The Commonwealth

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 27th June 1996.

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Photo of Mr Jeremy Hanley Mr Jeremy Hanley , Richmond and Barnes 6:45 pm, 27th June 1996

No. I am sorry. We have set down a clear timetable and a clear time scale for action. If there is not progress by the meeting in September, further action will certainly be taken. All other matters are still being considered, both with our colleagues in the United Nations and in the European Union. The Commonwealth is not alone in this matter.

Recommendation 42 is on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. We warmly welcome the Select Committee's support for the work of the CPA and we have emphasised that in our reply. Its work produces excellent results. The high commissioners from our overseas posts have frequently mentioned to me how much both they and their host Governments welcome these exchanges. I am sure that many of the hon. Members here will also know, from personal experience, just how right they are.

Recommendation 50 is on Commonwealth membership for Cameroon. We have taken careful note of the Committee's comments on admitting Cameroon to the Commonwealth. We accepted, with our other Commonwealth partners, that significant progress had been made by Cameroon towards meeting the principles of the Harare declaration. Commonwealth membership will further advance those efforts and the great pool of experience and advice that comes from being a Commonwealth member can only be good for Cameroon's development.

Recommendations 52 to 59 deal with the role of the Commonwealth now. We agree with the conclusions of the report that the Commonwealth is acquiring a new significance in a rapidly transforming world and that United Kingdom policy-makers should bring this major change to the forefront of their thinking. That sums up fairly well the findings of the Committee. The days of disagreements over the problems in South Africa are now well behind us and we have now entered a new and exciting time for Commonwealth relations.

Recommendation 60 is on the FCO and the Commonwealth. I can assure right hon. and hon. Members that the FCO continues to place high importance on the Commonwealth within the workings of the office. The Select Committee's suggestion of separate objectives for the Commonwealth in the FCO's annual mission statement is well taken. The changing role of the Commonwealth needs to be reflected in the way in which we look at it. The Select Committee has helped us to see a number of new linkages and for that I am grateful.

The British Council now serves in 229 posts in 109 countries. When the Government came to office it served in 108 posts—we have more than doubled the record— and in 79 countries—we now serve in 30 more. There have been no post closures due to the efficiencies that the Treasury has required of us in this last year.

The World Service reaches more people than ever in its history at this moment—140 million. That is a record of success. It is wrong to say that the imposition of efficiency requirements has decimated the service. As for the reorganisation of the World Service, that is a matter for the BBC. It has agreed to continue to ensure that our role and our essential requirements are maintained.

The introduction to the report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs notes that the Commonwealth is in a period of rapid change and is today operating in a vastly altered international context. The Government fully agree with this. Who could not? Events in recent years, notably the resolution of the problems in South Africa mean that we have taken a fresh look.

In recognition of the changes that have taken place, we have for the first time in 20 years invited Commonwealth Heads of Government to meet in our country. The Heads of Government conference in Edinburgh in October next year is an opportunity for us to show our support for the Commonwealth as an association. The conference will, as ever, be a chance to discuss with fellow members the many issues that are important to us all. They include the role that industry can play in economic development; the role of investment, both local and overseas, in promoting economic growth; and what Commonwealth voluntary organisations can do to make the lives of the citizens of our countries, especially those suffering deprivation, more rewarding and humane.

There is much work to do and the Government are eager to take it forward. Commonwealth officials will meet in London in October to discuss the agenda and arrangements for next year's conference. I hope that the conference will enable the Commonwealth to set its agenda for the challenging years ahead. The FAC's report has been a valuable component in the Government's thinking. I am sure that we will draw heavily on its ideas well into the future. The Government thank the Committee for its excellent work and the House for this debate.