I beg to move,
That this House
has considered opportunities and challenges facing the modern Commonwealth in its 70th year.
It is that time of year when we await the riot of colour of 53 flags representing the Commonwealth opposite Parliament. It is for that reason—the celebration of Commonwealth Day—that I am here today. I wear my own riot of colour: the rather disgusting combination of colours on my tie is that of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch, which is not to be confused with the international branch, chaired by Emilia Lifaka, who will be here next week.
I have chaired the UK branch since the rather unfortunate general election in 2017 and very much enjoyed the task. I see in the Chamber my hon. Friends—I think I can use that term—Dr Blackman-Woods and David Hanson. Without their tireless work, the CPA as it is now would not be in existence.
The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend, others who serve on the executive committee of the CPA UK branch and those who work for it for the good they do in this country and with our fellow Commonwealth nations around the world. It seems to be one of those things where the work that parliamentarians do is not noticed but is appreciated and could be even better in the future.
To give an idea of the volume of activity, in 2017-18 there were 15 outbound delegations, 35 inbound delegations and nine multilateral delegations. As I look around the Chamber, I see people who have been involved in inbound and outbound trips in the last month. There have been trips to Fiji, the Seychelles, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The CPA was also very much involved in election observing, particularly in the overseas territories. As a committee, we have formed our strategic priorities. We decided that we could not do everything exceptionally well, so we are concentrating on five key themes: women in Parliament, public finance scrutiny, modern slavery, trade and security.
This debate is about opportunities and challenges facing the modern Commonwealth in its 70th year—“modern” because the Commonwealth existed in various guises before the 1949 London declaration, but it was a free association of independent member countries. Quite how we got away with that as part of the European Union, I do not know. Crucially, the Commonwealth gave an equal say to all its 53 members, regardless of size—at one end is India, with a population of 1.3 billion, and at the other is Nauru, with a population of only 13,000. Of the states, 31 have populations of fewer than 1.5 million and five have populations of fewer than 1 million.
They are nations all around the globe. There are 19 in Africa, which I know and love well, and others are in parts of the world that I know less well, with seven countries in Asia, 13 in the Caribbean and the Americas, three here in Europe and 11 in the Pacific. It is so popular, and it is expanding, to Cameroon, Mozambique and Rwanda—more of Rwanda later. It was good to see the Gambia come back into the Commonwealth in February 2018, and I was able to travel there.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most welcome developments in the Commonwealth’s expansion in the past 70 years is that its members now include countries that have no historical links with the United Kingdom, such as Mozambique and Rwanda?
Absolutely. That shows the strength of the Commonwealth. It is of course Her Majesty who leads the Commonwealth and makes the final decision, before they come in, on whether such countries share the same values, but it is certainly an expanding and very diverse organisation. I have mentioned that Her Majesty the Queen is the head of the Commonwealth, and we also have the secretary-general, Baroness Scotland, leading its work.
It is Commonwealth Day on Monday. It is always in the second week of March each year, and I asked myself why? It was the Canadians’ idea. They wanted the Commonwealth to be about the future and about young people, and they wanted it to be celebrated by schoolchildren. They worked out that we have different term times all around the world, but the most likely time when all children will be in school is the second week of March, and that is why we celebrate it at that particular time.
Here in the UK, there will be a week of celebrations, including at Westminster Abbey and Marlborough House. There will be cultural events, civic events and school events. Flags will be raised across the United Kingdom, and there will be some street parties. Anyone who has not invited me to their street party should feel free to email me at the House of Commons.
One of the big issues in the Commonwealth recently has been the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, where all 53 members come together. There are normally one or two that, for various domestic reasons, cannot make it. It was particularly good to see Prime Minister Modi of India at CHOGM here. CHOGM is not a one-off event: the country that hosts CHOGM is then responsible for the operations leading up to the next one in two years’ time. We are passing the mantle from London to the Rwandans in Kigali.
One of the things I very much hope to do is to work with the Rwandans to have a Commonwealth forum. CHOGM is dominated by the Executives, and we in the UK felt that parliamentarians should lobby the Executives. Parliamentarians from around the Commonwealth came together to talk, and then went back to our Executives before CHOGM to lay out the issues we cared about, and that was powerful. It was not perfect, and we have lessons to learn on what we did with the parliamentary forum. Almost 50 parliamentarians met about a month before CHOGM here in the UK, and this is something we would like the Rwandans to do.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that parliamentarians also work on issues such as malaria? I chair the all-party group on malaria here, but there are also all-party groups in Tanzania and Uganda. That had a great effect on the commitment by the Commonwealth Heads of Government last year to halve the number of deaths in malaria cases in Commonwealth countries over the next few years.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. In fact, when he was here at that time, Bill Gates spoke in praise of the value of the Commonwealth, particularly our ability to do something in the health sector. As people are pointing out, it is not just the health sector; it is the education sector, the universities sector and the business sector. The Commonwealth is actually a multiplicity of different organisations, both intergovernmental and external to Government. I apologise to the tens of organisations, if not more, from the Commonwealth that have written to me and said, “Please do mention my bit of the Commonwealth”. We have added them up, and I think at least 80 different organisations with Commonwealth branding are part of this process.
May I suggest to my hon. Friend that, as and when Commonwealth parliamentarians get together, they ought to work how to force on to the agenda the scandalous discrimination against pensioners from this country? When they live in retirement in other Commonwealth countries, they do not get inflation increases to their state pensions. Will he try to make sure that this is considered, and will he see whether the Commonwealth secretariat could publish which other Commonwealth countries make the same kind of imposition on people who would otherwise be able to share in the fruits of their retirement?
I am conscious of time, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the last point I want to make involves trade and Brexit. The Commonwealth is not the solution to any problems or the definition of any Brexit opportunities, but the Commonwealth currently represents 9% of UK exports. By various measures, there is an advantage to it: doing business with the Commonwealth is easier, and there is a shared language, history and legal system. It makes sense, and it is easier, to trade intra-Commonwealth and with the Commonwealth. Overall, Commonwealth trade represents 14% of the global economy, so as we look at trade deals post Brexit, we should pay particular attention to the Commonwealth. Clearly it is not as simple as having one Commonwealth deal, but we should look first to the Commonwealth and then to the rest of the world.
I wish all Members of this House a very happy Commonwealth Week.
Order. This will be quite a short debate, so I will start by imposing a seven-minute time limit on speeches—I was able to warn Dr Blackman-Woods about that.
