countries. The value of that was very clear to me when I went to the welcome in Edinburgh two years ago, when you see the interchange between the students from all around the Commonwealth. It is very important having representatives of developed countries there, as well as those of developing countries.

Finally, I will say that after 50 years we have established a Commonwealth Endowment Fund, to which the first contributors were Britain and Malaysia, with £500,000 each. I am now pleased to tell you that among the most recent contributions were £650,000 from Australia, and we are now over the £3 million mark. In about three weeks or so, there will be an announcement from a major Commonwealth donor that will take it close to the £6 million mark, which means that every year we will be able to fund 25 scholars. They will not be coming to Britain, but they will be exchanging. For instance, we have started these exchanges and we have got a British fellow in Nigeria at this moment. It will be exchanging south-south and north-south.

I hope I have put things in context.

Chair: That is very helpful; thank you.

Q99 Sir Menzies Campbell: It is a pleasure to see you back again, Mr Robinson. You have largely answered some of what I wanted to ask about scholarships in your opening statement. But it is the case, is it not, that although BIS has provided cash for scholarships, the level of finance available is less than the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made available in previous times? Is that right?

Mr Robinson: No, that is not right. The Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan has more or less held its own in recent years. The graph is not necessarily going up, as we would like it to, but it has held its own very well. The bulk of its funding comes from the Department for International Development and not from the Foreign Office, but of course DFID will only fund the development aspect, which means the Fellows and Scholars from developing countries. Where we really needed the Foreign Office funding was to ensure that the scheme remained pan-Commonwealth. I was delighted when BIS decided to give some replacement funding to this and after the change of Government, the present Secretary of State for BIS agreed to continue that funding. If I am not out of order, Chair, I would like to thank Mr Rosindell for the support that he gave us in securing that.

Chair: Not out of order at all.

Q100 Sir Menzies Campbell: Mr Rosindell does not think so.

It is a question that one should never ask, but I take it, then, that you would like the graph to go up, rather than to stay level.

Mr Robinson: Of course I would like to see the graph go up, and so would the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan and the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, simply because of the high quality of the Plan and where the scholars get to. I have a whole list of scholars here. What happens to them? In their own countries they become Prime Ministers, one became a President, they become Permanent Secretaries, they run their industries and become Chief Executives, they do enormously positive things in the health service and education service-the record, as in these lists, which I am happy to give to the Clerk if that is useful, gives the value of the scheme. If I were to put a catch phrase on it, this is a very clear example of "Commonwealth Connects".

Q101 Sir Menzies Campbell: May I ask you a more general question? One of the previous witnesses in our inquiry was dismissive of the notion that the Commonwealth could be tapped as a soft power network-I am sure you understand the distinction more recently drawn between hard power and soft power.

Mr Robinson: Yes, I understand.

Q102 Sir Menzies Campbell: Do you think there is a network? You have described where people finish up, but I wonder what the relationship is between those who have been scholars inter se and whether there was a network of that kind that scholarship opportunities provide.

Mr Robinson: Well, there wasn’t, but there is now, because of all the advantages of electronic communication. One thing that completely astonished us, when the Foreign Office funding was withdrawn, was that one of these modern petitions was put to Downing Street and, at the time, it was the biggest ever. It was run by a Canadian and signed by Commonwealth Scholars from all over the world. What you find in international negotiations, when there are two Commonwealth people who know each other, is that suddenly the Commonwealth message gets through in those negotiations. It is added value, almost of a vintage kind.

Q103 Sir Menzies Campbell: And is that something that your organisation is seeking to promote or is it self-generating?

Mr Robinson: No. Since the withdrawal of that £2 million, we have been seeking to generate. We have set up a committee to support the CSFP, which meets regularly. It is run by an organisation, the Council for Education in the Commonwealth, some of whose members are sitting behind me, of which I was executive chair for six years, before I became chair of this organisation. Great drive was given to that by a former Member of this House, Valerie Davey, who did a tremendous amount of work in helping. This is how we got the CSFP Endowment Fund not just up and running, but up and running in a very serious way. We can reach our first target of 25 scholars every year from the endowment fund. We hope to get to £10 million; we are about to get to £6 million.

Q104 Sir Menzies Campbell: Can I put a possible scenario? You are sitting in the office of the Foreign Secretary, William Hague. He says, "What more can we do in the realm of soft power to influence the Commonwealth and bring it closer together?" What would be the three things that you would say to him?

Mr Robinson: The first thing I would say is that the legacy of colonialism is a long way behind us and I believe that Britain can afford to be more proactive in initiatives that it takes in the Commonwealth. Secondly, we have Commonwealth ministerial meetings-I don’t want to criticise the Foreign Office, but I think they could do more to make sure that our Departments of State are properly represented at these meetings. At the Malaysia Education Ministers meeting - the High Commissioner’s face when he heard that there was not even going to be a Minister from Britain was a picture. Luckily that was corrected. Although the Whips would only allow David Lammy to come for a day, his presence during that day was enormously appreciated.

Q105 Sir Menzies Campbell: Is this at ministerial level?

