I beg to move,
That this House
supports the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association;
asks for parliamentary time at the earliest opportunity to change the status of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association from a UK charity to an international inter-parliamentary organisation;
and calls on the Government to effect that change.
May I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting this timely and important debate? In the debate, I speak on behalf of CPA UK executive members, Members of Parliament who value the work of the CPA, and, indeed, parliamentarians from across the British Islands and Mediterranean region—the region of which we are a part in the CPA. I know that many right hon. and hon. Members here—including the Labour Front Bencher, Catherine West, Layla Moran, who will respond for the Liberal Democrats, and many others—have enjoyed, benefited from and participated in many different CPA activities. That organisation is held dear in the hearts of parliamentarians both in the UK and abroad.
However, the CPA is at a turning point and needs the UK Government to act now to help secure its future. In the UK, only the Government can change the status of the CPA from a local UK charity to a bespoke international inter-parliamentary organisation, because the Government need to allocate parliamentary time to allow a short piece of primary legislation to be passed. It has for many years been acknowledged that the CPA’s status as a UK charity is not appropriate for an association of equals. The CPA membership includes parliamentarians from South Africa to Singapore, Ghana to Guyana and Canada to Cyprus, and all are equal members of the organisation, which is one of the oldest Commonwealth organisations.
Its status as a UK charity is completely out of kilter with the reality of the organisation’s work. The CPA was founded back in 1911 to promote the advancement of parliamentary democracy, but continuing to be a UK charity today simply reinforces an outdated vision of the Commonwealth and the UK’s place in it. Long-standing demands for recognition of its modern status as a bespoke international interparliamentary organisation reached boiling point at the general assembly meeting in Halifax, Canada, last year, where it was decided that unless substantial progress had been made to change the status of the organisation within 12 months, members would resolve to move the headquarters from the UK.
A change in status will allow the CPA to more effectively serve its members, removing damaging frictions caused by an inappropriate status, making clear that all members are on an equal footing, to reflect the modern view of the Commonwealth, and representing the CPA’s own principles of equality and diversity. In the UK, that requires primary legislation.
To assist the Government, I have retabled a short Bill, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (Status) (No. 2) Bill, which was first introduced by my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger around a year ago, to make those changes quickly and at no cost—I reiterate: at no cost. It is a point that has already been agreed with Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials, leaving no policy differences between the CPA and the FCDO in taking this issue forward.
The Bill has widespread cross-party support both here and in the other place but requires parliamentary time to be passed. The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, is on the Front Bench, having picked up the reins on this at relatively short notice; I very much appreciate that, and I know the whole House will. I hope she will be able to confirm today that parliamentary time is being made available, because our time is running out.
Over the many years of discussion between the CPA and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, before it became the FCDO, policy differences, by and large, have been resolved. In particular, the change in status is not seen as coming under the International Organisations Act 1968, because the CPA does not fit those criteria, and that issue was dealt with when others were chairing the organisation. My Bill, which the Minister will have seen, would therefore require a bespoke status, not a status under that Act, which would have caused problems. The new Bill has no extra costs for the UK taxpayer over and above the tax advantages already available to a UK charity, which the CPA is.
If we do not make significant progress on this legislation before the summer recess, the UK’s hosting of the CPA’s secretariat will be lost. That will create a real risk for the whole organisation, given the very different views on its possible future. An apparent lack of prioritisation in the UK places in question our commitment to the Commonwealth institutions themselves, and, indeed, our reputation could be unnecessarily diminished, all for not making this very small change that requires legislation.
As the Minister will be aware, the CPA has given good notice of its concerns and the need for change. To put it simply, parliamentarians from many countries take issue with having to make CPA subscription payments from their taxpayers’ money to a UK charity.
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing the debate, and I want to put on record my and the Liberal Democrats’ support for her Bill, which should be very simple to pass. From my dealings with other parliamentarians across the world, I know that the fact that the CPA is held here, in the mother of Parliaments, matters a lot to them. They feel that it is important to see how it is done by the oldest institution, and we also gain a huge amount from it. Does she agree that the loss of that would be unconscionable to this place?
Yes. Many Members here today will have known the value of meeting incoming delegations and being part of outward delegations. It gives us, as parliamentarians, an understanding of the world in which we are operating, in the same way that other organisations do, including the Inter-Parliamentary Union—we are pleased to have the chair of the British Group of the IPU, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), with us today. These organisations are valued by parliamentarians, and we need to ensure that the Government are aware of that and take appropriate action.
I want to reiterate the reason why this change in status is so important. Countries that are members of the CPA make payments, ultimately, from their taxpayers’ money to a UK charity. Those concerns are held most strongly by parliamentary colleagues in the Africa region of the CPA. That is understandable: it is incongruous at best for them to be making payments for membership of an international organisation when it looks on their books as if they are making payments to UK charities. We have to understand that, and sympathise and empathise with it.
Other organisations have already ensured that they are structured in an appropriate way. French legislation underpins the CPA’s francophone counterpart in Paris, the Assemblée Parlementaire de la Francophonie, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union has a Geneva headquarters agreement with Switzerland. The need to follow those international examples is particularly true for an international institution such as the CPA, which is all about the importance of parliamentary democracy, and the Commonwealth charter to which we and our fellow member states are signed up commits us to that.
