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9.22 pm

Lord Luce rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will clarify their policy towards the Commonwealth ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda in November 2007.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am delighted to have this opportunity—at long last, I might say—to explore the Government’s approach to the Commonwealth and to test whether this Government and this

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Administration will be more positive than previous Administrations on this subject. I am delighted at the number of noble Lords taking part and I regret that, due to this hour and other commitments, a number of those who put their names down have had to withdraw. It is a great pleasure to welcome to the debate the noble Baroness, Lady Vadera, the new Minister responsible for development matters, who will be making her maiden speech. She could not be better qualified to speak on the Commonwealth, because she was born in Uganda, educated partly in India and, after the age of 15, has lived and worked in this country as a British citizen.

Within my 10 minutes, I wish to focus on the strategy that should be adopted for the Commonwealth. In the past 60 years, we have seen the most remarkable transformation from the British Empire to the Commonwealth of equal nations. Throughout this period, the Queen has provided a common link in her capacity as head of the Commonwealth. Coupled with this change has been a substantial migration of people within the Commonwealth, thus contributing to today’s multi-cultural and multi-faith community in the United Kingdom. All this is essential history for any schoolchild to understand today’s British society.

What of today’s Commonwealth? What is its composition? It is a total cross-representation of the world—the world through a microscope—with 53 nations making up a quarter of the government of the world, a third or 2 billion of the world’s population and a fifth of the world’s trade. The Commonwealth ranges from the smallest nations—some 32 of them—to the largest. It ranges from the poorest—a third of its people live on less than a dollar a day—to the wealthiest, and it has fast-emerging states, such as India, which is the fourth largest economy in the world today. It represents almost all faiths and cultures in the world. For example, there are 500 million Muslims living in the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth faces all the problems that the world as a whole faces: international terrorism; illicit migration; drugs and crime; climate change; multi-faith and multi-cultural issues; fragile democracies; poverty; and education and health issues. We share common aspirations and values, as well as the commitment that we have made at summit meetings to democracy, the rule of law, freedom of the press and expression and the important role of civil society. We share a common language in English and we have many common institutions, legal systems and business practices.

The Commonwealth is a vast network of contact—of Governments, people, professional bodies and non-government organisations. There are over 80 professional bodies of the Commonwealth, ranging from the universities and architects to magistrates, nurses and the press. The Commonwealth work is supported by a range of other bodies: the Secretariat; the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation; the Commonwealth Youth Fund; the Commonwealth Foundation, of which I had the privilege of being chairman for five years and which focuses on the non-government of the work of the Commonwealth civil society, culture and so on;

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the Commonwealth of Learning, which facilitates distance learning throughout the Commonwealth; and the Commonwealth Business Council, which deals with the private sector and economic development. I will also mention a new organisation, which I welcome: the Ramphal Centre for Commonwealth Policy Studies. All those and many other bodies are supplemented by other activities, not least the Commonwealth Games and the usual Government-to-Government contact.

What is the Government’s attitude to all that? Successive Governments in this country have paid lip service to the Commonwealth. We have tended to turn our backs on the Commonwealth. The result is a remarkable lack of interest and knowledge in the United Kingdom of the Commonwealth. We have concentrated, of course, on the European Union and NATO and relations with the United States.

There still lingers in this country a measure of guilt complex about the past and sometimes we still see things in rather colonial and patronising ways. Equally, other Commonwealth countries are still inclined to blame the United Kingdom, as their former colonial power, as a diversion from their own problems. I need only cite Mr Mugabe to make the point. Now is the time to make a psychological adjustment in our attitude to the Commonwealth. To get rid of these outdated concepts and cobwebs of the past, we must, of course, know our past, but we must also recognise that a gem has now emerged that can bring great benefits to all its members, including the United Kingdom.

