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The United Kingdom and the Commonwealth

Royal Assent – in the House of Commons at 12:20 pm on 20th March 2008.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 12:20 pm, 20th March 2008

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the matter of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.

I am delighted to open this debate on the UK and the Commonwealth. I intend to set out the continuing importance of the Commonwealth to this Government and this country.

The House will know that last week was Commonwealth week. I want to thank the members and staff of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for their work and for hosting the 57th Westminster seminar. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary recently reaffirmed the Government's commitment to the Commonwealth. Indeed, this month the Prime Minister highlighted the Commonwealth's importance to a meeting of all the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's heads of mission.

The Commonwealth is an extraordinary global network of countries big and small, rich and poor, and it represents more than a quarter of the world's population. If it works together, the network has the potential to shape a better world for us all.

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Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

This House of Commons was bombed in 1941 and rebuilt after the war. The Dispatch Box on which the Minister is leaning was a gift from New Zealand, the Table in front of which she is standing was a gift from Canada, and the Chair in which Mr. Deputy Speaker is sitting was a gift from Australia. Given that the Commonwealth has played such a central part in Britain's heritage, why are the Government advancing proposals to get rid of the ancestry visa that is so important to people in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Canada and elsewhere around the world?

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

First, I salute the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of the Chamber. That he has learned all that in his relatively short time in the House is a credit to him. The Government's proposals in connection with visas are exactly that—proposals. I understand that the consultation closed on 10 March, and that representations were received from Commonwealth countries. Representations were also made to me, and they have been passed on to the Border and Immigration Agency.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I shall make a little progress, but I assure the House that hon. Members will have plenty of opportunity to contribute to the debate.

The UK is by far the largest contributor to the Commonwealth secretariat budget, and we are proud to remain so. In addition, we spend seven times that amount supporting other Commonwealth programmes on development, youth and education. I think that hon. Members on all sides of the House are looking forward to hosting the Commonwealth games in Glasgow in 2014.

Don McKinnon steps down in the next two weeks as Commonwealth secretary-general after eight years in the job, and I want to record the Government's gratitude for his deft stewardship of the Commonwealth secretariat. He has modernised its working practices, developed links with other international organisations and dealt with some very tricky political situations, not the least of which is that in Zimbabwe. We look forward to welcoming Kamalesh Sharma as his successor.

One of the Commonwealth's great advantages is that it is able to cut across traditional alliances and regional blocs. We should like to see it develop a more active role in identifying and helping to defuse potential conflict situations. It can also be a very positive force on important world issues, such as tackling radicalisation and climate change and advancing human rights and good governance.

Last year, when I was Minister for Women and Equality, I had the honour to represent the UK at the meeting of Commonwealth women's affairs ministers. The meeting looked in detail at issues of gender equality and provided an opportunity for countries with shared values to learn from each other's experiences and to support each other's development.

It struck me at the time that it is not necessarily the richer countries in the Commonwealth that are in the forefront on gender equality. For example, many of the newer democracies have much better records on women's representation. As I look across at the Opposition Benches I am sorry to say that, with the honourable exception of Jo Swinson, only men are present for this debate.

The Commonwealth plays a vital role in giving small and poorer states a voice on the world stage. The Commonwealth-sponsored Office of Small States in New York, to which the UK is a major contributor, is a fine example of that. It gives a number of very small countries a presence next to the UN headquarters that they would otherwise not be able to afford.

Our historic links to many of the smaller nations remain important and are reinforced by our membership of the Commonwealth. As the Minister with responsibility for South East Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean, I know how much those countries value that relationship.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Given the region for which she has responsibility, will the Minister tell the House what the Commonwealth secretariat and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are doing to address the deteriorating situation in the Maldives? Democracy there is fragile, to say the least, and campaigning for the elections to be held later this year is not allowed to be based on either the Copenhagen or the Commonwealth-Harare criteria. Will the Minister ensure that our mission in Sri Lanka has a more impressive presence in the Maldives than it does at the moment?

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The Maldives are the responsibility of Lord Malloch-Brown, but he has discussed the matters that my hon. Friend raises with that country's president. The Commonwealth has offered technical assistance to help to bring all sides together so that the reforms are kept on track. My hon. Friend is right to raise those concerns, and I shall ask my noble Friend to give him further information.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

The Minister will know how much I welcome this debate, which I hope will become a regular annual event. She identified how the Government support activities such as those undertaken by the Commonwealth secretariat, but does she agree that the Foreign Office's decision to withdraw money for Commonwealth scholarships has been sorely felt? That budget has been cut by £10 million, and many scholarships are now unavailable. Will she go back and discuss that cut with the Foreign Office to see whether the programme can be restored?

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman, who, if he is unhappy with my answer, can return to the question later.

We have reviewed our funding for scholarships and fellowships to ensure that it is in line with overall foreign policy goals. We are proposing a smaller and better organised programme that will focus on those people from a wide range of backgrounds who will be the leaders of tomorrow. The Commonwealth scholarships and fellowships plan has been used to fund awards for the eight most developed Commonwealth countries—Australia, the Bahamas, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Malta, New Zealand and Singapore—but they are not the countries that need the money the most.

Meanwhile, the Department for International Development is increasing its combined contribution to that fund and to the Commonwealth shared scholarship scheme by £1 million, which means that its total contribution for 2008-09 will be £15.93 million. The money will go directly to fund scholarships for developing countries—that is, those countries that will really benefit.

I want to say a brief word about the candidates from the eight countries that we were funding previously. Candidates from Cyprus and Malta come under the European Union's Erasmus programme, but candidates from the other six nations are eligible to apply to the Chevening scholarship scheme. Several are also eligible for Chevening central partnership scheme scholarships, co-sponsored by an outside organisation and a UK university. I hope that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance that there will be continuing support for countries where students can least afford to study in the UK.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was delighted to meet Caribbean Heads of Government at Kampala in November, where they held positive discussions on trade, among other issues. Meanwhile, we look forward to hosting the UK-Caribbean ministerial forum in London in July. It is a key event for the UK-Caribbean relationship. The agenda will include security, climate change and economic development in the Caribbean.

The Commonwealth is unique among international organisations in having the Commonwealth ministerial action group, of which we are a member. The group has the power to suspend members who have breached the Harare principles of democracy and good governance that guide all member states. We are hopeful that in future the group will do more as an early warning mechanism, providing peer pressure and mediation support in conflict situations.

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Photo of Rob Wilson Rob Wilson Shadow Minister (Education)

The Minister has just referred to good governance, and earlier she talked about the UK's powerful influence in the Commonwealth, so why is the UK not doing more to put pressure on South Africa to deal with the terrible situation in Zimbabwe?

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I am sure other Members will want to talk in more detail about Zimbabwe during the debate. We talk regularly to South Africa about the issue. South Africa is experiencing directly the problems arising from the situation in Zimbabwe. Millions of Zimbabweans are coming across the border to South Africa and they have to be supported there. South Africa is taking part in the process to try to resolve things in the region. I freely admit that there has not been as much progress as we want, but we talk to South Africa; it is not a failure of our Government.

Last November, the Commonwealth ministerial action group responded to the state of emergency in Pakistan by setting five conditions to be met within a given timetable. When the conditions were not met, it suspended Pakistan from the councils of the Commonwealth. I think that was helpful in Pakistan. The attempt by violent extremists to derail the democratic process was faced down by the Pakistani people. They showed courage, and in doing so have given Pakistan the chance to build a stable, secure and prosperous future. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that Pakistan should return to the fold of the Commonwealth and I hope we can see that process through in the coming weeks.

In November, the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Kampala acknowledged that climate change is rapidly becoming a defining global issue of our times and a natural focus for the organisation. It was appropriate that the theme of this year's Commonwealth day was "The Environment—Our Future". The states comprising the Commonwealth are enormously significant, bringing together a critical cross-section of countries—major greenhouse gas emitters, emerging economies, energy producers and poor and vulnerable states. Climate change affects the member states differently. Some perched only just above sea level, such as the Maldives, which my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay has already mentioned, find that their very existence is at stake. Others, including many African states, face higher energy and transport bills, together with the loss of agricultural production measures that will threaten their economic future if they remain unaddressed. In the Pacific island countries even minimal sea-level rises could cause conditions that are likely to force people from their land and create a generation of economic migrants on Australia's doorstep.

Last October, I took part in the Pacific island forum in Tonga. Like so many Commonwealth member states, the people of Tonga and those of neighbouring islands are directly on the front line of climate change. As they live on low-lying islands their whole way of life is threatened, and some fear they may have to abandon their homes if sea levels rise or catastrophic weather events become more frequent.

As the Lake Victoria declaration recognises, climate change threatens the vital national interests of all Commonwealth countries. We all face the same dilemma: how to grow and develop our economies while not destabilising the climate and thereby wrecking the foundations needed for our growth, stability and development. The Commonwealth Heads of Government at Kampala committed to helping each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, to carry out an assessment of the impact of climate change on their economies and development. The assessment is to include how we integrate climate resilience, as well as the transition to low carbon, in our development plans.

The Government believe that the Commonwealth's very diversity has a role to play in combating radicalisation. The UK supports, and helped to fund, the Amartya Sen report "Civil Paths to Peace". We think that the countries of the Commonwealth can take forward ideas from the report and continue and expand work in communities to prevent radicalisation from taking hold.

The secretary-general was asked to form a small group of Commonwealth Heads of Government to discuss international institutional reform and make recommendations before the next Commonwealth Heads of Government in 2009. The UK was one of the member states that encouraged that initiative. Effective international institutions are vital in establishing the rules, predictability and norms that underpin multilateralism. The Commonwealth, representing as it does such a diversity of global interests, is a natural forum in which to forge new thinking about how to adapt governance and its functioning to new times.

We believe that the Commonwealth can go from strength to strength. The interest from prospective new members is an indication of the continuing dynamism of the institution, and the UK welcomes the membership report that was adopted at Kampala. Rwanda in particular is keen to join, and discussions about membership have already begun with the Commonwealth secretariat. We welcome the prospect of Rwanda joining.

The Commonwealth matters greatly to Britain. Last November, when the next secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, accepted his appointment, he described the Commonwealth as a "great global good". That is certainly the view of the Government.

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Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 12:36 pm, 20th March 2008

What a pleasure it is to be opposite the Minister again. These little meetings across the Dispatch Box on Thursday afternoons make a middle-aged Conservative MP's life a little lighter. I am sure that is also true for my male colleagues on the Benches behind me—they may lack femininity, but I suspect that they make up for it with robust style.

As the Minister said in her introductory remarks, Commonwealth day was last week, on 10 March. The Commonwealth is a unique body; it is a voluntary association of states that does not rely on geographical links, treaties or constitutions to hold it together. Its 53 member states—African, Asian, Pacific, European, Caribbean and North American—vary in geography from island to landlocked, and in size from India, with more than 1 billion people, to Tuvalu with just over 11,000. As the Minister has said, one of the Commonwealth's great strengths is that it gives a voice to smaller countries that often are not heard or that are unable fully to bring their voices to bear in various international forums.

The Commonwealth is not just governmental. It is underpinned by a myriad weave of informal and non-governmental links that can often do much more than official hierarchies and intergovernmental structures. In the words of my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram, it is a "kaleidoscopic institution". With its unique global, multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious nature, and its emphasis on consensus and multilateralism, it has a key role to play in fostering peace and good relations over a large part of the globe.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am sure that my hon. Friend, like me, listened with great interest to the Minister's comments—all 16 minutes of them—so he will probably share my surprise that not once did she mention the contribution being made by Commonwealth citizens in Iraq and Afghanistan. I hope that he will join me in commending the fine work of those soldiers. He may also share my surprise that 635 Commonwealth citizens were serving in the British Army in 1998, but that today the number is 7,615. Although those soldiers are excellent, does he agree that it is surprising that the British Army has failed so badly in recruiting UK nationals to serve in our Army?

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Having served in the senior service, my hon. Friend has much experience of such matters, and he makes a good point. As the Minister is from the Foreign Office, she may not have believed that the point is relevant, but I think it important and will touch on it later in my remarks.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is significant virtue in incorporating members of the Commonwealth in the British Army? It gives Commonwealth members valuable experience that they may not have had, as they may have small armies in-country. Also, we want to learn more about the challenges that individuals face in Commonwealth countries, and that is a very good means of doing so.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

There are two aspects to consider. The recruitment of Commonwealth citizens to the British armed forces is a necessity, and there is no doubt about that. At the moment, we cannot recruit into the British armed forces, and particularly into the Army, enough people to meet our combat requirements. I agree that Commonwealth men and women undoubtedly make a contribution to the British armed forces and take that contribution back to their country. When I was an instructor at Sandhurst, I experienced the contribution that Commonwealth personnel made there and at our other training establishments. That is not to resile from the fact that we face a manpower problem, to put it crudely.

The Commonwealth covers a quarter of the habitable surface of the Earth and accounts for 30 per cent. of its population. The population of the enlarged EU is about 497 million; the population of the Commonwealth is 2 billion. Members of the Commonwealth do not just speak the same language—English—but share a language of institutions, Parliaments, and legal and educational systems, a point made forcibly by the last Commonwealth secretary-general. As the Minister has said, the Commonwealth is still expanding and developing. There have been five new members since 1990, and others want to join, including Yemen, Algeria and Rwanda.

When looking back over the history of the Commonwealth, I came across two or three small historical facts, and being an old historian—or at least a long-in-the-tooth historian—I thought that I would lay them before the House. First, Ireland was, of course, a member of the Commonwealth until it became a republic in 1949. Although I can understand the sensitivities of the Irish as regards Great Britain, the monarchy and so on, it is open to the people and Government of Ireland to become members of the Commonwealth. Many hon. Members would regard such an application, if Ireland desired to make one, with a great deal of warmth. The Republic of Ireland would contribute massively to the Commonwealth.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I hope to catch the Speaker's eye later and develop that argument. The tragedy is that the British Government, from pride or other considerations, will not take the initiative to invite Ireland to join. As it is a shared Commonwealth, Britain could act with the big players—the Prime Ministers of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and so on—and take the initiative on the sensitive but sensible idea of welcoming Ireland back into the Commonwealth.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

It is obviously a two-way process, and I am sensitive to Irish public opinion, but I am sure that the Minister will take that point on board. Given what my hon. Friend Dr. Murrison and Mrs. Curtis-Thomas have said, we should recognise the tens of thousands of Irish citizens who serve in the British armed forces, and we should recognise that Irish citizens made an important contribution in both world wars to defending democracy and developing the Commonwealth.

The second example that I want to raise is the United States of America. It obtained its independence in 1776, but parts of what is now the USA were effectively within the British empire until about 1846. By every criterion, the United States of America could become a member of the Commonwealth. If it did, it would certainly contribute something, and joining would be useful to it in its attempts to view the world on a multinational basis, as members of the Commonwealth come from the four corners of the world.

If the House will indulge me, I will set out another little-known historical fact. If the United States of America had not been established and the colonies had not sought to secede, or if the British generals had been more competent and the French had not stabbed us in the back— [Interruption.] I see that the Whip, Mr. Roy, is nodding his head in agreement. He comes from the educated side of the Whips Office—I know that he can read and write. If the United States of America had not obtained its independence, slavery would have been abolished long before the civil war and much loss of life would have been prevented.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex

We should be aware that the American ambassador to NATO recently invoked Washington and Lafayette as the basis for a potential Franco-American relationship. In that regard, is it really possible to imagine a future President Clinton, Obama or McCain bending the knee to a British Head of State? I think not.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

There are other republics in the Commonwealth, and the issue does not pose a problem for them. I thought for one moment that my hon. Friend, who normally responds to any mention of France or the EU, was going to mention the French. Another interesting point about membership of the Commonwealth is that in 1940, Winston Churchill, then the newly appointed Prime Minister, suggested fusion with the French empire as a way of keeping the French in the war. The French decided not to go down that path. In 1955-56, the French considered becoming members of the Commonwealth, so there is an interesting link there. The Commonwealth is a dynamic organisation. It is not particularly restricted, and it is in many respects unique.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

The United Kingdom allows Commonwealth citizens to vote in UK parliamentary elections. I think that that is anomalous; I would like to see UK citizens voting in UK elections. As a master of little-known facts, does the hon. Gentleman know whether any other Commonwealth countries give the franchise to Commonwealth citizens?

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Yes. I cannot list them, but there are a number of them. The Commonwealth is partly a uniquely English institution—

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

When I was a Whip, Whips kept quiet, but now all they want to do is talk—I have been told that it is called "doing an Ed Balls". I take the point made in the sedentary intervention—of course I mean British. I apologise for offending the sensitivity of the Scottish Whip.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

On the intervention by Mr. Prentice, I understand, from briefings that we have been given, that Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Christopher and Nevis, Guyana, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, New Zealand, Malawi and Namibia allow citizens of other Commonwealth countries to vote in their elections, so about a fifth of Commonwealth countries have a reciprocal arrangement.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those details. The Commonwealth is a great asset to the United Kingdom. All the member states except Mozambique have experienced direct or indirect British rule, or have been linked administratively to another Commonwealth country. The Commonwealth is one of Britain's three key relationships or circles of influence—Europe, the transatlantic relationship and the Commonwealth. My right hon. Friend Mr. Hague said at the Conservative party conference in 2006:

"Our country enjoys a unique position—the place where America, Europe and the Commonwealth meet."

More than 7,000 individuals from Commonwealth nations have served in the armed forces since 2007, a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Given my hon. Friend's comments about Britain's unique position in the Commonwealth, does he share my concern that there is a danger that Britain is taking its position in the Commonwealth for granted, and does he agree that we must forever be vigilant to ensure that we continue to cultivate our relationships with other Commonwealth countries? If we do not do so, countries such as Canada and Australia will try to take that pivotal role away from us.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is correct. Successive British Governments have been very sensitive to the fact that although it was originally the British Commonwealth, it is now the Commonwealth. Her Majesty the Queen is head of the Commonwealth and is in a unique position. She is, in her own way, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Commonwealth. If one talks to Commonwealth Heads of State now, they find it awe-inspiring that Her Majesty will refer to leaders of their country whom she met 40 or 50 years ago. She is an historical continuity.

The important factor, as far as the Commonwealth is concerned, is that we have a leading role but are not necessarily the formal leader. Indeed, that kind of role is a great strength to us. Any attempts by Britain to try to replicate the role that we had 50 years ago would be disadvantageous.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Perhaps I can clarify my earlier remark. Given Her Majesty's role at the moment, there is much talk among some of the other countries—I have mentioned Australia and Canada—to the effect that when, in due course, Prince Charles becomes King of England, they will not accept a British Head of State as head of the Commonwealth. They are thinking about manoeuvring in their own people on a rotating basis, which is certainly an argument. My comments are particularly directed towards the future, and we should not take our current relationship for granted.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My hon. Friend may be right, but I suspect that the matter is rather like reforming the House of Lords: ultimately, failure to agree means that the status quo continues almost indefinitely.

We recognise that the UK's important relationships involve more than NATO, the EU and our transatlantic partners. The Commonwealth adds something specific for Britain and for our foreign policy and trade. The African members of the Commonwealth are also members of the African Union. The south-east Asian Commonwealth members are also members of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Cameroon, Vanuatu, St. Lucia and Canada are all members of La Francophonie as well as Commonwealth members. Finally, Canada, like the UK, is a member of the Commonwealth, the G8 and NATO, to name but a few of our shared associations.

We also recognise that the UK has an historical predicament relating to the Commonwealth, which was accurately and colourfully summed up by the former secretary-general of the Commonwealth, who said that if Britain

"uses us too much, it reinforces the very wrong assumption that it is still the British Commonwealth. If it holds back, it is accused of ignoring this invaluable asset which others have tried to copy, and which so many others would give their eye teeth to have in their foreign policy armoury."

He also recalled reminding a British official at a Commonwealth meeting that

"at one or more times in their history 52 Commonwealth countries have had their teeth knocked out or their shins kicked by a British Government, and they don't forget."

A strangely unique relationship, with good and bad sides, came out of our empire.

What do the Conservatives want the Government to do in the future as far as the Commonwealth is concerned? First, despite what the Minister said, we need to reappraise our future role in and attitude towards the Commonwealth. In June 2007, the former secretary-general of the Commonwealth said:

"In the course of my political years...I have dealt with Foreign Secretaries Hurd, Rifkind, Cook, Straw and Beckett. Naturally, they had nothing but the UK's interests at heart. Within that, they have always been warm towards the Commonwealth, but that warmth hasn't always permeated down to all officials."

There was no mention of the Commonwealth in the Foreign Secretary's announcement of a new strategic framework for the Foreign Office, which was made on 23 January 2008. Perhaps the Minister will explain that oversight.

Will the Minister assure the House that when a new White Paper outlining the Foreign Secretary's new strategic provision for the Foreign Office is finally published, it will include the Commonwealth and go into some detail rather than just including an honourable mention? Does she agree that the 60th anniversary in 2009 of the adoption of the London agreement of 1949, which founded the modern Commonwealth, is an important time to take stock and consider our relationships for the future?

The Foreign Secretary announced on 13 March that the Foreign Office is to stop funding Commonwealth scholarships, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out. In her speech, the Minister outlined the alternatives. However, although I recognise that the Foreign Office budget is under enormous pressure, it sends the wrong signal for the Foreign Secretary to say that that funding, which is in the small change category of the budget, must be reallocated towards the important subject of climate change and global warming. That sends entirely the wrong signal for the sake of a relatively small sum of money. I recognise the fact that the Foreign Office, working with other bodies, has managed to come up with the money, but it would perhaps have been better if the Foreign Secretary, who is interested in education and has a good track record on that subject, had been able to lobby the Prime Minister, who places enormous stress on education, about the importance of the issue.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is there another priority for the Government on the Commonwealth? The Minister made the point that the Government are trying to explore ways to make the Commonwealth more of a force for good around the world, but she did not outline the measures that have been taken or what has been asked of our Commonwealth partners. Will my hon. Friend address that issue and the question whether we can do more as a country to encourage the Commonwealth to be a force for good across the world? Perhaps it could use its influence, or perhaps it could physically put together a force for good, to make a real difference in many humanitarian and economic trouble spots.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My hon. Friend has made a good point. Of course, there is the danger that if Britain were seen to lead on that proposal, a number of members of the Commonwealth would resile from it. It might mean that members of the Commonwealth would think about the operational objectives and size of and support given to the secretary-general of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth secretariat. In the past, the post was almost at the level of a golf club secretary rather than an important chief executive. The new Commonwealth secretary-general, particularly as he comes from India, is likely to make a difference. Those are the things that we should be teasing out, and hon. Members may well have other ideas on the subject.

One important aspect that the Minister mentioned is the role of this House. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has made an important impact on many countries in terms of parliamentary democracy. I know that some of the more cynical Members of the House see the CPA as the sun and surf exchange, and that has undoubtedly gone on. However, a number of hon. Members, including me, have been involved in parliamentary workshops of one kind or another. We should pay tribute to the work of many colleagues and of our CPA secretariat, which has played an important role. It is not for me to suggest how the new secretary-general should act, but that is the sort of thing that he and his colleagues should consider. My hon. Friend Mr. Baron has made an important point.

A number of hon. Members have discussed the more difficult relationships within the Commonwealth. In particular, one thinks of the continuing problems in Kenya, where, fortunately, it looks as though a compromise deal has been made. The Commonwealth undoubtedly played an important role behind the scenes, which involved not only our Government but many neighbouring Commonwealth Governments. Sadly, the Commonwealth has not had such an impact and influence on Zimbabwe. I understand the major problems faced by the Government of South Africa, and Members have mentioned the impact of refugees and the fact that President Mugabe is still seen as an icon in the struggle against colonialism. Nevertheless, some Commonwealth countries have failed to take full-frontal measures to persuade President Mugabe that he is isolated and that what is happening in Zimbabwe is a tragedy not only for the country but for the whole of southern Africa. Of course, we fully support the Government in their efforts to maintain the bar of high standards in democracy and other aspirations. Many Commonwealth countries have effectively been suspended before, in some cases, being readmitted. Pakistan is an obvious example.