This Parliament’s actions regarding the CPA’s status may appear peripheral to some, but in fact, they spill over into our relations with very near family members. Other members of the British family that are involved in the CPA include the devolved legislatures in the UK, the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories. They are all active members, and they too support the need to resolve this situation. The Government need to take that much more into account, not least because those organisations are concerned that they could be damaged by association should Westminster not be able to resolve this amicably. All also look to His Majesty the King as Head of State, as do the 14 other realms. At the coronation in May, we saw the huge importance attached to the Commonwealth, with His Majesty now head of the Commonwealth in succession to Her late Majesty, Queen Elizabeth.
At its April meeting in Gibraltar, the CPA executive agreed to continue to support efforts to persuade the UK Government to make the necessary changes, but— to be very clear—that is contingent on achieving new legislation by the time that the CPA’s Commonwealth parliamentary conference takes place in Ghana at the end of September, just a few short weeks away. The House should know that the CPA executive is already working on a relocation package for the secretariat, including a timeline and procedure for assessing future host countries. This is not a hollow threat: it is something that is already happening. To restate, should the UK not pass new legislation by the end of September, the organisation will proceed with relocation outside of the UK from October 2023.
There appears to be absolutely no reason why the Bill should take much parliamentary time, given the clear support for it in both Houses—my right hon. Friend the Minister will have heard that already from Opposition Members. It involves no additional costs for the UK taxpayer. It has been suggested that any change in status would create an unhelpful or unwelcome precedent, but with respect, that argument does not bear any scrutiny at all. The CPA’s case is unique. It is an international inter-parliamentary organisation headquartered in the UK. There are no others. When we pressed for examples of comparators, not a single one on the list could make a similar case. Some were international organisations, undoubtedly worthy but headquartered elsewhere and with no particular link to the UK. There were territories or groups of states and Governments—again, completely different and not parliamentary in category, and obviously not headquartered in the UK. Legislation to recognise the status of the CPA and the secretariat’s location here in the UK does not create a precedent, so that cannot credibly be cited as a reason for inaction.
Parliamentarians from around the globe tell us that they would like the CPA secretariat to remain in London. London works well as a location for the secretariat: here on the parliamentary estate, the secretariat can attract talented staff from a diverse pool. Hosting the CPA is a small but important example of the UK’s soft power, and I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister can use her good offices to ensure that time is given to pass the modest Bill required to change the status of the CPA in the time remaining before the annual assembly meeting in September. That would demonstrate not only our commitment to the Commonwealth, but the importance of strong democracies around the world.
I will call the Front-Bench spokespeople at the end of the debate.
I am sorry to tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I have been an abject failure, but it is okay because it is not I who is going to be blamed. Sadly, it is going to be the Minister and the Secretary of State, and it is going to be on their watch that CPA International has to leave London.
Even back in 2006, when I visited India, I remember these issues being raised. In the four years that I had the privilege of being in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, working with the Minister of State, I think I had the largest number of Commonwealth countries in my portfolio, but I never took the lead, although I did advocate for making this change. When I was the chair of the CPA, prior to my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller, for around two or three years, I tried to move these things forward, but it was never the issue of the day. Let us face it: it is not the biggest issue of the day today, with Iran and what is going on in Russia, but it has to be an issue at some point.
In April, when I stood in for my right hon. Friend in a Westminster Hall debate, I said that, if we did not do something in April when everyone met in Gibraltar, the CPA would hardcode in a process that involved having to leave the United Kingdom. That process is now hardcoded in. People are coming forward—whether it is the Malaysians; South Africa, perhaps with the support of other African countries; or Canada—and there are very credible propositions to take the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association International branch away from the UK. This is not just a matter of pride. With the King being the head of the Commonwealth, it brings something closely located to the monarchy, to the British tradition and to this Parliament—a safe, secure place, through which people travel on a regular basis. It can conduct CPA business while doing other things internationally, which might not be the case if it were located in a country a little further away.
While I failed to move this forward successfully, it will be the Foreign Secretary and the ministerial team who will get the blame. There is an opportunity to grasp this nettle. The incremental change we have seen over the last decade just is not going to cut it. A few weeks ago, I asked the Prime Minister about this, and he was optimistic in his reply. I believe the Foreign Secretary wants to find a way forward, but we need to see a strong indication from the Minister today that we have a commitment to try to sort this out. In the King’s Speech, if not earlier, we need an absolute commitment that legislation is going to be taken forward to solve this problem. This really should not be what we are talking about in this House. Please, please make this my last speech on this subject, and please turn my failure into a success.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller on securing his debate. I want to make three specific points regarding the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association: first, the governance arrangements; secondly, the role of inter-parliamentary organisations; and, finally, the work that the CPA leads on in the very important world of modern slavery, on which it is a great leader.
Starting with the governance arrangements, I absolutely support my right hon. Friend in everything she has said. I attended the Commonwealth parliamentary conference in Halifax last year, where this was the No. 1 topic. This is not a bluff being called or a suggestion we will all get over. This is a matter of central importance to members of the CPA globally. They really do find this an incredibly sensitive issue, and we need to show sympathy and respect for that position and help them.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising the issue of our conference last year, and she has reminded me of some of the conversations I was having with Members of Parliament, particularly from places, such as Canada, where we are negotiating trade agreements. It is these Members of Parliament who want to see consistency from the UK around our relationship with them as nations, but also as members of the Commonwealth.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I think there is a statement that the UK Government could make here, which is about taking leadership and about demonstrating that we want to be active and sympathetic players in global events.
