Foreign Affairs - Minutes of EvidenceHC 114

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee

on Tuesday 12 June 2012

Members present:

Richard Ottaway (Chair)

Mr John Baron

Ann Clwyd

Andrew Rosindell

Sir John Stanley

Rory Stewart


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Lord Howell of Guildford, Minister of State for the Commonwealth, and Kirsty Hayes, Head, International Organisations Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, gave evidence.

Q143 Chair: May I give a very warm welcome to Lord Howell? It is always good to see a Foreign Office Minister here, but to have a past Chairman of this Committee here is a double pleasure and an honour and a privilege, if I may say so. Lord Howell, you are no stranger to the format here. Do you want to say anything by way of an opening statement? My first question to you may prompt one.

Lord Howell: I am happy to make some opening remarks, if I may. I want to say how pleased I am to be here and how much I welcome your decision to look at the Commonwealth network and the future of the Commonwealth. I shall start, if I may, on a slightly trivial note. I notice that the new Commonwealth tune, composed for the Buckingham palace concert the other day, is now number one on the hit parade. That shows where the interest lies.

I hope I don’t sound too much like an ancient mariner, but my second opening remark is to note, going back to the 1996 report on the future role of the Commonwealth-one of the Committee’s members, Sir John Stanley, who is beside you, Chairman, was on the Committee at the time, as I was-how far we succeeded in peering into the future and seeing what was happening to the Commonwealth then. It was at that time that we forecast, looking at the Commonwealth in the context of Asia rising, that the new Asian powers were going to acquire not only economic prominence, but wealth and political influence. Indeed, there were the beginnings of a huge shift, as we moved towards the 21st century, in influence and political weight away from the Atlantic countries and towards the emerging markets of Asia, Latin America and Africa. We did not foresee then quite how fast certain parts of Africa would rise and produce new star-performing economies, but on the rest, there was real prescience then, if we may say so of ourselves; we foresaw what was happening.

At the time, most of the commentators derided the idea that the Commonwealth could be of influence and that it contained some of the richest and fastest growing countries and they paid very little attention to what was being said. Now, 16 years later, it has become all the fashion to make such comments. I am afraid that we do have a situation of somewhat slow-learning opinion formers in this country. Even today, half the media have not yet grasped the supreme importance of the Commonwealth network and the advantages that it gives the United Kingdom in competing in the great gigantic new consumer markets of the world and in establishing links with the new powers in the global pattern.

The other thing that we said in that earlier report, which again one is entitled to say was prescient, was that instantaneous communication with the rise of the internet-this is before the latest social media such as Twitter-would transform the whole Commonwealth network and create much more of a global village covered by a single language and a single pattern of attitudes. That too was not recognised generally by commentators but is now acknowledged by some of the sharper ones-but not generally yet.

A third quick point in opening is that one notes with interest that other people want to join the Commonwealth. Whether they succeed in joining the Commonwealth network remains to be seen, but it is certainly a sign that we should pause over and note that a number of countries keep asking about the Commonwealth and whether they can participate, either in the main Commonwealth system or in one of the non-governmental or sub-governmental organisations. We do have a direct applicant in South Sudan, which of course is in a difficult state. I have a string of countries here on my list that are interested and whose ambassadors keep coming to my office or ringing up and saying, "Can we hear more about the Commonwealth and could we possibly join?" For instance, those include Algeria and Suriname. When I went to Kuwait the other day, the first question that I was asked was about the Commonwealth. I do not say that any of these are necessarily going to become members, but they are interested.

It is interesting that delegations from Hong Kong, which of course is in the People’s Republic of China, turn up as well to local government forums. All sorts of countries turn up at the Commonwealth Business Council-UAE, Egypt and Ethiopia. One constantly hears suggestions outside the official governmental network that possibly Burma, as it emerges from its grim past, may be a suitable candidate, and there are many others. Beyond that, even the Japanese keep asking whether they can be observers or involved in Commonwealth affairs.

So we have a pattern emerging today, 16 years after our report, where the Commonwealth network is becoming the club of preference in the global system as a supplement, not a replacement, to the 20th century international institutions that are familiar to us-both regional and global. I just wanted to paint that picture without anticipating, I hope, too many of your questions but indicating that things are a-changing.

Q144 Chair: That is very helpful and it reflects what we have observed so far in our inquiry. The coalition agreement talks about strengthening the Commonwealth. What did it actually mean by that? Are they talking about more political commitment or more resources?

Lord Howell: They are certainly talking about more political commitment. First of all, they are talking about recognising in our priorities and in the formation of our foreign policy strategy that the Commonwealth is, in the words of the Foreign Secretary, a cornerstone of our foreign policy. They are recognising that more activity and dialogue is necessary-that more support needs to be given, in tone and ministerial activity, to the Commonwealth and to its non-governmental agencies as well. There is a string of activities that we have undertaken since the coalition Government came to office in May 2010.

We are of course the largest financial contributor to the Commonwealth, if I was talking about resources. There is now a Minister for the Commonwealth, who is here in my person this morning. We have a Commonwealth strategy, which includes working with partners to reinvigorate the whole organisation. We strongly supported the Eminent Persons Group, which we will no doubt come to in discussion in due course. We have been appointed to the ministerial task force, which is going to carry forward the modernisation agenda. I shall be able to participate in that here in London tomorrow, or rather on Thursday and Friday of this week. Of course, we work very closely with the Chair-in-Office in Australia, and we have a steady stream of Ministers from Commonwealth countries engaging. Our visits to Commonwealth countries have been much more frequent, and we take Commonwealth issues much more seriously.

If I can just say a word on resources, the extraordinary nature of the Commonwealth network is that it is not an overloaded, top-down organisation. It has a light secretariat. I have called it the necessary network of the 21st century; in other words, it is driven by the wishes of its members-54, or 53 with one suspended-and their neighbours to have a forum, or a platform, as Her Majesty the Queen called it, for the future. It is driven to have the soft power connections that the Commonwealth provides and to have all the links that the non-governmental organisations-the civic forum, the Business Council, endless professional interests and lobbies-provide trans-Commonwealth. So it is responding to a demand. Resources at the top are valuable, but it is not the kind of organisation in which more governmental resources are the key. The power and the drive come from the people.

Q145 Chair: Have any of the events in Europe and the Middle East distracted from the Commonwealth?

Lord Howell: Well, events in the Middle East and Europe are a permanent distraction from almost everything, of course, right at this very moment, but if anything I think they have reinforced the view that the United Kingdom is extremely lucky, and that is the right word, to have the legacy of the Commonwealth network, to have the links it provides, to have the intimacies with a great range of countries, including some of, now, the fastest growing and most dynamic Asian countries, and that, as we struggle with the European scene-and this Committee knows better than most people what the problems here are in our regional village, which is Europe-we are wise to invest more time and effort in making use of the Commonwealth network and the gateways it provides to other giant new markets, which are next door to the Commonwealth, like China and like Brazil.

Q146 Chair: Can I explore the role of the UK inside the Commonwealth? Are we just another member? Are we a leader? Should we be a leader? Should we be exercising more leadership than we are at the moment?

Lord Howell: It is a two-track answer. I was going to say a two-horse answer. I can’t remember, was it Aneurin Bevan who said, "If you can’t ride two horses, you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus"? There are two tracks here. I’d say generally in the 21st century the nature of the Commonwealth network has changed. We are a significant member in it, but we are not the top of some pyramid. This is a network. Networks don’t have hierarchies with top dogs and lower levels of membership. It is not like that in the Commonwealth. It is very much a Commonwealth of equals. Even the smallest island states feel they have a full voice. Indeed, quite small countries take part, for instance, in the ministerial task force that I mentioned just now. Indeed, quite small countries take part, for instance, in the ministerial task force that I mentioned just now. I have a list here of about 12 members-I think the Solomon Islands is on it. So, the small and the large do mix together, and Britain is not necessarily the centre of this network. One could say that the biggest member, India, with its 1 billion population, is clearly the most significant member, but it is very much an organisation of equals. In that sense, it is no longer Anglocentric. But of course the other side of it is Anglocentric in the sense that the Queen is head of the Commonwealth. She is very popular and has played a major part in maintaining through quite dark times the coherence and significance of the Commonwealth in a very wonderful way.

