[Relevant documents: The first Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1995–96, on the future role of the Commonwealth (House of Commons Paper No. 45-I), the Government's Observations thereon (Cm. 3303) and the Government's Expenditure Plans 1996–97 to 1998–99—Foreign and Commonwealth Office including Overseas Development Administration (Cm. 3203).]
That a sum not exceeding £343,886,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to complete or defray the charges which will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1997 for expenditure by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on its salaries, building and other accommodation services, and administration and those of HM Diplomatic Service, official information services, sundry services and loans and payments in connection with catering services.—[Dr. Liam Fox.]
The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs welcomes the opportunity of a brief debate on its recent report on the role of the Commonwealth. I should explain right away that we did not alight randomly on this subject for a report; we responded to what we felt was a strong steer, in the sense that opinion about the Commonwealth in this country may be undergoing a considerable change. There suddenly seems to be a new awareness of the value of the club of Commonwealth nations, vastly varied though their cultures and geography may be. They are spread around the entire planet.
There may be all sorts of reasons for that new awareness. The old issue that bedevilled all Commonwealth gatherings from the 1960s to the 1980s—the hated apartheid system in South Africa—has vanished, thank goodness. In part, the new interest may be due to the fact that several countries have joined or tried to join the Commonwealth in recent times. South Africa, of course, is a recent re-entrant, and Mozambique and Cameroon have also arrived in the team. A club that is growing and which people want to join cannot be entirely moribund.
Our studies seemed to suggest, however, that there was a harder and deeper reason for the British to think again about their Commonwealth connections. Contrary to many political utterances, sometimes of a rather pessimistic nature, and to the slant of a good deal of British foreign policy, Britain's trade and capital investment is noticeably tilting away exclusively from Europe and towards Asia, which happens to include several of the major Commonwealth countries, and Latin America.
It is the realisation that there is a shift in the centre of gravity of the entire planet, in political and economic terms, making areas of the world which we might have felt we had cut our ties with and were not important, suddenly much more important to the present and the future, which makes us look at the Commonwealth through an entirely different lens.
Just to give hon. Members a flavour—I promise not to produce too many statistics, although there are some telling ones in the report—in 1994, 44 per cent. of Britain's total overseas earnings, visible and invisible, came from EU countries. That is obviously a significant chunk, so there could be no question of ignoring that. But during the past decade, some 80 per cent. of all British overseas investment, direct and portfolio, or so the estimates suggest, has gone outside Europe—about 40 per cent. to the United States and at least 20 per cent. to areas of the Commonwealth.
If one looks at the destination of our investment, some of which is recorded as going into Europe but which goes through the Netherlands and out again, the figures are even more striking. It could be—we have this figure in our report—that almost 30 per cent. of all our overseas investment is in the Commonwealth compared with about 13.9 per cent. in the EU. Those are our assets, our interests, and it is in our national interest to promote and strengthen those assets.
No one—I make this point clearly—or no one with a business or political nose or any sense of history is, I hope, arguing that Britain should disengage from Europe, although one hears the odd voice on those lines. Certainly, those figures do not lead to that conclusion. What they do is to cause us to question whether Europe, and western Europe in particular, is Britain's only interest, as some of our policies sometimes seem to suggest. National economic interest, in terms of looking after our assets and opening up new markets, now seems to pull us towards other regions as well.
It is arguable that Europe's sagging significance in the overall pattern of British business activity, or the relative reduction in its significance, is a reflection of the lower growth in Europe in recent years in contrast with the fact that there never was a recession in Asia; the growth simply continued right through the European and Atlantic recession years and produced an amazing recession-free performance.
But there are even longer-term influences at work than just those short-term movements in the business cycle. For instance, one of the brightest spots in Britain's strengthening economic relations in terms of capital flows, investment and expanded trade, visible and invisible, has been Australia. The media say that Australia is pulling away from the Commonwealth because it is thinking about a President rather than having Her Majesty the Queen as its Head of State—it has its reasons for that—but that has nothing to do with the reality.
The reality is that we are now closer to Australia, and to New Zealand as well—two of the world's most dynamic modem economies, not just dependent on agricultural products—than ever we were at the height of empire or in the days when the Commonwealth was called the British Commonwealth.
Another huge new market is emerging inside India. Admittedly, it is a vast area of high-income activity surrounded by a sea of poverty, but the numbers are gigantic. Another Commonwealth country that is becoming a major factor in the entire world economic system is Malaysia, despite our quarrels from time to time with that country's outspoken leader.
When I think about the G7 conference, which is just about to happen, it seems increasingly absurd that the emerging markets, as we call them, of three great countries, which will be heavyweights in the world economic order—India, China, which is obviously not in the Commonwealth, and Brazil, which is also not in the Commonwealth—are not included in the G7 summit. The days of the G7 summit complex may be coming to an end.
That is the background against which our report reaches its central and explicit conclusion that the Commonwealth is acquiring a new significance in a rapidly transforming world, and that British policy should bring that major change to the forefront of its thinking. Our report concluded that the Commonwealth of yesterday, still quite strong in British perceptions and in some quarters, has given way to something quite new and not yet fully appreciated.
In our report, we say that, far from being a "club" of countries all too ready to criticise and make demands on the former imperial power—that is us—the Commonwealth is rapidly metamorphosing into a network with quite different interests and ambitions. In particular, we pointed to the gigantic sub-governmental network of links that brings together the group of nations—there are now 53 of them—in a way that simply does not exist in any other corner of the earth. There are the regional blocs. We know all about Europe. There is the UN. We know all about that. But there is nothing to compare with this extraordinary network of intimacy that the Commonwealth today turns out to be.
In our inquiry, we encountered two disappointments. We were struck, first, by the rather cautious and downbeat initial memorandum from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Although it was very helpful and provided many papers, its initial memorandum was a bit faint, although we were happy to note that the evidence that Ministers subsequently gave the Committee sounded a much more positive note. Secondly, we were struck by the absolute disinterest and incomprehension about these matters in the daily newspapers. The so-called "heavies" seemed to have lost the capacity to handle and evaluate new concepts and ideas of this kind. They have squeezed out the wiser and more reflective writers in favour of the trivia masters and the superficial political commentators.
We were disappointed but not surprised that the British dailies paid no attention to the recent report. We were also pleased that—by strong contrast—some of the weeklies and the excellent BBC World Service understood the importance of what we were trying to say and supported strongly the thought that the Commonwealth matters increasingly. That was very welcome, but the report's conclusions lead us to more than mere thoughts. We recommended something much stronger: a whole new strategy to reinforce bilateral Commonwealth ties, to sustain the overall Commonwealth organisation and to deploy the advantages that Commonwealth membership gives us far more systematically, both in diplomatic endeavours and in the furtherance of Britain's worldwide commercial interests.
To anyone who suggested that we propose some great new bureaucratic layer in the Commonwealth, I would reply that that is not what we say at all in the report. We do not want to impose additional administrative structures on an international network, which has emerged of its own accord and which is emerging even further while we speak. In our view, the secretariat does a good job and makes a significant contribution, but we are talking about the bilateral ties and the need within our own national administration, and certainly within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for minds to be more focused than in the past on our Commonwealth role and the potential that it gives us—this is quite a cynical calculation—as a trading nation to develop our own interests.
In hard, practical terms, that means, as we recommend, greater readiness to speak up for the interests of our Commonwealth friends in the various forums of the world to which Britain belongs. We are a great "belonger" and club member. As Baroness Chalker, Minister for Overseas Development, reminded our Committee as a witness, we are the one country of the 15 in the Union that is also one of the 53, which gives us a leverage and a position that should be used more effectively.
Similarly, we expect our fellow Commonwealth members to speak up for us more effectively in the other great forums of the world that are increasingly significant in determining our future and prosperity—the Asia-Pacific economic forum structure and the Association of South-East Asian Nations. More focus also means giving renewed Government attention to the educational and cultural interchanges that used to characterise the Commonwealth and which must not be allowed to languish. In some instances, we were concerned that they were tending to languish. On the contrary, they should be fostered more energetically than ever.
In our report, we argue that that should apply particularly to instruments of promotion of Britain's interests and of diplomacy such as the BBC World Service, the British Council and the diplomatic wing of the Foreign Office itself. We are glad to note that—as a result, I hope, of some raising of voices in the Foreign Affairs Committee, and other pressures—the threat to the British Council's budget has been eased somewhat; but: it still seems that there has been a failure to convey to the policy makers just how much value and resource can be added to Britain's basic economic strength through the effective use of those agencies. As our report points out, at a time when they should be expanding, they are being cut back to a dismal extent.
According to evidence given to the Committee but not included in the report, the National Audit Office estimates that every pound spent by the diplomatic wing on reinforcing its posts in the emerging markets—including, as we discovered, many in Commonwealth countries—produces £80 in extra earnings for Britain. The Treasury's response has been to slice tens of millions of pounds off the diplomatic budget, and therefore billions off British overseas earnings and British potential. We are forced to conclude that any more of what the geniuses in the Treasury have called economies and savings will make life extremely expensive.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast,:
I recently visited Japan with the Select Committee on Health, where I had first-hand evidence of the role played by the British Council, along with the embassy, in promoting British interests. Unfortunately, we received the same message: that the Treasury did not fully appreciate the importance of the investment and the responsibilities involved. I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said about our role in the Commonwealth as a whole.
What the hon. Gentleman has said confirms our impressions, although, as I said, the pressures on the British Council's budget have been eased, as a result—I hope that this will not embarrass my right hon. Friend the Minister—of some doughty fighting in the Foreign Office for the modern interests of this country, and for updating people's out-of-date views about what really matters when it comes to protecting and promoting those interests. The new focus for which we have called means recognising, in shaping our industrial and trade policies, that the interests and opportunities for British business now lie as much in the emerging markets—many, as I have said, in Commonwealth countries—as in the European markets that are geographically nearer to home.
Although our Committee divided into small groups, it covered a good deal of ground throughout the planet, visiting Commonwealth countries. A comment that we heard repeatedly was that Britain's Commonwealth connections, and the integration in a global network of communications and friendships that goes with them, were the envy of our trading competitors. Those competitors cannot understand why we, the British, have not exploited them to greater advantage. Here we are, at the centre of a gigantic system of world communications in which either Mandarin Chinese or English is being learnt—those will be the only languages left that matter to the entire commercial planetary business—yet we do not seem to have realised the full potential that lies before us, and the full possibilities of what could be a glittering global asset: the Commonwealth network. That network is ready made and inherited—perhaps through luck rather than good judgment, but it is there for us to use.
Perhaps it was understandable that, for a few decades after the end of empire, there would be a period of trauma and uncomfortable adjustment, and that people would feel that perhaps the Commonwealth was all to do with a better yesterday. However, it should never be forgotten that the unwinding of the British empire was, for the most part, an amazingly peaceful and constructive affair, despite one or two tragedies.
That era is over and so is its successor phase of decolonisation. In the closing words of our report, we state:
A new global pattern opens out in which the competition to maintain, let alone advance, living standards will be more intense than ever.
That is especially true of countries in Europe, as we are. The report continues:
In this new situation the United Kingdom has both friends and opportunities.
Who are those friends? They turn out to be our old friends who are also our new friends. They should be embraced, so that the British interest can be promoted in a firm and friendly way and so that the network of the Commonwealth, which is one of the most remarkable developments of the modern age, can be used to the benefit of all who live in it and, indeed, of all mankind.