This is the age of multilateralism and here is a unique forum for confronting and helping us all to solve international problems and for the United Kingdom to benefit from membership. The Commonwealth complements other groupings, such as the United Nations, the European Union and NATO, as well as bilateral relations with other countries. It is not a substitute; it simply complements. As Sir Shridath Ramphal, the former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, said once:

It seems to me that policy has evolved over decades from the summit meetings in Singapore to the summit in Harare. The policy of the Commonwealth that has evolved reflects the view that democracy and good governance on the one hand and development on the other are interdependent—the two must develop hand in hand to help to create more prosperous and coherent societies.

Let us look for a moment at these two issues. First, on democracy, we have organisations now such as the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, which plays a vital role in monitoring persistent violation of democratic principles. It has looked at a number of countries, from Nigeria and Pakistan to Fiji.

It would be remiss of me not to mention Zimbabwe. It was suspended in 2003 by Mugabe—the decision was taken by him and not by the people of Zimbabwe. Others will no doubt speak about Zimbabwe in this debate but the test case here involves the credibility of the Commonwealth. The

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Commonwealth was active in trying to help to end apartheid in South Africa and return her to the Commonwealth, and the same must happen with Zimbabwe. The Royal Commonwealth Society, of which my noble friend Lady Prashar is chairman, has taken an admirable lead in discussing ways in which the Commonwealth can start to hold out hope for the people once Mugabe has gone.

The Commonwealth needs to establish links with civil society. The Commonwealth Foundation is a very good organisation for taking the lead on that. We need to work with moderate nations in Africa, such as South Africa, Botswana, Ghana and Tanzania, to help the people of Zimbabwe to move towards a better solution. The Commonwealth Heads of Government need to stand ready with contingency plans to rehabilitate that failed state. There are many other ways in which democracy is supported in the Commonwealth, not least through the admirable work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

The other aspect in this regard is development. It is interesting to note that trade within the Commonwealth has increased from US$2 trillion to $3 trillion in the past 10 years. Economic development is crucial to stability in these countries and the Commonwealth is equipped to promote favourable trade terms, to help small and developing nations and to help work for the liberalisation of trade. The Commonwealth provides an ideal forum to develop integrated and realistic approaches to economic expansion and wealth creation in each of those countries. I hope that the Minister will feel able to say something about the role of the Department for International Development in this area and the priority that it gives to the Commonwealth.

I conclude by saying that I would like Her Majesty’s Government to commit the United Kingdom to adopting a positive, imaginative and vigorous approach to the Commonwealth in a non-paternalistic spirit and as an equal partner. To achieve that, the Prime Minister needs to show personal leadership on this issue and secure the commitment of Ministers, supported by a proper Whitehall machinery, to implementing the Commonwealth’s multilateral policies. This would benefit the Commonwealth and serve Britain’s own interests.

9.32 pm

Baroness Howells of St Davids: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for introducing this timely debate and for his thorough introduction.

I speak to you as a child of the British Commonwealth and as someone who has lived her adult life as a citizen of the Commonwealth. Many would say that that is not much of a difference, but appearances can be deceptive.

The transition in the title highlights the ever-changing nature of the institution as history has buffeted its boundaries, structure and procedures. Its status as successor to the British Empire similarly reflects a long historical process as conquered territories sought to assert their independence from the metropolitan hub. It is no secret that countries that were initially the most successful in this process contained a large settler class drawn from the metropolitan country. It was only after the Second

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World War that other imperial territories were able to seriously challenge the iron grip exerted from the centre on the conduct of their affairs. The relaxation of that grip was achieved after inhabitants of lands scattered throughout the globe struggled valiantly for the freedom to exert control over their destinies. Many did so after returning from battlefields where they had fought—some had died—to protect the freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of the metropolis.

The past 50 years have witnessed the arrival of a variety of settler classes into this country from the countries once conquered by it. This apparent historical inversion masks the wholly different nature of the relationship enjoyed by the outgoing settlers with those among whom they settled from that which greeted incoming settlers with those in this country. The role of the latter was to repair, invariably at a menial or minor level, the infrastructure, to man the often shattered remains of the country's industrial base and to oil the wheels of what we now call our service industries.