My party and I are warm and firm supporters of the Commonwealth, which is a dynamic organisation. It enables countries from all round the world to come together and discuss many things, and it also means that Britain still has a way to influence events outside the international forums of which we are a part. The Commonwealth is an international asset, and we should celebrate it and look forward to its 60th anniversary in a year's time.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation 1:02 pm, 20th March 2008

I congratulate the Government on deciding to have a full day's debate in Government time on the Commonwealth. I congratulate the Minister on making a fine speech, and Mr. Simpson on making a thoughtful and fine speech. I also congratulate Simon Hughes, who lobbied for a debate such as this to take place.

As other Members have said, the Commonwealth is the only international forum, apart from the United Nations, that has member states in every continent of the world—rich states, poor states, G7 and OECD members, and many countries that, sadly, are still least-developed countries. It has small island states such as the Maldives and some of the Pacific islands—the Minister referred to them—that are threatened with extinction as a result of rising sea levels. It has high mountain states such as Canada, Pakistan and India, and it has states in the tropics and the Arctic. Because of its geographical and economic diversity, the Commonwealth is uniquely well placed to understand and deal with problems associated with global warming and the global economy.

Many characteristics within the Commonwealth draw this diverse family of nations together. We have to a considerable extent a shared language and a shared education system. Many millions of students in other Commonwealth countries take A-levels and GCSEs; some still take O-levels, which I know will be seen as a positive thing by some educational traditionalists in this Chamber. Many Commonwealth universities started off as colleges whose degrees were validated by British universities. The university of Durham played a particular part in this respect. Many universities in this country still maintain and are still developing close academic links with universities in other Commonwealth countries.

We have to some extent a shared legal system. Many Commonwealth countries base their legal system on the principle of common law. I am always surprised when I go abroad to see in Ministers' or Attorney-Generals' offices copies of British law reports. They have them because questions determined in the British courts are used as legal precedents in their own countries.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

It is interesting that although in many ways, our legal and education systems are shared across the rest of the Commonwealth, we do not necessarily have that arrangement within the United Kingdom. Scottish law is quite different from English law in a variety of areas, and A-levels and GCSEs tend to be replaced by standard grades and highers in the Scottish system.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

With respect, we do have a shared system. Nobody is saying that Canadian law, Kittician law or Jamaican law are the same as British law—of course they are not. They are probably more different from British law than English law is from Scottish law. Indeed, there may well be more differences between their education systems and ours than there is between the English and Scottish systems. I stand corrected, but there are similar characteristics in the education systems north and south of the border, just as there are similarities with other Commonwealth countries.

We share to a considerable extent our culture and history. Kipling, Doris Lessing and Ben Okri are all great authors who are read and admired throughout the Commonwealth. We also share to a considerable extent links of kith and kin. Using that phrase often brings to mind the courage and heroism of sons and daughters—sons particularly—of British émigrés to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, who in two world wars rallied to the flag and came to fight to maintain the freedom of this country. We must remember, too, that many Indian and West Indian citizens—West Indian subjects—and Africans also came and fought for Britain during the two world wars.

Nowadays, we mean something very different by kith and kin. There are many Indians and Africans living in this country who came from other Commonwealth countries, and their links of family and history are just as strong and important to the Commonwealth as the links of those who are the sons and daughters of émigrés from this country. Of course, people also inter-marry. I am married to a woman who was born in a Commonwealth country—in the Nevis part of St. Kitts and Nevis. Of course, this is not uncommon and it is part of the cement that binds the Commonwealth.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I accept that there are similarities across the Commonwealth, but does the hon. Gentleman not accept that there are distinct differences in the political anthropology of the various countries? In some countries, the main pattern of political loyalty is through the tribal structure, rather than through a class-based or devolved class-based structure. Perhaps studying those variations within the Commonwealth could inform the Government on how better to handle situations in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, which also have a tribal—or biraderi—political structure, rather than a class-based one.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

It is important to realise that tribal—certainly ethnic and religious—differences have been a factor that has marked, and still does to some extent, politics within the United Kingdom. As the chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association's UK branch, I should point out that we have on a number of occasions brought delegates from other Commonwealth countries to Northern Ireland to talk to politicians and others there about how one can use politics constructively to create a bridge between those from different ethnic or religious backgrounds. So I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Commonwealth is highly diverse. How could it be anything else, being an association that encompasses more than a quarter of the world's population? However, we have things to learn from each other, which is one of the values of a commonwealth.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

The hon. Gentleman will know as well as anybody, given his family arrangements, that many Commonwealth citizens who are now part of the community in the UK have retained their Commonwealth citizenship. The debate about the rights of people to vote or to become British, for example, should take into account generations of people who have come and settled in the UK and contributed here, but who still technically may not be British citizens because they have kept their link with another part of the Commonwealth in another part of the world.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

That is one of the issues that we must grapple with. When we in this place determine our immigration and nationality rules, it is important that we take account of the links that the United Kingdom has with other Commonwealth countries. However, we need to take account of those links with all Commonwealth countries, and not pick and choose.

I relate that comment to what I said earlier about kith and kin. That is not just about links between white people within the Commonwealth. It is about family links between people from a wide range of cultures, nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. That is one of the features that makes the Commonwealth so special and gives it a vitality and relevance to the present, which it would not have if it was simply a reflection of a colonial past more than 50 years ago.

At the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association seminars that we hold in London, one sees that shared heritage bubbling to the surface. One sees people wishing to learn from each other. Delegates from Commonwealth countries that have suffered from ethnic or tribal conflict want to learn from us about how we dealt with difficulties in Northern Ireland, and from South Africa about how people from different races have been reconciled in the new multi-ethnic South Africa.

The one thing that unites Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegates more than anything else when they meet is a shared commitment to democracy. Countries cannot belong to the Commonwealth, unlike the United Nations, without a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Pakistan was suspended from the Councils of the Commonwealth at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November last year.

I must correct what the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said—Pakistan has not yet been readmitted to the Commonwealth, but it has held elections and it is well on the path to readmission. I look forward to the day when Pakistan is readmitted as a full participating member of the Commonwealth, as I look forward to the day when Fiji and Zimbabwe meet the conditions for full participation in the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is a family of nations and we do not sever the links, even when we have differences that are so severe and significant that they lead to a country being suspended.

Zimbabwe still receives a great deal of aid from this country because there is a humanitarian need to support the Zimbabwean people. Indeed, as the state of Zimbabwe's economy has deteriorated, UK aid has increased. In 1997-98 we provided £13.7 million of aid to Zimbabwe. In 2006-07 we provided £33 million of aid. Zimbabwe needs help. A third of the population—about 4 million out of 12 million—receive food aid from the World Food Programme. Life expectancy for women in Zimbabwe has fallen to below 34 years. One child in five dies before the age of five. There are 1.8 million orphans or other vulnerable children.

But British aid and aid from other countries can make a difference. The Department for International Development has provided £35 million of aid to Zimbabwe since 2002 to respond to the catastrophe of HIV/AIDS, and will provide a further £47 million over the next three years. Zimbabwe is the first country in southern Africa to see a fall in the HIV prevalence rate: two years ago it stood at 20 per cent. and now it is down to 15.5 per cent.

The Commonwealth matters enormously to the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk made the point that there are more than 7,000 Commonwealth citizens in the UK's armed forces, and Dr. Murrison observed that that number has increased sharply in the past six or seven years.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

The number has increased from 360 almost twentyfold. Will the hon. Gentleman hazard a guess as to why? Do we have a crisis in the recruitment of British nationals, for instance?

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

The subject has been addressed. There are difficulties, undoubtedly, in recruiting UK nationals to the armed forces, in part because of recent conflicts, and in part also because we have full employment, and it is always harder to recruit soldiers at a time of full employment. All of us in the Chamber would agree that the Commonwealth provides a real service to the UK because it enables us to recruit people whom we need in our armed forces.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Defence)

I agree. We owe a great debt of gratitude to Commonwealth citizens who serve in the armed forces. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to be a little bit careful? If there is a rich seam, so to speak, of potential recruits to the British Army, it is less imperative for the Government to make sure that the terms and conditions for indigenous recruits are good to the standard that will attract them into our armed forces?

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that as a potential problem. I would be shoulder to shoulder with him in making the case for the very best terms and conditions for all members of the armed forces, whether they are UK nationals or nationals of other Commonwealth countries—or, indeed, from Nepal. Without that commitment, we will not have the armed forces that we need, with the support and commitment from their members that are currently displayed. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must not fall into the trap of creating cheaper armed forces staffed by foreigners. Despite the huge commitment that 7,250 Commonwealth citizens make to our armed forces, they are a relatively small minority out of, I think, a little below 200,000 members of the armed forces.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

So about 150,000 in the armed forces.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

We all agree that we want our armed forces to have the best possible terms and conditions, but nothing should take away from the bravery and commitment of the Commonwealth soldiers who serve in our armed forces. I remind the House of the most recent winner of the Victoria cross, the first person to win the Victoria cross in a very long time, for extraordinary gallantry, who was from Grenada in the Commonwealth. Although we want good terms and conditions, soldiers from the Commonwealth have served and continue to serve with outstanding gallantry and to the highest standards in the world.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

I utterly agree. Private Beharry has given tremendous service to this country and acts as a role model for young people from all cultures and races in the UK. We are rightly proud of him and the contribution that he and other citizens from Commonwealth countries make to our armed forces.

One of the lessons that we should learn from Iraq and Afghanistan is that there are limits to what military power can achieve. The UK also needs to exercise soft power, influence within the world, and the Commonwealth provides enormous opportunities for the exercise of soft power. Before last years CHOGM in Kampala in November, the UK set out a number of objectives for the conference to win support from other Commonwealth countries for the UK's and the EU's position on climate change, to win support for the Prime Minister's call for action that he made in July 2007 for implementation of the millennium development goals, and for there to be pressure on President Musharraf of Pakistan to step down as head of the armed forces, to lift the state of emergency and to hold elections in Pakistan. When the Prime Minister made a statement to the House on 26 November on his return from Kampala, he was able to report that progress had been made on all those fronts. Of course, the progress in relation to Pakistan had been to suspend Pakistan from the Councils of the Commonwealth, but that does matter, especially in a club, society or association such as the Commonwealth. As a result of that we have seen President Musharraf stepping down as the head of the armed forces in Pakistan and elections taking place. I am sure that Pakistan will soon be readmitted to the Commonwealth.

One area where the Commonwealth is particularly important is in development assistance. The UK won support from other countries in the G7 and EU in 2005 for doubling aid to Africa, and in 2006-07 86 per cent. of all UK aid to sub-Saharan Africa went to Commonwealth countries—£2.5 billion out of a total of £2.9 billion—and 63 per cent. of all UK aid worldwide went to Commonwealth countries. That is logical and sensible. We are providing aid for countries where we are best able to help. I am pleased that during the last decade aid to the Commonwealth has increased greatly. In 1996-97, some £669 million of British taxpayers' money was used in aid in other Commonwealth countries and by last year that had risen to £3.083 billion, almost a fivefold increase in aid to the Commonwealth, and that money is well spent.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk made the point that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's budget is under pressure as a result of decisions taken in the comprehensive spending review, and the reduction in the budget for the Foreign Office took place, in part at least, to fund an increase in spending by the Department for International Development. I should like to see DFID respond to that by increasing its own policy commitment to and involvement with the Commonwealth. DFID has a small team of officials in charge of its Commonwealth policy, which needs to be expanded. It is based in East Kilbride but it needs to work with others in the Commonwealth secretariat, which is based in London, and to work more closely with Commonwealth high commissioners who are based in London and with us in Parliament. Some of those staff need to be moved to DFID's London headquarters.

In the past, DFID left politics to the Foreign Office and concentrated on the technical job of providing development aid and of education and health policy. It has developed a globally respected reputation for the quality of its development work, but development policy does not just take place in a vacuum. Development depends upon good governance, especially when aid is being provided in the form of budget support direct to a Government's Exchequer. The Commonwealth is a particularly important driver for good governance, and so should be seen as a key partner for DFID.

The DFID White Paper published at the end of 2006 set out three new priorities for the Department: improving the standard of governance in developing countries, and especially the capacity of Parliaments of developing countries to hold the Governments of those countries to account; to make progress on climate change; and to achieve reform of international institutions. The Commonwealth is in a uniquely well-placed position to help achieve British objectives on all three of those fronts. DFID therefore needs to invest more in its relations with the Commonwealth, and to put in as much effort on co-operation with the Commonwealth as it does with other international institutions, such as the World Bank or the EU.

Between 2001 and 2005, UK aid to Commonwealth countries increased by £1.3 billion, but using the leverage that we have over the EU, aid from the European community and other EU states to British Commonwealth countries increased over those years by £3.65 billion, more than twice as much as the British aid increased. We got something extra for Commonwealth countries because of our participation in the EU. DFID needs to invest in its relationship with the Commonwealth, just as much as it does with other international institutions.

I speak as the current chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch, which seeks to make its contribution to strengthening the Commonwealth and supporting Government initiatives in the Commonwealth. In 2005 when the UK Government had made Africa one of its two priorities for the Gleneagles G8 summit, the CPA UK branch held a conference in co-operation with the Inter-Parliamentary Union and others to bring together parliamentarians from G8, EU and Commonwealth countries to look at how we in our respective Parliaments would progress-chase our leaders on the commitments made at Gleneagles and within the EU.

In most years the CPA holds four seminars to work on similar themes. This year we will be holding five. One will be on governance and another on parliamentary practice and procedure, which the Minister mentioned. We have just held one seminar to drive forward policy in Commonwealth countries on climate change and one on how we can work more closely together to deal with the problem of international trade in illicit drugs, and later this year we will be holding a conference looking at what we can do together to improve development co-operation policy.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Defence)

I am interested to hear about the gatherings with which the hon. Gentleman is involved. When he has his symposium on climate change, will he be sure to invite the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which I visited on Tuesday and which told me that one of its chief problems at the moment with the many sites that it looks after around the globe is the issue of climate change, which rather surprised me? I am sure that it would make a sound contribution to the gathering that he describes on climate change.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

The climate change conference took place just before the UN Bali conference on climate change at which its findings were presented, but I invite the hon. Gentleman to come with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to talk to the CPA UK branch about climate change and other issues that it may wish to raise and with which it thinks we should be involved. We would be willing and happy to meet.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk—with his tongue in his cheek, I hope—said that in the past the UK branch of the CPA had a reputation for surf and sun. I assure him that that has changed; we are no longer an exchange club for Members of Parliament, but a serious player in Commonwealth policy and politics. I should pay tribute to Mr. Speaker and the Lord Speaker for agreeing that from April—the week after next—the House of Commons Commission and its Lords equivalent, rather than the Treasury, will fund the activities of the CPA UK branch. That is an important step forward in making our parliamentary body independent of the Executive, and it will enable us to deliver more for Members of both Houses of Parliament.

The CPA UK branch has taken a step forward in participating in an organisation called the Westminster Consortium, which brings together a range of bodies that provide advice, assistance, training and resources to Parliaments in Commonwealth countries, to help strengthen their capacity to hold their Executives to account. The other bodies include the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which I also chair, the National Audit Office, the Clerks Department's Overseas Office, and others.

Together those organisations have made a bid for money from DFID's global transparency fund to do work to strengthen the capacity of Parliaments abroad. The consortium has parliamentary functioning work in hand at the request of the Parliaments of Guyana, Uganda and Kenya. The Kenyan Deputy Speaker came across a couple of weeks ago, and the Kenyan Speaker will come to the UK next month to discuss what we can do to help the Parliament of Kenya deal with the problems that arose following the country's elections.

It seems clear that the fundamental problem in Kenya was that the elections were not run by an independent electoral commission. A day or two after the president of the electoral commission of Kenya had announced that President Kibaki had won the election, he said that he had done so under duress. That is hardly surprising, as a year or so before, the President had packed the commission with a partisan team of his own supporters. If the next Kenyan elections are to have credibility among the Kenyan citizenry and the international community, they will have to be run by an independent electoral commission.

The law on the commission needs to change, and the people with the responsibility to make law in Kenya, are, of course, those in its Parliament. It is a hung Parliament; no party has an overall majority and its members represent a wide range of different parties and different points of view. It is important that they should exercise their authority over the Executive and ensure that a newly formed electoral commission of Kenya has representation from the whole spectrum of political parties and, I would advise, from Kenyan civil society too—although that is their decision, of course, not mine.

In some developing countries, Parliaments are intimidated by powerful Presidents, and if we in the Commonwealth genuinely subscribe to the democratic principles that underlie our membership, it is important that we work with colleagues to ensure that Parliaments have the strength, capacity and confidence to challenge the Executives in their countries and hold them to account.

Many other Members want to speak and I have probably spoken for too long, but I should like to mention one other piece of work, in Sierra Leone. It was commissioned by DFID and implemented by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. A few years ago, Sierra Leone was a country destroyed by conflict and violence. The United Kingdom—including, of course, its armed forces—played an important role in bringing that conflict to an end and developing the capacity of the civilian Government.

Before the elections in Sierra Leone last year, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy was asked by DFID to work with each of the political parties in the country to help them present their cases to the electorate in policy, rather than ethnic or tribal, terms. To begin with, we worked with all the parties; towards the end we spent more time working for the four largest parties. We helped them to use techniques common in this country. Pledge cards were produced so that politicians could explain in an emblematic, totemic form to their electorate what they would seek to do if elected. We persuaded the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service to run an "Any Questions?" programme. In Africa, it is quite a unique idea that members of the public should be able to question members of or candidates for Parliament about what their policies would be and what they had done in the past. It was a tremendous success.

The training was done on a cross-party basis; trainers came from the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour parties. We asked each opposition party to consider what it would do in its first few weeks of government if it was elected. Then we asked President Kabbah's ruling party what it would do if it was not elected and became the opposition party. What would its role be as the leading opposition party? In the elections, something happened which is unusual in Africa: there was a revolving door—the ruling party was voted out and another party was voted in. The country had been involved in the bloodiest conflict just a few years ago, but it did not go back to that. The door revolved—a new party went in and the old party came out and took up its role as an opposition. That shows the genuine things that can be done by parliamentary capacity building, and that is immensely easier to do in a Commonwealth country.

I said that I would sit down, and I will. The final thing that I want to say is this. Don McKinnon provided outstanding leadership as the secretary-general of the Commonwealth in the past eight years. I offer him my best wishes for whatever he does from now on and give my congratulations to Kamalesh Sharma, the new secretary-general. I wish him good luck in keeping the Commonwealth in good shape in the years ahead.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire 1:38 pm, 20th March 2008

It is a pleasure to follow Hugh Bayley, who has done excellent and serious work as the chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. His speech was very well made. I hope that he did not mind my intervention too much; as the only Scot in the Chamber at the time, I felt a duty to make the point that I made.

I offer my apologies, as I will not be able to stay for the whole debate due to a commitment arranged some weeks ago. I intend to be back for the wind-ups. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Simon Hughes on his tenacity over several weeks in lobbying to get this debate, and I congratulate the Government on agreeing to have it in their time. Given that Commonwealth day was last Monday, the debate is timely.

Last week, I had the wonderful experience of going on a trip to the United Nations organised for parliamentarians by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—so I was in New York on Commonwealth day. On that day, the British deputy permanent representative to the UN was hosting a reception to celebrate a new report about peacekeeping. At the reception were a variety of ambassadors and figures from member states of the UN and, particularly, member states of the Commonwealth. It was particularly moving that the Ugandan permanent representative to the UN read out a statement as part of a celebration of Commonwealth day. When I talked informally to representatives from a variety of Commonwealth countries, I was struck by the great value that they too placed on this association, this network, this great organisation and this lasting set of relationships. It is important that our debate is underscored by that.

Any debate entitled "The United Kingdom and the Commonwealth" will be wide-ranging, and it is welcome that so many different issues have been raised. I would like to confine my remarks to a few key points—the importance of the Commonwealth and the roles that it can play in resolving conflict and tackling climate change, and the rights of Commonwealth citizens in this country.

We have already heard about the great importance of the Commonwealth. Two billion people live in Commonwealth countries, of which there are 53 across the globe, with a great mix of north and south, and a diversity of ethnicity, race, religions and cultures that are different across the countries and within them. They cross all the continents of the world, going from very large countries with huge populations, such as India, to very small island states.

The Commonwealth provides a welcome alternative international forum for discussing a range of issues. We have already heard about the millennium development goals and about climate change. While we have our formal structures through the EU and the UN, it is complementary to have, alongside those international governance structures, different groupings of countries coming together and engaging in dialogue.

We know about the great contribution that people from the Commonwealth make to the UK, with many thousands of Commonwealth citizens living and working here and contributing day in, day out, as doctors and teachers, or setting up businesses. They are choosing to make Britain their home, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey said, not always necessarily taking up British citizenship, which can create difficulties.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

In the context of the very live debate that is taking place about citizenship and nationality, how immigrants have to be encouraged to feel British, and so on, no group of immigrants is more passionate about Britain and more passionately proud of being British than those from the Commonwealth. I think that the generation who came from the West Indies in the 1950s are almost more proud of Britain than those of us in this Chamber, and I would like to place that on the record.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

I welcome the hon. Lady's intervention. I will pick up on that point when I come to the rights of Commonwealth citizens. There are many reasons why somebody living in Britain might want to retain the links with their home country and therefore not take up British citizenship, and that should not necessarily be to their detriment as regards their rights in this country. As we have heard, 7,000 of our armed forces come from Commonwealth countries. Strong links are created by the people from the Commonwealth who live here but retain family connections in other Commonwealth countries, and by the UK citizens who go and live in other Commonwealth countries, which is becoming increasingly important. All those factors help to bind the countries together.

I am pleased that the Minister mentioned the Commonwealth games, which are due to be held very close to my constituency, in Glasgow, in 2014. We are very much looking forward to that. Sport, like other cultural activities, provides an opportunity for countries to come together and share experiences. We should not underestimate the value of events and institutions such as the Commonwealth games.

In preparing for the debate, I did some research and managed to print off from the website a list of the Commonwealth countries, as well as their flags, which will no doubt stand me in good stead for pub quizzes or "Trivial Pursuit" questions. Looking down that list, I was struck by the sheer diversity of countries. Many of them I have visited and are very familiar and commonly talked about; some are more remote and far flung, and my opinions of them, like those of many other Members, I am sure, come from what we see on the news, read in the newspapers and, personally speaking in the case of Botswana, from the fabulous literature series "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency", which paints vivid pictures of that African country. I have to put my hands up and confess to some ignorance, because when I saw the state of Kiribati listed, I scratched my head and was not sure where it was. I have asked several people since and have not managed to get an answer. The Minister may be able to fill us all in on that one and stand us in better stead for trivia quizzes.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I will happily respond. It is pronounced, so I am told, "koobats", and it is a Pacific island. I met a delegate from there when I was at the Commonwealth meeting of Women's Affairs Ministers. As my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley said, it is a low-lying area and one of the many islands that are at risk.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

I thank the Minister for informing us of something that some of us may not have known before.

Several countries on the list have been in the news often recently. That is where the Commonwealth has had an important role in safeguarding peace and security and sometimes stepping in and playing a role in resolving disputes. Kenya has been mentioned already. For many years, Kenya was a great success story in Africa, with a burgeoning economy and a stable political system. Indeed, the elections in 2002 were widely praised for the fair and free way in which they were undertaken. It was in that context that we all saw, to our horror, the events unfolding late last year and early this year, with violence and people being killed and having to flee their homes as a result of the conflict after the disputed elections.

However, we have also seen, and should take heart from, the value of international diplomacy, with the action taken not only by Kofi Annan but by a variety of countries behind the scenes, including Commonwealth countries. That has managed to bring Kenya back from the brink of disaster and, it is to be hoped, to create a platform for a peaceful resolution of the tension and to prevent further violence. We are still in the early days of the power-sharing agreement between the two parties, but we all hope that we will be able to secure a stable future for Kenya, that it will get the constitutional reform that is needed, and that the Commonwealth states will be able to continue to support it and see it returned to its former role as a successful figurehead country that manages to be an example to other countries in the region.

