The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 5:03 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr James Lester Mr James Lester , Broxtowe 5:03 pm, 27th June 1996

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.