On not being able to take this step—this very simple step—I think my hon. Friend Sir James Duddridge is a former Whip, as I am, and I recall opposed private business evenings when, after the day’s business had finished on a Wednesday, three hours were set aside for opposed private business. I doubt this would be opposed. I think we could get this through incredibly quickly, and we would not be asking the House to take much of its time to approve this measure. But it is such an important step, and I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister and the Whip on duty—the Vice-Chamberlain of His Majesty’s Household, my hon. Friend Jo Churchill—to really press this point home with the business managers. A piece of legislation is ready to go, and it has universal support in this House and in the other place. It would be such a great thing if those of us going to Ghana this year for the CPC could stand up, hold our heads high and say, “We listened and, as the UK, we took the steps you asked us to take.” That would make an enormous difference.
My second point is around the importance and value of multilateral organisations, particularly those for parliamentarians. As the chair of the British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union and an active member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK, I want the House to know that those organisations present such important opportunities. Looking around, I do not think that anyone here has not been on a delegation for at least one of them. We also have the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which I am very honoured to co-chair, the British-American Parliamentary Group, and we now have our new EU friendship group. These things are very important. If we do not understand what we are doing here as parliamentarians and understand what is happening in other Parliaments, we simply are not going to develop and learn or be able to tackle important global issues.
We all have a common goal here. The Inter-Parliamentary Union recently hosted an important inter-faith dialogue in Marrakesh that marked the first time that it has brought together civil society, faith groups and parliamentarians; it was the first time that we saw together in one room representatives from all the major faiths on this planet. They were all there talking about our common goals, such as climate change and global migration, which affects us all. Parliamentarians have a real role to play not only in helping Governments to get the necessary legislation through in these areas, but in influencing our constituents, organisations and those around us. The CPA is the only organisation that includes all the devolved legislatures, the provincial legislatures, the state legislatures, the overseas territories and the Crown dependencies. Parliamentarians from all those organisations take part in CPA events, and that is such a powerful and important thing for helping us to understand that we have shared problems that require shared solutions.
That takes me on to the shared problem that we have regarding modern slavery and human trafficking. CPA UK has been a world leader on this issue. When I was the Minister for Modern Slavery in the Home Office in 2014, CPA UK was leading the work that could be done by parliamentarians around the world. The Commonwealth has an important role to play in tackling this issue, full stop, because it contains source countries, transit countries and destination countries for victims of trafficking. The leadership that the Commonwealth can show helps to change legislation globally, and the CPA helps to ensure that legislation changes at a parliamentary level in every one of our Parliaments.
I have taken part in many events that CPA UK has hosted here. I have spoken about issues at global delegations, and I cannot praise CPA UK and its team enough for the global lead that they play. This is such an important organisation. The Government have an opportunity here to do a very small thing with a bit of Government time to get this legislation through. It would make an amazing difference, and it would absolutely solidify CPA UK and the CPA’s place in this Parliament.
Before I begin my speech, I want to put on the record my thanks to Jon Davies, who is our retiring chief executive of the CPA. CPA UK has benefited enormously from Jon’s diplomatic skills and diligence over the years. Like you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I should perhaps declare an interest as a member of the executive committee of CPA UK.
I have only just spoken, so I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. He reminds me that we heard about Jon Davies’s incredible diplomatic skills at yesterday’s AGM. We also heard from our hon. Friend Paul Maynard that Jon Davies is able to remove bird poo from Members of Parliament in the most discreet way imaginable. I think we should put on the record that that is a great skill, and one that CPA UK has valued. [Laughter.]
I do not think there is anything that can be said in response to that particular point, but I know Jon to be multiskilled from my own experience of him.
I begin by slightly disagreeing with my hon. Friend Sir James Duddridge, which I have of course never done previously, in that this issue does impact on major global issues, particularly Russia. My experience, having twice led a delegation to South Africa, is that Russia very much wants to extend its influence into South Africa and into Africa. It is exactly the inertia of the UK and its colonialist views that are used to take that forward. The delegation I led was denounced in the South African Parliament by the Economic Freedom Fighters, which to be fair is an extreme group. Its members stood up and decried our delegation as neo-colonialists and condemned the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
Not acting on this issue gives succour to people making that argument, and it gives succour to Russia, which fanned the flames of that argument. Last year, I met the Deputy Speaker of the South African Parliament as part of the delegation, and that was the first issue he raised with me. A year later, I met him again, and what had we done? My hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger had had a debate and effectively had a brush off, but we had done nothing to move this issue forward. We are not able to convince Commonwealth colleagues that we are taking this issue seriously if we simply do nothing. We can have this debate today, where we are placated at the end and nothing happens, but action is required.