The entire Commonwealth seems to be of the view-I am including not just the realms, of which there are 16, but all the rest; there are republics and other kingdoms as well-that Her Majesty the Queen is the presiding force of the Commonwealth, and of course that means London, and that means the UK. Also, the secretariat is housed in Marlborough House in the Mall, which gives an Anglocentric view. Generally I would say that this Commonwealth today is not an Anglocentric organisation any more, and we do not have an automatic right to sit on its key committees.

Q147 Chair: Just out of interest, is the Queen the head of the Commonwealth or is it the British monarch? Is that enshrined in the constitution or is it a convention?

Lord Howell: It is the Queen. The Queen is in person the head of the Commonwealth. I think that is correct.

Kirsty Hayes: That is correct.

Lord Howell: I have Kirsty Hayes sitting beside me. She is head of International Organisations in the Foreign Office.

Q148 Chair: Whom of course I should have welcomed.

Lord Howell: I should have introduced Kirsty; I’m sorry.

I think I have that right, and of course she is actually Queen in constitutional terms over the 16 realms. I think it is still 16. I need a crib for all these numbers.

Kirsty Hayes: Yes, it is 16.

Lord Howell: So she is Queen of 16 in person, and for the rest she is the head of the Commonwealth.

Q149 Chair: At the end of her reign, will she be succeeded in the Commonwealth by her successor?

Lord Howell: Who heads the Commonwealth, should that day come, would be entirely a matter for the Commonwealth itself to assemble and decide.

Q150 Mr Baron: Can I just turn us to the issue of resources? First, I agree with you about the Commonwealth tune. My daughters have bought the tune and probably helped the sales. It is a very good tune indeed. Can I first welcome your performance, which has been praised by our witnesses? It seems that you have been the Minister who has reached the parts that other Ministers have failed to reach over the last 40 years, so many congratulations to you.

Can I, in a way, put you on the spot a little bit? I completely agree with you on the importance of the Commonwealth. I think there is a growing relevance in the Commonwealth, which is to be welcomed. We have heard warm words and I have already said that we think the work you are doing is absolutely fantastic, but there does seem to be a disconnect between that and in some cases what is happening on the ground with regard to, for example, the closure of embassies or cuts to the BBC World Service. There seems to be a bit of a disconnect there. At the end of the day, this comes down to money, but on the embassies in particular-for example, in the Pacific, the closure of the smaller embassies-these things are noticed within Commonwealth circles. What are your thoughts on this apparent disconnect between the warm words and action on the ground, and are we ever going to get to the day when we are going to commit, particularly in the life of this Parliament, more money to the Commonwealth and its work?

Lord Howell: It is a question of looking at past trends. There is no doubt-that is why I began with the 1996 report from this Committee-that in the subsequent years that followed, there was quite a squeeze. There were one or two speeches, but the Commonwealth did not get much notice. Indeed, the closing of embassies and other things in the past was a matter, for me personally, of regret, but certainly took place.

With the arrival of the coalition Government, and I think with the new line taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, who says that we need to put the "C" back into FCO-and he does-the trend has changed. If you look at the detail, you will see that we are opening more embassies and consulates in key great cities around the world.

It is true that the BBC World Service had to accept cuts, like practically every other organisation, but we have believed all along that these cuts could be consolidated and managed without damaging the momentum and effectiveness of the BBC World Service. I think that when it moves over to being managed under the BBC and the new arrangements after 2014, it will be more effective still. Others disagree with that, but I think its effectiveness, influence and weight will increase. Ditto the British Council, which had to accept its limits on its budget, but, of course, is heavily financed from outside and has increased its resources and finance from outside in the last year or two. On those fronts, I think the resource issue has been handled.

Could we start thinking about restoring posts in the Pacific Islands, which you mentioned, and so on? I have to say, I do not know at present. If we can get the resources, I think the impulse will be to do so. The November before last, I was down in Vanuatu for the Pacific Islands Forum. It was a pity that we had had a post in Vanuatu, but alas, it had been closed down and things were being run from Port Moresby or from Fiji.

Q151 Mr Baron: Can I be clear, Lord Howell? You do not believe there is a disconnect between the excellent work that you are doing in respect of the warm words of Government and what is actually happening on the ground? In answering that, do you believe that more money should be committed to the Commonwealth and its work?

Lord Howell: I don’t think there is a disconnect and I don’t think more money is the manifestation or the means by which any belief in disconnect could be overcome. We look carefully at the budget. We are the biggest contributor to the secretariat and the Commonwealth. Other countries make their contributions and they may decide to increase them. There isn’t a huge demand from Commonwealth institutions for more Government money. The Commonwealth Business Council draws very heavily on the private sector. The other organisations are largely non-governmental and, rightly so, are largely self-supporting and, from time to time, it would probably be nice to receive a cheque from the Government. But they are not great demanders; they don’t ask these things.

I don’t really think that more money is seen as the way in which the Commonwealth network is going to be reinforced. There is a huge element of market-driven enterprise and business discovering, day by day, that intra-Commonwealth trade is the thing to be developed, that intra-Commonwealth investment flows are growing all the time in enormous quantities. We hope that they are coming through London for their finance, but they are not necessarily coming through London-maybe through Australia, South Africa, Canada, India and central and west Africa, and so on.

I don’t really think that the idea of disconnect is valid and I don’t think that the idea that more resources would somehow make it all wonderful is the relevant thought.

Kirsty Hayes: If I could just add one small thing to the Minister’s comments on what we are doing in the network. For instance, we are opening a number of additional subordinate posts in India to take advantage of the prosperity agenda there and also strengthening posts within south-east Asia. So I think we are actually seeing an increase in the amount of resources placed out in the network.

Lord Howell: Perhaps I should just add that, although it isn’t mainstream to Foreign and Commonwealth activity, the Department for International Development is, of course, expanding its budget, as we know, and is focusing on Commonwealth countries in a vigorous, well focused and welcome way. If more resources are the answer-in some areas of development, particularly humanitarian assistance, they clearly are-that is happening.

Q152 Andrew Rosindell: Going back to the matter that the Chairman spoke about a moment ago-the position of the monarchy-there has been some suggestion that at the end of the Queen’s reign it will not be automatic that the British monarch will take over as head of the Commonwealth. Although the British monarch remains the head of state of 16 realms, there is no automatic right of succession to head of the Commonwealth.

Lord Howell: That is correct.

Q153 Andrew Rosindell: What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that when that day comes-we hope that it will be a long way in the future-there will be no question about who the head of the Commonwealth will be, and that it will remain the British monarch?

Lord Howell: I don’t think we can do that. This is a club, an association of independent states. We have many overseas territories, so we arrive as almost a mother figure with our own brood, but they are not nations and are not full members of the Commonwealth. The matter will have to be settled around the table by Commonwealth members by consensus. There just isn’t a means by which the United Kingdom can simply stand up and say, "This is what we insist on."

If you want my personal view, I would love the head of the Commonwealth to continue to be the British monarch, but it is a matter for the Commonwealth collectively. It is a remarkable group of nations. Some are very powerful and very rich, and some are rather poor and challenged in modern world conditions. They will decide. That is the be-all and end-all.

Q154 Andrew Rosindell: I accept everything you have said. What are the British Government doing with our friends in the other realms of the Commonwealth to think about when that day comes, and to use our diplomatic expertise to ensure that when it comes there will be a smooth transition, and that we will not have a schism within the Commonwealth that could lead to the organisation becoming a very different organisation, bearing in mind that the Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, has been pivotal in keeping it together? Should a president or someone from another country be head of the Commonwealth, they would not have the same stature that Her Majesty has.