Another somewhat fragile state is Pakistan. In the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto we have had many debates and questions in this House. It caused a great deal of concern, particularly in the run-up to the elections on 18 February. It is pleasing that those elections passed off with relatively little disruption. The new political mix marks quite a change in public opinion in Pakistan, with the parties of Sharif and Zardawi working together. There may be some hope that Pakistan has a somewhat brighter future, although, again, we are very much in the early stages. I welcome the Minister's comment that the Commonwealth hopes to be able to support Pakistan to fulfil the conditions needed to become once more a full member of the Commonwealth and embrace democratic representation and the rule of law.

Sierra Leone is another great success story for international co-operation. The strong links between the UK and Sierra Leone through the Commonwealth were clearly part of the motivation for the UK to intervene to end the crippling civil war that was taking place in that country. At the end of last year, I had the great privilege, along with Mrs. Curtis-Thomas, who I hope will share those experiences with the House later, and Mr. Gale, of travelling to Sierra Leone with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy as one of the later parts of the project that the hon. Member for City of York described. I did not really know what to expect from a visit to the third poorest country in the world, which had been ravaged so recently—within the past five or six years—by a devastating civil war. I had not expected to find the great positivity, which was absolutely everywhere, whether in the smiling faces when we went into the Parliament building or in the streets with the coconut sellers and the bustle that was going on. There was such a sense of optimism, given the horrors that every family has experienced, as we learned when we spoke to people when we were waiting for the ferry or travelling around. Everybody had lost a brother, a father, an uncle, a mother or a daughter in the civil war, if not several relatives, yet they managed to have this wonderful outlook. That can-do attitude will take Sierra Leone far, but we have to recognise that it has been made possible by interventions. Indeed, they feel strongly full of thanks for the UK's intervention, and the Department for International Development is still the biggest development agent working out there at the moment. I am sure that we will hear more from the hon. Member for Crosby about Sierra Leone because I know that she is a frequent visitor to that country.

While we can recognise the successes internationally, we also, sadly, need to recognise where we have failed. Zimbabwe is a case in point. The hon. Member for City of York shared some horrifying statistics with us: inflation, depending on which figures we believe, stands between 7,000 per cent. and 13,000 per cent.; four out of five people are living below the poverty line; and a quarter of people have had to flee their homes. It is a truly horrific situation brought about by the destructive impact of Mugabe's regime. It was right that, in 2003, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting—CHOGM, which is an interesting and amusing acronym—focused on the role of Zimbabwe and considered whether suspending it would be the right way to bring the Commonwealth's influence to bear. Of course, at that point Mugabe decided that he would take Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth. It is regrettable that we have not been able to gain greater influence on that country, and that we have not used our abilities to talk to neighbouring countries to get them to bring more pressure to bear, because it is the people of Zimbabwe who are suffering.

Photo of Kate Hoey Kate Hoey Labour, Vauxhall

I agree that it is sad that the Commonwealth has not been more involved in Zimbabwe. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is also sad that the African Union, and South Africa in particular, did not press for Commonwealth observers at the elections being held last week? That would have helped to give some credibility to what will be a totally flawed election process.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

The hon. Lady is quite right. Indeed, Human Rights Watch has produced a report and concluded that the elections will be deeply flawed because of factors such as people not being allowed to register to vote, dead people being allowed to register and the repression of opposition parties. The situation there is very difficult. One chink of light may be the former Finance Minister, who is challenging Mugabe and could provide another way forward. Perhaps that is a vain hope, but the electoral process has to be the bedrock of a country's stability. When that is flawed, as we saw in Kenya, the consequences can be dire. Zimbabwe is one country in respect of which we cannot bask in the glow of success of what we have achieved internationally, and I press the Government to use every available channel open to them to take further action.

The theme of Commonwealth day 2008 was "The Environment, Our Future", and it is right for an international organisation such as the Commonwealth to focus on climate change. I am a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, which is undertaking an inquiry into the international context after Kyoto. One of the things that we have found is frustration caused by the UN negotiations—how slow and bureaucratic that process can be. After speaking to some of those who take part in such negotiations, one begins to wonder whether we will ever find a solution and get international agreement.

We have to welcome, therefore, any other international bodies that can be used as a forum through which to push for progress, to encourage countries to take UN negotiations more seriously, and to allow unilateral action by countries, or groups working together, to cut carbon emissions. Most importantly, in the context of Commonwealth countries, that may allow for good adaptation measures. Countries such as India have an important role to play and I hope that it can be encouraged, as a rapidly industrialising country, to consider how it can learn from our past mistakes and create a far lower carbon economy than we have managed to.

Scientists tell us that it may not be possible to keep to a 2(o) rise in temperature; the figure may end up being higher. The impact of such change will be felt most harshly in many of our Commonwealth friends. Indeed, the small island states—the Tuvalus and Vanuatus—and some of the larger states, such as low-lying Bangladesh, are under great threat. Australia is already experiencing extreme weather patterns and just a small change will make those events more extreme, with really difficult consequences. Thankfully, its Government are now looking more seriously at what they can do to address climate change, after almost a decade of denying its existence.

I feel that the world is beginning to wake up to the threat of climate change, but the analogy that I would use is that rather than its being a case of someone rolling over in bed, looking at the alarm clock, thinking, "Oh my goodness! I've slept in," and rushing out of the door to act immediately, it is more like someone waking up, having a stretch and a yawn and thinking, "Maybe I'll go and have some breakfast." The sense of urgency demonstrated by all the international institutions, and even, I would contend, by this Government, does not seem to match the scale of the challenge that we face. I urge the Government to act with a sense of greater urgency on this issue and, importantly, use their influence with our Commonwealth partners.

I turn finally to the rights of Commonwealth citizens in the UK. We have all spoken about the importance of the Commonwealth, and I am sure that we will hear more on that, so it is right that we think seriously about how we show Commonwealth citizens living in the UK that they are valued members of the community and that we value the network that is the Commonwealth. As Mr. Hollobone mentioned, the proposal to get rid of ancestry visas has come back twice in four years. That is very worrying.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I am glad that the hon. Lady referred to that because I would like to correct something that I said earlier. I mixed up my consultations—the consultation on the visitor visa finished in March, and the consultation on the ancestry issue does not finish until May, so there is still plenty of time for hon. Members and others to respond.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

That is a welcome clarification, and I hope that the consultation responses will show that it is important to retain ancestry visas in order to keep our links with Commonwealth countries. I also hope that as a result of the consultation, the Government will decide that that is the right way forward.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

The Minister was helpful in making that correction. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be useful if all colleagues found out how many Commonwealth citizens were in their constituencies? In mine, probably about one in five of the community are such citizens. We have an obligation to ensure that those resident in this country understand the proposal, because if they understand it, the Government will get a significant response.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Liberal Democrat, East Dunbartonshire

My hon. Friend makes his point clearly and well.

The other issue concerning the rights of Commonwealth citizens in this country is their right to take part in our elections. The recent review of citizenship by Lord Goldsmith, which was published this month, seemed to question whether that right should be retained. I think that it should be. It is important, and I would go further. As we have heard, many Commonwealth citizens work and live in the UK and contribute to our society, and for a variety of reasons, they retain citizenship in their own country. Often, they do not know that they are eligible to vote in this country. Rather than just preserving that right, which we should do, we should make a concerted effort to ensure that people are aware of it so that they can play a full role in the democratic process of this country. I urge the Government to promote that right, rather than remove it.

The Commonwealth is a hugely important organisation and a key part of UK heritage. It is also a vital part of the UK's future.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department 1:59 pm, 20th March 2008

It is a pleasure to follow Jo Swinson, with whom, as she said, I shared an excellent visit to Sierra Leone. I shall talk about that visit in a few moments. I would like to offer my congratulations to my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley, the chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. My involvement with both organisations has been tremendously positive and it is the reason why I am speaking today.

I am going to talk about my experiences of a specific country. That may seem rather mean when so many are available, but as I look around the Chamber and see other hon. Members in their places, I know that others will willingly cover other countries. I shall talk in depth about Sierra Leone.

I first went to Sierra Leone in 2003 at the request of the then MP for Bridgend, Mr. Win Griffiths. I do not know whether friends and colleagues will recall him; he was a stalwart of the Back Benches, always sat at the back, and he was chairman of the all-party group for Sierra Leone. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association had been kind enough to fund a visit and Win Griffiths was looking for Members to go.

It is true that Sierra Leone has a significant amount of both sand and sea, but the problem is that it does not have very much else, which does not it make it a very attractive proposition. I had to have 17 inoculations to go there, which quite frankly would have put off most Members, and the warnings that came with the various malaria drugs alarmed everyone in the family. The requirement to carry insect repellent everywhere put the tin lid on the suggestion that this was some sort of beano that we were all going on. It was quite a serious undertaking. Win Griffiths particularly wanted me to go on the trip because there were huge issues to do with genital circumcision in Sierra Leone, which was just beginning to be talked about, and he felt that it was right and proper to have a woman accompanying him, so I went.

Sierra Leone had just emerged from a civil war in February. As my hon. Friend the Member for City of York said, it was a devastating war. It is an extraordinary country, amazingly mineral-rich with plenty of diamonds and sapphires, but in many ways, that has proved to be its undoing. If we reflect on the antecedents of the civil war, we can see there were huge issues around the control of the diamond and sapphire mines. They were fantastic repositories of wealth, but even today, very little of that wealth permeates through to the people of Sierra Leone. There are several companies involved, but they play no role in reinvesting the benefit that they have taken out of the country. With international help, the UK has contributed to returning Sierra Leone to peace, but it remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, based on her experiences. I would like to put it on record from the Opposition side of the House that, although many people criticised the previous Prime Minister Tony Blair, I believe he was quite right to take the decision to use British armed forces to intervene in Sierra Leone. It provided a perfect example of proper intervention against an appalling regime and of the sheer professionalism of our armed forces, some of whom are still there doing training. I just wanted that put on the record.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

What a lovely and generous thing for the hon. Gentleman to say. That was very true. All over Sierra Leone, many children are called Tony Blair. When he went to receive the country's highest award, he was greeted by a group of children who had been named after him. Undoubtedly, when British citizens go to the shores of Sierra Leone, they are greeted with tremendous love and affection. The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire also felt that. Without a shadow of a doubt, these people realise that we helped them to exit from a horror acknowledged by a war crimes tribunal as one of the worst, if not the worst, that this world has ever seen. The degree of mutilation that took place during those 10 years beggars belief.

I was saying that Sierra Leone is vying to be at the bottom of all the tables of statistics. In the World Health Organisation's statistics, for example, the country is held to be 176th out of 177 countries, but it is right at the bottom of others. Perhaps the most significant statistic is that Sierra Leone has the worst maternal and child mortality in the world, with one in four children dying before their fifth birthday. Even today, it is a very grim place to visit, yet the degree of optimism that ones sees while walking through the streets is truly uplifting and inspiring.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I am listening with interest to my hon. Friend's speech. I have never visited Sierra Leone, but it is worth putting on record the fact that before the horrors of the civil war, the country had some of the best standards of education in west Africa because of its history as a state in which freed slaves originally settled. Freetown, in particular, had very high standards of education, which makes its plight now even more tragic.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

My hon. Friend is quite correct. In fact, our nations share a great love of education and a desire for all our children to do well. If we were to transfer ourselves to Freetown, families, mothers, brothers and sisters would be having exactly the same conversation about what school to send their children to and what they were going to do when they grew up. I know that the Sierra Leone Government are very keen to capitalise on their former reputation and develop their educational provision. We have a role to play in helping them to do that.

On the subject of conflict, nearly a quarter of the population—5 million people—were either displaced or forced to flee during the war, but the good news is that, following the very successful recent election, 12 members of Parliament who are citizens of the UK have now gone home. That is a tremendous accolade for a country so soon out of its civil war, and it augurs well for the future. As was mentioned earlier, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy funded the visit and we had the opportunity to meet some constituents who are now serving in the Sierre Leone Government. That was very encouraging, too.

About 10,000 children, some as young as eight, were forced into the various armed forces, but once again there is another good news story. I want to tell everyone here that 53 per cent. of the Sierra Leone Government's budget comes courtesy of us: that is, 53p in every pound paid to a Minister there comes from British taxpayers. That is a staggering commitment. I can well hear some people wondering why we are doing that, but the only answer is that people must visit Sierra Leone to find out. If they went, there would be no argument about why that funding was necessary.

That is not the sort of funding that we provide to all our Commonwealth brothers and sisters, because there are various agreements about which countries throughout the world we should support. We have been fortunate enough to be allocated, or to agree to support, Sierra Leone in considerable measure. Next door, in the Côte d'Ivoire, there is French support and Liberia has the US, for example, so everyone is bearing a share of the responsibility for supporting vulnerable countries that are either in conflict, post-conflict or now considered to be fragile states.

The consequences of the war are, of course, still being felt and will, in my opinion, be felt for generations. It is not possible simply to recover from a civil war, in which terrible atrocities and the rape of a nation were committed, in just a generation. That is impossible. A huge number of people who were either murdered or sent out of the country comprised the technical capacity required to grow the country back after the war. Growing that technical capacity is a matter of great concern to me.

I have already said that the UK has spent large amounts and supported the nation enormously. Military intervention was requested by the then President Kabbah, and Tony Blair, the Government and the House responded magnificently. The civil uprising was put down very quickly. It was a war that was waiting to end; there were no protracted problems. Crucially, a plan was in place to manage the peace. When we reflect on other wars being prosecuted in different parts of the world, it is the absence of a peace plan that makes people despair so much. In Sierra Leone, however, they got the peace plan right. We negotiated and received support from the UN for a peacekeeping mission. We assisted and advised the demobilisation and integration programme through which 50,000 former combatants were disarmed and given the opportunity to start a life.

A good half of those former combatants were young people—over 50 per cent. of the population in Sierra Leone is under the age of 15. There are arguments about life expectancy, but it ranges from 32 to 40. It is not unsurprising, therefore, that the rebel armies were full of children. I have visited dozens of schools in Sierra Leone, and children who are former murderers—some of them have murdered their own parents, some have raped their own parents, and some of them have done both—can be found in the classroom. They were taken back, not ostracised, by the very communities in which they committed those terrible crimes. They were embraced as victims of a terrible time, and have been brought back into the fold. Let me give hon. Members one salutary fact: Sierra Leone has not one child psychologist to deal with any of the trauma that those young people have experienced. An atrocity has simply been put to one side, and the country has got on with the future.

The British Government have donated a huge amount of aid to Sierra Leone. We helped to set up the special court staffed by the British, Americans and people from all over the Commonwealth and the EU, to try to bring justice to people who had had terrible crimes perpetrated against them. As has been mentioned, members of the British armed forces still serve in Sierra Leone, and act as expert advisers to the Sierra Leonean army. Many members of that army now serve in the British armed forces to take back good practice. As I said in an intervention, however, it is a two-way street—we also learn about the challenges faced by countries the size of Sierra Leone and how better to position our armies, so that when we fight, and support countries, in similar conflicts, we can share the experience gained.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is an excellent foundation. Will my hon. Friend the Member for City of York tell us whether the Speaker has agreed to fund just the CPA, or will the Westminster Foundation for Democracy also be funded?

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

The funding that comes from the House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords is for the CPA. The Foreign Office provides grant in aid to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and other bodies fund particular programmes of work—for instance, DFID funds work on Sierra Leone.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

May I therefore extend, through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my warm thanks to the Speaker for agreeing to take the CPA under his wing? That is quite right and proper. I also thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for its support for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which does extraordinary work.

The foundation has taken to Sierra Leone a number of delegations of Members of Parliament, not just from this House but from the Scottish Parliament—we were fortunate to visit with Mr. Iain Smith, a Liberal MSP. We sat down with newly elected members of the Sierra Leonean Parliament to talk to them about what it was to be an MP, both in power and in opposition. That was an extraordinary event, simply because 72 of the 120 MPs elected in the recent elections were brand new—many of them had never engaged in any political activity before. Many of them had got in on the ticket, signed up to a particular party, got through the election and found themselves members of Parliament.

We had a Herculean task, in which we failed dismally, in terms of the number of subjects that can be covered in three days. The notion that we could be taught everything about our roles in three days is a little farcical, and yet for the Sierra Leonean members of Parliament, we are the only show in town. Nobody else is riding in to help them with the difficult task of managing themselves in government and opposition. There were many conversations about the Americans possibly doing something, but the Westminster Foundation for Democracy was it. The Speaker and Deputy Speaker came to see us and said that such education was tremendously important because the people of Sierra Leone want to retain democracy and peace. The democratic process is the way for them. I commend the foundation and applaud its aims and objectives. I hope that the FCO continues to sponsor it, because if members of Parliament do not understand their role, there will be serious problems in government.

Some of our conversations with colleagues in Sierra Leone were tremendously interesting. It is all very well to criticise some of these nations for being corrupt, but when one meets members of Parliament who receive a salary of £400 a year, have no travel or accommodation allowance, and some of whose constituencies are 1,000 miles away, it is difficult to tell them it is inappropriate to pay for children's education or somebody's funeral. They turn around and say, "But we earn more than anyone else in our community. Would you walk over a dead body in your community?" We found such conversations extremely challenging, because if that is the definition of corruption I would probably be equally corrupt in that sense. Sierra Leone has an acute shortage of money, and the Government need all the support that can be provided.

Let me deal with the role of DFID, which has done a tremendous job. After the war, the first priority was to get a grasp on democracy and all the civil governance organisations. Half the army had defected to the rebel groups, and half the police were in the pay of the rebel groups. As for the courts, one could buy one's way out of a murder charge quite easily because of the acute shortage of money—people are extraordinarily poor, living a hand-to-mouth existence on 26p a day. In Freetown today, we would find 1 million people shuffling around the streets because unemployment runs at 90 per cent. The role of the British Government was to secure those instruments of control, management and freedom that we all take for granted. They have done a fantastic job.

We have provided not only money but expertise because the support needed by the people of Sierra Leone and other Commonwealth countries cannot be bought with money alone. We had to send people from our Army to support the development of an army in Sierra Leone. We had to send judges from the UK courts. We had to ensure that they were paid from the British purse, so that they could not be bought by anyone with substantial funding who wanted to avoid a conviction for serious crimes. We had to ensure that the police were paid and had accommodation. In the first few months after the war, when I was in Sierra Leone, the British Army was responsible for taking food up country in a helicopter, to make sure that the Sierra Leonean army did not go raiding local villages because they were starving. That was tremendously important, because the Government at the time were struggling to cope with 2.5 million people in Freetown, a city built to accommodate 250,000. DFID's work has consistently been about supporting democratic governance and those instruments that secure the peace and safety of individuals.

DIFD has worked extensively with young people, including former rebels, and has worked closely with the Sierra Leonean Government's education department to develop a 10-year education plan. It continues to be extremely busy, and although we fund 53 per cent. of the Government's budget, it is not a great deal of money when so much needs to be done.

Gender is a major issue, as it is in many Commonwealth countries. The CPA has held a number of workshops in Freetown to advise on ways of increasing participation by and equality among women, and that work has been vital. I have done a great deal of community work in Waterloo in Sierra Leone. The headman there told me that every one of the women in his community had been raped during the war, yet none of them had brought any charges for sexual abuse or rape. That continues to be a common feature of women's lives in Sierra Leone. Tremendous liberties are taken.

I have already mentioned female genital circumcision and mutilation. It is not a Government requirement, or even a male requirement: it is performed by women on women, and is considered to be very much part of their cultural heritage. However, thanks to such organisations as the World Service, supported by the British Government and beamed into every home in Sierra Leone, a significant number of women have been sensitised on the subject of circumcision. Some now object to the procedure, and want an opportunity to be free of the problems associated with it.

The mercy ships, which are supported extensively by the United Kingdom, do a great deal of work in Sierra Leone on behalf of those women. When they were last in the country, 2,000 women who had been subjected to circumcision turned up. Two thirds of them were incontinent, and a third had been left sterile. DIFD's work with the women has been extensive. It has encouraged them to stand up for their rights, and has referred them to organisations that enable them to talk about their experiences. It is also beginning to help them with their literacy difficulties.

Only 10 per cent. of women in Sierra Leone can read, which makes developing a health programme a nightmare. We cannot arrange lessons for everyone. We can spread an awful lot of good information through the written word, but that requires people to be able to read. I should add that only 20 per cent. of men in Sierra Leone can read. The illiteracy levels there are the worst in the world, ranking bottom in the Commonwealth league. Making the country literate is a major challenge and a major opportunity for another fantastic organisation, the British Council.

We have not talked much today about the British Council's role in Commonwealth countries, but it is extensive. During the last few weeks a man called Stephen Kinnock has taken over the council's office there, because, as we all know, its office in St Petersburg has closed. That is very regrettable, but I for one was delighted that such an able individual was to be in charge of the office in Sierra Leone.

The British Council has been working in Sierra Leone for 60 years, and was there during the trouble. It is a very challenging country in which to serve. During and after the war there were single-person postings, as with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is very hard for people and their families to be sent to a country with no running water and no permanent electricity supply, where life expectancy is the lowest in the world and where there is no functioning hospital. We should all be tremendously proud of people who can do a good job in such circumstances.

The British Council office staff are fantastic. For a long time they have provided the only library in the country. Last year 750 students took United Kingdom examinations, and 17,000 people used non-web-based resources to gain qualifications. The people of a country that was once very proud of its educational background have been given the opportunity to pursue their education through the British Council because we have chosen to support the organisation, and long may we do so. In many Commonwealth countries the council provides a first-rate education to international standards. The educational standards in Sierra Leone are not international, and its desire to create an educational platform as a source of business and income will be denied until that is sorted out, but the British Council is providing great opportunities.

Let me now deal with what I consider to be the only remaining serious challenges that face post-conflict and fragile states. Members will know that I am an engineer, and I hope they will forgive me for focusing on the role of engineering in the development of nations. As I said earlier, a country emerging from a conflict—a fragile state—is deemed to be a state that may tip back into instability for a number of reasons. The reason may be endemic disease or endemic unemployment, or it may be threats from other countries. However, some of those fragile states manage to overcome their crises.

The recent elections in Sierra Leone were very successful, and I congratulate President Kabbah and his successor on the exemplary way in which they conducted themselves. I do not think the people of Sierra Leone ever felt that they could aspire to the levels that they saw in Kenya, but when Kenya collapsed in front of them we could feel the pride of a nation that had managed to overcome such difficulties in its elections. As my hon. Friend the Member for City of York observed, it was like a revolving door: out went one party and in came another. When we visited the country to work on the educational programme, we witnessed the same sort of rivalry and banter between the opposing parties that I have witnessed in the House of Commons many times.

As I said earlier, now that the crisis is over in Sierra Leone, one of its main problems is mass unemployment. The fact that 90 per cent. of the population is unemployed worries the Government of Sierra Leone and many other poor countries enormously. The 90 per cent. is very age-specific. One does not see young people in work; employment is for people in their 20s and 30s. What can be done with approximately 1.5 million young men under the age of 16? It is immensely worrying. With unemployment at that level, much damage can be caused. Opportunism allows rebel armies, or any individual, to mass a force of instability.

I have been talking to our colleagues in DFID and the FCO, and I make the following appeal to the Minister: in countries such as Sierra Leone, we must move the DFID programmes on from negotiating civil contingency and civil stability to looking at how to develop employment opportunities. Without employment there is no income, without income there are no tax reserves, and without tax reserves countries such as Sierra Leone cannot get off their knees and do the sorts of things we take for granted.

