Commonwealth

– in the House of Lords at 11:31 am on 17th November 2005.

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Photo of Lord Freeman Lord Freeman Conservative 11:31 am, 17th November 2005

rose to call attention to the United Kingdom's relations with the Commonwealth; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, I am delighted to be able to open this important debate. I and many other noble Lords are strong supporters of the Commonwealth. We have today a very impressive list of speakers from all sides of the House, and I am particularly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, the Leader of the House, for agreeing to wind up the debate. Given her knowledge and long experience of overseas affairs, particularly of international development, your Lordships will benefit greatly from her contribution.

Many noble Lords will have visited many countries in the Commonwealth. Some will, like myself, have family ties in those countries or have had ministerial responsibilities there, so this debate augers well for contributions based on experience. I hope that the conclusion of the debate will show that this House very strongly supports the Commonwealth and looks forward to it thriving in the future.

This debate is particularly timely because next week in Malta there will be the biennial meeting of the Commonwealth heads of government (CHOGM). I hope very much that the comments made in the debate will be distilled by the noble Baroness and conveyed to colleagues who will be going to Malta.

First, I wish to reinforce the obvious: the Commonwealth is a unique institution. The Statute of Westminster in 1931 established the Commonwealth, but it was directly after the war that it grew in size. Today it contains 53 member countries together with 11 territories. I wish to return briefly in a moment to the issue of the territories, which are often forgotten in debates on the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has 30 per cent of the world's population, 40 per cent of the World Trade Organisation's members and 25 per cent of world trade and investment.

Why is the Commonwealth unique? It is unique because it contains both developed and developing countries and therefore is wholly unlike the European Union. The Commonwealth contains 13 of the fastest growing nations in the world and 14 of the poorest. So it has the complete gamut in terms of economic wealth and performance. It is bound by, by and large, a common language. English, if not the native language, is the first foreign language of preference. Although Her Majesty's Government contribute some 30 per cent of the costs of the Commonwealth, we have one voice and all the other members are equal.

That is certainly unlike the United Nations, which is a pyramidical structure dominated in its debates and decisions by the larger countries, and especially those on the Security Council. It is multi-faith—I shall return to that issue in due course—but, most importantly, it is built on democratic principles: parliamentary government, the rule of law and respect for all citizens, of whatever religion or race. There is the principle of tolerance and understanding of the points of view and beliefs of every citizen in the Commonwealth. No other world grouping of nations comes close to the Commonwealth. One sometimes thinks great nations such as the United States and our neighbours in the European Union envy the United Kingdom's position in the Commonwealth and the influence that it can bring to bear.

However, this nation is in danger of missing a great opportunity to continue to champion the Commonwealth. There is a generation gap in understanding of the Commonwealth. How many of our children and grandchildren have the same interest in approach to our knowledge of the Commonwealth as the over-60s? I cast my eye around your Lordships' Chamber and believe that most, if not all, of us have been brought up with the Commonwealth. That does not go for the generations behind us. Indeed, my children's generation often connect the Commonwealth more with cricket than with issues of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. So we have a duty—this House has a duty—to champion the Commonwealth.

What can we do, what should we do to nurture and support the future of the Commonwealth? I commend to your Lordships the 2005 report by the Commonwealth Secretariat as a starting point. It is an excellent report and describes the broad range of initiatives, many of which have been championed and, indeed, initiated by Her Majesty's Government, that are being pursued at present. In the time available to me, I want to cover three aspects mentioned in the report that should be developed further and make some suggestions about them.

The first aspect is upholding democracy, the rule of law and the equal treatment of citizens. The Commonwealth has taken a tough stance in the past and expelled or suspended members that are clearly not adhering to those principles—South Africa, on the issue of apartheid, Nigeria and Pakistan. All three of those countries have since rejoined the Commonwealth. Zimbabwe was suspended and later withdrew from the Commonwealth. Pressure has been brought to bear in the past and I hope that Her Majesty's Government will pursue a resolute line on Zimbabwe on behalf of the whole of the Commonwealth. I know that some of my noble friends will pursue that issue with greater experience than I, but with equal force.

We should not forget that one important method of pursuing the principles of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law is the quiet persuasion and diplomacy that goes on within the Commonwealth. That is unlike the United Nations, the European Union and other groupings of nations. The Prime Ministers and leaders of individual nations talk to each other, bring pressure to bear and resolve conflicts. That has been very successful in the past.

I make one plea, and I know that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) shares this view. I pay tribute to the work that the CPA has done—not only the UK branch but the association throughout the Commonwealth. More parliamentary support from your Lordships is needed. Some of our delegations abroad need to be strengthened. Indeed, some visits have been cancelled in recent years. We should not forget our obligation as legislators, as parliamentarians, to support the CPA.

I believe strongly in the secondment of some of our judges and barristers to courts within the Commonwealth where that is requested. I think especially of Sierra Leone, where I judge there to be a real requirement for support from some of our judges to go to sit in the courts there, especially to help in the matter of corruption. There is a common fund for technical co-operation, run by the Commonwealth, which covers public administration. I should like to see greater use of that fund made in seconding some of our judges.

A further initiative could be for Commonwealth citizens—young people graduating from United Kingdom universities, especially those from Africa and the Caribbean, particularly those who have studied law, history or politics—to offer to return to their native countries in the Commonwealth to help with the process of better governance. Sometimes, the elite who come to study in this country from the Commonwealth, although idealistic and anxious to provide for themselves and their families, have an obligation to provide for their country of birth and origin more advice and more effort. Within the ambit of funds presently available to the Commonwealth Secretariat, I would like to see the creation of Commonwealth fellows for graduates, perhaps trialled for just one year, the fortunate few returning to help the unfortunate many.

Secondly, I wish to comment on economic issues. I point out the obvious when I say that there is a great heritage within the Commonwealth of common English based on English antecedence, common commercial law and common financial law. At CHOGM in Malta, I would like to see agreement to take to the World Trade Organisation, which will meet in Hong Kong in December, a very clear message that trade barriers must come down. I think that most of your Lordships believe in the principle of free trade. The real devil is in the detail: the transitional provisions to allow developing and developed countries to benefit from greater free trade. The United Kingdom has long, hard, practical experience in negotiating in such matters, and I hope that we will take a lead.

Thirdly, I would like to see the private finance initiative—the principles that we have learnt and operated for the past decade in this country—transported to some countries in the Commonwealth, particularly as regards infrastructure. The very excellent report Business Environment Survey 2005, published by the Commonwealth Business Council, said that the private sector in this country viewed the lack of good infrastructure—I mean, principally roads—as a major impediment for investment in developing countries, particularly in Africa. I would like to see British construction companies using the PFI principle, building some of the roads using local labour and, rather like the Birmingham Northern Relief Road—one of the first toll roads to be built in this country for many years—for them to be repaid through government aid or through the revenues of the developing nations over perhaps 20 or 30 years.

Good road transportation brings agricultural produce to the ports. It helps with education, health, security and, above all, employment of local labour. In northern Uganda and Sierra Leone there are great problems with young people who have been caught up in conflict, have no job and are waiting for some form of constructive employment. Unless individual nations do something quickly about their predicament, there will be future trouble.

I know that my noble friend Lady Hooper, who wishes to contribute to this debate but may not be able to do so owing to other pressures, wanted to raise tertiary education for young people coming from Commonwealth territories. They have no tertiary education. I believe that my noble friend is right to argue for relief on tuition fees for people coming from those territories.

Finally, the good education of youngsters in the Commonwealth, particularly in Africa and the Caribbean, leads to greater racial and religious understanding. I was interested that Kofi Annan was reported to have said in Tunis yesterday that he would like to see greater export of information technology, particularly computers, to some of the poorer countries. Nowadays young people learn by using the world wide web and communicate through the Internet. We are wasting a great opportunity in this country. How many noble Lords change their own laptops every two or three years, and even those in the Houses of Parliament? What happens to the second-hand computers? Nothing. We could export to the Commonwealth an enormous wealth of equipment at a much lower cost than that for new equipment. I congratulate the Council for Education in the Commonwealth on pioneering the idea, as well as on its work, particularly in Sierra Leone.

I conclude by repeating that I am a strong supporter of the Commonwealth. It is a force for good. I have made some modest proposals for further improvement. I hope that the Minister will convey from this House to the meeting in Malta the strong support it maintains for the Commonwealth. Long may it thrive.

Photo of Lord Desai Lord Desai Labour 11:46 am, 17th November 2005

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for choosing this topic for debate. His choice is timely in the light of the Malta CHOGM conference to be held shortly. I want to speak briefly on three or four issues.

First, I strongly agree with the noble Lord on the importance of education, in particular what the Centre for Commonwealth Education is going to do. The centre is the result of a commitment made at the last CHOGM. I know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, will talk about the difficulties surrounding the financing of the centre because of certain problems at the Commonwealth Institute. I shall leave that issue to him, but I flag up the likelihood that there will be problems sustaining the centre unless care is taken to do something about it right now.

Secondly, I turn with sadness to the earthquake that has affected both sides of Kashmir and north-west Pakistan. It has been a severe and major disaster for the area. Relief operations are continuing and we have seen on our televisions how hard life there is going to be. The only matter I want to mention at this stage is that when the time comes to begin reconstruction, given that we now know how sensitive the region is to earthquakes, I hope that DfID and the other bodies concerned will take note and ensure that the new housing built there will be robust against such shocks in the future. Technology is available which can be used to build earthquake-proof houses. They should be used in the reconstruction effort, rather than build new stock which will fall down again. We should take care to utilise the latest and best technology.

Like many other things, the earthquake has had one or two good consequences, one of which has been the opening up of the Line of Control between the Indian and the Pakistani sides of Kashmir. It is only an emergency measure, but help in the relief work has also been coming from India to Pakistan. If in some way encouragement can be given at the Malta conference to the governments of India and Pakistan to keep the Line of Control open and to increase the exchange of people across the two borders, those would be welcome steps. There has been a thaw in relations between India and Pakistan on the question of Kashmir. The Indian Government have been consulting groups based in Kashmir itself on the Indian side who have been fighting for an autonomous Kashmir. That, too, marks a big step forward.

We need to sustain this improved relationship and do everything we can to increase the wealth of the people of Kashmir on both sides. I say that because the earthquake has demonstrated clearly that, whoever may be in the right in this dispute, the people of Kashmir are suffering. They have been neglected in terms of infrastructure, housing and so on and now is an opportunity for all of us to do much better. I hope that, without in any way interfering in the bilateral negotiations between India and Pakistan in regard to a settlement of their disputes, we will do as much as we can to help that process along.

As the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, quite rightly mentioned—I am summarising what he said—the Commonwealth is unique in that it is a global body. It is almost like a miniature, although better, version of the United Nations. This allows issues such as the millennium development goals to be pursued much more carefully and intensively at Commonwealth level than at the full United Nations level. I expect my noble friend will tell me from the Dispatch Box that attempts are made to monitor the progress of Commonwealth MDGs. We should have reports periodically from the Commonwealth on how well we are doing in that regard.