I thank James Duddridge for securing this debate, and for his excellent chairing of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK. As he noted, this debate is timely not only because it allows us to consider opportunities in the Commonwealth, but also because Commonwealth Day is next Monday.
This is a really important period for the Commonwealth and for the role that the UK might play in helping it to address the key issues of our time. The UK currently holds the position of chair-in office for two years, following the successful CHOGM in 2018. It is welcome that the Foreign Secretary stated that the UK is determined to work closely with its partners to maintain that momentum following CHOGM, and to revitalise and reform the Commonwealth for the 21st century.
The enormity of the task from CHOGM is perhaps best reflected in its communiqué, in which the following notable goals were agreed: to adopt the Commonwealth blue charter on sustainable development; to commit to ratify and implement the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women; to address the stigma around disability; to expand investment and boost intra-Commonwealth trade; to adopt a Commonwealth connectivity declaration; and to adopt a Commonwealth cyber declaration.
In the short time available, I will focus on three of the issues raised in the communiqué. The first is the commitment to ratify and implement the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, as it is incredibly important for the Commonwealth to have that as a priority. For many years, the Commonwealth Women’s Forum, the Royal Commonwealth Society and Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians have sought to address the lack of women’s representation in Parliament, and that is a key issue if women’s lives across the Commonwealth are to be improved.
Some of the best practice in securing greater parliamentary representation for women is found in the Commonwealth. Rwanda tops the global league table for women’s representation, at 61.3%. That is followed by Namibia, at 46%, and Uganda, at 34%. In lots of Commonwealth countries women’s representation is around 30%, including in the UK, but sadly the level is lower in a number of countries, such as Malawi, where it is 16.7%, and Botswana, with 9.5%. There is zero representation in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. Those figures demonstrate that much more needs to be done to improve the representation of women in Parliament, because without mechanisms to address that issue, women’s representation tends to stagnate at 30% or lower.
The mechanism most frequently used in the Commonwealth is quotas, but there are issues attached to that—most notably that women are often brought in on a top-up list and find it difficult to get re-elected. We need a culture change. The recommended benchmarks for democratic legislatures were recently updated by the CPA. That helps with this issue, as those benchmarks state that Parliaments should take issues of equality seriously and encourage the use of equality impact assessments in the development of legislation, policies and budgets. All Parliaments—including our own—would benefit from doing that. It is important that those benchmarks do not sit on the shelf, and that they inform the work of Parliaments. The work on gender is supported by the sustainable development goals. One opportunity we have is to work on universal SDGs right across the Commonwealth, and ensure we empower all women and girls to meet their full potential.
The second issue I want to raise is the need to address climate change. This relates to SDG 13. It is a huge issue across the Commonwealth, but particularly for Pacific countries. We need to work with our other family members in the Commonwealth to ensure that they address climate changes issues, and that we assist them in that process by the actions we take in the UK and across the Commonwealth.
The third issue is trade. The Commonwealth has a population of 2.3 billion, 60% of whom are aged 29 or under. Enormous opportunities exist for us to develop key services. I would pick out, given the age of Commonwealth members’ citizens, opportunities in education and economic development. We all want to improve opportunities for trade and investment for all countries.
In the final couple of minutes, I want to raise two omissions from the communiqué. The first, extraordinarily, is Brexit. That might be because of the countries that attended, but there are challenges with Brexit in terms of the impact that it will have on some of our overseas territories, including Gibraltar. Clearly, there are also opportunities and we need to do what we can to exploit them. The second omission from the communiqué is the absence of any measures to address the lack of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in some Commonwealth countries. I know that that is a difficult conversation to have, but it is one we need to undertake.
The CPA does amazing work across the Commonwealth to advocate for and provide training to achieve more inclusive and effective Parliaments. It works with clerks and public accounts committees, so that higher standards of probity exist, and campaigns to ensure that the voices of parliamentarians are not ignored by the Executive. It could, however, do so much more if its status as a UK charity was changed to that of an international parliamentary organisation. CPA has requested that change and it is currently sitting with Her Majesty’s Government. It would be great if the Minister could give us an update today on the timescale to deal with that.
In conclusion, we need to have vision and ambition for the Commonwealth. We need to work across both Houses of Parliament and all Parliaments across the Commonwealth to achieve that, and to build a better and more prosperous Commonwealth for all of us.
“Hear, hear” to the concluding statements of Dr Blackman-Woods, with which I completely concur.
I congratulate my hon. Friend James Duddridge. I would like to think that it was our joint time in the Foreign Office that gave us a deep respect and a certain understanding of the Commonwealth. Being Minister for the Commonwealth for over four years was one of the most enjoyable parts of my political career to date. I was, however, always aware that one had to constantly remind the Foreign Office that it is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. While I am enormously pleased to be taking part in this debate before Commonwealth Day, which falls on Monday, I regret and lament the fact that we do not debate the Commonwealth more regularly. It is not something that we should pick up and dust down once a year; it is something that we should embrace and encourage. The Commonwealth is only as good as its constituent members and we have a lead to give. I do wish this place would take the Commonwealth a little bit more seriously.
When I left the Foreign Office, I wanted to continue doing something for the Commonwealth, so I took on the deputy chairmanship of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council—I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. In the time available this afternoon, I want to focus on some of the economic issues surrounding the Commonwealth. I think the opportunities are huge, although I agree with my hon. Friend; I would never think that trade with the Commonwealth could replace trade with Europe. It is an “also”, not an “instead of”. I made that point during the debate on Brexit, at a time when I was arguing for remain. We would be foolish to ignore the statistics for the Commonwealth, because it is so self-evidently in our interest to take it all a bit more seriously.
While the growth of the populations and the GDP of the United States, the EU, China and our other traditional partners has been stagnating, Commonwealth economies continue to grow, along with the disposable income of their consumers. Let us take, for example, Commonwealth Africa, which is dear to my hon. Friend’s heart. Since 2000, GDP growth in sub-Saharan African nations has been much faster than the global average and the growth of the more prosperous north African nations, with the IMF projecting the region’s GDP to have increased by 468% between 2000 and 2022—a staggering statistic. The African Development Bank estimates that Africa’s middle class has grown to 350 million since 2010, with private consumption increasing by an average of 3.7% year on year in the same period. Consumer spending is estimated to account for 50% to 60% of the growth in Africa’s economy and is expected to rise from $680 billion in 2008 to $2.2 trillion by 2030.
