Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:25 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Goodlad Lord Goodlad Conservative 2:25 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who has done so much to entertain and inspire young people in this country and no doubt in other parts of the Commonwealth. I very much share her concern about the overseas pensioners to whom she referred and about whom I was greatly concerned when I was in Australia. She is quite right that the Government now have an opportunity to look at the issue again. I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Anelay on her introduction of this debate, and particularly on her tremendous work as our Commonwealth Minister.

The term Commonwealth of Nations was first used by Lord Rosebery, speaking in Adelaide in 1884, 10 years before he became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He was probably down under for the Melbourne Cup. Little can he or his hearers—who then thought only about the British Empire—have imagined what the Commonwealth of today would be. Those of us who have been privileged to visit most of and live and work in some of the countries of the Commonwealth, truly do feel part of a worldwide family, with shared values, vulnerabilities, hopes and aspirations.

The recent meeting of Commonwealth Trade Ministers at Marlborough House, to which my noble friend referred, clearly signified a new determination to make the Commonwealth a driving force for a better world. The resolutions about global trade, protectionism, the sustainable development goals, the so-called Commonwealth advantage, the needs of small vulnerable economies, intra-Commonwealth trade and investment, and a commitment to regular Trade Minister meetings in the future have produced a practical agenda for the secretariat. I am sure, from what we have heard from my noble friend, that the Government will play a leading part in forwarding that agenda.

I declare an interest as president of the Overseas Service Pensioners Association, which represents the surviving members of what was Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service, who were responsible for the administration and development of the former colonial territories that now constitute the great majority of the member countries of the Commonwealth. I inherited that interest some years ago from the late Lord Waddington, to whom your Lordships recently paid tribute and who is remembered by the Overseas Service Pensioners Association with affection, respect and gratitude.

Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service came to an end in 1997 with the transfer of the sovereignty of Hong Kong to China, but the pensioner members are living out their lifespans remembering, I believe with justifiable pride, the achievements of their lifetime’s service. Their dwindling numbers have led to the planned ending of the association later this year. The records of the service—and of the origins, therefore, of the Commonwealth—are being carefully safeguarded and enhanced by academic institutions here for posterity. Several hundred members of the association from all over the world will converge for a final event in London in June. They and their predecessors have made an immense contribution not only to the administration and development of the former colonial territories but to the very ethos of the Commonwealth as we know it today. I believe that we owe them all a debt of gratitude.

My noble friend the Minister is aware of the privations which have been suffered in recent years by those retired British officers who agreed with the British Government’s request to stay at their posts after the unilateral declaration of independence in Southern Rhodesia, and again after Southern Rhodesia’s independence. Despite the British Government’s assurance at the time of the Lancaster House agreement, and by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, who I am delighted to see in his place, that the constitution would contain full safeguards for pensions, the pensions owing to many of those pensioners by the Government of Zimbabwe have in recent years not been paid. Those involved now number between 1,200 and 1,500 people living in various countries. A debate was held in this House some years ago, introduced by Lord Waddington, during which the then Minister—the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown—gave some hope that Her Majesty’s Government might give some help to those pensioners, but that help was not forthcoming. Since then, there has been much correspondence and meetings with Ministers and officials, for which the association is grateful, but so far to no avail. I hope that, even at this late stage, my noble friend the Minister will be able to offer some hope that the Government will now look seriously at every possible way—perhaps through supporting the proposed Zimbabwe public service pension fund—of alleviating the undeserved penury, and indeed, in some cases, worse, of these loyal former servants of the Crown. Many people, including myself, regard it as if not a legal obligation, a moral obligation and a debt of honour.

The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, set out her personal vision of the Commonwealth in the Romanes Lecture in Oxford a few weeks ago. It is a very remarkable agenda and the noble and learned Baroness deserves all our support in fulfilling it. I wholly endorse the remarks of my noble friend Lord Howell in saying that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, deserves—and I am quite sure will receive—the full support of Members of this House.

The setting up of the Commonwealth Office of Civil and Criminal Justice Reform is potentially a ground-breaking development. To share templates for legislative reform and best practice in Commonwealth jurisdictions will benefit us all. Partnerships with the judiciary, prosecutors, police, national human rights institutions, international agencies and civil society organisations will make a widespread difference. The Tackling Corruption Together conference last May showed the determination of leaders in government, civil society and business to agree on practical steps to expose and make at least a dent in corruption. Although Hong Kong is sadly no longer a member of the Commonwealth, I hope that the experience of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which has been such an enormous success there, can be built on elsewhere. This is an immensely sensitive area and the values and qualities that the Commonwealth countries share could, if successfully applied, have great potential not only in the Commonwealth but throughout the world.

The Commonwealth has been rightly described as a network of networks—networks of states, Governments, businesses and institutions, with fluid and dynamic patterns of allegiance, alliances and friendships, linked by our shared history, language, legal systems and values. We now live in the digital age—a new network linking the millions of young people in the Commonwealth who represent a huge proportion of the population of the Commonwealth, and who will be texting and tweeting each other with ever-increasing velocity as the years go by, bringing everybody closer and closer together.

I am totally delighted that the present Government are so wholly committed to the future of the Commonwealth in the ways in which my noble friend Lady Anelay so eloquently outlined. I join other noble Lords who have spoken in the hope and belief that, in the words of Ben Okri inscribed into the stone pillar of the Commonwealth Gates:

“Our future is greater than our past”.