The noble Lord, Lord Freeman, said that the Commonwealth shares cricket but that there are other things to share. I cannot say that there could be better things to share than cricket. Perhaps every CHOGM should coincide with a big cricket match between England and the rest of the world.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Spokesperson in the Lords (Communities & Local Government), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 11:51 am, 17th November 2005

My Lords, we, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for introducing this debate, which foreshadows the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta next week.

As the noble Lord pointed out, the theme of this year's CHOGM is designed to highlight the role of information technology in development. It comes at a particularly appropriate time, when one cannot underestimate the impact of the global digital revolution in transforming lives in developing countries and bringing knowledge to remote areas of the globe. Moreover, its impact on the smaller member states of the Commonwealth—the Pacific islands, which are remote even by modern standards of travel—is enormous in that it links their educational establishments to higher education centres through the Commonwealth of Learning.

But—and there is always a "but" in technological advance—the role and use of technology will always be subservient to other, more essential, needs for many Commonwealth citizens, including the basic need for clean drinking water, for food and for drugs to inoculate against diseases that have been eradicated in the West for decades.

This brings me to one of the substantial points that I wish to make in the debate today: the question that nearly 2 billion citizens of the Commonwealth expect the United Kingdom to answer as it holds the presidencies of the European Union and the G8. That question is how we can reconcile our rhetoric with our deeds—over poverty and development, on the one hand, and our failure to arrive at an EU position consistent with our rhetoric in this regard apropos the forthcoming WTO negotiations, on the other.

We had the Prime Minister telling us as recently as the UN world summit in September that,

"if we end up with a failure in December, that will echo right round the world, and I am not prepared to have that, at least without the most monumental struggle".

While many on these Benches would applaud the Prime Minister's appetite for monumental struggles, most negotiators believe that persuasion is a more powerful tool to bring people round to your point of view.

But "struggle" is where we are in many aspects of the UK's presidency. There is little question that the cost of failure in Hong Kong will impact severely on the many developing countries within the Commonwealth, where European agricultural protection takes such a heavy toll. We regret the failure of persuasion by the UK, over several years, whereby we have one country—France—holding out against the gains of billions of people to protect the interests of a few hundreds of thousands. We hope that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will be able to reassure us that we, alongside Malta and Cyprus—countries that have a special responsibility through their membership of the Commonwealth and the EU—will do their utmost to persuade the French Government to move further in offering cuts to farm tariffs.

But Commonwealth leaders are right to look ahead in a positive manner at the Malta meeting. There are areas where the Commonwealth, due to its cohesion as a group, achieves far more than other intergovernmental organisations, as was said so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Freeman. In its emphasis on agreeing fundamental political values through the Singapore and, unfortunately named, Harare declarations, the Commonwealth puts down a firm marker for its members of the standards of democracy and human rights to be expected of them. Many in this House might wish to see such minimum standards adopted at the United Nations.

I should declare an interest here as I worked for the Commonwealth Secretariat from 1999 until 2003 and dealt with issues of governance, democracy and human rights. My period of service coincided with some of the more intractable problems in those regards—the military takeover in Pakistan and the rigging of elections in Zimbabwe, to note but two. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House will recall the energy and effort expended by Ministers in trying to resolve them. In Pakistan, it was to some extent pressure from the Commonwealth which brought about a transition to democracy. It is continuing vigilance on the part of the Commonwealth, which retains Pakistan on its ministerial "list" of transgressors, that secures its slow progress down the road towards full restoration of democracy.

Zimbabwe, and its continued downward spiral, has more painful lessons for the international community as a whole. While its suspension and eventual departure from the Commonwealth on the one hand exposed the weakness of such sanctions that exist, many of us would argue that, on the other, the conviction of Commonwealth members in saying that it had no place at their table was indeed a sign of solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe over its leaders. If its parting from the Commonwealth had no weight, why did its leaders try so hard to stay within the organisation?

Any failure of member states to conform to the fundamental values of human rights and democracy is a failure for all. It is to the credit of the Commonwealth that it gains as much value-added from its work in conflict resolution and democracy-building as it does from its small budget. Where democracy is embedded into the constitutional structure and value system of nations, there is little need for external mediation of disputes or light-touch conflict resolution. However, where it is newly embraced and the tradition of political pluralism is fragile, the work needed to assist with the resolution of differences between the executive and the opposition can be critical to political stability. This is where much of the Commonwealth's best work takes place, with the Secretary-General's good offices role in anticipating where problems might arise and where disputes need to be mediated.

Likewise, where peaceful transitions from government to opposition are part of the political culture, external election observers are merely symbolic. But where this practice is not fully embedded, an external endorsement that elections have represented the will of the people becomes critical to that country's future stability.

There is much need for work in this area among Commonwealth members. One has only to look at the prospect for a peaceful election in Uganda to see how fragile political systems still are in many countries. Will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House be able to reassure us that the UK will continue to press for the forthcoming elections in Uganda to be conducted in an atmosphere free from intimidation, violence and manipulation of electoral law? Will the Government also pledge themselves to increased financial assistance in these vital areas of the work of the Commonwealth?

In concluding, I will touch on the relevance of the Commonwealth in today's globalising world. But my question will be narrower: is the Commonwealth still relevant to the UK? Looking at the half-hearted approach of successive UK governments to the organisation, one is inclined to think that it is less and less so. We started some 60 years ago from Churchill's concentric circles of the US-UK special relationship overlapping with the UK's relations with the EU overlapping with the special role of the UK in the Commonwealth. We have moved far from those overlapping interests to a policy which can at best be described as indifferent.

So we cannot fight our friends' corner at the WTO; nor are we ready to pursue reform of the United Nations Security Council in the interests of our partners from within the Commonwealth. Ultimately, our energy in foreign policy seems dedicated to complying with the wishes of the one superpower in a uni-polar world.

Those in the Commonwealth who have witnessed this gradual change in the desire of the UK to be an active player in the Commonwealth must consider these changes too. I believe that the Commonwealth is indeed relevant, particularly to those smaller states which do not play a role on the international stage and which value the practical work done by the Commonwealth in their interests. Perhaps the FCO might be induced to review its long-term approach towards its Commonwealth partners in the light of its strategic goals and conclude that it needs a change of tack. We on these Benches await such a review and the more positive role that might emerge from that.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench 12:00 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, the topic chosen by the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, is most welcome and well timed.

Last Sunday, I was in Lesotho, so I attended the Armistice Day service in the capital, Maseru. It was a very moving open-air ceremony. Following a two-minute silence, wreaths were laid at the impressive war memorial by their Majesties the King and Queen, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the mayor of Maseru, the doyen of the diplomatic corps in Lesotho the Libyan ambassador, the High Commissioner for South Africa, the Chinese ambassador, the acting US ambassador, the so-called EU ambassador, and by consular representatives from Ireland, France, the United Nations, the African Union, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada, in that order. One of the many veterans present was the last to lay a wreath. It was touching to see that he had a small Union Jack flag flying from his black beret.

There were at least 150 veterans prominently seated near the memorial, some wearing their old uniforms. Some 1,400 hundred Basotho soldiers served in World War I and well over 21,000 in World War II. Following the withdrawal of the UK High Commissioner, surely Her Majesty's Government should still arrange a formal UK presence at this and similar annual services.

I was in Maseru to attend a CPTM dialogue, an annual event that alternates usually between an African country and Malaysia. CPTM— the Commonwealth Partnership for Technology Management—was set up a decade ago by CHOGM. It has a small headquarters, or hub, here in London. Apart from some funding to support the hub, CPTM works on a give-and-take networking basis, with members drawn from all corners of the world, contributing advice and ideas to others to help them with their activities.

Membership is widely drawn, not only from many different countries within the Commonwealth and some beyond the Commonwealth, but also from government, the private sector, labour, academia and the media. This Government gave £60,000 per annum at the start of their Administration, but no longer do so. An uncertain revenue stream for CPTM led to a decision two years ago to seek to raise a sum of around £11 million to provide a permanent home for the CPTM hub and a sufficient annual income to run it. A very commendable sum of around £5.4 million is now in CPTM's capital account and a further £1 million is pledged—all very creditable. A contribution from Her Majesty's Government would now be most welcome.

At CHOGM 03, the Commonwealth Secretary-General was tasked to consider the roles of CPTM and CBC, the Commonwealth Business Council. He is reporting to CHOGM 05 that CPTM continues to enjoy success and has solid support from those who work with it, including a number of Commonwealth member governments. It has a distinct and positive role to play in the family of Commonwealth organisations and should continue, he says, its important and valued work.

What, then, does CPTM do? Let me, in the time available, give just two examples of changes in southern Africa and elsewhere which have had their origins in the process of dialoguing. In 1997, the dialogue was hosted by Botswana. The concept of peace parks—areas which cross national borders and assist in the management of wildlife and the advancement of tourism, for example—was first discussed. This has now blossomed. There are 169 peace parks in 113 countries in Africa and Asia.

A 1999 dialogue at Victoria Falls discussed the problems that tourists met when national requirements for visas complicated movement in southern Africa. Wild animals do not observe national boundaries, yet are one of the many exciting reasons for a visit to Africa. A freer regime for immigration control is now in place. Such changes achieve a win-win outcome which is of benefit to all. A driving idea behind the dialogues and the work of CPTM is to seek ways of being fair and benefiting all parties involved. Rather than winner-take-all, it is a prosper-my-neighbour approach. CPTM espouses these ideals in the phrase "smart partnership".

Although CPTM assists, it falls to the hosting country to draw up the guest list and to make the many arrangements required to run a three or four-day dialogue attended by 500 or more people. For Lesotho this year as for many others it is a major challenge requiring a great deal of time and effort. Woven into the formal arrangements are opportunities for attendees to see and appreciate the mix of business, cultural and artistic talents of the hosting nation and its region. All involved deserve great credit for what they achieve.

One of many significant features of dialogues is the attendance of heads of state or government and former heads who have been attracted by smart partnership. From Commonwealth countries last week we had the presidents of Namibia and Mozambique; the new Deputy President of South Africa; a number of Commonwealth prime ministers including Prime Minister Badawi from Malaysia; former heads including President Sir Ketumile Masire, President Chissano and Prime Minister Dr Mahathir. All individually and collectively play a very active part, mixing freely with all others at the dialogue. It is a unique opportunity for them to meet, listen and participate in the discussions that form the central part of every dialogue. There is also a so-called Club 29, made up of younger smart partners, who make their own challenging contributions in the dialogue sessions. PFI, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, was also discussed last week.

Between dialogues, CPTM will assist in work of national interest in a variety of Commonwealth countries. For example, Lesotho's Vision 2020 was drawn up with help from CPTM members in a number of other countries. President Museveni of Uganda is another very supportive partner. He was not in Maseru, but I met him two weeks ago here at the CPTM hub. He will bring the importance of CPTM to the attention of heads at CHOGM next week in Malta. There is great value in CPTM for developing countries of the Commonwealth. It deserves to be given the essential financial support to keep it going and to allow it to spread its smart partnership message for the good of the Commonwealth.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 12:08 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, I echo the thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for introducing this debate. We should emphasise that the Commonwealth is an extraordinary resource for the United Kingdom. It hugely enriches our experience in many areas of life. It is the envy of many European countries, particularly in the university world. In the world of science, engineering and industry, the UK gains enormously from the Commonwealth, including the new Commonwealth. One of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century is Ramanujan from India. When I was at the Met Office, Professor Chan of Hong Kong University provided the key idea to improve the Met Office's forecasts of tropical cyclones, which, as I have mentioned before in this Chamber, was the most accurate forecast of Hurricane Katrina.