I want more conversations of this kind to take place because the matter I am raising is of fundamental importance to our country, and if it is fundamentally important to us it is also fundamentally important in Sierra Leone. We think of skills acquisition as one of our twin top priorities, and that is no different in Sierra Leone. The difference between us and Sierra Leone is that we have huge investment programmes that allow young people to train on the job. There are no investment programmes in Sierra Leone at present, other than those funded by the Chinese and the EU. When the Chinese bring development into countries such as Sierra Leone, they will offer to build something for the country but they will bring in Chinese people from halfway around the world to build it. That is super because the facility is left in the country, but there is not a single qualified road engineer in Sierra Leone, so we can build a road—with a lovely ribbon to cut to open it—but nobody can maintain that road when we leave. There is also not a single town and country planner in the country, so even if we wanted to establish business parks, we would have nobody to design them. There is not one organisation that can repair water equipment either, so WaterAid has refused to go into some areas in Sierra Leone, despite the fact that water-borne diseases are the major killer of children under five, because there are no water technicians to repair the equipment.

I would like every piece of infrastructure development that we put into countries such as Sierra Leone to come with a requirement. We have invested in structures: we have built all the police stations—that has been done with our money. I have to tell Members, however, that they will be falling down within 10 years. I can say that because I have surveyed them, and I know that they have been built with salty sand. They cost £20 million to build, and we could ask, "Why have we allowed structures to be built with salty sand?" We have done that because there is no civil capacity in Sierra Leone that knew enough to say, "We shouldn't use salty sand to make mortar because when it rains all the salt leaches away leaving a friable brick." When we make investments in that country, we have an absolute obligation to improve technical capacity as well. I do not accept the patronising arguments that we should not enforce British standards in other countries, because that is demeaning in the extreme.

I have talked to engineers in Sierra Leone and they say, "Hold our hands and we will walk forward with you," because no engineer that I am aware of wants to do badly; we want to do well. However, there are no engineers in Sierra Leone to build up a society—to build the roads and the rest of the infrastructure. But there is British money. We are building there, and we should insist that for every pound of commitment—for every pound we put into a block—we deliver technical excellence as a result of that. We do that here: the mandate of—the mantra behind—the Olympic development programme is, "We want to build these fantastic facilities, but we want to build up the skills of the people in east London as well."

I agree with that, but let us take that model into Commonwealth countries. Let us make that a reality for them so that their further education colleges have somewhere to take their young students. Young people studying engineering at an FE college in Sierra Leone know what a brick is because it gets drawn on the board, and they learn how to build a brick wall by having it drawn out on the board. That is because there are no projects for them to work on. How good can anyone become when they have that sort of experience? I am interested in projects that liberate the potential of young people and connect further education and higher education with British investment. I want that to be extended to EU investment, too. The EU is currently building a road in Sierra Leone; the cost is £176 million, and it will be built by the Italians. Not one Sierra Leonean will be a part of that. That is wasted investment.

We can add value to our investment and help these countries to move on from instability and fragility to a stable state and a stable economy. We now fundamentally believe in our approach of skills, education and workplace for our country, and we must be prepared to take it out to Commonwealth countries, not only to give what we have, but to liberate British engineering companies into countries they have never been in before.

Lots of British companies—engineering companies such as Whitbybird, and others such as Cadbury—really want to engage in our millennium development programme. They want to give of what they have—their expertise. I want to say, "Come on, give us that expertise." We have a role to play in such countries, as do politicians, the Government and the private sector in the UK. It has a role to play in taking the best technical capacity in this country to our Commonwealth brothers and sisters, and allowing people to go. That concludes my remarks, and I thank the House for its indulgence.

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Conservative, Mole Valley 2:35 pm, 20th March 2008

I congratulate Mrs. Curtis-Thomas on a fascinating speech. It was on an area about which I know nothing, and I am much the better for it. She concentrated on what the UK is doing for Sierra Leone. I want to concentrate on the links between Commonwealth nations, particularly those between the old Commonwealth and the UK, and the two-way aspects of them.

From the moment that I began to speak, it was clear that I have an interest to declare. I have dual nationality, and I carry a New Zealand passport as well as a British one—when I arrive at Gatwick airport, I choose the shorter queue. Everybody who has spoken has correctly pointed out that the Commonwealth is a unique worldwide family: it is international and colourful in every way; it is a fantastic mixture of races, religions, languages and creeds; and it is all based around the United Kingdom and the Queen. In saying that, I recognise that the near neighbours of New Zealand—that little island just a little way off—the Australians, have a few republican problems and republican moments. If asked, any New Zealander will explain that being an Aussie is a problem in itself.

I should explain that point a little. Those two old Commonwealth nations in the south Pacific have a huge rivalry. The insults and jokes between them are phenomenal. Every joke can be turned round and played back the other way, and many of the jokes are in vulgar taste. The two have huge battles, particularly in sport and especially in rugby, yet in normal work, normal life and especially in times of war, those two old Commonwealth nations work extremely closely together as part of the British Commonwealth, especially where it is appropriate to do so. Along with Canada and South Africa, they make up what I call the "old Commonwealth". They have a Commonwealth link reinforced by huge kith and kin links and a two-way flow of tourism and migration dating back for almost two centuries.

My direct knowledge is predominately about New Zealand, although I have lived in the UK for longer than I have lived there. I return to New Zealand occasionally for language and accent refresher courses. I shall give a touch of the history just to set the scene. New Zealand was originally occupied by a group called the Moriories, who were then followed by the Maoris. There are no Moriories left; fable in New Zealand says that the Maoris either interbred with them or ate them. The next influx into New Zealand came almost entirely from the United Kingdom. The early among them were a very rough and unpleasant breed of whalers, loggers and such people. They brought the unwanted disbenefits of the European at that time—syphilis, gonorrhoea, measles, flu, alcohol and firearms, so that for quite a while the Maori people were on an endangered list. As a percentage of the population, their numbers dropped drastically, and that situation did not turn around until relatively recently. The point has been made that the whites did not have it all their own way, because the Maori name for the white man is Pakeha, which is rumoured to mean sweet pig.

New Zealand's biggest influx of immigration over the past century and a half involved people who went there by their own choice—they were not transported there. One sees that when one wanders around New Zealand, because the names of places are a mixture of Maori, English, Scottish and Irish—there are also a few Welsh names—people drive on the left and predominately speak English, and New Zealand has a parliamentary system much like the one here. There are enormous similarities—

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Conservative, Mole Valley

As the hon. Gentleman says, they have one chamber and, occasionally, that deficit shows.

They also have, like the UK, a minority language of no great international significance. In New Zealand, it is the Maori language, and here it is Welsh—I am sure that I will get some letters to aid my thinking on that. The similarity between the two languages is, of course, that if one is not au fait with them, the words are almost impossible to pronounce.

When the UK immigrants moved to New Zealand, they wanted to make it like home, so they did some extraordinary things. I know that, because I come from an ex-farming community way up in the high country—"Lord of the Rings" country. One of the most extraordinary things was the introduction of animals that became pests, such as rats, rabbits, hares, pigs, deer and feral cats. All those need to be controlled and, living up in the high country and trying to help the farmers, I was very aware of that. I became aware when I came here that New Zealand does not have foxes, although it now has hobbits—people are not allowed to shoot the hobbits. I have not met any hobbits, although I have met a few trolls.

My parents' and grandparents' generations talked of the UK as home and of "going back". They still do, as do some of my generation, even if many of them have never left to go home or come back. They all have their close links with this country displayed in their houses. Most of them have a fantastic book or two sitting on the pine coffee table in their lounge, full of dramatic photographs. They are dramatic for two reasons. First, they all feature the UK's beautiful scenery, and, secondly, they were all—amazingly—taken on sunny days.

The close rapport between the UK, New Zealand and Australia is perhaps emphasised most in the farming community. There are very close links, including educational visits both ways between farmers, although they are perhaps more educational for the farmers from this country. I was intrigued when a colleague asked me if I could find a farm—thinking that it would be a farm in this country, as I belong to the National Farmers Union here—for his daughter to spend her gap year between leaving school and going to veterinary school. She wanted something that would stand out. I rang New Zealand and spoke to some of the farmers I know there. They were more than willing to take her—for reasons of kith and kin, as they pointed out. I found a farm for her, and she is over the moon. The farm does a lot of barley and Lucerne hay, and it has 1,000 head of cattle, 1,000 head of deer and 15,000 lambing ewes. That will be a striking addition to her CV when she goes to veterinary school.

The biggest example of kith and kin involves times of conflict. In the first world war, there was Gallipoli, which led to Anzac day. Remembrance day here is important—it is covered on television—and Anzac day in Australia and New Zealand is the same. The people in those countries remember the soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought for the UK as part of the Commonwealth. I found it hard to understand as a child. I remember when we lived in a little—I mean little—village to the north of the south island of New Zealand, which had a war memorial. In typical New Zealand style, it had public toilets underneath it and the walls were covered with the names of the soldiers who had died—hundreds and hundreds of soldiers from that little village.

I recently visited Monte Cassino, the scene of the battle for Rome in world war two. Between 17 January and 18 May 1944, four battles were fought there. The soldiers involved on our side were called allied troops but, with the exception of the Polish forces who finally went over the top, they came from Commonwealth countries. A total of 54,000 men from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Canada were lost, as well as a number of Gurkhas. The reality of what happened came home to me during my visit. The separate cemeteries contain many thousands of tombstones, and I was struck by the ages of the troops buried there. Most of them were in their late 20s or their 30s and 40s, and most would have been married with families. That explains why, in my village, there were a lot of single-parent families and ladies who remained single. As a child, I did not understand that there were no men because they had gone away to fight battles as part of the Commonwealth.

After the war, shoals of people from New Zealand and Australia came to the UK on six-week boat voyages. They fly here nowadays, and many if not all of them are skilled. They are doctors, dentists, nurses, farmers, accountants and lawyers, or experts in banking, finance or construction. Some stay, others move on to other parts of the world, and some go back. For decades, university graduates have been among New Zealand's biggest exports, and in the main they have come to this country. However, the UK has become a progressively less receptive home country over the past few years. Entry is slowly becoming more difficult, and I believe that that is to the UK's disadvantage.

People from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa are exactly the type of immigrants whom this country needs. In general, they have high skills, earn high net incomes and pay a lot of tax. They are almost invisible to the social services, and they integrate well into British society. After all, most of them have parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents who came, either directly or indirectly, from the UK. They share culture, language and heritage with people here and, although they tend to play slightly better rugby, they blend in and add value to the UK. That ability to blend in here was recognised at last Saturday's rugby grand slam game, as the Welsh national rugby team have a coach who comes from New Zealand. [ Interruption. ] I had to say that.

The UK is increasingly closing the door on Commonwealth immigration. Australians and New Zealanders never took advantage of their ability to go through the channel for aliens at airport immigration, even though it is often the quicker way through, but their degrees in medicine, dentistry, accounting and the law are not being accepted as they have been in the past. I find that extraordinary. Highly trained professional people who come to the UK are being required to sit extra exams so that they can work here, even though they all speak English and the quality of their degrees is every bit as good as the ones conferred in this country.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

I have much sympathy with what my honourable colleague is saying, and I want to reassure him that the UK standards authority is not adopting a punitive approach. The requirement to sit extra exams is often to ensure that international standards are complied with. Moreover, some countries do not accept British qualifications, unless the people who hold them do top-up exams.

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Conservative, Mole Valley

That is an interesting intervention, but the requirement is not reciprocal. I do not believe that the standards in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and so on should differ from the ones that apply here. If degrees from the United Kingdom are acceptable in those countries—as they are—there should be reciprocation, especially as a disproportionate number of the medical, dental and legal teaching staff of UK universities are New Zealanders and Australians. The same applies in the United States and Canada, but without the same difficulties.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

It is the same for secondary schools.

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Conservative, Mole Valley


It is worth re-emphasising the contribution to the UK's academic background and academic progress made by the old Commonwealth nations. Lord Rutherford began the process, and it has continued. To refer to my original profession, at a time when the NHS is looking for dentists, and we are encouraging Polish and Indian graduates to come to the UK, we are shutting down on people from Australia and New Zealand, who could be every bit as good.

I am further disappointed to find that the UK proposes to cut visitors visas. At present, UK visitors to Australia and New Zealand can have six-month visitor visas. If the UK visitor finds work that is beneficial to New Zealand or Australia, they can apply for a two-year working visa without having to return to the UK to fill in the application form, which might lead to that person finding that the job has gone when they go back. The process is not reciprocated by the UK. First, the UK proposal to cut the period for the visitors visa from six to three months is an unpleasant slap in the face, and I hope the Government will rethink it. Secondly, will they also rethink the requirement that people must return to Australia or New Zealand to apply for an extension or change to their work permit?

Even more upsetting is the proposal to abolish ancestral visas, which are a real link and recognise the special status of the Commonwealth—they do not apply only to Australia and New Zealand. They were introduced in 1972 to allow a Commonwealth citizen aged 17 or over to come to the UK provided that they could show that one of their grandparents or parents was born in the UK and that they intended to take or seek employment in the UK. After five years, the person can apply for settlement. The Home Office Green Paper suggests abolishing the kith and kin visa. I understand that the New Zealand and Australian Governments are, to put it mildly, very unimpressed. The timing of the suggestion is rather bad. This is the centennial year of New Zealand's becoming a Dominion, yet the door has been closed even further.

The Commonwealth is very special for its people. In these difficult days, the United Kingdom needs to build on that family of nations and not destroy the willingness and desire to be in harmony with the United Kingdom in the Commonwealth.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington 2:53 pm, 20th March 2008

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Like earlier speakers, I stress the importance in the 21st century of the UK Government's not undervaluing the potential of our links with the Commonwealth. In the past, when apartheid still ruled in South Africa, the Commonwealth, linking countries from north and south under the leadership of Sir Sonny Ramphal, was able to play an important and constructive role in the process that eventually led to the peaceful move from apartheid to a fully democratic Government in South Africa.

I listened with interest to the speech by Sir Paul Beresford. In many ways his speech was moving, but when he spoke about the old Commonwealth he was, in effect, speaking about the white Commonwealth. To try to structure immigration and visa requirements so that they give the white Commonwealth privileges that are not available to the new Commonwealth is not tenable. It is, however, important to keep our links with the Commonwealth.

I remember when the ancestral visa to which the hon. Gentleman referred was introduced. That was before I was a Member of Parliament, but I used to work in the Home Office and took a particular interest in such issues. It was then called the patriality clause, and the point about the patriality clause was that at a time when the Government were bearing down on Commonwealth immigration generally, it allowed persons from the old Commonwealth—the white Commonwealth—access to this country that was denied to the Commonwealth as a whole. While I support the feeling behind the hon. Gentleman's speech, the outcome of his proposals would be different sets of regulations for the old Commonwealth and the new Commonwealth. That would not be tenable, nor could I explain it to my constituents from new Commonwealth countries.

Photo of Paul Beresford Paul Beresford Conservative, Mole Valley

I was concentrating on the old Commonwealth, but in fact the ancestry visa conditions apply across the Commonwealth; that is my first point. Secondly, the hon. Lady ought to understand, as she would if she had ever been to Australia or New Zealand, that many of the immigrants that go from this country to Australia or New Zealand are not white.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I am aware that in principle the ancestral visa conditions apply across the Commonwealth, but in practice the people best placed to take up the ancestral visa have always been people from the old Commonwealth, who are more likely to have had parents and grandparents who were born here. In practice, if we look at the numbers, the people who have benefited from the old patriality clause and what is now called the ancestral visa were overwhelmingly people from the old Commonwealth. I say again that I understand the hon. Gentleman's feelings of sentiment as a New Zealander. I would contend that people from the Caribbean and India feel as strongly about Commonwealth links, in their own way, as people from New Zealand and Australia, and it is simply not tenable to sustain arrangements that give people from the old Commonwealth advantages over those from the new Commonwealth.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

This is an important and topical issue. May I put it to the hon. Lady that there are strong views on the subject in the Caribbean communities in this country? Mr. Grieve and I attended a meeting upstairs with representatives of the Jamaican community, and they were as troubled by the removal of the ancestry clause as those people whose concerns were reflected by Sir Paul Beresford. The numbers may in theory make the issue of more interest to people from Australia and New Zealand, but in terms of strength of commitment, the issue is just as important to third-generation Caribbean people in this country.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think that the concern that he is speaking about is a more general concern that people in the Caribbean feel about the way that the tide of change in immigration and visa requirements has weakened their links to this country generally. The truth is that it would be very unusual for someone from the Caribbean to be able to take advantage of what was the patriality clause, and is now the ancestral visa. However, that was my response to the very interesting speech by the hon. Member for Mole Valley.

I want to talk about a particular group of countries in the Commonwealth—those in the British-speaking Caribbean. I should, I suppose, declare an interest, because my family are from Jamaica, I retain strong links of family and friendship with the region, I am the chairman of the British Caribbean all-party group and I write regularly for newspapers in the region. I have stronger ties to it, possibly, than many people in the Chamber.

The first thing to say about the Commonwealth Caribbean—this follows on from the previous speech—is that I would contend that people in the Commonwealth Caribbean countries feel as strong a tie to the United Kingdom as anyone from New Zealand, Australia or Canada. As I said in an intervention, I sometimes take exception to some of the debate on citizenship and nationality, in which it seems to be assumed that immigrants need to be coaxed to feel British, need to be taught how to be British, or need a period of probation before they can be fully regarded as British. I entirely accept that the Government are entitled to have clear and firm rules on immigration and nationality. I entirely accept that citizenship is a proper issue for debate.

I take exception on behalf of my parents and their generation to the notion that that generation of immigrants from the Caribbean needed to be taught about being British. In many ways, they were prouder of being British than anybody in this Chamber can imagine. In fact, one of their disappointments in coming to this country in the '50s and '60s was that the British people, whom they had put on such a pedestal and been taught to admire and revere, occasionally did not accord with their idea of British values and what Britishness was all about. That is the paradox. Those people so revered the British that when they came here they were disappointed that the British were not as British as they had been taught to believe. I make that point because that generation is passing away. We have a debate about nationality now that assumes that immigrants have a strangeness and insularity that is certainly not true of Commonwealth immigrants.

I want to put on the record my sense of sadness at the way in which the Commonwealth in general and the Caribbean in particular appear to have slipped down the agenda when it comes to the concerns of the Foreign Office and Ministers. There are a number of reasons for that. It is partly because a generation of Members of Parliament who had live and direct links with the Caribbean have passed away. Not many Members of Parliament now could remember the young Michael Manley and the young Caribbean politicians who came here to study in the '50s and '60s. There are no politicians on the Opposition Benches like Bowen Wells, the former MP for Hertford and Stortford, who had a passionate commitment to the Caribbean because of long-standing business links with the region. A generation of politicians who had those links with the Caribbean—for whatever reason, be it business, politics or personal experience—are no longer here.

In every conceivable way, the Caribbean has slid down the agenda: in the number of staff working on Caribbean matters in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development; in the seniority of Ministers who take responsibility for Caribbean matters; and in the amount of aid that goes to the Caribbean. I can let the House into a secret. There were Caribbean leaders who used to say that they preferred John Major to Tony Blair, because at least with John Major they could talk to him about cricket.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

He had. Anyway, I threw that fact in as a matter of general interest.

One of the other reasons why the Caribbean has slid down the agenda of Her Majesty's Government is that it is talked about in development and Foreign Office circles as a middle-income country. The notion is that Britain should focus on the poorest countries and not middle-income countries like Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados or Guyana.

I put it to the House that the global and general figures for income and GDP in the Caribbean mask poverty every bit as severe and savage as can be found in countries that are commonly regarded as poorer. Not only that, but the general figures that would indicate a middle-income country mask a poverty and deprivation that has a power to impact on this country in a way that poverty and deprivation in countries further afield cannot. If there is a dispute about guns and drugs in Kingston, it will be resolved on the streets of the inner city in Hackney, Brixton and Southwark. Whatever Ministers might feel about the relevance of Caribbean matters in 2008, in practical and community politics the links that bind the fate of the Caribbean region to the fate of this country's inner cities are very close indeed. It is not wise or sensible to say, "We've moved on—they are middle income. What is the significance of this now?" If they catch a cold in Kingston, they are sneezing in Hackney.

I want to say something else about the way in which the Caribbean has slid down the agenda. Wherever we go in the Commonwealth, we see that the people there take their links with Britain more seriously than, sadly, people in Britain now take their links with the Commonwealth. I have spoken in this debate in order to flag up my sense, which is reflected in some of the facts and figures, that the Caribbean and its concerns have slid down the agenda. I responded to the, in many ways effective, speech that we heard earlier on behalf of the old Commonwealth because it is very important that in talking about Commonwealth links, we always try to talk about the Commonwealth as a whole. As I said earlier, the strength of feeling about the British links is as strong in the Caribbean and other parts of the new Commonwealth as it is in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The first of the issues of concern to the Caribbean that I want Ministers to take on board relates to trade, the economic partnership agreements and the economies of the countries of the Caribbean. The British-speaking Caribbean as a whole consists of the islands that sugar made, and by that I mean islands whose social structures, economic and trade patterns and even patterns of transport links are all rooted in patterns that grew up under the mono-culture of plantation-produced sugar. Of course, the world has moved on and the Caribbean cannot continue to rely on what used to be called imperial preferences. It must open its markets and embrace the opportunities that free markets and free trade offer it, but we have to remember that—be it shipping or air links, the structure of financial services or even patterns of employment and education—it is still, even to this day, very much shaped and structured by the experience of a region that for more than a century was dependent on one or two major cash crops.

Money is available now to move the Caribbean forward to take advantage of the economic partnership agreements, but more needs to be done to enable that money to be drawn down from the European Union, and to ensure that that funding is not just sucked in by Governments and corporations, but actually helps the people on the ground who are suffering from the transition from the traditional crops of sugar and bananas. We cannot overstate the difficulties that some of the poorest people in the Caribbean are facing with the move from traditional cash crops to a completely different economic era.

I stress to Ministers that it is in our interests to ensure that the very poorest people of the Caribbean do not suffer unduly from free markets and free trade, not because it is a humanitarian thing to do, which it is, but because, even though the sugar and banana cash crop industries that we are seeing the end of are a declining part of the economies of those countries in income terms, they are still the largest employers of male manual labour in the region. If they are allowed to crash without sufficient attention being paid to the transition, we will not have cane-cutters in Westmorland, Jamaica, becoming computer inputters; banana farmers in St. Lucia will not become maids in hotels. The redeployment and the transition that take place will not be as imagined by civil servants, with men in their 40s and 50s suddenly becoming white collar workers. It will be a redeployment and transition into the drugs trade.

I have argued time and again in the House that Government need to make the link between the war against drugs and their policies in relation to trade, employment and economic development in the region. Unless we have meaningful policies for trade and economic development in the region, we will find it very hard to fight the drugs trade. What is an unskilled young man in one of those countries to do if the sugar or banana industry, where he or his father once found a living, is collapsing? That is the question to be asked. I am aware that funding is available from the EU to help with the transitional phase, but more attention needs to be paid to how easy it is to draw down that funding and whether it is reaching the people and the communities who most desperately need help in the period of transition.

The topic of immigration has come up in the context of ancestral visas. I am a little sceptical about the argument for them, because I know the history and what they were intended to do. Another issue is the arrangements that we are proposing in relation to nationality, which would almost force people to decide between taking British citizenship and abandoning the passport of their country of origin. Up till now it has been possible to be a resident of the United Kingdom and to have all the rights associated with that status, but still to hold on to a Commonwealth passport, with no diminution of rights.

Ministers, I think, do not understand why people would do that. Why would they want to be in this country for 30 or 40 years and still not apply for British citizenship? It does not make sense. That is what Ministers think, and that is why they are seeking to force people to abandon their Jamaican or Trinidadian passports and become British citizens. I should say that I forced my own parents to do that many years ago because I could see where things were going. It makes no sense, but it is about sentiment.

Some of the most loyal British residents are people who have held on to the passport of their country of birth, not because they lack commitment to Britain, not because they are not prepared to play a full part in British society, but for reasons of sentiment. It would be wrong to force people to give up the passport issued by their country of birth, on the basis of some notion that not getting British citizenship means that, in some sense, they lack commitment to this country.