That is just Commonwealth Africa. Let us move across and look at Commonwealth India. India has outpaced China to become the world’s fastest-growing economy. According to the United Nations, its population is projected to overtake that of China by 2022. In the eight years culminating in 2012, the size of India’s middle-class population is estimated to have doubled, to 600 million. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of households with a disposable income of more than US $10,000 has risen twentyfold, to nearly 50 million, and its middle-class population is predicted to overtake that of China, the US and the EU by 2027. That is manifestly good, both in terms of addressing the issues of poverty and in the opportunities that that presents for British companies and exports.
The UK recorded a trade surplus of £7 billion with the Commonwealth in 2017. UK exports of goods and services to the Commonwealth stand at £56.3 billion. UK imports from the Commonwealth stand at £49.3 billion and the UK has recorded a trade surplus with the Commonwealth every year since 2010. The problem, and one of the challenges, is that India, Canada, Australia, Singapore and South Africa currently account for 71% of the UK’s total trade with the Commonwealth. I would like to see total trade grow, obviously, but I would also like to see it much more widely spread right across the Commonwealth.
In 2020, as my hon. Friend pointed out, we have the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Rwanda. In addition there will be the Commonwealth Business Forum, which, I am pleased to say, the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council will again be organising. That is a huge opportunity to truly display the strengths and the potential of often-overlooked Commonwealth markets. Rwanda should be praised for its commitment to gender equality—that is important after our previous debate. Only Iceland compares to Rwanda’s gender pay gay. No other country’s Parliament approaches Rwanda’s gender balance of 68% female MPs, and 26% of Rwandan small and medium-sized enterprises are run by women. Those statistics would also have stood well in the previous debate.
Rwanda also ranks within Africa’s four least corrupt nations, according to Transparency International, placing it—amazingly—above Italy. When we think where Rwanda has come from, that is a truly extraordinary position for it to be in. To say nothing else, the fact that such an independently successful nation with no historical connection to the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth would choose to join the organisation as recently as 2009 speaks to the understood value of the union to those who take advantage of it. I am always particularly pleased that the French are always looking at the Commonwealth to see how they can do their equivalent—which is a poor equivalent—better.
The question that we all have to ask ourselves is one that we should ask ourselves of everything: if something does not exist, should we invent it? Should we invent the Commonwealth, if it did not exist? I think that not only should we invent it, but we should spend much more time talking about and supporting it. I believe that the opportunities are huge. We can do more for the smaller Commonwealth nations, representing them at the UN on the Security Council. When we leave the EU, there will still be two EU countries—Cyprus and Malta—that are also Commonwealth countries. The United Kingdom must be careful not to over-dominate the Commonwealth, but at the same time it must show leadership. The potential is absolutely huge. This is a Commonwealth of nations of people who wish one another good will, who wish to share education and values, and who want to trade with one another. We can do much, much more and it is in our interests so to do.
It is a pleasure to follow Sir Hugo Swire and to have supported James Duddridge in his application to the Backbench Business Committee, which I thank for granting this debate. I serve as vice chair of the CPA UK branch and was pleased to support the application.
This is the 70th year of the Commonwealth, and in that time we have done much to be proud of. The Commonwealth remains a force for good and for international co-operation and provides an opportunity to develop a positive future, and the UK has a role to play in that. I am pleased to see the Minister showing leadership through the UK’s role in chairing the Commonwealth in this current period.
There are 53 countries in the Commonwealth and 2.3 billion people, but the challenges we face are symptomatic of some of the major challenges in the world at large: concerns about sustainability and climate change and the need to develop a positive programme; the challenge of chronic poverty and promoting opportunity for all, particularly for women, in Commonwealth countries; the international challenges of cyber-security, prevention of terrorism and modern slavery; and the opportunities to continue to develop trade and investment across the Commonwealth and to welcome it from Commonwealth countries into the UK.
We asked the Backbench Business Committee for this debate to discuss ways of achieving action on some of those common challenges and threats, and I ask that the Minister focus on that in her remarks. We want the Government, particularly in their current role, to report back on progress towards meeting those objectives, particularly on sustainability, the oceans and the prevention of plastic pollution, a fairer future, girls education, advancing human rights, reforming discriminatory legislation, securing a more secure future, particularly around cyber-security and modern slavery, and harnessing trade and investment. I want to see progress on all those issues.
The Minister will know that the Foreign Secretary laid a statement in the House on
I want to highlight one aspect of the Commonwealth’s activities that we in the UK branch are undertaking in partnership with other Commonwealth countries: tackling modern slavery. In addition to being vice chair of the CPA UK, I chair its modern slavery implementation group, which has been well supported by UK Government funds, particularly from the Home Office, and is investing in supporting and promulgating positive action on modern slavery across the Commonwealth. Of the 40 million people around the world who are victims of modern slavery at the hands of criminal gangs, 71% are women and 55% reside in Commonwealth countries, so the Commonwealth has a key role to play in tackling modern slavery.
Through the project the UK branch is undertaking, we have—I hope—helped to generate discussion on how to use the UK’s lead on modern slavery to support Parliaments and Governments across the Commonwealth to take action. I pay particular tribute to Adeline Dumoulin, an official at the CPA, and her team who are working on this issue. We have had support from the Home Office for projects targeting Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. In 2018-2020, the target countries will be Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
We are trying to work with Commonwealth parliamentarians to generate legislation on modern slavery and to stop criminal gangs taking action. The CPA UK branch has supported three Parliaments in the past year, in Nigeria, Pakistan and Uganda. I went to Uganda to meet parliamentarians there. I am pleased to report not only that we have deepened the knowledge of parliamentarians, who have also brought their own experiences to modern slavery, but that Members of the Ugandan, Ghanaian and Nigerian Parliaments have drafted anti-slavery legislation. I am hopeful that, in co-operation, we will be able to take action in those countries, at least, in the very near future.
A legislative drafting seminar will be held in the House of Commons between 26 and
The CPA does great work, both in the UK branch and internationally. It has common ideals and objectives. If the Minister can report on what happens with CHOGM and how we are progressing, that would be very positive, but I think we should be proud of the work that we do, and continue to build on it in the next 12 months.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend James Duddridge, and to all the Members who have spoken so far. The debate has featured a common theme, namely the values that all Commonwealth countries share. That is reflected in the tremendous work that the CPA does in promoting the Commonwealth, which itself promotes friendship and co-operation between 2.4 billion people in 53 countries across the globe. That is built on our people, our shared values and our shared history. Millions of people who live in our country have strong connections with one or more Commonwealth countries. We have shared identities through our families, our diasporas and our ancestors.