Lord Howell: The words you are using are precisely the words one would expect to hear around the table whenever this sad day eventually comes. These are independent countries and mature nations. We have no superiority or moral advantage over them. They are independent nations as we are, and the discussion will be around the table between members and about the benefits of remaining with the British monarchy, as opposed to the benefits of a presidential figure, or perhaps whether a presidential figure is necessary. All those matters will be on the table should the issue arise, but I don’t think we can do more than have our own view. We cannot go round telling independent countries how they should think on the matter. I must leave it there. I cannot say more than that it is for the Commonwealth countries to decide on the points you are making, and they are ones that will no doubt be taken into account.

Q155 Rory Stewart: Mr Rosindell and I have just come back from looking at Commonwealth relations in the Caribbean, and it was striking that in both Jamaica and Belize people seemed to feel that there has been a significant deterioration in UK bilateral relations.

In Jamaica, for example, there was a lot of sadness about the disappearance of the BBC World Service’s Caribbean service, the lower operations of the British Council and the drop in FCO representation to what will soon be only two UK-based staff in Jamaica from the Foreign Office, as opposed to other Government Departments.

In Belize, it was the almost entire disappearance of our military presence and the removal of the helicopters. There is very little recognition in either country of the fact that they are realms, and there seems to be very little emphasis put on the fact that they are Commonwealth countries, even from our end. I wonder what is going on there.

Lord Howell: I think that that is a perfectly legitimate wonder to have. It is related to what has been going on for the last decade or so. There have been these feelings. Many of the Caribbean countries have an extremely rough time in world conditions. They have found that trade restrictions seem to be working against them and there are tourist discouragements. The global monetary reforms did not always help some of these countries; in fact, they damaged some of them very severely.

I think that you are talking about a pattern that developed, and it is one that I would like to see changing. I think that we are seeking to change it, in some respects, but if you are saying that we have not picked up the signs yet, I have to say that these things move slowly.

We are seeking to sew together relations after what has been a bad period-there is no doubt about it; none at all. I was talking to the Foreign Minister of Belize only yesterday, a very able and impressive man indeed. We mentioned the subjects you mentioned: the removal of the helicopters and the end of-BATSUB, it is called, isn’t it?

We agreed that there were problems in the past that had rather reduced the warmth of feeling between Belize and the United Kingdom, but there were challenges for the future, where we could overcome and build on those things. What I want to say to you is that there have been some real issues causing soreness and bad feeling, and we are working very hard to overcome them, but the Caribbean situation has been particularly damaged by their global positioning.

Let me give you one example of what has changed. Trinidad, of course, is now becoming an energy hub of immense significance. They are developing new technologies for mid-scale and small-scale energy supplies of frozen gas-all sorts of fascinating new technologies-to the smaller communities of the Caribbean, many of which have, over the last 20 years, been absolutely paralysed and disabled by having to face the cost of energy.

If we can change that and bring cheaper energy to these Caribbean countries, and if the Commonwealth can give the technical guidance and encouragement to bring that about, that is a change. But I do not dispute, Mr Stewart, your feeling that in the Caribbean there have been some rather sad feelings that in the first decade of the 21st century, the Commonwealth has not been a very strong sentiment at all.

Q156 Rory Stewart: There were complaints in Jamaica about visas. People said, "Given that the Queen is our head of state, and given that we have to go to the Privy Council as our Supreme Court, it is a bit much that we have to get a visa to go visit our head of state or go to our Supreme Court."

Lord Howell: It is so. One of the suggestions I made-the error of my ways was rapidly pointed out-was, "Why can’t we have a Commonwealth queue at Heathrow, in addition to EU citizens?" Of course, it was pointed out to me immediately that it would probably be a very much longer queue than we have at present; sadly, much longer than the EU queue. We have to face it: we have a policy in relation to immigration. We have to have visa controls. I will ask Kirsty Hayes to comment on the ancestry arrangement that we have for visas. Can you comment on that? It is very interesting.

Kirsty Hayes: Since 1972, the immigration rules have provided a UK ancestry route, which allows Commonwealth nationals who have a UK-born grandparent and who are over the age of 17 to enter the UK, work, and ultimately settle here. That is one specific provision.

Q157 Rory Stewart: Finally, Lord Howell, there has been a lot of talk about forming common positions on things like climate change and trade liberalisation, but given the inability of Caribbean countries to come up with a proper free-trade bloc even within the very closely related, small countries of the Caribbean, and given the problems that we have trying to get common trade positions between the European Union and India, is it even credible? To put the point at its most extreme, we heard evidence from Ruth Lea, who suggested that Britain could consider leaving the European trade bloc and instead create a Commonwealth trade bloc-all these great, growing young countries-and that that would be in the much greater long-term interest for Britain. Do you think those kinds of ideas-a Commonwealth trade bloc-are plausible or feasible?

Lord Howell: I think they are a bit out of date, because the nature of world trade has changed totally. The drivers of development and economic activity are increasingly investment and capital movements, where our trade policy is in the hands of the European Union, but the actual trade arrangements and our success in competing with others in trade or in investing in great projects around the Commonwealth or the developing world generally are not part of the European treaties and the European Union.

It is perfectly true that trade agreements between ourselves and any country-small or large-have to be governed in policy terms and handled by the EU as a whole. Of course, we push for these things within the EU-free-trade agreements, partnership agreements and so on. The really big economic linkages of today are much more influenced by investment, capital flows, energy supplies, which I mentioned earlier, and all kinds of soft power arrangements and cultural links of every sort, than they are by the actual trade policy on quotas and tariff levels and so on.

I think it is a changed world, and I do not deny that trade flows are very important to such countries. Most small islands around the world-not just the Caribbean-have had a pretty miserable time. If you asked me why the Commonwealth is such a sought-after platform today, it is because they feel that the 20th century did not do them much good. As one leading member of a Commonwealth Caribbean country said to me the other day, rather sadly, "We tried so many things. We tried trade expansion"-there was the whole issue about bananas that used to occupy this Committee very vigorously in the 1980s and 1990s-"We were cut out on fruit. Our tourist difficulties have been somehow increased. Our financial difficulties have increased. It is time we had a better deal." I think that is the mood among very many small countries, so that would be my comment on that. The language of trade blocs has really been overtaken by completely new patterns of economic linkages.

Kirsty Hayes: If I could just add a little something to that, there has been a very interesting study, which we could share with Committee members, that shows that there is between a 20% and 50% trade advantage in doing business between Commonwealth countries, which is probably due to a combination of factors such as language, shared legal systems, shared heritage and so on. Some of those benefits are already there without any need for a formal process.

Q158 Ann Clwyd: Your written evidence called the Perth CHOGM a positive for both the Commonwealth and the UK. Do you still hold that view?

Lord Howell: Yes, I do. I know there have been those who have expressed disappointment about the heads of Government meeting at Perth last autumn. I know why they express that view, but I have to counter that and say that the bottle is half full, not half empty. A great many issues were agreed by heads of Government themselves and a huge number of dialogues and economic deals, bringing real benefits to the Commonwealth, were agreed by the non-governmental organisations that gathered in enormous numbers at Perth.

There was a tremendous atmosphere of commitment that the Commonwealth needed to upgrade and reinforce its values, to move on from rhetoric to seeing that standards were maintained, and there was a determination to go forward. I am going to spend the second half of this week with my Commonwealth colleagues seeing how we can take that further. To me, that all adds up to a step forward and a massive expansion of interest in the jobs, economics, prosperity and development side of the Commonwealth’s contribution to overcoming the world’s problems. I thought that added up to a good story.