One of the ways in which we have helped the Caribbean is through the work, help, support and funding that we have given to fight crime. That is valued throughout the region but particularly in Jamaica, especially the deployment of British officers to support the Jamaican police force. Mark Shields, who is very senior in the Jamaican police force and who at one time served in Hackney, is a hero in Jamaica and very well respected. The general support that we have given and the deployment of officers out there is valued, and long may it continue.

There are other issues in relation to crime in the Caribbean. An issue of concern in the Caribbean, which of course looks different from a British perspective, is deportation and the continuing stream of people of Caribbean origin being deported back to the Caribbean. I am not saying that we should not do that. Those people are criminals and it is right that, having served their sentence, they should be deported. However, the Government should give some thought to the help and support that they could give law enforcement in the region when those deportees return, often highly skilled and motivated from their time with the British criminal classes. Often the local police feel somewhat overwhelmed by such people. I am not suggesting that the Government should spend millions on resettlement, but there are practical measures that could be taken to support societies that sometimes find themselves overwhelmed by the stream of deportees.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

The hon. Lady has taken a considerable interest in women detainees at Yarl's Wood in my constituency. As she says, some extra assistance and attention paid to the circumstances to which detainees sometimes return might encourage people who would otherwise be fearful of returning to do so. A little infrastructure would go a long way and might assist us with some of the problems in dealing with some of the fears that people have, which then result in their going through the long judicial review process and everything else. If we could think a little more about what happens when people return home, the process might be made easier to the benefit of all of us.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I entirely agree. A little infrastructure would go a long way to making it easier to return people and to get countries to accept deportees and would minimise the danger of those people ricocheting back to this country in all sorts of subterranean ways. I am not talking about vast sums of money or huge deployments of staff or persons, I am simply saying that a little infrastructure and support would be to our long-term benefit and to those countries' long-term benefit in enabling them to reintegrate those people, or at the very least to keep an eye on them and to supervise them to ensure that they do not further destabilise what in some cases is a fragile society, and certainly do not just come back through some route or another because there is no system of scrutiny, supervision or support of any kind. What incentive is there for people not to exhaust every appeal process if they know that they will be deported and end up on the pavement with nothing at all for them or their family? I put this to Ministers because I know that what happens to people when they are deported is a matter of concern to Caribbean Governments and other Commonwealth Governments.

I wanted to say a little about climate change issues, which are of particular concern to the Caribbean, which has seen more and worse hurricanes in recent years than before, and which is particularly at risk from rising sea levels. Climate change poses a particular threat to the tourist industry, on which so many of these islands now rely as their traditional cash crops collapse, and whatever support the Government can give the region specifically on climate change issues, from the types of insurance that are available for the private sector to the type of technical expertise on which it can draw, will be important. Being a small island state in the 21st century is a vulnerable existence, not only economically because crops cannot be produced with the economies of scale of other countries, but because of climate change.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

The Association of Professional Engineers is a marvellous organisation based in Trinidad and founded by a good chum of mine, Mr. Bob Yorke, which has some of the world's foremost experts on buildings for earthquakes and managing tidal waves, all brought about by the concerns about climate change expressed so eloquently today by my hon. Friend. It is doing the best that it can to attract engineers from all over the world to bring their expertise to bear in the Caribbean to help in the future.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I thank my hon. Friend for her expertise, which, with that of the person whom she mentioned, is very valuable. The Government can also help in making resources available for countries to take the fullest advantage of such expertise and to train people up—a point made earlier about capacity building. There is a need to build capacity in the region around those skills. Climate change for this region among others is not just an issue for next year or the year after, but for generations to come. Yes, there is expertise, but some of the countries need the resources and structures necessary to take advantage of that, and there is a real need for capacity building right there in the region. We heard earlier about the need for engineers and other technically skilled people in Sierra Leone, but I suspect that even in London there are Sierra Leone-born engineers and technicians. We have to provide a structure in which people from that country who have come here, been trained and got skills have some incentive to go back and contribute as they all want to.

As I said, I am concerned that the Caribbean region appears to have dropped down the agenda; I am also worried that the Government's correct concern about crime and the war on drugs seems to exist at a complete remove from their thinking about trade and economic development. We cannot fight a war against drugs in the Caribbean without paying close attention to what is happening in the economy and employment there and to the transition from traditional cash crops to a modern economy. Any war on drugs that does not take those things into account is doomed to fail. It is important to put that on the agenda.

I want to draw my remarks to a conclusion. As I said at the beginning, one cannot overstate the loyalty and love that the people in the Caribbean have for this country, and I think that that applies across the Commonwealth. The Government have made some important initiatives in respect of the Caribbean region. There is a Caribbean Board, for example, although sadly it appears to have lost its way in recent years; I know that the Minister attended a meeting recently. I would like the opportunity to talk to the Minister at a later date about the Caribbean Board and how it can be given support, because it could play an important role in linking with the Caribbean community in this country and in helping the Caribbean as a region.

As I said at the beginning, there are fewer MPs on both sides of the House with personal links to the Caribbean than there were in the '70s and '80s. As one of the three Members of Parliament with a direct link to the region, I could not let this debate pass without standing up and speaking up for the Caribbean. Once upon a time, the Caribbean was considered one of the jewels of the British empire; I consider it to be a jewel of the Commonwealth to this day.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 3:22 pm, 20th March 2008

It is a pleasure to follow Ms Abbott, who spoke passionately about the Caribbean. I have had the privilege of visiting the region on numerous occasions. Most recently, I was in the Cayman Islands, which are, of course, a British overseas territory; I believe that they were also once a colony of Jamaica, or closely linked to it.

The Caribbean is a part of the world with strong links to Britain. Every time I have been there, the people have shown enormous warmth to me as a visiting Member of Parliament and to Britain as a nation. I meet many people in my constituency whose origins are in the Caribbean. Many share so many of the same values: they are loyal to the Queen and the flag and are proud of being British, as the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said.

It is important that we do not forget the Caribbean. It is the part of the world in which Britain has the highest concentration of remaining overseas territories—not only the Cayman Islands, but the wonderful island of Montserrat. I am proud to be the chairman of the all-party group on Montserrat, and we must not forget Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands. There are a lot of territories in the Caribbean for which we still have responsibility.

Andrew Mackinlay mentioned Bermuda. I am not sure that those islands would consider themselves as entirely Caribbean.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The hon. Lady and I agree on that. However, we should not forget Bermuda and all the overseas territories of the Crown.

I am delighted to have followed the hon. Lady and to have the opportunity to take part in this important debate. In the House of Commons, we debate so many things to do with international affairs. We spend an enormous amount of time talking about Europe and it is good that we are now spending a bit of time talking about countries with which we have close historical links and ties, and for so many different reasons.

The Commonwealth is born out of what our forebears achieved when they chose to sail around the globe to spread ideas, values, Christian beliefs and the English language, all of which made a huge impact on all the countries that were part of that British empire. I know that it is not politically correct to talk about the British empire, but I think that, of all the empires that have existed throughout history, ours gives us a lot to be proud of. We left good constitutional frameworks in many of those countries. We did a lot of good, as British people, and perhaps left a happier situation than was left by other countries that did not quite succeed in their colonial ambitions in the way that the United Kingdom did.

We have already had a debate about Welsh affairs for St. David's day, and now we are having a debate about the Commonwealth. I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you will take back the idea that on 23 April we should also have a debate about England for St. George's day. This is an important opportunity to debate matters relating to the Commonwealth and the various parts of the United Kingdom, and I hope that we can do it on an annual basis.

The Commonwealth of nations is a proud organisation—enormously important and hugely diverse. I will not repeat much of what has already been said by colleagues on both sides of the House. I think that it is true to say that every one of us here today is strongly committed to the concept of the Commonwealth bringing everyone together—people of all backgrounds, all colours and all religions, from every continent in the world. The Commonwealth is developing. Most of its countries have very close links to Britain, but one or two other countries are now joining that do not have that same link. Mozambique is an example of a country that has chosen to join.

Last year, I was privileged to go to Madagascar as part of an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation. That country has had some links to Britain, but for most of its colonial past it has been linked to France. The President of Madagascar has made it clear that he wants to move closer to and have much better relations with the United Kingdom and to promote English. The idea of joining the Commonwealth—I must admit that I fuelled that debate while I was there—met with huge support and great interest from everybody. I believe that the President would like that to happen. I hope that the Minister will take on board the appalling mistake that the Government made in closing the British embassy in Madagascar. At a time when that country desperately wants to develop closer relations and links with Britain, our Government shut down the British embassy—yet again, as a Labour Government have done that before. I hope that the Minister will decide to reopen that issue so that we can develop our links with Madagascar.

Systems of democracy, stability and freedom have been created in these countries on the basis of the constitution, Her Majesty the Queen, the monarchy and the Westminster model of democracy, which is slightly adapted and tweaked depending on the country concerned and which we are privileged to have as well. Most of the countries that have had British influence and are part of the Commonwealth—originally places that our forebears went to—have had a far greater chance of retaining, as they still do today, democratic values, stability, a constitution, the rule of law, and good education. There are all kinds of benefits to the people of those countries. As I said, we have a great deal to be proud of in what we have achieved.

Australia, New Zealand and Canada are three countries with which we have particularly close relations, but I also include India. Large numbers of people in this country are of Indian descent. I have many in my constituency; we have them in all our constituencies. What a great country that is, and what a country of the future it is. I am sure that the Minister agrees that it should be a priority in the next few decades that we work closely with India to develop our links in terms of trade and co-operation. Most people from India speak English and have close links to Britain, and we should work with that country as well.

Of course, 14 or 15 nations in the world today retain Her Majesty the Queen as head of state. The Commonwealth is diverse, but the countries that retain Her Majesty as head of state and continue with the British monarchy are the ones that we have the closest links to—a special relationship—and that should continue.

I commend the work in Parliament of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and of its secretariat—Andrew Tuggey and his team, who work in Westminster House. They do a great job and work hard to promote relations between the Parliaments of all the countries of the Commonwealth. I have been privileged to participate in a number of international delegations to Commonwealth countries, and to host Commonwealth parliamentarians in my constituency.

In fact, a group of Commonwealth parliamentarians visited me the Friday before last—I have their programme here. I was delighted to take them around Romford market and thrilled to show them our brand- new hospital and one of the local churches, St. Alban's. We had representatives from Australia—the deputy speaker of the New South Wales Parliament—Jersey, New Zealand, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Montserrat, and an observer from Somaliland. What a great day that was, and how wonderful it was to bring parliamentarians from the Commonwealth to our constituencies. I hope that the next time there is a Commonwealth parliamentary delegation, those of us who have south-east London constituencies will invite them and give them an opportunity to see the work of British MPs on our home turf, as well as the work that we do in Parliament.

I am pleased to be involved in a number of all-party groups that do valuable work. I mentioned Montserrat, and as the Minister will know, I am the secretary of the all-party group on the Falkland Islands, and chairman of the Anglo-Manx all-party group on the Isle of Man. I am involved with the all-party groups on Gibraltar and the Channel Islands. All of those groups do great work in co-operating and fostering closer relations with our friends in those nations and territories. A lot of effort and finance is put into supporting the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—which is wonderful—the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the American group, but we have special links with Australia and New Zealand. It is time that the all-party group on Australia and New Zealand—the Anzac group, of which I am secretary—was elevated. Perhaps there should be direct funding for work with Australia and New Zealand; it is so important that we strengthen our links with those two countries in particular. We spend a lot of time working with the United States, which is very important.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

It is funded, but the work that we do with Australia and New Zealand is not. Perhaps the Anzac group could be elevated, and the Foreign Office might like to consider that.

Hon. Members will remember my Adjournment debate of a year ago about relations with Australia and New Zealand. I passionately believe that among all the debates that we have about Europe and our future with the continent and our relations with the United States, it is a big mistake to forget the importance of countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, with which we have the most in common. Of course we want to work with all Commonwealth countries on an equal footing, but no one can take away the fact that those countries have special links with us because of ancestry. It was British people from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland who travelled to those countries and made them their home. Today, generations are descended from those British people, something which can never be taken away. There is a special link there, closer than the ones that we have with many other countries, perhaps.

I want to repeat some of the important things that have been said about the Government's current proposals. Like many hon. Members here today—I refer in particular to my hon. Friend Sir Paul Beresford—who spoke eloquently on this subject, I am deeply concerned about proposals to remove the ancestry route from Commonwealth subjects. I refer to the early-day motion tabled by Mr. Mitchell, which has now been signed by 51 Members. What the Government propose would be a bad mistake, and I hope that they will draw back from changing the rules. I think that that would send out a terrible signal to our dear friends in those countries.

The recent Home Office Green Paper, "The Path to Citizenship: Next Steps in Reforming the Immigration System", suggests the removal of the ancestry route of entry for Commonwealth citizens with ancestral links to the UK who wish to migrate here. It says:

"We need to determine the position of the 'UK ancestry' and 'retired persons of independent means' routes within the new system... We need to decide whether a Commonwealth national's ancestral connections to the UK are sufficient to allow them to come here to work without the need to satisfy a resident labour market test."

Hon. Members will understand when I say that I accept that the Government are only consulting at this stage, but I am fearful that the consultation may well prove to be similar to the current one on post office closures—and we all know that that consultation is a sham. I hope that the Minister will reassure me and others that the consultation is genuine and that if the majority are opposed to this change, the Government will not press ahead with it, but will leave well alone. I hope that we can all have that reassurance from the Minister later. Perhaps I am being uncharitable, but I suspect that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office, if not the Government as a whole, may have predetermined a desired outcome—to remove the ancestry route. Let us hope that the Minister will tell us that that is not true.

I know that the Minister is aware of a number of concerns raised throughout the Commonwealth, particularly in Australia, New Zealand and, indeed, South Africa, about the proposed changes. As I have already said, I am secretary of the Anzac group, so I feel a particular affinity with those Commonwealth citizens who would have their historic right ripped away from them if the proposal were adopted. What a shameful decision that would be, especially when we consider that Australia and New Zealand lost so many of their people—they died for king and country—fighting for us, for the Commonwealth and for freedom in the second world war and the first world war. In that light, we should draw back from any changes, as altering the rules would be an appalling slap in the face. Once again, I hope that the Government will confirm that they will not press ahead with that idea.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

I am moved by the fervour with which the hon. Gentleman addresses this subject. He will, of course, be aware that thousands of people from the Indian sub-continent also died in the first and second world wars and that many people from the Caribbean also volunteered to fight and die for this country.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I completely endorse that; we should remember those people as well. We have stood shoulder to shoulder with people in the Caribbean before and many such people still serve in the British forces today, as was mentioned earlier. I, the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and all MPs—I know that the hon. Member for Thurrock agrees—are proud of all those Commonwealth citizens, whoever they are and whichever particular part of the Commonwealth they come from, who serve alongside British people and are prepared to sacrifice their lives in order to defend freedom and serve Her Majesty's armed forces.

I have met the Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand, the right hon. Helen Clark, before and I met her again in January when she visited the House of Commons. She has promised to take up the case of thousands of New Zealanders who could lose their right to live and work in the UK if the ancestry visa were abolished. She said:

"we believe the ancestry visa should remain, and are surprised that the issue has been raised".

I do not often agree with Helen Clark, but on this particular occasion, I entirely agree with her concerns.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I have listened to the hon. Gentleman and to Sir Paul Beresford and have a considerable amount of agreement with them. Is it not a paradox, however, that many people in New Zealand and Australia are able to apply for an Irish Republic passport, by means of which they can live and work in London or even stand for this Parliament? A large number of folk can come here, work here, participate here and be enfranchised here not on the basis of a British passport, but by virtue of the paternal grandfather rights of Irish Republic citizenship. I shall elaborate further on that later.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

That is a revealing point, and I hope that the Minister takes it on board. It is astonishing that people can come here via the Irish route, but might not be able to do so directly. Obviously, there are anomalies that need to be addressed. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

What do the Government hope to achieve by severing the historic ties with tens of thousands of Commonwealth nationals who currently have an automatic right, through descent, to live and work here? Immigration is a huge issue in this country, but if we are going to change the immigration laws, the last thing that most British people want to see is immigration from countries such as Australia and New Zealand curtailed. Many of our constituents would have views about immigration from other countries, but everyone accepts that immigration from those countries is welcome. I therefore ask the Government to reconsider.

New Zealanders, in particular, greatly value their connections with Britain, especially those whose grandparents were born here. I have been to New Zealand on several occasions; I was there in September. Of all the countries in the world that I have visited, it is probably the one that is most like the United Kingdom. Those people are deeply proud of their connections to Britain. Sadly, the republican movement in Australia is pretty strong these days, but thankfully it has not succeeded, and I hope that it will not do so. In New Zealand, that movement is much weaker, and no great desire exists to sever that link and turn the country into a republic.

If we make the mistakes that I refer to, however, we merely hasten the day when that constitutional monarchy that binds us together is undone. That will weaken the Commonwealth and our historic links with those countries. I hope that the Government will not make mistakes that could undermine not only Britain's friendship with those countries but the monarchy itself.

The British high commission has said that it receives about 4,000 applications under the ancestry route from New Zealand each year. The removal of that route of entry would be a great betrayal of our Commonwealth cousins, many of whose parents and grandparents fought in world wars to defend this country and the world from tyranny. The United Kingdom's relationship with our antipodean cousins in particular has always been strained by the geographical distance that separates us, at opposite ends of the globe.

Distance has been no bar, however, to the special bond that exists between our three great nations. We endanger that good will by even contemplating the removal of the ancestry route. Although the three countries often fall out over sporting rivalries, whether in cricket, rugby or sailing, our peoples have always shared a common heritage, bound together by a deep-rooted historical and cultural camaraderie. The friendship between the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and, indeed, Canada, is unrivalled.

Every year, I am proud to attend the open-air Anzac service in Whitehall, followed by the service in Westminster abbey. I encourage all hon. Members to attend the Anzac day ceremonies this year. All Members of Parliament would be very welcome to that event, and it is important that we show we stand shoulder to shoulder with our kith and kin, who lost more per head of population in those wars than we did. We must remember those people and never forget their sacrifice.

We are all English-speaking peoples. We share the same ideals as free trading nations. We believe in democratic governance and a constitutional monarchy under the rule of law. British students travel to New Zealand and Australia and, as we know, their students come here. Almost every student from Australia and New Zealand looks forward to visiting the mother country to work or to stay for a long period, and many school and university leavers from those countries opt to spend their gap year in the United Kingdom. It works both ways.

Perhaps the most significant commonality, however, is the fact that all our nations share similar constitutions based on the Westminster model, and proudly uphold Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign Head of State. All that has been furthered and helped by our common ancestry, as is exemplified so clearly in the ancestry route of immigration. As Members will know, the Immigration Act 1971 introduced rules specifying who could come to the United Kingdom and in what circumstances. The Act consolidated previous rules, and in 1972 the ancestry route as it now exists was created. Originally, settled status was given on arrival, but now those arriving through that route must follow the standard procedure of applying for indefinite leave to remain after five years.

In 2006, the last year for which figures are available, 8,490 people arrived in the United Kingdom expressly through the ancestry route, an increase of 230 on the previous year. In the last five years, 44,000 people have arrived in the United Kingdom expressly through that route. An estimated 1,112,000 Commonwealth citizens currently live in the United Kingdom, although not all will have taken the ancestry route.

Given what I must call our Government's abysmal record on immigration control over the past 11 years, it is appalling that they appear to have decided to block the entry of hard-working and legal Commonwealth immigrants, rather than targeting the rampant illegal immigration from across the globe from which we suffer today. I hope that that is not because they feel they must be seen to be acting to control immigration, and have concluded that the repeal of the ancestry route is an easy and uncomplicated option. I trust that the Minister agrees that that would not be the right reason to make such a decision. How can that decision be justified? Perhaps the Minister will tell us at the end of the debate.

I should like the ancestry route to be extended to great-grandparents, if not beyond. We must remember that these people are our kith and kin, descendants from these British islands who sailed the globe to lands far away to raise the Union flag and build a great empire. We cannot and must not betray those people.

I touched on the issue of immigration control earlier, and I want to return to it briefly now. As all Members know, on arrival at Heathrow airport citizens of the European Union are allowed to enter the United Kingdom through an almost unrestricted, uncontrolled area signposted "United Kingdom and EU nationals", while those entering from such countries as Canada, Australia and New Zealand are forced to enter through the section marked "Others". I raised that point in an Adjournment debate on Australia and New Zealand that I secured last year.

We have far closer relations and historical and cultural ties with Canada, Australia and New Zealand than with EU countries, and have more in common with them as Commonwealth nations. Moreover, they have stricter immigration and border controls than most if not all EU states. Yet we treat them almost as aliens, rather than as people to whom we are so closely related. I believe it is time we changed the rules and agreed special arrangements to allow citizens of Commonwealth nations such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand much easier entry to the United Kingdom and vice versa, and I hope the Government will give that careful consideration.

In my Adjournment debate of last year, I asked whether Her Majesty's Government would explore the possibility of developing a reciprocal immigration policy, mirroring that currently in place between the UK and other EU member states. As might be expected, the Minister who responded to the debate made a number of non-committal mutterings, but he did say that he would look into it. Sadly, however, I have as yet heard nothing further, but I hope that the Minister replying to the current debate will address the point. I am sure that such a scheme could be made a reality by amending passport, visa and immigration control procedures. That would benefit the people of those countries, but it would also be of great benefit to the UK.

I wish now to make a few remarks about the citizens of British overseas territories and Crown dependencies. We have not yet discussed these territories in our debate on the Commonwealth, but it is important that we do so. There is confusion about the status of British overseas territories and Crown dependencies within the Commonwealth. I visited the Cayman Islands only two years ago, as part of a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation. It had suffered horribly as a result of a recent hurricane that had devastated the islands. When I was there, great concern was expressed by the Government and the citizens whom I met about the British Government's failure to go to their aid when they most needed it. It is a sad reflection on British Government policy that when a British territory is devastated by a hurricane, we are not there to assist. They did not need money; they had plenty of financial resources. What they needed was expertise: they needed British police to go there to help, and the assistance of the Royal Navy, but help was not forthcoming.

Sadly, when I went to Montserrat in 2003 a similar picture was painted of how little support the people there had been given following the volcano eruption of 1997. Much was made of the remarks of the now independent Member of Parliament, Clare Short, who was then the Secretary of State for International Development. She said they wanted golden elephants, but it is a British territory. Other countries with overseas and dependent territories look after them; they do not treat them as a nuisance—as foreign islands halfway around the world that they do not want to bother about—but that is how our Government seem to treat our overseas and dependent territories. It is time we treated them with greater regard than we have done in recent years.

What is the status of British Crown dependencies and overseas territories within the Commonwealth? They are not fully members in their own right. They are not allowed to send representatives to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings as equal leaders of countries, even though very small countries in the Commonwealth, such as Kiribati and Vanuatu, can do that; they can send a leader to CHOGMs, but Bermuda or Gibraltar, for instance, cannot send someone along on an equal footing, so they are disadvantaged in that respect.

What about great occasions such as trooping the colour? Every year I am pleased to attend that celebration of the Queen's official birthday, and I always look at the flags on display around Horse Guards parade. The flags of every Commonwealth country are on display, which is right, but those of the overseas territories and Crown dependencies are not. Last year, there was the absurd situation, commented on in the national media, that during the trooping the colour celebration of the Queen's official birthday, the flags of some territories that retain the Queen as Head of State—such as the Falklands Islands—were not flying, but the flag of Mozambique was.

Mozambique has never had the British monarchy; it has never had the same link as the Falkland Islands. That very weekend we were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands, yet no Falkland Islands flag was displayed on Horseguards parade, whereas the flag of Mozambique was. The Mail on Sunday made a big feature of that, and Baroness Thatcher was quoted as saying she was surprised that the Falkland Islands flag was not flown.

