Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:54 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Sheikh Lord Sheikh Conservative 3:54 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, I am pleased to contribute to this important debate today. I thank my noble friend Lady Anelay for introducing the subject and congratulate her on the excellence of her speech.

I have spoken previously in your Lordships’ House of my respect and admiration for the Commonwealth. Covering 52 countries, and a third of the world’s population, it is an enduring symbol of unity. The Commonwealth is perhaps one of the world’s most diverse unions, yet shares the values of democracy and the rule of law. Particularly at a time when the world seems so divided, we must celebrate this strength of unity and harmony. I am proud that we send high commissioners rather than ambassadors to Commonwealth countries as we do not regard ourselves as foreign in relation to each other.

Next year, the United Kingdom will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. This is an opportunity for us to drive forward an ambitious and progressive agenda. The previous summit in Malta in 2015 made a great deal of progress in areas such as climate change, peace and security, and sustainable development. Indeed, given the size and breadth of the Commonwealth, it seems only natural that it takes a lead in addressing some of our biggest global challenges. I say this with particular regard to our upcoming exit from the European Union. We must now refocus our efforts on tackling global issues through new networks.

I will speak specifically about the importance of building our bilateral trade relationships. In an increasingly globalised world, there is great demand for bilateral trade agreements that help to build economies without sacrificing national sovereignty. We know that we need to develop a post-Brexit trading plan. As the EU acted as a protectionist bloc against trade with outsiders, so the Commonwealth can open our trading borders to an entirely new world. The Commonwealth itself is effectively a ready-made trading network. It contains a diverse range of economies, both large and small, developed and developing. Specifically, it contains some of the most dynamic and fast-growing economies, including two of the BRICS: India and South Africa. India is also a member of the “7% growth club”, along with fellow Commonwealth nations Tanzania and Bangladesh.

Trade links between the United Kingdom and the wider Commonwealth are already strong. In 2015, total trade flow between the UK and Commonwealth countries was approximately $91 billion. The Commonwealth Secretariat has calculated that, overall, the UK is the fourth most important export market for the Commonwealth, behind only the USA, China and Japan. Twenty-four Commonwealth countries send at least a quarter of their EU exports to the UK, and eight Commonwealth countries send around 10% or more of their total global exports to the UK.

There are long-standing reasons for the success of our trade within the Commonwealth. Our commonality of language, as well as of administrative and legal systems, plays a crucial role in tearing down barriers. Not least, we of course by definition share a proud heritage and long historic ties.

It has been estimated that when both bilateral partners are Commonwealth members, they often trade around 20% more and generate 10% more foreign direct investment. I would like to see more use of the internet and social media to enhance trade between the various Commonwealth countries. We must focus on channelling investments into sectors with the potential for new growth while helping developing Commonwealth countries to develop their infrastructure and productive capacity. We will need to be very ambitious and liberal in our scope for new trade agreements. We will also need to ensure timely and efficient implementation of such agreements in order to realise their full potential.

I can personally vouch for the level of interest from our Commonwealth friends in increasing trade with the United Kingdom. Earlier this week I attended the high commissioners’ banquet at the Guildhall and discussed a range of issues with high commissioners from different countries. As someone who has a long-standing connection with the City of London, I was pleased to see the City of London Corporation hosting such an event. At dinner I sat next to the high commissioners for Kenya and Malawi. There was a clear appetite for closer trade ties in both cases.

In relation to Malawi, I also discussed the matter of establishing educational links between our academic institutions. I am a strong supporter of such initiatives due to the cultural benefits that they can provide to young students and the long-term economic benefits to our countries. When we learn from each other we gain from each other, and education, like trade, brings people together. Kenya and Malawi are just two of many developing countries within the Commonwealth with optimistic futures for their growth and prosperity. This presents us with vast opportunities for foreign relations.

I would like specifically to mention Sri Lanka, a Commonwealth country with which I maintain close links. I have previously tabled a debate in your Lordships’ House on the matter of bilateral trade with Sri Lanka, and recently asked a Question about trade with that country. Our two countries have sustained healthy political and economic ties for over 200 years. Sri Lanka has experienced significant growth over the past 15 years and is forecast to grow by at least 5.5% this year. It has signed three regional trade agreements with other nations and one is under negotiation with China. I recently met the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka; last week I had a meeting with the country’s Trade Minister; and soon I will meet my noble friend Lord Price, accompanied by two Sri Lankan businessmen. I hope we can build closer ties for the benefit of both our countries.

It is important to note that we already have a large diaspora here from Commonwealth countries who bring knowledge and expertise with them. We must activate and nurture this pool of talent. We must also encourage them to take their knowledge and skills from here to their home countries. On migration policy, it is imperative that our immigration system serves our national interest. We should encourage some migration, subject to certain criteria, but must also assert control over our own borders, which we will be once again free to do. In any case, the renewed opportunities for responsible migration from the Commonwealth will be most welcome. We must seek to promote the movement of the best talent from the Commonwealth to provide us with adequate staff to enable the country to progress further. Can consideration be given to formulating a suitable plan for the immigration of people from the Commonwealth?

We are entering an exciting new phase in our relationship with the Commonwealth. I applaud the meeting of Commonwealth Trade Ministers held in London last week, and pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Marland for his tireless efforts. I understand that the meeting comprehensively identified opportunities as well as challenges across the Commonwealth. I also commend the establishment of the Department for International Trade, and hope that it will place a heavy focus on Commonwealth countries. I hope that we will begin to appoint more trade envoys to Commonwealth countries to identify and investigate opportunities in greater depth. Do the Government intend to appoint more trade envoys?

Finally, I am pleased to note that work is being done among Commonwealth countries to combat radicalisation and promote human rights. I ask my noble friend how we can enhance these activities, as the two issues are very important.