Commonwealth Summit - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:04 pm on 20th February 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Conservative 3:04 pm, 20th February 2018

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they have taken to promote the forthcoming Commonwealth Summit with schools, universities, non-governmental organisations, and businesses.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, we have undertaken an extensive public engagement programme across the United Kingdom and the wider Commonwealth to complement and promote the formal summit programme. The Department for Education recently launched a Commonwealth schools pack, which is available to all schools in the UK, to further pupils’ understanding of the Commonwealth and its values. We are engaging schools, universities, non-governmental organisations and businesses and encouraging them to celebrate the Commonwealth and raise the summit profile.

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Conservative

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer. It is often stated in this Chamber that the Commonwealth is an underutilised intergovernmental network and has little profile among these institutions and the general public. After the Heads of Government meeting, the UK will be the chair of the Commonwealth for two years until the next Heads of Government meeting. So what plans do Her Majesty’s Government have to promote this with those institutions? Could my noble friend outline the Government’s priorities for this period in office?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The Commonwealth is desperately underleveraged in terms of what it brings together in common languages, common history, common cultures and common opportunities for the future. I am delighted, as all noble Lords will be, that we now have an additional Commonwealth state; the Gambia has joined the Commonwealth family. On my noble friend’s specific questions, the priorities of the Government will reflect what will be decided during the course of the Heads of Government meeting itself, but already we are seeing some real focus on the important areas of empowerment, girls’ education and 12 years of quality education; on areas of cybersecurity; on trade; on tackling issues around climate change; and on the broader agenda of human rights. All these will be reflected during the two years of the UK’s chairing during this period in office.

Photo of Lord Morgan Lord Morgan Labour

My Lords, is not one of the important aspects of the Commonwealth relationship that of higher education? I have taken part in two conferences on that in two citadels of learning, New Delhi and Aberystwyth, both of which are very successful. Can the Minister tell us anything about the degree of prominence that this might have at the Commonwealth summit?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

The noble Lord is correct in his statement that the university sector is an important part of the Commonwealth. In this regard, the Commonwealth summit unit within the Cabinet Office is working very closely with the Association of Commonwealth Universities, which has over 500 members, and the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, which has 900 scholars and thousands of alumni. As for our own commitment, we are giving over £25 million in the current year on the issue of Commonwealth scholarships. These are all part and parcel of the engagement. I am sure all noble Lords will be pleased to know that there is a specific youth forum during the Commonwealth summit week, which is being organised by those 60% of people under 30 across the Commonwealth family.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, one of the aspects of the CHOGM event is that it is an opportunity for Heads of Government to meet civil society. The Minister has mentioned the several different forums that will be taking place. It is also an opportunity to welcome the new South African President to this country. As chair of the constitution committee, he created a first with the constitutional protections for gay rights in the constitution. Will the Minister take the opportunity to ensure that Cyril Ramaphosa is able to meet civil society and the Commonwealth Equality Network so that we can have a voice from Africa standing up for LGBT rights?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, the noble Lord has put forward a very practical and helpful suggestion and I will follow it up with the Commonwealth unit and the South African high commission. On the broader point about LGBT rights, which I have talked about previously in this Chamber, I have just returned from the Gambia. I assure all noble Lords that during the various meetings that I had with senior members of its Government the issue of LGBT rights, among other human rights, was raised directly.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, the UK will indeed chair the Commonwealth for the next two years. Will the Cabinet Office unit that is currently planning for CHOGM stay in place for those two years? Will there be a focus on increasing trade with the Commonwealth, given that at the moment only 9% of UK trade goes to the Commonwealth even though it has one-third of the world’s population?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

To begin with the final point that the noble Baroness raised—the important element of opportunity within the Commonwealth—she is quite right. I myself mentioned from the Dispatch Box a few moments ago the underleverage and the opportunities of the Commonwealth. Trade will be mentioned specifically in the communiqué, and we are hoping for agreements across the piece on that issue. On the specific issue about the organisation, she is quite right: the current unit sits within the Cabinet Office. It is the intention during our period in office to move the running back to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but all parts of government will be represented within that team.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the global malaria summit, which will be held during the week of CHOGM, gives a great opportunity for all the groups mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, to give their common commitment to a programme to reduce the death toll of malaria in the Commonwealth and beyond?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I totally agree with the noble Baroness and pay tribute to her work on the important issue of fighting and eradicating malaria—we had a very constructive and helpful meeting in that respect. Yes, we are working closely with the organisations Malaria No More and Global Citizen to ensure that eradicating malaria across the Commonwealth 53 and beyond is prioritised. There are 85 NGOs accredited by the Commonwealth, and we are working closely with them as well.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations Committee

I am sure my noble friend agrees that this will be a summit with a difference in that it will involve to an unprecedented degree not only businesses and universities but schools, cities and regions right across the United Kingdom. That is very welcome and the preparation has been very thorough and encouraging. Does he agree that the task now is to ensure strong outcomes and results, so that the benefits and opportunities of the modern Commonwealth network, which is quite different to anything in the past, can be spread to business and to the nation as a whole, and so that we support the Commonwealth more strongly than we may have in the recent past?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

I totally agree with my noble friend. Of course we will ensure that all the opportunities are appropriately leveraged. He makes an important point on education. I was delighted to be with him only this weekend to celebrate the contribution of British Bangladeshi youth, among the other diasporas, to making our country what it is, also demonstrating the strength and benefits of the Commonwealth not just to the United Kingdom but across the world.