I have raised the point before, but I say again to the Minister that surely the cost of putting a few extra flagpoles on Horseguards parade would be a small price to pay for ensuring that all our remaining overseas territories and our three Crown dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man—perhaps I should also include Sark and Alderney to make it five territories—are represented at trooping the colour and on any other day when Commonwealth nations and territories are being celebrated.

Again, I must ask why countries that have also sent their young men and women to die fighting for this country are not able to have a representative to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday. Surely the British overseas territories should have at least one representative—even if it alternates and there is a different representative on each occasion—to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in Whitehall once a year. How much extra would a wreath cost? I ask the Minister to examine the matter. I am sure that we would all chip in for the cost of a wreath, and I think that opportunity should be given.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

A wreath is laid on behalf of the overseas territories by the Foreign Secretary.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

The Minister knows that I am aware of that. Since when should the Falkland Islands or Gibraltar be represented by the Foreign Secretary? I know that is what happens, but they are British territories. I do not understand what problem there is in changing the arrangement and allowing a different Chief Minister or a different Government representative from the overseas territories to lay that wreath in their own right once a year. It should not be done by the Foreign Secretary, who is elected to this Parliament and appointed by a British Prime Minister—the overseas territories have no vote in that. The Foreign Secretary may lay a wreath on their behalf, but they have not elected the Foreign Secretary. They have no Members of Parliament in this Chamber who contribute to a Government, who have a Foreign Secretary. I do not understand how the system has evolved. A simple change to allow the British overseas territories to lay their own wreath would be significant. I know that the Minister is aware of that because the territories have all raised the matter with her. Once again, I ask her to consider allowing that wreath to be laid by them rather than by a British Government Minister.

How about having an annual debate on British overseas territories and Crown dependencies? We make decisions on their behalf, yet nobody in any of those places has a vote in British elections. We sit here debating Gibraltar, as we did in 2002 when the joint sovereignty proposals were made by the then Government of Tony Blair, without the people of Gibraltar having any elected voice or legitimate voice present in this Chamber. I know that the hon. Member for Thurrock has raised this very point. There is a democratic deficit, given that so much is ultimately decided in this Parliament yet those people have no voice of their own.

The whole issue of overseas territories and Crown dependencies needs to be addressed. Perhaps there should be a small Select Committee to look at matters to do with overseas territories and Crown dependencies. Why does only the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs deal with them? Why is there not a better mechanism to address these very real issues?

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes the lead on overseas territories, and I assume that is why the Foreign Affairs Committee decided to conducts its current inquiry into this area. Other Departments have responsibility for a range of issues in overseas territories—this is a Government-wide responsibility—so other Select Committees, such as the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, could specifically examine the issues in relation to overseas territories. There is nothing to prevent their doing that.

Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

That is very helpful and I hope that that point will be taken on board. Issues relating to those great territories for which we have responsibility are often overlooked.

The Commonwealth is, as has already been said, a unique organisation, and we should be very proud of our role in developing it. As it develops still further, let us consider other countries that have a special link to Britain, although they may not have been part of the British empire. I am thinking especially of some Gulf states in the middle east. There is no reason why they could not decide to become part of the British Commonwealth. Hong Kong is of course now part of the People's Republic of China, but we have very close links there still, and it retains much of what we left. If the Chinese Government decided to allow Hong Kong to join the Commonwealth, why should we not encourage that?

Let us expand the Commonwealth further. I know that the hon. Member for Thurrock intends to say a few words in a moment about the Republic of Ireland, and my hon. Friend Mr. Simpson mentioned it earlier. I would love to see the day when we could bring the Republic of Ireland into the Commonwealth of nations. Irish people have worked alongside the English, Welsh and Scottish to build this great Commonwealth. They sailed the world with us and helped to build democracies, constitutions and freedom in many other countries. I would love to see the Irish Republic take its place alongside the rest of us in the Commonwealth of nations.

Although I had not considered the point, my hon. Friend is correct to mention the United States of America. Why should it not have the opportunity to become part of the Commonwealth? That is a wonderful idea and I would certainly support that proposal. A future Conservative Government may wish to propose that to a future president. Who knows what the future holds?

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has no truer friends in the world than the Commonwealth of nations, especially Australia, New Zealand, Canada, countries in the Caribbean, India, the British overseas territories and all the nations that retain Her Majesty the Queen as Head of State. But we must develop links with the whole of the Commonwealth and value it for its diversity. We draw strength from it and we can be immensely proud of it. I hope that all hon. Members will continue to work with parliamentarians from, and the Governments of, all the countries in the Commonwealth to make this world a better place.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock 4:02 pm, 20th March 2008

I hope that hon. Members will bear with me, because I shall address the House without notes on an issue that I have been considering for some time. Before doing so, however, I want to pick up two points.

Andrew Rosindell mentioned overseas territories and Remembrance Sunday. I know that I speak for my hon. Friend Mr. Hoyle—he would have liked to attend this debate, but he has an overriding engagement in his constituency—when I say that it is churlish and silly of the Government not to grant the representatives of the overseas territories the right to lay wreaths on Remembrance Sunday. If the Minister gets her people to look into this, she will find that the London representative of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland used to lay a wreath. It was only after the federation broke up and Rhodesia declared independence that the Foreign Office started to lay a wreath on behalf of that territory. Putting aside the franchise issue, Gibraltar and Bermuda certainly have the same constitutional status as the old Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Constitutional status should be extended to all 14 or 15 other overseas territories, if they so wish, but Gibraltar and Bermuda have contributed so much to our armed forces and so on that they should certainly have it. It is silly for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to hold so resolutely to its position.

To elaborate on my earlier intervention, Ireland's constitution and citizenship rights mean that people with parents or grandparents born before 1949 in any of the Republic's 32 counties can claim Irish citizenship, even if those forebears moved to New Zealand, Australia or other Commonwealth states such as Canada and those in the Caribbean. However, the fact that the Irish Republic and the UK share a common status means that the descendants whom I have mentioned can come to London to work or even get elected to this Parliament.

My central point, however, picks up on something that Mr. Simpson said earlier about the Irish Republic. Some hon. Members have said that Madagascar should join the Commonwealth, and I am one of those looking forward to Pakistan's return to the fold, but the great country of Ireland was one of the members of the original organisation and many Irish statesman contributed to what is now our modern Commonwealth.

I did not want to interrupt Andrew Rosindell earlier, but it is worth remembering that, although the Queen is head of the Commonwealth, the overwhelming majority of member countries are republics. That is significant when it comes to inviting Ireland to rejoin and fill its empty chair. The Queen is the Head of State for some Commonwealth countries, but that should not be confused with her status as head of the Commonwealth.

Who was the architect of that concept? Amazingly, it was Eamon de Valera. People often forget that he had the idea of countries belonging to an external association within the empire. His "Document No. 2" of 1921 made it clear that he was prepared to accept George V as the head of that association, but that he wanted Ireland to be a republic. That idea was subsequently swept aside. The Costello Government finally took Ireland out of the Commonwealth in 1948—the relevant legislation came into force in 1949—but it was in that period that the Indian Republic was accommodated and invited to enter the Commonwealth for the first time. Most Commonwealth states are republics, so it is clear that Eamon de Valera's concept of a family of nations was prophetic. The Commonwealth that ultimately emerged did not belong to Britain; it was mutually shared and owned by its members, exactly as de Valera had envisaged.

In the Irish Free State of the 1920s and 1930s, Patrick McGilligan, the external affairs Minister, Desmond FitzGerald, the father of Garret FitzGerald, and Kevin O'Higgins were responsible for driving much of the business of the Dominion Prime Ministers conferences of the period. They were the architects of what became known as the statute of Westminster, in which the charters of independence for Australia, New Zealand and the other countries that maintain the monarchical tradition have their roots.

The people who negotiated Dominion status in 1921 and 1922 were rooted in Ireland's republican tradition, and they helped to forge so much of today's Commonwealth tradition. When Sir Paul Beresford rightly referred to the Anzac contribution in two world wars and other conflicts, I could not help but reflect on the fact that many of the people in the British armed forces who fought for our freedom were drawn from what we know nowadays as the Irish Republic. Indeed, if we look at the wall behind the Serjeant at Arms, we can see the red crest of Willie Redmond—a Member of the House of Commons and the oldest British officer killed on the western front. He was a proud patriot and an Irish nationalist, but he is remembered here. He represents thousands of others who fought in our armed forces, even in what is known in Ireland as the emergency—world war two—when about 50,000 Irish people were in our armed forces and merchant marine. The Irish are everywhere in the old Commonwealth and other parts of it; the Irish tradition is everywhere.

I am disappointed that in the past 11 years neither the Major Government nor the Labour Government realised that we should address the wrong that is Ireland's omission from the Commonwealth. The reply from successive Governments to my parliamentary questions has been that it is for Ireland to apply. That is disingenuous; it is not fraternal. We should tell Ireland that we want it to occupy the chair that it vacated. The best way to achieve that would be for the Prime Ministers of some of the big players, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Jamaica, to take the initiative with the Taoiseach. They should say, "This is no longer the British Commonwealth. Of course, its genesis is in our common history, but now it is a mutual society of nations owned by Australia, Jamaica, South Africa and many other African states, the Republic of India and the Republic of Pakistan, when its suspension is over. It is ours, why don't you join us?"

Why do I want Ireland in the Commonwealth? The Irish Republic has a proud record of internationalism. It is one of the first countries the UN Secretary-General calls on for quality peacekeeping troops. They have no imperial baggage, and he can rely on them. The Irish punch above their numerical weight in the European Union, where they are highly regarded. Ireland will probably provide the first president of the European Union—perhaps to the disappointment of some people in London.

Ireland is a big player, but the one international organisation in which it does not participate is the Commonwealth. We have discussed the structures of the Commonwealth, but I would like to see an Irish team at the Commonwealth games, which is a rich festival of sport and, after the Olympics, one of the most important international sporting events.

Irish membership of the Commonwealth would be a small but not insignificant factor in the positive developments in the island of Ireland over the past 12 months. It would be a further contributory factor to cover differences in traditions that have caused aggravation, but in which people also find their common identity. A small number of people in the Irish Republic identify with UK Britishness, which they cannot currently express. When I raised the subject in a Westminster Hall debate, I received letters from people in the Irish Republic who cannot have read my contribution, because they believe that the Commonwealth is the British Commonwealth. If anyone reading Hansard should trespass on my remarks today, I emphasise the point that the Commonwealth is not the British Commonwealth; it is owned by all the other states, the majority of which are republics.

We should take the initiative at CHOGM and discuss with other members whether Ireland's chair, which has been vacant since 1948, could be occupied once more. Actually, I do not think that Ireland left; it has been left in a sort of halfway house, because when the Costello Government declared the Irish Republic in 1948-49, this House enacted legislation that said that all citizens of the Irish Republic had citizenship rights equal to those of people from the United Kingdom, could stand for election to local authorities and to Parliament, and could take ministerial office. A number of people who identified themselves as Irish have served in that capacity in this place. That was the precursor to the concept of Irish people being Commonwealth citizens, because the concept did not exist at that stage.

Our franchise is extended to United Kingdom people, citizens of the Irish Republic and Commonwealth citizens, who have the full franchise here and can be elected to the House—I believe that Commonwealth citizens have been Ministers. I urge the Minister to go back to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and ask for a proper brief. If she were to ask, "Is anything in the historical record that Mackinlay outlined incorrect?" the answer would be no—what I have said is absolutely correct, because I have spent some time studying the subject. I think that she will conclude that it is appropriate for the Prime Minister to discuss the issue with the other Commonwealth Prime Ministers and Heads of Government to see whether the situation can be remedied.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 4:16 pm, 20th March 2008

The personal connections that have been mentioned in the debate have, in some cases, been very moving. The advantage of having such a lengthy debate is that we can reveal a lot more than we normally do. I welcome the debate, in which particularly moving speeches have been made by my hon. Friend Sir Paul Beresford and Mrs. Curtis-Thomas, who gave an interesting account of Sierra Leone. I shall refer to Rwanda later, and we shall see some similarities.

First, may I say how proud I am of my connections with the Commonwealth? I was the sponsor Minister for Manchester and Salford in the mid-1990s, when John Major took the decision to back the Commonwealth games in Manchester. I am proud that a Conservative Government did that. I know that the games took place under the Labour Government, but John Major's decision to put the Government four-square behind them was the clinching factor in their coming to Manchester, and what a fantastic success they were, both for Manchester and the Commonwealth. I remember the extraordinary work by Frances Done, who did a great job on the administration, Robert Hough and, of course, the extraordinary Howard Bernstein—he is now Sir Howard Bernstein, partly as a result of work on the games.

It is appropriate that Simon Hughes is here, because I want to mention our long association with South Africa, which began in the dark days when South Africa was not a member of the Commonwealth. In 1986, we stood shoulder to shoulder at a demonstration in Crossroads, just before the tear gas started, and we returned many times in subsequent years. It was a great joy to us when the efforts of so many friends with whom we worked over the years—people who were struggling for peaceful change and reconciliation—came to fruition. One of the significant effects of the change in South Africa was, of course, to bring it back into the fold as a Commonwealth country. We were both at the first Commonwealth service held after the country came back into the fold. I am sure that the memories of those days and our friends in South Africa are as vivid to him as they are to me.

This year, my wife and I are looking forward to celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary in Ghana, where we will build houses with Habitat for Humanity, a terrific Christian-based charity that has done tremendous work providing houses all over the world. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey will know about that from his constituency work, because like me, he is on the board of patrons of Habitat for Humanity Great Britain. I am very much looking forward to going to Ghana, as I have not been to west Africa.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

I encourage the hon. Gentleman, when he goes to Ghana, to check out the work of Cadbury. Ghana produces more cocoa for Cadbury than any other country in the world. I know that the company is very proud of its work in Ghana, particularly the work it is doing to promote local projects, and specifically development projects. I encourage him to pop along and see that company. Who knows, Cadbury might be willing to support him and some of the interests that he is active in?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

I thank the hon. Lady most sincerely for that suggestion. I am sure that in west Africa a day without chocolate would be like a day without sunshine. I shall certainly take her up on that offer. If Cadbury is not familiar with the work of Habitat for Humanity, I would certainly be keen to introduce the company to it.

As has been mentioned by many hon. Members, the significance of the Commonwealth is too often overlooked. It is possible that too many people in this country did not notice that 10 March was Commonwealth day. I want to make one or two remarks about the unique status of the Commonwealth, its growth and the role that I would like it to play in development in the future.

There are many references in newspapers and periodicals to its being fashionable in this country to criticise the Commonwealth and to see it as an organisation that is inherently anti-British and institutionally ineffective. It rather reminds me of the old joke about the bloke who goes into a hardware shop to ask for a particular sort of light bulb only to be told by the harassed shopkeeper, "You're the 20th person we've told today: there's no demand for it." We constantly say that the Commonwealth is undervalued, yet here we are talking about its life and vibrancy. Everywhere we go, we know that people are well aware that the Commonwealth is more than alive and well. It is not in any way a declining institution.

Perhaps we see the Commonwealth in a particular way in this country, but when one travels abroad, one sees how much it is welcomed. It is a little like the EU. We can be keen to criticise in the UK, but it is possible to see how important the EU is in the Balkans in providing a framework to settle the conflicts in a region that has been beset by them for too long.

I do not buy the idea of the Commonwealth as a declining institution. I am proud of its history, its origins and what it provides today. Colleagues have mentioned the unique aspects of the Commonwealth. It has 53 member nations, representing nearly 2 billion people in a vast, diverse grouping that transcends the north-south divide, a feat that can be matched only by the UN. It puts the rich countries, such as the UK, Australia and Canada, into contact with poorer nations in order to share best business practice and technology and to assist developing countries. It does so not out of pure economic or geographical interest, but out of a sense of relationship, which is so important in world politics. We see so many things happen in the world that are based purely on transaction and on "What's in it for me? What's in it for you? Let's do something together only if that is the relationship that we have." If there is something deeper—in the Commonwealth, there is—it means much more.

That sense of relationship will be of great importance in a world that is becoming increasingly reliant on power blocs—a world of shrinking resources and potential global conflict. Whether it is the EU, north America or in terms of the increasing power of China, the world blocs are coming together. Something like the Commonwealth, which straddles those blocs, will be incredibly important in the future.

It is that backdrop that has made the Commonwealth's role in conflict resolution so important. We have discussed Kenya and the successes there and the worries about Zimbabwe, but let us not forget Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Cyprus. They are places where the Commonwealth can and should still have a role to play, using its unique background to try to deal with conflict resolution.

For a declining organisation, the Commonwealth has a remarkable number of people who want to join it, and that has to be the key test of a thriving group of people. Other colleagues have mentioned the fact that more countries that do not have a link to the old countries want to join. Mozambique has been mentioned. I want to talk a little about Rwanda, and say how much I welcome its application to join the Commonwealth, which has every prospect of success.

I and some 43 colleagues from the Conservative party—including eight Members of Parliament, among whom were my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron and my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell, who organised the visit—went to Rwanda last summer on the largest international development programme ever devised by a political party in the United Kingdom. We were proud to do so, and we followed in the footsteps of other volunteers working overseas. We pay tribute to all those who do such work all over the world. We were working on projects with the support and backing of the Rwandan Government through the relationship with President Paul Kagame—a relationship that has been fostered by the present Government. We are the biggest international donor to Rwanda, and this country has a terrific relationship with Rwanda, which was much needed. The fact that it is a consensual relationship on both sides of the House is of great importance.

We followed a whole variety of projects. Work was done in rebuilding and renovating a school and an orphanage. We made sure that the projects were sustainable and had a legacy. We set up twinning with schools, and colleagues worked in Ministers' offices and in local government. There was a concentration on health. The remarkable Dr. David Tibbutt, a member of one of the teams working there—he is also the Worcester city council cabinet member for urban renaissance and a wonderful doctor—described the work that he was doing as follows:

"Kirambi Health Centre is about 2 to 3 hours drive from Kigali over difficult roads and numerous bridges...The geography of the 'land of a thousand hills' is a major obstacle to accessing healthcare: walking many kilometres is the main means by which people reach a clinic!

At the Health Centre we conducted six all-day clinics. Our visit had been announced previously in the Church. On the first day we were overwhelmed by 150 patients and managed to see about 100: the remainder had to be sent away as it was too dark...and there was no artificial light available. In all we saw 473 patients. It was interesting to note that a large proportion of the presented problems were of a musculo-skeletal nature: backache and arthritis. Such problems may seem trivial. However, put into the social context of many hours of daily hard work on the land and walking across hilly terrain it becomes clear how important the management of these problems is."

So we worked on health care and health projects in rural and city areas, and we of course looked at the legacy of genocide. The whole modern history of Rwanda is tainted by the genocide of 1994, and yet enriched by the extraordinary recovery in that country. The hon. Member for Crosby spoke about the recovery taking place in Sierra Leone from involvement in the civil war, and how forgiving some communities had been in the most difficult of circumstances. That characteristic has also been part of Rwanda's recovery, and it is an extraordinary lesson for us.

We looked at the work of the gacaca courts and how communities have come to terms with what happened in Rwanda. We should remember that one tenth of a population of 10 million people were victims of the genocide. A civil court system cannot deal with all this, so it has been done through local community courts. The shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend David Mundell, put it this way when he went to see this work:

"that, for me, summed up Rwanda. Whilst there may not be a perfect reconciliation, there is no lust for revenge. As one survivor said to me, 'killing the people who carried out the killings would serve no purpose'. What there is is an accommodation, a common wish to move forward".

This sense of forgiveness and tolerance, in the most difficult of circumstances that none of us here can possibly truly comprehend, is the hallmark of what Rwanda is doing. It is still a poor country, but it is getting somewhere.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. He spoke about volunteer groups in Rwanda working on health projects, and he made a passing comment about school twinning. Will he take the opportunity to congratulate the British Council on the number of twinning projects that it has established between Rwanda and schools in the UK, and in other countries in Africa? Will he also congratulate all the British citizens, including some of my own constituents, who are working on valuable health projects in Rwanda?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

Absolutely. The British Council does fantastic work overseas, as more than one colleague has mentioned during the debate. We all recognise the need to deal with what is happening overseas, but only when we go there and see the scale of the difficulties do we realise that we should be doing more. When we introduce children to the problems that their brothers and sisters are experiencing around the world, that can be incredibly powerful.

School twinning and similar projects do a great deal, and it is a two-way process. Teachers get an opportunity to see the extraordinary skills of some of those working in the most difficult conditions. I remember a little village school that I went to see, where the facilities and resources were practically nil. The teacher had painted Pythagoras' theorem all around the blackboard because the school could not afford to have it printed out. He had painted it for his children on the walls. That is remarkable testimony to how extraordinary people are and what they will do with the most meagre resources to make things better.

Returning to the progress that has been made in Rwanda, the Minister will be delighted to know that 48 per cent. of Members of Parliament in Rwanda are women. Women play an extraordinary role there. There are 1 million widows, as a result of the genocide. The chair of the Conservative Women's Organisation, Fiona Hodgson, spent a great deal of time over the two weeks in Rwanda working with women right across the board, from those in prison to those in ministerial office. Their contribution to the recovery of Rwanda is so important.

That country has been through unparalleled troubles. Through their president and their Government, and through their own commitment and that of people from outside, the people of Rwanda are making something of themselves. What a wonderful addition to the Commonwealth they will make. They can contribute so much from their history and background, and I very much look forward to their joining.

My final point relates to future development. In the debate we have spoken about climate change, but we have not spoken a great deal about pressure on other resources, which is becoming frightening. Because it will affect the Commonwealth so much, I shall ask the Minister at the end of my remarks to what extent consideration of that problem will form part of the Commonwealth's drive for development in the future, and how the Commonwealth will react to the pressure on the resources of the planet and the way that they are being used.

I appreciate the help of Professor Chris Lever of Oxford university, who recently gave a presentation to Members of Parliament, in assembling some key facts. In 1927 the world population was 2 billion, in 1960 it was 3 billion, and today it is 6.5 billion. It is increasing by 70 million every year. It has doubled in about 50 years and by 2050 there will be 9 billion people on the planet, many of them in the developing world, and many in countries that are members of the Commonwealth.

Over that period, what has happened to the resources to feed those people and meet their other needs? If we consider the past 100 years and the impact on land, about a fifth of the world's topsoil has been lost through erosion and salination. About a fifth of agricultural land has been lost. A third of the forests have been lost. One estimate suggests that 50 per cent. of arable land may be unusable by 2050 because it has been over-irrigated and over-grazed.

Pressures are increasing and almost all the increase in demand will come from developing countries. The livestock revolution is changing the demand for cereals, which is affecting wheat prices as we talk today, and the House can imagine what the situation may be like in 30 years' time. The competition now between crops and biofuels will add to the problem. To feed 9 billion people in 2050 without allowing for additional imports of food, Africa will have to increase its food production by 300 per cent., Latin America by 80 per cent. and Asia by 70 per cent.

We are running out of water. Worldwide, more than 70 per cent. of food production is dependent on irrigation. The depletion of aquifers is occurring at twice the rate required to recharge them. Salination and desertification are major consequences of irrigation.

As so many of the effects of those uncomfortable truths will be felt in Commonwealth countries, to what extent is the Commonwealth taking a lead in combating those pressures on resources? This is not just about climate change or environment; it is about how a developing world that wants to catch up, and which in many ways has an absolute moral right to catch up, with everything that we have taken for granted for so long, will be able to do so, and how the world's resources will stretch to achieve that. What is the legacy for the grandchildren of the Commonwealth of those of us who are here today? I should be grateful if the Minister in her concluding remarks would consider that and what might be done in the future.

