Commonwealth Day 2006

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:59 pm on 16 March 2006.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 4:59, 16 March 2006

The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S2M-4060, in the name of Sylvia Jackson, on Commonwealth day 2006. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the valuable role of the Commonwealth in strengthening relationships between nations across the world; welcomes the continued contribution of Scotland and its people to those relationships; reaffirms its support for the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA); notes that this year the CPA Scotland Branch and the Scottish Executive have, as a key focus, continued to develop relationships with Malawi; notes Scotland's longstanding work, particularly in the area of health, throughout the Commonwealth, and commends the theme of Commonwealth Day this year, "Health and Vitality - the Commonwealth Challenge", which highlights the relevance of health, as illustrated in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour 5:06, 16 March 2006

I welcome to the public gallery a large number of people from a wide variety of organisations that are either connected directly with, or have an interest in, the Commonwealth. They include people such as Tracey Morse-Thomson, whom the Scotland branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation met while members were in Malawi last month. I look forward to meeting many others, who could not be squeezed into the Hub this evening, at the reception and presentation after this debate in the Scottish Parliament's committee room 1 when we will try to describe the CPA delegation's visit to Malawi in February.

Today's debate is one of the Scottish Parliament's contributions to celebrating Commonwealth day 2006. It goes without saying that the Commonwealth has an important role in continuing to strengthen relationships between nations throughout the world. The Commonwealth games, which opened yesterday in Melbourne, follow the tradition of being called the friendly games. Scotland and its people have an on-going role in contributing to those good relations.

As MSPs, we are all members of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Approximately two years ago, the Scotland branch of the CPA decided to concentrate its work on Africa and on Malawi in particular because of the strong historical links between the two countries that go back to the early missionaries David Livingstone and Robert Laws, to mention but two. On our recent visit to Malawi, we met a lady whose grandfather had come face to face with David Livingstone. At Bandawe Makuzi church, they still keep in a plastic bag the priest's robes that David Livingstone wore.

With the Scottish Executive, the CPA Scotland branch continues to develop relationships with Malawi, and I was privileged to lead the recent CPA Scotland branch delegation there. I can only describe it as a life-changing experience and I am sure that other delegates will say similar things.

The United Nations millennium development goals, agreed in September 2000 by 189 UN member states, are so important to our debate today. There are eight goals, some of which are concerned with health, which is the focus of Commonwealth day 2006, and they link directly to the wider issue of poverty.

The millennium development goals that are pertinent to health issues are: reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases. The theme of Commonwealth day 2006 is health and vitality—the Commonwealth challenge. That was certainly well chosen, as it highlights the importance and relevance of such issues, particularly in Malawi.

Malawi has a population of almost 12 million, almost half of whom are under 14 years old. Life expectancy is 37 years, compared with 41 years in Africa generally. It has the highest level of maternal mortality in the southern hemisphere, with 1,800 to 2,000 deaths for every 100,000 births—the figure in this country is 12 deaths for every 100,000 births—and, with regard to infant mortality, there are 104 deaths per 1,000 births. The number of children dying before the age of five is 25 times higher in sub-Saharan Africa than it is in the member states of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development.

Moreover, it is estimated that 14.2 per cent of the population—almost 1 million people—live with HIV/AIDS. MSPs have received a briefing sheet from Oxfam that contains some very interesting facts. For example, 70,000 people die each year from AIDS-related causes, and 760,000 adults and 70,000 children are infected. It was pointed out in this morning's make poverty history debate that, since the epidemic began, an estimated 850,000 children in Malawi have been orphaned. AIDS cuts down people in the prime of their productive years, leaving a growing number of families with one or both parents unable to support themselves, and the situation in Malawi is made worse by severe food shortages. Worst affected are the people who are chronically ill with HIV/AIDS, because they are unable to work and any money that they have is spent on health care.