I think that there can be no greater example of global Britain than the work that we undertake through the Commonwealth. That brings me to a number of themes. One, about which we have already heard, is trade, along with investment and markets. There is no doubt that the current perception of intra-Commonwealth trade activity, and of our own country’s trade links with the rest of the Commonwealth, needs to move on. We should recognise that it is no longer about the past; we need look at the future and tomorrow’s trends. We must revitalise our understanding, and acknowledge that the modern Commonwealth is no longer about a uniform group of “developing countries”—a phrase which, in my view, is becoming increasingly outdated.
We should embrace what are now some of the fastest-growing and most high-technology economies on the planet, alongside—as we have already heard—some of the smallest and most vulnerable. We must cover a range of issues including skills, technology, innovation and education, but also, at the other end of the spectrum, some of the challenges that small and vulnerable states face from climate change. That means that we must change some of our assumptions. It is not always a case of the UK providing support in some of the more conventional ways. We should recognise that some of the largest economies are becoming prime sources of capital and market growth, and we are now relying on them for investment, trade and growth opportunities. Digital, knowledge-based and service-based patterns are now generating more than half the total wealth of international commerce, and the Commonwealth has a role in that.
I want to touch on one Commonwealth country with which we have very strong links, although they could be even stronger. I can speak of that country with some personal knowledge. It is, of course, India, which, although it is the cradle of civilisation, is also a young country: half its population are under 25. More than 1 million people enter the job market every month. It is, of course, the youngest workforce the world has ever seen, and, building on our shared values, our shared heritage and some of our personal links with the diaspora community, there is much more we can do together to recognise the role of one of the largest and fastest growing economies in the world. It also brings a new perspective to a modern and developing Commonwealth. After all, half the population of the Commonwealth is Indian, so we must broaden some of the ways in which we work together.
People everywhere in the world are on the move as never before and the Commonwealth can collectively provide some new answers and solutions to issues such as how we can provide and accommodate better educational transfer between our countries, how we can support new business regimes and visas across Commonwealth countries, and how we can ease some of the current restrictions on our people-to-people movements. At the same time, there are enormous opportunities, which colleagues have already touched on. They range from disease eradication to some of the climate change issues we face as well as fighting for women and girls and standing up for all the issues in the rights agenda and the equality agenda. We must not just focus on securing trade and security prospects and on wider global patterns of influence. We must recognise also that there are some key characteristics we can all bring together that demonstrate where we can build on the right shared values as we enter a new chapter, not just in our nation’s history, but also in terms of foreign and economic policy priorities.
My message to the Government is this: let us make sure that we put our friendships and partnerships within the Commonwealth at the forefront of what we do, while at the same time ensuring that we support Commonwealth nations as they seek to build their own growth, prosperity and success in the future.
I want to focus today on a matter that has already been mentioned: the adoption at CHOGM last year of the Commonwealth blue charter. Some Commonwealth countries are among those most affected by our failure to tackle what we should now call the climate emergency. We have heard of droughts in the Caribbean, Australia and many parts of Africa, sea level rises in Bangladesh causing flooding, loss of livelihoods, and what could become the climate migration of more than 20 million displaced people.
In 2013 it was reported that in Tanzania, Mount Kilimanjaro’s shrinking northern glaciers, which are thought to be 10,000 years old, could disappear by 2030. In fact forecasts show that both Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro could be without ice within a decade. But I want to talk today mostly about the Commonwealth’s small island states, many of which are already vulnerable on a number of fronts—their size, their remoteness, and their narrow resource and export base. They are now increasingly being affected by climate change and extreme weather events.
In the Caribbean, islands are experiencing more intense hurricanes, coastal erosion and rising sea levels, and their fisheries are also highly vulnerable to climate change. In Kiribati in the Pacific the shorelines are being pounded away by high tides: whole villages are having to be relocated, food crops are being destroyed, and freshwater supplies are contaminated by sea water.
In the Indian ocean, around the Seychelles and Mauritius much of the coral reef has been lost to bleaching. If sea levels rise by 1 metre, the Maldives, which was in the Commonwealth until a few years ago and may yet return, will disappear entirely.
Climate change is not the only environmental threat. There has been a very welcome rise in public and political awareness of plastic pollution in recent years. Richard Branson recently led a dive expedition to the bottom of the beautiful Blue Hole in Belize, which is 400 feet deep, and found plastic bottles. In his blog he wrote that
“the real monsters facing the ocean are climate change—and plastic. Sadly, we saw plastic bottles at the bottom of the hole, which is a real scourge of the ocean. We’ve all got to get rid of single-use plastic.”
I have dived in Belize and it remains the most beautiful place that I have dived. I have not been to the bottom of the Blue Hole but I can pay testament to just how upsetting it is to see man-made pollution wrecking the marine environment.
Other threats the oceans face include ocean acidification, which has been described as the “evil twin” of global warming, and unsustainable fishing, whether over-fishing or environmentally damaging pulse fishing and bottom trawling. There is also a real issue with waste disposal in small island states. They do not have space for landfill, so where do they put the rubbish? With the ban from China, and with Malaysia now refusing to take waste, including that from the UK, that issue has become an ever more pressing problem.
For many of these small island states, there is a conflict between immediate economic needs and environmental protection. In the Seychelles, for example, the fisheries sector is the second largest industry after tourism, and 95% of its exports are fish products such as canned tuna. The Seychelles also have amazing biodiversity, especially round Aldabra, the world’s second largest coral atoll. Six plant studies students from Oxford University have just gone out there, along with six Seychellois students, to do a three to five-week plastic clean-up project, and I am looking forward to hearing what they report back.
In a recent debt-for-nature deal with a US conservation group, $21 million of Seychelles debt was written off in return for the island nation committing to designating 30% of its waters as marine protected areas. That sounds like a great initiative. With the help of the World Bank, the Seychelles have also raised $15 million through the world’s first sovereign blue bond, which is designed to support sustainable marine and fisheries initiatives. Again, these are examples of the positive things that are happening to help the small island states, but we need to move faster.
It is quite depressing to look back at past efforts to address these issues. In 1994, the first meeting of the small island developing states on sustainable development was held in Barbados, and it resulted in a 14-point programme of action. The first listed priority area was climate change and sea level rise, followed by natural and environmental disasters, management of waste, coastal and marine resources, freshwater resources and more, but that was 25 years ago, and it does not feel as though much progress has been made since then—certainly not enough.