If you want a bad story, it is that not everything was agreed in the Eminent Persons Group recommendations. The problems that were, oddly enough, identified in the 1996 report-the unwillingness of some Commonwealth countries to have anybody outside dictating to them about human rights and so on-are still there. Although 30 EPG recommendations were accepted, there were a lot more that we are going to have to tackle over the next two days and maybe will come to a head when Foreign Ministers of the Commonwealth meet in New York in the autumn.

Q159 Ann Clwyd: What do you think the lack of enthusiasm for a Commonwealth commissioner for human rights says about the Commonwealth and its future?

Lord Howell: It says two stories-the same stories, I’m afraid, as back in 1996. A number of countries feel that there is a human rights regime, as it were, at United Nations level. They feel that their own domestic and internal commitment to improving human rights is the one over which they should have control and they don’t particularly relish outside authorities of a certain kind. All that may be for negotiation and discussion in future, but they do not relish outside authorities turning up and saying, "This is what you should and this is what you shouldn’t do."

I have to say, en passant, that that sentiment is not entirely absent in the UK, where we have certain views on the European Convention on Human Rights and the court at Strasbourg, which I can’t help noticing. This is not confined to Commonwealth countries at all: nations are sovereign and they do like to look after their own affairs. If there is to be pressure from the Commonwealth as a whole for higher standards for checking abuse, for making sure we have some middle ground between Commonwealth countries behaving beautifully and behaving so badly that they have to be ejected-if there is a case for much more policing on that middle ground, it can be argued. Pressures are being stepped up, but when you come to the idea of an institutional change and of introducing a commissioner, there is a bunch of countries that say, "Sorry, that is not for us."

Kirsty Hayes: If I could just add one small point: at Perth, one of the things that was agreed was the strengthening of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group mandate, which is another mechanism for addressing human rights concerns. We have already seen in the case of the Maldives that a strengthened CMAG has been able to play a much stronger role. There still is a discussion to be had about the commissioner role, which as you know is still open. I do think that you can point to a step change already, post-Perth.

Q160 Ann Clwyd: Is there any real point in the existence of the Eminent Persons Group, if its role was to propose reforms? This was a major reform it was proposing and it was discounted by so many countries.

Lord Howell: Well, this is one reform of I think 144 recommendations, perhaps not as many as that. There was an enormous number, of which a great block has been accepted already at Perth. A further block is on the table: 44 more are on the table. One has to say most definitely that there was a lot of point in the EPG. It worked sort of on a twin track with, and to some extent moving a little ahead of, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. But one couldn’t help noticing these two rivers of ideas coming together.

I think the EPG has raised the game and said to the Commonwealth, "All right. If people are so proud of the Commonwealth brand, and if people want it on their lapel, because they feel that it is the way to show trust and that they are good destinations for foreign investment and for expanding trade, and that they are responsible countries aspiring to develop their democracies effectively, they will have to conform more tightly to the standards of good governance, addressing human rights, the rule of law and democracy. This won’t just be a lot of words, but standards." People recognise that. What they are arguing about is exactly how that can be beefed up.

The commissioner idea was the one that was questioned, but there are subordinate ideas on the table-one from Canada, which will have an official responsible to the Commonwealth Secretary-General who should report on these matters. Several of our ideas we are actually dealing with at the end of this week.

Q161 Ann Clwyd: Do you think that the proposal for a commissioner on human rights is likely to be supported by more member states?

Lord Howell: The actual institutional idea of a commissioner is a challenged one. I would guess that we will take forward the thought behind that, but it will not be implemented necessarily by the appointment of a commissioner with powers to go around the Commonwealth telling people what to do. I think that proposal is going to be replaced with something more agreeable to the several countries that thought that the original proposal was akin to an extra wheel on the coach for which they did not see the necessity.

Q162 Sir John Stanley: Was not the designation of this particular individual as a commissioner a significant presentational mistake? Those of us who went on the Africa leg of our recent visit-to Kenya and South Africa-were aware that this individual became dubbed as a "super policeman", which is a complete misnomer. Given the fact that the Commonwealth can only operate by consensus, there is no way that this individual could have ever conducted any super-policeman role. Do you accept, Minister, that this was a serious presentational misjudgment? If the individual had been described in less didactic terms-possibly as a special representative on human rights or something like that-that might have given the idea a better wind than it had.

Lord Howell: It is not for me to criticise the EPG. I think they all did an extremely good job; they worked very hard and it was a very serious group. There are members of the EPG who continue to argue very strongly that if the Commonwealth brand is to be upheld and if it is to be more than just a talking shop, something very definite needs to be done. The fact that not every EPG recommendation gets the full support that one hopes for, and certainly HMG hoped for-we supported this idea-does not worry me very much. It has created a lot of very active discussion, and there is no harm at all in a group as distinguished as the EPG putting forward some ideas and finding that some of them go too far.

Your description of "a serious presentational mistake" is too strong for me. What’s so glorious about talking with members of the Commonwealth and its Foreign Ministers is that there is a sort of family sense. We do have family quarrels, but there is a family sense in which we deal with these quarrels and difficulties.

The views about the commissioner, which were aired at the last meeting of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers in New York last autumn, which I attended, were very strong for and against, but all were expressed in an excellent atmosphere of good humour. I don’t think that one is going to run, but then I don’t expect every recommendation of eminent groups, however eminent, always to be accepted. It has been a good starting point for a very healthy debate, which is continuing.

Q163 Sir John Stanley: Could you give us your perspective on why the Eminent Persons Group report took so long to emerge, with accusations that it was being suppressed? I believe that it received publicity and appeared as a public document only at the very end of the Perth CHOGM. Was there a deliberate attempt to suppress that report?

Lord Howell: No, there was no deliberate attempt, but I think that there was an administrative mistake. We-the British, the UK Government-argued that it should be published early on, but the Commonwealth secretariat, advised by a whole range of Commonwealth members, argued that, as it was the report to the heads of Government, it should be delayed until it was produced at Perth, by which time, of course, predictably it had leaked to several papers anyway. So, we said here in London that we should have put it out earlier, but that was their decision. The Commonwealth is by consensus. It is not a body that can be commanded by one country or another-certainly not by us-and that is the decision they made. But you are quite right; I think it was the wrong decision.

Q164 Sir John Stanley: I have just one final question in a different area. One of the issues that the Committee is considering, as you know, is the future role, or possible future roles, of the Commonwealth, within its existing structure. In the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which I chair, we have received evidence in our current inquiry that the opportunity was taken at the Perth CHOGM-I think very sensibly-to try to increase support for the cluster munitions convention while people were present at that particular meeting. We are just coming in to the negotiation phase of the arms trade treaty, which we hope will be successful, and that might present an opportunity at the next CHOGM for members of the Commonwealth to consider that issue and see whether they might wish to become signatories of the arms trade treaty.

Do you think, Minister, that in the future the Commonwealth might take a more direct interest in arms control and arms export control issues? A number of serious criticisms and worries were put to us during our Africa visit about the numbers of unauthorised weapons that are in circulation in the African continent, with the devastating consequences that we know. Do you think that arms control and arms trade might be an issue for the Commonwealth in the future?

Lord Howell: It could well be. There are so many hot world issues that come up. I have my experiences, obviously: there was the debate before the last CHOGM in Perth as to what should be on the agenda. There were a great many ideas, and I think this could certainly be one of them. It is the sort of issue that I might well raise at the Ministerial task force at the end of this week.

I have to be realistic. There is a battle for getting everything on the agenda. I totally agree that this issue that you are on is absolutely crucial, and if there is anything we can do. The cluster munitions story has been a marvellous one. We have, as you know, Sir John, a fine number of signatories on it-not all the signatures that we would like, but a fine number-and this is where the Commonwealth is so valuable. It can create a sort of momentum, when you are working together with other Foreign Ministers in the Commonwealth, of a kind that will not necessarily be generated at the United Nations. So, I think that I have to give you a sort of "hope" answer, that I would like to see it on the agenda.