This they have done, and many look back in their retirement with pride at their achievement, against considerable odds, in assisting in Britain’s revival of its status in the world. However many also look with alarm, as Britain seeks to realign itself with other groups of nations, such as the European Union, at the effects that these associations will have on the Commonwealth.

I would like to draw noble Lords’ attention to that arc of islands which form the Caribbean membership of the Commonwealth, among which is the country of my birth, Grenada. As with so many Caribbean islands, many of its citizens are scattered among the populations of nations that dwarf them in both geographic and economic size. Those who are here, and their children, feel that their mother countries have become at best the home of hazy memories of golden beaches and eternal sunshine and at worst almost forgotten specks in a far distant ocean.

People do not starve in the Caribbean. Coups are not a feature of our recent memories. As we do not have large mineral resources, we are not subject to the mass excavation of our soil for what lies underneath it. However, we do have some real problems that deserve far more attention than they attract.

I realise that the clock has beaten me. I will end quickly by saying that I would like to enter a plea that Britain should not, in its rush to join new families of nations, forget its obligation to that family that ensured its economic pre-eminence for so long.

9.37 pm

Lord Blaker: My Lords, I, too, thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for securing this debate. Now that that has been done from both sides of the House, I suggest humbly that that should be enough because it will save everybody else doing it and thus save us time.

I too will talk about Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth, as the noble Lord, Lord Luce, has done. If noble Lords have doubts about the propriety of doing so in a Commonwealth debate, because

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Zimbabwe is no longer in it, they can be reassured. All that they have to do is look at section B of the 1995 Millbrook declaration, made in New Zealand, when it was head of the Commonwealth. That will reassure them of the propriety of not only talking about Zimbabwe but doing things—but that is another question.

When South Africa was outside the Commonwealth, the member countries treated it in the same way because the Commonwealth did a great deal to help South Africa to get rid of apartheid. Conditions in Zimbabwe are appalling, so bad that I do not want to get into a discussion about them now. I think that all noble Lords know how indescribably awful it is.

After the savage attacks on a peaceful prayer meeting about three months ago, there was an urgent meeting of the SADC summit, which appointed President Mbeki to facilitate dialogue between the Government and the opposition in Zimbabwe. Almost all the SADC countries are members of the Commonwealth. Since that proposal for dialogue, about three and a bit months ago, no agenda has been fixed. Mugabe’s representatives failed to turn up to the latest meeting called. That shows us how President Mbeki is treating that proposal. Therefore, the world should not expect any good news from that direction.

What else could be done? I doubt whether linking the Zimbabwean dollar to the rand would be acceptable to South Africa. That has been suggested but it has not been discussed publicly. However, it is an idea that is floating about. The responsibility to protect is a subject that is being talked about more and more, largely in United Nations terms, but such action requires UN consent and tends to assume the use of troops, if only for peacekeeping; therefore, I doubt whether that is relevant to Zimbabwe.

My proposal that the G8 should use its influence with Africa resulting from its partnership for aid and debt relief in return for good governance has received no response, so at the moment I do not see a future for that.

The Commonwealth Secretariat is said to be thinking hard about what should be done. I hope that that is so, but I have one important point for the secretariat. At present, Zimbabwe is not on the agenda for the CHOGM in November this year in Kampala. Obviously, I am not calling for Zimbabwe’s presence under the current regime or anything like it, but I am sure that Zimbabwe is important enough to be discussed in Kampala.

9.41 pm

The Lord Bishop of Norwich: My Lords, I shall obey the admonition of the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, but I want to add the best wishes of these Benches to the noble Baroness in her new position as a Minister and wish her well in all that she undertakes.

It was as long ago as the 1926 Imperial Conference that member countries were described as,

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The Statute of Westminster gave that some legal force, and it is in that spirit that the Commonwealth continues to exist. It is an extraordinary ideal to live up to, one that is not exactly easy when member states vary so much in economic power, resources and wealth. But the value of the Commonwealth is expressed not least in the equal dignity accorded to all members, whatever their size, wealth, culture or religion, and, in the time available, I want to refer to a single current threat to that.