Mr Robinson: This is at ministerial level. I have heard the word disconnect used - there is a bit of a disconnect. The Foreign Office should have a role, if they do not do this already, in making sure that other Departments of State connect when Commonwealth Ministerial meetings are coming up.

That said, the present Foreign Secretary and Lord Howell have made tremendous efforts to promote soft power. I was at CHOGM: Lord Howell was everywhere. Then the Commonwealth People’s Forum, which I do not think had ever seen a British Minister, was closed out by the Foreign Secretary, and these things are both noticed and appreciated.

Q106 Sir Menzies Campbell: So it is largely ministerial availability and influence that you-

Mr Robinson: It is always a problem, but the developing countries of the Commonwealth find time to send their Ministers, who get enormous value out of meeting Ministers from the developed side. Education is another form of soft power. The number of Education Ministers who go on to become their Heads of Government is extraordinary. I can think of one from this country who did just that, as well as the 2009 Commonwealth Chairman from Trinidad and Tobago.

Q107 Mr Roy: Mr Robinson, I went to a high school on Friday and spoke to fifth and sixth year pupils. Because of this inquiry about the Commonwealth, I asked them, "What does the Commonwealth mean to you?" No one answered.

Mr Robinson: I am not surprised. A strong programme was run by the Commonwealth Institute, which no longer exists - it has been translated and become the Commonwealth Education Trust with activities largely focused in Cambridge. Before every Commonwealth Day, the Institute would be running programmes in schools about the Commonwealth. Unfortunately this no longer happens.

The Commonwealth is also supposed to be part of the national curriculum, but this does not feed through in the ways that it should. What is interesting to me when I travel in the Commonwealth is that in Commonwealth developing countries, the Commonwealth is far more to the forefront of people’s-and young people’s-minds than it is in this country. Mind you, there is news media competition and a whole lot of that. Although it does important things in the context of the Secretary-General’s good offices and through the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), it is not on the front pages of our newspapers, which is where young people would notice it.

Q108 Mr Roy: Can I just clarify something? When you say that the Commonwealth is not part of the national curriculum, do you mean the English and Welsh one? Scotland and Northern Ireland have a totally different curriculum.

Mr Robinson: I don’t know whether it still is, but it never had any impact, and that criticism has been made. What is the Commonwealth? That is actually a very good question. When you go to the Commonwealth Day service and Westminster Abbey is packed, it is packed with schoolchildren -the Queen attends- from all around Britain.

Q109 Mr Roy: So schoolchildren from the very north and the very south?

Mr Robinson: The very east and the west. Wales and Scotland come into consideration for the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey, which is very well run by the Royal Commonwealth Society on behalf of Commonwealth organisations.

Q110 Mike Gapes: Do you think that the recent changes and restrictions on student visas to this country will have a disproportionate impact on Commonwealth countries and that relationship?

Mr Robinson: It could do. I have already seen where it has an impact in the other Commonwealth work that I do. Sometimes you have won funding to bring people over here for a specific symposium, or whatever it happens to be, and then they can’t get here at the last minute because they cannot get a visa in time. It varies so much from country to country. Before coming here, I asked that very question of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU). It said that because this is a Government-supported programme it hasn’t had serious difficulties, but it needs to be watched.

Q111 Mike Gapes: You also referred to people having an ongoing relationship. Does the Foreign Office devote any resources to allowing, enabling and facilitating former Commonwealth Scholars to keep in touch with each other, or is that done entirely outside official structures?

Mr Robinson: As far as I know, it is done entirely outside. One should remember that when people come to study for their PhDs , they are making a contribution both here and back at home. Often, some of their course requires further work back in this country. The intellectual property remains here, but they do not always find it easy to come back because of the visa system. A little bit more flexibility in that regard is always welcome, but of course I realise the pressures at the other end.

Q112 Mike Gapes: Are you aware of the John Adams Society, which the American embassy runs or facilitates for people who have been on the international visitors programme to the US? Is there anything comparable?

Mr Robinson: Nothing similar, as far as I know. That said, as a Commonwealth scheme, it is right up there and does have its own networks.. One big scheme in this country is the Rhodes Scholarship Scheme, and alongside that comes the CSFP and the Marshall Plan. The Commonwealth Scholarship Commission is now going to administer the Chevening scholarships, as well. I think the ACU won that contract recently.

Q113 Mike Gapes: Does the Commonwealth Secretariat or the Commonwealth itself do anything to facilitate these relationships?

Mr Robinson: Some of us would argue that it could do more, although the Secretariat is very compactly and tightly staffed. Yes, it is supportive. Yes, it will give a reception or whatever. But it is very much the role of the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission to run the scheme.

Q114 Andrew Rosindell: Mr Roy spoke earlier about the school in his constituency where the young people had no idea of what the Commonwealth meant to them. What recommendations would you give to our Committee on how the Government should do more to promote the understanding, particularly on the educational side, of our membership of the Commonwealth to young people and to students?

Mr Robinson: The best way to promote understanding is through our school system and school networks. A lot more can be done. The other way that we are doing it is through model Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings both in Britain and in other Commonwealth countries. I think Canada started this off and I know that the RCS has given support to that.