Our terms of reference in the study on the future role of the Commonwealth were extremely wide and included the implications for United Kingdom foreign policy. The study encompasses an enormous range of matters— economic, cultural, educational, parliamentary and political—and the unique web of relationships that we have. There are 53 countries, including ourselves, in the Commonwealth, amounting to one quarter of mankind. It is an enormous connection.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke effectively about our economic and trading relationships with the Commonwealth. They require—and will obtain—a new emphasis because, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, many of our Commonwealth partners are now engaged in the process of economic development, of a most spectacular kind in some cases. Malaysia has been mentioned. If, as we all hope, the Indian sub-continent, especially India itself, takes off, it will make a profound difference to the world economy. We have a strong interest in being part of that.
The right hon. Gentleman also very properly referred to our cultural and educational links with Commonwealth countries—which are of enormous benefit to us and, I hope, equally to them—in terms of our continuing understanding and our continuing influence on those who become part of the elite in the Commonwealth.
It is not possible to overemphasise the importance of the English language in the network of relationships. It is one of the two or three factors that continue to hold the Commonwealth together in a truly remarkable way. Whenever I visit the Indian sub-continent in particular—and this is almost 50 years after the ending of the Raj—I am able to converse in English not just with high officials, but with many people in quite humble spheres of life. That is impossible in any other part of the world except, increasingly, in the European Union, where English is becoming the lingua franca, if I can use that odd expression in this context. That is enormously helpful to us.
As the report is so wide ranging and as the right hon. Member for Guildford has spoken about trade, investment, cultural links, the World Service and the British Council, which play an important part, I shall concentrate on a subject of very great importance in our report, which reflects another of the major new developments in the Commonwealth.
Those who follow Commonwealth history will know that at the Harare Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 1991, the Commonwealth gave itself a new direction. It issued the following declaration:
We pledge the Commonwealth and our countries to work with renewed vigour, concentrating especially in the following areas: the protection and promotion of the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth; democracy, democratic processes and institutions which reflect national circumstances, the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, just and honest Government … human rights, including equal rights and opportunities for all citizens regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief.
That declaration was unanimous and in one sentence it committed the Commonwealth and its 50-odd member states to democratic government and human rights.
In the period between the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Harare and that in Auckland, New Zealand, a few months ago, important and beneficial changes have occurred in the Governments of many Commonwealth countries. Malawi at last got rid of Dr. Hastings Banda; Zambia ended its long experience of one-party, one-President rule, as did Tanzania; and important progress continues to be made in Uganda. Commonwealth election observers and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegations have been sent to a number of Commonwealth countries to witness general elections and report on their fairness or otherwise.
At this point, I pay tribute to the Commonwealth Secretariat. It is a small organisation, yet it is the Commonwealth's only continuing collective permanent organisation. It does a remarkably good job in sponsoring Commonwealth observer missions, advising on democratic practices in other Commonwealth countries as well as administering technical and aid programmes.
The House might be interested in the following figures, which I found shocking. In 1994–95, the total cost of the Commonwealth Secretariat—the Commonwealth's only continuing central organisation—including not only the secretariat, but the fund for technical co-operation, the science council and the youth programme, was £33 million. The British contribution was 30 per cent., or £10 million. The secretariat itself accounted for just under £9 million.
Perhaps I should remind the House that we pay a net contribution of £2,500 million a year for our membership of the European Union. We might reflect upon that figure in comparison with our ludicrously inadequate contribution to the Commonwealth organisation and the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Inevitably, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office distributes its resources similarly. We reported:
In numerical terms, out of a total of about 3,500 United Kingdom based staff, 87 staff within the FCO deal with Commonwealth issues, 80 in geographical and policy departments and seven in the Commonwealth Co-ordination Department.
That is not exactly a large investment of highly trained intellectual and diplomatic resources.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, when I raised with the Foreign Office and Baroness Chalker my worry about the fact that, as European institutions become ever larger in Africa, the British contribution becomes smaller, I was told that I should not worry because, of course, it is all very nice and polite, and on the departure of the British assistant head of delegation—I was particularly talking about Lesotho—there would be an extra appointment of an agricultural adviser, who would work from the EU offices? Is my right hon. Friend at one with me in not being absolutely convinced that that is quite the same thing?
My hon. Friend illustrates the minuscule resources that, in recent years at any rate, we have been prepared to deploy.
I have emphasised the Harare declaration and the commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights throughout Commonwealth countries. Last year, at the Heads of Government meeting in Auckland, the Commonwealth took major new steps to promote democracy and human rights, which were extremely significant and which have been quite inadequately reported.
First, the Commonwealth agreed to enhance the capacity of its secretariat to provide member Governments with advice, training and other forms of technical assistance in promoting the Commonwealth's fundamental political values, especially the democratic process and procedure. Such enhancement of the Commonwealth Secretariat implies a certain strengthening, an investment, in the Commonwealth Secretariat here in Marlborough house.
Secondly, and very importantly, where the CHOGM—as it was called in Auckland—perceived that a member country was
clearly in violation of the Harare declaration and particularly in the event of an unconstitutional overthrow of a democratically elected Government",
it committed itself to take measures to encourage the restoration of democracy. Those measures range from the public expression of collective disapproval to a number of bilateral and multilateral sanctions by other Commonwealth countries.
Among the measures, of course, is suspension of Commonwealth membership—public denial of the rights of a Commonwealth member that has infringed the Harare declaration to take part in and attend other Commonwealth meetings. If the offending Government persist in violating the principles of the Harare declaration for more than two years, I think that there is the threat of complete expulsion. That measure is important and I shall illustrate it in connection with Nigeria, which is feeling the heat of ostracism by the Commonwealth.
Thirdly, the New Zealand Heads of Government conference agreed to establish the so-called Millbrook Commonwealth action programme, which is a committee consisting of Foreign Ministers from eight Commonwealth countries—I think that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), may be our representative on it—plus the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, to provide an implementing mechanism. So, not content with public meetings and yearly or two-yearly condemnations, an on-going committee of pretty senior members of the Commonwealth was set up to look at the carrying out of any recommendations made by the Heads of Government, continuing the pressure on those who have fallen short of the Commonwealth's standards of democracy and human rights.
Three Commonwealth countries were selected at Auckland for particular attention: Sierra Leone, Gambia and Nigeria, whose military regime was suspended from membership. Considerable pressure has been put on the Nigerian Government since then, but I am sorry that, only two days ago, the threat of immediate Commonwealth sanctions was dropped because of disagreement—I think—among the Millbrook group. I should be grateful to hear more from the Minister of State when he replies to the debate. It was disappointing that immediate action was not taken, because Nigeria's response so far has been inadequate.
The sanction package agreed at Auckland includes a ban on weapon exports to Nigeria, visa restrictions on members of the regime and their families, an end to sporting links and the withdrawal of education facilities. I understand that Britain and other EU countries operate most of those sanctions against Nigeria, but their impact would be greatly reinforced if the Commonwealth as a whole agreed to collective action. Canada will go ahead in any case and impose sanctions, and New Zealand is expected to follow suit. It is good to know—and I should be grateful if the Minister confirmed this—that sanctions will be back on the agenda at the Foreign Ministers' meeting in September. If Nigeria has not made significant improvements in its human rights record and in its progress towards the restoration of democracy, I hope that sanctions will be imposed.
In our report, we urged the Government to take the lead in promoting democracy in the Commonwealth. We said that we would like to see a strengthening of the Harare declaration and, in particular, the specific recognition that real democracy entails the right to organise opposition parties and to remove existing Governments via a free and fair election. It would be helpful to have that on the record. With that in mind, I was disappointed that the Secretary of State's response to the report stated:
The Government is not persuaded that an attempt at this stage to amplify the Harare declaration, through incorporating more precise definitions of democracy, would be either acceptable to other Commonwealth governments or achievable.
I hope that that is only an interim response.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a real test of whether there is sustainable and substantial progress towards democracy—the existence of an opposition party—would be failed by a country such as Uganda? However, the current Government of that country are massively more credible and more democratic than their predecessors, and Uganda is clearly on the route to democracy, although without an opposition party.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the direction and pace of improvement away from non-democratic forms of government to properly democratic ones is important. It would be helpful to have a standard that could be accepted by all countries as to what it means to be a democracy and to safeguard human rights. Britain is hosting the next Heads of Government meeting in 1997 in Edinburgh, and I hope very much that we shall make the extension of democracy and human rights the very centrepiece of the meeting.
There are clear links between us in the Commonwealth. There are economic, trade and investment links, and there are the links that come from our shared historical experience. There are also educational and cultural links, as well as the link through the frequent use of the English language. If we could add to those links another common bond—that all of us subscribe to democracy in politics and to human rights—it would be an added reinforcement to all that the Commonwealth stands for and would help to link it together.
Many thanks, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me so early in the debate. I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), for selecting this topic for examination by his Committee. I congratulate him and all the members of his Committee on the success of the work that they have done on behalf, I believe, of the Commonwealth, not only of the United Kingdom in the Commonwealth.
My right hon. Friend's work has accompanied me on a number of voyages to different parts of the Commonwealth. It has become almost a standard work of definition for the Commonwealth because of its careful exploration of the various networks involved in it. As such, it will be a valuable work of reference for a number of years not just because it may point not only to how the United Kingdom sees the Commonwealth but how the Commonwealth sees itself. It is particularly valuable for that.
I shall restrain myself to two specific dimensions of the report. The first is the strength of affinity that I find when I visit the Commonwealth on parliamentary business. That strength of affinity makes me embarrassed or sometimes more than embarrassed at the lack of awareness of the Commonwealth in Britain. The report will be helpful in heightening that awareness.
The report refers to the need to sustain the Commonwealth Institute because for 100 and some years it has been the mechanism by which we have sought to increase awareness of the Commonwealth and its predecessors within our own country. The House will be aware of the traumas that the Commonwealth Institute has gone through in the past four years or thereabouts.
I welcome the commitment to the Commonwealth Institute in the Government's response, but I should like to see a stronger commitment. I should like the Government fairly and firmly to affirm their belief in the need to press our public to gain a better understanding of this unique organisation, which is so much part of the fabric of our life and of what we take for granted.
It is interesting to note that the undercurrents are there. We have recently said farewell to the Canadian high commissioner Royce Frith, who has returned to Canada. He had a unique success in Britain in arranging, possibly accidentally, for every fishing vessel to be bathed in the Canadian flag and still not upsetting his host Government. Underlying that was the unspoken reflection among our public that the Commonwealth was important to us, even though we take it for granted and do not really understand how it affects us.
I want to see the Commonwealth Institute enabled to do its work. I have to point out to the House at this time that I have a slight vested interest in that I am a governor of the institute. I see a former governor sitting across the House and I am certain that he shares my views. Let us do all that we can to increase awareness among our people, using whatever mechanism is possible and bearing in mind the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford when he introduced the report that because we do not fight one another we do not get much press coverage. There is an immense amount to be done in that respect.
The second aspect about which I wish to speak, is the reference which pops up throughout the report to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. With a United Kingdom hat on, I welcome the reaffirmation of Her Majesty's Government's continued support for the work of the association. It is important, without a doubt. Wearing the international chairman's hat that I am currently privileged to wear, I wish to say how important it is to all 134 branches of the CPA that Her Majesty's Government so strongly affirm the work of our association.
I was delighted that the Committee not only took evidence but explored it and reported so positively on the work of the CPA. As has been said, we were singled out in the Harare declaration as having the task of spreading the message of parliamentary democracy. Especially in the years since 1981—though before then as well—we have set out to discharge those obligations. We have enormously expanded the work that has been directed to that. We have increased the number of seminars that we run.
We responded in advance to the report's admonition to do more to encourage countries seeking to establish parliamentary democracy. I must mention the two missions that we sent to South Africa before 1994. The first, under my predecessor, in 1991 was helpful in creating awareness of the support that was available. It was reinforced by the mission that I led in November 1993 when the transitional constitution was being set up. It was useful in providing the reassurance that there was a great network of assistance waiting in the wings to help in any way possible. Immediately after the 1994 elections, the Commonwealth was delighted to receive South Africa back into membership.