I intervene not to compliment my right hon. Friend on his tie, but to make a more serious point on the meeting yesterday, which was attended by Mr Speaker, who, like you Mr Deputy Speaker, has a passion for these things. I am not sure how these things operate, but is there an opportunity to have some type of Speaker’s conference or an informal meeting where Mr Speaker brings together the Leader of the House and the Foreign Secretary, gives them tea and maybe chocolate biscuits, locks the door and does not let them out until we have resolved this issue?
Engagement with Speakers from across the Commonwealth is important, because at the session I attended in South Africa, the Speaker of the South African Parliament had just returned from a conference in Russia, from which overtures were being made. Honestly, if I had to go back to South Africa—it would be a great pleasure to do so again—a third time, I would have to say to South African parliamentarians, who want to be supportive of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, that yet again we had done nothing.
As my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller has set out, it is so straightforward to take action. It does not require Government funds. It requires a small amount of time, it has cross-party agreement and it could be done. Essentially, we are in the position of running out of excuses for why we are not doing it. There will be real implications. As has been set out, the CPA will leave London. It will leave this Parliament, and we will be diminished because of it.
Secondly, along with my right hon. and hon. Friends, I met the Speaker of the Ghanaian Parliament, where we discussed our concerns about prospective LGBT legislation, and in effect asked for that legislation to be reflected on and asked him and his fellow parliamentarians to take the issue seriously. But how can we do that credibly when he says that he wants us to take steps to amend the status of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—I suggest that is much easier for us than the changes we want him to use his influence to make in the Ghanaian Parliament—and we do nothing? That undermines our credibility. Surely we cannot allow that to happen.
I hope that the result of the debate will be different from those of previous debates and questions raised on the matter and that the Minister will take forward the Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller before the Commonwealth conference in Ghana to maintain our credibility as a nation and as a Parliament, and maintain the presence of the CPA in the UK.
I thank my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller for securing this important debate on the status of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I echo many comments made by colleagues. We must address the status of the CPA before the upcoming parliamentary meeting in Accra in September. I am here as a member of the CPA’s executive committee to lend my support and to try to persuade the Government that we must change the CPA’s status from a UK charity to an international inter-parliamentary organisation.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s Bill to address the issue and ensure that the CPA does not relocate to another Commonwealth country. The UK branch of the CPA is well known and one of the most active in the Commonwealth. We have been talking about this issue for several years. In 2018, the CPA presented the UK Government with the business case for the status change, which stated,
“In all respects the CPA operates in practice as an international inter-parliamentary organisation, but the CPA has the legal status of an English charity. It would not usually be expected that an organisation such as the CPA would be a charity, given the nature of the CPA and the work it carries out.”
Let me give some examples of issues that arise owing to the CPA having been a charity since 1971. The CPA as a charity is limited in its ability to carry out certain activities that promote democracy, human rights and democratic values and protect the rights and privileges of parliamentarians. That is because, as we know, restrictions on charities prevent them from pursuing political purposes. The CPA has also been unable to sign up to certain international statements and communiqués because of its charitable status. We have been unable to join other international organisations in speaking out against events in Commonwealth countries. Recent examples include the unlawful imprisonment of parliamentarians, not being able to speak out about the treatment of parliamentarians, and the situation over the Rohingya. Those examples show exactly why we must change the CPA’s status. I recently met the CPA secretary general, and he is fully supportive of the status change.
There will be some serious consequences if we do not change the CPA’s status to an international inter-parliamentary organisation. First, I believe, as several right hon. and hon. Members have alluded to, that if the UK does not make that change, the CPA headquarters will relocate to another Commonwealth country. We can think of our proud tradition with the CPA founded in the UK Parliament back in 1911, and it has always been here. We do not want to lose the opportunity of having more than 50 Commonwealth Parliaments turning to the UK Parliament for advice, guidance and best practice and to uphold Parliamentary democracy. The CPA relocating from the UK would damage the UK Parliament’s relationship with other Commonwealth Parliaments.
Secondly, we must listen and respect the voices of other Commonwealth parliamentarians who have expressed strong dissatisfaction. Other colleagues have mentioned the concerns raised by other Parliaments; for example, just last year, the southern African region of the CPA Africa group expressed its displeasure at the UK’s hesitancy to legislate to change the status of the CPA, and said that it believes it is disadvantageous to Africa. The South African National Assembly’s Deputy Speaker, Mr Tsenoli, has also expressed concerns that the CPA Africa region contributes close to 60% of the CPA budget, and that money is only to be used in the CPA in the UK. Changing the status would allow more CPA Parliaments in Africa and other regions around the world to have greater confidence in our work. It is important that today we are seen as equal partners—that is what the Commonwealth is all about.
Thirdly, as a UK charity, the CPA cannot achieve observer status at the United Nations. We currently do not have diplomatic status or international recognition. It is important that we change that as soon as possible, which can be achieved by turning us into an international inter-parliamentary organisation.
I have been a member of the CPA executive as a new Member of Parliament. I can truly say that it is a remarkable and impactful organisation. Just last month, I chaired its women and trade workshop here in Parliament, looking at promoting human rights through international trade. There were discussions on bilateral and regional trade, looking at how we can advance human rights standards globally, which reminds me of the importance of the CPA. Bringing together parliamentarians from across the Commonwealth and ensuring that we are learning best practice is one of the areas that the CPA promotes and supports.