Q165 Mr Baron: The FCO has deemed the Commonwealth "the soft power network of the future", and the FCO’s written evidence describes the Commonwealth as "a ready-made network that cuts across traditional UN and regional voting blocs". There are a number of Members on the Committee, I am sure, who would very much sign up to that. So, may I return, if you do not mind, to your answers to Rory Stewart and to me, with regards to the disconnect that there appears to be between the words and the intent and the action on the ground? We have discussed the closing of the embassies in the smaller Commonwealth countries. We have discussed the reduction in the scope or reach of the BBC World Service. Why is it you feel that there is not a disconnect? And visas-on our trip to South Africa and Kenya, visas actually ranked very high in the list of examples of where we could perhaps be doing things better. This nonsense, this bureaucracy around visas was eating into the good will. Can you just justify your answer to us that there is not a disconnect? Is it your belief that the forces of attraction are greater than these minor irritations?

Lord Howell: You nearly put the answer I was going to give you in your last sentence. The forces of attraction are greater than the forces of irritation. They are not minor-

Mr Baron: I don’t think they are, no.

Lord Howell: I am conceding to you that the balance is a bit closer between the negatives and the positives than one would like to see. I am talking about trends. I am talking about things that have been happening in the past few years, which were again foreseen in the 1996 report, and which are clearly making the Commonwealth more relevant. They have led to these statements, some of them by Her Majesty the Queen-I think the soft power one and the platform for the future-and some of them by other leading statesmen round the Commonwealth, that the Commonwealth network is growing in importance and significance for the Commonwealth’s membership as the whole. There have been statements from HMG-from me, I admit, and from other Ministers and senior Ministers, including the Foreign Secretary himself and the Prime Minister-that we are moving into a different sort of world, where networks are more important than blocs; that is the Prime Minister speaking in the Mansion House last November.

This leads me to the view, because I can hear it and see it, that all sorts of forces are at work which are very positive and are making the Commonwealth the pattern of the future, giving it much more relevance and significance in British policy than it has had for the past 30 or 40 years. Against that, you are perfectly right that there are some very awkward and difficult problems. There are some differences within the Commonwealth. We have talked about a number of Commonwealth members not wanting this commissioner. We have talked about the difficulties over visas. The whole question of visas and UKBA policy is a long and complicated problem, and it would be naive to disguise the fact and to deny the fact that, within Government itself, there are constant creative discussions and ideas about how our immigration policy and visa policy should be administered. That is an irritation. You have talked about lack of resources and lack of representation-we are trying to overcome that.

There are other issues that I think I am not going deliberately to raise in case you raise them; I can think of some quarrels between Commonwealth members about various things. It is just that the word "disconnect" implies, "That’s it; it’s all falling apart." I would say that, actually, the forces pulling it together and making it more and more significant are greater than the irritations, and that is really my position.

Q166 Mr Baron: One of our witnesses described the Commonwealth as having a sort of contradiction at its heart, and almost a vacuum at its heart, in the sense that the British have never really felt able to take a lead in Commonwealth matters, because they risk being accused of some sort of post-imperial plot. To what extent do you ascribe any importance to that view? The feeling is, and we have seen it and heard it in other areas as well, that we are relying on others to take the lead, which to a certain extent contradicts the FCO’s stance that this is the soft power network of the future. If we are not prepared to come up with some constructive ideas and lead from the front-obviously, garnering support as we go along-there seems to be that contradiction at the heart of our policy. Do you agree with that or not?

Lord Howell: No. It is not really like that. How can I put it? The advantages for Britain in the Commonwealth network are very much in the soft power field. Again, that is not my phrase; it comes from higher authority than mine. There are enough things where, suddenly, the Government need to take a lead. Why is it that we have such vigour in our literary contacts throughout the Commonwealth? Why is it that all judicial administrations throughout the Commonwealth are very much influenced by British standards? Why is it that the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association all tends to be London-based? Why is it that the Commonwealth Business Council, which now has a very able British CEO, Sir Alan Collins, tends to be based and have a lot of activity in London? Even so, it is having meetings in various countries around the world-it is planning one in Washington, I believe, and it has had meetings in the Middle East, Australia and all over the place.

All those are connections with Britain that are immensely valuable and help reinforce and promote our reputation and interests. That is what we mean by soft power. It does not need a heavy Government hand to rush into the forums of intergovermentalism, prime ministerial meetings or foreign ministerial meetings and say, "Britain’s view is A, B and C." That is not the way it works. That is not the nature of international relations any more. The whole fabric of international relations has become much more disparate and dissolved. With the rise of the internet and the rise of people power resulting from the world wide web, social media and so on, Governments have to tread much more carefully and rely much more on soft power and smart power to get influence and maintain their interests.

Q167 Mr Baron: Briefly, though, Lord Howell, one is not suggesting that one goes charging in, but what has been suggested to us in evidence sessions and visits is that there seems to be a reluctance to lead on certain issues. I am not suggesting that one tries to dominate the agenda-that would be wrong-but there is a sort of reluctance. Even in countries such as Kenya and South Africa, which we visited, they were trying to ascribe reasons such as post-imperial guilt.

Lord Howell: You are quite right. I have encountered this, too. You do hear, certainly in Africa south of the Sahara and in some quarters in India-some quarters, not others; it is a very divided view-the view that, "We have to be careful: we don’t want the Brits coming back and trying to make a comeback and risk filling the gap left by the departure of their colonial authority and take advantage through some new kind of imposition on other countries." I have encountered that. I think it is a minority view. I do not want to mention a specific country, but in one interview a very impressive President of a certain country south of the Sahara embodied the dilemma you are trying to touch on. He began by saying, "Why are you colonialists bombing good Africans in Libya?" That was a good start. By the time we had finished the discussion, he was saying how we wanted to work together on all sorts of educational and university projects and on medicinal projects, how he wanted to come back to London to discuss this, that and the other, and what a wonderful thing the Commonwealth was.

We are dealing with a kind of split-mindedness, which is still there-you are absolutely right, Mr Baron. It is still there and we have to tread very carefully to show that what we are concerned with is the benefit and purpose of the Commonwealth as a whole and that we are looking after our No. 1 interest of the UK interests-why shouldn’t we? The UK interests are that the Commonwealth should flourish and that our good connections, particularly soft power connections, should be developed and strengthened.

Kirsty Hayes: May I add to that? In some ways, I am quite reassured by what you say, because when I sit around at the senior official meetings, usually my colleagues are not saying that I ought to be saying more; I think they think that we are very active on a lot of fronts-for example, on the modernisation agenda. DFID’s multilateral aid review process has been extremely influential in terms of looking at how the Secretariat functions, for example.

While I have the floor, I want to briefly clarify that the total number of EPG recommendations was 106. Also, on the point about disconnects, one thing the Minister has not mentioned that I think has been really important is the amount of ministerial visits and activity that has been going on in recent years. I might point in particular to Mr Bellingham’s visits to Africa, where he has certainly done a lot more than we have done previously. That sort of face-to-face communication is extremely important-Lord Howell of course has been out to Ghana recently-and is a really important part of our strategy.

Mr Baron: I agree. Thank you.

Lord Howell: I think Mr Bellingham is in Malawi today, isn’t he? It is amazing, the number of countries he is covering.

Q168 Andrew Rosindell: Lord Howell, the Commonwealth scholarship programme is immensely successful and has provided opportunities for young people across the Commonwealth, but our Government over the past four years has halved the budget. Do you believe that this is short-sighted when you consider that countries like France and Germany are extremely generous in encouraging international study programmes among countries with which they have historical links, yet we have cut ours back significantly?

