Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

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

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Photo of Lord Luce Lord Luce Crossbench 5:16 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, I am very glad to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, after the most amazing variety of speeches this afternoon. This all goes to show how all-embracing he Commonwealth is, but it also means that the Government, in working on their programme for the summit meeting next year, will have to take some very tough decisions about priorities. If we try to do everything, we will do nothing, so we have to select the kind of issues we want to focus on.

Over the last decade or so, I have taken part in most of the debates on the Commonwealth. There has always been a great deal of good will towards the Commonwealth, and a great deal of good will from the Government of the day, but precious little action, if any. When I was privileged to lead the last debate, 15 months ago, after the Malta conference, I saw perhaps the first signs that things might be beginning to move under the leadership of that excellent Prime Minister of Malta, Mr Muscat, but still I was sceptical as to whether there was really much movement. Now we have a different situation, with new momentum from the Government, and the irony is that it arises from Brexit.

Two things flow from that. First, there is no substitute for the EU in the Commonwealth: they are two quite different things. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, made this point right at the beginning of his speech. Incidentally, he has been tireless in support of the Commonwealth, not just over recent years but over decades, for which we owe him a very great deal. Secondly, we must not use that as a reason to step back into the past, and perhaps I am the best person to say that, as the last British administrator to take up a job in Kenya when it was still a colony. Things were not quite as bad as some people like to make out, but I can say, with great strength of feeling, that that is all the past. In leading the Commonwealth, as we are, towards the next summit, we cannot afford to show today any kind of paternalism, to lecture other countries or to try and impose our views on them too strongly.

I am pleased that the Prime Minister referred recently to the Commonwealth as a unique opportunity. That is exactly what it is, and we either take it or leave it. I am glad that she set up this unit to supervise the summit meeting under Tim Hitchens, and I am glad that she is getting the departments of government to work together towards that end, working right across departments. Of course there is a culture in the Commonwealth, in which Her Majesty the Queen herself has set the lead, of personal rapport—of contact with people. It is almost an attitude of mind that Ministers in government—indeed, all of us who work with the Commonwealth—need to follow.

We should look first at other departments at home. Take the Department for Education. At the moment there is very little education in schools about the Commonwealth, yet it is a salient part of our history. I hope there will be leadership on that between now and the next summit meeting to stimulate schools to take an interest in their history and their past in the Commonwealth of today. There is something called Commonwealth Class, in which the BBC, the British Council and the secretariat work to get contact, through digital revolution links, between schools all the way around the Commonwealth.

Then there is DfID. As has been mentioned today, it has a very important role: it finances part of the institutions of the Commonwealth. However, it needs a more coherent strategy with the FCO on its approach to the Commonwealth, and I hope we will hear more about that in the near future. There is one thing it might like to think about in the longer term: we contribute 14% of the total resources of the European Development Fund and the multilateral work that the EU does. That could mean there could be something like £4 billion available in the period between 2020 and 2026, and I hope we could devote a lot of that to the Commonwealth, among other issues.

There has been plenty of discussion today about strategy. Others know far more than I do about trade but I join all those who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Marland. We need men and women of action who will set up projects and then move them forward, which the noble Lord has done with the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council and with the Trade Ministers’ meeting in recent days.

Of course, we have to keep perspective. Over 45% of our exports and imports are with the EU while under 10% are with the Commonwealth, but the Commonwealth is growing pretty fast. As we have heard, the projection is that there will be $1 trillion of trade by 2020. It needs to be non-bureaucratic. I do not like this talk of endless treaties; we need non-bureaucratic agreements about trade to facilitate trade between us. We need to invite India to take an active part in this. Recent studies show that the potential for trade with India is enormous—within the Commonwealth, not just between our two countries.

On Africa, the all-party group recently produced a very constructive report suggesting ways to make it easier for Africa to trade with Europe and the rest of the world. If we want Africans to support the Commonwealth actively, there must be some advantages to that which would bring help in terms of the development of their people.

Then there is education. I declare an interest as chancellor of the University of Gibraltar and former vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. Here we can take any number of examples. The scholarship and fellowship fund of the Commonwealth has 30,000 alumni, people in leading walks of life all over the Commonwealth who have important links with this country. The scope for developing much more in the field of education with the Commonwealth is enormous, to facilitate more movement between staff and students and more partnerships between universities. In fact, perhaps the equivalent of Erasmus in the EU can be projected into the Commonwealth as a whole. The Association of Commonwealth Universities has 500 members, and an enormous amount can be done through educational co-operation.

That leads me naturally to the role of professional bodies, of which, as we have heard, there are at least 80. I join others in robustly supporting the Secretary-General in the work that she is trying to do. The secretariat has limited resources, and there is immense advantage in forming partnerships with Commonwealth professional bodies for particular projects: groups of countries working together; Britain sometimes in the lead, sometimes not. It depends on the interests of the countries concerned. Through those professional bodies, enormous partnerships of great effect can be progressed. The Commonwealth of Learning has its role to play. The Commonwealth Foundation, of which I used to be chairman, has a role to play. We have not mentioned the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, whose work at the moment emphasises the role of women and youth. Those two areas are vital, as we have heard.

There is an enormous amount to be done on security, for example; on corruption, where we could co-operate with President Buhari in Nigeria; and on the charter. I agree with everyone who has made speeches on human rights, but the best way to move them forward is not megaphone diplomacy but the reasoned arguments that we have heard today—through dialogue within the Commonwealth.

As Nehru always said, the purpose and value of the Commonwealth is that it can show a touch of healing, and that is exactly what we need.

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