These practical things attract the interest of young people, bearing in mind all the other things, with exams and everything else, that they have to do. But every little bit of effort in promoting the Commonwealth in schools is something that we have argued for. In that context, we really do miss the Commonwealth Institute. There is no point going back and crying over spilt milk, but we really do miss it and the role it used to play, with all its flags, on Kensington High Street.

Culture is another means of promotion.. We must remember that as well. Another way of doing this, and I remember from my former constituency of Somerton and Frome, is through exchanges between schools. Castle Cary had an exchange with Mufulira in Zambia. These exchanges were enormously important and the visitors would come here to the House of Commons and be received by the Speaker and many others beside.. A lot of those inter-school exchanges need encouragement and should be encouraged. The impact on school children from this country meeting children from developing countries, is profound and should necer be underestimated.

Q115 Mr Watts: Some people might think that the Commonwealth is outdated, outmoded and that is why there is less interest in it in the UK and less interest in it around the world. If you look at trade, for example, there is no evidence whatsoever that it brings any benefit to the UK economy or to other countries. Is it not a case of flogging a dead horse here-and we need to rethink our relationship outside the Commonwealth?

Mr Robinson: My answer to that would be no, it’s not flogging a dead horse, because the people who make the Commonwealth are Commonwealth leaders themselves. I think it was the Prime Minister of New Zealand who was talking to the Prime Minister of a developing country who said something interesting in the education context, which resulted in the New Zealander saying, "Right, my Government will fund that." Friendships develop and these become helpful in international negotiations. In the climate change negotiations, it was the Commonwealth that was able, although the ultimate outcome was disappointing, to get some focus into the developing countries’ wishes which were reflected in the final otcomes. Another example some years ago was the process leading to the independence of Belize, where Commonwealth Foreign Ministers came together in New York and set that whole process in motion when it looked like it would never happen because of aggressive assertions by neighbours, who eventually accepted the situation.

Q116 Mr Watts: But isn’t it the case that people have moved on? In the case of the UK, it has moved on to its relationship with Europe. In the case of Australia, for example, it has developed new trading partners and is now a major player within its own region. Isn’t that the reality? The world has rapidly changed and new relationships have been developed, and it’s going to be impossible to repair them and bring them back to the former glories of what some people would say is the Commonwealth.

Mr Robinson: I would stick on your saying "bringing back". The Commonwealth is not about bringing back; it is about moving forward. Why is there such a strong relationship? Because of commonality of language, because of similar systems of law, because of similar systems of local government, similar systems of education and more. After all, by way of example many Commonwealth countries use our examining boards here in this country for their own exams and qualifications.

Under the surface, when you get away from the political soundbites, there is both a lot happening and much affection, not just for Britain but between all members. It may be a bit of a club, but it is a club that is successful, and one that has made successive French Presidents jealous, because they can’t recapture the same kind of thing with the Francophonie, much as they would like to.

Q117 Sir Menzies Campbell: At least one Commonwealth country has appointed a Commonwealth ambassador. Do you think the objectives you have described this morning would be more easily achieved if the British Government were to appoint a Commonwealth ambassador?

Mr Robinson: The Commonwealth has had an ambassador-I hope you won’t think I am repeating somebody else’s evidence, but I entirely agree with it-in Lord Howell, but I think-

Sir Menzies Campbell: I was thinking of someone with a specific-

Mr Robinson: It needs to be given to-[interruption.] Where do we go on from here? You can’t always have a Foreign Office Minister racing all over the world, trying to rev up the Commonwealth in quite the skilful way that Lord Howell does with all his experience. It comes back to what I was saying earlier. I think there is plenty of scope for the Foreign Office to be more proactive and to encourage initiatives than it used to be. I remember having discussions about that when I was working with Douglas Hurd in the Foreign Office, but that was a long time ago. It was hard work, because officials in the Foreign Office who have not dealt with the Commonwealth say, "Oh, it’s not terribly important, is it?" Maybe that is where a disconnect lies.

Q118 Mr Baron: There seems to be a disconnect in the present Government’s approach to the Commonwealth. On the one hand we hear very warm words and some of us welcome that. The Foreign Secretary has gone out of his way in making the case that we need to step up to the plate when it comes to the Commonwealth. Yet on the other hand when you look at the actions of the Government, whether it is reducing the reach of the BBC World Service or closing the smaller embassies, particular across the Pacific, which had a very negative impact from a PR point of view in those smaller Pacific regions, it seems to be at odds with what the Foreign Secretary was saying. Why do you think there is this disconnect? Is it just a muddle or what?

Mr Robinson: Well, on the closures in the Pacific, a lot of it happened before the present Government came into office. I am totally opposed to closing diplomatic representation. All right it is expensive, but you can find other ways, perhaps, to keep the communications going with those smaller countries. It is the small states of the Commonwealth that get a massive amount out of CHOGM and get helped in their international negotiations through the offices of the Commonwealth Secretariat as established in New York and Geneva. That sort of work is important given that, I think, 33 members of the Commonwealth are technically small states, including Namibia which is a country of vast size, but classified as a small developing state.