Lord Howell: I do not recognise what you are saying, Mr Rosindell, because the figures that I have show that scholarships are on the increase. I cannot speak for what happened before May 2010, but the figures are big and getting bigger. DFID provides 800 awards a year for people from the developing countries of the Commonwealth. We, through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, do 700 students a year from over 100 countries, with a heavy emphasis on the Commonwealth. DFID’s contribution for 2010-11 was £17.5 million; it rose to £19 million for this past year, 2011-12, and it will rise to £24 million by 2014-15. On top of that, the universities are running their own scholarship commissions; awards go through the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission system, which involves up to 50% of tuition fees. I think I may even be able to give you the numbers of Commonwealth students who entered this country, whether on scholarships or for non-supported courses in universities. Generally, it is an area of high activity, so if it went down in the past, all I can say is that that pattern has been reversed.

Q169 Andrew Rosindell: May I follow up on that? In 2008-09, 1,478 scholarships were awarded by the UK against only around 700 this year. Are you saying that our current Government have now reversed those cuts and the programme is now expanding in that case?

Lord Howell: Is it that the money has gone up but the numbers have gone down?

Kirsty Hayes: That sounds like what has happened. More money has been allocated but-I don’t know if that 2008 figure is correct-it may be that the overall number is going down.

Lord Howell: The 700 is what we-the Foreign Office-are doing through the Chevening system, but DFID is also supporting Commonwealth scholarships on a very large scale. It is always the case that we would like to do more, but there are resource problems, of course. Generally, I have to report to you that we take the whole scholarship issue extremely seriously and we think the benefits are enormous.

Incidentally, we want to see more movement of young UK students and graduates to the great new universities that are springing up all over Asia and Africa, with very high standards indeed in many areas. We want there to be a two-way process in the Commonwealth. I might be open to the criticism-fair enough-that the actual numbers may be down at any one point, but the general aim is to put more resources into this area.

Q170 Andrew Rosindell: I move on to the issue of trade within the Commonwealth. The experience that I have had in visiting many members of the Commonwealth-most recently, Jamaica and Belize-is that there is a huge appetite for greater co-operation in trade across the Commonwealth. Do you agree with what His Royal Highness Prince Andrew said last week at the Commonwealth Business Council event at Mansion House? He said that Britain had been somewhat distracted from trading with the Commonwealth because of our policy towards working with the European Union. Is it time that we reassessed our trade policy to make it possible and politically viable to have greater trade co-operation with the Commonwealth and perhaps to focus less on the European Union?

Lord Howell: I do agree with the Duke of York. I was there when he made that statement-it was an excellent speech. How do we move forward from here? We remain a member, and wish to remain a member, of the European Union and our trade policy is made collectively with other European Union members, although we have an extremely loud voice and it is probably getting louder at present while the eurozone countries struggle with their difficulties.

I slightly go back to the point I made to Mr Stewart-not as clearly as I should have, because many of the trade statistics we have to deal with are not very clear and do not reflect some of the great new movements of trade and investment opening up across the world. I am particularly thinking of between the Middle East and Asia. Most of the oil in the Middle East now goes to Asia, of course. The new Silk Road is opening up vast new trade routes in that area.

In recognising the argument about distraction, we need to think much more in our investment, project capital development and huge new development programmes of the Commonwealth connection. We need it in two ways, and one is quite surprising. The first is obviously that we need to concentrate on and develop our opportunities for the great export markets that the Commonwealth opens up, and through the Commonwealth, the rest of booming Asia. Secondly, whereas we were brought up in a world where the West was supplying the capital for the development of the developing countries, the boot is now on the other foot. The sovereign wealth funds of these very prosperous Asian nations, and of course the oil-producing nations of the Middle East, are the wealth funds that we need to develop our dilapidated infrastructure.

We are having to search for funds-and Ministers have made this clear in speeches-and we have to go to these countries, many of which are in the Commonwealth, with colossal sovereign wealth funds, as the areas that we want to tap for the investment we need inward to the West and to the UK. There is a real reversal from the traditional pattern. All that adds up to deals, business and arrangements on a colossal scale, and to trade in goods and services on a colossal scale. We need to concentrate on that very much more. Yes, I agree with the Duke of York.

Q171 Andrew Rosindell: One final question. To go back to your comments regarding access-that trade and access to the UK are interlinked-you mentioned a Commonwealth channel and said that it would probably be longer than the channel for the rest of the world. Mr Stewart earlier mentioned the importance of realms and how those countries that are realms do not feel that it is anything particularly special. If not a Commonwealth channel, why not a channel for the 16 realms, so that those countries that have Her Majesty as Head of State can enter the UK through their own channel? Would that not be a practical solution?

Lord Howell: I do not know whether it is practical, but it is the sort of idea that attracts me. In my ongoing, constructive dialogue with UKBA and other Departments, I might well raise it.

Q172 Mr Baron: May I return us to the vexed issue of human rights? At the Perth CHOGM, a number of Commonwealth members objected to the appointment of a human rights commissioner. We know it is a vexed issue. Homosexuality is banned-outlawed in fact-in certain Commonwealth countries. What role do you think that the Commonwealth should play in this regard? Should it be an active promoter of human rights or do you agree with Senator Segal that it should act rather as a "backstop"? In his words, it works best "as a prophylactic international organisation to avoid the worst…extremes" though work on good governance, the rule of law and democratic institutions. What is your view?

Lord Howell: I think that the concept of family is useful in answering your question. There are always arguments and the question is whether, within the Commonwealth, the family and group pressure can be more effectively asserted in areas where, as you rightly say, human rights standards are not at all what we would like to see. They are particularly not pleasant in areas such as the treatment of homosexuals and so on. The question is whether being in the Commonwealth and having this constant family pressure and irritation and raising it at meetings is a plus or a minus. I think it is a plus. The degree of constant pressure and debate, the reminders to fellow Commonwealth countries, the constant meetings we have-it is not picked up, but we are meeting all the time and there is constant dialogue-and the fact that these issues are coming up and we raise them at every opportunity are all pluses. I do not mean to say that we are making progress on every front; in some areas, we are not. It is a plus, however.

Hugh Segal is a terrific guy and I am full of admiration for him. He has been an enthusiastic driver on the Eminent Persons Group. I do not quite recognise that phrase of the Commonwealth being "a backstop". Within a family and a constant conversation, it is not so much a concept of backstop as a question of constantly raising these issues and constantly keeping them to the fore in a way that does not happen in any other forum. Is there anything you want to add to that, Kirsty?

Kirsty Hayes: The metaphor I rather liked-I heard this attributed to the Secretary-General-is that it is more of a helping hand than a wagging finger. We can point to where the UK has shown leadership on this. Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary made powerful statements in their interventions at Perth in support of the human rights agenda. There is lots we can point to, such as the strengthened CMAG. Another thing that I think is very important is that of the EPG recommendations that were outstanding after Perth, many have been agreed at an official level at the senior officials meeting, which should hopefully make your job a little easier later this week, Lord Howell. One of those was the provision on preventing discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS, which was difficult to agree at Perth. Progress is still being made in an incremental way. There is also an important role here for civil society groups.

I have just been handed a crib note. Another thing that I ought to mention is that we paid £100,000 this year to support the new Geneva Small States Office. There is a Commonwealth Small States Office in New York as well. I think that the Geneva one will be particularly important from a human rights perspective, because of the organisations lodged there. I visited it fairly recently and it is a very impressive set up, actually.

Q173 Mr Baron: Lord Howell, will the Prime Minister be attending the Colombo CHOGM?

Lord Howell: It is much too early to say how these things will work out. Obviously we want to see a successful CHOGM. We urge Sri Lanka to move towards to the sorts of standards that the Commonwealth believes in and wants to uphold. There are particular areas where we want to see movement on that. As far as who visits and who goes, it is too soon to say.