Despite the joke at the beginning of my speech, we are all aware of the importance of the Commonwealth, but it is probably true that there is a danger that the British people are at some risk of forgetting its historical significance and not appreciating its vibrancy for today. We must not forget that we fought two world wars together with Commonwealth countries, as the cemeteries in France and Belgium show. My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley paid tribute to the Anzacs at Gallipoli. Gallipoli is remembered in very few places in the UK today, except Bury, my home town, which was the garrison town of the Lancashire Fusiliers, who famously won six VCs before breakfast, as my hon. Friend Mr. Simpson would inevitably know, and he would presumably be able to quote the names of all those who won them. Bury is intimately tied up with Gallipoli where so many men from the town died. Those links must never be forgotten, and that is why my hon. Friend spoke so movingly about the length and depth of the relationship between Australia and New Zealand and this country. There exists between us a deep historical and unique link that we would be foolish ever to forget.

But it is also clear from contributions from all parts of the House that as well as the past there is a present vibrancy to the Commonwealth as it considers its future and plays a more substantial role. I firmly believe that it may find its fullest and most important voice in development and resource issues, because so many of its citizens will suffer if we fail to deal with the threats of environmental damage and resource depletion that face us today.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex 4:38 pm, 20th March 2008

I was caught off guard to be called now, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I naturally assumed that a colleague of greater seniority would catch your eye before me, but I am most gratified by your beneficence. It is a great pleasure to take part in the debate. We are a few days late for Commonwealth day. I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Minister for myself being a few minutes late for her speech, but I was a little surprised that she sat down so soon after I arrived. Perhaps she will enlighten us with further thoughts when she responds to the debate, because this debate is about an important topic. The Commonwealth is always in danger of seeming like no more than a hangover from bygone days, a fading institution, and those who talk about it are often caricatured as latter-day blimpish figures harking back to the glory days of empire. However, the reality of the modern world creates potential for a 21st-century Commonwealth that far exceeds anything that most people associate with it today. We have heard a lot in this debate about kith and kin, historical and cultural relationships, and development. We have heard powerful speeches on those issues, but I wish to turn principally to the economic relationships.

Let me say at the outset that I do not claim originality for the fundamentals of this idea, which have been expounded in many articles and speeches by my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Howell of Guildford. My hon. Friend Alistair Burt has just graced us with a powerful and profound speech about the challenges facing the modern Commonwealth and modern world. However, I take exception to his assertion that the world is increasingly breaking into power blocs. Lord Howell makes the opposite observation: he has marked the transition of global trade and politics from the superpower blocs of the cold war to what he calls a "network world"—one in which global communications technology is progressively neutralising many of the limitations imposed by geography that we grew up with and accepted as fact. It is a world in which, to quote my right hon. and noble Friend:

"Thanks to the extraordinary power and pervasiveness of the information revolution we live in an era now not of blocs and pyramid tiers of power and management but of networks and meshes, both formal and informal.

By accident as much as design the Commonwealth emerges from a controversial past to take a perfect place in this new order of thinking and acting."

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Deputy Chair, Conservative Party

May I add to that argument? I completely understand my hon. Friend's and Lord Howell's point, which is perfectly sensible. What I worry about is that we see world conflicts beginning to centre around the availability of resources. Under that pressure, will what my hon. Friend has described break down and will people go back to the power blocs with which they are familiar—based on ties, geography and economics? We might have to contract to deal with the problems of the future.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex

I understand my hon. Friend's point, which is about protectionism. We must guard against that, because protectionism will lead to precisely that kind of unhealthy competition between nations, as opposed to the healthy competition that derives from a system of free trade.

The Commonwealth could rapidly become an ever more powerful alliance without the disadvantage of a single dominating state, as there is in NATO, or a dominating group of states, as there is in the European Union or the United Nations. Such an alliance could be bound together by common interests to do with promoting free trade, democracy and international security. Furthermore—we must say this deferentially and with tact—as an English-speaking alliance, much of the Commonwealth reflects British values of freedom, democracy and tolerance and retains a high regard for the United Kingdom and the role that we play in the world.

My central point today is that the Government, Parliament and the nation are not paying sufficient attention to the Commonwealth and that a more positive UK engagement with the Commonwealth would greatly benefit this nation, our trade, foreign policy and defence relationships, and the world.

The Commonwealth exists primarily because of trade, as did the empire that preceded it. Long before the Raj, the British were in India for trading purposes, and that was the case across the globe—British trade came before British governance. British governance has long since been confined to the history books, but the opportunity remains for British trade to flourish. As we have heard today, the Commonwealth comprises an amazing array of nations—rich and poor, large and small. The UK already trades extensively with Commonwealth countries. It is clear that Commonwealth countries, led by India and alongside China—with which the UK also shares a special relationship by virtue of our former colony, Hong Kong—are the coming force in the global economy.

EU gross domestic product is $14.5 trillion, slightly more than that of the US, which is $13.9 trillion. The combined GDP of the Commonwealth is already $7.8 trillion, or 16 per cent. of the global economy in 2006, and growing faster than that of the EU or the United States.

When we compare economic growth rates in Europe with those of the Commonwealth, it is painfully obvious that the Commonwealth presents the most fruitful opportunities for the expansion of British trade in the future. Since 2000, growth in the eurozone has averaged 2 per cent. per annum, but in Canada the average has been 2.9 per cent.; in Australia, 3.3 per cent.; in New Zealand, 3.4 per cent.; in South Africa, 4.2 per cent.; in Malaysia, 5.4 per cent.; in Nigeria—one of the growing number of African countries that is now a net exporter of capital, which is not what we expect—5.5 per cent.; in Singapore, 5.7 per cent.; and in India, 7 per cent. Many Commonwealth countries are becoming the motors of the global economy of the future. The Commonwealth also contains 13 of the world's fastest-growing economies. They also comprise, outside the US and Japan, all the key cutting-edge countries in information technology and e-commerce.

We are not yet making the most of these opportunities. In 2006, the UK exported £26.8 billion of goods and services to Australia, Canada, Malaysia, India, Nigeria, Singapore and South Africa—barely more than the £24.1 billion that we exported to Ireland alone. The combined population of these Commonwealth countries is 1.38 billion, compared with 4.3 million in Ireland. We share an affinity with Commonwealth countries every bit as potent as, say, with Ireland. I am much taken with the idea that we should invite Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth, and I hope that that point, which was made by Andrew Mackinlay, will be taken up by the Minister. These relationships are all the more potent because we can be the Commonwealth representative in the EU as well as being the Commonwealth representative as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

One of the great benefits of the enlargement of the European Union is that three Commonwealth countries—Malta and Cyprus, as well as the UK—are now members of the EU, and we should be working together to deliver Commonwealth policies in Europe.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex

I do not quite see a Commonwealth axis emerging in the European Union, but I entirely agree with the sentiment expressed by the hon. Gentleman.

The point about the Commonwealth countries is that there is a natural commonality of language, law, accounting systems and business regulation that lends itself to trade between those countries. As these countries grow richer, is there any reason why they should be less attracted to British goods and services than, say, European countries? The Prime Minister tells us that 3.5 million jobs depend on trade with the European Union, but there is a danger that by focusing too narrowly on European trade we are ignoring the possibility of creating millions more jobs with our Commonwealth partners. Indeed, the Prime Minister himself has said that

"whenever the choice has been between protectionism and the open seas, Britain has chosen the open seas...we, the British people, have chosen to see the Channel not as a moat but as a highway to the rest of the world".

I commend those words, but there is a danger that we are missing that boat.

This prompts the question of what a British trade policy might be were we to develop more freedom under the EU customs union and therefore be less obliged to apply a purely EU tariff regime to all imports from Commonwealth countries. As the EU continues in relative decline and the Commonwealth and China roar ahead, how is the balance of advantage for British trade likely to shift in that environment? It is ironic, amid all the talk that we are hearing about aid, that the EU is in the process of imposing so-called economic partnership agreements on many Commonwealth countries—not, I imagine, something that the UK Government are entirely happy with. Many African, Caribbean and Pacific countries have refused to sign the pro-forma agreements offered by the European Commission, resulting in a tangle of separate and complex agreements for different, often neighbouring nations. We are therefore likely to see increases in tariffs on exports from some of the poorest countries in the world.

Much has been made of British and EU aid flows to Commonwealth countries, but in the longer term the trading relationship could be far more important than the aid relationship. I hope that our European Union partners wish us to be a good member of the Commonwealth as much as they want us to be a good member of the EU. That should not present any sort of conflict, nor should positive membership of one lead to neglect of the other.

Trade is vital to our prosperity. Napoleon derided the English for being a nation of shopkeepers only because the UK was so good at being a trading nation. But in these uncertain times, the Commonwealth offers a vehicle for political co-operation and international action that is unparalleled by any other global institution. The Commonwealth is an institution with members in all continents. It has more than 500 million Muslim inhabitants, for example, and it supports democracy throughout the globe. Freedom House, the US-based non-governmental organisation, produces an annual freedom index based on the political rights and civil liberties of each nation's population. In 2008, there are 54 countries outside Europe that Freedom House reckons to be free, and 26 are members of the Commonwealth. A further 18 Commonwealth countries are reckoned to be partly free and only five are judged to be not free. The Commonwealth, therefore, is a beacon for democracy and human rights in parts of our world where that light is sometimes at its dimmest. Six of the 11 free nations in sub-Saharan Africa and eight of the 16 free countries in the Asia-Pacific region are in the Commonwealth.

The geographical, racial, cultural and religious diversity of the Commonwealth is one of its great strengths. Its values are our values and we must remain fully engaged with it if we, other member countries and the rest of the world are to continue to benefit from it. The Minister mentioned climate change as an initiative to be pursued through the Commonwealth and we can do a great deal to address that agenda, along with the promotion of biodiversity, the saving of rainforests and other environmental initiatives.

As these nations grow in economic significance, so their influence, military and aid capabilities are likely to grow. We are already joined with Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth nations in military operations in Afghanistan, for example. Canada is a member of NATO; Australia is obviously not, but that suggests a huge potential for NATO to develop more formal association agreements with a range of non-Euro-Atlantic powers for the purpose of multinational operations. Some Commonwealth countries are already represented at NATO headquarters at Mons in Belgium. Perhaps there is even a case for the Commonwealth flag to be flown on Commonwealth peacekeeping operations.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify the type of Commonwealth countries that he thinks ought to be part of an economic trading agreement? Do they include, for instance, countries that could be classified as post-conflict or fragile states, and what sort of criteria would he expect to have in place that would allow those countries to participate in the trade that he is talking about and of which I know they would like to be a part?

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex

I am an advocate of free trade, and ultimately, I would like a barrier-free world. The ideals of an open and free market that we have pursued in the European Union were ahead of their time. They foreshadowed globalisation, and the Commonwealth is an opportunity to extend such freedoms beyond the shores of Europe. I do not see that we need to categorise particular nations as post-recovery and so on. We have to be careful, however. The problem with the economic partnership agreements is that they require reciprocal liberalisation of a nation's tariff regime alongside that of the EU. That makes demands on some poorer countries that are impossible for them to accept. Their tariff regimes often provide an important component of their income and removing that would rob their Governments of their means of self-sustenance because they do not have a natural indigenous tax base. Secondly, they have fledgling industries that are often not very competitive, which would simply be swamped. We remember the business of the substitute milk products that flooded some African economies and destroyed indigenous production of food for children and babies.

As those countries emerge from being so far behind economically, the sort of agreements we need with them will have to tolerate a degree of protectionism for those economies until they emerge strongly enough to take part as full members of the global economy. I hope that that answers the hon. Lady's question. It was a very complex one, so I doubt that I have answered it as fully as it deserves.

I was coming on to the sort of defence relationships that could develop throughout the Commonwealth. I would point out that there may be a case for the Commonwealth flag to be flown over Commonwealth military bases in certain peacekeeping operations. If it is okay for the EU to fly the flag over military operations, why not the Commonwealth? We have more in common with many Commonwealth nations than with many EU nations, so we should not be confined by a narrow Euro-centric view of potential threats to our security or of the possibilities of resolving them through co-operation with nations beyond the EU or NATO. That should be attractive to the US and to European nations seeking to widen the burden sharing of multinational security operations as well as to those who want to encourage groupings to emerge that will counterbalance the tendency of the US to dominate militarily in the world.

There is a danger, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office directing too little of its attention towards the Commonwealth part of its remit. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Howell of Guildford suggests that it should be called the Commonwealth and Foreign Office in order to concentrate the minds of Ministers and officials. Unlimited hours of officialdom have generated reams and reams of paper about our relationship with the EU—we are all guilty in this House, me included, of giving so much attention to that relationship—yet relatively little effort is devoted to the Commonwealth and the huge economic and political potential it represents in the 21st century.

It is, of course, right, given our role in the EU, that the FCO should be concerned with our engagement with that institution and our partners in it, but I would suggest that more attention needs to be paid to the Commonwealth and how that institution can be developed and strengthened. Otherwise, we run the risk of being too parochial, too narrowly European and not global enough in our outlook.

Other countries recognise the political and economic importance of Commonwealth countries and are investing in them. Some of that, such as the American engagement with India, is welcome. Other developments, such as the massive Chinese investment in sub-Saharan Africa, are not so welcome, and The Economist recently described that as marking the Chinese out as "the new colonialists". They are ruthlessly and single-mindedly exporting their population to many African countries in order to exploit their mineral and natural resources, often with little regard for the long-term environmental consequences or, tragically, for the human rights of either their own people or the indigenous populations.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

I rise to support that comment, because I have my own experience of what the hon. Gentleman is describing in respect of Sierra Leone and other west African countries, where the Chinese role is nothing but flagrant opportunism. Everything is being taken out and, as far as I can see, absolutely nothing is being put back.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex

At risk of extending my remarks further than necessary, I think that both Chinese and Russian involvement in the African continent presents a potential security threat. It is, of course, a gloomy symptom of that threat that the United States has felt it necessary to open an African headquarters for its military. One is horrified at the prospect of a sort of rerun of what happened in Africa in the 19th century, as dominance over the continent is effectively fought over by proxy by the superpowers once again. If we can possibly avoid that, we should. I submit that there is a huge role for the Commonwealth in trying to prevent that from happening. I ascribe no malicious intent to the Americans, who are reacting in the only way they can; otherwise, the continent will become an unchallenged space for China and Russia.

Engagement with the Commonwealth should therefore be at the front and centre of our foreign policy, beyond the borders of our own continent. Winston Churchill believed that the UK needed to be as committed to its relationship with Europe as to that with the United States and the Commonwealth. Of course, the world has changed greatly since Churchill's day, but it is striking how, after decolonisation, the Commonwealth as a network of powers is on the march once again. Economic growth and globalisation have the potential to transform the Commonwealth into a body of increasing importance. But I fear—I put this to the Minister—that a speech of just 16 minutes from a junior Minister is an indicator that the Government do not attach to the Commonwealth the importance that it will increasingly deserve. I very much hope that she will recompense us in her closing remarks.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 5:00 pm, 20th March 2008

Had the Commonwealth not just appointed a new secretary-general, I would have just heard an extremely eloquent bid from Mr. Jenkin to be considered for that post. I was pleased that he put the case strongly for the Commonwealth to be recognised, valued, appreciated and objectively assessed for the huge benefit that it is and can be.

At nearly the end of an absolutely fascinating debate, I reflect on the fact that eight weeks ago I started my weekly pestering of the Leader of the House for a Commonwealth debate as near as possible to Commonwealth day, not just for this year but as a regular feature of parliamentary life. I hope that hon. Members feel that that request has been vindicated. I agree with colleagues' comments that Parliament could do even more to recognise the Commonwealth at around the time that it is recognised across the Commonwealth. There is absolutely no reason why we could not have a fixed point in the calendar—just as the second Monday in March is Commonwealth day—which could be protected, as other business can be, to allow us to debate the huge, historic, current and future benefit that we have as part of the Commonwealth and that the Commonwealth gives to the world.

A lively debate took place yesterday on the future of the post office network in this country, against the backdrop that many of the post offices that we value will be closed down, which many people regret. The good news is that no one in the House wants the Commonwealth to be closed down—absolutely the contrary. We ought not just to stand up for the Commonwealth, but to reflect on how beneficial it is, and to see whether we can build on its current state, which is already healthy, but it could be an even healthier contributor to the world.

Some particularly notable speeches have been made. I hope that the Minister will feed that back to the Foreign Secretary and his colleagues, so that when he leaves for his Easter holiday, he realises that he is the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, or the Commonwealth and Foreign Secretary, and not just one rather than the other. Sir Paul Beresford made a hugely impressive, extremely moving speech about the historic, practical, trade and cultural links between New Zealand and this country. It caused me to reflect that a number of parliamentary colleagues in my lifetime have had a Commonwealth background. Edwin Leather is the first one I remember having been a Canadian citizen and a Member of this Parliament. I am conscious that Ms Abbott has clear links to the Caribbean. We have had members with South African, Australian, Guyanan, Ghanaian, Pakistani and Indian links, as well as New Zealand links—and perhaps other Commonwealth links, too. Ours has become a Parliament that reflects the interchange of peoples, and I hope the Government and all their works understand that.

I was pleased to hear Andrew Mackinlay make the case for us to be proactive in arguing for Ireland to return to the Commonwealth, a case that I support without reservation. The old reasons for difference have gone now. Yes, we are a monarchy and Ireland is a republic. We are a proud monarchy, and Ireland is a proud republic, but the reasons for the breakdown of relations in the first decades of the last century have gone, and we have moved on. Today the Queen was in Armagh, distributing the Maundy money for the first time in that part of the United Kingdom. That must be a sign that we are ready to return to what was a wonderfully civilised relationship. It does not mean that we must always agree with each other. It means that we can do what my brother did the Saturday before last—go to Croke Park and yell furiously for Wales to beat Ireland, as it very satisfactorily did. We have done that occasionally, and I remember Wales beating New Zealand and Australia as well at Cardiff Arms Park during my youth.

Many of us, however, experience such cultural links on a day-to-day basis. Earlier in the debate I estimated that probably a fifth of my constituents, or even a quarter, were Commonwealth citizens, or at least had been born in other Commonwealth countries. There are communities from Nigeria and Sierra Leone—many of those people came here because of the terrible civil war in that country—and from Ghana. Incidentally, we have an outlet for Ghana's Fairtrade cocoa in SE1, just over the river. There are also people from Cyprus, on both sides of the divide, and from Australia. I spent a very loud evening in a local hostelry at the end of last year hoping—unsuccessfully—that England would win the final of the World cup, surrounded by a large number of South Africans because the pub was frequented by people from South Africa. This is part of the warp and weft of our lives, and we are naïve if we do not pay it full heed.

As the hon. Member for North Essex pointed out, it is not a question of being pro-Commonwealth and anti-European, or pro-Commonwealth and anti the English-speaking world. We have three political traditions. We have the tradition of what was the empire, became the British Commonwealth and is now the Commonwealth, a fantastic quarter of the world with a third of the world's population: 2 millionpeople, from the biggest to the smallest nations. We have our continental neighbours, people with different languages but, by and large, a common Christian tradition, although other faiths have joined it. And we have the English-speaking world, which includes our link across the Atlantic.

We should value all those traditions, but in this place we spend far more time discussing European Union issues—not just recently, when we have been discussing them daily, but in general—than Commonwealth issues, and that is to our disadvantage. Our trade, educational, scientific and cultural advantages, and particularly the advantages connected with peace, conflict resolution, development and the reducing of inequality, are best dealt with in a Commonwealth context. My friend Alistair Burt rightly reminded the House that, in our early political days, both he and I were very much formed by our visits to South Africa when it was outside the club because of its terrible racist regime. We saw a willingness to understand that that could not be a permanent solution because it denied fantastic cultural opportunities to South Africa, which is now back in the Commonwealth where it rightfully belongs.

I pay tribute to those who work at the centre of the organisation. Our Queen has always seen her job as head of the Commonwealth as central, and I pay tribute to her unqualified support for it throughout her wonderfully long reign, but I also pay tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which does a sterling job in ensuring that bilateral relations continue, and to others who work for Commonwealth organisations.

Last week I went to a service in Westminster Abbey organised by the Council of Commonwealth Societies, chaired by my noble Friend Lord Watson of Richmond. I looked at the back of the service sheet for the observance of Commonwealth day: it was called an observance because it was a multi-faith event. There was a list of 30 organisations that had contributed to that one event —30 Commonwealth organisations. They included the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, the Commonwealth Business Council, the Commonwealth Countries League and the Commonwealth Education Trust. There is a whole network of organisations that bring people together. I have had the privilege to be involved with two of them in particular: the Council for Education in the Commonwealth, which works for the advancement of links between our universities, and the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council.

The Minister intervened to try to explain the FCO decision of last week to remove some of the funding for Commonwealth scholarships. She wanted it to be understood that they would still be available but from a different budgetary head, because the Commonwealth Foundation would now handle developing countries, and the old Commonwealth countries would—as it were—have to bid for funding in other contexts. It does not appear that that will provide as many opportunities in future. For example, it is my understanding that postgraduate scholarships will not be available. I ask her to talk to colleagues in the education Departments, and also to Members who have made representations that it is likely that the new system will bring fewer people from the Commonwealth to the UK.

May I add a plea to that? To my certain knowledge, the funding of the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council has been frozen, or frozen in real terms, over many years, but it has done wonderful work in making sure that youngsters from the UK go to places as remote and far away as Tuvalu to learn what life on the other side of the globe is like. I went to a wonderful gathering it organised in Sunderland of young people from all over the world. It showed the sheer excitement, and the learning and benefit, that can come from people from so many different and diverse cultures coming together at such an early and informative stage of their lives. I hope that we will continue to support such organisations, and I formally ask the Minister to review the funding of those Commonwealth organisations that have had their funding held, or held in real terms, to see if we cannot give them more investment in future.

There is a statistic that I did not know until I discovered it in preparing for today's debate: apparently, two thirds of all schoolchildren in this country have a family member who either lives in or came from a Commonwealth country. If that is the backdrop to the UK of today, I hope we will build very positively on what are already strong links. It is a time of change: that, rightly, was the Minister's tribute to the outgoing secretary-general of the Commonwealth, who stands down in a few days—on 31 March. Don McKinnon has done a relentlessly professional diplomatic job in all his time in that post, and I pay tribute to him. We also congratulate the outgoing Indian high commissioner in London, who has been appointed to succeed him at the beginning of April. It was, indeed, the incoming secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, who said that the Commonwealth is a unique force for good; they were not originally his words, but he repeated them.

If we look back at who has been the chairman-in-office of the Commonwealth over the years, we realise what a high-powered organisation it is, and that we must never underestimate it. It must be said that some former chairmen-in-office have slipped from grace: Mr. Mugabe was the chairman-in-office before power went to his head in a very tragic way. However, other chairmen-in-office include such people as Lee Kuan Yew, Pierre Trudeau, Michael Manley, Jim Callaghan, Kenneth Kaunda, Malcolm Fraser, Indira Gandhi, Lynden Pindling, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney. They are all serious, internationally big players with a huge amount to contribute. We must never forget that this is not just a club of the former colonies, but an organisation with highly astute and respected political leadership.

On 12 March, there was in this place a half-day conference chaired by Baroness Prashar about the impact of the Commonwealth on Parliament and the constituencies. Among others, Lord Howell of Guildford, who has already been mentioned, spoke at that conference. He argued passionately that we should be more effective in engaging in the affairs of the Commonwealth and trumpeting what it does.

James Robbins, the BBC's diplomatic correspondent, who chaired a session at last week's meeting, was reported as saying:

"the key questions for this session: Why is the Commonwealth not as high profile as it might like, and how can it 'get the story out there' more effectively? The fact is, although the Commonwealth has a lot of good stories to tell, it often fails to tell them. Although the Commonwealth is a fantastic brand, it seems reticent about trumpeting its core values and successes, such as the irreversible shift towards good governance. The recent example of Kenya is a case in point—Commonwealth observers of the contentious elections were slow to denounce them publicly, allowing the EU to steal the limelight."

A set of things that the Commonwealth does goes unrecognised, but the world needs those things to work well. The programme of what the Commonwealth secretariat did in its last reported period contained 15 subject headings: good offices for peace; democracy and consensus building; rule of law; human rights; international trade; investment; finance and debt; public sector development; environmentally sustainable development; small states; education; health; young people; gender equality and equity; and capacity building and institutional development. That is a serious agenda for ensuring that the world is a better place, a better governed place, a more peaceful place and a place where conflicts are resolved more effectively.