We need to look to our overseas territories. Some of those will become independent in due course. The numbers will rise. Britain can help some of those countries to be active in Commonwealth meetings by including them in their delegations. They have done it in the past. I know Bermuda has hosted a Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting. We have not heard much of that in recent times. Although the Commonwealth Foundation did a survey recently into that whole question, there is plenty of scope for activity if we choose to make it happen. But, of course, the Foreign Secretary has Syria on his desk. He has Libya on his desk. As Lord Carrington once said something along these lines, "I always find the Commonwealth at the bottom of my in-tray and at that moment I have to go and vote somewhere."

Chair: Mr Robinson, thank you very much indeed. There is a wealth of experience both in your written and oral evidence. It is very much appreciated. Thank you for coming along.

Examination of Witness

Witness: Dr Danny Sriskandarajah, Director, Royal Commonwealth Society, gave evidence.

Chair: May I welcome our third witness? He is the director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Dr Danny Sriskandarajah. Welcome, Danny. Is there anything that you would like to say by way of an opening statement? In that case I will hand over to Andrew Rosindell.

Q119 Andrew Rosindell: First, how do you feel the Commonwealth benefits the United Kingdom? Also, how cost-effective is it for the UK to be part of the Commonwealth?

Dr Sriskandarajah: If I can start with the cost-effectiveness, I think the Commonwealth represents incredible value for money. The size of the UK publicly-funded commitment to Commonwealth institutions is tiny in comparison with most other international organisations or associations. But the value that Britain derives from the Commonwealth is immense. Some of it is in the diplomatic world and as an intergovernmental organisation or several intergovernmental organisations, Britain has yet another forum to pursue foreign policy objectives. More important than that are the sorts of ties that previous witnesses have talked about, whether that is the networks of Commonwealth scholars or alumni around the world or business people who are interested in trading across the network. It is those networks-the network of networks-that benefit this country, directly sometimes, but more often indirectly.

Q120 Andrew Rosindell: There are those who think that the Commonwealth is a relic and is something that belongs in the past and has no relevance to today. Would you go along with that? What is your view on those who dismiss the Commonwealth as an irrelevance? My second point is that you represent the Royal Commonwealth Society. How important is the Queen and the heritage of the monarchy to the strength and stability of the Commonwealth overall?

Dr Sriskandarajah: I will start with your second question. I have had the privilege over the past three and a half years of being the director of the Royal Commonwealth Society. I came in naively thinking that this would mean fusty conversations with palace officials about what they thought the Commonwealth was and that I would struggle to modernise the institution. I have been pleasantly surprised by the energy and enthusiasm that, I think, comes from Her Majesty herself, as well as through her officials. They see this as far from being a relic or a vestige of an imperial past. They see it as a body that is alive. Some of the most ambitious and bold statements about the future of the Commonwealth have been made by Her Majesty in Christmas messages and in the opening remarks that she made to the last CHOGM, where she talked about the Commonwealth needing to be bold. Those were far more provocative than many of the political speeches, in terms of saying that this is an organisation that needs to become bold.

If I can turn to your first question, the Commonwealth is at risk of becoming a relic and of becoming irrelevant to more and more people. Something urgent needs to be done not just to fix the intergovernmental institutions, which were designed, let us not forget, in the 1960s and have seen little modernisation since then, but also in those networks and the ties that link people.

My parents were born in Sri Lanka and had the opportunity in the 1970s to go to Australia and New Zealand on Commonwealth-inspired scholarships. I grew up in Australia and came here on a Rhodes scholarship, which is not directly Commonwealth, but it certainly has a Commonwealth aspect to it. I fear that the sorts of ties that were natural for my parents’ generation and even for my generation will be lost to my children’s generation, because the Commonwealth is not important, because of how the world and the lives of people have changed.

When I started at the Royal Commonwealth Society, many people said to me, "We lament the loss of the relevance or the prominence of the Commonwealth." We commissioned seven nationally representative sample surveys in seven Commonwealth countries, including this one, Australia, South Africa, Malaysia and India. We found what I think are worrying results. Only a third of people in each of those countries on average could identify anything that the Commonwealth did, and half of those said the Commonwealth games. In countries such as Australia and Canada, vast numbers said that they would feel indifferent or, sometimes, even happy if their countries withdrew from the Commonwealth.

I think that there is a disconnect between the ideals and the potential of the Commonwealth and how it is being felt and recognised in the lives of people. Some say, "Well, every international association suffers from a low profile or a lack of understanding," and that may well be the case, but the Commonwealth has a double bind, which is that because it has arisen from history and carries what one might call historical baggage, it is encumbered by misperception. People say, "Oh, that is just a British colonial club," or, "That is something that the Queen is interested in and is nothing that affects my life." The Commonwealth has to work extra hard to recast itself as a modern and contemporary association. I fear that fewer and fewer people know about the Commonwealth, let alone care about it.

Q121 Andrew Rosindell: How do you see the Commonwealth being funded? You have already mentioned that the amount of money that the Commonwealth has costs us a tiny amount compared to other institutions such as the EU. How would you approach that? If you want to expand the Commonwealth and make it more relevant, how would you justify spending extra money to make it the organisation that you have described?

