My Lords, the Prime Minister announced on Monday that the 2018 Commonwealth summit, comprising the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, will be held in London and Windsor in April 2018. For the first time, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle will be among the summit venues. The UK and our vibrant capital city are ready to welcome the Commonwealth family for a very special week, which lies between the Commonwealth Games in Australia and Her Majesty the Queen’s 92nd birthday.
The summit, together with strengthening our relationship with the Commonwealth, is a priority for this Government. Last July, I had the privilege of being appointed as the UK’s Minister for the Commonwealth as an institution and as Minister for the Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean. I have therefore seen at first hand that the Government are working tirelessly both here in London at ministerial and official level and throughout our network of diplomatic posts across the Commonwealth to ensure that this unique family of nations fulfils its undoubted potential. This is not the work of just one Minister or one department alone. It is embedded across all government work. When my noble friend Lady Mobarik winds up this debate later today, she will refer to some of the important work carried out across the Commonwealth by the Department for International Development.
First, I would like to place on record my thanks to the usual channels for enabling this government-led debate to coincide with Commonwealth Week and the many celebrations on Commonwealth Day, including those special events which took place with the Royal Family, including the launch of the Queen’s baton relay and a series of video messages from many of our high commissions setting out what the Commonwealth means to them and their host country. The fact that the Opposition agreed with the Government to use time in this way today shows there is truly cross-party support for the Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth is a truly extraordinary organisation. It is a diverse family of 52 countries spread over six continents and home to more than one-third of the world’s population, a billion of whom are under the age of 25. Its strength lies in its diversity, its shared history and myriad connections between its peoples. This strength is further enhanced by its global reach and the strong common instincts of its members to nurture open societies and open economies.
As a well-established family of co-operating nations, with these combined strengths and shared values, the Commonwealth could, and indeed should, play a greater role on the world stage. We are determined to do everything we can to turn potential into reality. We would like to focus on two areas in particular: reforming the organisation to strengthen it as a force for good and boosting intra-Commonwealth trade to increase the prosperity of all our citizens.
Ahead of the summit next year, reform is a top priority. It is vital if the Commonwealth is to achieve its full potential. We want to see an effective Commonwealth Secretariat driving an agenda that benefits the whole membership and also sets a standard and a model beyond it. That is why we fully support the secretary-general’s reforms and the work she has undertaken. A reformed, leaner and more efficient Commonwealth Secretariat could do even more to meet the aspirations of its people.
The theme for the Commonwealth this year is “A Peace-building Commonwealth”. It is an area where the organisation has historically made a strong contribution, from supporting a peaceful transition from apartheid in South Africa to helping to resolve maritime boundary disputes in the Pacific. It truly has a global reach. However, peacebuilding is not just about resolving conflicts; it is about preventing them in the first place. Violent extremism is a growing threat in many Commonwealth countries and to the wider world. It is an area in which co-operation and information sharing are vital. Since the last Heads of Government meeting, the UK, together with Australia, has part-funded the establishment of a new Commonwealth countering violent extremism unit. It started work in January and will enable members to share expertise and strategies to protect their citizens better. This is a demonstration of the Commonwealth adapting to tackle the challenges of the day.
The Commonwealth could also have a positive impact on good governance worldwide. The values of freedom, democracy, human rights, development and prosperity are all enshrined in the Commonwealth charter. It states,
“international peace and security, sustainable economic growth and development and the rule of law are essential to the progress and prosperity of all”.
We believe that the Commonwealth could help to promote these values to the wider world by drawing on its own experience.
How have we acted to support that work? Over the past seven months, I have held a series of discussions with Commonwealth Ministers and high commissioners, not only in this country but in their own countries, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva and at the UN in New York. Just last month, our UK ambassadorial team in Geneva convened Commonwealth countries to discuss priorities ahead of the Human Rights Council, which is meeting in March. This was an effective way of increasing the profile of the Commonwealth at the Human Rights Council. We want to see the power of the Commonwealth used more in this way and transform words into actions.
Last week, I had the real joy of meeting the chair of the British Youth Council, which works to empower young people under 25 to influence the decisions that affect their lives. The Commonwealth charter recognises the critical role of young people in the future success of our Commonwealth. The UK worked with the British Youth Council to help to establish the Commonwealth Youth Council in 2013, which serves as the official representative voice of young people across the Commonwealth. The Government will continue to place a strong focus on youth engagement and will ensure that issues that are important to young people living in the Commonwealth are an integral part of the Commonwealth summit next year.
It is clear that many member states share these aspirations to reform the organisation and increase its global influence as a force for good. The Government want to use the 2018 Commonwealth summit to turn all our aspirations across the Commonwealth into a reality. That work is already under way, and I will speak more about that in a moment or two.
Our second focus is on seeking to strengthen our relationship in the matter of trade. Boosting trade within the Commonwealth is a key element of our vision for a global Britain as we leave the European Union, as the Secretary of State for International Trade set out clearly at the Commonwealth Trade Ministers meeting last week. It will meet the Prime Minister’s aim of reaching out to partners across the globe. It will also boost prosperity throughout the Commonwealth by spreading economic growth and opportunity.