We need to understand and appreciate the Commonwealth more. Culture is, of course, a remarkable dimension of that, and we now have bestseller novels and films coming from all over the Commonwealth. One is very pleased to see them coming from Africa as well as from south Asia. But I believe that we need to strengthen further our links with Commonwealth countries, strengthen institutions and make better use of our existing arrangements. Perhaps because so much of the new Commonwealth was born out of struggle, it can help in the complex world to reduce misunderstandings.

I have been privileged to see a little bit of how the Commonwealth emerged, as I enjoyed an exotic childhood in India, in the colonial era, with dancing cobras on the floor on Christmas day. I was present at Merdeka in Malaya in 1957, when the guerrilla war was still under way. The United Kingdom's deputy high commissioner was asked to play on his piano for the Tunku Abdul Rahman Benjamin Britten's submission for the national anthem in an international competition; you can imagine that Benjamin Britten's submission was characteristic but unsuitable, and Malaya decided instead to slow down a local dance tune, which is still the national anthem. The deputy high commissioner was my father.

In the 1960s, I saw an interesting aspect of the development of independence, with the Ugandan army not always working correctly as that country was tormented by crises following independence.

In my career as an academic, working at the Met Office and as president of an NGO, I have made many visits to Commonwealth countries—14 in all—and worked with many colleagues at universities here in the UK. I was in Accra last week in a conference on coastal zones of sub-Saharan Africa, where we were bringing together technical people, including scientists and local government people.

I shall make a few specific points on which the Minister might comment in her reply. First, as I have said before in this Chamber, we have many visiting experts coming to the UK, some of them to provide information to us but some of them to learn from our institutions. I believe that we have an inadequate way of introducing them—in fact, we do not introduce them—to the culture and history aspects of the UK. They come here and have a technical and academic experience and then go away. Last week we heard about the tragic expert who came to the University of Reading, learned about explosives and automatic systems and was one of the people involved in the bad events in Indonesia.

The United States does much more to introduce people to the whole aspect of that country. Even mathematicians and scientists are told about the constitution of America. I am afraid that there seems still to be a feeling in Britain that if you are a mathematician, when you come to Britain you should just stay in your lab. I should remind noble Lords that the current Prime Minister of Singapore is a mathematician who was trained in Cambridge—so mathematicians can be quite important!

My second point arises from our meetings last week with mayors of cities in Ghana. They commented that twinning cities is a very valuable way in which to share experience. There are two cities in Ghana that are twinned with cities in the UK. The high commissioner there commented that the process of facilitating and improving that system may need further work; I hope that the DfID could do that, as it is certainly called for in those countries. The Minister of Tourism and Modernisation of the capital city in Ghana commented that the city of Accra has three town planning officers and that the city of London has many hundreds, while Amsterdam has 600. He believes that our town planning and local government experts could perhaps be seconded to help with the extremely complex issues which arise when dealing with the urban areas in Africa.

Thirdly, in non-governmental organisations, networks are flourishing, but more help needs to be given. It is interesting that the Commonwealth is not exclusive—it works with other networks—and in Africa the NePAD network is beginning to help in working with Commonwealth initiatives. I believe that we need to work wherever there are appropriate local networks. Academic support was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, with regard to the role of computers, which is very important. It is a tragedy to see academic and technical institutions in Africa having almost no scientific literature provided, when libraries here are throwing that out and it is not being circulated. There are projects for that, but it still does not seem to be getting through.

My noble friend Lord Desai talked about natural disasters, which, along with climate change, are an important area, and not only for future emergencies. One of the real causes of concern is shortages of food as the climate changes. UK government agencies can provide the expertise to help and they could do more, with encouragement from central government. There always seems to be a budgetary problem in Whitehall about that. We have seen the RAF doing excellent work in India, but I believe that our government agencies could be encouraged more.

Finally, I have a political question for the Minister that has not been raised: what are the rules for joining and leaving the Commonwealth? Mozambique is now in the Commonwealth, but I believe that Hong Kong is not. In fact, when I was at the Met Office, there was the interesting business of ensuring that Hong Kong remained as an independent member of many of the UN agencies. It is hosting the World Trade Organisation because it is in the World Meteorological Organisation. I believe it is no longer in the Commonwealth, however, and that affects people in their eligibility for arrangements in the UK. Do we have an arrangement for those countries that, for special reasons, leave the Commonwealth, so that they have some associate category? That may be important.

Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative 12:16 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, I join those who have spoken in thanking my noble friend Lord Freeman for giving us this opportunity. I decline, if I may, the opportunity to answer the question just posed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, but I follow his example with a little reminiscence about one's own associations with the Commonwealth. Mine go back, I am afraid, to when I was nine years old.

Like all those who attended Sunday school at Carmel chapel in Aberavon, I was given a card with a message from His Majesty King George V on his Silver Jubilee. I still have it, although I could not possibly find it. On it was the sentence,

"I ask you to remember that in the days to come you will be the citizens of a great empire".

Little did I imagine then that I would be lucky enough, 11 or 12 years later, to spend two years serving in east Africa with African troops, most of whom, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, has illustrated, served in the East African Division in the Burma campaign, some of whom came to Britain for the victory parade, and some of whom I tried to instruct in my limited Swahili about the difference between Bwana "Kingy George" and Bwana Joe Stalin.

Some 40 years later, I had scarcely dreamt that I should be attending my first CHOGM meeting in New Delhi in 1983 alongside my noble friend Lady Thatcher. My noble friend Lord Freeman has said everything about the quality of discussion in those meetings: open, candid and constructive as nowhere else in the world, between representatives of every kind of sample of the human race. We discussed Grenada from very different points of view, but not challenging the conclusion offered by the then Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew: that the Americans ought not to have done it, but he was glad they did. Only the Commonwealth could produce that kind of judgment. Most impressively, my noble friend Lady Thatcher, in dialogue with Indira Gandhi and Julius Nyerere, was able to persuade them of her genuine commitment to progress in the search for nuclear disarmament.

My noble friend Lord Freeman touched on a feature that has always struck me as valuable. When I went from Commonwealth finance ministers' meetings to meetings of the International Monetary Fund, I think I had an understanding of the problems of the rest of the world that was not available to other finance ministers—not least the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I turn from those general observations to a much smaller issue—namely, the position of the Commonwealth Institute, as trailed by the noble Lord, Lord Desai. As the House will know, it was founded in 1886 for the benefit of education in what was then the Empire, and is now the Commonwealth. It now faces a wholly unmanageable conflict between its commitments and aspirations and its resources. I am not concerned to allocate responsibility for the present unsatisfactory situation, some of which rests upon me. My noble friend Lord Hurd has observed that it is a story from which none of us emerges with great credit. I am anxious only to help us find the right way forward with the aid of the Government. The commitment of the institute is very specific—and was endorsed by Heads of Government at the CHOGM in 2003—namely, the establishment in Cambridge of the centre for commonwealth education, to which the noble Lord, Lord Desai, referred. Two years later that project is still hanging fire. That cannot be reconciled with the resources available to the institute, if any are available. It has no income flow whatever and has had none for at least a year. The only significant "asset" is the building off Kensington High Street, built in the late 1950s as a fresh home when Her Majesty's Government took over its old home in Kensington Gore. An additional burden was added to the task of maintaining that building when it was granted Grade II star listed status in 1988. That happened during my reign—if that is not the wrong word—at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. So far as I can discover it happened without my knowledge or consent, but it certainly happened during my watch and I accept responsibility for it.

I gave the late Lord Braine a false premise for why we had gone along with what we discovered had happened. I wrote in a letter to him in 1989:

"The implications may be advantageous to the institute in that . . . it may be eligible for additional grant assistance for maintenance and repairs".

I could not have been more wrong. The subsequent history has totally shattered that illusion. In 2002, with the best of intentions, my noble friend Lord Blaker and the Leader of the House took part in a debate on the Commonwealth Act which fulfilled a joint aspiration—as it seems—on the part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to shed responsibility for the institute, and on the part of the institute to achieve a kind of total independence.

For whatever reason the "dowry" that the Foreign Office conferred upon the institute fell far short of the cost of fulfilling the statutory obligation to restore and maintain the building. Within the past 18 months, with everyone's general consent, application was made to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport for the building to be delisted so as to free itself of that burden. I urge the Government to give full support to that prospect, because it seems to me to be the only way out of the present situation in which the institute is bereft of resources to fulfil its purpose. The outcome of a series of public Acts of this Parliament was that the trustees could not pursue a remedy by means of a Private Bill, which would be far too complicated. However, the matter is urgent. Indeed, it is urgent enough for a solution to be sought before the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Valletta next week. Unless we seek an answer along those lines any value that may be left in the site and the building will redound to the benefit—who knows when?—of some unknown property developer, and certainly not to the benefit of the youth of the Commonwealth, which is its objective.

The Government are well aware of the issues that I raise. They are under discussion. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, has given personal attention to them. However, I urge the Government with as much energy and vigour as I can command to find a solution that really will resolve this and will crack the problem rather than postponing it along the lines of the rather imperfect decisions that have been taken so far.

Photo of Lord Jones of Cheltenham Lord Jones of Cheltenham Liberal Democrat 12:24 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, on introducing this timely debate. I speak as a great supporter of the Commonwealth. I particularly commend the work of the staff at the British high commissions around the Commonwealth, including officials at the Department for International Development. They do a splendid job, often with inadequate resources, particularly in the commercial field. Of course, here in Parliament we are well served by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which arranges meetings with visitors from the Commonwealth and sends delegations of MPs and Lords to Commonwealth countries on what are usually very demanding schedules. The Government get good value from the voluntary overtime that parliamentarians put in when they join those delegations. The CPA also keeps a watchful eye on the large number of all-party country groups; I know that because I was instrumental in setting up the All-Party Group on Botswana a few years ago. I highly recommend membership of the CPA to any noble Lords who are not already members.

I mentioned Botswana a moment ago, and I declare my interest in Botswana—it is in the Register. Africa is moving up the political agenda, and I congratulate the Prime Minister on putting it there, because he seems to believe that Africa should get better resources than it has. Whenever I come back from Africa, water is uppermost in my mind. Many African countries are very dry and suffer long droughts. There is evidence that climate change is not only reducing rainfall but leading to a fall in the water table. Millions of Africans do not have access to clean water, which leads to malnutrition, disease and crop failure. On my first visit to Africa, which was to Kenya with the CPA, I remember being told by a Member of Parliament from the north of the country how his constituents dealt with their water shortage. Women—it was always women—would get up in the morning and walk 10 miles to fill up buckets, walk 10 miles back, cook the evening meal, eat, go to bed, then get up in the morning and go and get water. That is not living; that is a grinding existence.