Dr Sriskandarajah: I divide expenditure into two broad categories. The first is the public money that is spent in Commonwealth institutions-perhaps member subscriptions to the secretariat, the foundation or the Commonwealth of Learning. Those contributions should be assessed like any other. As a taxpayer, I hope that they are assessed in terms of their value for money and the results that they are achieving. The UK Government should invest or disinvest, depending on how effective those institutions are. We had a multilateral aid review done by DFID into the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation last year. The results of that, which were published, are not particularly good when it comes to the CFTC’s performance on DFID’s measures. That is in terms of direct investment in those Commonwealth institutions.

The really interesting aspect of how the UK might be able to support the Commonwealth is through these indirect activities. I mean the sorts of networks, connections and activities that happen across the Commonwealth, but that are not necessarily done through the intergovernmental Commonwealth. I work for a Commonwealth institution that pre-dates the modern Commonwealth-the RCS was founded in 1868-and I never fail to be amazed by the fact that, in the Commonwealth, we have an inheritance that no other international association can boast. There is no royal OECD society that tries to promote international understanding among schoolchildren across the OECD. There is no G20 parliamentary association that boasts hundreds and thousands of members around the world. It is there that the uniqueness of the Commonwealth lies, but perhaps also where greater public investment might bear even more fruit.

Q122 Mr Roy: You mentioned the benefits, networks and relevance, but I would be interested to know what benefit the Commonwealth has to the ordinary working-class constituents in my area? What networks can they join or be part of, and what is the relevance to their life of being in the Commonwealth?

Dr Sriskandarajah: At the highest level, your constituents benefit from their country being a member of this amazing international association where foreign policy objectives are, I hope, furthered. So the world is a better place because they are nationals of a country that is a member of this unique association.

There are also trade and economic benefits that, as I think a previous witness said, are hugely under-utilised. Ms Lea talked about the research that was done in 1997 to try to quantify this Commonwealth advantage. Two years ago, the Royal Commonwealth Society updated that analysis and, in fact, I hope that we upgraded the methodology used. We found that if you compare the trade volumes-goods and services-that are passing through to country pairs, the trading volume between two Commonwealth members is likely to be a third to a half more than trade between a Commonwealth member and a non-Commonwealth member. That is after we correct for similarities in terms of language, history, proximity and a whole range of other Commonwealth factors. This is what we call the Commonwealth advantage.

There is something there in terms of the familiarity between countries in the Commonwealth-the established connections and the ease with which business and trade can happen-that will benefit a business person in your constituency. The sadness is that that happens despite there being, apart from the Commonwealth Business Council, no formal mechanism through which the Commonwealth promotes trade or investment.

Finally, one of the most inspiring aspects of my job is attending occasionally the Commonwealth youth summits that the Royal Commonwealth Society holds. I am always amazed at the passion with which the young people-15 or 16-year-olds-who take part in our programmes approach international issues. We have been running youth summits over the past few years that are focused on international development issues such as maternal mortality or malaria. To see a 15-year-old in Glasgow get really worked up about the injustice of maternal mortality figures in the rest of the world while sitting in a model Commonwealth summit is really inspiring.

That is where the Commonwealth can help. It can encourage people to think beyond their own communities, and to think about international issues and the world’s connectedness. To me, that is what the Commonwealth has always been about. It has been about what used to be called friendship, or might have been called solidarity, but today is called networks. It is about connecting people in a meaningful way and getting them to think about meeting and touching others in other parts of the world.

Q123 Ann Clwyd: We constantly hear that we share the same values, so what should the Commonwealth be doing about human rights abuses in member states? Should it be more proactive than it is at present?

Dr Sriskandarajah: The evidence suggests that the Commonwealth must be more proactive. When the Royal Commonwealth Society conducted the Commonwealth conversation three years ago-it ended up being the largest ever public consultation on the future of the Commonwealth-one of the clear messages was that people said that there was a disconnect between the values that the Commonwealth is allegedly interested in, and what they perceive to be inaction in those areas. If we want to restore public interest and public confidence in the Commonwealth, we must address that perceived, if not real, disconnect.

I sometimes wonder whether the Commonwealth as an intergovernmental institution is more like a club or a church. We often think and talk about it as a club, and what benefits country x or y receives from joining it. Why did Rwanda join? Was it because of the trade benefits, or the political access? That is great, because every international association must deliver tangible benefits, such as the one we have just been talking about. The Commonwealth is, if not the only one, one of the very few voluntary international associations that cross the world and are more than just regional. What separates it is that it is a values-based organisation. It is more like a church.

Q124 Ann Clwyd: But what is it doing to address human rights abuses? Give me an example of what it is doing in member states.

Dr Sriskandarajah: The intergovernmental Commonwealth speaks out through the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, for example. Last week, CMAG made a provocative and bold statement about the state of democracy in the Maldives. That is an example of the intergovernmental Commonwealth if not at its best, certainly at its most vocal.

Another, very different example of how the Commonwealth works is that we have the inheritance of civil society networks-what we call the people’s Commonwealth-and professional and other associations. An example is the Commonwealth Journalists Association, which is a voluntary association of working or retired journalists from around the Commonwealth. It is a good example of using the Commonwealth’s moral authority to speak out from an independent perspective when there are instances of abuse of freedom of the press in Commonwealth countries.

