Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:51 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Conservative 2:51 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, I, too, join with noble friends to thank my noble friend Lady Anelay for this debate. The Commonwealth is a 21st century, ahead of the curve multilateral, as its modus operandi is network. Over the last few years, we have heard of networking lunches, networking the room and of course virtual networks, so I join my noble friends Lord Howell and Lord Goodlad in assessing this as part of the essential DNA of this organisation.Her Majesty’s Government have recognised that in evidence to the House of Lords committee on soft power, saying:

The UK lies at the centre of an increasingly networked world”.

The report stated in relation to the Commonwealth that,

“it operates extensively at the level of people, below the radar of governmental and official contacts. This is of rapidly increasing significance in a world of personal and informal networks, where millions of individuals, groups and organisations are in daily and intimate contact”.

Engaging with the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief, which I work for, I have seen its flexibility. You can get to know who is interested in your issue among the secretariat, high commissions, parliamentarians and NGOs without all the formality and bureaucracy of the UN. We selected the Commonwealth not only because of its parliamentary democracies in countries that have either freedom of religion or belief successes or issues, but because it is a network. Both the current UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, and the former postholder are on our advisory board, so it is clear to them that the role of the Commonwealth in human rights is important.

The word “relationship” is important. Relationships are at their best when they are mutually self-sacrificing. There is much talk in the Commonwealth that the UK is back but that, “You forgot us while you are in the EU, but now you need us. You told us in 1973 that we were the past and the EEC was the future”. There is a fear among countries of being used by us to service our own economic needs again, which resonates badly bearing in mind the Commonwealth’s complex origins. The UK’s relationship should be about engagement to bring wealth and peace to all the nations of the Commonwealth, sometimes putting aside national self-interest for the benefit of all—a Commonwealth of equal partners who can put on the table as well as intra-Commonwealth trade, intra-Commonwealth migration. The question for Her Majesty’s Government is how to avoid Brexit alone framing this event. The involvement of British citizens of Commonwealth heritage is crucial to making this a Commonwealth event. This again is a network that can provide a solution.

Our migration has historically been and still is Commonwealth-focused. From census material from 1971 through to 2011, of the top five countries where people are born outside the UK, three out of five in each of those decades are Commonwealth nations: India—as my noble friend outlined—Jamaica, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria. According to the 2001 census, 88,378 Nigerian-born people were resident in the United Kingdom. By 2011, the census recorded 191,183—a similar figure to that of South Africans.

CHOGM will take place just over two months from the 70th anniversary of the arrival of MV “Windrush” at Tilbury, so involving the Commonwealth’s diaspora needs to be a priority and include careful planning and advice from our vast Commonwealth diaspora who can aid FCO staff. I know that the Minister has reached out to the Caribbean diaspora, but the Foreign Secretary needs to play a key role as he has existing relationships from his time as Mayor of London. As I asked earlier this week, do the Government have a strategic plan to engage this diaspora and involve it in CHOGM?

Although I am sure that the Lord-Lieutenant of London, Ken Olisa—the first black man of Commonwealth heritage to hold that title—will play a high-profile role, how will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office handle the visual of the diplomatic corps? From my research, there are 34 high commissioners and they are all white. I use the word “handle” carefully as our diplomats are clearly being trained in digital technology. That is a group photograph that we do not wish to see. The Foreign Secretary hosting key British citizens of Commonwealth heritage could also make a plea for applicants for the Civil Service fast-track scheme at the same time. This is not just about issues on the agenda, but about creating a Commonwealth event and getting the hospitality right. One has only to go into the Robing Room in this building to see that it is an important value that is alive and well among many of Commonwealth diaspora. I remain saddened that the BBC never realised that the top dish on the Parliamentary Estate menu is jerk chicken with rice and beans, which outstrips everything else by a country mile.

Keeping the Commonwealth institutions at the centre of this event is also vital, as they represent the 52, not just the UK. Although there will be 60 civil servants helping to organise the event, they should not to replace the role of the Secretary-General and her secretariat. Distance and respect by Whitehall are vital. I am grateful for the Minister’s outline of her support for the Secretary-General and her reforms, but reforms take resources, so I would be grateful if there could be discussions to ensure that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, has sufficient resources to bring about these reforms and that Her Majesty’s Government will seek to get other Governments to give her their similar wholehearted support at this crucial time.

Although trade will be a large part of the ongoing relationship with the Commonwealth, so is the connection through parliamentary democracy. The CPA has a vast network of relationships across the Commonwealth. How will Her Majesty’s Government ensure that the training of holding Governments to account, on which we spend so much UK taxpayers’ money, will be put into practice at CHOGM? Perhaps the six best-performing Commonwealth countries in terms of female political representation could be asked to lobby the Heads of Government for an initiative through the Commonwealth on this issue. Those six are all African nations. That is the kind of leadership of a new Commonwealth of equal partners that we need to see in action.

In the field of freedom of religion and belief, how much better if colleagues from South Africa, Ghana, Trinidad and the Pacific islands lead on this issue. I commend the efforts of South African parliamentarians attempting to form their own version of an all-party group on this issue in their Parliament. Will Her Majesty’s Government specifically resource parliamentarians to engage at CHOGM? I commend my noble friend’s comments that civil society is absolutely vital, but there is a youth forum, a people’s forum, a business forum and a women’s forum but no parliamentary forum alongside CHOGM. I join the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, in saying that we need to look at outdated laws. That includes laws on mental health issues, sedition laws and laws relating to religion. At the end of the day, the parliamentarians are the legislators.

The UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth network has a further unexplored potential. Her Majesty is the Head of State of 16 Commonwealth realms and the head of a religious organisation, the Church of England, but the UK remains religiously plural. Religion and state are connected but compliant with international human rights norms. The population of the Commonwealth is primarily Hindu, then Muslim and then Christian, and in many countries, if you want to make progress on human rights, on climate change and even on business, you need their religious leaders. I have visited Nigeria only once to speak briefly at an event called the Holy Ghost Congress of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Some 1 million people were physically present and it was shown on cable TV. The Vice-President of Nigeria is a former member of the denomination, so think of the influencers and decision-makers who were in that audience. How is the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting going to include this mass transnational network and seek to understand its influence?

The Commonwealth is uniquely placed as the world faces network challenges, as my colleague Professor Monica Toft outlined recently in the IPPR periodical, Juncture:

“Given the nature of religious beliefs that transcend national boundaries, it is not surprising that radicalism and its attendant violence has been promulgated through loose networks”.

As my right honourable friend Alistair Burt said to me only this morning, there will be no peace without religious tolerance.

Finally, who will the delegates meet at the forum running up to CHOGM—not only the Heads of Government but the speakers at forums, the conference organisers, hospitality staff and security? Last night I looked in detail at the Chevening Commonwealth and Marshall schemes, which are funded by £42 million of UK taxpayers’ money, but I could not find an equivalent scheme for further education or apprenticeships. Soft power exists beyond academic influence in the professions and government nowadays. UK taxpayers, the majority of whom do not have a degree, should surely see Commonwealth apprentices so that every nation state has young people not only studying at our universities and who can attend CHOGM, but also young people learning skills. I hope my research skills have failed me as otherwise the use of UK taxpayers’ money could be portrayed as elitist, as does any suggestion of Empire 2.0. I am sure this must have been a misreporting as that kind of language does not convey the notion of a Commonwealth of 52 and plays into the paradigm of elites running this country. The only way to avoid appearing to use, and in fact using, this network only for our own ends is to reach out to British citizens of Commonwealth heritage to reframe this event, as we risk running a UK’s Commonwealth meeting, not a Commonwealth meeting hosted in the UK.