I visited Uganda a few years ago, again with the CPA, where I met members of the Jinja Rotary Club, which is twinned with the Sunrise Rotary Club in Cheltenham. They showed me some of their projects, including securing water from a natural spring by installing pipes and concrete. The local people told me that there had been no rain and there was only a trickle of water dripping from the pipes. I remember saying, "I'll see what I can do", which in retrospect was a ridiculous thing to say. However, within half an hour we experienced the most dramatic thunderstorm and cloudburst, which went on for two hours or more. For the rest of the time we were in Uganda we took every opportunity to claim credit for bringing the rain.

I know that water supply is not one of our Government's priorities, but it ought to be pushed higher up the priority list. The UK has many excellent water companies and engineers who are able to help dry countries to use their water supply better and give advice on putting in place infrastructure—dams, pipes, boreholes—which would improve the situation. The most important point is to help to train local Africans to maintain and expand their system of water conservation and recycling. Africans must design African solutions for African problems.

Another aspect of African development which we have already heard about and which is important is the spread of democracy. I have taken part in a number of election monitoring missions in Africa: to South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Ghana, Gambia and Sierra Leone. My week in Sierra Leone was the toughest of my life. There was little food, no clean water and lots of mosquitoes. I lost a stone in weight, and when I came home my wife tried to send me back for another week so I would lose another stone. In each of the elections that I have observed, I have been struck by the enthusiasm of the voters to take part. Long queues formed everywhere, and people waited patiently for their turn; they knew it was important to vote.

There are good examples of young democracies flourishing. I was present in Ghana when there was a peaceful change of government following the retirement of President Rawlings, the military man who seized power twice in coups. Discussion is going on in several countries about different ways of counting votes to reflect minorities. The Government should continue to help young democracies in setting up democratic, independent electoral commissions. I look forward to taking part in future election monitoring missions.

I would like to say a few words about the British Overseas Territories, in which I take a great interest, and particularly to say something about St Helena, which is one of the smallest members of the Commonwealth. My former constituency of Cheltenham has had a 30-year education link with the island. St Helena has seen a massive reduction in population in recent years, to such an extent that many saw little future for the island. The only regular and fairly reliable access is the remaining Royal Mail ship still in use, the RMS "St Helena", which takes five days to get from Cape Town to St Helena. I visited the island and Ascension with the CPA in 2003, and was struck that the island's community was drifting away because there were few career opportunities. There is a desperate need for more rapid access and I am delighted that the UK Government have decided to build an airport, which has long been talked about.

The island offers much to tourists, including visitors from France. Napoleon's home is still in existence, and French people are likely to flock there to see where their once-great hero lived. Around the island, there are the remains of more than 1,000 shipwrecks to attract divers, a reminder of the pivotal part that St Helena once played as a refuelling point for vessels of the East India Company.

Noble Lords may have read the unfortunate article in the Sunday Times by the normally reliable environment editor Jonathan Leake, who seems to have got his facts twisted. The article states that a,

"hotel and golf complex . . . would cover up to 15 per cent of the green belt".

That is nonsense. It might take up 1 per cent of the delightfully named Broad Bottom site where the airport and leisure complex are likely to be built, but the environment overall will be much improved.

Noble Lords will know that I made my maiden speech a few weeks ago on the subject of frozen pensions. I would like to press the noble Baroness the Leader of the House on the issue. It seems odd that people who have paid the same contributions towards their pensions are not given the same benefits when they retire, wherever they retire. That applies particularly to the overseas territories.

I encourage all colleagues in this and the other House to visit the Commonwealth whenever they get the chance. Its people are always pleased to see us. I mentioned that my own interest is in Botswana, which provides fantastic resorts for tourists as well as having some of the gentlest people in the world.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Government Whip

My Lords, I respectfully remind noble Lords that this is a timed debate. We are going over time, and my noble friend will not have enough time to provide the answers that have been requested.

Photo of Lord Blaker Lord Blaker Conservative 12:32 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Freeman on initiating the debate. Zimbabwe is not in the Commonwealth, but I believe that almost all noble Lords would like to see it come back into it once it resumes a regime that respects the principles of the Commonwealth. Unfortunately, Zimbabwe's conditions are moving further away from achieving that position rather than closer to it. The proportion of the population below the poverty line has now reached 80 per cent. Expectation of life has dropped from above 70 years to below 40. A quarter of the population have fled, including many of the best educated and most able people; I doubt whether they will all go back. The World Economic Forum has rated Zimbabwe as the least competitive of 117 countries that it assessed.

I want to talk particularly about the report by Anna Tibaijuka, who was appointed by the United Nations to investigate the clearances of various inhabited areas in Zimbabwe of housing and businesses. The local language describes the clearances as "Operation Clearing Rubbish"; I call them "Operation Eviction and Destruction", as 700,000 people have been made homeless and lost their businesses. Altogether, 2.4 million people are affected. The report has been debated by the UN Security Council on the initiative of Her Majesty's Government, and I congratulate them on that. Unfortunately, the debate took place in private, but the report has been published and is extremely valuable.

It is interesting that this event has established a role for the United Nations which we on this side of the House have been urging the Government to pursue for a long time. The report proposes various steps of reconstruction and resettlement that should be vigorously followed. Other UN organisations can be used now that the precedent has been set. The International Crisis Group suggests that Zimbabwe's regional neighbours should make clear their expectation that Zimbabwe should implement fully the recommendations of the report, and that the African Union should encourage the African Commission on Human and People's Rights to investigate whether the operation breached Zimbabwe's obligations under the African Union's human rights charter.

The Commonwealth is a very suitable body for playing a part in resolving the Zimbabwe problem, but a change in the attitude of the Commonwealth leaders—especially those in Africa—is needed. It has been a puzzle for many for a long time why the African leaders are so reluctant to take the steps that would be effective. That is in spite of the obligations that they have assumed in the NePAD treaty, the African Union treaty and the SADC treaty, all of which oblige them to observe human rights, the rule of law and good governance, and to exercise peer pressure to that effect. When I asked President Obasanjo recently why the reluctance existed, he said that the reason was land. That was taken by the meeting that I attended as implicit criticism of United Kingdom governments.

In fact, Her Majesty's governments have in succession had a creditable role in relation to financing the transfer of land. Between 1980 and 1985, the United Kingdom provided £47 million for land resettlement in Zimbabwe. In following years, successive United Kingdom governments have been ready to resume assistance in financing land transfer, leading to a conference in 1998 in which all major international donors took part. But that conference was met by indifference on the part of Zimbabwe. At Abuja in 2001, agreement was reached on a scheme of land resettlement and accepted by Zimbabwe, among others, only to be repudiated within weeks by Mr Mugabe.

Thinking over the history that has led to the violent and terrible situation now in Zimbabwe, I came across a copy of a document—I have every reason to believe that it is authentic—that might shed some light on why President Obasanjo gave me the reply that he did. It is dated 5 November 1997, is addressed to the Minister of Agriculture and Land in Zimbabwe, and states:

"I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new Government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish and as you know we were colonised not colonisers . . . I am told there were discussions in 1989 and 1996 to explore the possibility of further assistance. However that is all in the past".

The letter would certainly have become known to other African leaders. It will have fuelled such suspicions as they had about the intentions of the British nation to help them in the transfer of land. It is interesting that the letter was followed by the failure of the 1998 conference. The letter was signed by Clare Short, then Secretary of State for International Development.

There will be many other important matters to be discussed at the Commonwealth meeting, but I hope that Zimbabwe will not be omitted. It is a very suitable subject for the Commonwealth to debate, and it would be a great pity if it were left out. If the Commonwealth has the will, it is well placed to help to resolve the problem of Zimbabwe, which is so serious for all of southern Africa—indeed, for Africa as a whole.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 12:40 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, has already said that the Commonwealth is unique and a force for good. I agree. It is a subtle and effective channel of diplomacy, an institution which quietly makes connections and gets on with the business. In the current world trade talks, with members from every major trading group, the Commonwealth is a significant player. The CHOGM agenda will highlight trade and development at a critical time, with the likelihood of another breakdown of talks in Hong Kong which, of course, will affect the poorest countries most.

The forthcoming summit will again focus on Africa. Some 18 Commonwealth countries are in Africa—one third of the Commonwealth's membership and two thirds of the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries (ACP). We have heard on many occasions that the African continent is the most vulnerable part of our planet and the noble Lord, Lord Jones, has given some examples. I was grateful to my noble friend Lord May for highlighting Africa in last week's climate change debate. This Government have given greater priority to Africa and have increased their aid budget and debt relief, but the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, will agree that not nearly enough has happened on trade.

I have worked mainly with civil society organisations which have campaigned for genuine changes in trade through the Trade Justice campaign, which lobbied Parliament earlier this month. The Commission for Africa supported many of those changes at a high level, mainly through NePAD and the peer review mechanism, which includes the involvement of civil society. The Commonwealth summit is bound to endorse those. And yet the G8 summit was a disappointment for most trade campaigners because, seen by the poorest countries through the prism of negotiations and endless promises, there are still no visible signs of progress for them. The chances of the EU during the Doha round finding any new formula for reducing agricultural subsidies that will satisfy both the French farmers and developing countries seem remote, as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, mentioned.

Yet at the same time the EU is preparing to go ahead with its economic partnership agreements under WTO rules, which, without proper safeguards will directly hurt the ACP countries. That will occur in spite of the assurances in the Cotonou agreement, which was specifically intended to preserve the existing arrangements and protect the most vulnerable countries from globalisation and free trade. That will happen in spite of the laudable efforts of this Government.

The Commonwealth has called again and again for the phasing out of export subsidies, for the reduction of trade-distorting domestic support, for goods produced in the developed world, and for increasing market access for goods from the developing world. The summit will be a further opportunity for the poorest and least developed countries to press for special and differential treatment, especially those saddled with high export/debt ratios, dependent on one or two commodities, and with no prospect of diversification. It means lower tariff reductions, longer implementation periods of WTO rules, which is very important, and expanded technical assistance and support for individual countries that are adversely affected by loss of trade preferences.

The UK is in the forefront of those negotiations, not just because of the EU presidency, but because of its position in the world economy and its long track record. It enjoys one of Europe's fastest-growing rates of FDI—four times that of Africa, according to the latest UNCTAD report. However, it is precisely because of our experience of developing countries that they are expecting more active support.

But that is not a foregone conclusion. The DTI and DfID have had some difficulty reconciling free and fair trade. DfID has supported important research into alternatives to economic partnership agreements, such as new generalised system of preferences. I have read the Government's response to the Select Committee report on fair trade and I know that the Government have circulated that research, but do they themselves recommend the revised GSP as the way forward? Will the "Everything But Arms" (EBA) agreement conflict with the EU's plan for regional partnership agreements and greater regional integration among the ACP countries? Will the latest "EBA plus" solution exempt the least-developed countries from reciprocal market access under WTO rules, and how will Her Majesty's Government persuade the EU to get round this? These are questions with which DfID has grappled but have not yet been crystallised or answered by the Commission.

