The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 4:33 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Colin Shepherd Mr Colin Shepherd , Hereford 4:33 pm, 27th June 1996

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.