Trade between Commonwealth countries is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2020. It has consistently grown faster than the global average and we see significant scope for more growth. Furthermore, it costs, on average, 19% less to trade within the Commonwealth than outside it. That is a huge advantage, and something that we should all seek to exploit more effectively. That is why we supported calls at the Malta Heads of Government meeting for a Commonwealth Trade Ministers meeting and why we were delighted to co-host with Malta the inaugural meeting in London on Thursday and Friday last week.
The fact that Ministers and representatives from more than 35 Commonwealth countries travelled to London is a testament to the importance that Commonwealth countries place on enhancing trade and investment. There was consensus at the meeting on the potential to increase trade and the need to facilitate business-to-business links. There was also agreement to improve co-ordination between Commonwealth Governments, institutions and the private sector. Those private sector representatives who attended the meeting recognised the opportunities that trade within the Commonwealth represents, and they were very keen to engage. We will be working closely with them ahead of the next Commonwealth Business Forum in 2018, which will be held alongside the Commonwealth summit. It was noticeable that, at a time of rising protectionism around the world, Ministers reaffirmed the importance of open trade, free markets and a rules-based system.
I want to take this opportunity today to thank my noble friend Lord Marland, as chair of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, for organising the first day of that two-day Commonwealth Trade Ministers conference last week and for working so hard to ensure its success. The meeting was an outcome of the 2015 Commonwealth Business Forum held in Malta. We were pleased therefore to be able to provide Lancaster House as a venue, and the Secretary of State for International Trade, the Minister for Trade Policy—my noble friend Lord Price—and I were delighted to attend. I also put on record my thanks to the honourable Kamina Johnson Smith, Foreign and Trade Minister for Jamaica, for her support in arranging and co-chairing with me on Wednesday last week a meeting between Cariforum Trade Ministers and UK Ministers, namely my noble friends Lord Price and Lord Bates.
However we describe the work that has happened so far and the work that lies ahead for all of us, it is clear that the Commonwealth faces challenges: reforming its institutions, raising its international profile and boosting trade, all of which are crucial. The next summit is an excellent opportunity to take all this work forward, building on the success of Malta 2015. It is also an opportunity to strengthen our relations with the rest of the Commonwealth and to showcase global Britain.
In hosting the summit, our primary aim will be firmly to reposition the Commonwealth as an organisation of global importance in the 21st century. We plan to take a creative and innovative approach to deliver that aim: for example, by using social media to engage youth across the Commonwealth and taking a fresh look at the format of the summit itself. We are encouraging new thinking across the Commonwealth and the whole of government, working in close partnership with the Commonwealth Secretariat, with parties in this House and another place, and with wider Commonwealth parliamentarians, as well as with business, non-governmental bodies and civil society. Civil society will be absolutely crucial in the part it plays.
We have created an inter-ministerial group on the Commonwealth, chaired by the Foreign and Home Secretaries, which will be supported by a cross-government unit at the Cabinet Office, led by the Prime Minister’s chief executive officer for the Commonwealth summit, our experienced FCO diplomat and former ambassador Tim Hitchens. Under his guidance, ably supported by a cross-government team, we are already rapidly stepping up our engagement with member states and partner organisations, to listen to their views and aspirations, not only for the summit itself but for our Commonwealth chair in office until 2020, and for the future legacy of the organisation beyond that.
I have already made ministerial visits to a number of Commonwealth countries, for example Barbados, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Uganda. In all of them, I have had productive discussions with their Ministers, setting out the UK’s high ambition for the Commonwealth summit and the importance of their engagement in making it a success. I shall shortly make further visits to Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean and will be delivering the same message. That is part of real consultation—not paper, but listening and acting on it.
The high level of UK ministerial engagement with Commonwealth countries underlines the priority we give to the organisation. In recent months, the Foreign Secretary has visited Pakistan, India, Ghana and the Gambia—where he gave his strong support for President Barrow’s ambition to bring his country back into the Commonwealth. Mr Sharma has been to India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand; Mr Ellwood has visited Rwanda and Nigeria; the Secretary of State for International Trade has been to Canada and India; and the Trade Minister, my noble friend Lord Price, has been to Australia and Singapore.
We are also working closely with the Commonwealth secretary-general and other member countries to develop the summit agenda. We will be drawing on our support for and engagement with all Commonwealth members, including the particular perspective of the small states, to ensure that the agenda reflects their interests. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Trade and the Department for International Development are working with the Home Office and all other departments together, and closely with the Commonwealth Secretariat. I pay tribute to the secretary-general for her drive and initiative and very much look forward to continuing to work with her.
We will also work with our fellow members around the Commonwealth, and all the organisations that make up the Commonwealth family, to ensure we make the 2018 summit a success and to show a Commonwealth that is forward looking, revitalised and relevant to the new generations that have grown up since its formation—a Commonwealth that can play an essential role in resolving some of the world’s greatest challenges and can build inclusive prosperity for all. That is our ambition for the next summit, and we intend to work tirelessly to achieve it.
Last Monday I had the privilege of attending the Commonwealth service in Westminster Abbey. I was delighted to see the prominent role played by my noble friend Lord Howell, who took part in Her Majesty the Queen’s procession as president of the Royal Commonwealth Society. Her Majesty ended her address by reminding us that we can all find,
“further reward and fulfilment by continuing to collaborate with others in a spirit of goodwill to build a peaceful and abundant future for all Commonwealth citizens”.
In that spirit, I beg to move.