Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Flather Baroness Flather Crossbench 5:00 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, we have had a very interesting afternoon. We have heard a variety of speeches on a variety of issues. First, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for the comprehensive way she introduced the debate. I do not think she left anything out in her opening speech.

We almost always have a debate on the Commonwealth every year. Some of it is the same as ever because obviously the issues do not go away so we have to remind ourselves of them. I was very pleased to hear the support for the new Secretary-General, who has been a good friend to many of us. One of the newspapers said she was very greedy because she was asking for the same pay as the former Secretary-General. Is that greedy? Should she accept lower pay just because she is a woman? Somebody else said she was spending so much money doing up the flat but she says it was started beforehand. That is not in the papers. Nobody says that the works had started before she took office. These are the issues that even in our society women have to face.

That reminds me of women—not that I ever forget women. I am pleased that the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, spoke about women. She spoke more about the leadership role of women. I have noticed how many Prime Ministers and leaders who are women do not focus on the needs of their sisters. It is very sad because they have to fight their way and they have to fight all the people around them, and are not terribly well supported in their roles. Certainly, if I go back to Mrs Gandhi, she did not do anything at all for women. Mrs Thatcher did more than people know but there are many women leaders and Prime Ministers who have done nothing for women.

My focus is always on the poorest women. Yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Watson, and I were at a conference on Nigeria. I said, “The women in Nigeria do three-quarters of the work and you give them nothing. They get nothing at all for that”. The people there did not say, “No, no, they do not do three-quarters”. Actually, I could have said they do almost all the work but I thought that would be a bit over the top, but they do. They do agricultural work and all kinds of other work and there is no return for them, and they are controlled totally by the men. They do not have any money, position or status.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, said, without the women we cannot have a change in society. Women are the only way to change the nature of society and the nature of society in the developing countries of the Commonwealth is not good—and that includes India. It is amazing. People say, “Oh, but India has so much money”. Yes, India has money but it is not for the people. The money is for the individuals who have money. That is the problem. Maybe Africa has money, I do not know, but it does not go to ordinary people and certainly not to the women. If we want a proper change, we have to start thinking about how to make it possible for women to have a reasonably good life and access to some money.

I have been involved in development issues since I came to this House. Everywhere I have gone, in every project I have seen, women earn a little bit of money; they change, their children change; they send their children to school—everything changes. Their health changes. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, that health is a very important factor. What he said about nurses was extremely valuable. In India, which is a great place for health tourism, nurses are not valued at all. They are treated almost as if they are street women. So even in the professions or jobs where they are badly needed, women are not valued or treated well.

I have to say a word about Bangladesh. I do not know whether the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, will agree but I have been to Bangladesh several times and it does better than India on every tick-box. It does better on food security, health, education and family planning—in fact, very much better on family planning. I believe that is because there are so many women in paid work. We always say how dreadful these garment factories are; they are dreadful to an extent but they employ girls and women, who change once they are employed. If they get even a small amount of money, they change and when they do, everything else changes with them. In their families, they do not want to have children or to marry too early. All sorts of things happen.

I was speaking a little earlier today to the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Boateng. I said how important it was to have family planning and they both said, “It’ll happen by itself—there’ll be more education and a change in their circumstances”. I do not quite know which circumstances they meant. I am sorry, but we have been saying for 50 years that everything will happen by itself and education will come. No, it is actually longer than 50 years because it was in the 1950s that we started saying, “Don’t worry, education will come and everything will change in developing countries”. Are we not still waiting?

When we have CHOGM next year it is my hope and expectation that we will be clear and straightforward, and not try to pretend that we must not say this or that. We have heard about the treatment of LGBT people. How can we tolerate that? We have to speak out about it. I say frankly that the religious and faith leaders have a real role to play in that. They have a real responsibility and should speak out openly and clearly to the faithful who follow them, but they do not. They are always a little ambivalent about it and they should not be.

We should not be ambivalent about issues which are extremely important and clear. We should not be ambivalent about the treatment of women, or about the fact that somebody like Zuma can build a huge palace for himself and it is said to be perfectly all right. It is not perfectly all right. What would Nelson Mandela say about Zuma? The value of the currency there has dropped like a stone, while he has this huge palace. There are issues in the Commonwealth which cannot be papered over as if they do not matter. We cannot paper over Mugabe. We ought to try to persuade other countries in Africa to say, “This is not the way to treat people”, when things are so bad. Zuma has now said that white farms are there to be taken. Everything seems to be going the wrong way round and they should not be doing those things.

At CHOGM, we ought to set down exactly what we want to see. It is not just about doing it for them; they have to do it for themselves but we have to help them and point out why. The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, also mentioned the rule of law. Nothing can happen in a country—no human rights or anything—if there is no rule of law. You can say, “All right, we have human rights”, but how will you make them happen? You cannot, so the rule of law is very important. I hope noble Lords will make sure that next year it is big on the agenda.