Q174 Sir John Stanley: As you know, Lord Howell, the Commonwealth has two landmark points in terms of agreed declarations on human rights. The original one was at the Singapore conference, with the first Commonwealth declaration in 1971. Then we had a 20-year interval until we got to the Harare declaration in 1991. We are now 20 years on from that, so can you tell us what the British Government’s policy is towards an updating of the Harare declaration? The Harare declaration by and large reads extremely well. There are serious questions about implementation, but it is very strong on women’s rights, for example. To me, however, an absolutely fundamental right is conspicuous by its absence from the Harare declaration: there is no specific reference to freedom of expression, which I certainly regard as an absolutely fundamental right in a free and democratic society. Can you tell us the British Government’s policy? Does the Government believe the Harare declaration needs to be updated or revised? What is the British Government doing, if it supports that policy, to try to see whether it can be implemented at the next CHOGM?

Lord Howell: I am smiling because I believe, Sir John, you were one of the main protagonists all those years ago who were insisting, rightly-it was in the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee-that Harare needed amplifying and that we had a clear responsibility to play a full part with the Commonwealth in dealing with this issue and so on. I congratulate you on still being at it. The difference now is that your view coincides totally with that of Her Majesty’s Government.

We believe very strongly that there should be a Commonwealth charter. That was one of the EPG recommendations that was accepted-I was talking earlier to Ann Clwyd about that-and we are working on the draft of it now. Why do we need it? The reasons were in the report 15 or 16 years ago, but perhaps there is a reason that we can state more clearly today than we could in the 1990s. I am referring to the advent of the internet-the creation of a cyber-dominated connection system, a latticework of connections throughout the Commonwealth. The Harare declaration is curiously out of date when you read it. We need to modernise and describe how the Commonwealth’s standards and ambitions can be maintained in the completely new network situation that has emerged in the last 20 years. So yes, we are all working at it very hard. We will be discussing it in the ministerial taskforce, and, I hope, finalising it within this year-probably in New York in September. It is certainly needed.

Q175 Sir John Stanley: Minister, do you have a reasonable degree of confidence that in the Commonwealth process of reaching agreement by consensus, you will be able to produce that update and we will get it by the end of this year?

Lord Howell: I am reasonably confident, yes. The only problem I have, of course-I have to confess to the Committee that I am an ex-journalist-is this: one longs to see a really masterly pen put to these great charters. I have said that what I hope to see is a maxima charter-not a Magna Carta, but a Maxima Carta-which would reinforce the UN charter, of course. It would build on that, not replace it, and explain how this Commonwealth network can more effectively uphold the standards of good governance and be a central pillar of human rights. Whether we are going to get that journalistic excellence out of a committee structure, I am not quite sure, but I shall do my best.

Q176 Sir John Stanley: As a former journalist but now a Government Minister, do you think you will be able to get in a specific reference to the crucial issue of freedom of expression? Can you get that incorporated in the new charter?

Lord Howell: I’ll try very hard.

Q177 Ann Clwyd: Kirsty, I think you used the phrase "wagging finger". Actually, a bit more than a wagging finger is needed in some circumstances. Take the homosexuality laws and the death penalty in both Malawi and Uganda. Malawi reviewed its laws after the US threatened to cut off aid. We saw the same thing in Egypt. The Egyptian Government arrested NGO workers and then released the Americans because the Americans threatened to cut off aid. Do you agree with that kind of "carrot and stick" approach to subjects like that, or are you content to allow those countries to apply the death penalty in such cases?

Lord Howell: I am not content, clearly. I think that you know the British policy, which is complete abolition of the death penalty, and we do have programmes around the world to encourage and persuade other countries to follow this course. That is outside the Commonwealth network, but within the Commonwealth network that is also the view we push. I think it is an issue where we have to use every channel within the Commonwealth that provides the opportunities for dialogue that I have described to the Committee. We raise it all the time; it is very unsatisfactory but although, I am afraid, quite a large number of Commonwealth countries have not officially abolished the death penalty, a good many of them have not used it for some years. I think I am right in saying that only 11 countries have used the death penalty over the past decade or so, but it is very unsatisfactory and we keep pushing. So we are not content at all, and we are ready to use the Commonwealth channel, as well as others, to get the message across.

Kirsty Hayes: Again, I suggest that you take a look at the Prime Minister’s contribution at the CHOGM, where he made a very strong speech on these subjects.

Q178 Chair: Lord Howell, the Speaker leapt into the political arena two weeks ago, calling on the Commonwealth to promote human rights. Do you think that was helpful? We raised it a couple of times while we were in Africa, and met a fairly frosty response.

Lord Howell: Your mention of the Speaker has reminded me of an omission, for which I apologise. I should have mentioned that in all the non-governmental organisations, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is, of course, immensely powerful. It has a huge following and attracts to its meetings the involvement of countries outside the Commonwealth. Parliamentarians from outside the Commonwealth come crowding in because they find it a very valuable forum, and of course Sir Alan Haselhurst, one of your colleagues and my former colleague, is the chairman of the international executive committee. He is the key figure there and very influential and effective. So when the Speaker calls for greater pressure on improved human rights-

Q179 Chair: He very specifically mentioned homosexuality.

Lord Howell: Yes. I think this is the right forum to promote these things-well, it is one of the forums, but it is certainly a very useful forum and I think the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is right to echo that theme. These opportunities should be used, although I am not saying that they are going to succeed in every case, and in some cases they create friction. However, my constant theme to this distinguished Committee this morning is that pursuing these things in the modern Commonwealth forum and milieu is a lot better than leaving them unpursued or trying in some of the broader organisations, of which the UN is the obvious example.

Q180 Rory Stewart: Is there possibly a generational problem? It sometimes seemed during our trips and discussions that the Commonwealth had more meaning and more appeal to an older generation than to a younger one. In particular, we sometimes got the sense that some younger political activists and politicians in the Caribbean felt that, with the growing importance of everything from the G7, G20, IMF, World Bank, OECD and so on, the Commonwealth was less relevant and important than it might have been 40 or 50 years ago, and that it was destined to become less relevant still.

Lord Howell: It is funny you should say that because my impression is very much the opposite. First of all, half the Commonwealth is under 25-it contains 2.1 billion citizens, and just over 1 billion are young people. Secondly, certainly in Perth, the Commonwealth Youth Forum is enormously active. Thirdly, there seems to be tremendous vitality in organisations such as the Commonwealth Writers and the literary work of the Commonwealth. There is tremendous vitality in the links between schools. I am talking about not just university links but school links as well. Commonwealth schools all over the entire system are now to be linked up by one press of a button on their computers.

Fourthly, I am in danger of sounding trite, but these great Commonwealth events that occur, such as our Commonwealth day parade in Westminster Abbey, the Commonwealth choirs and youth orchestras and so on, demonstrate to me a colossal enthusiasm, rather more so than in the middle generation. Perhaps the older generation are still thinking about the Commonwealth of yesterday which was rather Anglocentric. The middle generation have perhaps been told over the last 30 years that we must be at the heart of Europe and that the Commonwealth is finished and so on. It is just the younger generation who have picked up the story of what is really happening. The younger generation combined with the Foreign Affairs Committee of the 1990s, which seemed to be switched on when most of the media were switched off.

Kirsty Hayes: May I add one small word on youth? I really think that the Commonwealth youth activities are extremely strong. A lot of young people throughout the Commonwealth are actively involved in them. I think the Minister is right to point to a missing generation in the middle. One of the real strengths of the new Charter is going to be in explaining the Commonwealth to people within the Commonwealth. The aim is to make it a simple and easy to understand document. In the reports of your visit, I was very struck that one of the themes that really came out was that the Commonwealth could have more relevance for normal people within Commonwealth countries, and I think that the document will be an important tool for that. I would also mention the Glasgow games in 2014 which are going to be very important for building up the reputation of the Commonwealth among young people.