Q125 Ann Clwyd: I have to interrupt you. Does the Commonwealth retain a moral authority, given what happened at CHOGM, and given that the next CHOGM will be in Colombo in Sri Lanka, where there are of course continuing human rights abuses? Doesn’t that give the wrong message about the purpose of the Commonwealth?

Dr Sriskandarajah: If you agree with me about my analysis of what the public have said through our public consultation about the disconnect-one outcome of CHOGM that was highly publicised was the lack of agreement about a commissioner for democracy, human rights and the rule of law-the decision to go to Sri Lanka will certainly be perceived by the interested public around the Commonwealth as further deteriorating that moral authority.

Q126 Ann Clwyd: Therefore, given that the Canadian Prime Minister has said that he will not go to CHOGM, should the British Prime Minister be going?

Dr Sriskandarajah: If I read the Canadian Prime Minister’s statements correctly, he said something slightly different. I think he said that he will not be going to CHOGM in Colombo unless there is a marked improvement in the state of affairs in Sri Lanka. Perhaps the British Prime Minister should do something similar. We know that in the bilateral relationship, the British Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have said that they would like to see things happen in Sri Lanka; and the world will be watching very carefully when the Commonwealth goes to CHOGM. I think the last thing we would want is for people to lose further trust or confidence in the Commonwealth.

Q127 Ann Clwyd: What improvements should there be in Sri Lanka for the British Prime Minister to base his decision on?

Dr Sriskandarajah: I am not an expert on what is going on in Sri Lanka at the moment.

Q128 Ann Clwyd: But you must have a view, as you speak for an association.

Dr Sriskandarajah: Well, the RCS’s interest is for the Commonwealth to be seen as a values-based, rigorous, robust association. The last thing any of us working in the Commonwealth want is for that image of the Commonwealth as a values-based association to be diminished, by action or inaction. That is our interest above all.

Q129 Ann Clwyd: Is there a role for the UK Government in pushing these reforms within the Commonwealth?

Dr Sriskandarajah: Yes. I think there is more than a role-a necessity. The intergovernmental Commonwealth institutions, let us not forget, were created much later even than the modern Commonwealth. So in 1949 the leaders agreed to create the modern Commonwealth; in the early 1960s a secretariat was created. I had the privilege last year of being seconded to be the director of something called the Commonwealth Foundation, which is another intergovernmental organisation, based in Marlborough House-a subscription-based intergovernmental organisation. I saw at first hand both the potential of those organisations and how much needs to be done to reform them and to modernise what goes on.

The total staff of Marlborough House-based institutions is a few hundred people, which I think someone has said, rather bemusingly, is fewer than those who work in the cafeteria in UN headquarters. The advantage for those who work in the cafeteria at UN headquarters is that they have one relatively simple task to do every day, which is to serve up good food. The problem for all of those people in Marlborough House is that they have got a huge range of mandates to cover and issues to work on. I think we really do need to have a set of organisations that is far more focused and fit for modern purpose.

Q130 Ann Clwyd: Finally, can I ask you about the role of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association? Does it fulfil the objectives of the Commonwealth? What role does it play?

Dr Sriskandarajah: From what I have seen of the CPA, I think it is one of the best Commonwealth organisations or associations. It has a huge convening power-I have been to a couple of its conferences and it is almost the Commonwealth at its best. It is about people who come, who I think learn, engage and network through these meetings. Parliamentary democracy around the Commonwealth is surely strengthened by the presence of an organisation like the CPA; so it is promoting Commonwealth values.

Q131 Sir John Stanley: Do you consider the Harare declaration dead or alive?

Dr Sriskandarajah: It is not quite dying, but I do worry about it. I worry about the fact that the Commonwealth has failed to show how it adds value to existing international legal and other instruments. What is missing in the Commonwealth these days, I think, is-what is it that membership of the Commonwealth does for a country when it comes to these values on human rights, or various principles? There is an increasingly crowded marketplace when it comes to not just the legal instruments but the institutions that are there to uphold them. When the Commonwealth was created, and even when the Harare declaration was signed, the marketplace was less crowded. Now the Commonwealth needs to do more to make the case for why membership of the Commonwealth goes over and above current obligations that member states might have.

Q132 Sir John Stanley: Leaving aside for the moment the degree of life that might be left in the Harare declaration, would you agree that if the Commonwealth is to have real human rights value, purpose and standards, there have to be not only action groups, even at ministerial level, but a basic written text to which all Commonwealth members subscribe and against which each and every Commonwealth member can be judged on whether they are compliant with the text? If you agree with that, do you also consider that this is the time when the UK and, hopefully, many other Governments should come together to produce a new Commonwealth statement of human rights to which all members subscribe?

Dr Sriskandarajah: I agree, but perhaps for a different reason from most others. From the research we have done on public perceptions and understanding of the Commonwealth, something like that would help because it would make it very clear what membership of the Commonwealth means. Earlier, you talked to another witness about teaching about the Commonwealth in UK schools. Great; I think that is something that the RCS would support very much, but the last thing we want to do is teach the Commonwealth as a historical artefact. The last place you would want to see the Commonwealth appear is in the history curriculum. Where we need to see it is as part of a geography curriculum or a general studies curriculum so that young people, my children, understand what membership of the Commonwealth means and so that they start reading about the Commonwealth in newspapers today, rather than hearing about the past glory of Commonwealth actions. A charter, or whatever it is, that encapsulates those Commonwealth principles and can easily be communicated, not least to schoolchildren, would be very valuable indeed.

