Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:02 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Mobarik Baroness Mobarik Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 6:02 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, can I say just how much I have enjoyed listening to today’s debate? I thank all noble Lords for their contributions. It is a reminder of the depth of interest in and support for the Commonwealth in this House. Today’s debate has really done justice to such an important subject. I add my voice to those of other noble lords in paying tribute to my noble friend Lady Anelay for her excellent work as Commonwealth Minister.

This Government are strongly supporting moves to strengthen the UK’s relationship with the Commonwealth ahead of the Commonwealth summit, which we will be hosting next year. The Commonwealth is a truly extraordinary organisation with immense potential for global influence. Its members, large and small, developed and developing, cover more than a quarter of the world’s land mass. They are home to more than 2 billion people, two-thirds of whom are under 30 years old.

Those are staggering statistics. They mean that if the Commonwealth speaks as one voice, the world should listen. This is why the Commonwealth is so important to the UK. It is not only because of our strong cultural ties from the past, which of course matter to us enormously; it is also because of its potential to influence real change in the future. That is why we are investing so much in supporting the development of our fellow member countries: it is a crucial part of our expanded role on the world stage—the Prime Minister’s vision for a truly global Britain.

The Government are intensifying our efforts to end extreme poverty and promote development. Developing Commonwealth countries benefit substantially from UK official development assistance. In 2015, 10 of the top 50 national recipients were Commonwealth countries and total official development assistance to all Commonwealth countries was more than £3.5 billion. We are investing in the future of the Commonwealth. We support the Commonwealth Youth Programme and the Commonwealth of Learning, and provide funding of £23 million to the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. Which allows young people from Commonwealth developing countries to study and work at UK universities. Furthermore, we have recently agreed to fund a new three-year programme worth more than £33 million for the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, the Commonwealth Foundation and the Commonwealth of Learning. This is in addition to our assessed annual subscription of £5.4 million. The UK remains the principal contributor to the Commonwealth Secretariat. This means that the UK plays a significant part in supporting the three Commonwealth intergovernmental organisations.

We are also literally looking to the future of the Commonwealth by supporting the work of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust to reduce avoidable blindness. Through its programmes, almost 50,000 people in Africa have had surgery to save their sight from trachoma, and more than 12 million doses of antibiotics have been distributed to people at risk. The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, asked about the trust, and I welcome his recognition of it. As I say, the trust is doing important work to eliminate blindness and I am pleased to say that we are providing £50 million of match funding to deliver such impressive results.

The Commonwealth is also important because of its potential to boost trade. The Prime Minister has been clear that leaving the EU presents an opportunity for Britain to revitalise its role as a great trading nation. Trade is a force for good, one of the most dynamic and transformational in the world. It creates jobs, raises incomes and lifts millions of people out of poverty. We believe that trade and development go hand in hand. Trade is a crucial driver of development because enterprise transforms lives, not just those of individuals but whole families, in particular when it creates jobs for women. That is why development is at the heart of the UK’s approach to international trade. Helping developing countries to grow more quickly, trade more freely and break their dependence on aid, it also helps to build up our partners for the future. It shares wealth and prosperity across the Commonwealth and beyond.

That is why we want to encourage more trade between Commonwealth members. It is one of the reasons why we welcomed the decision to hold for the first time a Commonwealth trade Ministers meeting and why we took the opportunity to co-host it here in London. This is a crucial moment to renew our partnerships with Commonwealth countries and to further strengthen those close relationships we already enjoy. We should all be making more of the comparative advantage of trading within the Commonwealth. I am delighted that there was consensus at the meeting on the need to boost trade.

In response to the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, leaving the EU means that we will want to make our own decisions about how to deliver policy objectives previously targeted by EU funding. We will be consulting closely with stakeholders to ensure that any ongoing funding commitments best help the world’s poorest and deliver value for money. I agree with the noble Earl that the CDC Group, which was formerly the Commonwealth Development Corporation, is an important way of delivering tangible support to developing countries. Since 2012 the CDC Group has invested only in Asia and Africa, but its portfolio of more than £3 billion covers 1,200 companies in 70 countries, and in 2015 these companies created more than 1 million jobs.