I was also delighted back in 2021 to attend the World Trade Organisation’s Public Forum in Geneva. My trip was supported by the CPA through its trips budget. At that meeting, I had the privilege of meeting Dr Ngozi Okongo-Iweala, the WTO director general, and of speaking at the eastern African trade for resilience forum. That is an example of where CPA does vital work for us as UK parliamentarians.
I strongly support the need for us to change the status of the CPA from a UK charity to an international inter-parliamentary organisation. We do fantastic work. It would make the UK more respected at the CPA, which is a brilliant, fantastic organisation. Fellow parliamentarians around the world have said to me that they are looking for us to sort this out. I hope the Minister will provide the commitment we need at the Dispatch Box today to ensure that we can go to that meeting in Accra in September. I hope that the Government will find parliamentary time to approve the Bill.
Commonwealth Day 2023 marked a new chapter in the age of decolonisation: a new monarch with a new perspective towards the Commonwealth. The annual theme was “Forging a sustainable and common future”, and intended to highlight the promotion of peace and sustainability, and the Commonwealth’s work on change. The day also marked the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Commonwealth charter, which sets out Commonwealth principles on human rights, democracy and development.
The head of the Commonwealth used his Commonwealth Day message to discuss harmony with nature and securing the planet for generations to come, as well as the diversity of the Commonwealth nations. That significant and historic milestone is the perfect opportunity to reflect on the impact of the Commonwealth, acknowledge the damage of British colonial history and begin to pave the way to more conscious, respectful and thoughtful relationships with Commonwealth countries.
We are already beginning to see the tides change. In recent months, people across the world are reassessing what the Commonwealth means and how it can be adapted for the benefit of all, to better match a 21st-century world. We in the Scottish National party are particularly mindful of the role of the Commonwealth as an advocate for the needs of smaller and more vulnerable states, and for the inclusion of marginalised people and communities. I wish to reaffirm the SNP’s policy of joining the Commonwealth post independence, because we want to join the world, not be apart from it. On independence, Scotland will continue to play a role in the Commonwealth and the wider Anglosphere. That will help to further unlock the potential of a powerful, international Scottish brand and worldwide diaspora.
The Scottish Government are already working on efforts to acknowledge and act on the legacy of colonialism. Their 2022 global affairs framework focuses on the need to decolonise development and reinforce the fact that projects must be partner-led rather than donor-led, as is too often the case. They pledged to appoint a decolonisation officer within an independent Scotland Department of International Development. The Scottish Government explicitly referenced their colonial past when announcing their £1 million contribution —subsequently increased to £2 million—to fund loss and damage caused by climate change. A key recipient of the fund will be the Commonwealth country of Malawi. Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon framed the contribution not as an act of charity, but as reparation for the damage driven by countries in the global north.
Through its promotion of parliamentary democracy and good governance specifically targeted at parliamentarians, the CPA provides a vehicle for us to collaborate with our parliamentary colleagues across the Commonwealth and advance these causes. However, we must recognise, as others—I think everybody—have stated, that the CPA’s status as a UK charity is not appropriate for an association of equals from across the Commonwealth and that it reinforces an out-of-date vision of the Commonwealth and the UK’s place in it. We must listen to our partners, in particular those from the African region of the CPA who hold this view most strongly, on their real concerns about the appropriateness of charitable status and the fact that their Parliaments make subscription payments from their taxpayers’ money to a UK charity. It is therefore important that the status of the CPA is changed from a UK charity to an international interparliamentary organisation, and that it is done so immediately. That would take little parliamentary time and would involve no additional cost to the UK or to UK taxpayers.
With a resolution agreed to retain the right to withdraw from the organisation should a change in status not be concluded by the CPA’s annual conference this October, there is a real danger that the organisation may fragment, which would be a serious blow to the UK’s soft power. At a time when other countries are pushing a very different version of governance in many parts of the world, this is not a time to reduce the UK’s commitments and role in the world. For while the Commonwealth adopted a charter full of laudable aspirations about justice, democracy and human rights, the organisation has an unimpressive record in enforcing adherence to those values. As parliamentarians, we must stand up for those values through the CPA.
To take just one example, the Commonwealth took no action when, in January 2021, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni clung to power after a deeply flawed election. In May 2023, the Ugandan President signed into law one of the harshest anti-LGBTQ laws in the world. It stipulates capital punishment for “serial offenders” against the law and the transmission of a terminal illness such as HIV/AIDS through gay sex. It decrees an abhorrent 20-year sentence for “promoting” homosexuality. The legislation also requires friends, family and neighbours to denounce people in same-sex relationships to the authorities. One Ugandan MP, Sarah Opendi, suggested that gay men should be castrated.
While Uganda is the most egregious recent example, such anti-gay rhetoric and politicking is replicated across the Commonwealth. Homosexuality remains a criminal offence in two-thirds of the Commonwealth. Brunei, another Commonwealth country, made gay sex punishable by stoning to death, with public flogging for lesbian sex, in 2019. Malaysia, a Commonwealth member, is one of only a few countries to criminalise gender non-conformity, while also penalising oral and anal sex with up to 20 years in prison and mandatory whipping, Human Rights Watch reported last year. The Commonwealth must stand for the rights of minorities, LGBTQ+ and persecuted communities in member states, and organisations such as the CPA must play a key role in that.