I believe that the proposed economic partnership agreements will be discussed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. They are in the process of being negotiated between Europe and African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, many of them members of the Commonwealth, and they should be completed by the end of the year. There is real anxiety in ACP countries—inevitably, as the EU is, overall, both the biggest trading partner and the biggest aid giver to many of them—and therefore, it is hard for this negotiating process to be even-handed when the odds are stacked so much on one side. The Cotonou agreement, on which all this is based, said that no ACP country should be worse off as a result of the process, but many Commonwealth countries fear that they will be, as EU aid will be dangled as a carrot and waved as a stick if African countries, in particular, do not open up their markets to European companies in the area of service provision and government procurement.

The African Union has recently pleaded for transitional measures to safeguard the continued entry of African exports to the EU market beyond the end of the year. I believe that our Government’s stated position is that ACP countries should have alternatives to these partnership agreements, and I want to know whether that is still the case. How does our part in this EU process reflect our Commonwealth aspiration that we and other countries should be,

especially if the EPA negotiations demand the opening of African markets way beyond anything envisaged in the Cotonou agreement?

This is really an area where our commitment to the Commonwealth is a necessary counterbalance to any misuse of the economic power that we enjoy as part of the European Union. I know well that the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is that the poor are blessed, but we do not increase their blessing by making them poorer. A high doctrine of the Commonwealth may prevent us doing just that in this case.

9.44 pm

Baroness Whitaker: My Lords, in joining in the welcome to my noble friend on the Front Bench, perhaps I may say how fortunate we are that her expertise and commitment will now benefit your Lordships’ House as well as the Department for International Development.

The Commonwealth is one of our best routes to global conversation. When I used to negotiate for the UK it was a pleasure, and often something of a relief, to find among the host of nations at the UN a group

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of friends who, crucially, spanned the rich and the poor worlds, and who understood each other better because of the common heritage so eloquently described by the noble Lord, Lord Luce.

The Commonwealth has a particular contribution to make to development, because of its ease in sharing expertise through the secretariat and its myriad professional associations. This kind of partnership is all the more important now because development is changing. It has always needed more than aid, but now there is an urgent need for strategies to go wider, on climate change, on fair conditions for trade, on human rights and human security.

Aid is still the starting point for basic standards of health and education, so I would like to ask my noble friend first about the leading cause of death of children under five: pneumococcal disease. I declare an interest as vice-president of a new all-party parliamentary group to raise awareness of it. It kills nearly 1 million children, of whom 90 per cent are in developing countries. Those who do not die are often disabled.

There is a safe vaccine, but it needs to be developed. UNICEF—of which I am a UK trustee—and DfID are aware of the problem, and with the advance markets commitment system, an innovation which my noble friend has had a great deal to do with, DfID has undertaken to get results. Can she also arrange for this underknown dread disease to be given more prominence in DfID's public thinking on health? In the excellent document Working Together for Better Health, the goal of reducing child mortality mentions only measles immunisation, which would do this by two-thirds. Successful pneumococcal disease vaccination would probably achieve the millennium development goal on child mortality by itself. How will this be considered in DfID's biennial review of its health strategy?

In education, the UK has worked within the Commonwealth to ensure that more children, especially girls, go to primary school. In Tanzania, where I was last summer, abolishing school fees increased enrolment from 4.4 million to 8 million, about half of whom were girls. Now there is more need to support local capacity for training teachers; and it is in the area of training and professional education that we can work with the Commonwealth to most advantage.

9.47 pm

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I begin by welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Vadera, with particular pride and pleasure. A fellow Somervillian, she brings energy, commitment and wide experience to this House. We are also fortunate in having the noble Lord, Lord Luce, to open the debate. The Commonwealth needs advocates with stamina—he has certainly shown that tonight—as well as vision.

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