It was 10 years ago, before the Copenhagen climate summit, that the then President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, held an underwater Cabinet meeting to highlight the impact of rising sea levels. He warned that with a 2° rise in temperatures, his country would be “on death row”, yet it is only in the past year or so that it is becoming accepted that limiting temperature rises to 2° would not be sufficient to address the climate emergency, and that 1.5° should be the target.
I hope that the discussions at CHOGM 2018 will represent a much greater step forward. It was acknowledged at CHOGM that temperature and sea level rises, and other aspects of climate change, posed a significant risk to many of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable member countries, and that climate change could push an additional 100 million people into poverty by 2030. There was renewed support for a target well below 2°, along with support for innovative financing solutions including disaster risk insurance, which is important for farmers affected by climate change. It was agreed to establish action groups on ocean issues led by Commonwealth member countries, and for the secretariat to take forward the Commonwealth blue charter. The UK is the chair of CHOGM until Rwanda takes over in two years’ time, and I really hope that we will be in the forefront of pushing this forward.
It is a privilege to be the tail-end Charlie in this debate on the Commonwealth on its 70th anniversary, with the UK in the chair and only a day or two before Commonwealth Day. The theme during the UK’s period in the chair has been a connected Commonwealth. I hope that one thing that will come out of this debate is that we will all feel more connected to this place, and indeed to all places, because this Chamber, which was rebuilt after the war, in 1950, has benefited hugely from the contributions of individual Commonwealth members. Let me highlight some of them.
Given that Australia’s former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was in this Chamber yesterday, it is worth starting with the Speaker’s Chair in which you are sitting, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is made of blackbean wood—or Moreton Bay chestnut—from Ravenshoe in northern Queensland, and it was made by H. H. Martyn and Co in my neighbouring constituency of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, as were the Dispatch Boxes in front of the Minister and her Opposition counterpart. They are made from puriri wood from New Zealand. The chairs at the Clerks’ Table are, or were, from South Africa. They were made from blank stinkwood. The Table is in Canadian oak and was made by the Globe Furniture Company in Ontario. The south entrance door is of English oak but was the gift of Pakistan.
There are contributions from almost all the other Commonwealth nations, either in this Chamber or just outside it. They include mayflower wood from Belize, silver gilt inkstands from Bermuda and a silver gilt ashtray from Botswana. Those gifts came from all over the world to the mother of all Parliaments, and it is striking that many of them are in the woods of those Commonwealth nations. The woods from Africa include gold walnut from Sierra Leone, iroko wood from elsewhere in Africa and mvule from Uganda. All the designs were put together by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, but it was the generosity of other Commonwealth nations that helped to resurrect our own Chamber. It is poignant today to look at the silver gilt inkstands with stationery racks, which are in front of the Minister. They were a gift of Zimbabwe, a nation that is currently outside the Commonwealth. That fact is a source of huge disappointment to the many of us who had hoped for successful untarnished elections last year as the gateway to re-entry. Alas, it was not to be, and we all hope that things will improve there.
I turn from heritage to the present day. It is particularly appropriate for this debate to be on the same day as our International Women’s Day debate, given that the first and most important goal of our chairmanship of the Commonwealth is to ensure that by 2030 its members provide 12 years of quality education for girls. It is worth highlighting the other three goals. The UK is making great progress with the Commonwealth blue charter, particularly around Ascension Island. My right hon. Friend Sir Hugo Swire has referred to harnessing trade and investment, and to the work of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council; 8% of our trade is with the Commonwealth. Lastly, on cyber-security co-operation, the UK has pledged to fund 10 national cyber-security reviews by next year. That is vital for all members of the Commonwealth.
Other work is being done. My hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy has played a key role in the anti-malaria campaign, which is funded not least by generous charities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Members of the royal family have done much to support other initiatives, such as Commonwealth scholars and the work of the Royal Commonwealth Society, which—here I declare an interest—supported the all-party group for the Commonwealth, which I founded a few years ago. It still works very closely with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. My hon. Friend James Duddridge, who has done so much in the CPA along with our colleagues Dr Blackman-Woods and David Hanson, is leading progress on that.
I want to touch on the contribution of accountable parliamentary democracies to the Commonwealth. Finding out what more can be done to strengthen that is the overriding aim and ambition of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which I currently have the privilege of chairing. Democracy is having a rocky time globally. The rise of populism and nationalism, the vagaries of climate change, volatile governance and far too much civil conflict have caused huge dislocation of populations. Alongside more sophisticated technology for rigging elections, there is a greater questioning of democratic government than perhaps there has been at any point in our lifetime. There is a temptation to believe that single-party autocratic regimes could be a way forward.
All democracies, whether they were planted 1,000 years ago or 10 years ago, are fragile plants. They need careful nurturing. The UK’s democratic constant gardener is the WFD, which is funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. Both are admirably represented by the Minister, who has been very supportive of the work of the foundation. We focus on advancing inclusive and accountable democracy. The Commonwealth partnership for democracy—the CP4D, as it is known—which includes several bodies, is helping to bring democracies alive by making them more representative, with more women, more young people, more people with disabilities and more religious minorities. Those are things that autocracies can never offer. I went to a conference in Kuala Lumpur last month, and it was brilliant; there was, I think, also one in Fiji last month; and there was another one in Uganda last week. Those things are making a real difference. Further Government support for the Commonwealth can only help to nurture democracy in one of the most special networks in the world.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this House, Mr Deputy Speaker, as I do very often. I extend my thanks to James Duddridge for securing this important debate, and to the Minister for her continued passion and unwavering commitment to her duties.
The title of this debate is “The Modern Commonwealth: Opportunities and Challenges”, and in the short time that I have I want to focus on the challenges. In my role as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion and belief, I—alongside many hon. Members and colleagues from the other place—stand up for the right to hold and practise one’s faith in peace, or indeed to have no faith at all. Unfortunately, in some parts of the Commonwealth, as in the rest of the world, that right is increasingly under threat. Open Doors UK and Ireland this year produced a fantastic report detailing the worsening persecution that Christians face around the world, simply for being Christian. According to the report, up to 245 million Christians are discriminated against in countries across the world. As many of those countries are members of the Commonwealth, I would like to discuss one of the most important challenges facing the Commonwealth: how to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief. To illustrate the depth and breadth of this challenge, I will discuss violations of the freedom of religion or belief in three countries, starting with Pakistan, which I visited last year.