As my main request to the Government, I want to echo the conclusions of last week's conference. These points were also made in a debate in the House of Lords last year. Ahead of next year—the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth's creation—the UK Government should reassess how we can support the Commonwealth better and engage with it more effectively. I know that we make the largest contribution to the secretariat, but two thirds of UK bilateral aid goes to Commonwealth countries. That is a serious reason for ensuring that we examine the whole picture. While keeping an eye on a country such as Nigeria, which has the largest number of people in poverty of any African country, we must not take not take our eye off a country such as the Maldives, which must address governance issues and severe threats from climate change.

I want to flag up the issues at home and abroad simply by recognising them rather than detaining the House by developing my points at length. We ought to build up the duties of Commonwealth observers at elections. It ought to be a matter of course that such work is done by Commonwealth members for Commonwealth countries and that it is seen to be an important part of the democratic process.

I would like us to be more active abroad in offering Commonwealth support for resolutions of conflicts. We still have not resolved the conflict in Cyprus; the conflict in Kashmir, which affects India and Pakistan, remains unresolved; and we must also deal with the terrible and continuing conflict in Sri Lanka. Of course there are diplomatic difficulties in all cases, and Governments have perfectly understandable views about their sovereignty, but valuable Commonwealth resources could be deployed to better effect.

Climate change and environmental issues are huge threats to many Commonwealth countries. If ever there was a reason for those issues to remain at the top of the G8 and UN agendas, the same one would apply in respect of their remaining at the top of the Commonwealth agenda. I hope that we will never forget the health agenda, particularly the need to eradicate malaria and tuberculosis, and the battle against HIV and AIDS. That is not just an African agenda issue; it is also an agenda issue in Asian Commonwealth countries, Caribbean Commonwealth countries and elsewhere. It would be a valuable help if the Government were to make those issues a priority.

The Government would be wrong to do away with the rights in relation to citizenship that people have traditionally had because of their Commonwealth links. Other hon. Members have flagged up their concern, and I wish to join them today, although I will also join in the formal consultation response. I can tell the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington that the first people to protest personally to me about the prospective change were from the Jamaican community, not the New Zealand community or the Australian community. They see it as a lack of recognition of the contribution that they have made over generations to this country. We have to listen to their voices. We talk about community cohesion, but people have to feel valued. People who have been here for generations should not have to ask for that, but should have it as a right.

I would be very troubled if we took away the right to vote from Commonwealth countries, as Lord Goldsmith's report suggested. I understand that it could be viewed as anomalous, but people from the Commonwealth have stayed here and retained their original nationality because they knew that we gave them a special status, with which came the vote. I hope that we can retain that status and that we will soon have a full debate about those rights.

I also hope that we can make it a routine that before the Heads of Government conference—it was in Uganda last year—we have a proper debate about Commonwealth issues on the Floor of the House. Then when the Prime Minister returns, he can report to the House and take questions, just as he does after a European summit.

The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is a very valuable organisation. I have had the privilege of going to Sierra Leone and having some involvement with supporting the offshoots of its political parties, both here and there. There is a huge amount of work to be done, but the hon. Members for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) and for City of York (Hugh Bayley) and others know how a little investment of money and time can give such encouragement to, for example, women who would not have thought of getting involved in politics, or to young people who have visions for changing the world but do not know how to go about it because they do not have the skill set. I want more researchers to share their experience with other countries. Parliamentary staff are now beginning to do that, as are people in local government, so good national and local leadership can be shared with other Commonwealth countries.

The message from this debate has been clear, although it has been put in different ways. There is huge affection for the Commonwealth and it is also highly valued. The Minister will have heard the message that we would like her to ensure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office achieves a greater balance between the two parts of its responsibilities. We think that the Commonwealth is a very worthwhile body. It is a privilege to be part of such a wonderful worldwide organisation and it is a great force for peace and prosperity. I hope that the reaffirmation of that by this House of Commons will send a welcome message to the outgoing secretary-general and all his staff, and encouragement to the incoming secretary-general and his team. I hope that it also encourages us to ensure that we do not let these matters slide from the agenda for as long as they have done in the recent past.

Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 5:23 pm, 20th March 2008

This has been an excellent debate, with hon. Members presenting a wide range of issues, as I expected. It is difficult to do justice to the breadth of possible issues, even in a full afternoon's debate, but I was somewhat surprised by the churlish comments by the hon. Members for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and for Westbury (Dr. Murrison).

My opening remarks set the context for the debate, and it is especially interesting that the hon. Member for North Essex chose to comment, given that he managed to miss most of them. I wished to reply to all hon. Members in my closing contribution, and it seemed right to ensure that Back Benchers had the maximum opportunity to contribute—we have heard some very good speeches as a result. I pay tribute to the persistence of Simon Hughes, who has pushed for this debate. In his speech, he did justice to the case for the Commonwealth.

As I said in my opening remarks, I attended the meeting of Women's Affairs Ministers that preceded the Commonwealth Heads of Government talks in Kampala last year. I was able to experience at first hand the real benefits of talking to other Ministers in the Commonwealth, as we shared our experiences and looked at how we could continue to build our relationships. I assure the House that, as a Minister, I value the Commonwealth. My departmental colleagues do too, and we are conscious that the proper title is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The word "Commonwealth" is an important part of that title, and it will remain so.

My hon. Friend Hugh Bayley has said that the Commonwealth is a diverse family of nations, and I cannot improve on that description, which really sums it up.

The hon. Member for Westbury, who is not in his place, talked about the important role played by Commonwealth citizens in our armed forces. I recognise that role and pay tribute to them, as I also pay tribute to Private Johnson Beharry, who was recently awarded the Victoria cross.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey spoke about peacekeeping, in which the Commonwealth plays an important role around the world. I want to put on record my appreciation of that work: the Commonwealth provides just over half of the world's peacekeeping forces, and the biggest contributors are India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

My hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay argued passionately in favour of Ireland resuming its membership of the Commonwealth. He is not in his place, but if he were, he would be disappointed by my reply, which is that Commonwealth membership is a matter for Ireland. That is not a comment on the British Government's view of the matter, because Ireland could always apply to renew its membership of an organisation from which it withdrew in 1949. I have not researched the history in detail, but I know that Ireland has the option of applying for Commonwealth membership.

Mr. Baron, who is also not in his place, challenged me to say how the Commonwealth is a force for good. I could point to a number of the speeches that we have heard this afternoon, but instead I shall say a little more about education. Various hon. Members asked about Commonwealth scholarships, but I hope that I have made it clear that we must prioritise resources.

That is not something that Opposition Members have to deal with, and even in their shadow policies they struggle at times to be clear whether resources would go up or down. In contrast, the Government have set out our priorities, and we believe it important to ensure that money benefits poorer countries.

I turn now to what the UK is doing for education in the Commonwealth in the wider sense, as scholarships are available only to people who have reached a certain level of education.

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Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

My hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay was not denying that it was up to Ireland to apply for readmittance to the Commonwealth. He merely suggested that Britain might like to write to the Irish Government, asking whether they had considered making such an application and making it clear that they would be very welcome in the Commonwealth. Is that an impossibility as well?

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The Commonwealth is not the "British" Commonwealth, so it would be for a range of countries to take a view on that. If Ireland wished to apply, it would be to the Commonwealth secretariat. I am sure that Ireland would meet the criteria, and that if it did want to apply, we would have not objection. We are keen for countries that meet the criteria to join; for example, I shall talk about Rwanda later.

The Government will be spending £8.5 billion on education globally by 2015. At present, about two thirds of our bilateral spending on education is in Commonwealth countries. At the end of 2007, the Government announced a new package of support for education in Nigeria, totalling £106 million. Overall, the Government are providing £50.8 million to support scholarships and study awards over the next three years, increasing our funding to £17.5 million per annum by 2011-12.

In Commonwealth countries, the number of primary-age children out of school dropped by 18 million between 2000 and 2005, but 30 million primary-age children still remain out of school, of whom 17 million are girls. We should be extremely concerned about that. At CHOGM in Kampala, the Heads of Government committed to redoubling their efforts to deliver education for all: to enrol the 30 million children now out of school, to eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, and to strengthen education systems in countries affected by conflict. The UK will continue to support the Commonwealth in meeting educational aspirations. I am sure that all hon. Members agree that support for children of primary age is particularly important, because if children are not educated at that age they will have no hope of taking a scholarship later on.

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Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that the main responsibility for getting children into primary school lies with the Government of their country. Our aid is important, but without the political will of a country's Education Minister and Head of Government things will not happen. Does that not describe what is so important about the Commonwealth? We in Britain have the aspiration that every Commonwealth child should go to school, and we have a club—an association—where we can talk to those in charge of the Government in countries where that is not the case.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Once again, he has demonstrated the benefits of the Commonwealth—

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Perhaps my hon. Friend will contain herself for a moment, as before I leave the issue of education, I want to pick up a point that she raised earlier. The work of the British Council is enormously important not only in Commonwealth countries but around the world. I know from my regular contacts with the regions for which I am responsible that those regions value British Council input. Indeed, there are often demands, particularly for help in spreading the learning of English.

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Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas PPS (Rt Hon Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC, Attorney General), Law Officers' Department

May I provide a word of caution? One of the learning and development goals is to provide every child with a school place by 2015, but if that means doubling classroom capacity so that children are in classes of 160 rather than 80, it will not produce well-educated children. Will my hon. Friend remember that point? We must insist on the fact that we not only want children in school, but want to ensure that the education they receive is of good quality, with some chance of providing them with employment.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My hon. Friend is right that quality of education is important.

I want to address the important issue of the 60th anniversary in 2009, which several hon. Members have mentioned. It will be an occasion to celebrate, but as yet no plans have been made. As hon. Members are aware, the new secretary-general takes office within the next few weeks, and it would be strange to make plans for something as important as that commemoration and celebration before then. The UK Government are keen to discuss with fellow member states how to mark the anniversary; as Mr. Simpson has said, it will be a time to reflect on the progress of the Commonwealth's work over 60 years and take stock.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about Foreign Office strategy. One of our four policy priorities—we have focused on fewer priorities, as he will be aware—is effective international institutions, which is important for the Commonwealth, too. That builds on the work done at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, where my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was one of the Heads of Government responsible for the new Commonwealth mandate on reform of the international institution. It is important to recognise—this responds to other hon. Members' comments, too—that under the Foreign Office's overall strategy, we will move resources from Europe to support our policy priorities. All those priorities are relevant to Commonwealth countries.

Sir Paul Beresford raised the issue of ancestry visas, as did a number of other hon. Members. As I said earlier, I have been lobbied on that issue by the New Zealand high commissioner, and I understand that he submitted a substantial document to the consultation. The high commissioner also raised with me the matter of visas for visitors and the need to return to New Zealand to reapply—a subject referred to by the hon. Gentleman—so the issue has been raised with us. The Foreign Office is in close touch with the Border and Immigration Agency, too. A consultation is being held, and no decisions have yet been made.

Andrew Rosindell mentioned an issue that he persistently raises and about which we have had a number of discussions—overseas territories. He spoke about the Cayman Islands and hurricane preparedness. I, too, have visited the Cayman Islands. As he will remember, Hurricane Ivan devastated the whole area, and the Royal Navy initially went to help another island that was suffering to a much greater extent in terms of the immediate need for humanitarian aid—fortunately, there were only two deaths in Cayman Islands. I know that there was huge devastation—I saw the pictures myself when I was there—and we are conscious of the importance of good preparedness for disasters in all our overseas territories, particularly those in the area to which we are referring. I am certain that our plans are much more developed than they were at the time.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned his concerns about the flags at the trooping of the colour and wreath-laying by the Foreign Secretary. I have offered to have further discussions with my hon. Friend Mr. Hoyle, particularly on wreath-laying. The issue was last looked at in 2004, as I understand it. I am happy to have further discussions, and I am happy for the hon. Member for Romford to join them, if my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley has no objections. I am sure that the hon. Member for Romford has had the issues concerning the trooping of the colour explained to him, and we can discuss that subject, too.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey raised the important issue of the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council, and I pay tribute to his work as a council member. We support the excellent activities that the organisation undertakes. In particular we support the Commonwealth youth forum, which the council organises and which meets at the margins of every Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Representatives from the youth forum relay the conclusions of their discussions to Foreign Ministers at CHOGM, allowing the politicians of the Commonwealth to hear directly what its young people are saying. I also commend the council's work in creating strong, lasting links between young people in every part of the Commonwealth. The hon. Gentleman asked some questions about funding, and I am happy to get further information on the points that he raised. Perhaps he can give me details after the debate on areas of particular concern to him, in which case I could respond more fully.

Before I move on to give a little tour of the world, let me respond to the question, "What good is the Commonwealth doing?" which was asked by the hon. Member for Billericay. I referred in my opening speech to the report by Amartya Sen called "Civil Paths to Peace".

The Government were a major funder of the Sen report and in CHOGM in November Heads of Government mandated the secretary-general to work up an action plan to implement the recommendations from "Civil Paths to Peace". We are now engaged in putting together examples of best practice in countering extremism in UK communities. All member states are doing the same and the results will be pooled next year.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey mentioned the rights of Commonwealth citizens and the right to vote. As he is aware, the independent report produced by Lord Goldsmith is before the Government, who are considering it. In fact, it is with the Ministry of Justice and no final decision has yet been made.

A number of hon. Members, unsurprisingly, mentioned climate change. As hon. Members will be aware, it is one of the four policy priorities for the FCO. Jo Swinson talked about the need for greater urgency. We are considering the issue very carefully, which is why we are moving resources into that priority in our missions around the world. At the initiative of the UK, Commonwealth Heads of State launched the Lake Victoria action plan on climate change at CHOGM. That major statement from a quarter of the world highlighted the urgency and gravity of the situation. The UK was delighted that the Commonwealth was able to commit in the action plan to the pursuit of ambitious solutions, in particular through the UN framework convention on climate change, to promote a better understanding of climate change and its impact and to address mitigation and adaptation challenges.

My hon. Friend Ms Abbott mentioned climate change in relation to the Caribbean. I know that she is aware that I visited the Caribbean, because I was surprised to be told that a guest at a reception at the residence would be my hon. Friend. She will have seen the impact of Hurricane Dean, as I did. Thankfully, the human impact was limited, but one thing that I discovered that I did not know before was the impact on such things as coffee growing. Although the damage looked relatively minor, because the roots of the coffee plant need to be kept secure such weather could impact on coffee growing and therefore on Jamaica's trade for a considerable time to come.

When I visited the Dominican Republic and went on to the Cayman Islands, I was caught up in tropical storm Olga—I was not sure whether I was following it or it was following me. Although that storm was relatively minor compared with a hurricane, there were still deaths in the Dominican Republic. I saw at first hand what climate change and the increase in the number of storms means. The storm should not have happened, because it was December—the storm and hurricane season is supposed to end in November—so the changes in climate are impacting on these regions.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

As well as the effect on the economy in terms of coffee growing, tourism and so on, another effect of climate change in such islands and small island states across the world is that people who have built their houses in exposed parts of their country have to keep rebuilding their homes year after year—sometimes after less than six months. We need to provide more support and the technical infrastructure to avoid such devastation.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I was just about to talk about some of the development issues that were raised so eloquently by Alistair Burt.

The Commonwealth has a fund for technical co-operation that is the development arm of the Commonwealth secretariat. It is a key area of activity. Recently, that fund was subject to an independent evaluation, which recommended that it should link programmes to national development strategies and to the plans and priorities of other agencies. The Government will work with the Commonwealth secretariat to help it to focus on better co-ordination with other development partners to allow a greater development impact. I agree with hon. Members that one way in which we can be most helpful to a number of Commonwealth countries and to our overseas territories might not be through direct financial support but through providing the technical support and guidance that is not necessarily available.

I am now going to try to cover the range of countries that Members took us round. I am somewhat relieved that we did not quite get to all 53, because I certainly would not have had time to respond on all of them. My hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire both spoke about Sierra Leone. My hon. Friend's speech was very powerful and extremely interesting. The UK is Sierra Leone's largest bilateral donor, as I think she said. We have given £210 million to it in development assistance, and this financial year the Department for International Development will give up to £50 million. Up to £15 million of DFID's annual assistance is in the form of direct budgetary support; the remainder is focused on a set of programmes that are improving governance, tackling corruption, promoting pro-poor sustainable growth and supporting basic service delivery and human development. It was heartening to hear from my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady about their direct experiences of discussions with the new parliamentarians. As I said in my opening speech, the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is to be applauded. That parliamentarian to parliamentarian link should not be underestimated, and I was heartened by what my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady saw and told us about.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the special court—a tribunal created to prosecute those with the greatest responsibility for crimes committed during the country's civil war. We have provided £5 million toward its running costs. This year, the UK also contributed £13 million and 72 personnel to the UK-led international military advisory and training team. In providing us with that information about Sierra Leone, my hon. Friend and the hon. Lady have done us all a great service. However, it demonstrates that there is still a long way to go, and we need to maintain our involvement and to keep encouraging the move toward good governance and development in that area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington spoke movingly about the Caribbean. She set out her concern that it has slipped down the agenda, and I am sure that she is not surprised to hear me say, as the Minister with responsibility for the Caribbean, that I dispute this. I will be making my third visit to the Caribbean next month because I do feel that this is an important region. There is a range of issues that we need to tackle there, and support that we need to give. I do not think that my hon. Friend was in the Chamber during my opening speech, when I spoke about the Prime Minister's meeting with the Caribbean Heads of Government. We should also note the very important UK-Caribbean ministerial forum that will be taking place this summer in London, the agenda for which will focus on climate change and economic development.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex

Ms Abbott spoke very eloquently about how the social and drugs problems in the Caribbean finish up in our own cities. What is the prospect of the United Kingdom's providing the Caribbean guardship that we used to provide on a far more extended basis for anti-drug work in the Caribbean, which we do not seem to have the resources to provide now?

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will come in a moment to the issue of drugs and crime, which I was going to cover in any case.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

On the forthcoming UK-Caribbean forum, such forums are very much enjoyed by the Caribbean Heads of Government who go to them, but people have noted that nothing seems to come of them.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I am disappointed to hear that, and I should be interested to have some more detailed feedback. I will certainly give my commitment, as the Minister currently responsible for our relationships with the Caribbean, to seeking some positive and tangible outcomes from that forum.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the Caribbean Board. I agree with her assessment that now is a good time for us to look at its role and to consider whether, in its current format, it is the best way for Ministers to be informed about issues relating to the Caribbean by the wide range of people with Caribbean backgrounds and experience who live in the UK. My hon. Friend knows that I am always keen to hear from people outside London, as well as from those who have easier access to Ministers. We are actively exploring wider opportunities around the country and perhaps also in Scotland to talk to Caribbean people throughout the UK and hear their views. I should be interested in her ideas about that.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is extremely concerned about the issue of crime and drugs. Hon. Members know that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who has many other areas of responsibility, takes the lead on drugs and crime, and visited Jamaica in the relatively recent past. A great deal of work has been done to disrupt the drugs trade and deal with the crime issues. The UK provided £96 million directly and indirectly to the Caribbean in 2006-07, including £36 million directly through DFID programmes and resources to the Caribbean Development Bank. That covers some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington about the importance of developing the economy and opportunities for young people to work.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

On the interception of drugs, my hon. Friend knows that one of the major sources of drug problems in the Caribbean is cocaine, which comes across from south America and is then shipped out. It comes across on fast speedboats, which are faster than anything that the Jamaican defence forces have. As I said earlier, we could do a lot more to offer them support in the form of equipment to intercept those speedboats.

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Photo of Meg Munn Meg Munn Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I shall look further into the issues that my hon. Friend raises. We have had some success in disrupting the drugs trade but it is a serious problem. We are also working in some south American countries to try to stop production. The role of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East is important in that respect.

As part of the support that we give, we waive £5 million to £6 million of Jamaica's debt annually and we provide 13 per cent. of the EU contribution to Jamaica. Major projects include assistance to the programme to reform the Jamaican police force, programmes related to social development, support for the public sector reform programme and assistance to the private sector to enhance the competitiveness of Jamaican exports.

The hon. Member for North Essex spoke about broad trade issues and about economic partnership agreements. The economic partnership agreements that have been negotiated, particularly in the Caribbean, are important as they will increase access to EU markets and can bring positive benefits to the economies of Commonwealth countries. I am aware of the tariff issues that he raised. There have been detailed discussions to try to reach a satisfactory outcome. A good Doha deal would benefit Commonwealth countries, rich and poor alike.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the evidence is overwhelming that, given the right support and context, trade is a hugely powerful driver of economic growth and poverty reduction. Forty-three of the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries did not sign economic partnership agreements. Of those, 32 are least developed countries that will now trade under the "Everything but Arms" initiative, benefiting from duty-free, quota-free access to EU markets. For the other 11 countries that did not sign an EPA, we expect minimal, if any, trade disruption.

I shall deal briefly with Kenya and the role of the Commonwealth there. The Commonwealth observer mission played an important role in highlighting deep flaws in the Kenyan elections and denying them legitimacy. The ensuing crisis brought to the surface long-standing grievances about matters including democratic governance.The Commonwealth has fully supported the Kofi Annan mission to broker a deal and it is good that the Annan process has worked and that there is agreement between both sides. It is important that Commonwealth expertise, including on electoral reform, is now fully engaged in supporting the implementation of that power-sharing agreement. As we all know, the important thing was not only getting the agreement, but ensuring that things changed as a result.

I am delighted that Kamalesh Sharma will be the next secretary-general of the Commonwealth. We already have a good relationship with India over Commonwealth issues, and I am sure that having the secretary-general there will be positive for the Commonwealth. I look forward to that relationship deepening even further. The next Commonwealth games are in New Delhi in 2010. The Prime Minister recently visited India for the UK-India summit and had discussions on trade and education, with the Prime Minister highlighting a development assistance package of £825 million. There was also a focus on achieving the millennium development goals, counter-terrorism and climate change.

I am sorry that during my brief break from the Front Bench I missed most of the speech by the hon. Member for Mole Valley, but I will certainly read it in Hansard, because it was praised by many hon. Members. The UK Government value the special relationship with both Australia and New Zealand, and the reciprocal arrangements in place. We recognise that large numbers of Australian and New Zealand nationals regard their ancestry as British, so we take seriously the comments made by hon. Members, and as I have said on more than one occasion, the consultation is still open and no decisions have yet been made.

A less positive subject that some hon. Members referred to was Zimbabwe. Obviously, Zimbabwe is no longer a member of the Commonwealth, but the plight of the Zimbabwean people should and does remain a pressing issue for many Commonwealth countries. The elections are only a few days away and there are real concerns that the people of Zimbabwe will not be able freely to exercise their democratic rights. Neither the UK nor the Commonwealth has been invited to observe the elections as we are cast as unfriendly, but we continue to monitor the situation closely.

Rwanda provides a more positive story, and Alistair Burt paid tribute to the much greater representation there of women than any of our parties have. They top the league. Obviously, the decision on Rwanda's membership lies with the whole membership of the Commonwealth. The criteria for membership were reviewed at the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, where Heads decided to retain the requirement that applicants should have a constitutional link with an existing member, but they accepted that in exceptional circumstances applications could be considered on a case-by-case basis, and that paved the way for Rwanda to join in 2009 at the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting at the latest.

As I said in my opening speech—and I was echoed by the hon. Gentleman—the Commonwealth cuts across traditional alliances and regional blocs. It matters greatly to the United Kingdom. It is not a matter of nostalgia and thinking about how things were; it is recognising that the Commonwealth is important on the international scene today. The Commonwealth is respected by others for what we do and the way in which we do it. It is positive about the future and others want to join it. Working together, we can ensure that the Commonwealth remains relevant, working with and for its entire membership in responding to the key challenges of the 21st century. We in the UK will play our full part in this important work.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.

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