The EU position is that ACP countries must be encouraged to enter a partnership agreement or a regional partnership agreement, because they are the only WTO-compatible options. The Singapore issues are still on the table, and it seems that even DfID is expecting the most vulnerable countries to fall in line with the key principle of reciprocity. In their response to the fair trade report, the Government accepted that until they entered an "Everything But Arms" agreement, no ACP state should enjoy worse access to the EU than under Cotonou and that the EBA could extend even beyond LDCs. What they cannot accept is that the economic partnership agreement itself is inappropriate for those countries.

These are complex, technical issues. Winston Cox, the Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, responsible for development, has warned that these various agreements will overstretch the negotiating capacity of most ACP countries which, he says, urgently need to translate potential gains into actual, practical gains—especially in areas such as agriculture. The "hubs and spokes" projects to train and provide regional trade advisers in this context are one of the best examples of the Commonwealth at work.

Finally, will the Government give their full backing to plans outlined recently by the Commonwealth Policy Studies Unit to encourage more civil society support for the APRM? The Commonwealth stands for all the qualities that we hold most dear in the world. In a dangerous world, not least in Africa, it has an impressive record of achievement that goes back several decades. It already has a close partnership with the European Union and it is improving its links with Francophone countries. That is another important aspect that has not been mentioned. The Commonwealth is the best vehicle for negotiating trade agreements at this time, and for ending the WTO stalemate. We must make the most of it.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative 12:47 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, whose very name has been imprinted on my mind as an island archipelago since an early childhood atlas.

It is highly imaginative and timeous of my noble friend Lord Freeman to have secured this debate in advance of that unlyrically christened instrument, CHOGM; although the word "chogm" in Malta has the pulse of a powerful marine engine that we must hope will metaphorically eventuate there. In that context, I endorse with enthusiasm my noble friend's thesis that CHOGM should concert a common position in advance of the WTO "tradefest" in Hong Kong, just as I applaud his anatomisation of the Commonwealth at large.

Others in your Lordships' House have joined my noble friend in wishing to see us use the Commonwealth's collective history and political geography as a force for practical good in an uncertain world. In the midst of such uncertainty, the stability and familiarity of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth relationship—I allude to relations between other Commonwealth countries, apart from ourselves—is not only a reassurance but a sure basis for further exploration.

My own positiveness is rooted in a gap half-year after a postgraduate degree at Harvard, whence I returned to London by what are now 16 independent members of the Commonwealth in north America, Australasia, Africa and the oceans. The prime motivation in 1959 was to see those countries before we joined the EEC, whenever that might have been. But that motivation had been stimulated at Oxford through being a rareish British member of the Ralegh club, which for the benefit of the Hansard reporter, is spelt R, A, L, E, G, H. This consisted mainly of Commonwealth Rhodes scholars and met under Chatham House rules on Sunday nights to hear great men speak about the Commonwealth. I recall evenings with Alan Lennox-Boyd, then Colonial Secretary, K M Pannikar and J K Galbraith, whose own origins were Canadian, before he became the American Ambassador in India.

One of the countries I visited, in the days before Tanganyika and Zanzibar were united, was Tanzania. Last year, I went back with a CPA delegation and I was struck by how the personal relations within the political classes of both countries remain so close and vibrant between us. The index of heads of state in Commonwealth countries educated in the United Kingdom took another turn when the Tanzanian Prime Minister reminded our CPA delegation colleague, Mrs Valerie Davey, then Labour MP for Bristol West, that in the mid-1960s she had taught him in Tanzania—rather than in the UK.

In 1959, in Tanganyika, I visited Bagomoyo on the coast, the town through which some 19th century British explorers of Africa set out on their journeys and through which the body of Livingstone was carried back to the sea. We did not go there last year, but I remember the archaeological investigations occurring there 45 years earlier into Arab buildings, and that prompts my contribution today.

Other Members of your Lordship's House are picking up the threads of my noble friend Lord Freeman in exploring how the Commonwealth can exploit our mutual past in today's circumstances for political ends. I want to ventilate how we might strengthen and renew the links in cultural ways to reinforce the possibility of political opportunities. I am thinking, in particular, of collaboration to enhance our mutual heritage in the built environment. Of course, there may be exports, like the stone from the quarries of Portland which provide the headstones for all the Commonwealth war graves in the world or the wrought iron which went out as ballast in returning Australian wool clipper ships to make Melbourne, with New Orleans, one of the greatest cities in the world for wrought iron architecture. But I am thinking more of technical services and marketing expertise—only, of course, if they are welcomed—in restoring the Commonwealth's built environment, whether imperial or otherwise, where these are the keys to tourist success, as India has already proved.

Last night, at the Heritage Counts dinner, I sat next to a senior English Heritage officer who has himself taken 5,000 photographs of colonial architecture. The catalogues of British book auction houses are likewise full of photographs of the imperial past. My own great-grand-uncle who, like a good sapper officer, painted watercolours in the Crimea, was one of the earliest photographers in Mauritius where, in his sapper capacity, he was building the roads, the port, the magistrates' court and the prison.

If we can build a Commonwealth facility, possibly through a charitable vehicle under Commonwealth auspices, to display and to enhance our mutual heritage, we shall not only do economic good, but also increase the knowledge we have of each other and the reasons why the Commonwealth, in the familiar words of 1066 and All That, is a good thing.

In advancing this cultural salient, I take comfort from cricket, which others have mentioned. This country's particularly salient contributions to global civilisation have lain in political common sense and lyric poetry, which come together in the game of cricket, itself one of the few international sports to have laws rather than rules. It has been one of the binding threads of the Commonwealth, appealing remarkably to a diverse series of national temperaments.

But above all, we must capitalise on the Commonwealth's capacity for good humour and good-natured debate. At a Commonwealth education ministers' conference in Nicosia in the early 1980s, I once had to defend the British policy of charging full costs for overseas student fees, even if those full costs in an admirably ambiguous British way, were never precisely defined. In intensity of assault, the occasion was a rerun of the action at the mission station at Rorke's Drift, but I shall never forget how good humour made it an enjoyable and not merely a memorable event for myself, in which all of us remained friends.

Photo of Baroness Prashar Baroness Prashar Crossbench 12:54 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for securing this very timely debate and for providing us with an opportunity to debate the UK's relations with the Commonwealth, as the Commonwealth leaders gather for next week's summit in Malta. I enthusiastically support what the noble Lord has said and I want to underline the three areas where action was indicated.

At the outset, I declare my interest in and my wholehearted commitment to the Commonwealth. In an age of multiple identities, a unifying factor for me has been the Commonwealth. More particularly, I have been a member of the Royal Commonwealth Society and since 2002 a trustee and its chairman. Therefore, my contribution will be mainly about the role of non-governmental organisations or civil society in the Commonwealth.

I start where eyes are set and that is Malta, where the opening of the Commonwealth People's Forum will precede the start of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting at the end of the week. The capacity of non-governmental organisations for connection and for consensus-building has always been a particular Commonwealth strength and I very much look forward to being there and seeing it fully utilised in Malta.

The first area where the Commonwealth can provide movement and partnership is in building on the work of the G8 summit and the recent UN Millennium Summit in reviewing and achieving the millennium development goals and giving fresh impetus to the poverty and development agenda. As has already been said, it is also vital that the Commonwealth prepares to use its significant membership of the WTO because in 1999, Commonwealth leaders meeting in Durban made an important contribution to the world trade agenda and in the same way Malta can provide an effective input into the Hong Kong trade talks due in December this year. In doing so, I hope that they will listen to what comes out of the people's forum.

Secondly, the previous Commonwealth summit in Abuja in Nigeria was dominated by debate about Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe may have left the Commonwealth but the people of Zimbabwe have not. Commonwealth links endure in a myriad ways, through doctors, journalists, lawyers, academics and so on. Those connections to the people in Zimbabwe continue and we should work for them so that the people of Zimbabwe, in time, can resume their rightful place in the Commonwealth.

That brings me to the role of Commonwealth NGOs. As I said earlier, next week will provide a unique opportunity for 53 sovereign nations from all parts of the globe, representing a quarter of the world's people, to make a mark on global issues. It will also be a great demonstration of the power and the reach of a Commonwealth civil society. The Commonwealth People's Forum, which will be organised by the Commonwealth Foundation, which I shall be joining next week, is a great gathering of that other dimension of the Commonwealth, the people's Commonwealth. The initiator of the idea of a parallel Commonwealth forum at CHOGM and its first organiser at the Edinburgh summit was, of course, the Royal Commonwealth Society. Issues of extremism, liberty, tolerance, development and information technology will be on the agenda. In all those issues non-governmental organisations can make a significant contribution but often that potential is not always realised.

I believe that the UK Government can do more and provide leadership in that area within the Commonwealth context to help people improve relations between communities and citizens in this country, as we have already heard through sport, culture and youth activities, which are the obvious channels for that purpose. In my capacity as chair of the Royal Commonwealth Society, I see the work that we carry out in central London where we have led developments on youth CHOGMs where people are given the practical experience of how democracy and the rule of law work in practice. We are developing young people and promoting policy debate and we are ensuring that there is better dialogue, communication and understanding.

It is sad, and a strange irony, that the Commonwealth is least appreciated and understood in the way that it should be. It is not on the radar screen of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; it is only there when there is a problem, such as with Zimbabwe, but it is never positively promoted. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, is very committed and is keen that this dimension is not just on the radar screen of the FCO but is also on those of other government departments. I hope that she will urge the Government to approach Malta in a positive and optimistic spirit to help that meeting realise its potential and to ensure that it gives the leadership and support that civil society and NGOs require. I hope that the message from this House will be that we do not just work at inter-governmental level, but we also make sure that the people of the Commonwealth connect through civil society activities.

Photo of Baroness Gardner of Parkes Baroness Gardner of Parkes Conservative 1:00 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Freeman for bringing this debate to the House today. It has been fascinating to hear from so many noble Lords who have wide-ranging knowledge and experience of the Commonwealth. My comments will come from my own direct experience as the only ever Australian woman Member of your Lordships' House. I have been here for more than 24 years. At the beginning, a number of senior Peers said how nice it was to have a colonial Member—a word that was out-of-date even then. There are currently three Australian Members of this House: the noble Lords, Lord May and Lord Broers, and me. I know that the noble Lord, Lord May, is also British, but I do not know the situation of the noble Lord, Lord Broers. I am Australian only, because, until recently, Australia would revoke one's nationality if one applied for citizenship of another country. But this country is so tolerant that it will allow members of the Commonwealth to take part in politics at any level and to stand for election for any office. Unfortunately, the reverse situation does not exist in many Commonwealth countries. It is a great tribute to Britain that this tolerance exists here.

The Commonwealth is a family of nations spread throughout the world, each responsible for its own affairs, but each closely tied to Britain by more than tradition. In the month of November, we cannot forget the sacrifices made and the lives lost by the Commonwealth in the two World Wars. Other noble Lords have referred to them. A few years ago, I was at a moving remembrance service in Kenya, when tall, stooped old men of the King's African Rifles put down the umbrellas protecting them from the fierce sun to step forward and lay their wreaths. It is more than the old who are moved by the history of what happened in the past and the closeness of Commonwealth countries. Young Australians in ever-increasing numbers go to Gallipoli for the dawn service on Anzac Day. Many young people now join the service at the new Australian War Memorial at Hyde Park Corner.

