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

As the Minister knows, I am keen on flags flying at embassies, including the rainbow flag, which we managed to achieve through her efforts. Certainly, I think my noble friend’s suggestion is a good idea.

The 2015 final communiqué welcomed the adoption of the 2030 UN agenda for sustainable development and the 17 goals and 169 targets. We have to keep reminding ourselves of these because it is a very tough agenda to deliver. I would certainly like the Government to engage this Parliament and this House more in discussing how those SDGs are implemented. The universality of the goals and the specific commitment to leave no one behind are key to the importance of Commonwealth involvement. We all have an obligation to be part of the SDGs’ implementation. None of us is immune from scrutiny as regards how well we implement them. In Malta, David Cameron announced a package of initiatives aimed at supporting efforts to build their resilience, increase their access to climate finance and reduce their reliance on aid. This included UK funds to support a new Commonwealth climate finance access hub. Could the Minister update the House on this and its success in leveraging private sector investment for green projects across the Commonwealth?

Another element of today’s debate is good governance and respect for the rule of law, which are vital to achieve stable and prosperous societies as well as efficient, effective and accountable public institutions. Reference has been made to the excellent work of the noble Lord, Lord Marland. As chairman of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council, he said that the focus on free trade agreements hides the real issue, which is that not enough small businesses are exporting. He argued that abuse of the rule of law and a lack of trust in trading partners were barriers to trade for UK companies, and he suggested that the Government should focus on increasing their capacity to support businesses confronted by such obstacles. I hope that the Minister will be able to address those specific concerns of the noble Lord. Of course, the Commonwealth agreed to make anti-corruption work a priority. It committed to strengthen efforts to tackle corruption, including through increased transparency and co-ordination among law agencies.

One area that has not been touched upon is tax havens and international finance policies, which have resulted in developing countries haemorrhaging billions of dollars in taxable financial resources. These tax losses could have been invested in reducing inequality and poverty, and in developing jobs and prosperity. Surely the time has come for this Government to work harder to achieve global agreement on tax, and that must be a top priority across the Commonwealth countries too. Can the Minister update the House on the work that has been done since the anti-corruption summit last year?

As the Minister said in her introduction and as she has said in previous debates, peace and security are also a key issue for the Commonwealth. Since Malta, a priority has been to counter extremism by increasing co-operation between member states. The UK funded a dedicated Commonwealth unit to deliver this. What assessment have the Government made of this work—in particular, of the work with young people and education networks to counter extremism propaganda on the internet?

At the Malta CHOGM the Commonwealth reaffirmed its commitment to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to support the empowerment of women and girls. As we have heard in this debate, LGBT rights remain a major source of division among Commonwealth members. I think that the point has been made that we do not have the right or the opportunity to force states to decriminalise, but we can work with them so that they understand the economic as well as the human rights issues involved in making the necessary change. As the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has said on numerous occasions, the 2015 CHOGM leaders’ statement recognised the economic potential that can be unlocked by tackling discrimination and exclusion.

My noble friend Lord Cashman highlighted the fact that persecution and criminalisation of identity can also decimate efforts to halt the spread of HIV. It often results in gay people not being able to access the healthcare, education and employment that they need, and it prevents access to HIV testing and treatment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, has repeatedly stated the Government’s belief that the Commonwealth must stand up for human rights, including LGBT rights. She has also confirmed in previous debates in the House that the Government are working on plans to ensure that that important message is delivered when hosting CHOGM in 2018. Because of the noble Baroness’s efforts in this field, I doubt that I am alone in hoping that I am one of her GBFs.

The key to progress in 2015 was the way, as we have heard in the debate, in which LGBT activists from criminalising countries were able to lay bare the facts about life as an LGBT person in many Commonwealth countries. As the country of the host Government, the UK is uniquely positioned to create the space for civil society to engage with decision-makers who are not normally willing or able to consider LGBT concerns. How will the Government work with the Kaleidoscope Trust and the excellent Commonwealth Equality Network, which we have heard about in this debate, to include LGBT issues and tackle this problem at the summit? What is the Government’s position on enabling countries from the Global South that have decriminalised to lead on this issue in terms of reforming outdated criminal laws, particularly sexual offences laws? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, about providing government funding to enable the Commonwealth secretariat to support the reform of these outdated criminal laws in Commonwealth member states.

These are uncertain times in intra-Commonwealth relations. It is possible that as well as threatening the future of the UK and the cohesion of the EU, the Brexit vote will also threaten the socioeconomic development and therefore the political stability of Commonwealth countries. I do not want to overplay that and raise the hyperbole, but the fact is that we need to focus on those relationships in a constructive and deliberate way, as partners, not as the former empire and former great nation. We must see ourselves as partners in terms of trade. Ensuring that there is parliamentary engagement at CHOGM may be a key way of addressing those concerns. That was highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis.

In December last year in an exchange on an Oral Question, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, recognised the importance for parliamentary democracies at CHOGM 2018 to have a way of communicating with the event and agreed to take forward the idea of how best we can ensure that there is parliamentary engagement. Will the Minister tell the House how far forward that has been taken?