Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:07 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Labour 2:07 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for introducing this debate so well and for all the incredible work that she does on behalf of this country and with our partner countries in the Commonwealth, and congratulate Ambassador Hitchens on his appointment to this important role. He is a superb ambassador who will do a fantastic job, and I am sure he is absolutely delighted to be taking on something so positive at the moment, when there may have been other options elsewhere in the Government.

One of the early pleasures I enjoyed as Education Minister in the Scottish Government in 2000 was attending the Commonwealth Education Ministers’ summit in Nova Scotia. Rather cheekily, I invited the Education Ministers to hold their next summit in Edinburgh in 2004. Little did I know then that I would be First Minister by the time they arrived. We organised alongside the education summit the Commonwealth youth assembly, which was the first of its kind, and which I think to this day is repeated as part of the education summit, turning a fairly stale occasion when Education Ministers simply swap information about their various initiatives in their own countries into a much more lively and dynamic occasion about the future of these young people. Perhaps that model of engaging young people across the Commonwealth is an idea the Government might be willing to take on board for CHOGM in the UK in 2018.

I think we would all agree that the young people of the Commonwealth, as across the world, will determine the future and deal with many of the problems mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby. The new United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, has made it clear that we must,

“empower youth to participate in and shape the political and economic lives of their countries and communities; to be the agents of peace and development”.

In this year of peacebuilding for the Commonwealth, one of the most perceptive comments has been made by the Commonwealth Young Person of the Year, Achaleke Christian Leke; I hope I pronounced his name correctly. He is from Cameroon and leads an organisation called Local Youth Corner Cameroon, which is engaged in peacebuilding and countering violent extremism in that country. To mark Commonwealth Day, this week he said that peacebuilding comes from the heart—that we cannot just rely on Governments to engage in peacebuilding, but that if we all engage in it we can make the world a better and more peaceful place. That resonated with me because the Commonwealth, while it has over the years engaged in conflict prevention and occasionally conflict resolution, could do so much more in that area. I sincerely hope that 2017—this Commonwealth year of peacebuilding—will not be a one-off; peacebuilding has to be at the core of the work of the Commonwealth not just this year but in the years to come.

As part of the sustainable development goals—I think they are now called the global goals for sustainable development—the United Nations member states agreed goal 16, which is to:

“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”.

If that is not a core purpose of the Commonwealth in the 21st century, I would like to know what is. As our own ambassador to the United Nations, Matthew Rycroft, said recently, following a visit to the Lake Chad Basin, you have only to visit a place like it to understand just how important goal 16 is. With a United Nations that is perhaps overloaded with conflicts around the world to resolve and sometimes prevent, and with perhaps a challenge now to continental-based multilateral organisations following what has happened recently to the European Union, international co-operative organisations such as the Commonwealth could step up and help much more with the international effort on goal 16. The building of those democratic, stable, reliable institutions and the proper execution of the rule of law would fit well with the Commonwealth charter, but also with the challenges faced in our world in what are still the early years of the 21st century.

We need to remember that while we might have a moral duty to speak up for peace and justice in the Commonwealth, we also have a moral responsibility to development. The Commonwealth contains many of the poorest countries in the world. In Malawi, the twin threats of climate and population change are yet again this year causing serious issues, not just of poverty but of hunger. In Cameroon, the increase in population has negated much of the economic improvement there and, of course, the spillover of the conflict in Nigeria is affecting millions in that country. Nigeria—a wealthy country in many ways—still has the third-highest number of people living in poverty of any country in the world. Swaziland has one of the highest levels of HIV/AIDS in the world, and Mozambique one of the highest levels of malaria. Those problems and others are replicated in parts of India, Pakistan and some countries in the Caribbean and among the Pacific islands.

That means that our responsibility as a United Kingdom is not just to trade with the Commonwealth, but to ensure continued development of those countries in the Commonwealth. I worry that, at times, some of the more enthusiastic supporters of Brexit over the last year or two have sounded as though they would like to return to the days of the 19th and 20th centuries when we exploited the countries of the Commonwealth rather than worked with them as partners. It is critically important to recognise that, while we can trade with some countries in the Commonwealth on an even-handed basis, other countries in it need the building of a safe and secure business environment—the capacity-building that ensures that—before we are able to trade fairly with them. We need to approach that agenda with determination but also with humility, remembering our legacy and history, not just looking to serve immediate British economic interests in the short term.

Finally, I want to touch briefly on the great celebration that is the Commonwealth Games, which will happen next year alongside the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. I had the immense pleasure last week of meeting Kate Jones, the Minister for the Commonwealth Games in Queensland, Australia. If her energy and enthusiasm are anything to go by, the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games next year will be a very successful and enjoyable occasion. I will always remember the tears of Bobby Charlton in Manchester when he saw his city transformed by an event that put it on the stage globally; the first night in the swimming pool in Melbourne, when Scotland led the medals table at the heart of swimming down under; and, in particular, the fabulous Games in Glasgow in 2014—a spectacular sporting and cultural festival that did so much both for the city and for great relations among the young people of the Commonwealth. Next year, we will have that opportunity again. Kate Jones asked me to invite in this debate Members of your Lordships’ Chamber to take the opportunity next year to visit the Gold Coast and Queensland and enjoy the experience for themselves. I hope that many noble Lords will do so.