The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Peter Shore Mr Peter Shore , Bethnal Green and Stepney 4:15 pm, 27th June 1996

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.