When I was in Pakistan, I heard how Christians and other religious minorities are systematically discriminated against in education and employment, with even Government Departments failing to meet quotas and advertising sanitation work as exclusively for Christians. They should implement the 5% job allocation. For goodness’ sake, give those people a chance to gain the education so they can get better jobs.
The Movement for Solidarity and Peace estimates that at least 1,000 Hindu and Christian girls a year are kidnapped, forced to convert and forcibly married, or sometimes sold into prostitution, in Pakistan. Christians and other religious minorities face all manner of societal discrimination, harassment and physical attacks, sometimes resulting in death.
According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, there have been more than 5,000 deaths in Pakistan due to sectarian violence since 1989. Such intercommunal violence is also common in India. The rise of the nationalist Hindutva ideology, which defines being “Indian” as being Hindu, is leading to increased religious oppression and attacks against minorities. According to data from the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, there was a 28% rise in communal violence between 2014 and 2017. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reported some 300 attacks on Christians in 2015 alone.
Other worrying developments in India include the Indian Government effectively stripping 4 million people in Assam state, mostly Muslims, of their citizenship, branding them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. This move bears worrying similarities to the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar, who have also been denied their citizenship.
In Nigeria, sadly, things are not much better. According to the “Global Terrorism Index”, violence between Christian farmers and Muslim herders has led to over 60,000 deaths since 2001. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that more than 1,000 Christians were killed in violence during the first quarter of 2018 alone. That is to say nothing of Boko Haram, which is still very active. Just a few weeks ago, human rights organisations such as CSW marked the first anniversary of the day a young Christian girl, Leah Sharibu, was captured by Boko Haram, alongside over 100 of her school friends. Ahead of International Women’s Day, it is important to remember that that young girl is still imprisoned. Whereas all the others were released, Leah was kept for refusing to give up her Christian faith, and she remains in captivity today.
The issues I have mentioned today are, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg. According to the Pew Research Centre, 70% of people living in Commonwealth countries face high or extremely high Government restrictions on their right to freedom of religion or belief. Worse still, 88% face high or very high social hostility simply for holding minority beliefs. This is a major challenge that must be met head-on.
Although protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief is the right thing to do for its own sake, developing social and societal respect for different religions and beliefs is vital to reducing conflict, building stability and encouraging economic growth. Failure to protect freedom of religion or belief can be disastrous. Although it is an extreme case, the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar teaches us how unaddressed Government and social persecution towards religious groups can explode into violence, undermining stability and creating humanitarian crisis.
That is why I ask the Minister to encourage our Commonwealth partners to make promoting freedom of religion or belief a priority and to make funding available for non-governmental organisations to work on behalf of persecuted Christians and other religious or belief minorities. I also ask her to work with other Commonwealth nations to safely develop a statistical database of violations of the freedom of religion or belief, and other data on religious or belief communities, to support policy making.
I thank the Minister for the contribution she will make shortly and for her support on the many things I have brought to her attention. I look forward to hearing her response.
I congratulate James Duddridge on securing this debate. I share with him a lot of interest in this issue and in wider issues, on a range of all-party groups. It is very timely to be having this debate before Commonwealth Day on Monday and nearly a year after the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting took place here in London. We are marking the 70th anniversary of the modern Commonwealth of Nations. As he said at the start, it was constituted by the London declaration in 1949, building on previous constitutions, and reflecting the process of decolonisation and a willingness of the newly independent countries to continue to co-operate and develop a new and more positive relationship with the UK, as the former colonial power.
As the debate has reflected, there is renewed interest in the Commonwealth in many quarters as preparations for some shape or form of Brexit continue. It is therefore right that the Members who applied for the debate wanted to look at both the challenges and the opportunities facing the Commonwealth, which in some respects reflect those facing the wider global community, and the multilateral rules-based order in particular.
In 1949, the world was still very much in flux. Many of the multilateral or supranational organisations we know today were still in their infancy or did not even exist. Today, the marketplace is considerably more crowded, so making sure that the voice of the Commonwealth is heard and that a relevance is maintained is a challenge, both to the institution and to the member states. Another challenge was described well by Lord Anderson of Swansea: distinguishing between the “Commonwealth of declaration” and the “Commonwealth of reality”. Proclaiming support for human rights, transparency, democracy and equality is one thing, but putting them into practice is another. The legacy of ancient colonial laws, not least the criminalisation of the LGBT community in many Commonwealth countries, stands in contrast to many of the proclamations that are made.
As was said by Richard Graham, with whom I serve on the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, democracy building is still a challenge in many countries. There are countries that are still, in effect, one-party states or elective dictatorships. Those in the Chamber will be astonished to hear that some Commonwealth countries still include hereditary members of the aristocracy in their legislatures. These countries include Tonga, Lesotho and a small island state known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps there will be some progress there in due course. The Commonwealth has also not been without structural and institutional challenges in terms of governance, internal accountability and the role of the secretariat.
However, we should not let striving for perfection be the enemy of the good that is already being done. The Commonwealth provides the hooks on which a range of worthwhile initiatives—I believe the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East said there were more than 80—can be hung. Many Members have shared experiences of our work with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I had the privilege of serving on its executive between 2015 and 2017, and have met many delegations here in Westminster. I also had the privilege of travelling to Uganda in 2016 to work with committee chairs and, last year, to Rwanda as part of preliminary outreach with its Parliament as the country prepares to host CHOGM and take on the role of chair-in-office thereafter. As we have heard, Rwanda is a relatively new member of the Commonwealth and it was not historically part of the British empire. Clearly the Commonwealth does offer some advantages through membership, even to new countries.
Monday marks Commonwealth Day, and the theme of a connected Commonwealth will drive activities that day and throughout the year. These events, activities and gatherings can help young people, in particular, to understand their roles as global citizens and promote solidarity around the world. The theme of a connected Commonwealth and protecting the oceans, as we heard about from Kerry McCarthy, is hugely important and very relevant, in looking at our common responsibility to protect and maintain the oceans, whether that is through reducing plastic pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, or by promoting biodiversity and the conservation of sea life.