We have run into difficulties in that the more that we have achieved, the more we have been asked to do. We are almost inundated with requests to do what we say that we can do. However, we are a small and lean organisation, not a rich one. We are led by our able secretary general, Arthur Donohue, the former Speaker of the provincial assembly of Nova Scotia. He has a team of 12 people over the road at Millbank. They work hard and effectively but they are increasingly stretched and the question of financial resources arises.
We are exploring ways to increase our gearing. We are halfway through a programme of parliamentary workshops for southern African parliamentarians. That is a new development that we have been exploring. It is a combined exercise between the CPA and the Overseas Development Administration, operating through its British development division in southern Africa. We have put together a programme of five workshops aimed at bringing into the net the new parliamentarians of South Africa and its provinces and putting them alongside the parliamentarians of the front-line countries. We are three down with two to play. Co-operation is working well with the BDDSA.
We have been working with the Commonwealth secretariat to develop programmes for training officials. That is another important dimension of the southern Africa exercise. While we as parliamentarians have been bending our minds to the development of the parliamentary skills of southern Africans, it is vital to provide the back-up of parliamentary clerk or secretaryship. It has been lacking for the want of means to build it up. The House has a distinct part to play in that, both through the CPA and through the House of Commons Overseas Office. We need to find more ways to act in cahoots with other governmental agencies to expand our work. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister would heed that. We need ministerial intervention to smooth the path and open doors to enable us to develop our activities.
I thank the Commonwealth parliamentarians who have participated in the parliamentary workshops. I have called in resource people from Malaysia, Mauritius, Singapore, the Bahamas, Grenada, Australia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Kenya. They have all dropped what they were doing and given me a week of their time in southern Africa to progress the work. I will call on a lot more people before I am finished. As the Commonwealth expands, as I believe it will continue to do because of its activities, it becomes increasingly important to sustain that network, which is dependent on the ability to communicate with one another.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) that the English language is vital. I recently visited Namibia and was delighted to find how much the English language has developed there. That means that it feels very much part of the Commonwealth. Mozambique is still weak in the English language and must be given all possible help to make its membership meaningful and relevant beyond the few. We must make certain that Cameroon is supported so that it, too, can become part of the family and can communicate without interpreters. Participation and direct conversation are important.
We must all lend a hand to new countries as they are embraced by the Commonwealth. I liken that process to the laying on of hands when a bishop is enthroned. We should all come together when new members join to give them our common strength so that they realise the strength and power of the organisation that they have joined and prosper from it accordingly.
It is a pleasure to follow the chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the hon. Member for Hereford (Sir C. Shepherd). I pay tribute to the work that he and his organisation do, which is of immense value around the world. I apologise to the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) who opened the debate. The debate came on early and I was trapped elsewhere on the premises, so I missed his speech. I congratulate him on the tone and constructive content of the Select Committee report. My party has no member on the Committee and so can claim no part in its authorship, but it is worth while.
I agree that the Commonwealth should not define its role too narrowly. It should be willing to be a little more adventurous in dealing with some of the trouble spots among its members. When Her Majesty the Queen opened the Auckland conference last year, she neatly summed up our feelings when she said that she wanted the Commonwealth to be
a significant force for good in a troubled word
When we consider some of the problems in the Commonwealth—such as in Kashmir and Sri Lanka and the disputed elections in Zanzibar—we see that there is plenty of scope for that force for good to use its influence.
Like others, I should like to refer to a number of developments in the Commonwealth. I agree with what the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) said about the situation in Nigeria, which has been a difficult test for the Commonwealth. Senior world statesmen like Pierre Trudeau, Malcolm Fraser, Helmut Schmidt and Sir Shridath Ramphal have all been taking a much harder line than the present member Governments of the Commonwealth. My Liberal colleagues in Canada are anxious to introduce a trade embargo now, without waiting for further developments. Those factors remind us that the secretariat is, by definition, limited in its scope. The Commonwealth is not an association of Parliaments or nations; it is an association of Governments—that limits its role and function. We therefore have to be sympathetic to the secretariat all the time as it has to deal with its own members.
I echo the sentiments of the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney and hope that the unit which is monitoring the progress, or lack of it, in Nigeria's return to true democracy, will be fierce in its activities. The trouble with unilateral trade sanctions, as have been taken by my friends in Canada, is that unless collective action is taken, one nation's trade embargo becomes another's business opportunity—that is a sad fact of life. I fear that the Government in Nigeria will simply laugh all the way to the next execution unless the Commonwealth takes concerted action in future to return Nigeria to the straight and narrow.
There are perhaps less obvious derogations from the demands for good governance in recent activities in other countries. In Zambia, the constitution has been amended in an artificial manner to rule out the possibility of ex-President Kenneth Kaunda standing again in the elections. That sort of constitutional manipulation should be condemned by all true believers in the Commonwealth principles. From discussions that I have had with political parties in Ghana, that country appears to be heading to elections conducted by an election commission that is not truly independent of the Government.
I agree with what the chairman of the CPA was saying; I think that our role in promoting democracy, which was highlighted in the report and the Government's reaction to the report, is perhaps the single most relevant issue for us to tackle. The right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney was one of the team in Bangladesh during the recent election. He will know that I was there just before the election as part of a team from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance—an excellent new international organisation. I only wish that Her Majesty's Government could find the pennies to join and support it instead of sitting on the sidelines. That team, which was there before the monitors arrived and before the election started, had a crucial role to play in ensuring that on two issues—I will not go into the details here—the election preparations were correct so that the monitors could survey the election process. So often in the past we have sent monitors to observe elections which are flawed before they start. In Bangladesh, that was avoided, partly thanks to the presence of the team from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
Although I am glad that Her Majesty is head of the Commonwealth, we in Britain should be careful that we do not say to other potential democracies that the Westminster model is automatically the ideal one—that is not necessarily so. It was interesting to find that in Bangladesh the people have resolved their problems by what I believe to be a unique mechanism. They created an interim Government, during whose office an election was held, presided over by the former Chief Justice. That is not something that one finds in the canons of Westminster or in any other constitution-making processes in the Commonwealth, but it is something that Bangladesh has evolved for itself and that has so far worked—touch wood.
Reference has been made to the disappearance of the Banda regime, with all its human rights atrocities, in Malawi. That was achieved through a procedure that was not particularly approved of, either here or by the Commonwealth. It was achieved through a referendum on whether there should be multi-party democracy. We always believed that it was obvious that there should be, so we saw no reason for a referendum, but it provided the mechanism in the particular circumstances in Malawi; it was successful and got the Government off the hook. People voted in large numbers. It led to an election and to the victory of President Muluzi, whose first action was to shut the appalling prisons in which people such as Orton Chirwa had died— I commend the President for that.
We should not be too high-minded and believe that we in this Chamber have all the solutions that we can export to other countries, which can devise their own solutions to resolve their difficulties. As others have said, the key is that countries should be seen to be moving in the right direction. As today's report shows, Gambia and Sierra Leone are perhaps moving in the right direction and—as the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said—Uganda obviously is, but they have not reached the standards of multi-party democracy that we would wish to see.
As we are talking about countries moving in the right direction, I should like to bring to the attention of the House the fact that one of the Commonwealth countries with which we have the closest connections, Kenya, appears to be moving in the wrong direction. I visited Kenya with the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) a few months ago—indeed, I am a regular visitor to the country of my former residence. It is worrying that, after the elections in 1992, instead of progressing towards the development of multi-party democracy, Kenya has regressed.
I agree with those who have said that we should be looking towards a series of standards by which we can judge whether countries are moving forwards or backwards. If we were to do so, there should be five criteria on which to judge whether or not a country is an acceptable democracy.
The first criterion is whether the electoral commission is independent. It is self-evident that if the electoral commission is simply a body appointed by a Government and, as in Kenya, draws up constituencies to suit the convenience of the Government party, the election is flawed before it starts. The second principle involves the freedom of political parties and the rights of assembly. It is intolerable that, in Kenya, even Members of Parliament are required to have a licence before they can hold a public meeting. The third obvious standard for democracy is that the judiciary should be independent, which is not the case in Kenya. If the judiciary can be lent on, or can be appointed or dismissed at the Government's will, the last resort of appeal, which is essential in electoral matters, does not exist.
The fourth, perhaps obvious, principle is the transparency and accountability of Government, without which corruption can thrive and, as in the case of Kenya's most recent election, public funds can be used to help fund the election campaign of the ruling party. Accountability and transparency are essential. The fifth criterion is the freedom of the press and freedom of access, particularly to the broadcasting media.
If we establish criteria along those lines, which are pretty general and unspecific, we can measure whether people score five out of five, one out of five or, as in Kenya's case, nought out of five. What shall we do as the Kenyan elections approach—presumably they will be held next year? Do we say that it has a multi-party system with a series of, admittedly, chaotic and divided opposition parties? Will Kenya go through the process of a multi-party election? Shall we send Commonwealth observers and other observers to an election which I believe is fatally flawed? I hope not: we must dig in our heels and warn well in advance that the country is not moving towards the sort of multi-party democracy that is acceptable by international standards, so it cannot expect a rubber-stamp endorsement or mechanisms to be brought into play to ensure that people are putting the right bits of paper in the right ballot boxes. I feel strongly about that subject, but I am sorry to have taken so much of the House's time on it.
The Foreign Affairs Select Committee report rightly refers to the BBC World Service as the spearhead of policy and the Committee found the official approach to the World Service, and the British Council, frankly incredible. Since the report came out, we have heard about the proposed reorganisation of the BBC. I wish to express strong anxieties about the fact that the BBC overseas radio service will come under BBC radio generally, which in turn will come under television generally. The distinctive service from Bush house will simply be enveloped in the great bureaucracy of the BBC. That will be highly dangerous because the role and influence of the World Service will be diminished.
Commonwealth countries account for more than 60 per cent. of the World Service's global audience. That is 89 million listeners. I shall give some examples of the audience size for foreign language broadcasts: for Hindi, the audience size is 20.4 million; for Urdu, 19.8 million; and for Hausa, 12.1 million. By countries, the audience penetration across the language barrier is also high: in Kenya, the audience is 38.3 per cent.; in Nigeria, 37.5 per cent.; and in Pakistan, 21.9 per cent. By any standards, the World Service is a powerful influence for good in the world and it is absurd that we allow new management arrangements in the BBC to threaten its independence and effectiveness. I hope that the Government will have something to say on the matter.
We have not had a debate on Hong Kong for some time and it is a very important Commonwealth country. Hong Kong, as distinct from its larger neighbour, believes in the rule of law, the accountability of Government and the freedom from corruption of officials that so bedevils China. I wish to make a specific criticism of the Government. Earlier this year, the Chinese Government appointed the committee that will oversee the transition. We all knew that the Chinese Government were opposed to the democratic Legislative Council, but they left off that committee any member of the Democratic party, which was clearly the most successful party in the internal Hong Kong elections. Our Foreign Secretary, when asked about that, said that it was "a pity". A pity? It is an outrage that that was allowed to happen.
We will not get anywhere with the mainland Government of China if we take such a weak stance towards them. The Government of China believe that they are being strong by behaving in that way. I take the opposite view because they are a weak Government, as demonstrated by their threats of censorship of the media and their unwillingness to recognise the democratic forces that have existed in the colony. If the Chinese Government really believe in the "one country, two systems" that they have signed up to, they should not be planning—as they are—to subjugate Hong Kong to the standards that exist in mainland China.
The Government should learn the lesson of the situation in Hong Kong. Only last week or the week before, the Chinese Government warned the Americans that if they did not "cool down"—to use the Chinese Government's phrase—on the whole trade and copyright issue, the Chinese might transfer more of their trade to Europe and away from America. That is an example of how we could all be picked off one by one. Whether we are dealing with Nigeria's internal problems or with China and Hong Kong, there is no substitute for a global stance and the Commonwealth has an important part to play in that.
