Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

10.14 pm

Lord Selsdon: My Lords, while I was waiting rather impatiently for this great debate tonight I was having a pea and ham soup with Martha in the Bishop’s Bar and we were saying that it is funny that the Ethiopian flag and the Jamaican flag are the same. I got out my book of flags and I had a look. I then said that it is strange that military power is becoming less and less important in the world, absolute wealth is becoming less and less important, and the most important thing is influence—that strange, mystical, airy bit that no one knows how to put together. If you are too strong, you have enemies.

So I thought we would look at the Commonwealth again. I have always been brought up on the Statute of Westminster, I have roamed the world around the Commonwealth and I said let us see what we have got now. We have 53 countries, which represent roughly 25 per cent of the world; add to that 20 dependent or overseas territories and the odd island here or there and we are pretty important. We have 2 billion people, which is a very significant 30 per cent of the world. We have roughly 12 million square miles of land, and if you add to that the territorial rights of 12 miles out to sea and airspace we are again pretty influential. And of course we have Her Majesty the Queen, probably one of our greatest assets, who is head of state in 19 countries.

It does not stop there. We still control 90 per cent of the cricket in the world. While people may suggest that it was the Commonwealth that effectively brought South Africa to heel, I can tell you it was the Gleneagles agreement. I remember sitting with President Bush—he was not president then—in Jamaica, talking about boycotting Grenada, when suddenly Eddie Seaga turned to me and said, “Is it true that Boycott is going to play cricket in South Africa?” That was a momentous occasion.

Now we are losing out on the rugby side. We have only 70 per cent of the rugby in the world, but what have the Americans got besides baseball and American football? Hardly any sporting influence. If you look further, you realise that it was effectively Cuban music that helped develop the Caribbean and you see that rap and other music has spread right across the world to create that form of culture.

This adds up to the observation that the Commonwealth has greater value than any of us appreciate—and probably more than it appreciates itself. It is a remarkable collection of people who have taken over from when the sun never set on the British Empire. They are probably playing rugby in some of the Pacific Islands even at this minute.

18 July 2007 : Column 355

We could then look at some of the strange joint ventures, including the joint claims on Antarctica, and involving Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand and ourselves. It is how we put it together. I have always felt that the House of Lords should set out to represent the Commonwealth. No greater leader could we have than the noble Lord, Lord Luce, who was one of the best and most honourable Foreign Office Ministers that we have ever had. So I sit down saying: we have influence; let us use it.

10.18 pm

Lord Bilimoria: My Lords, I remember well from my childhood in India the ambivalence that many felt towards the British Empire. As a recently independent former colony such feelings were of course completely understandable. However, through the Commonwealth, India chose to remain connected with Britain along with many other former colonial countries. The British Empire—the largest empire the world had ever known, larger than the ancient Persian, Greek or Roman empires—was no more. Yet the vast majority of the countries of the empire that demanded their independence also chose to retain their links with Britain and with each other. That is amazing. It speaks so much to the strength of the common ideals, values and principles that the diverse members of the Commonwealth share: the English language, respect for democracy, human rights, institutions, legal systems, the rule of law, dedication to trade and solid business practices. These qualities, which have often been referred to as the Commonwealth factor, are a major advantage in our globally competitive world.

As my noble friend Lord Luce mentioned in his superb speech, there is significant trade between Commonwealth members. However, this is happening in the absence of a major trade agreement like those behind the North American Free Trade Agreement, the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation and the Association of South-East Asian Nations. We could be doing so much more to encourage trade between member nations and the Commonwealth on top of, and supplementing, the existing regional trade blocs to which many members of the Commonwealth already belong, such as the EU, in Britain’s case. Questions are being asked around the globe about the effectiveness in today’s world of multilateral institutions such as the UN, the World Bank and the IMF. The WTO Doha development round is at a standstill.

I welcome our new Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Vadera. I say to her and to the Government: would it not be wonderful if a Commonwealth trading bloc, with a free trade agreement, existed? The more nations trade, the more stable and peaceful their relations with other countries. I believe that if an effective Commonwealth FTA bloc existed, it would attract prospective new members, such as the former British territories in the Middle East. Just look at the European Union. Who would have thought 60 years ago that France and Germany would be the best of friends today?