Lord Howell: I am glad that Kirsty mentioned the Commonwealth Games. I should have mentioned them as well. In a sense, it runs slightly separate from the Commonwealth Heads of Government and all that sort of thing because it is a separate promotion and organisation. The next one is in Glasgow the year after next. I have visited Glasgow and they have built the biggest indoor athletics stadium in Europe, if not in the world. They have built one of the most modern and biggest velodromes in the world. They have removed vast areas of the worst slums in Glasgow and are replacing them with a brilliant Olympic village, which in due course will be new housing for the people of Glasgow. They are preparing to receive a vast number of sports people and Ministers and young people. It is an amazing story. At the moment, we have the Olympic games coming out of our ears and we are thinking of nothing else, but only two years ahead lies this remarkable manifestation for which the people of Glasgow and of Scotland deserve every credit because they have it beautifully ready and well in time.

Q181 Chair: I believe that there has been a lot of co-operation with London 2012.

Lord Howell: Certainly.

Q182 Ann Clwyd: May I ask you about the practice of female genital mutilation, which still occurs in some parts of the world? It occurs in this country but there have been no prosecutions. I wondered whether it was an issue that came up within the Commonwealth countries-if it was something that was raised at any of the meetings.

Lord Howell: Yes, it does. Our concerns on this are very deep. I cannot say where it was specifically raised in Perth but I certainly remember discussing it myself at one of the forums. I think that I addressed the Civic Forum. So the answer is most emphatically yes. This is very serious and horrific. There are parts of certain Commonwealth countries, tribal areas, where these things are practised and we will not draw breath on this matter.

Q183 Andrew Rosindell: Lord Howell, if I could focus on the expansion of the Commonwealth and on the status of the overseas territories in the Commonwealth-if I could split it into two. Let us start with the overseas territories.

We spoke extensively about the 16 realms in the Commonwealth. Some are very small with very small populations and very small economies, yet some overseas territories are bigger, have larger economies and larger populations. In fact, there are 16 overseas territories: five Crown dependencies, four New Zealand realm states and seven Australian external territories. In total, we are talking about 32 external territories, linked to the nation states of United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, that have no status whatsoever in the Commonwealth. Would Her Majesty’s Government consider the possibility of promoting the status of a Crown territory status in the Commonwealth to give these 32 places some form of representation in the Commonwealth, but clearly not equal status to a nation?

Lord Howell: That line of thought is very constructive. A White Paper is due out shortly. Kirsty?

Kirsty Hayes: I am not sure of the date.

Lord Howell: I think Mr Rosindell knows about the White Paper discussion. The White Paper is on its way, driven very largely by the work of my colleague Henry Bellingham on our policies for the overseas territories. We want to strengthen a whole range of issues, and the question of their place within the Commonwealth system is a very important part of that.

Down at Perth at the last Heads of Government meeting, the UK, Australian and New Zealand overseas territories that have all been mentioned were present and had a say in many of the forums that were gathered there on the non-governmental side. They did not sit at the top table as states, because they are not states and therefore do not really qualify as applicant members of the Commonwealth, or would ever qualify as members unless that status was changed. But in the meantime, we want very much to see them have a larger say in Commonwealth affairs.

A number of proposals have been aired and some, I think, you will find in the forthcoming White Paper. So, yes, to the general idea. Whether we should talk about status change is not something we have considered for the moment. The Foreign Secretary has stated our commitment to increasing OTs’ engagement in the Commonwealth and all sorts of ideas are around: associate status, observer status and generally ensuring that they get a very good welcome and their voice is properly heard. Those are really our intentions. I know they will be reflected in what we say in the White Paper and I hope they will be reflected in practice.

Q184 Andrew Rosindell: But specifically the idea of a Crown territory status, do you think that that could be put into the mix as well, Lord Howell?

Lord Howell: I could consider it. I do not want to commit us to that at the moment. Again, like many of your ideas, Mr Rosindell, I like the sound of it.

Q185 Andrew Rosindell: Finally, could I ask about the general expansion of the Commonwealth? You spoke about this earlier-you mentioned Burma and one or two other possibilities. Could I just ask about those countries that can join the Commonwealth? Some have joined even though they have no historical links with Britain, the former British empire and the Crown. Rwanda is an example of that; Mozambique another. Yet other countries that have been protectorates of the Crown at some points in history are not members of the Commonwealth. Could Her Majesty’s Government do more to encourage some of those countries to join? Can we have a clearer definition of what kind of country should be joining the Commonwealth? Otherwise, we may be in danger of becoming all-encompassing of any country, even if it has no link either through language or some constitutional link. Do we need more definition about the type of country that we should be encouraging?

Lord Howell: I hope that the criteria are strict already. Indeed, by the time we have finished with the current phase of reform, which we are working on as I have described to the Committee, the criteria will remain strict and very strongly defined under the broad headings of a proper record on human rights, adherence to the rule of law and commitment to good government and a parliamentary form of government. Unless those boxes can be ticked, applicants will not get very far. I do not think that any one country wants to change that; I am not even sure that we could.

There is a debate within the Commonwealth family about expansion versus dilution. There are those who say, "Let us think about more members"-although carefully and in accordance with these criteria I have described-and there are those who say, "Well, perhaps we shouldn’t go any further." In the Commonwealth countries that did not have a direct connection-although they may have had a tangential connection-with the former British Commonwealth and the former British Empire before that, we have, as has been mentioned, Rwanda. Its leader told me that joining the Commonwealth was the best thing it has ever done-it is attracting all sorts of interest and it is a powerful pressure for political reform inside the country.

We have Mozambique, which is emerging as one of the stars of Africa. There has been the vast development of resources and rising living standards from a very low level and from a very difficult past. Its team-the Prime Minister-was in London the other day. I saw them all. They are immensely dynamic and highly informed people who form a wonderful model for the new Africa. Other countries that were protectorates or connected with Britain, particularly in the GCC area, are all very interested in the Commonwealth.

That is the position. Lots of countries are very interested in trying to get alongside the Commonwealth to join either its subordinate organisations or the Commonwealth as a whole. There are strict criteria; they will not all succeed. One particular applicant is on the table now and is about to go through the procedure: that is South Sudan. South Sudan needs all the support it can get from outside. It is going through a very difficult phase, and I hope that in due course it is welcomed into the Commonwealth. We certainly backed it. Does that answer all your questions?

Chair: Yes.

Andrew Rosindell: I think so. We could probably talk for longer, but thank you for your answers.

Q186 Chair: Lord Howell, Mrs Hayes, thank you very much indeed for coming along today. It has been a very useful session. Are there any final points you want to make?

Lord Howell: Yes. First is the nice point that you are all invited to the ministerial taskforce reception I am giving on Thursday evening. Please come along. I hope that your invitations have been received. The other relates to a point that has not been touched on but that used to be developed very much by our mutual colleague Baroness Chalker when she was in the Foreign Office. At the time, I think she was concerned with overseas development, which was part of the Foreign Office some years ago. She used to talk about the Commonwealth within. What she meant by that was that there are a great many people in our country-in the United Kingdom-with Commonwealth origins, connections, family and links of every sort within all ethnic groups, minorities and, indeed, the majority as well.

She argued, and I would argue today, that Britain’s active participation in a reinvigorated Commonwealth is a source of pride and coherence for all these people. It gives a lead, particularly to young ethnic minority people, as to where they belong, their purpose and what they can have pride in-in the United Kingdom. So if, as a nation, we want to ensure our own coherence and unity against the various stresses that we all know about in the United Kingdom, the very fact of our commitment to the Commonwealth and the exceptionalism that it gives Britain is itself a tremendous binding force. Many of the things we have been talking about this morning may have sounded as if they were about the overseas. In fact, they could be just as important to binding together and giving social coherence to this country as they could to bringing to the world the platform of the future, as Her Majesty the Queen describes it, that the Commonwealth offers.

Chair: This Committee is always pleased to try to help in providing a platform to the future. Thank you both very much indeed. The meeting is now adjourned.

Prepared 14th November 2012