The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 5:17 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe and Nantwich 5:17 pm, 27th June 1996

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.