It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate because we are discussing something that we all care about, as has been shown by every speech so far. I remind my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) that, in preparing its report, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee was careful to avoid a conflict between our membership of the European Union and the value of the Commonwealth. Of course, it was a pleasure to work with my right hon. Friend, who adds so much to the wisdom of the Committee.
I have been a member of the Select Committee for a long time and the report before us today is one of the most satisfying with which I have been involved. We tend to consider current problems—for example, the Bosnian situation—but we also take a long view and look to the future, which leads to our most fascinating and valuable work. I hope that this report will be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Sir C. Shepherd) suggested, a seminal report that will give all the member countries of the Commonwealth a chance to rethink their positions in it and how best we can develop it in the next century.
We noticed on our travels that some countries have not thought about the future of the Commonwealth. They accept its existence, like a comfortable old slipper, but they have not thought what will happen if the situation changes. The fact that we provoked consideration of the Commonwealth's future was valuable in every country that we visited. Perhaps the most lukewarm response that I heard came from ex-Prime Minister Seaga of Jamaica, who analytically and coolly said that we could not invent the Commonwealth today, but that he was convinced from his experience as Prime Minister of Jamaica that we are better off with it than without it. That was the coolest expression of support for the Commonwealth; the rest were much more enthusiastic.
One of the report's major suggestions is that, in our changing world, it would be valuable for trade Ministers to meet regularly. We recognise that most Commonwealth countries are in different trading regions and that we have the World Trade Organisation, but we felt that it would be advantageous for trade Ministers to meet, in the spirit of the Commonwealth, to discuss various problems and how to develop an intelligent global trading system. The Government's response to our report stated that the last meeting was in 1960, which was a long time before most of the trade organisations started. Perhaps we should organise an ad-hoc meeting of trade Ministers in Edinburgh in 1997 as a preliminary to a more permanent arrangement.
The finance Ministers' meeting has been incredibly valuable. The new finance Minister in South Africa told me that I would not believe how reassuring he found it to attend the meeting and receive immediate warmth and help from his colleagues. That gave him the confidence to take on his difficult role. The meeting of finance Ministers has been used to deal with the problem of debt relief, which is close to many of the hearts of hon. Members present in the Chamber. Debt relief will be one of the big issues to be considered at the Group of Seven meeting in Lyon this week, and we have constantly pressed for action on debt relief because of our experience in the Commonwealth. We raised the issue at least twice at the Commonwealth finance Ministers' meeting.
As parliamentarians, we know the great value of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, but more than 200 other organisations include the word "Commonwealth" in their titles. For many reasons, including professional and technical commitment, people join across the Commonwealth and provide enormous help and assistance to each another. For example, there is a Commonwealth Dental Association, and the assistant to the Prime Minister of Jamaica was pleased to tell me that she is a member of the Commonwealth Planning Association. I suspect that most of us do not know about even a fraction of the organisations that exist and carry the Commonwealth forward. We should pay tribute to the people who, through thick and thin, retain a commitment to, and an interest in, the Commonwealth. I hope that they have been encouraged by the Committee's report.
However, not everything is fine in the Commonwealth. I refer to concerns in relation to education. Many of the leaders of Commonwealth countries have been educated in the United Kingdom, and they value that education. The President of India told me that there are two sorts of people in the world: those who have been educated at Cambridge and those who have not. Obviously, he was educated at Cambridge; I am one of the ones who was not.
Many Commonwealth leaders regret the fact that, partly because of the cost and partly because of the changing system, their children and grandchildren do not have that opportunity. Many people come to the United Kingdom for their education, providing us with one of our main sources of earnings. I believe that we must carefully consider the availability of education in Britain for the future leaders of Commonwealth countries, particularly for those of the poorer countries.
Cultural colonisation is affecting the Commonwealth. The United States of America produces a tremendous number of television programmes and sells them cheaply throughout the world—its programmes are broadcast 24 hours a day. I have witnessed the effect that this has had on my children and on my grandchildren. It is not all harmful, but it orientates them in a different direction.
People in the Caribbean have a diet of American television. Youngsters on the islands now play basketball and baseball instead of cricket. When I first visited the Caribbean, people played cricket on every corner with an old cabbage and a stick, and we have seen the results when they have played us in test matches.
Younger people in the Commonwealth do not have an appreciation of it and do not understand it. We cannot blame them for that; they see very little about the Commonwealth. For example, the Commonwealth games—the friendly games—cannot be shown in the Caribbean because it is not broadcast by American television and it is of no general interest to the American television audience. We have to be wary of this cultural colonisation; we must ensure a balance.
The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) read out figures that show that 38.3 per cent. of Kenyans listen to the BBC World Service, which is a good counter to any control that the Kenyan Government might have on their domestic publications. Unfortunately, we do not assess the value of what we spend, in terms of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or of these important institutions. We must support organisations that maintain our cultural link.
During the course of the Committee's careful research, we visited Africa—we visited all the regions of the Commonwealth. People in Africa have many ideas about the future of the Commonwealth. They are in the process of changing their economies and they trust any official or person who is sent to them by the Commonwealth to give them honest and cogent advice. They are, however, a little more wary of other multilateral organisations, which although they may have marvellous curriculum vitaes perhaps do not understand them quite so well and therefore do not know how to begin to help with such changes.
The former Members of Parliament, clerks and others in Uganda feel deprived because their country is not currently a member of the CPA. We rightly did not let Uganda join because it did not fulfil the conditions. In Uganda, we had an open debate about the future of the Commonwealth, about Uganda's desire to rejoin the Commonwealth and about the support on which it relies from the Commonwealth.
A number of hon. Members have referred to South Africa. One of the most moving things that we saw in Soweto was a Commonwealth police team—not just a British team—training new recruits to the community police. The team comprised a female police inspector from India, people from Zimbabwe and British police men. They were working together to help to change the military police—with military ranks—to community police. The population realised that straight away. When they were brought into a police station, they would say, "Can that lady over there in the light blue uniform deal with me, rather than the people in the other uniform? I know that she is one of the new community police".
In one sense, South Africa has been the source of the problems of the Commonwealth. During the height of the difficulties, I remember us debating the issue and saying that the Commonwealth represented so much more than just the problems of South Africa—that there were so many links to the Commonwealth. Happily, we have got over that issue. South Africa has reaped a harvest of assistance from other Commonwealth countries in facing up to its problems. One recognises the value of the Commonwealth, and its value to its members.
I believe that the Government's response to the Committee's report, which I have not had time to analyse in detail, is not the last word but the first step in the continuing dialogue between the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the House and the Government to ensure that we recognise the value of the Commonwealth and that we give it the resources that it needs to do the job adequately. I hope that once we have had a chance to read the carefully crafted words of the Government we will be able to have another debate.
I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), who led the Committee so well, that this is a valuable report. I suspect that it will be talked about and used for a long time to come.
The report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is very good. I am not a member of the Committee. I have been struck by the vigour of the ideas and by the thoughtful work of the Committee, on which I congratulate its members. The report will refocus the attitude of Parliament, and a lot of other Parliaments, on the real role of the Commonwealth. I shall not reiterate the important points that hon. Members have already made because we all agree with them.
I shall, however, highlight some of the matters that I think are essential. On several occasions, I have been chosen by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to monitor election procedures, such as in Malawi, or to take part in seminars on parliamentary procedure, such as in Kenya. Hon. Members do not realise the tremendous work that the CPA does at every level—week in week out, day in day out. With astonishingly little money, it produces fantastically good results.
For example, in Malawi I saw how an enormous sum provided by the United Nations was not producing the same efficiency or response as the work of the multinational CPA team, which comprised parliamentarians able to deal with the day-to-day problems of the elections and to respond to the real needs of local people, who had not had an election for many years. Local people desperately needed to know that they were doing the right things. The Commonwealth Secretariat proved what could be done by people who know what they are doing and who are determined to provide constructive assistance. If we handed the monitoring of elections in Commonwealth countries to the Commonwealth Secretariat and gave it a proper budget and the right back-up in terms of people and facilities we could solve many of the problems in states that desperately want to return to a democratic system of government. The Foreign Office should take that issue on board, as it is not addressing it at present.
Hon. Members who have spoken have been so polite that I hesitate to be my normal self, but I believe that the Foreign Office is frightfully mealy mouthed about the Commonwealth. It says, "Yes, we think it is a good idea", but it is so preoccupied with supinely following the European institutions that it does not put enough money or energy into supporting the Commonwealth. I am particularly concerned about the movement of British diplomats from sub-Saharan Africa. Those officers perform an enormously important function and provide specialist knowledge and support. Britain should not take two or three steps back simply because of the emergence of the new South Africa and because of the changing roles in the region and say, "Someone else can fulfil our role". That approach is not only wrong but wrong headed.
For example, when I returned from a visit to Lesotho I sought a meeting with Baroness Chalker. I was concerned that the movement of Foreign Office officials around sub-Saharan Africa was apparently producing different emphases within the existing approach. I was worried too about the growth—the excrescence—in the number of
large European Community embassies in African countries, which appears to cut across the Commonwealth's role. One does not want to be paranoid, but one begins to wonder what is going on when one is confronted with large buildings staffed with European officials who operate on budgets that are three or four times larger than the budget of the British in those areas and who appear to be doing their own thing without consultation.
Baroness Chalker accepted that my concerns were perfectly legitimate and she undertook to consult about whether there was proper co-operation between the European Community and the British and the staff on the ground. She responded to my concerns in a letter to which I referred when I rather rudely interrupted my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore). She said, in effect, "Don't worry about it. Everything is all right. They are all frightfully polite to us in the EC. Anyway, when we move people from our commission offices we send someone to the EC establishments to act as an adviser and that makes it all right". That is a load of nonsense.
The Commonwealth promotes relationships among equals. That is what pleases me enormously about the Commonwealth: we no longer talk in a passé manner about how we can hand on our best British traditions. The Commonwealth is creating its own traditions within the framework of a democratic system that originated here and which we had the privilege and the ability to develop in fits and starts over many hundreds of years. The Commonwealth is using that framework to create democratic systems that contribute to development and stability in countries not only in Africa but throughout the world. That is very precious: we should be proud of our place in the scheme of things.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is not the only organisation that performs noble work. It does a fantastic job and I pay tribute to the tiny number of staff who work flat out and perform important tasks every day of the week. I pay tribute to other organisations within the Westminster system that we do not always think about. The Clerks have their own association and they constantly exchange information and develop relationships that are important to emerging Parliaments, which seek contact not only with elected representatives but with those who can provide independent advice. The Speaker and her deputies play an important role in exchanging information with other Speakers and presiding officers from Commonwealth Parliaments. The exchange of support and experience is essential.
I hope that those functions will be valued more in the future. It is not simply a matter of coming to the Chamber and saying, "Oh yes, we think it is a very good idea". We must put some money, effort and, above all, some muscle into it. We should say, "We have a chance for a new start—let's get on and do something positive for a change". The report highlights some positive ways forward and, in that sense, it is very encouraging.
Against that, one must set the Government's attitude to the BBC World Service and the British Council. The Government seem to regard the British Council simply as an organisation that makes money out of teaching English. The teaching of English is a tremendously important task, but it serves the equally important function of giving people access to books and papers and to a different culture. It seems strange to talk about our daily newspapers in the context of British culture, but we do have brilliant writers and artists and we should make our culture accessible.
I have seen medical students and doctors in Commonwealth countries rushing to read the British Medical Journal and The Lancet with an energy and a commitment that is not always evident among British doctors. We have much to contribute at every level and in every profession and we should value that role.