The Commonwealth already has such a great role in development, but it can do so much more to aid its members, particularly those with smaller economies.

18 July 2007 : Column 356

Through economic liberalisation, we can also have economic empowerment. In developing this vast as yet untapped potential, we can accomplish so much in truly unleashing the common wealth in the Commonwealth.

10.21 pm

Lord Joffe: My Lords, noble Lords will see that I am speaking from the Labour Benches for the first time. I take this opportunity to thank the Convenors of the Cross Benches, first the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and now the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, and their colleagues for their kindness and support while I sat on their Benches.

I welcome the Minister, my noble friend Lady Vadera, and very much look forward to her maiden speech. I had the pleasure of working with her when we were both trustees of Oxfam. There I developed a great respect for her incisive intellect and the purposeful contribution she made, not only to Oxfam but, more importantly, in her years at the heart of the Treasury. She will surely make a significant contribution to this House and to DfID.

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an independent international NGO, reported in its spring newsletter that President Museveni’s Black Mamba Squad, which operates in secrecy at the behest of the president, raided the Uganda High Court in Kampala on 1 March this year. There they arrested five members of the opposition, who had just been released by the court on bail after being charged with treason and terrorism. In the process, they brutalised not only the suspects but their lawyers as well.

This is not an isolated incident and it seems increasingly clear that the Ugandan Government are using the police and military to crack down on political dissent and opposition. Bearing in mind the Commonwealth’s aim to promote democracy, good government, human rights and economic development, it is ironic that its Heads of Government meeting in November is to be held in Uganda, where the opposite of all these objectives appears to be taking place. It will be interesting to see whether the abuses of human rights in Uganda are raised at this meeting or whether they will be papered over. It will be a sad day for the Commonwealth if President Museveni follows in the path of Robert Mugabe and the Commonwealth ignores this because of pressure from some African leaders.

If I had the time, I would talk about education. As I do not, however, I simply ask my noble friend what her policy, and that of the Government, will be on education.

10.25 pm

Lord Watson of Richmond: My Lords, I reiterate the thanks of the House to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for introducing this subject. Here we are, compressing the mighty subject of the Commonwealth into three minutes. That might have depressed me until I heard the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, whose capacity to compress so much into three minutes is

18 July 2007 : Column 357

remarkable and a tribute to this House. I also welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Vadera, to the Front Bench. We are all looking forward to her maiden speech.

I declare an interest as chairman of the Council of Commonwealth Societies. One of that council’s tasks is to be involved in the organisation of the Commonwealth Day Observance service in the abbey just across the road from here in March each year. That service illustrates something extremely important about the Commonwealth: that it has a unique ability to create an inter-faith dialogue. Although the service is within the abbey, it is not Anglican; it is an inter-faith dialogue. I hope that the Minister will tell us that the Sen commission report on respect and understanding will take us forward at CHOGM—that it will not just be a report, but that there will be action subsequent to it.

The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, mentioned Nigeria, albeit briefly. The Commonwealth observer group report on the elections in Nigeria this year was gloomy reading. That report has gone to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, but will CMAG do anything about it? These reports on failures of democracy in the Commonwealth seem somehow to vanish into the air. Something has to happen as a consequence of them. I would be grateful for anything that the Minister could tell us about that.

The right reverend Prelate made a point about trade issues at CHOGM. I know that the agenda is not yet fixed, but there is great concern among the Africa group in the WTO that trade should be high on the agenda and not trailing down below. Important issues such as the EU partnership agreements need to be discussed. Will the Minister reassure us that trade will be at the top of the agenda? If we do not discuss trade, all that will be left for us to discuss is aid.

I raised with the Government a couple of weeks ago the unfortunate and ill judged closure of our embassy in Madagascar. We wait to see what will happen, but the idea that the best interests of this country and Madagascar can be looked after part-time from 1,000 miles away in Mauritius is frankly nonsense. Will the Minister assure us that the closure in Madagascar is not the beginning of a long list of others?

We need from the Government a statement of their commitment to the Commonwealth. Not only do we in this country have a great return on that vision, commitment and investment of imagination, but those things are also in the interests of global understanding, dialogue and a better future for us all.

