My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for taking a lead and calling this very timely debate. Given the remarkable historic trade summit and Commonwealth week of celebration in the presence of Her Majesty, I was inspired by the contribution in the City of London by the honourable Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, and his foresighted vision of a more united Commonwealth. As a daughter of the Commonwealth, I wish to focus my comments on the role of women in the Commonwealth.
Current leadership can easily give a false sense of comfort, with Her Majesty carrying the baton for equality, but there are only two women heads of government—in Britain and Bangladesh. But the speaker of the Bangladesh Parliament, Dr Shirin Chaudhury, is the chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland is the Secretary-General. Her priority this year is to drive Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50:50 by 2030. The aim is to continue as pioneers towards gender equality and to achieve fully the economic and social inclusion of women and girls. I wish to take this opportunity to speak particularly about the importance of the political, social and economic inclusion of women at the heart of our trading and security relationship among the 52 Commonwealth countries, without which there cannot be lasting peace and prosperity in our world.
I am a member of the Africa Group in Parliament, and last year we concluded an inquiry. Among the many objectives was the role of aid in promoting human rights. The UK rightly takes pride in its aid policy and it is important leverage in our work alongside Commonwealth partners to pursue our common desire for social justice and equity, be it in peace or in times of conflict. My personal observation during that period was that while many Commonwealth leaders have unflinching loyalties, given the rising influence of a younger generation, a significant number of Ministers and leaders were mindful and stated in no uncertain terms in their evidence that aid cannot dictate the social justice policies of sovereign Governments and partner countries.
In this context, any reference to empire, old or new, raises legitimate questions about how CHOGM and other institutions surrounding the Commonwealth can benefit all the Commonwealth equally alongside British interests. The fact is that we have enjoyed an unfettered advantage. Many want to negotiate a new post-colonial relationship, and I am in total agreement with the contribution made by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, whose comprehensive analysis looked at how we can achieve levels of parity and respect among nation states.
Our Commonwealth Charter declares that,
“gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential components of human development and basic human rights. The advancement of women’s rights and the education of girls are critical preconditions for effective and sustainable development”.
These values of human dignity and gender equality must be intrinsic and present in all our trade and security relationships as we continue to strengthen our ties. Of course, if women are absent in their thousands from executive governance and in Parliament, the consequence of limited progress towards gender equality in these areas at regional and national levels is inevitable.
Women’s political empowerment and equal access to leadership positions at all levels are fundamental to achieving sustainable economic participation and a fairer world. With restricted growth in women’s representation, the advancement of gender equality and the business of governance, peace and security are seriously threatened. Unsurprisingly, 2017 has seen a decline in women’s political participation in a number of countries. Only two nations of the Commonwealth have female heads of government. This surely indicates that change has to be embedded in every corner of society. Progress in the number of women Members of Parliament worldwide is also moving at a snail’s pace, albeit that the number of women Speakers of Parliament has seen a small increase. However, the number of Ministers remains unchanged. It is still far from gender parity and indicates that gender equality remains out of sight in structures of power and decision-making; economic power and high office remain the domain of men.
Without a fair and level playing field along with a concerted effort to protect and promote women’s rights and leadership, we will not see a social environment in which entrepreneurship and small businesses can thrive. If we do not regard women as critical factors in our economy, there will be no equality in the market or the boardroom and they will not have financial independence, which will render the very fabric of our institutions undemocratic. We leave aside at our peril the importance of women as consumers of trade and business and as soft power generators. While many of these changes must come from within national institutions and Governments, the international community—and Britain in particular—has an onerous responsibility to ensure that gender equity can forge ahead unconditionally. It has to be the highest priority on our agenda for economic ties.
There seems to be a distinct excitement about the post-Brexit relationship with the Commonwealth. Successive Governments have overlooked the significant prospects for Commonwealth nations. Notwithstanding our colonial past, the people of the Commonwealth continue to defer to the UK’s standing and political values, not to mention their adherence to the remnants of our own legal system and governance. Their systems are prevailingly based on our model, although a little cranky at the edges.
We also have a forceful diaspora here with a deep-rooted Commonwealth heritage who contribute immensely to the UK economy. We should utilise these people as our assets and ambassadors to strengthen our economic and institutional ties. Many second and third generation Asians and Africans who were born and brought up in the UK are trail-blazing in business in their parents’ birthplaces, seeking out emerging markets and opportunities as well as assisting in building community infrastructures such as schools, hospitals and charitable institutions. I have witnessed many such projects at first hand in Bangladesh and I know of many friends who are actively engaged in India, Pakistan and many parts of Africa. Of course this means that our Government will need to refresh our policies on migration as well as trading arrangements and I cannot but mention the need for a welcome mat for international students beyond China. As an officer of the APPG on International Students, I must reiterate our call for international students to be taken out of net migration figures. It should be noted that the message that students from many parts of the Commonwealth are not welcome has been too harsh for too long.
The irrepressible presence of the Bangladesh, Pakistan and India diaspora of nearly 2 million people with financial clout represents a massive potential link to developing export markets. China is already cultivating and strengthening its position in these regions where our standing, history and friendship are far more significant. The much-respected and praised noble Lord, Lord Marland, has already opened the door of possibilities by recently organising the first ever Commonwealth heads of trade meeting with a view to increasing co-operation and trade between Commonwealth Governments and leading businesses. I had the privilege of having a conversation with the noble Lord and I wish him well in all his endeavours.
Finally, the Commonwealth Secretariat, in collaboration with the Commonwealth Youth Council, the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network, and Rotary clubs in Canada and the Caribbean, has launched the Commonwealth Women’s Mentorship Scheme. I hope that some of our UK business leaders will participate and mentor the new generation of business women from the Commonwealth.
I conclude with the following questions for the Minister. First, what will Her Majesty’s Government do to ensure that all future political, economic and trade discussions embed women’s leadership at their core, as well as a recognition of the right of women to contribute to their nation’s economic progress? Secondly, not just for the greater good of humanity but because of our historical contribution, what plans have been put in place by Her Majesty’s Government to bring about peace among the various countries within the Commonwealth where long-standing conflicts rage, afflicting countless generations and exposing young people to the threat of extremism? India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh are cases in point.
I will repeat my previous call made in this House about reparation and apologies for the hundreds of thousands of women of Bangladesh raped by the Pakistani army as a weapon of war. Will the Minister consider this proposition within the context of peace building? I accept that it demands courage and foresight, which she has in abundance.
Finally, I want to take this opportunity to salute Her Majesty, the Prime Minister and the Secretary-General for their continuous leadership to usher in a more peaceful and prosperous Commonwealth and look forward to the 2018 meeting.