Her Majesty the Queen's Diamond Jubilee: Commonwealth — Question
3:15 pm

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Baroness O'Cathain (Conservative)

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will mark Her Majesty the Queen's Diamond Jubilee year by making a commitment to celebrate and increase the United Kingdom's involvement with the Commonwealth.

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

My Lords, the United Kingdom is committed to the Commonwealth and is working with the secretariat, member states and associations to modernise this 21st century network and help it realise its extraordinary potential for the direct benefit of all its members, not least the United Kingdom. This Diamond Jubilee year is also a celebration of Her Majesty's 60 years as Head of the Commonwealth. A range of special events is being held across the Commonwealth in tribute. The recently launched Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust fund will benefit all Commonwealth citizens.

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Baroness O'Cathain (Conservative)

My Lords, today we have had a memorable endorsement of how much the Commonwealth means to Her Majesty, who has done more than anybody else to unify it, and a reminder that it encompasses some one-third of the world's population. Will my noble friend assure us that he will do all he can to ensure that the Commonwealth becomes much more relevant in our deliberations? It is a fast-growing, young market eager for greater involvement with us, without demanding more and more regulation.

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

I very much endorse what my noble friend says; she is quite right. I am very glad that she puts it in those terms. I am myself convinced that the Commonwealth network today, in both its formal and informal linkages right across the planet, is the key to huge new markets, on which our own prosperity will depend, as well as being the promoter of our values. It is also a very youthful organisation. More than 60 per cent of the citizens of the 2 billion-member Commonwealth are under 25.

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Lord Morgan (Labour)

One of the Commonwealth's truly important and precious links with this country is through higher education. Is it not the case that many Commonwealth countries-for example Malaysia, and also India-find immigration restrictions extremely difficult for them in terms of bona fide students coming to this country? Do they not also resent bona fide students being categorised under immigration policy rather than education policy? Should we not try to amend matters in this regard?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

The noble Lord is quite right that educational links are extensive at the university level and, indeed, between schools all over the Commonwealth. He is also right that the visa issue has raised further questions. The aim, as he knows, is to cut out the bogus students, the non-studiers who claim to be students, but greatly to encourage Commonwealth exchange of students-both ways, if I may say so; not just students coming to this country but also students going to the great new technical universities of Asia and Africa which in many cases equal and even excel our own. So there is a need for all this. We are working all the time to see that the visa system, which is necessary, makes the minimum impact in delaying this growing exchange of students, pupils and young people throughout the whole Commonwealth.

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Baroness Prashar (Crossbench)

My Lords, Her Majesty the Queen said this morning that the strength of the Commonwealth is its people. How vibrant they are was only too evident at the Commonwealth People's Forum in Perth at the Heads of Government Meeting last year. Will the Minister please tell the House whether Her Majesty's Government are planning to support the non-governmental organisations that are working in this country to develop and enable constructive connections between the peoples of the Commonwealth?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

I say to the noble Baroness, who herself has played a leading part in the promotion of the Commonwealth network, that that is certainly the aim of Her Majesty's Government. Commentators sometimes overlook that the Commonwealth is not just yet another intergovernmental organisation; it is a gigantic web of non-governmental and professional organisations, institutions, school links and every other kind of professional and interest link, which makes it absolutely unique and provides this country with the most marvellous potential soft power network that we could possibly have.

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Lord Chidgey (Liberal Democrat)

Does my noble friend recall that at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, Australia, at the back end of last year, the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group submitted a report on Commonwealth reform, which was widely accepted? Can he tell us-it is now four months later-what actions have been taken to monitor the implementation of those agreements made at CHOGM so that we can see some real progress, which we all want?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

My noble friend is right: the commitments were put forward, and many of them were adhered to, at the Perth meeting of the Heads of Government which I attended, while many others were remitted for further work. The next stage is a ministerial task force to carry those ideas forward. Ideas for strengthening the values and standards of the Commonwealth, as well as strengthening many of its other aspects, will be for the task force, and then later in the autumn the Foreign Ministers of the Commonwealth will meet to implement and carry those ideas forward. Not all of them are totally agreed-in any family there are bound to be some differences-but the broad thrust is to promote and uphold the Commonwealth standards in democracy, human rights, good governance and the rule of law.

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Lord Strathclyde (Conservative)

My Lords, perhaps we can hear from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and then perhaps from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson.

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Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Labour)

I am grateful, my Lords. Perhaps I may follow the question raised by my noble friend Lord Morgan. Would the noble Lord, Lord Howell-I am sure that he would-remind his colleagues in the Home Office that 60 per cent of those coming in under Immigration Rules are students, and that of those who enrol for bona fide three-year degree courses, 98 per cent return home on time and legally? That is to the mutual advantage of our universities, which receive their fees, and of the Commonwealth universities which acquire the expertise that we can offer them. Will he please remind his Home Office colleagues of the need to discriminate in favour of those who enrol for full-time, three-year degree courses?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

The short answer is yes, I am very happy to remind the UKBA and any other authority of those kinds of figures. I am sure that the noble Baroness will not overlook the fact that despite questions having been raised about visas, which I fully admit, there are thousands and thousands of overseas students in this country-an enormous number from non-Commonwealth as well as Commonwealth countries. So our role and performance is not all bad-in fact it is extremely good-but there is always more that can be done. I am very happy to join with those who point out the enormous benefits of getting more and more genuine students to visit this country and to return and benefit our promotion and reputation in the future.

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Lord Pearson of Rannoch (UKIP)

My Lords, is it not now clear that we took the wrong road away from the Commonwealth in 1972, as the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, has indicated in her question, when we joined the project of European integration? Would we not have done better to lead the Commonwealth in free trade and friendly collaboration, and could we not still do so, thus benefiting from the markets of the future instead of being stuck on the "Costa Concordia" that the modern EU has become?

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Lord Howell of Guildford (Conservative)

These aspects of being a good member of the European Union and an effective member of a reinvigorated Commonwealth are by no means exclusive; on the contrary, they go together. We can ensure that although our trade may be handled mostly by the European Union, our investment, all our other links and our movements of capital are not so limited by the European Union, and it is through those links that we can maintain excellent contact. At the same time the rest of the Commonwealth is developing its own intra-Commonwealth trade at a fantastic rate, and all these developments benefit the United Kingdom.