Q133 Sir John Stanley: I would hope not in the geography curriculum but in the citizenship curriculum and the human rights curriculum.

Dr Sriskandarajah: There too.

Q134 Mike Gapes: In the previous answer, you referred to the welcome Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group statement on the Maldives coup-I do not think they refer to it as a coup, but the perception, certainly among many people in the Maldives, is that there was a coup. The reality, of course, is that the Commonwealth makes statements; it does not necessarily have any power to bring in sanctions or other measures. Also, the Commonwealth has not made statements of a similar kind about some other Commonwealth countries in the past. Is there a need to revisit the way in which the Commonwealth makes decisions, to move away from this declaratory consensus approach, so that we could, for example, address Sri Lanka, which was referred to earlier?

Dr Sriskandarajah: From my time working in Commonwealth institutions, I get the sense that it is the very things that make the Commonwealth unique that also make it prone to inaction. The consensus-based way of working is fabulous and in the past has been a really important way of building solidarity across Commonwealth members. Commonwealth members come to the table knowing that they are going to be part of a collective decision-making process and will not be outvoted by the big boys around the table. On the other hand, what we have seen in recent times is that those sorts of processes and the institutions around them can lead to an impasse.

I do think that the Commonwealth needs to revisit not only the way that it makes decisions but the sorts of levers that it has at its disposal, whether it is a public statement encouraging a member state to do this or not do that, or whether it is the idea of sending special envoys. Let us not forget that in the Maldives the Commonwealth has appointed a special envoy who I believe has been doing his best to bring the various parties together. So there are ways of working that the Commonwealth needs to revisit. Every international organisation needs to look continually at the ways that it can operate and how it is adding value to the marketplace of what everyone else is doing.

My personal feeling about what has happened with the Commonwealth is that the ways of working for the Commonwealth were created in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s and they have not been modernised since then, yet the world has changed so dramatically. Every region of the world has a fairly robust and growing regional body, whether it is the African Union, ASEAN, or wherever else. All of these organisations have emerged in the last few decades, and the UN has grown in size and scope, in terms of what it does, since the 1960s. So, if you are a leader of a small or developing country, you need the Commonwealth less than you might have in 1965 or 1975. I think that every organisation needs to revisit the ways that it makes decisions, or the ways that it intervenes or influences how the world works.

Q135 Mr Baron: Dr Sriskandarajah, the Royal Commonwealth Society has said in the past-correct me if I am wrong-that what is required to realise the full potential of the Commonwealth is bolder leadership, ambition, innovation, and so on. Despite all the talk from the British Government-it is welcome talk-about renewed emphasis on the Commonwealth, actions seem to be less, or falling short. How do you account for that disconnect? Why are the British Government not realising, or at least seeking to realise, this great potential for the mutual benefit of all?

Dr Sriskandarajah: Speaking frankly, I think it is because the institutional infrastructure of the Commonwealth is not fit for purpose. If you are a Foreign Secretary, or a Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, interested in pursuing the potential of the Commonwealth, what you have at your disposal is no longer fit for what you want to do. At the intergovernmental level, as I have said already, I think there is serious need for reform of institutions. At the non-governmental level-I have talked about this fabulous inheritance of these various civil society networks, or the people’s Commonwealth, but here too, I worry that the scale and operation of some of those organisations are small and dwindling, and many of these Commonwealth associations are run by volunteers or a very small paid staff. So, you can have all the ambition you want sitting at the FCO, but the people and institutions that will deliver that for you are not necessarily resourced enough, in some cases, or able enough to deliver.

Q136 Mr Roy: You said that the institutional structure is not fit for purpose and earlier on you talked about the need to understand the Commonwealth. Does it disappoint you, therefore, that other countries are not allowed observer status, for example, at CHOGM?

Dr Sriskandarajah: It is not an issue that I have thought much about. I know that there is interest in broadening the tent and bringing other members in, whether it is through observer status or full membership. That may well be a good thing, but I think there needs to be as much emphasis, if not more, on getting our house in order and working out what exactly membership of the Commonwealth means for a Prime Minister, or a constituent in a member state. That, to me, is a far more important and pressing task.

Q137 Andrew Rosindell: When we talk about the Commonwealth, does it fully include the 31 territories that are not nation states, such as our own Crown dependencies and overseas territories? How should they be properly included and recognised within the Commonwealth?

Dr Sriskandarajah: The intergovernmental Commonwealth does not include those territories, because it is set up to be about sovereign states, and rightly so, perhaps. Where there is scope to include and engage those territories will be through the non-governmental Commonwealth, through the people’s Commonwealth. We did one of our youth summits in Guernsey a couple of years ago. It was amazing. The seriousness and engagement that we got from the Guernsey Government and Guernsey people about engaging with the Commonwealth was amazing. This is where we can perhaps see a glimpse of the Commonwealth’s potential.