In trade, it is not just wine and tourism. Australia and Britain are closely linked, but I do not intend to speak about this, as my noble friend Lord Goodlad, who was a wonderful British High Commissioner in Canberra, is next in the list of speakers. When I lived in Sydney—here I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, as I believe we have more cast iron than Melbourne, but there is a great rivalry between those two cities—the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, was then high commissioner. In the 1960s, he was a founder of the Britain-Australia Society, which grows stronger here every year and has a large number of new members.

Britain has given a parliamentary and legal system to the Commonwealth that has proved to be invaluable. In this year, the less I say about the Ashes, the better. I am afraid that I fail the Tebbit test, so noble Lords can tell what my reaction was. Famous Australian actresses, scientists, businessmen and women have made their names in Britain. Until they received recognition here, they were not really valued in Australia. They include musicians from Nellie Melba to Joan Sutherland, and Charles Mackerras, who is just celebrating his 80th birthday. Australians seem to be everywhere in Britain. I was one of the many thousands of Australian dentists who came to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. I came short-term, but I find myself still here 50 years later. The shared language of the Commonwealth is enormously important. It means that wherever we go in the world, we are able to communicate with people from other parts of the Commonwealth. When one goes to a CPA conference, one feels that there is a great family feeling.

I will take up the point made by my noble friend Lord Freeman about the computers of this House. I was on the Information Committee, and all computers that have been discontinued for Peers' use are recycled. They go to other parts of the world, largely to the Commonwealth parts of Africa. He need not worry about them being wasted. I would like to see greater medical support from this country, and I know that the Royal College of Physicians is for that. Many poorer countries cannot afford to send people here to train, but we have experts, many from those counties, who would happily go back and give their experience. It is simply a matter of getting agreement on salaries with the National Health Service to allow that to happen. It would be a very good thing.

The supporters on my coat of arms are a lion and a kangaroo. The British lion holds up the Australian wattle flower and the kangaroo holds up the English rose. I feel that is symbolic about the way most of us feel about the Commonwealth. It is a shared experience. The Commonwealth is a very special group of countries, and the linkage is strong and lasting. I would not underestimate the NGO part of it, which was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. NGOs do a great deal of good and the Commonwealth will see that their work gets even better.

Photo of Lord Goodlad Lord Goodlad Conservative 1:06 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Freeman on his wide-ranging and penetrating speech opening this debate. I am very pleased to be following my noble friend Lady Gardner, in whose country I have just spent some very happy years. I join her in saluting the contributions of the Commonwealth in war, not least those of the Australian forces over the years, in defence of the ideals, values and freedoms that we share.

I join noble Lords in their tributes to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Over the generations, many friendships have been made and sustained, and values shared and disseminated, in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. In recent years, I have attended seminars in the Jubilee Room of Westminster Hall that have been outstanding for those who participated. I believe that the meetings, particularly those of presiding officers and clerks throughout the world, have been of inestimable value in forwarding the objectives of the Commonwealth.

In 1998, I had the honour of attending the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association annual conference in New Zealand, and I visited the Solomon Islands on the way—they were a bit behind in their contribution and were ineligible to attend the conference. I was most courteously met at the airport by the Speaker, who said that he had summoned Parliament to hear my address the following day. I turned up first thing in the morning, and was flattered and gratified by the full turnout. It was standing room only. After I had made my hastily put-together speech, I answered a few questions, and then the Speaker adjourned the House for morning tea. My self-satisfaction at having attracted such an enormous turnout was immediately punctured when I saw the magnificence of the morning tea arrayed before us. It went far beyond tea, and even further beyond the morning. It was an example of magnificent, inclusive south sea island hospitality.

How do the UK's relations with the Commonwealth look from the South Pacific? It is a vast area with more than a dozen small states, all of which are poor and some of which are so low-lying that their existence is threatened by global warming. They are nearly all members of the Commonwealth. In fact, they are more than one-fifth of the total membership. Our bilateral aid budget—£4.5 million per annum—exiguous by Department for International Development standards, is being cut completely. The task is being left to the European Union, whose record in the delivery of aid is perhaps fortunately beyond the scope of this debate. In 1998 there was a proposal—fortunately rejected by Ministers—to close the High Commission in Papua New Guinea—a poor country, constituting over three-quarters of the land mass of the South Pacific islands, over three-quarters of the population; and where there are substantial British interests.

However, four high commission closures in the region have recently been announced. They do not, fortunately, include the Solomon Islands. In 2000 the Solomon Islands requested that Australia send some police to help quell the troubles in Guadalcanal. Australia, understandably, refused because the safety of the police could not be guaranteed. It ended up sending a warship, organising an evacuation and a peace conference and now has a large number of police and officials there. There is a lesson here. The so-called arc of insecurity running from East Timor through Papua New Guinea, where tens of thousands were killed in Bougainville and where there is still great unrest, the Solomon Islands and Fiji, from which British interests are to be pursued in the so-called "hub and spoke" operation, is an example of an area where failing states may well emerge, international organised crime flourish and British and Commonwealth objectives may be seriously damaged.

In a changing world British resources must be configured to observe changing priorities. I trust that in a region containing over one-fifth of Commonwealth members, where the UK has historically been highly respected, the Government will be vigilant to ensure that there are sufficient resources and that in future they are deployed in a properly planned and co-ordinated fashion.

The forthcoming CHOGM in Malta will be heavily focused inevitably on WTO issues and terrorism. But there will also be a focus on education. "Education—creating opportunity realising potential" was the theme for the Commonwealth Day celebrations on 14 March this year—"the golden thread", as it has been called, that binds the Commonwealth. As Nelson Mandela said:

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world".

The achievements of most Commonwealth objectives—the promotion of sustainable economic and social development, the alleviation of poverty, fighting communicable diseases, protecting the environment and combating criminal activities all involve access to universal education.

The Government's flagship policy in this area, endorsed by the Prime Minister and the Commonwealth in 2003, has been the Commonwealth Institute and the Centre for Commonwealth Education at Cambridge under the direction of Professor Colin Colclough. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, referred to this, as did my noble and learned friend Lord Howe in describing the predicament in which that flagship finds itself; namely, adrift.

Lest your Lordships should be in any doubt as to the strength of feeling in the Commonwealth on this matter, I remind you of the words of the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon, a man of noted moderation and temperance. He said:

"The UK's decision is selfish imperialism. This scandalous act robs millions of children in the developing world of educational opportunities. By having this white elephant de-listed, the Commonwealth Institute could have realised funds for education programmes for 75 million children in the Commonwealth who have never seen the walls of a classroom. The British Government has missed this opportunity and instead decided to keep the Institute's assets locked in a derelict building—a Millennium Dome of the 1960s—which no one wants, no one needs and serves no purpose whatsoever . . .

"The Commonwealth has been wholly supportive of the British Government's efforts . . . This decision flies in the face of those efforts and of the UK Government's stated goal to achieve universal primary education by 2015."

This problem will not be solved by the time of CHOGM, but I hope that a solution will be announced.

My noble and learned friend said that legislation might be required. Clearly, a Private or Private Member's Bill would not be appropriate. If a government Bill has a sufficiently widely drawn Long Title it could go in that, otherwise there should be a new Bill. I believe that it would have widespread support in this House.

The respected record of the United Kingdom in Commonwealth matters and our pride in helping the burnishing of the golden thread of education are at stake. I trust that the Leader of the House will reassure us today.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs 1:14 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, as is appropriate in a debate in your Lordships' House, we have heard a lot about past connections with what used to be called the British Empire and Commonwealth, but also a certain amount about where we are today. Clearly, the Commonwealth is now very different from what it was when we were born. I recall as a boy singing in the Coronation and watching people from the British Empire and the Commonwealth—the Queen of Tonga and all. We were in a very different world.

We cannot overplay the significance of the Commonwealth today, but clearly we need always to reinvent the rationale for these networks in each generation. I think that there has been a general consensus from all Benches that we are in danger as a country of underplaying the Commonwealth's significance. It is a very useful network in all sorts of ways—for development and for democracy building. I say that as someone who does not believe—as the current US Administration appear to—that democracy building can be done in five years. Democracy building, as we are all very clear here, is a long-term process—few European countries successfully move through the painful transition from traditional society to modern state without a lot of bloodshed and revolution—and it gives us a degree of leverage to help countries that are following us through this process go through it with as little pain as possible.

The Commonwealth is a very good network for education and educational exchange. I fear that in recent years we have reached a stage at which the United Kingdom takes more from the Commonwealth in terms of teachers and students trained elsewhere and does not put enough back in. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will approve if I say that my son spent a summer in Uganda teaching mathematics. He thoroughly enjoyed it and came back with a degree of knowledge of the politics of Uganda. He assured me that four years ago it was much less democratic than appeared to be the case. That is precisely the sort of thing that we should be doing—encouraging our young people to teach in other Commonwealth countries as well as taking some of their best-trained students, as we do in this country.

Migration and dual-citizenship should be seen as a plus in this country; far too often they are seen as a minus. Migration, after all, is not simply a one-way movement. People come here, they work and they go back. A Barbadian couple with whom I used to sing in my local church choir announced two years ago that they were returning to Barbados to retire, after a good 40 years in this country. There are continuing social and economic links between us and those other countries from which we should benefit. There are military links through joint peace-keeping operations in the United Nations. There is not enough training yet, but as we begin to build a peace-keeping arrangement between the European Union and the African Union—a very new development—Britain should be able to contribute much more than many other European countries, precisely because we have those links to so many African Union armies. Of course one must mention our very strong link in that 5 per cent of British Army troops have been recruited from Commonwealth countries, most notably Fiji.

We should make the best of those continuing links in Britain's social and economic interests—above all, with India, where already it is clear that the British economy benefits from those who trade between Britain and India because they are closely rooted in both societies; with countries such as Singapore, South Africa and Malaysia; potentially, and we hope also, with Nigeria and Ghana; and, through our own Chinese community, with China. I was not quite clear whether the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was suggesting that if we cannot have Hong Kong in the Commonwealth we should encourage China to join as a whole. As the Chinese economy becomes more important, we have assets in this country which link us to there.

I want to talk about how we reinvent the Commonwealth in terms of public diplomacy and explaining to people in this country that the Commonwealth still matters and is part of a network of advantage to Britain. Our younger generation, wherever their parents or grandparents were born, know very little about the Commonwealth. I was struck watching the celebration of Remembrance Sunday last weekend by how little the Commonwealth contribution to the Second World War or the First World War is remembered. This is almost the central institution of British memory each year. It might almost be said that we wallow in it.

