The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 5:55 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash , Stafford 5:55 pm, 27th June 1996

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.