The UK was the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office between 2018 and June 2022. I think that we can all now recognise that this was a missed opportunity to drive meaningful social change. In March 2020, my hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin spoke in this House about the fact there was little time remaining to make a positive impact. She stressed that the UK should be making haste after two years of painstakingly slow progress. We can all appreciate that there was a global pandemic, and no one will be in any doubt about how difficult that was and how it hampered these efforts. However, the lack of urgent effort by the UK Government to regain ground following the pandemic has been particularly concerning.
The UK Government should have used the extended four-year period in Chair to ensure that the Commonwealth nations, many of which are developing countries, got the covid vaccines they desperately needed, alongside the rest of the global south. Instead, the UK Government hoarded vaccines and disgracefully blocked a WTO TRIPS—Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights—waiver. Indeed, in July 2020 Commonwealth leaders from all 54 member states issued a joint statement including a commitment to ensure
“equitable access to quality health services and safe, effective and affordable medicines and vaccines for all”.
As one who was involved in that process, while accepting criticism, I do not think it is entirely founded, given the background to the vaccines we were getting. Will the hon. Gentleman at least commend the United Kingdom Government for the COVAX facility, and for actually getting the vaccine in place? Perhaps there is a slightly more balanced scorecard and I would be even more positive about our involvement than the hon. Gentleman, but will he note those successes?
I fully take on board the hon. Member’s explanation of how dealing with covid was a success in the early days, but, as we saw, as time went on, it began increasingly to fail. There are lessons to be learnt. Last autumn, for example, I was in Cape Town looking at a company called Afrigen and its hub to reverse-engineer mRNA to supply vaccines to countries that were suffering through the worst stages of the pandemic and, in many cases, had no access to vaccines from the global north. I would like to see the UK Government support that work, because there is a vital opportunity for home-grown small hubs to make vaccines for their own communities.
Most egregiously of all, during the UK’s four years as Chair, the UK Government pulled significant aid spending out of key Commonwealth nations in another sign that the UK does not—or seems not to—care about the Commonwealth nations. That sends the wrong message to all our Commonwealth partners. Let us take Pakistan, for example. For the fiscal year 2023-24, the UK Government have decided to cut bilateral aid by more than 50% compared with the previous year. Analysis by the Commonwealth Innovation Fund projected that the number of people in extreme poverty in the Commonwealth would rise from 209.9 million in 2019 to 237.1 million in 2021. That is disgraceful, and some blame must be laid at the feet of the UK Government.
The UK cannot claim to have a compassionate, co-operative and international outlook while simultaneously slashing its contributions to lower-income countries, including many in the Commonwealth. The moral and economic leadership on this from this UK Government has been wanting, as I have said repeatedly in the House. If the Commonwealth as an organisation is to continue, it must adapt and become an organisation fit for the 21st century. Bringing the CPA into line with other parliamentary organisations around the world by urgently changing its status before its annual meeting later this year would be a vital step. If we are to have the modern and inclusive Commonwealth that we all desire, action must be taken, and we need to see that action urgently.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and may I say how exciting it is to see you in the Chair, given that you are a great champion of the CPA and, indeed, hosted a visit from another Speaker just this week? That, of course, was the Speaker of the Cyprus Parliament, who is also a great supporter of the Commonwealth. The visit gave us an opportunity to renew our efforts to establish a peace deal in Cyprus, and also gave us a tiny taste of the importance of this network to us all.
Many of us have benefited from the CPA’s work, either taking part in outbound delegations or hosting visiting delegations here in Westminster. It is crucial that we support the Government in order to effect this important legislative change. I am also aware of those who work tirelessly behind the scenes supporting the operations of Parliaments throughout the Commonwealth —our Clerks, for example—spreading best practice and discussing the key values that we all share: good governance, democracy and human rights. Chris Law gave a very good example today of the LGBTQ challenge, and I thank him very much for that.
I want to put on record that Labour is keen to see the CPA headquartered here in Westminster—we think that is right and proper. We also agree that being the “mother of all Parliaments” gives us a wonderful track record when it comes to promoting that. Our way of doing things, with a fused legislature and Executive system, is commonly known as the Westminster System—I grew up with it myself, down under—and we should be proud of the CPA’s ongoing role in bringing together and liaising between the Parliaments of the Commonwealth family from the very building that inspired the way in which most of the Commonwealth is governed today.
This debate has given us a great opportunity to praise the Commonwealth more widely as the modern institution it now is—one of which we can all be proud. As well as being visited by the Speaker from the Cypriot House of Representatives earlier in the week, just last night we heard the Climate Minister from Vanuatu, Ralph Regenvanu, speaking about the challenges surrounding climate change. Vanuatu is, of course, a very important member of the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth has continued to evolve from a post-colonial grouping, as it was at its inception, to a voluntary organisation with a growing membership and global network. It is particularly involved in the empowerment of our young people, given that so many Commonwealth countries are predominantly young; we think of Pakistan, for example, as a very young nation.
Organisations in my constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green jumped at the chance to participate in the Queen’s Green Canopy project for Her late Majesty’s diamond jubilee, inspired by the fact that organisations throughout the Commonwealth were similarly committed to that project to increase tree cover—a vital step in tackling climate change in far-off places such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, which are so regularly subject to intense changes in climate. The current head of the Commonwealth, His Majesty the King, has dedicated his life to the issue of climate change, and I am sure he will continue to champion that.