We have forgotten that the largest army in the British Imperial Armies, after Britain, in both world wars came from the Indian subcontinent and that, as has been mentioned, regiments from East Africa, West Africa and the Caribbean also played significant parts. I saw no Indian veterans marching past the Cenotaph. I watched a small group of elderly West Indians in the final stages of the procession. As Britain holds the EU presidency on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, just behind the West Indians was a small group, unmarked, of Dutch, Danes and Norwegians, who also played a significant role in the war.

Perhaps the Government will think more intelligently in future about how we play the politics of memory in this country, and how that fits into not just ceremonies but history teaching in British schools. My wife and I were at the Monte Cassino war cemetery some years ago with a young Asian couple on their honeymoon who thought that that had nothing to do with them, until we took them to show them the six pillars of names of Indian soldiers who had died in the battle for Monte Cassino. Our young people need to know about those links if they are to understand a world in which Britain is no longer a white country, and in which Britain is linked in all sorts of ways that benefit us to a global economy and society. If we want to maintain the Commonwealth network as a bridge between North and South, we and our other Commonwealth partners need to retain the legitimacy to offer advice, criticism, financial assistance and training and, sadly, in some cases, as in Sierra Leone, to participate in humanitarian interventions when conflicts spill across borders or domestic order collapses.

So we must continue to invest in the Commonwealth, in symbolic as well as financial and political terms. We must explain to our rising generation why that network remains valuable to us as a country, but is also a network that reaches deeply into this country and links us in many valuable ways to states and societies across the world.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Spokespersons In the Lords, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 1:22 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, I join others in warmly thanking my noble friend Lord Freeman for promoting this debate. The timing is very nice. Next week we have the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta, a country, a state, a nation that I had the pleasure of visiting recently to participate in preparatory discussions on the prospects for CHOGM. That will be a big event in what is admittedly a small island community. We should give them our full support and warm feelings in carrying out that important conference event.

It has been a stimulating debate, because there is much experience here among your Lordships. I was especially thrilled to hear the voice of Australia coming through strongly in the debate in the contribution from my noble friends Lady Gardner and Lord Goodlad, who returns from a highly successful tour as High Commissioner in Canberra.

A decade ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the other place, which I then had the honour of chairing, issued a very positive and optimistic report about the future role of the Commonwealth. We argued in that report that the Commonwealth was acquiring a new significance in a networked world and that Britain should make much more of its connections and overall Commonwealth potential. We came up with a long string of recommendations and said that there were hard practical reasons for Britain to give much more attention to its Commonwealth links. That was in 1996, just under a decade ago.

What has happened in that decade? Not much, I fear. Of course, there were a lot of speeches. We were warmly applauded on all sides for our report. The incoming Labour Government produced some fine rhetoric about how they were going to renew our commitment to the Commonwealth. I hope that it does not sound as though I am being world-weary in saying that a great many of the speeches made then are still being made today and a great many of the ideas promoted then are still promoted today—some of them in today's debate. The unwelcome truth is that for too many people, the Commonwealth remains a useful talking shop with no particular new role in this turbulent and dangerous world. That applies in particular to the printed media, which have a spasmodic and infrequent interest in the Commonwealth.

Some things that have happened since that report have been negative. The whole Zimbabwe saga, about which my noble friend Lord Blaker spoke, has settled down now in that Zimbabwe has gone, it has walked out, but it has not been a glorious affair. Coming down to detail, my noble and learned friend Lord Howe rightly raised with such strength and feeling the deplorably negative development of the Commonwealth Institute. He is absolutely correct to do so. What is happening there and how the trustees have been left with no way out is deplorable. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Amos, when she replies, will tell us that the Government will apply their mind to a way forward on that front. Things cannot be left as they are.

Despite all that striking of a gloomy note looking backwards, the arguments that we advanced 10 years ago for putting the Commonwealth much more at the centre of British foreign and commercial policy are many times stronger than they were in the middle of the previous decade. I should like to share three overriding reasons why that is so.

First, the Commonwealth is a living network of relations that stretches across all continents—Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas—and across almost all religions in an age when global reach is the essential quality and characteristic needed of our institutions to tackle global problems. In particular, I emphasise the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar: that the Commonwealth is not just what we see on the surface of governmental organisations, it is a vast web of more than 200 non-governmental and sub-governmental organisations creating the sort of network that is relevant to the information age. That does not exist in many of the other institutions that we invented back in the 20th century, which cannot produce that quality.

Secondly, the Commonwealth happens to be the fastest-growing entity in the world. I do not think that people have quite adjusted to that, but it is growing faster than China and contains at least six of the most dynamic knowledge-driven economies in the world. It is not just a question of raw materials and commodities, it now contains some of the fastest growing economies. As our trade and investment tilt away from Europe, as they are bound to do, towards the rising Asia, as the whole centre of gravity continues to move in the Asian direction, so the whole Commonwealth network becomes infinitely more relevant for us in hard commercial terms, not just symbolic or historic terms, although they stick in people's memories.

My third reason why we should consider the matter anew is the most significant. The Commonwealth as an institution not only survives but attracts new members—plenty of nations want to join and several have joined in recent years—when the world's other multi-national organisations, designed, as I said, for the 20th century, are, frankly, failing us and in deep trouble. The Commonwealth provides scope for a real North-South dialogue on trade and security matters on equal, rather than patronising terms.

When we have problems at the UN, with its members at loggerheads over fundamental issues and with severe internal problems to boot when we have the EU apparently "stalled"—I use that word taken from the Prime Minister—or at least becalmed, with sharply divided views among its members on trade liberalisation, security and world affairs; when we see the WTO struggling to avoid deadlock at Doha on farm subsidies with zero help, I am afraid, from some of our European partners; and when those outside existing trade blocs feel increasingly frustrated that their access to the richer markets is still barred in many ways, we begin to realise that there must be better ways forward. I suggest that we turn to the Commonwealth where the scene looks far more positive.

On the economic side, intra-Commonwealth trade appears to be expanding steadily and intra-Commonwealth investment flows between Commonwealth members, although the statistics are hard to accumulate, also are clearly expanding. More than that, the Commonwealth offers, at least potentially, the kind of forum in which the faster-growing and richer countries, and the poorer and smaller countries, can speak on equal terms, and in which the faiths can sit down and discuss their problems calmly. There are 500 million Muslims in the Commonwealth. I know that there are some backslidings, but almost all Commonwealth members are seriously committed to contributing to global peace and stability rather than pursuing endless vendettas against America, the West, colonialism and all the other shibboleths of yesterday.

It is time to think about how a more ambitious Commonwealth of nations building on this successful model could become a real force in opening up the world economy and in uniting the more well intentioned and responsible countries on our planet in facing up to all the ugly dangers of the age: terrorism, pariah nations, paralysing poverty, inter-ethnic wars, corruption, rotten governance, and so the list goes on. One is left with the final question: can the Commonwealth rise up to and meet that wider role and more ambitious challenge in its present form?

There are perhaps ways to move on to a Commonwealth "Mark Two" which could fulfil some of those hopes. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, mentioned the idea of closer association between existing Commonwealth and other countries. There is a great deal in that. There are other democracies—countries in the "good guy" camp—which would love to work much more closely with the Commonwealth. I cannot resist mentioning Japan. It is a nation returning to normal country status; it wants to abandon decades of pacifism; and it wants to contribute to global peace and stability in a decisive way and on a scale commensurate with its economic weight, which happens to be colossal, because it produces 13 per cent of the world's GNP.

If we ponder on the idea of an intimately allied grouping, built on the Commonwealth model, which brought along in association Japan, but included India—the giant awakening—Australasia, which is almost the most dynamic area in the world; the UK, which is also, I am happy to say, extremely dynamic; and a number of other countries, that would be a network of common wealth, interests and power able to speak on friendly, but firm and equal, terms with the American giant, which is so important, and also, of course, to stand up for the common values of justice and democracy in a way that no other international institution currently seems capable of doing.

The other day a very able and leading commentator, Wolfgang Munchau, at the Financial Times—a super-sympathetic, EU-centric newspaper—described the European Union as,

"the wrong institutional platform to deal with globalisation".

Some would say, sadly, the same about the deeply troubled United Nations. Perhaps, as the new century gets under way, there is a gap to be filled in the architecture of our global institutions, or perhaps a Commonwealth "Mark Two" might do the job better.

Photo of Baroness Amos Baroness Amos President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords (Privy Council Office) 1:35 pm, 17th November 2005

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, for giving us the opportunity to consider the UK's relations with the Commonwealth. This is an especially important time as we are just one week from the Valletta Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. I will, of course, ensure that this debate is drawn to the attention of my colleagues who will attend the meeting.

Noble Lords gave three interesting descriptions of the Commonwealth. The noble Lord, Lord Freeman, described it as unique. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, talked about the Commonwealth as a useful network and stressed the importance of links in terms of culture, defence and education. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, talked about a living network of relations.

The Commonwealth is one of the older international organisations. Its governments represent almost half of humanity, one quarter of the world's governments and one fifth of global trade. Membership is diverse, ranging from some of the world's richer nations to some of the poorest on the planet. Commonwealth countries share a unique heritage—a common language, common legal and financial systems, and a commitment to good governance and democracy. Best practice can be, and frequently is, widely applicable and widely shared. Very importantly—it has been alluded to many times in this debate—the Commonwealth operates by consensus, which allows members to exchange views in a frank and less formal manner than in other multilateral fora.

Let me say at the outset that the United Kingdom believes in the Commonwealth and remains the major contributor to the Commonwealth headquarters organisations, specifically the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation. At the heart of the organisation are the Harare principles, which set out the shared commitment to good governance, human rights and democracy. So the Commonwealth's declared goals are close to those of the United Kingdom. There are two important goals; namely, to help to prevent or resolve conflicts, strengthen democracy and the rule of law and achieve greater respect for human rights, and to promote pro-poor policies for economic growth and sustainable development.

Uniquely, I think, among international organisations, the Commonwealth has procedures in place to suspend members should they fall short of those standards. As the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, made clear, the Commonwealth takes those commitments very seriously. In recent years, Nigeria, Fiji and Pakistan were suspended. All have returned to the Commonwealth family, with Nigeria now serving with distinction as Commonwealth chair in office. Those values are also spread by the Commonwealth's affiliated bodies—which number more than 80—including the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, the Commonwealth human rights council and the Commonwealth Business Council.

I turn now specifically to the forthcoming heads of government meeting. The Government have three main aims, the first of which touches on a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar; that is, a meeting that builds on the outcomes of the Commission for Africa Report, the Gleneagles G8 meeting and UN World Summit. The second aim is for a heads of government meeting that uses the Commonwealth's comparative advantage to set standards on confronting terrorism, promoting tolerance and resisting incitement. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, that, with respect to our third aim, we want a heads of government meeting that sends a powerful message to the Hong Kong Trade Ministerial on the need for an ambitious pro-poor development outcome on the Doha development agenda.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, raised trade. I have to say that there will doubtless be difficulties. It is no secret that trade will be contentious at the Hong Kong meeting. We know the problem areas, such as agriculture, market access and erosion of preferences, which are exacerbated for some by the separate reform of EU regimes on sugar and bananas. Given the pace of developments in those negotiations, I do not want to say too much today, but despite the difficulties I remain optimistic that CHOGM will be able to give impetus to those striving to reach agreement at Hong Kong.