I am deeply concerned about what is happening to the BBC World Service—it would be quite wrong not to raise that issue. The World Service does not simply broadcast news and current affairs around the world, although it performs that role very well, but holds competitions for playwrights, such as the one run by the African service that produced some remarkable writing from new African playwrights. We should build on those achievements and not allow them to die. The BBC World Service produces many special and individual programmes that will be lost to listeners if decisions about its future are made by the large British domestic administration.
I am second to none in my admiration for the BBC, but the domestic BBC plays a different role from the BBC World Service. If it is left to a strange commissioning process within the BBC, we shall lose the quality programming that makes the World Service unique. It is no accident that many people in Britain prefer to listen to the BBC World Service—although it is not targeted at that audience—because of the quality and the breadth of its programmes. The BBC World Service realises that there is a world beyond the tabloids, and its journalists and reporters are prepared to write and to broadcast programmes that are so fundamental that I am horrified at any suggestion that the reorganisation will change the way in which the service operates. That could only damage the service. I hope that an incoming Government will change that state of affairs quickly by applying considerable pressure to the governors and the administration of the BBC.
In one of her more enlightened moods, Madam Speaker asked me to take over her responsibility for a little organisation called the Commonwealth Countries League. It is a tiny charity that uses all its money to support, throughout the Commonwealth, girls who need help to go to secondary school or even university. Some of the stories about the children involved are very moving.
There was, for instance, a case of identical twins whose parents could not afford to send both of them to school, so they were having to take turns—one week on, one week off—going to school. We were asked for a tiny sum to give them the chance of an education. The league consists of a small group of dedicated women who, entirely by their own efforts and by running a huge fair once a year, support many girls in this way throughout the Commonwealth. Of course it is just a tiny drop in the ocean of education problems facing sub-Saharan Africa— I do not want to mislead the House about that—but the vital work goes on because of the commitment of these women. They come in every colour, shape and hip measurement, and they are of varying educational backgrounds; but they come together to do their best to raise cash for girls throughout the Commonwealth—a practical demonstration of what the Commonwealth is all about.
The Commonwealth is an equal partnership of people who do not necessarily share a religious or domestic background or even the same political ideas. Still, they believe that this strange gossamer-like organisation, which has grown out of an imperial past into a strong and worthy body, needs our support, now and for the future. They look to every elected Member of this House to understand the importance of the organisation and to commit themselves to it from now on.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) and his colleagues on the Select Committee on producing the most positive report on the Commonwealth to have emanated from Government and parliamentary sources in a very long time.
I must declare an interest of a sort: I worked for the Commonwealth Secretariat for six years and had the privilege of serving as a member of the board of the Commonwealth Development Corporation for four. I have experienced the contrast between the Commonwealth and the United Nations, whose secretariat I have also worked for. There is a great difference between the large bureaucracy of the United Nations and the tiny secretariat that supports the Commonwealth. Ministers go to the United Nations and talk at the assembled company; they deliver their speeches, attend a dinner and then go away. But when Ministers go to Commonwealth meetings and Members of Parliament come to CPA meetings, they talk to each other. I agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester), who talked about the importance of ad hoc meetings. I know of one clear example of their importance.
I was privileged to service the Foreign Ministers' ad hoc committee that considered Belize. It met in New York while the UN General Assembly was in session and it played a key role in bringing Belize through the process of independence, against the background of a hostile neighbour state which was threatening Belize but which was eventually prevailed on to allow its independence to take place. Peer pressure from within the region was the cause.
A great deal can be achieved in small, informal meetings. I have sat in on three Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings, with the task of helping to formulate the resulting communiqués. I noticed that new Heads of Government often arrive with cynical views of the Commonwealth. I think in particular of one Head of Government who went on to be a distinguished chairman of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Malaysia—a complete convert to the Commonwealth family.
The reason for this is simple: it is that, at these meetings, Heads of Government talk to each other. The meetings are held in private rooms where politicians' utterances are not being recorded for the press or the outside world, so they can speak freely.
When historians come to look at the Commonwealth, as they so often do, it will be seen that an outstanding example of its role and work was the transition to an independent Zimbabwe. There may be differences of opinion about what happened, but it is certain that without the Lusaka agreement—between the Heads of Government who were meeting in Lusaka—there would have been no Lancaster House conference. It was because Baroness Thatcher, President Kaunda and the leaders of the Commonwealth were able to sit down together to achieve progress that agreement was reached.
What is more, the process snowballed. Namibia's independence, although a UN exercise, was another link in the process and the Commonwealth played an important role in it. The same applied to the process of South Africa's independence. I have not forgotten the surprise expressed by the current Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, at his reception by President de Klerk on his first visit. He had been warned that the Commonwealth was not popular in South Africa and that his meeting was likely to be short and terse. It proved not to be. They talked for a long time and held a second meeting which helped to break the ice and change the attitude of the then South African Government to the Commonwealth. That in turn was important to the process of transition that followed.
The British Government in their dealings with what some call the new Commonwealth have not always in the past acted as initiators, because of a view that the process of decolonisation was still under way and that it might not be a good idea for Britain to be seen as the dominating partner in the Commonwealth. Times have now changed, however, and there is plenty of scope for Britain to take the initiative in the Commonwealth family. That is one of the key messages of the Select Committee's report.
We should note how the attitude of many Commonwealth member countries to economic policy has changed. No longer do we hear the language of state socialism; no longer is the parastatal concept dominant. Instead, the private sector is now at the heart of these economies, with an important role to play. That is why the Commonwealth private investment initiative is likely to be so significant. I hope that we will offer it strong backing, just as I hope that the CDC will be allowed an expanded role in helping the emerging economies of many Commonwealth states to link up with global business.
I have visited some of the CDC's projects and seen the success of its equity participation in many of them. I have also seen the enthusiasm of the local investors. If we put our minds to it, we and the other more developed member countries can build on that success.
As has been emphasised in the debate, we have a common language. Nor should we underestimate our common systems. We have a common system of government. Bureaucracies operate in different ways but they have come from the same antecedent. A host of Commonwealth organisations, some governmental and many non-governmental, meet in a variety of expert fields which service themselves with only tiny amounts of money. That produces an enormously strong interchange of ideas.
That has great value in diplomacy. That was one of the earliest lessons that I learnt as a junior official at the United Nations. When I worked in the Secretary General's office I had to get to know ambassadors at the highest level. The quickest way to get on first name terms with a Commonwealth ambassador was the link of education. It may be obvious, but from the moment that it was established that one had gone to Middle Temple and the other to Gray's Inn, both are friends. That happened at ministerial level too, whether it was two Ministers who had gone to the London School of Economics or shared the same university. It was a bond to be struck immediately through which business could be effectively transacted and agreement reached.
We must not neglect in our diplomacy the importance of such links in helping to break down barriers in negotiations such as those on the general agreement on tariffs and trade because we span so many regional organisations. In the Commonwealth we do not attempt to dictate, but to converse; we attempt to discover what mechanisms might lead to the removal of blockages to a successful negotiation.
Yesterday I listened to a brilliant and wonderful speech by His Royal Highness Prince Hassan El Bin Talal, the Crown Prince of Jordan. He does not represent a Commonwealth country, but he was saying things that were pertinent and relevant to what we have been talking about this afternoon. He spoke about the cultural and religious differences in the world which come out of great historic tradition. The only chance that we have of defeating the extremists is by understanding each other. In those great religious and cultural traditions, there is a strong centre of moderation and common sense. I mention that because the Commonwealth crosses religious divides, just as it crosses cultural divides, which is enormously important to its members' ability to understand one another.
Britain needs to make better use of this wonderful asset that it has at its disposal. We have that opportunity when it comes to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh in 1999. We have heard how small is the budget of the Commonwealth Secretariat, as is the budget of the Commonwealth. But within the Commonwealth family, small amounts of money go a long way, provided that they support sensible and constructive initiatives that are free from the burgeoning bureaucracy that we see so often in the large family of UN specialised agencies.
The finance initiative to which I have referred is just one example of what could be achieved, but there have been many initiatives in health, education, trade and industry. We need to pick up those opportunities and develop them at Edinburgh. I am sure that we shall be able to do so in a constructive manner. In doing so, we shall win and continue to win the good will of our Commonwealth partners, who are so important to the success of our diplomacy across the globe.
The Select Committee's inquiry changed my perception of the Commonwealth, not because I do not have any Commonwealth connections—I do. For the greater part of 30 years I have had connections of one kind or another with Caribbean or African political contacts and colleagues. As the hon. Member for Hereford (Sir C. Shepherd) said, I was a governor of the Commonwealth Institute, and I underline and reiterate what he said. It would be an act of vandalism if the Commonwealth Institute closed. That would send a catastrophic signal, so I hope that common sense will prevail.
In some ways, despite all those contacts, I had become part of the defensive mentality about the Commonwealth. Speaking about the Commonwealth made one feel old, as if it was no longer relevant to the current generation of young people either within Britain or the Commonwealth.
As our Chairman expressed so forcefully with regard to economic and commercial matters, as we went around I was struck by the enormous potential of the Commonwealth network. We had not appreciated how much more political, economic, commercial, cultural and social traffic it could take.
The energies that we have consumed in trying to resolve our relationship with the EU have in some respects diverted our attention from the wider role that Britain can and should play, certainly in the Commonwealth. The C in FCO—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—has been very much a Cinderella in recent years. I hope that the Committee's report will mean that some of those in the Department will attach greater importance to our relationships with and the potential of the Commonwealth.
The most stunning and vivid part of our inquiry was our visit to the Indian sub-continent, where I had never been before, and, in particular, to Bangladesh. I had a completely false image of a country in total destitution. But I was astonished by the vibrancy and energy of the emerging early modern capitalism that is evident on the river banks in Dhaka which will lead to considerable economic and commercial development in the Indian sub-continent.
I felt that I was witnessing, in a completely different environment, the emerging capitalism of my constituency 150 years ago. We talk a lot about the development of democratic political institutions. There is another reason why it is extremely important that political and economic democratic institutions should take root in many of the emerging Commonwealth countries. Democratic political representation has been the means by which capitalism has been civilised. The past 150 years in my constituency have seen the process by which electorates grow in franchise, grow in political pressure, as expressed through political representation, and have progressively tried to civilise capitalism.
If there is to be, as everyone now preaches, a free market, and a capitalistic view of the development of Africa and Asia—I support entirely the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which plays an important role—there will also be huge inequalities. The lack of development in so many parts of Africa and Asia at the moment could be transformed into considerable economic and commercial growth, but with huge divisions in their societies as a result of the inequalities that go with such a system. The countervailing force to check that unbridled capitalism will be the development of political and democratic institutions. That is the function that political representation has played in the development of the full-blooded democratic system in this country in the past 150 years. It will have to play that role in the emerging countries of the Commonwealth if the economic growth that is promoted by free-market ideas and private investment occurs. Political institutional development will be an important factor alongside any economic development that might be created by know-how funds and the valuable role that the CDC and others will play in growing economies within the Commonwealth.
I now come to the chapter in our report that deals with the cultural diplomacy of the Commonwealth. We forget—perhaps because we have taken it for granted for far too long—the fantastic appetite of the young generation in the third world, but particularly the Commonwealth, for education. Anyone who spends just half an hour in the British Council library will see queues of young people—and not so young people—waiting to use the facilities, the telephone calls that pour in for language lessons, and the demand to take exams. I was told by my parents, in Treorchy, in the Rhondda—I could not have been long out of the womb—to do my homework, because that was the way to get out of the pile and to progress. We can find that fantastic instinct everywhere, but particularly in the Indian sub-continent. It is through the English language and British institutions that new generations of young people seek their salvation and their emancipation.