Today’s debate is vital in supporting that good work and ensuring that the CPA is not forced to uproot itself. Concerns have been raised about whether the CPA, as a UK registered charity, is in an appropriate form to continue to support the Commonwealth, given its disparate nature and the competing needs and engagement of the Parliaments it champions. That has been raised at the highest levels. Baroness Scotland, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth, has been pressing for a change in status. She has been vocal about the need for the upcoming CPA conference in Ghana to be a point of resolution for an issue that has hung over the organisation for 30 years.
Just this year, the Foreign Office has committed to working with the CPA to find a solution, and Members have suggested practical ways forward. Last month, the Prime Minister went further, confirming the Government’s view that they do not wish the CPA to relocate away from Westminster. As has been noted during the debate, our French partners have addressed a similar issue with the Francophone version of the CPA. Will the Minister outline any further update on what the Prime Minister told the House last month and at Prime Minister’s questions just the week before last, and signal how the Government intend to sort the issue out?
Before I conclude, let me put on the record the importance of the work in this area by women; it is terrific that both the IPU and the CPA are chaired by women here in our Parliament. I know how encouraging that is when we have delegations and how much can be shared in women-only forums. We are committed to keeping all that going, from a position of strength, once we have sorted out this minor detail.
To be clear, if no action is taken, in the very near future we will run the real risk of the CPA having to leave Westminster. We clearly have the political will—we can see that today—and the support of the Commonwealth family. Our departing chief executive has done a fantastic job, as has our current secretary-general, the former Member for Enfield, Southgate and for Liverpool, West Derby. We have some fantastic people behind the scenes supporting the CPA’s important work.
If we fail to get this right, it will deal a real blow to the role of this House and of the Government on the world stage. It will be seen as a symbol of our lack of commitment—our inertia, as someone said during the debate—and damage the potential of this growing and unique global organisation just at the time we should be redoubling our efforts to engage with our Commonwealth partners and seeking to expand the Commonwealth.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller for securing the debate and for her dedication to the Commonwealth, including as chair of the executive committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK. I thank all Members who made passionate and very clear speeches about the urgency of this issue.
As colleagues have said, the CPA is a valued partner in all parts of the Commonwealth, strengthening parliamentary oversight and democratic accountability. The UK Government have partnered on a number of projects to support Commonwealth parliamentarians and to address issues from gender inequality to climate change, among others that Members have raised. That work has made a substantial contribution to supporting democracy and human rights across the Commonwealth. I thank the CPA for its work, and I look forward to the FCDO and the CPA continuing to work together closely in the years ahead.
The Foreign Secretary wrote to the secretary-general of Commonwealth Parliamentary Association International on the issue of the organisation’s status on
Since then, FCDO officials have been in discussion with CPA International to understand the need to vary its present charitable status and to consider how best to address these concerns. Although this work is ongoing, important progress has already been made.
My right hon. Friend is right that I came fresh to this at midday today, but I will happily take it away. My officials in the box will support me in providing that information.
My right hon. Friend is right that finding the right way through to secure a workable change to the organisation’s legal status is important. The challenges on privileges and immunities, which may come at a cost to the taxpayer, such as through visa control exemptions, clearly have to be worked through, but it has been helpful that my hon. Friend Theo Clarke has given us some useful practical examples of the limitations of CPA International’s present UK charitable status. I thank her very much for her enormously helpful contribution.
A Speaker’s Conference on this issue has been suggested. If Mr Speaker were to invite the FCDO for tea and cake, would my right hon. Friend commit ministerial time to attending to thrash through these issues? As my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller said, there have not been an awful lot of meetings or progress since March.
I have worked with my hon. Friend on many issues over the years, and chocolate biscuits were always an attraction. Were Mr Speaker to offer chocolate biscuits and cake, I would find time in my busy diary to join such a gathering. We are all of one mind in wanting to find the best way to solve some of these issues, but it is clearly outside my purview to set that running.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for tabling her private Member’s Bill, which has been designed to advance the status issue. It is extremely frustrating that there are no sitting Fridays left in this Session, but the Bill sets out a helpful basis for ongoing discussions.
My right hon. Friend is right that the Government have not allocated any further sitting Fridays, for whatever reason. Of course, ten-minute rule Bills can be taken at any time. It is down to the discretion of those who manage the business of the House, which is the Government. They could find time, even though there are no sitting Fridays. Surely she could undertake to go away and consider that, perhaps with the help of the Leader of the House, who looks after such things.
My right hon. Friend pre-empts me. It was interesting to hear the expertise of my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley who, in her many roles over the years, has discovered some of the perplexing and magical powers that exist within Parliament, and I know the business managers have heard the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke. I am happy to commit to taking this away, and to discussing with the business managers what other routes might be available.
If a ten-minute rule Bill were tabled for the end of business on every day between now and the summer recess, I am sure there would be someone to speak to it if we finished early. And if we did not finish early, the Bill simply would not be moved. I am pretty certain that we will not go to the moment of interruption every day over the next two weeks, so there is a window of opportunity.