I should like to remind the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, that as a government we have been relentless in our pursuit of a good outcome not only in Hong Kong but also for this entire Doha development round. That is not just rhetoric; since 1998 we have spent £181 million on trade capacity building to give developing countries themselves the capacity to negotiate on their own behalf. Moreover, I have to say to the noble Baroness that we have been roundly criticised by some of our other colleagues for doing precisely that. I also want to say to the noble Baroness that as a member of a government who have put the interests of our relations with the Commonwealth at the heart of our wider relationships, specifically on trade, it is very important indeed to remember that developing countries that are members of the Commonwealth family do not necessarily share the same aims for the outcome of the Doha development round. They managed to hold together the developing country coalition at Cancun—I was there—but a lot of anger was expressed about the difference between what the larger emerging developing countries want and what the poorer developing countries want. We would do well to remember that.

I almost always agree with the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, but I do not concur with his view of the outcome of the G8 Summit. An extra $50 billion a year by 2010 to be spent on development aid, half of that going to Africa, along with a 100 per cent multilateral debt stock cancellation providing up to $55 billion for as many as 38 poorer countries could not be called a disappointing outcome. I have talked to many African leaders and others about the G8 outcome, and that is certainly not how they would describe it.

Turning to the themes raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, I should like to see the business, youth and people's forums, all of which precede CHOGM, picking up on some of the Gleneagles and world summit outcomes. After all, buying from business, civil society and young people is essential to Commonwealth success. I know too that the Commonwealth People's Forum will hold workshops on adaptation to climate change, faith and development, which are also UK priorities. Here I want to say a special word of thanks to the Commonwealth Foundation for its work in promoting cultural links and dialogue with NGOs across the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Youth Forum will also take forward its longstanding work on citizenship.

Many developing Commonwealth countries, especially in Africa, are priorities for our poverty reduction programmes. In these nations, education remains a very high priority, especially quality primary education. My noble friend Lord Desai asked about the monitoring of the millennium development goals by the Commonwealth. The heads of government meeting will consider how best to monitor the MDGs and whether that should be done by the Commonwealth countries or the Secretariat alone, or working with others such as the United Nations and the OECD.

We should also remember that the majority of Commonwealth countries are small states. These, especially the small island states, face unique challenges. Their economies are sometimes overly dependent on a limited range of products, they are geographically remote and, in many cases, they are vulnerable to natural disasters. Over the past year alone, Commonwealth Caribbean nations have been devastated by hurricanes, while Commonwealth Asian countries were ravaged by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Most recently, Pakistan and India have been affected by a catastrophic earthquake.

My noble friend Lord Desai referred specifically to earthquake-proof housing. I can tell my noble friend that a donor conference is to be held in two days' time to discuss the modalities of reconstruction. We will work with the government of Pakistan's plans and encourage appropriate reconstruction methods. The United Kingdom is a close friend of India and Pakistan and maintains regular contact with both governments, actively encouraging them to seek a lasting resolution to all of their outstanding issues. I refer in particular to the opening of crossing points along the Line of Control, which will assist individuals by allowing them to travel between the two parts of Kashmir.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, said that it was important to find a solution to the question of the Commonwealth Institute. The issue was also raised by the noble Lords, Lord Freeman, Lord Goodlad and Lord Howell. The Government are committed to helping the trustees find a solution to their present difficulties. This will be particularly important if the trustees are properly to endow the Commonwealth Institute's Centre for Commonwealth Education in Cambridge. The first meeting between the trustees and an interdepartmental working group, which has representatives from DCMS, ODPM, FCO and DfID, took place last week. A second meeting is planned for later today. The group will study the options now available, including the listed building consent route. The group has also advised the trustees on how best to instigate dialogue with the parliamentary legislation office on whether a private or hybrid Bill might be possible. However, I have to tell the House that I understand that preliminary contacts suggest that this might be problematic.

On the question of Zimbabwe, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, and mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, I should say that the country is not on the Commonwealth agenda. I think that is right. At the moment there is no obvious remit on Zimbabwe for the Commonwealth, following Mugabe's decision to withdraw from the organisation. However, we believe that external pressure, in particular from within Africa and the UN, offers the best hope for the restoration of democracy and the rule of law in Zimbabwe. So we will continue to take every opportunity to raise the issue of Zimbabwe in appropriate fora and with partners bilaterally, including other Commonwealth members.

The policies of the government of Zimbabwe have been disastrous and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, about the importance of providing support for the people of Zimbabwe. That is why we have made a major contribution to ensuring that Zimbabwe's food shortages do not lead to famine. Since September 2001 we have donated over £71 million in humanitarian assistance and I remind noble Lords that at one stage we were feeding 1.5 million Zimbabweans per day.

The noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, asked about Uganda and the upcoming elections. We welcome the outcome of the July referendum with its support for a return to multi-party politics. We think it is essential to have a level playing field for all parties for the February/March 2006 elections. I understand that much of the necessary legislation is now awaiting presidential assent, and we need to ensure that the ruling Movement Party is fully separated from the state before the elections are held.

On the matter of used PCs, the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, is quite right about our computer equipment. The House of Lords sets a very good example. When PCs are replaced, those machines are donated for use in developing countries. Currently many are going to Namibia and, in accordance with arrangements recently approved by the Information Committee, there is a plan to extend this to other developing countries in the Commonwealth and elsewhere.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, mentioned the Commonwealth Partnership for Technology Development. CPTM's role as a Commonwealth affiliated body will be reviewed at CHOGM. The Secretary-General will present a paper to the heads of state and government. It is likely to recommend that CPTM is brought more closely into the Commonwealth family.

My noble friend Lord Hunt of Chesterton raised the important issue of culture and referred to the importance of the welcome that we give to scholars coming to the United Kingdom from Commonwealth countries. Scholars on UK-sponsored scholarships receive a welcome briefing. There is, however, a problem with those who come independently and I am not sure what resources we can put into dealing with that.

As to NGOs, an issue to which my noble friend also referred, the Commonwealth Foundation, which organises the Commonwealth People's Forum, has been mandated to bring Commonwealth NGOs more fully into the decision-making process. I should say to my noble friend that the criteria for membership will be reviewed, but currently the rules require a close association with a member state, adherence to the Harare principles and a willingness to abide by Commonwealth rules and norms.

The noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, raised the issue of medical workers. The suggestion that UK health workers might return to or visit and work in Commonwealth countries has not been raised at Commonwealth meetings. Commonwealth governments have, however, addressed the issue of the targeted recruitment of healthcare workers in the developing Commonwealth countries by the health services of developed Commonwealth countries. The Malta CHOGM communiqué is likely to contain language on this problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, referred to last week's Memorial Day service and, in particular, the importance of the Commonwealth's contribution. While the service at the Cenotaph attracts the most publicity, it is important to remember that hundreds of similar services took place around the United Kingdom and thousands of similar events took place across the Commonwealth and around the world, many in Commonwealth war graves cemeteries.

About two years ago the Ministry of Defence produced a very useful document which set out the contribution made to the British Army historically by people from other countries. I have used it many times with people of Caribbean descent to show the contribution from Caribbean countries. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, worked extremely hard to establish memorial gates in recognition of the important contribution made by troops from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent. Indeed, a few days before Remembrance Sunday, an event was held at the gates. With a colleague from the Ministry of Defence and others, I attended an event at the Museum of London, organised by the Windrush Foundation, which acknowledged the contribution of Caribbean countries to the outcome of the Second World War. Much is going on but the noble Lord is quite right that we need to make these events a much more regular part of Remembrance Day services.

Before I conclude, I must say something about cricket, a subject which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Desai, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner. I could not agree more about the central importance of cricket in the Commonwealth. As the product of a British colony myself, cricket continues to have a central place in my life, including listening to ball-by-ball commentary at very odd hours indeed, depending on which part of the world the game is being played.

I conclude by paying tribute to the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Don MacKinnon, and his staff at the Commonwealth Secretariat. He has presided over unprecedented modernisation of the Commonwealth. He has sometimes ruffled feathers, even among his own staff, but his work has been essential to bring the Commonwealth Secretariat into the 21st century. I know that we all wish him, our Commonwealth colleagues and the Maltese authorities well at the Valletta CHOGM.

Photo of Lord Howe of Aberavon Lord Howe of Aberavon Conservative

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, as there are a few moments left I endorse absolutely her closing remarks and the tribute to the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth and his staff. Perhaps I may ask one question. I appreciate very much her understanding response to the points I raised about the Commonwealth Institute. In view of her identification of the possible difficulties for a private or hybrid Bill, can she give the House an assurance that, in view of the unanimity of desire for this problem to be solved, the Government will not rule out the possibility of supporting a public Bill, which would have wide acclamation not only in this House but elsewhere?

Photo of Baroness Scotland of Asthal Baroness Scotland of Asthal Minister of State (Criminal Justice and Offender Management), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Criminal Justice and Offender Management)

My Lords, I hope I made it clear in what I said about the Commonwealth Institute that there are ongoing discussions between a cross-government group of officials and the trustees. At this point in time, nothing has been ruled in or out.

Photo of Lord McIntosh of Haringey Lord McIntosh of Haringey Labour

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, referred to the unanimity of views, which indeed may have been the case in this House. But when I was the Minister responsible in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, a very large number of distinguished people, particularly from this House, wrote to me about the future of the Commonwealth Institute. They were very much divided as between those who wished to see it pulled down and those who wished to see it preserved.

Photo of Lord Freeman Lord Freeman Conservative

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have participated in this excellent debate. I hope very much that the proceedings will be read not only by the Minister's colleagues in government but also in High Commissions throughout the world.

I particularly thank the Minister for her assurances about the negotiations that will take place in Hong Kong with the World Trade Organisation, following on from CHOGM. I also thank my noble friend Lord Howell for his rather exciting vision of the Commonwealth Mark 2 including Japan. It is a challenging idea which a number of us will wish to take away and think about very carefully indeed.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Gardner of Parkes for indicating what Parliament is doing about its used computers. I can assure her that that message will now be repeated in the boardrooms of the City, where I hope the example of Parliament will be followed.

Perhaps I may draw a thread between what the noble Lord, Lord Desai, and my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon touched upon. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, described the Commonwealth almost as a cross-section of the United Nations of the world, and my noble and learned friend Lord Howe referred to the experience that British Ministers have gained through participating in Commonwealth discussions prior to other discussions—for example, in G8, EU and UN negotiations. Both points are extremely helpful. I simply add that the Commonwealth is a smaller canvass upon which the United Kingdom can concentrate and focus and perhaps achieve more in the world as a whole, in particular in an economic and educational sense.

On a personal note, the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, and a number of other speakers referred to Uganda, which is a country quite close to my heart. I hope the message will go back to President Museveni that this House supports what he and his government are trying to do in introducing multi-party elections. It is a great challenge. I hope that a positive message will go back to Uganda that we support what is being done and that any gentle persuasion that is necessary will be forthcoming from other members of the Commonwealth.

On that point, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers,

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.