Education is an act of emancipation. It strikes me as appalling that we are, in 1996, a rich and powerful country, yet we are cheese paring on such things as Commonwealth scholarships, the British Council's budget and the BBC World Service. Perhaps in the usual convoluted discussions of the Public Expenditure Survey Committee those cuts can be justified, but I ask the Minister to take the message to Ministers, particularly his Treasury colleagues, that the cumulative effect of those cuts is that people feel that we do not care. I understand that Ministers care—Baroness Chalker has a tremendous track record on this, so it would be wrong to make such an allegation—but the cumulative effect of individual decisions made in a PESC round, perhaps to give a tax cut here or offer some alternative there, impact on emerging countries, whose younger generation look to Britain to provide and service their educational emancipation.
The hon. Member for Somerset and Frome (Mr. Robinson) spoke about the political chemistry that occurs as a result of educational contact, because of a common language and shared values. That was certainly true in the years that I spent in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, when I dealt mainly with Commonwealth countries.
There is much cross-party support on this issue. I make a plea to the Government to think again about the cumulative impact that the various cuts and changes have on our relationships with people as well as Governments. The cuts are damaging the whole concept. I hope that, if nothing else, our report has shown us all that the Commonwealth is not some nice, sentimental, ancient concept, but that it has a future and that it can go into the 21st century, as long as the British Government, British people and British Members of Parliament support it in the practical and sensible ways that we suggest in our report.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) and other hon. Members, on both sides of the House, who have spoken. I was sitting in my office in Millbank when I saw the debate on the monitor, and I felt very strongly that I wanted to be here to participate rather than just observing it at a distance by satellite.
One thing that is characteristic of the debate and the people who participate in it is the deep sense of commitment to something which, as the report shows, is of immense importance, not only in terms of our history but in terms of the future of the emerging world and global markets. It binds together hon. Members in a way that other things do not. I believe very strongly that the report should be read by as many people as possible. I pay tribute to the Minister, and, indeed, to Baroness Chalker, for the tremendous work that they have done in relation to the Commonwealth. It is fair to say that the latter has dedicated the greater part of her political career to an interest in those matters.
I also pay tribute, although he is not here at the moment, to the Chairman of the Select Committee, who has produced a highly original report. Every member of the Committee deserves congratulations on having gone straight to the heart of an enormously important question about the future of so many different countries, which have cultural, political and language ties, and with an enormous commitment to those who can teach us a great deal but who at the same time frequently need our help.
I listened this morning to a report about the problems of the increasing desertification of Africa. There is a massive ecological problem there, and people are bound to starve on a massive scale unless others who are in a position to help them get together and do something about it. It is those thoughts and the broader—if I dare use the words— moral objective that lie at the heart of my interest in a reduction of debt.
As some hon. Members will be aware, there is a motion on the Order Paper in my name with more than 300 signatures, seeking the reduction of debt, which is a terrible burden, and much of it was accumulated not through any fault on the part of the countries concerned, but primarily because the change in the nature of government in some cases led to massive civil war. I am thinking in particular of Uganda, which, as many hon. Members have said, has gone through that period of transformation in a highly satisfactory direction and yet had such accumulated problems that, were it not for the President who has just been elected, it simply would not have been able to achieve what it has achieved.
When we think about the civil wars that are conducted on the Floor of the House and in other contexts, we should bear in mind the fact that President Museveni went into the bush to defeat a dictator who was in charge of a regime that committed appalling atrocities—with, I believe, 26 men and 26 rifles. He went into the Lowero triangle, and managed to turn his country around. We have always associated such political heroism with our own country, but it can be seen elsewhere.
We should pay attention to the concluding observations in chapter X of the report:
We have heard … in our inquiry, and we do not tire of repeating … that Britain's Commonwealth connections, and the integration in a global network of communications and friendships which go with them, are the envy of our trading competitors. Surprise is expressed that this country has not utilised them to greater advantage.
A number of hon. Members referred to the personal relationships, and to the bond that exists. In my final remarks, let me try to demonstrate my commitment to the enterprise. We are talking about our future, and the future of other Commonwealth countries. We are talking about a major factor in the development of the global networks—not just about trading opportunities, or whether we should insist on improvements in human rights in return for trading advantage. There is an enormous opportunity for this country to participate in a growing and vibrant network, which I believe we should continue to stimulate and encourage.
I congratulate the Select Committee on its report, and, in anticipation of my right hon. Friend the Minister's speech, urge the Government to continue their good work. I also congratulate the Commonwealth itself on the way in which it has developed over the past 20-odd years.
I join the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) in paying tribute to the Chairman and distinguished members of the Select Committee, who have produced an excellent report. I have spoken to a number of old Commonwealth hands, who have been as one in praising it and expressing the hope that it will focus public opinion on the opportunities that exist, challenging people not only in this country but throughout the Commonwealth.
The report is timely. As the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, observed in the most recent issue of The Parliamentarian, the Commonwealth has reached a turning point. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting at Auckland in November, key decisions were made on how best to implement the proposals presented to that meeting, and points were made about the criteria for membership. I believe that the ghosts of the Commonwealth past have largely been exorcised. Those of us who began our political careers in the 1950s and 1960s remember debates about decolonisation that tended to cloud our more objective view of the Commonwealth. Some of those debates, such as the one about Rhodesia, continued; then, in the 1960s, the question of European Community entry supervened. During that debate, the Commonwealth was paraded by some as an alternative to what I consider to be our natural trading region. The Select Committee and its Chairman, however, have made good points about the new challenges that are presented in the global trading and communications system, in which the old distances have become less relevant.
In the late 1970s and the 1980s, debates on the Commonwealth were soured by the situation in South Africa, making objective discussion in parliamentary and international forums much more difficult. It is instructive to observe how far we have come in terms of attitude to the Commonwealth. Ten years ago, at the beginning of August 1986, a special Commonwealth conference on South Africa was held at Marlborough house. Venomous remarks were made by Members of Parliament, British newspapers and, dare I say, senior sources in the Government. I have looked through the newspapers of the time; one Member of Parliament was quoted as saying:
the Commonwealth only costs us money; we give them aid; they kick us in the teeth and send their drop-outs to stay here.
One Member, Anthony Beaumont-Dark, called the Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, a "ranting hypocrite", and there were some pretty horrendous briefings from Downing street. I was in the corridors of Marlborough house at the time.
There were editorials on the theme, "Do we really want the Commonwealth? Is the old club falling apart?" That was only 10 years ago, but we have travelled a long way since then—largely because South Africa, which constituted the obstacle or blocking mechanism, is no longer a symbol of offence. It has become a symbol of opportunity, providing a model for what the Commonwealth can do, and is doing, for its many members.
Like many hon. Members, I was fortunate enough to be in South Africa in April 1994, at the time of the election. It is, perhaps, the most blissful memory of my political life so far. I saw people queuing to vote, the black servant standing alongside the white employer, and felt joy that the votes of both were of the same value. We now look forward to welcoming President Mandela next month, in Westminster Hall: we are well aware of the significance of that. It could all have been very different had South Africa not had a leader of such towering historical significance and humanity—who was, of course, helped by the Commonwealth network. Sometimes it failed, as was the case with the Eminent Persons Group in 1986, but the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Emeka Anyaoku, played a quiet but effective role behind the scenes.
The Government who played such a destructive role in the mid-1980s now act effectively as an advocate for South Africa. In March this year, they pressed our European Union partners to agree to a scheme enabling the Commission to discuss a free trade area with South Africa. The role that we can play in our own regional grouping as advocate for the Commonwealth in respect of South Africa and the West Indian island banana trade can be replicated by other Commonwealth countries in their own regions—for instance, by Canada in the north American arrangement, and by Malaysia and the south-east Asian nations in theirs. Thus our role in respect of South Africa sets a precedent. I hope that Singapore and Malaysia can use their trading clout and commercial expertise across the regions to help a number of African Commonwealth countries.
South Africa is also involved in our United Kingdom aid programme, not only through our contribution to improving the efficiency of the public service and the police, but through our helping to integrate the armed services—the old MK and the old South African Defence Force. South Africa is now normalised and the Commonwealth can go forward without the hang-ups and the souring effect that South Africa caused in the past.
As the Foreign Affairs Committee well shows, the Commonwealth can provide for all its members an important instrument of foreign policy—networking within the family across a range of problems. That raises the question of the qualifications for membership. The issue was addressed at the CHOGM in Auckland, when Cameroon was admitted to the Commonwealth. Cameroon has had a colonial relationship with the United Kingdom, but Mozambique, which has a different language and no colonial relationship with the United Kingdom, was also admitted. Now Rwanda is knocking at the door.
How does one have a creative relationship with countries at the edge, especially when there is a danger of a turf war with the French-speaking countries? One thinks of Angola, Rwanda and, possibly, Burundi in that context. If there is a Commonwealth, there is a non-Commonwealth. What are the links that are sufficient to bring members together? I know that that question is now being looked at in detail as a result of the decisions made in Auckland.
The key point is that the Commonwealth is a dynamic organisation. We find that, rather than the Commonwealth losing members, countries can see the advantage for them in being a member. All the Southern African Development Community countries, with the exception of Angola, are members of the Commonwealth. Mauritius, situated off the coast of Africa, is another Commonwealth member; that very successful country has joined SADC recently.
Co-operation on democracy is vital, as has properly been said. The Auckland conference was a turning point as it showed that there was a determination to build on the Harare declaration on human rights of 1991 and to strengthen the means by which the Commonwealth could signal its disapproval of human rights violations.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who is a doughty fighter on behalf of Commonwealth interests, made a point about the Commonwealth's monitoring of elections. We must look carefully at the respective roles of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, whose tie I and the hon. Member for Hereford (Sir C. Shepherd) proudly wear. There is a danger that the Commonwealth Secretariat, which represents Governments, will be constrained in commenting on whether an election is proper, although it will have a key technical role in providing assistance before elections. I have seen at first hand the way in which it helped to mould and therefore to legitimise the elections held some years ago in Guyana, but there must come a point at which, rather than be part of an election process that is clearly a charade, the Commonwealth must withdraw.
A few years ago, I was about to go, on behalf of the Carter Foundation, to monitor an election in a west African country. The foundation took the key decision that it would devalue its own legitimacy in terms of election monitoring if it participated in that election. I was personally pleased that, at the last minute, the foundation said that it was cancelling the visit. I hope that the Commonwealth will be equally robust in recognising that it must preserve its credibility in such cases and that the secretariat and Governments, when saying, '"Yes, we will provide technical assistance," will realise that pronouncing on elections is best done by parliamentarians. The dividing line between the role of the secretariat and the role of parliamentarians must be clearly defined.
In its bipartisan report, the Committee comments that our Government are not sufficiently committed to the Commonwealth. Examples can be given, such as the rather limp memorandum that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office first delivered to the Committee. Other examples have been given by colleagues, such as the Commonwealth Institute and the World Service. Colleagues have pointed to the fact that the operating budget of the World Service for the years 1997–98 has, in real terms, been cut by £8 million. That is part of the cheese-paring to which my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) referred.
There are other problems. I personally am irritated by the fact that the Commonwealth has not addressed problems such as the security interests of smaller nations. When the Maldives were attacked in the mid-1980s, for example, books were written and conferences held. Such matters have now fallen entirely outside the frame. We need to look together at the way in which the Commonwealth can co-operate to protect smaller nations.
We have a new Commonwealth from which, as I said, the old ghosts have been exorcised; the old hang-ups have gone. We can now look forward with confidence. I entirely follow what has been said in the report about the importance attached to meetings of Finance Ministers, and I hope that similar meetings of Trade Ministers can be held. I hope that the Government are already preparing for the Edinburgh CHOGM next year.