The UK has a particular role to play, not just for the rest of this year as the chair-in-office, but with the Queen remaining the head of the Commonwealth. It was agreed at CHOGM last year that she would be succeeded by her son, the Duke of Rothesay, as we know him in Scotland, in due course. The UK must recognise its colonial legacy, and ultimately if it seeks to lead, it must lead by example. If it seeks to drive positive social change in Commonwealth member states, it must ensure that people here in the UK are not being left behind, whether as a result of welfare reform or a hostile immigration environment. Platitudes from the new Home Secretary are not enough; action is needed to demonstrate that the UK truly is a welcoming place for our friends from Commonwealth countries, whether they are applying for visas simply to visit friends and family, whether they are newly choosing to make their homes here or whether, like the Windrush generation, they have lived here for decades. Likewise, on climate change and tackling pollution, the UK must always be setting the most ambitious goals that others might follow.
One of the most ambitious and visible aspects of Commonwealth life is the Commonwealth games. It is a source of enduring pride for my city of Glasgow that we hosted the 20th Commonwealth games in 2014. We were blessed with glorious weather for almost the full fortnight and witnessed world-class sportsmanship in an atmosphere of welcome and exuberance, and the legacy in terms of physical infrastructure and the good will that was generated was there to see. I am proud to sport the Commonwealth tartan in my tie today.
Of course, in 2014 we were also debating the opportunity for Scotland to take its place as an independent member of the Commonwealth of nations. That remains the goal of my party and a growing share of Scotland’s population. The “Scotland’s Future” White Paper repeatedly referenced Scotland’s ambition to become a good global citizen and play an active role in the Commonwealth. There is this idea that Scottish independence is somehow about insularity or isolation, but in fact the complete opposite is the case: we want to play our part as part of the global family of nations. As Winnie Ewing once famously said:
“Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on.”
There are challenges but also opportunities for the Commonwealth, and I look forward to Scotland’s playing its part in meeting them to the fullest extent possible over the next 70 years.
Many excellent speeches and points have been made about the opportunities and challenges that face the Commonwealth. James Duddridge made the point about the important work of the CPA in ensuring our good relations with the Commonwealth.
My hon. Friend Dr Blackman-Woods talked about the need to keep up the momentum following CHOGM 2018, and to harness that into a revitalised Commonwealth fit for the 21st century. She also talked about the involvement of women in Parliaments.
Sir Hugo Swire talked about the growth in the economies of Commonwealth countries and Rwanda’s particular commitment to gender equality, which is very appropriate in the light of the fact that it is International Women’s Day tomorrow. My right hon. Friend David Hanson raised issues relating to sustainability, climate change, poverty, cyber-security and modern slavery, to name just a few.
Priti Patel talked about the changing face of the Commonwealth and the fast-growing economies of some of its countries, particularly India. My hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy talked about the urgent need to tackle climate change and plastic pollution, and about the adoption of the Commonwealth blue charter.
Richard Graham gave us a tour of the different gifts given to this place by Commonwealth countries, thereby highlighting the special nature of our relationship. Jim Shannon focused on the persecution of Christians in some Commonwealth countries and the need to concentrate on ensuring that rights to freedom of religion or belief are not further eroded but are addressed using our Commonwealth partnership and power.
The Commonwealth encompasses a diverse range of countries, and I wish to inject a cautionary note into the talk about increasing our trade with the Commonwealth. Let me use Australia as an example. Australia has become a much more multicultural nation, with 46% of the population either born overseas or having one parent who was born overseas. The Australian population looks at a post-Brexit world through the lens of an increasingly non-British-affiliated population. Many Australians see the future of their country as being focused on Asia rather than the UK, as evidenced by the recent free trade agreement with Indonesia. Although our cultural ties with Australia are still strong, Australia’s economic focus appears to be elsewhere.
Despite the CHOGM in London last year being the first to be held since the Brexit vote, there was no notable movement or declaration on the issue of trade between Commonwealth countries. Given that the Brexit campaign asserted that increased trade with the Commonwealth could help to alleviate the economic impact of leaving the EU, that seems to me to be a notable omission.
Despite the Prime Minister’s high-profile speech at the summit, in which she apologised for the colonial imposition of anti-LGBT laws that still persist in many Commonwealth countries, there was no follow-up agreement among attendees to do away with those laws or, indeed, to begin to address the discrimination faced by the LGBT community in many Commonwealth countries.
The Commonwealth’s annual theme for this year, 2019, is, “A connected Commonwealth”. That theme encourages collaboration among the people, the Governments and the institutions of the Commonwealth to protect natural resources and promote inclusive economic empowerment so that all people—particularly women, young people and marginalised communities—can benefit equally. That builds on the goals agreed at CHOGM 2018, most notably adopting the Commonwealth blue charter on sustainable development and protection of the world’s oceans; committing to ratify and implement the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women; and the adoption of the Commonwealth cyber declaration, with a common commitment to an open, democratic, peaceful and secure internet, respecting human rights and freedom of expression.
The Commonwealth faces many challenges: job creation, trade, ending absolute poverty, tackling climate change and making progress on achieving the sustainable development goals by the target year of 2030. Across the Commonwealth, we have ongoing human rights or instability issues in countries such as Bangladesh, Cameroon and Pakistan. We have had the recent clashes in Kashmir between Commonwealth partners India and Pakistan, and the recent violence and instability in Zimbabwe, which expressed the wish to be readmitted to the Commonwealth following the fall of Mugabe.
There are many challenges. Let us not forget the opportunities, but given that the size of our exports to all 52 Commonwealth countries in 2016 was similar to the size of our exports to one EU country—Germany— we have a long way to go before our trade with the Commonwealth even begins to compensate for the loss of our customs union with the EU.
It is an absolute privilege to wind up for the Government in this very important debate marking the Commonwealth’s 70th anniversary. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend James Duddridge for securing the debate and to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for this debate just a few days before Commonwealth Day. I pay tribute to everyone who spoke in the debate—I thought that we had a range of excellent speeches—and particularly to those who work on the executive of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
I will pick out a few of the themes that came up in a range of speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East, in a wide-ranging speech, talked about the very valuable work done by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Dr Blackman-Woods managed very cleverly to link the two debates this afternoon with her focus on women in Parliament, on climate and on LGBT issues. On the specific point that she made about the status change, the business case for which is currently with the Government, I can say that that is with our protocol and legal teams for review.
My right hon. Friend Sir Hugo Swire made an excellent speech, and one that I hope to emulate by presenting the importance of that fast growth in Africa and the trade opportunities that that presents. David Hanson rightly talked about climate change. He asked for a quarterly update. I cannot say that I can promise that at this point, but I can say that the work is there if he wants to probe further on that through the other means available to him. He largely spent his speech focusing on the incredibly important issue of modern slavery and the really valuable work that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is able to take forward with legislators from—I think—40 different countries.
