The Modern Commonwealth: Opportunities and Challenges

Part of International Women’S Day – in the House of Commons at 4:46 pm on 7th March 2019.

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Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 4:46 pm, 7th March 2019

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.