I believe that we shall have another Government by that time—a Government who not only are more committed to the human rights role of the Commonwealth, but who will look at ways in which trade relationships can be enhanced. We have a new era in the Commonwealth with new possibilities, away from some of the illusions of the past. I believe that although the Government can be criticised for the uncertain signals—indeed, contradictory signals—that they have given in the past, they should prepare for the meeting at Edinburgh next year, to ensure and enhance the potential of the Commonwealth in the new circumstances.
I admit to a sense almost of despair about some aspects of the debate. Some hon. Members seemed to argue that the reason for supporting the Commonwealth and for ending the cheese-paring, as my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) called it, in the organs that are so necessary in strengthening ties and links in the Commonwealth, was exclusively this nation's self-interest. They presented the Commonwealth as possibly yet another major market for this country and as an avenue for greater investment by this country in the other nation states of the Commonwealth.
I am prepared to accept the argument of economic self-interest as long as we realise that, in our concern to retain those strong economic ties, we must not turn a blind eye to the exploitation of child labour or endorse the use in certain African countries of fertilisers and pesticides that are banned here and elsewhere and have the most appalling effects on the workers who spray those substances on their fields. I am prepared to accept the economic argument as long as we do not close our eyes to the total lack of trade union rights in certain parts of the Commonwealth and the murder of trade union activists in other Commonwealth countries.
I was not happy to hear the Commonwealth presented yet again as a club. In my view, the essence of the Commonwealth and the reason why the Government should increase financing to contributing organs based in Britain, which disseminate information throughout the Commonwealth, is that it has the potential to be a perfect model of the future of the world. It can be the means by which independent nation states, regardless of colour, creed, religion and tradition, can acknowledge the simple humanity that all individuals share, through a shared history that has been by no means essentially calm. Some nations have survived terrible tragedies, and they have managed to overcome their difficulties, to forge a concept of a world in which all peoples can live together in harmony and develop their economies—but not at the expense of other nation states. That seems to me the central reason for supporting the Commonwealth and its real value in a world that is continually restructuring itself—not the exclusive one of economic self-interest for Britain, or even for the developing nation states within the Commonwealth.
I also found it interesting, if slightly depressing, to hear criticism of certain countries within the Commonwealth. There was also undoubtedly criticism from hon. Members on both sides of the House of the British Government. On a recent visit to New Zealand. strong criticism was expressed to me of the failure of this Commonwealth country to speak out in support of another Commonwealth country against atomic testing by a nation state that is not part of the Commonwealth.
I support the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) in that we should not presuppose that we are the exclusive arbiters of what constitutes the best form of democratic government. Although we expect all member states of the Commonwealth to be committed to democratic government, how individual member states reach that goal is particularly fascinating. They have to find their own ways to democracy and freedom.
All hon. Members thoroughly support and endorse the essential requirement that all Commonwealth states be committed to human rights. I have had reason to raise in the Chamber the absolutely appalling actions of Nigeria and its abuse of human rights as they impacted quite directly and specifically on one 13-year-old boy who lives in my constituency.
I still find it incomprehensible that the Commonwealth, working in common with the rest of the world, has not found some means to impose sanctions on Nigeria. I take on board the argument that, without unity of purpose and a world agreement to impose sanctions on Nigeria, they would not work. I refer to economic sanctions, but the ability to work with other power blocs and nation states within the United Nations should be an integral part of the Commonwealth. It should be able to bring home to Nigeria the unacceptable nature of its present regime, not only because of the appalling suffering of millions of Nigerians under that illegal, cruel and intemperate regime, but because it will be harder for other Commonwealth countries that are attempting to craft their own way towards democracy to take the necessary—and sometimes risky— steps and leap into the dark if the richest and most populous country in Africa is allowed to get away with such appalling actions. I hope that the Commonwealth will not neglect that issue. It cannot be ignored, as it impacts upon the entire Commonwealth when one state so blatantly ignores calls for the most basic human rights.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have stressed the importance of education and the enormous gift that Britain was able to give in stimulating a desire for education. One such example is a constituent of mine. He is from Kenya, but has dual nationality. He came to Britain having obtained a place at university and was somewhat shocked to discover that he was not expected to pay in-country fees, but was charged tuition fees as if he and his family had no association with Britain and he was a foreigner. As he had considered himself to be a citizen of the Commonwealth, he found that not only shocking, but extremely disappointing.
I hope that the Government will take that on board and accept that, although it is a long time since Commonwealth countries regarded themselves as colonial countries, Britain still treasures education, human rights and a democratic system of government, and is prepared to commit itself to defending those principles and ensuring that all peoples throughout the world should eventually benefit from them. When Commonwealth citizens discover that Britain does not keep true to those ideals, they feel disappointed and almost betrayed.
Mention has been made of the importance of the World Service, and I cannot underline that too strongly. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Sir J. Lester) gave the House some incredible figures. Millions, if not billions, of people around the world listen to the World Service. It must be the cheapest Internet that the world has ever known.
Individuals in emerging countries do not always have access to electricity, to tap into the vast network that we are told information technology is making available to the whole world. It is not available to all the world, but radio is available to individuals or to a group of people listening to one tiny transistor radio. It would be a disaster if the extraordinary service that the World Service has provided over so many years were subsumed into a rationale or reconsideration of what broadcasting is about, with radio not being as important as television and the Commonwealth not being able to hold a candle to Europe and America. The loss of the World Service would be grievous.
It would be wrong, too, to believe that the British Council is essential only to teach the English language. It has taught for many years, and its teaching is valued in ways that are impossible not only to define but certainly to put a value on. The British Council provides a two-way street. Often, it stimulates in Commonwealth and other countries what is then creatively returned to us.
I am grateful for this opportunity to enter the debate. I value the concept of the Commonwealth. I believe that the majority of hon. Members value the concept too, and anything which we can do and which the Government can be urged to do to underline that value to the people of this country and, indeed, the rest of the world, is to be treasured.
My congratulations go to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the right hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell), as they do to other members of the Committee. All reports that are debated in Parliament receive the usual platitudes, but this report is important and of very high quality.
In recent years, the Government have undervalued the role and importance of the Commonwealth. My party has a long association with the Commonwealth. At the end of the war, a Labour Government brought the Commonwealth into being, and under Harold Wilson's Government, the Commonwealth secretariat was established. It is true, however, that, even in the Labour party, such ties have faded over recent years.
There is a profound case to be made about self-interest and a genuine enlightened view of the world—as well as, perhaps, about the interface between the two and Britain's global role. Even if the Commonwealth did not exist, we could not invent it. Since it does exist and we do not need to invent it, we should take maximum opportunity of the benefits and advantages that it presents. The right hon. Member for Guildford certainly made some very significant points about the economic advantages of Commonwealth membership, which, as a nation, we must examine in depth.
The Commonwealth offers a common language, which is of great significance. There is a little debate, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) referred, on how far we should expand the Commonwealth if it breaches the principle of linguistic unity. Such a breach, of course, has already happened to a degree with the addition of Cameroon and Mozambique, but, in both those countries, massive efforts are being made to ensure that English is in common use.
The Commonwealth is not just about language but common attitude and common institutions that allow access to different Commonwealth markets—not just to others for Britain but, increasingly, to other Commonwealth nations for Commonwealth nations. Britain was once at the centre of the wheel, but now, because of the world internet that my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) described, it is no longer. It is simply one part of the very complicated chain of communication. We should value that, and accept that a quarter of the world's population live in Commonwealth countries. Indeed, the rapid population growth in the Indian subcontinent means that that relative proportion is likely to increase. That presents a massive economic zone and means that those who are prepared to use that economic coming together for common purpose and common wealth can do so to collective advantage and not only for narrow self-interest.
There are reasons for membership above and beyond those of narrow self-interest which, from a British perspective, we must pursue. Labour in Government will ensure, for example, that we begin to establish a role for the Commonwealth section in the Foreign Office in informing attitude and policy across the range of policy formation. We must ensure that we do not ignore the importance of the connection.
Rather like my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East I think that it is important to establish that the choice for Britain is not an artificial one of either Europe or the Commonwealth. That is unreal—it always was. With more complicated trade and patterns of exchange, it will become increasingly necessary for us to maximise advantages for ourselves and the world by operating across a range of different economic areas. The advantage of the Commonwealth connection is that it links us to almost every major economic bloc on the planet. It is of clear and direct interest to Britain to do relatively well in accessing the markets provided by the Commonwealth.
Labour in government would certainly want to pick up on the point that the Select Committee made about the need for greater concentration on how the Commonwealth comes together economically. We would use the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh in 1997 to establish a Commonwealth economic development plan. We ought to begin to consider fair but free trade in the Commonwealth. We also ought to consider sustainable development and investment in the Commonwealth. We need to recognise, however, that Britain has a responsibility to our Commonwealth partners. Quite soon, the question will loom large about the succession to the Lomé 4 procedures. It is not simply in Britain's direct interest but an obligation to our Commonwealth partners to ensure that they have acceptable and fair access to the important European market, especially those in the Caribbean.
One of the Select Committee report's suggestions concerns the role of meetings between trade ministers. Certainly, Labour in Government would want to ensure annual meetings of Commonwealth trade Ministers. It is important to begin to establish such connections. The Select Committee's recommendation is therefore very important.
It is also worth picking up the Select Committee's comments on aid. I hope that the Minister will take them on board. There is increasing concern that the way in which the fundamental expenditure review seems to be easing the Caribbean out of the aid equation and the Commonwealth into a lesser role in that equation will do no good, not only to Britain but to others in the Commonwealth who still depend on some kind of support.
That point was made to me yesterday by the Prime Minister of one of the Caribbean islands when we were discussing access to European markets and the possibility that Caribbean bananas could be excluded from such markets. He made the simple point that where one can no longer grow bananas, one can grow marijuana. If we offer that choice to our Commonwealth partners, the decision will be taken not at governmental level but by those who are driven by poverty and economic opportunity. If we want to avoid that we must offer some practical and sensible assistance, whereby economic development and investment allows development in those economies so that they can continue to trade in the Commonwealth and gain access to European markets.
I want to devote the rest of my remarks to the unique role that the Commonwealth performs in human rights and what, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate said, we would regard as what Britain has given to the world. Our pride in the British democratic tradition makes sense only if we can say that we are putting it into practice.
The Commonwealth has made great steps. Indeed, it is one of only two global institutions—the other one, of course, being the United Nations. By definition, the United Nations must take on board all-comers. It is important that membership is not restricted. But the Commonwealth operates with a different set of principles that allow us to state that common values and attitudes must be brought to bear.
The steady development from Singapore in 1971 to Harare in 1991 of a Commonwealth perspective on what is acceptable for members has been very important. Even more important was putting some practical bones into the body, which took place at Auckland last year. At that meeting, the Commonwealth ministerial action group was set up to act in a practical way to see to what extent human rights and democracy were being put into practice within the Commonwealth.
My hon. Friend referred to a "steady development" since 1971, but I have a vivid memory of trying to get our Commonwealth partners to come out against Idi Amin and failing hopelessly. It has been a more recent development, and that is why it is very welcome.
My hon. Friend is right. The developments were steady in terms of rhetoric, but almost non-existent in terms of action. Even now, one of the problems that bedevils the Commonwealth is that if we accept that it is necessary to have unanimity of purpose, we will always end up moving at the pace of the slowest. The Commonwealth will therefore not be effective in applying pressure to those who fundamentally breach its levels of democracy and human rights. We must do better, otherwise the Commonwealth will fail to take the opportunities that are presented to it.
The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) referred to the situation in Kenya, a country that is moving towards an election that no one can be confident will be free and fair. One must doubt whether the Select Committee's definition of a free and fair election will be applied—namely giving an opportunity to the Kenyan public to easily get rid of one Government and replace it with another. In those terms, the elections will fail the central test of democratic acceptability. It is not acceptable for the Commonwealth monitoring group to return to Kenya—they went there four years ago—and say that the elections are free and fair. The report suggests that the Commonwealth imprimatur of free and fair elections remains a coveted accolade, and it must remain so, but it will be devalued if we accept as legitimate elections that simply are not.