I have been involved in a very interesting conversation with someone who used to work in the Falkland Islands about the peculiar challenges around governance faced by small island states and whether we could do a bit of research, capacity-building and networking across island territories, or even states, to share resources and knowhow on some of those issues around governance. The Commonwealth is the perfect platform for doing that.

Q138 Andrew Rosindell: But do you not agree that they should be given proper status within the Commonwealth? Currently, they are a grey area; they are included in some parts of the work of the Commonwealth, but not others. They cannot attend CHOGM, even as observers. Do you not think that when the Commonwealth publishes a map of the Commonwealth, it should also colour in-it does not do it now-all the 31 territories around the world? At the moment, there is no proper recognition of the fact that they are part of the Commonwealth.

Dr Sriskandarajah: More could be done, certainly. It seems counter-intuitive that these territories, which are part of other member states, are not recognised in some way or another. I am not so sure whether the intergovernmental Commonwealth is ready for their admission in any formal way. My reading of what goes on in the intergovernmental Commonwealth is that member states have been far too precious about those being bodies for sovereign states to allow that. Again, I really think that there is potential and scope for really including and engaging those territories that you talk about, just as the Commonwealth Games Federation and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association do.

Q139 Rory Stewart: If you were the Foreign Secretary and had some money and resources, and you wanted to do something for the Commonwealth, what would you do?

Dr Sriskandarajah: I would pump-prime the people’s Commonwealth. I would recognise, just as DFID is doing, that civil society is an integral part of the vision and values of the Commonwealth. A robust and independent civil society can promote good governance and be a check on Government, and connecting people, whether through scholarships or trading networks, can be an incredibly effective way of pursuing soft power objectives or whatever you would call it. If I were the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, I would look to strengthening those informal networks that criss-cross the Commonwealth, and perhaps almost hedge my bets against failure of reform at the intergovernmental level.

Q140 Rory Stewart: Would you also put money into more British diplomats focused on the Commonwealth or would you put more money into the Commonwealth Secretariat from Britain?

Dr Sriskandarajah: There is certainly scope to do more with British missions across the world as it is, in terms of the Commonwealth. Diane Corner, the British High Commissioner to Tanzania, is an example of someone who recognised when she went there that the British mission in Tanzania flew the British and the EU flags. She thought it odd that she never really got together with her Commonwealth colleagues who were based in Dar es Salaam, so for the past year or so, informally, many of the Commonwealth High Commissioners in Dar es Salaam get together to talk about issues and start to act like a community. I hear that that is now happening in many other parts of the world. More can certainly be done to strengthen the feeling of membership of the Commonwealth through the UK diplomatic presence.

From a bilateral perspective, the more Britain withdraws from different parts of the world, the more Britain’s image and perceptions around the importance of Britain will fall. We need to be careful to recognise that the Commonwealth is much more than Britain and its bilateral interests.

Q141 Mr Watts: You talked about the need to reform the Commonwealth. Do some of the perceived successes of the Commonwealth drag it down a certain path? I am thinking about the Queen’s visits, the Commonwealth games and that sort of agenda. Many people would think that that is what it does and all that it does. Is there a need to shift the focus away from that and on to trade, capacity-building and human rights, in a way that means that there has to be a movement away from what is perceived at present as a strength?

Dr Sriskandarajah: I agree. If you do a media analysis and look at the occasions on which the Commonwealth has been mentioned in, say, British newspapers in the last few years, you will find, exactly as you said, that the coverage relates often to royal visits or the Commonwealth games in October 2010-not always for the right reasons. If you ask yourself, as I have, when you last picked up a British newspaper and read a good news story to do with the Commonwealth and our allegedly shared values, you struggle. So, you are entirely right that we need to have some successes under our belt that relate to the core purposes of what this association is about.

Q142 Mike Gapes: We are going to be visiting some Commonwealth countries as part of our inquiry, but we cannot go to all of them, obviously. I would be interested in your perception of how the Commonwealth is seen in India, the largest Commonwealth country.

Dr Sriskandarajah: When I first started, I was also told, "Look, this is only a British problem. In other parts of the Commonwealth, everyone loves the Commonwealth. It’s only here that people don’t know very much about it or don’t care about it." Our research, which we publish, shows that that is not the case. At the popular level, people know very little about the Commonwealth in many Commonwealth countries, including India, where there is little appreciation of the Commonwealth. My interactions with Indian diplomats and policy makers suggest that the Commonwealth is nowhere near the top of their foreign policy priorities.

Look at the incredible investment that the Indian Government are making in other forums, not least the G20 and IBSA-India, Brazil and South Africa; those are the sorts of forums where India is investing heavily. You will find when you go to India that there is a lot of warmth about the Commonwealth, but the new generation of Indian policy makers and Indian business people will know relatively little about the modern Commonwealth. That underlines my point that there is a risk that the networks we value so, and which we have been talking about so much, are not so important to Indian political leaders or business leaders.

Chair: Dr Sriskandarajah, thank you very much indeed. That has been very helpful. I hope you got something out of it as well.

Prepared 14th November 2012