Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:32 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade) 5:32 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, I have been in this House for only three years and do not have the depth of experience of many noble Lords who have contributed so well to the debate regarding the Commonwealth. Over those three years it has been a real privilege for me to develop my knowledge and understanding of the Commonwealth. It is a privilege of mine to serve alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on the executive of the CPA. I was both delighted and slightly irritated when the noble Baroness contributed in the gap. I was delighted because she raised the CPA and the work that it does, but irritated because she said pretty much everything that I wanted to say, having sat here for a number of hours waiting for my moment to finally address CPA issues. The noble Lord, Lord Luce, gave a tantalising mention of it, and then the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, spoke. I am sure that the House will forgive me if I repeat—perhaps I should say “emphasise and strengthen”—some of the noble Baroness’s contributions.

In some ways it remains remarkable to me that, with such a conflicted history of military occupation and economic exploitation, the UK retains such warm familial relations with such a diverse network of 52 independent sovereign states around the globe. It really is a remarkable 21st century network of countries, as the Minister said. Our debate on the UK’s relationship with this association quite rightly recognised that we no longer set the terms. Many contributions debated how the UK uses its relationship with this network and whether in some key areas it is perhaps not being proactive enough. Therefore, I thank the Minister very warmly from these Benches for allowing this debate to take place, for the manner in which she introduced it and for the work she does in her ministerial portfolio, which has rightly been recognised across all sides of the Chamber.

The diversity of activities under the umbrella of the Commonwealth and the number of organisations and bodies within that umbrella—as the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, said, it is now touching on nearly 90—is as diverse as the countries within the network. There are countries with populations over 1 billion and others with populations barely over 10,000 people. It really is quite remarkable. But when it comes to CHOGM and our discussions in the Commonwealth, they are all equal. Whether it is the United Kingdom or a Caribbean island, we are equal partners. Then there is the extraordinary work that the British Council does in partnership with the Commonwealth—this year is the UK-India Year of Culture—right through to the CPA work on cybersecurity, on the cutting edge of some of the challenges that parliamentarians have to face. A conference is coming up on cybersecurity, organised by the CPA, with more than 90 parliamentary delegates from across the Commonwealth.

This debate has also reflected diversity, from education to economic development, from development policy to diplomatic dialogue and from LGBTI injustice to shared values. But within all those interesting areas, the debate focused on the two broad themes of human rights and trade—perhaps rightly so, as they are issues that face the world at the moment and are a priority for the United Kingdom.

The Minister referred to the Commonwealth being a unique family of nations. One thing that struck me in her introduction was when she said that within the Commonwealth there are 1 billion young people. The future needs and opportunities for a whole global generation are reflected in the debates and dialogue that we have within the Commonwealth. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, referred to his experience with young people, and the fact that they have a direct input into some of the global decision-making structures, including the development goals, and the challenges that they see. The Commonwealth can play a much greater role in supporting those developments from a neutral political standpoint. There are still immense challenges, but the Commonwealth has a very clear role.

The diversity of the Commonwealth being one of its strengths does not mean that there are universal standards on human rights. That has rightly been the focus of much of the debate this afternoon. My noble friend Lord Scriven said that the values and defence and promotion of human rights should be universal. He is absolutely right and he highlighted the scale of the challenge. Within the family of nations, as we have been referring to it, there requires to be much greater dialogue and open exchanges on addressing issues where we would like to see development.

For two-thirds of the Commonwealth countries, as the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and other noble Lords said, representing 90% of the people in Commonwealth countries, the criminal code on private, consensual conduct between same-sex adults is something that we cannot support. The penalties for such include 10 years’ imprisonment and hard labour in Jamaica; 14 years’ imprisonment in Kenya; 20 years plus flogging in Malaysia; and 25 years in Trinidad and Tobago. Bangladesh, Barbados, Guyana, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda retain life imprisonment as a maximum sentence, and in 12 northern states in Nigeria the maximum penalty for male homosexuality is death. These are all independent sovereign nations in differing regions of the world, and we can no more dictate the terms of their legislation than they can ours. But if the Commonwealth is for anything, it is for having the relationship that my noble friend Lady Barker mentioned in her speech, which is one of equals, but one where we address this and address it proactively. After her really very strong speech, I hope that the Minister will respond positively.

As for offering practical support to the secretariat, after the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, and his request for extra capacity in the secretariat so that we have more ability to work with our friends and colleagues in the Commonwealth, I hope that the Government will see the benefit in that, and I hope that in their ongoing dialogue with the secretariat those things will be taken forward.

There are other issues that I know the Minister is passionate about. One concerns the retention of the death penalty. I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Abolition of the Death Penalty. The majority of Commonwealth countries still have the death penalty on the statute book. I have visited Malaysia, and will be going to Uganda soon, to discuss with parliamentary colleagues ways forward for those who wish to see reforms. When we chair CHOGM, I hope that the abolition of the death penalty can be one area on which we move.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, said, one of the real instruments for allowing such movement to happen is for parliamentarians to work with parliamentarians. The CPA is now in its 106th year—it was formerly the Empire Parliamentary Association—and has 17,000 parliamentarians from 180 national, state, provincial and territorial parliaments and legislatures. But it is not just parliamentarians; clerks, committee staff, librarians and legal support all play such an important role in the developing capacity of parliaments around the world. I am pleased that there will be ongoing work in advance of CHOGM on this. In the discussions of the CPA UK branch, we are already taking the lead-up to CHOGM very seriously.

I have had the privilege not only of taking part in outward visits; in many respects, as a British parliamentarian I have found inward visits the most useful in learning from our Commonwealth friends, especially now that we have national parliaments in Edinburgh, Wales and Belfast. We can learn from developments in the unicameral parliaments of smaller countries. This week, there has been a visit by a very strong delegation from Canada. We can learn much from that wonderful federal country, to cite just one example. I apologised to the Canadian delegates that they were here in such an uneventful political week in the United Kingdom, as they visited Westminster and Scotland. We have much to learn from our Commonwealth friends.

The second broad area that we discussed today was trade. In my final minute I shall address one element that came through from my noble friend Lord Chidgey and others, including the noble Lord, Lord Luce—that we should not lose perspective. Of course there is huge potential for growth in our trading relations with Commonwealth countries. However, the perspective is that, of our top 25 export markets, only four are in the Commonwealth. The figure is only three for our import markets. Brexit is already having an impact. We have heard in the debate that the lower value of the pound, for countries such as Botswana, India and Nigeria, translates into reduced earnings and difficulties for their exports to us. If we do not have bilateral trading relations that are the same as the 32 FTAs that Commonwealth countries already have with the UK through the EU, there could be an increased burden on the least developed Commonwealth nations through increased tariffs.

I hope that the Government are seized of those areas, but ultimately the debate has been framed in positive terms. We all look forward to CHOGM and the British chairing of it, and wish the institution well for the coming year.