The role of the Commonwealth in election monitoring is one to which hon. Members have paid tribute, and that role must continue and be intensified. But it can be carried out properly only if we are prepared to say on occasion that we will not simply accept that a particular exercise in pseudo-democracy is up to the standards that we expect.
The biggest failure that we have seen, I am afraid to say, occurred this week, when the Commonwealth ministerial action group met the Nigerian Foreign Minister in London. The record of Nigeria since the military coup in 1993 has been outrageous. It is not a matter of a marginal breach of standards. It is an absolute outrage that we have been prepared to deal with this country in such a kid-gloved manner. The president-elect is serving a life sentence for the crime of claiming to be the legitimately elected president of Nigeria. That is outrageous. Even the person who deposed him from power is now serving a life sentence, which goes to show the even-handedness of that brutal regime. A few weeks ago, the wife of the president-elect was murdered. That is a human outrage, but it is also a political crime of the highest magnitude. There is very little belief in Nigeria that that murder was not committed at the behest of the authorities.
The murder—or so-called judicial execution—of Ken Saro Wiwa and his fellow Ogonis last year prompted the Commonwealth to take action. We ought not to have sat back this week and said, "It doesn't matter" because it does. The Nigerian Government are now insisting that when political parties form—even in a country as big as Nigeria—they must have a membership of 1 million people, and they must pass various regional tests. No political party in Britain proportionately would be able to match that test, and the result would be that we would all have to disinvent ourselves.
We also know that the civil rights of the population of Nigeria are honoured in the breach. The Commonwealth ministerial action group stated that both sides—that is the Nigerian Government and the action group—had constructive dialogue that needed to continue. That says something, or it says nothing. On the one hand, the Canadians went home in disgust and imposed their own sanctions, as they could not accept the conclusions suggested by, I am sorry to say, the British Government among others. Sir Sonny Ramphal, the former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, made clear that he was embarrassed by the Commonwealth's inaction on this occasion, and talked about the need for more serious action and to examine oil sanctions against Nigeria— something for which my party has called for some time. We must examine the case for real sanctions against the Nigerian Government.
If the Commonwealth is to become the vision of the new world that we all want—a world where the democracy and human rights standards that we enshrine are practised around the world—it must play its role with a sense of purpose. If we cannot take tough action against Nigeria by introducing economic embargoes or by taking action against the brutal people of the military regime, the Commonwealth will fail the test it sets itself. In doing so, it will fail not people in Britain, but people of good will throughout the world and the victims of brutal regimes that we could affect if we had that sense of purpose.
I am sorry that I do not have long to comment on this important, well-informed and often passionate debate. The Government warmly welcome the report and, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary stated in his observations, we share its central conclusion—that in an increasingly global political system, the Commonwealth has great present and potential value for all its members. I pay tribute to the members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sir D. Howell)—the Chairman of the Committee—and to the officers and officials of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in the United Kingdom and abroad.
I wish to emphasise two points early in my speech. In terms of the history and the size of our contribution and the importance of the Commonwealth links to the UK, it is perhaps understandable that there are those who think that Britain is in charge of the Commonwealth. That is simply not so. It is no longer the British Commonwealth, and we cannot and should not allow it to serve an exclusive British interest. There is no senior member, and we all have an equal place around the table.
As the Commonwealth covers 53 countries and more than a quarter of the world's population, and because at its Heads of Government conference every two years it pronounces on all international issues, it is a uniquely important body. There is, therefore, the danger of overestimating what it can do. But the Commonwealth is not a treaty. It is a voluntary organisation from which some members have chosen to leave and which some countries who are eligible have chosen not to join. It has no military or defence personality, nor does it now have any supranational economic authority.
We must look at the Commonwealth with a sense of realism and proportion, as that is vital. Far from leading us to a conclusion that the Commonwealth does not have a distinctive role, it should help us to identify precisely what the role is. I would like to say a word first for Britain and then for the other Commonwealth members. For Britain, there is great value in being a member of the Commonwealth. It provides a special nature in our bilateral relations with 52 other countries, and this asset is worth preserving and working hard at. Secondly, Commonwealth links in education, law and economic policy all contribute to making the global international state system more stable and, through that stability, more prosperous.
We should not ignore the argument—as some may choose to do—that as more Commonwealth countries become more prosperous, the common language and a host of other affinities that have grown over hundreds of years can be translated into valuable investment and trade opportunities. Those trade opportunities are not just of benefit to us, but to the reciprocal countries. We must help them—as we do, for instance, through the Commonwealth Development Corporation—to increase their prosperity. To ignore our prosperity ignores prosperity and progress for them.
Britain's central and pivotal role in the Commonwealth gives us a special influence for reform through discussion with 52 other countries and, indeed, they have a special influence over us. As I said earlier, no country has to belong to the Commonwealth. No President or Prime Minister is obliged to attend the two-yearly Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in person. If the Commonwealth is to remain an asset, it must be seen to be valuable by all its members. I believe that by the vast majority it is. In practice, this means that Britain cannot expect to table proposals that accord with British interest and simply see them adopted ipso facto as Commonwealth views. That was clear from the discussions on nuclear testing in the Pacific at the last CHOGM in New Zealand and no doubt it will be the case again, but at the same time, as we have done on global trade issues in the past 10 years and ways of tackling the heavy debt burden of several Commonwealth countries, we can get our point across and have it endorsed. We can use that to advance international negotiations in a way that we favour, but only provided that we show a sensitive concern for the priorities and anxieties of fellow Commonwealth members.
As we have set out in the Government's reply to the Select Committee's report, our record since the new Commonwealth context emerged in 1990 is a creditable one. The Harare declaration, the encouragement of multi-party elections, the promotion of high human rights standards by Governments, a strong stance against military government, and an imaginative programme of Commonwealth help to countries trying to re-establish democratic accountable civilian government are all laudable. The establishment in Auckland last November of the Commonwealth ministerial action group to monitor Commonwealth member Governments' consistency and compliance with the Harare declaration has been a success, although the greater successes are yet to be seen. Britain has been at the forefront, if not the instigator, in most of those developments.
We have also used our bilateral relationships with Commonwealth countries to good effect by keeping in close touch with other countries. That is important to us when problems arise, as they must from time to time. We have improved relationships with all our peoples. We have put a huge effort in the past five years or more into our relations with India. They are now closer and more useful on virtually every front. As the Government's reply to the report describes, we are putting a major effort into revamping our links with Australia and New Zealand. The value and depth of our relations and the deep contribution that we make to each other are not always recognised today. I believe that through these programmes we will make progress and renew our links.
The Commonwealth multilateral link provides a canopy for our relations, but it is not a substitute for the hard and imaginative work required to translate those links into closer and more beneficial relations.
If the hon. Lady had not opened her mouth at that moment, I would have come immediately to the report, but there we are. I know that a little dig is common from that quarter.
I am a passionate fan of the Commonwealth. I was an elected member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association United Kingdom executive body. I will do all that I can to ensure that Commonwealth relationships increase and improve.
Recommendations 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10 in the report are on trade. Trade is one element in the bilateral relationship between the United Kingdom and all countries, including our Commonwealth partners. Senior officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Trade and Industry are directly responsible for pushing those relationships. We have teams in the United Kingdom and overseas dedicated to promoting bilateral trade with the Commonwealth. Those officials ensure that we make the best use of our Commonwealth ties, but not solely for our benefit, as I have said before. It is for the mutual benefit of all our people. That is not a cliché.
We will continue to negotiate for Commonwealth countries generous access to the European Union single market whenever we can. We push forward their views when formulating our policy in EU trade negotiations.
That is an important issue for many countries in the West Indies. I will certainly pass on the hon. Gentleman's comments.
We most certainly have not forgotten that we are, as my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Overseas Development said, one of 15 and one of 53. My right hon. and noble Friend mentioned that in her evidence to the Committee.
Recommendations 32 to 39 are on Nigeria. We have seen just this week at the meeting of the Commonwealth ministerial action group how the Commonwealth can play a very active role in promoting democracy and protecting human rights. The third meeting of the CMAG was attended by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Overseas Development. They expressed the Commonwealth's displeasure at recent events in Nigeria. We hope that that will pave the way for further progress towards meeting the Harare principles.
No. I am sorry. We have set down a clear timetable and a clear time scale for action. If there is not progress by the meeting in September, further action will certainly be taken. All other matters are still being considered, both with our colleagues in the United Nations and in the European Union. The Commonwealth is not alone in this matter.
Recommendation 42 is on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. We warmly welcome the Select Committee's support for the work of the CPA and we have emphasised that in our reply. Its work produces excellent results. The high commissioners from our overseas posts have frequently mentioned to me how much both they and their host Governments welcome these exchanges. I am sure that many of the hon. Members here will also know, from personal experience, just how right they are.
Recommendation 50 is on Commonwealth membership for Cameroon. We have taken careful note of the Committee's comments on admitting Cameroon to the Commonwealth. We accepted, with our other Commonwealth partners, that significant progress had been made by Cameroon towards meeting the principles of the Harare declaration. Commonwealth membership will further advance those efforts and the great pool of experience and advice that comes from being a Commonwealth member can only be good for Cameroon's development.
Recommendations 52 to 59 deal with the role of the Commonwealth now. We agree with the conclusions of the report that
the Commonwealth is acquiring a new significance in a rapidly transforming world and that United Kingdom policy-makers should bring this major change to the forefront of their thinking.
That sums up fairly well the findings of the Committee. The days of disagreements over the problems in South Africa are now well behind us and we have now entered a new and exciting time for Commonwealth relations.
Recommendation 60 is on the FCO and the Commonwealth. I can assure right hon. and hon. Members that the FCO continues to place high importance on the Commonwealth within the workings of the office. The Select Committee's suggestion of separate objectives for the Commonwealth in the FCO's annual mission statement is well taken. The changing role of the Commonwealth needs to be reflected in the way in which we look at it. The Select Committee has helped us to see a number of new linkages and for that I am grateful.
The British Council now serves in 229 posts in 109 countries. When the Government came to office it served in 108 posts—we have more than doubled the record— and in 79 countries—we now serve in 30 more. There have been no post closures due to the efficiencies that the Treasury has required of us in this last year.
The World Service reaches more people than ever in its history at this moment—140 million. That is a record of success. It is wrong to say that the imposition of efficiency requirements has decimated the service. As for the reorganisation of the World Service, that is a matter for the BBC. It has agreed to continue to ensure that our role and our essential requirements are maintained.
The introduction to the report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs notes that the Commonwealth is in a period of rapid change and is today operating in a vastly altered international context. The Government fully agree with this. Who could not? Events in recent years, notably the resolution of the problems in South Africa mean that we have taken a fresh look.
In recognition of the changes that have taken place, we have for the first time in 20 years invited Commonwealth Heads of Government to meet in our country. The Heads of Government conference in Edinburgh in October next year is an opportunity for us to show our support for the Commonwealth as an association. The conference will, as ever, be a chance to discuss with fellow members the many issues that are important to us all. They include the role that industry can play in economic development; the role of investment, both local and overseas, in promoting economic growth; and what Commonwealth voluntary organisations can do to make the lives of the citizens of our countries, especially those suffering deprivation, more rewarding and humane.
There is much work to do and the Government are eager to take it forward. Commonwealth officials will meet in London in October to discuss the agenda and arrangements for next year's conference. I hope that the conference will enable the Commonwealth to set its agenda for the challenging years ahead. The FAC's report has been a valuable component in the Government's thinking. I am sure that we will draw heavily on its ideas well into the future. The Government thank the Committee for its excellent work and the House for this debate.