Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:43 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 5:43 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and my noble friend Lord Cashman, I am an officer of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT Rights. I am also a member of a number of other organisations that promote human rights, particularly those of LGBT communities.

The Minister opened by stating that the aim of the Government was to help the Commonwealth to unlock its vast potential, and use the opportunity of hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018 to do just that. She is absolutely right to stress that there is cross-party support for that objective. When we debated the results of the last CHOGM 15 months ago in the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Luce, she pointed out that it coincided with the European Union Referendum Act receiving Royal Assent. It is quite strange that today’s debate also coincides with the Bill to trigger Article 50 receiving Royal Assent—I do not know if that is a coincidence or was planned by the Government. In that previous debate, the Minister emphasised that the choice facing the country in the referendum was not binary; our membership of both the EU and the Commonwealth complemented each other. For some, the UK’s vote to leave the European Union means that our relationship with the Commonwealth assumes a greater significance.

I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said about the synergy that members of the Commonwealth have. There are undoubted opportunities but, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said, there are also threats. For members of the Commonwealth, Britain was—and remains, until we finally leave—a powerful advocate within the EU, with considerable opportunities to work in its broader interests. The Commonwealth, comprising 52 developed, emerging and developing nations, presents a range of potential trade options and challenges. Of course, trade between the UK and the bloc declined markedly between 1948 and 1973, with UK goods exports to the group and Commonwealth goods imports to the UK both falling from 38% to 18%. From 1991 to 2011, however, UK exports changed from 9.2% and 8.8%, bottoming out at 7.4% in 2006, while Commonwealth imports rose steadily from 7.7% and 10.6%.

Many noble Lords have reminded us, as the Minister did last week, that the promised inaugural Commonwealth Trade Ministers’ meeting has taken place. As we have heard, its objectives were set in Malta in 2015 and reflected the commitment of Commonwealth member countries to a,

“transparent, free and fair multilateral trading system”,

and to define an ambitious Commonwealth-led agenda for growth. However, I am afraid that the International Trade Secretary travelling around the world to hold pre-negotiations with potential trade partners is no substitute for a clear policy. Perhaps if Dr Fox had first focused on policy rather than polemics, we might have been spared the embarrassment of him alienating Commonwealth Ministers with a vision of trade that his own officials refer to as “Empire 2.0”.

The UK must learn to engage constructively with the rich diversity of potential trading partners who are willing to work with us post Brexit. Many Commonwealth trading partners are concerned to see the UK, post Brexit, continue the EU’s GSP-plus system of enhanced preference for countries that have implemented core human and labour rights as well as environmental and good governance conventions. Least developed countries, in particular, need reassurance about the “everything but arms” arrangement, which grants duty-free and quota-free access into our markets to all products from those countries except arms and ammunition. Until the UK signs new FTAs with the nations of the Commonwealth, Britain will be in the odd position of having worse trading terms with these countries than Brussels has. As Sir Simon Fraser, the former head of the UK Foreign Office, noted recently, the damage goes beyond that, saying,

“these EU trade agreements are vital for”,

Commonwealth states’,

“development goals. The UK will no longer be able to champion their access to the EU market as we have in the past”.

Does the Minister not agree that it would have been better for the Government to present to Parliament and the country an international trade White Paper, setting out their international trade principles and a clear plan for what they intend to achieve through future trade negotiations—which may even assist members of the Cabinet to speak with one voice?

As the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, said, it is vital for the UK and the EU to work together constructively to mitigate post-Brexit risks. Does the Minister agree that perhaps the best way of managing the related economic uncertainties would be to specify or include continuity of the trade preferences that developing countries currently enjoy in Europe? However, as we have heard in this excellent debate, the future of Britain within the Commonwealth goes further than trade.

As I have said, Commonwealth government leaders were firmly of the view that Britain within the EU represented a positive force in the development debate in both financial and influence terms, and in ensuring that the EU’s role as the world’s largest multilateral donor followed a more progressive agenda. Britain’s contribution to the EU aid budget has been substantial. In 2014, the Department for International Development distributed £1.14 billion of aid through the European Commission—that aid is considered the best form of support from a multilateral body—including £328 million through the European Development Fund.

The removal of British influence—of British government departments, NGOs and think tanks—from areas of development spending will have direct implications for achieving the sustainable development goals. On her election as Commonwealth Secretary-General, my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland committed to,

“build consensus on a revitalised Commonwealth”,

which will focus on the,

“twin goals of democracy and development”.

I totally associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, and others about her absolute commitment, and how terrible and totally unjustifiable some of the attacks in the media have been. The 2015 final communiqué—