My right hon. Friend Priti Patel talked about the future and the importance of focusing on the youth of the Commonwealth, which has such a young population. She highlighted the situation in India. Kerry McCarthy made a really important contribution, highlighting the value of the work that has been done across the Commonwealth on not only the Clean Oceans Alliance but climate change, and I shall touch a bit more on that very important issue as I go through my speech.
My hon. Friend Richard Graham gave a veritable tour of this Chamber. I certainly learned some things that I did not know before, and colleagues will want to read the full details in Hansard so that they can share that information with their constituents. I also pay tribute to him for his work as chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
The absolutely indefatigable hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made a passionate speech, as he always does, about his campaign passion—Christianity around the world, and the importance of freedom of religion and belief. We should recognise how much the Government are already doing in this area, but his important recommendations will inform that work. Many of the issues and conflicts that he mentioned also related to other matters raised in the debate, including climate change.
The hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) made some important points about the role of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth charter states that members are
“opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.”
That is an important, all-encompassing statement that touches on a range of the topics raised today, and I will try to respond to all the issues raised in the time available to me.
As colleagues have pointed out, it is our two years as Commonwealth chair-in-office, and we are already working closely with our friends in Rwanda, given that they are hosting the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2020. The UK is unbreakably bound to the Commonwealth and its democratic values. As chair-in-office we are promoting those values, and we are working to help the Commonwealth realise its potential for prosperity, security, fairness and sustainability together. We are also working to tackle global challenges such as climate change, extremism and modern slavery, and to support small, fragile and vulnerable states. It is truly a remarkable organisation with a remarkable reach.
Our objectives can be summarised in four words: delivery, voice, solidarity and reform. Delivery is about implementing the ambitious commitments made at last year’s meetings to build a fairer, more sustainable, more prosperous and more secure Commonwealth. We cannot do this on our own, so our co-operation with the 52 fellow member states, the Commonwealth secretariat, and the many Commonwealth organisations and networks—many of which were mentioned in today’s debate—is crucial. The Government are delivering on those commitments with over £500 million of projects and programmes. We are making significant progress, and I would like to highlight a few examples.
To build a more sustainable future, the UK and Vanuatu together have established the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance under the new Commonwealth blue charter. That work now includes 24 member states, which have committed themselves to concrete action to reduce the scourge of plastics in the oceans—an issue that I know concerns so many colleagues. With UK funds and expertise, the Commonwealth marine economies programme is promoting growth, innovation, investment and jobs while safeguarding healthy seas and ecosystems in 17 different Commonwealth island states.
To build a more secure future, UK-funded training events will benefit the cyber-security of 37 Commonwealth countries. We have established an African cyber-security fellowship network and have helped nine African Commonwealth countries to build capacity in critical information infrastructure protection. To build a more prosperous future, we are promoting connectivity and inclusive growth. Earlier this week, we announced that we would co-lead with South Africa the digital connectivity element of the Commonwealth connectivity agenda. Over 2,300 women-owned businesses have joined the UK-funded Commonwealth SheTrades programme for women entrepreneurs. And, propelling Commonwealth trade, the Commonwealth standards network, which was launched in September, now has 38 members.
To build a fairer future, we are providing over £200 million of support for girls’ education in nine Commonwealth countries. We are supporting collaboration between civil society and Commonwealth countries wishing to address legislation that discriminates on the grounds of sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
We are funding programmes to drive inclusive and accountable democracy. I have highlighted the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and paid tribute to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, but there is also the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, which does fantastic work. I must commend the work that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has done through its updated recommended benchmarks for democratic legislatures. It was wonderful to hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East said about the number and energy of the visits that we have had, outward and inward, over the past 12 months.
Our second objective as chair-in-office is to ensure that the voice of the Commonwealth is heard. Aside from the United Nations, no other group of nations encompasses such a range of countries from all continents. This huge diversity is both an opportunity and a strength. At the UN General Assembly last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister advocated for the rules-based international system on behalf of all 53 Commonwealth Heads of Government. It was the first time that this collective voice had been heard in the General Assembly in this way.
Our third objective is to strengthen collaboration between Commonwealth members in international organisations by ensuring that we know about each other’s candidacies in international elections; briefing each other on the business of bodies to which we do not all belong; and supporting, as the UK does, the Commonwealth small states offices in New York and in Geneva.
Our final objective with Commonwealth partners is to refresh the governance of the Commonwealth secretariat and its collaboration with other organisations. In fact, the board of governors is meeting today to discuss that, and we hope that Foreign Ministers will soon approve its recommendations. We welcome the secretary-general’s appointment last week of Dr Arjoon Suddhoo from Mauritius as deputy secretary-general. We very much look forward to working with him.
Moving on to Rwanda, I am delighted that the next Heads of Government meeting will take place in Africa. The Rwandan Government are preparing for CHOGM 2020 with enormous energy. I am confident that our successful pursuit of the Commonwealth’s potential will continue seamlessly with the Kigali meeting.
We are determined to make the most of our two years as chair-in-office, to ensure that a modern Commonwealth can meet future challenges, from climate change to cyber-attack, and to seize the opportunities flowing from the organisation’s huge diversity and enormous global reach. We have made important progress, but there is a huge agenda and lots more to do. We will work tirelessly to build a fairer, more sustainable, more prosperous and more secure Commonwealth. The fact that countries wish to join and to rejoin the Commonwealth, as Gambia did last year and as the Maldives wishes to do now, demonstrates its value. We must realise that value to the full. I am delighted to recommend that all members of the Commonwealth take the opportunity to read the debate that we have had this afternoon.
I thank everybody who has spoken in this debate. One thing that strikes me is how different each contribution has been, which perhaps represents the diversity within the Commonwealth. I neglected to place an advert for the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association challenge fund for Members who want to do something that is not in its programme. Members can apply to its exec and we will try to fund and support specific activities that they want to pursue.
Next week is not Brexit week—it is Commonwealth Day and Commonwealth Week. If I can mention one speech, it is that of my right hon. Friend Sir Hugo Swire, who said that this is not about a day or a week; we should be debating the Commonwealth day in, day out. It is a third of the world. They are our partners, they are around us, and in some cases we are sat upon their gifts. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and, again, Members who have spoken.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered opportunities and challenges facing the modern Commonwealth in its 70th year.