If we look at Monday’s business, we see that we may have an opportunity then; she might want to take that to the business managers.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her helpful and clear perspective on what is going on in next week’s schedule. As I say, and as the Foreign Secretary set out clearly in his letter, we are absolutely committed to finding a mutually acceptable solution so that we can ensure the CPA does not have to relocate.
I wish to reassure right hon. and hon. Members that the UK’s commitment to the Commonwealth itself is unwavering. We provide significant bilateral aid to Commonwealth countries, which totalled more than £1 billion in 2021. We also fund and support a wide range of Commonwealth initiatives and programmes, including through the CPA.
As we look towards the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Samoa next year, the UK will work with partners, including the CPA, to deliver tangible benefits in our three priority areas, which the Foreign Secretary has set out: trade, climate and values. He has a personal and deep commitment to seeing a thriving and successful Commonwealth. That is one of his key priorities, which we all work towards in the FCDO.
On trade, first, we want to boost trade and investment between Commonwealth countries. Encompassing more than 2.5 billion consumers, the Commonwealth is an enormous contributor to the global market network. Our shared language and shared institutions create what we refer to as the “Commonwealth advantage”, because it can reduce the average cost of trade between members by 21% compared with trade with the rest of the world. It was a real honour to be the Minister who brought in the developing countries trading scheme earlier in the year, which of course provides huge opportunities for the Commonwealth, as well as for others.
Climate is a subject that has been raised by a number of Members, as it is such a crucial and urgent issue for all countries on our great planet. The Commonwealth is really driving enhanced action on climate change and the environment, particularly to support its smaller or more vulnerable members, including 25 small island developing states. One of those is Vanuatu, which Catherine West mentioned. I had the great privilege of visiting it last year, when I sat in a school that had been washed away the year before by storms ripping through the village on the beach. We understand that those are the sorts of issues where we want to work together with our Commonwealth partners, in practical terms, to find solutions and to enable access to the climate finance needed to help them deliver that.
I fully accept what my right hon. Friend is saying about our commitment to the Commonwealth. She has set out a number of positive things that are being done, but does she not accept that other forces want to destabilise the Commonwealth and do not want to see it continue in its current form? Does she accept that doing nothing on this issue is the sort of thing that feeds into that narrative?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there are those who wish to destabilise the international order and rules-based system, and that the positive, co-operative nature of the Commonwealth demonstrates what friendship and long relationships can bring together. It does not suit those who wish to disrupt the successes of those relationships. We have to continue to work on that and, importantly, find how the Commonwealth can maximise its incredible potential to deliver so much on democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law. Those are areas where the CPA has great expertise and helps to underpin all those Commonwealth member states in being committed to upholding those shared values, which are enshrined in the Commonwealth charter, and standing firm against those who would wish to disrupt the positives that those values bring to citizens across the world.
Among other work, importantly the UK Government are supporting the CPA’s project on strengthening parliamentary oversight and effectiveness in tackling gender-based violence and modern slavery project. The project will enable Commonwealth Parliaments to be more active and effective in addressing violence against women and girls, and the challenges of modern slavery. It will lead to the development of measures, including robust legislation, to reduce gender-based violence and modern slavery in supply chains.
To drive this three-pronged agenda, our mantra needs to be continuous improvement of Commonwealth institutions, building on the reforms agreed by the heads of Government in Kigali. We will work with the Commonwealth secretariat to ensure quick progress ahead of CHOGM 24.
To conclude, this Government will continue do all we can to strengthen the Commonwealth and ensure it delivers clear purpose and value for all its members, large and small. We look forward to continuing our work with the CPA in pursuit of this and finding a solution to ensure it does not have to relocate.
This has been a very positive debate. I thank all Members who have taken the time to be here today for their positive and important contributions.
The international ramifications, mentioned by my right hon. Friend David Mundell, cannot be underestimated by the Minister and her colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Undermining our credibility with so many nations with which we are seeking active trade agreements is a banana skin that we need to remove.
My right hon. Friend Karen Bradley brought up a number of pertinent issues about restricting the work of the organisation. It is wholly within our power to be able to change the status of the organisation so that it can do the best that it can.
Above all, the debate has focused on the need to respect our fellow parliamentarians around the Commonwealth, who have asked us to find a way to change the status of the organisation. We owe them the respect to demonstrate that we are able to do that, and not be characterised as “Matron knows best”, which is a very poor look for us.
I hope the debate has uncovered ways that can be found to secure the legislative change required. We must not continue to argue about whether that is needed or not, because it has been requested, or continue to look for barriers in terms of parliamentary time, but opportunities.
My hon. Friend Sir James Duddridge is right that where there is a will, there is a way. There are creative minds in this place to enable the Westminster delegation to go to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference in September and October, to acclaim the Government’s action and to show that we are sensitive to the opinion of Commonwealth parliamentarians, so that we are not dictating through inertia, but facilitating the change they are asking for. We must not leave this valuable organisation open to what could be a very difficult decision to leave the UK and find a home elsewhere. That would be tragic, and I do not think that is what my right hon. Friend the Minister wants to see.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
supports the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association;
asks for parliamentary time at the earliest opportunity to change the status of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association from a UK charity to an international inter-parliamentary organisation;
and calls on the Government to effect that change.