Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:05 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 4:05 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, I welcome this debate—and the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay—to take note of UK relations with the Commonwealth leading up to CHOGM in 2018 in London and Windsor. Could we not have a wider range of UK cities? I declare an interest as having spent the first six years of my life in south India, where we used to enjoy dancing cobras on Christmas Day, and I am now a visiting fellow of Cambridge’s Malaysian Commonwealth Study Centre, which supports an Asian network for climate science and technology. I am also director of CERC, a small consulting company in Cambridge which is working with environmental organisations in Malaysia. Like many businesses, we expect to work closely with both the Commonwealth and the EU.

We celebrate the Commonwealth for our common history, culture, science and language. In 2016, for those who are of the mathematical bent, we had the great celebration of Indian and British mathematics with the film of the great story of Ramanujan and his colleagues Hardy and Littlewood at Trinity. Of course, Indian and UK culture was celebrated last week in London at a certain museum.

Two weeks ago, I was at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, which, to my amazement, was covered with the flags, posters and cranes of JCB—whose chairman is of course a Member of this House—the UK engineering company, which has a large factory and R&D centre in India. They were celebrating a scientific and cultural weekend of innovation. It was interesting: I have never seen such an event on any other campus. Other Commonwealth campuses could consider it.

My general observation from visiting many campuses around the world is that Commonwealth countries would derive more benefit from these exchanges if there was a cultural and general educational exchange element connected with professional exchange. The UK provides this element for a select few Chevening scholars, but not to specialists. The United States, through its Fulbright programme, does not discriminate against scientists, engineers and technical specialists. I have been on many British Council academic visits and had many British Council visitors to the UK, but in none of the Commonwealth countries involved has there been briefing or information about the general or specific aspects of the countries to which people are travelling.

However, there has been progress. I have been moaning about this for 10 or more years. Recently, the British Council made progress. We had a day here in the House of Lords addressed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Chief Scientific Adviser and Members of the House of Lords in which a range of technical and specialist people were allowed to talk about politics, culture and the ways in which our different countries were working together. Scientists may be run by some countries; in some countries they rule the country, as they do in China. We should be taking a broader view of technical exchange.

The wider issues of openness should be a priority for the Commonwealth. We now have extraordinary sources of information, which many other noble Lords have discussed, that have great economic value. People have spoken learnedly about networks. All networks need information, with IT, satellites and so on, but we need a much greater culture of openness in all governmental organisations. One way of encouraging the culture of openness is through schools and communities. There is a great deal of secrecy; we see that in this country and I am afraid there is quite a culture of secrecy in many Commonwealth countries. This is the only way we will solve problems of health, the environment, improving business and so on.

I wondered whether one of the themes of this CHOGM might be more openness. People have talked about corruption, but openness is a much broader topic. We should be focusing on that. One of the other features is that openness comes with a greater breadth of knowledge and learning, and cultural attitudes towards it. I found it interesting when visiting a major university in India that it commented that the traditional, more specialist degree in UK and European universities is noticeably different from the broader research degree from the United States. It is the latter kind of training and teaching that equips people better for getting appropriate positions in developing countries such as India. It would surely be useful for Commonwealth countries to consider the most appropriate education policies for the countries and perhaps even push the UK in this direction of more openness.

One of the important features that other noble Lords discussed is the question of global climate change. It is accepted now as an overarching policy issue in all Commonwealth countries, but this goal is also pursued in conjunction with global programmes of the United Nations. Despite the slightly negative remarks of some noble Peers, the United Nations is an extremely important part of the functioning of the Commonwealth. Commonwealth countries benefit from it. We need to know where we can have the best benefits. It is noticeable that scientists from many Commonwealth countries are involved in leadership positions in the United Nations, notably in some of the leading positions on climate change.

Another interesting feature is that if you go to tropical countries you find that they are now very interested in the poles—the Arctic and the Antarctic. They claim that they have the third pole, which is of course the Himalayas—that enormous area of snow—but now because of the melting of the Arctic ice, prospective future trade routes may involve shipping going right through the Arctic. That is why India, Singapore and other countries are observers in the Arctic Council, which is a big new development and another area in which the UK can collaborate.

The essential issue is to develop practical plans that connect health, economics and environmental preservation with reducing carbon emissions and adverse impacts. My noble friend Lord McConnell reminded us of the importance of the UN sustainability goals. They are one way to see about our progress. It is very important to see technical and commercial exchange between the UK and Commonwealth countries working in these practical areas. For example, just three weeks ago the Indian Space Research Organisation sent up one rocket with 100 satellites on it. That is quite something. Indeed, we will be discussing in the House of Lords next week British space legislation to have more of these small missions, focused on very specific applications. This is something we shall learn with other Commonwealth countries.

The other important point is that Commonwealth countries have great experience in non-carbon energy systems, both large systems and microsystems. There will be many opportunities for collaboration. One of the interesting features of many Commonwealth countries is that there is tremendous competition for space. Therefore, we have to find systems that are economical in land use, if not using offshore areas. The City of London is noticeable now for helping these new systems. As the noble Lord, Lord Broers, said, one of the important things is to have connections between the developed and the developing countries of the Commonwealth. Canada, for example, has great experience in nuclear and wind power systems. We shall look forward to these kinds of schemes.