10.29 pm

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for introducing this important debate. It gives me great pleasure to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Vadera, whose maiden speech I very much look forward to hearing. She has had a most distinguished career, well qualifying her for this new position. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Luce, she was born in Uganda and, having lived her early life in India, went on to read PPE at Oxford. She became a highly successful banker with SG Warburg before joining the Treasury in 1999 and becoming a trustee of Oxfam. I have no

18 July 2007 : Column 358

doubt that, with this formidable background, her maiden speech on this particularly relevant topic will be both informative and interesting. We look forward, too, to her future contributions to this House.

Earlier this year, the Prime Minister identified the Commonwealth as one part of a new, three-pronged foreign policy, complementing our American alliance and our strong links with Europe. On these Benches, we have always supported such an approach, yet the latest Foreign and Commonwealth Office departmental annual report makes only one passing mention of the Commonwealth in more than 150 pages. Can the Minister explain that? The summit is a great opportunity for the Government to set out their proposals on how to support democracy and good governance throughout the Commonwealth. How are the Government helping Uganda to hold free and fair elections in December? What support are they giving the Ugandan Government in the peace talks in south Sudan and with the Lord’s Resistance Army?

There is great potential, too, for economic development. The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development has proven how successful the use of informal international networks—in this case, “international” is merely Muslim communities—can be in setting up small businesses in the developing world. What encouragement are the Government giving to the business community to exploit similar networks between different Commonwealth members?

I fear that, in three minutes, I have barely covered this huge subject and do not expect the Minister in her short time to answer all the questions tonight. However, I look forward to her response and her maiden speech and hope that the Government will soon back up their enthusiastic words with meaningful proposals.

10.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for International Development (Baroness Vadera): My Lords, I start by expressing my gratitude to Members from all parts of the House for the warmth of their welcome since I have joined and their kind words during this debate. Your Lordships’ advice and support has helped me immensely, as I continue to adjust to my new role in government. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luce, for securing this important debate. I will endeavour to reply to a few questions, given the time constraints. If noble Lords will permit, I shall write to them on the remainder that I have noted.

Today’s debate takes me back to my earliest memories at primary school in Jinja, Uganda. My mother tongue was Gujarati, and I struggled with English. I was about to leave for India because of the Idi Amin repression. The last place that I, a stateless child between Asia and Africa, could ever have expected to be was standing before your Lordships as the newest member of the House of Lords. The daughter of a Kenyan mother and Ugandan father, of Indian origin, educated in Jinja, Bangalore, Bombay and finally Britain, like my noble friend Lady Howells, I feel a true child of the Commonwealth. I am one of its most fortunate. The tolerance and

18 July 2007 : Column 359

generosity of British society and the ties that bind the Commonwealth together gave me my life chances, most recently to work eight years at the Treasury, arguing its case against the insistent and sometimes unreasonable pleadings of other departments, and now three weeks at DfID, arguing its case against the insistent and sometimes unreasonable parsimony of the Treasury.

As noble Lords from all sides of the House have said, the Commonwealth brings together countries not because of what they want but because of what they are. The Commonwealth’s unique and underestimated strength but also in part its limitation is the fact that it is not an exclusive club of the most powerful like the G8. Nor does it generate tension between developing and developed countries, as sometimes occurs in the IMF and World Bank. Nor, like the UN, does it have regional groups competing to advance their agendas. Its members speak for themselves with an equal voice, whether they are small island states or global players. I am intrigued by the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, that we should have an unsentimental assessment of the Commonwealth, and I will investigate that.

In response to the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, I can say that the importance that we place on the use of this rare forum will be illustrated by the seriousness of the agenda and the breadth of our team attending CHOGM in November. My life will have come full circle as I join the British delegation going to my birthplace, Uganda. I welcome the theme of the meetings, transforming Commonwealth societies for political, economic and social development. There are new challenges facing this development, not least climate change, which we have helped to secure on the CHOGM agenda in the run-up to Bali in December. But the old challenges remain.

The noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, rightly emphasises economic development and business formation. The Commonwealth Business Council creates very similar networks to those that she mentioned. I view aid not as charity or welfare, nor as the creation of permanent dependency, but as an investment in equitable growth and the individual’s dignity of economic independence. With reference to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, and the noble Lord, Lord Jay, in most poor countries aid is necessary, but in no country is it a sufficient catalyst for development. Wealth creation, economic growth and good governance must be central to poverty eradication.

The Commonwealth has extremes of experience to learn from in this regard. Over the last 20 years, India has saved 100 million people from poverty, and within the next 20 is expected to become the fourth largest economy in the world. But while its GDP is growing at 8 per cent, it is creating jobs at only 3 per cent a year. That inequitable growth has meant nearly one-half of all Indian children are undernourished—a far higher level than in most of sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless, India’s ability to benefit from an international services market shows the importance of trade for growth and reducing poverty. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that trade will be right up there at CHOGM.

18 July 2007 : Column 360

In response to the concerns expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, I can say that the UK has argued its position on the flexibility of economic partnership agreements consistently since 2005, and that has not changed for any other strategic reason. We believe that the Commission has accepted many of our arguments and is showing more flexibility in order to conclude negotiations by the end of the year, but we continue to monitor these negotiations closely.

I am delighted to see present my noble friend Lord Joffe, who introduced me last week. In response to his question and that of my noble friend Lord Judd, I should say that education is going to be a central agenda going forward, both at CHOGM and generally for development. Across the Commonwealth, 26 million children—nearly two-thirds of them girls—do not go to school. Education is the best investment that the world can make and, together with health, the best way to break the transmission of poverty from one generation to the next. For every year of schooling in the poorest countries, incomes grow by more than 10 per cent. For every extra year that a mother went to school, the chances of her children dying fall by 8 per cent. In large parts of the world, poverty has a woman’s face; empowering women is both a means and an end for transforming societies.

The UK has committed £8.5 billion over 10 years to get every child, especially girls, into school. Our commitment was ground-breaking, not just in its magnitude, but in its understanding of the need for patient capital to get a generation into productive economic activity. The 10-year results-based commitment gives the certainty of funding that countries need to plan and develop sustainable education systems with the ability to train, as well as continue to pay teachers and to make education free, and therefore universal.

With respect to health, I wish to assure my noble friend Lady Whitaker that pneumococcal disease will be addressed in the reviews of our health strategy. There is a significant market failure in research and development for diseases that affect poor countries due to their weak purchasing power. Only 10 per cent of global health research is devoted to conditions that account for 90 per cent of the world’s disease burden. If successful, the advanced market commitment that we launched will result in a relevant strain of pneumococcal vaccine, which could save up to 5 million lives over the next 25 years.

It was disconcerting enough when the noble Baroness, Lady Park, used to question me as principal at Somerville College. I cannot begin to tell you how disconcerting it is to be questioned by her now, in your Lordships' House. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her contribution to my education and her graciously selective memory of my undergraduate years.

The noble Baroness raised the subject of Zimbabwe, as did many other noble Lords. My family’s experience of a ruthless dictator left me with no tolerance for those who abuse their citizens and destroy nations in the name of anti-colonialism. As will be discussed in another place tomorrow, we agree with noble Lords that Mugabe is not going to be a part of the solution for Zimbabwe’s future. This Government will continue

18 July 2007 : Column 361

to work with SADC and the Commonwealth to ensure that the people of Zimbabwe can exercise the right to determine that future. I agree with noble Lords that the Commonwealth has a duty of care to assist the people of Zimbabwe, as it assisted South Africans during apartheid. This Government stand prepared to assist in what tragically, but inevitably, will be an extremely fragile state, with its economic base and social fabric destroyed.

In the mean time, the people of Zimbabwe face a humanitarian crisis. A quarter of the population have fled to neighbouring countries and half those remaining need urgent food aid. More than 3,000 people die of HIV/AIDS every week. To help those immediately at risk, I am able to announce to the House today that DfID is committing £50 million to extend the protracted relief programme for the next five years. The programme will be delivered entirely through local and international NGOs and will provide seeds, fertilisers, livestock and access to HIV/AIDS care to assist 2 million of the country’s most vulnerable.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page