Other major infectious diseases include typhoid, malaria and plague, among many others, and the overall degree of risk is very high. I should point out that one major issue is the number of doctors and nurses. One very depressing fact is that, with one doctor for every 117,000 people, Malawi has the lowest number of doctors in the world.

Dr Jean Turner MSP, who was in the recent delegation to Malawi, had hoped to be here tonight to say more about some of those health issues. Unfortunately, she is ill and unable to attend the debate. Had she been here, she would no doubt have mentioned the mission hospitals at Ekwendeni and Mulanje, and in particular the work that is being carried out at Mulanje on nutrition clinics and gardens in a bid to help the situation. I am sorry that Dr Turner cannot attend the debate, but I know that other members of the delegation will talk about the clinics, the hospitals and the colleges of nursing and the links that we are developing between them and Scottish institutions such as Bell College, Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of Edinburgh.

It would be remiss of me not to highlight the main focus of the visit, which was to build links with the Malawi National Assembly at a number of levels and to consider areas such as governance, institutional management, participation and training opportunities. More specifically, we hoped to gain first-hand knowledge of the National Assembly's progress on their parliamentary reform programme; to acknowledge its particular problems; and to share knowledge and experience of mechanisms for ensuring accountability and parliamentary oversight.

It is hoped that some longer-term outcomes of the visit might include assisting members of the National Assembly and officials in considering good practice with regard to democratic governance and strengthening the institution of Parliament; helping with the training of committee clerks and other parliamentary staff and with transparency and accountability in the parliamentary decision-making process; and strengthening links between members in both countries. Karen Gillon will say more about her own on-going links and sharing of good practice, and I am sure that she also will talk about how we can build links in both countries via the cross-party group on Malawi.

As we are concentrating tonight on the Commonwealth and the importance of health and vitality, I want to congratulate Caitlin McClatchey and David Carry on their stunning gold medal wins on the first day of the Commonwealth games. I also congratulate Dennis Canavan and Karen Gillon, who did well in lodging motions on those successes.

Finally, I wish every success to Glasgow's bid for the 2014 Commonwealth games.

Photo of Lord James Selkirk Lord James Selkirk Conservative 5:15, 16 March 2006

I warmly welcome Sylvia Jackson's enlightened motion and her speech tonight. Her motion highlights the continued contribution of Scotland and its people to nations across the world and it reaffirms the Parliament's support for the work of the CPA Scotland branch.

As it happens, one of my sons is working in Africa. He tells me that poverty is so great that it is almost obscene to hear people in this country talk about the latest designer fashions when such matters are beyond the ken of most people in the continent of Africa. Of course, the answer to that is that everything is relative. I am reminded of the statement of the father of the Indian nation, Mahatma Gandhi, who said:

"It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver."

We in this Parliament can make a difference and help to make a contribution by developing a strong understanding and a helpful relationship with Malawi. I refer not just to my friend Ted Brocklebank's donation of many of the best sets of St Andrews golf clubs ever delivered through the diplomatic bag but to the successful trip to Malawi by CPA Scotland branch delegates in February last year. The subsequent signing of a co-operation agreement between Scotland and Malawi in November has allowed us to continue to develop those relationships and to foster an important partnership for the exchanging of skills and expertise.

One of the most important areas of common interest, in which Edinburgh has for long excelled, is the development of skills to protect the health of nations. The theme of this year's Commonwealth day is health and vitality—the Commonwealth challenge. Currently, two thirds of the 40 million people who live with HIV and AIDS are Commonwealth citizens, and nine of the most heavily infected countries are in the Commonwealth. In addition, each year in the Commonwealth, some 500,000 women die in pregnancy or childbirth. It is believed that many of those deaths could be prevented by higher standards of health care.

There is an old saying that prevention is better than cure. In today's world, prevention has never been more important. In order to help others, it is vital not just to make health care accessible but to enable developing nations to absorb the most significant basic principles of health care through education and training.

Good health and vitality are also developed in the context of sport. Taking part in sport can play a big part in developing health and fitness, one's ability to work in a team and the capacity for human endurance. As I mentioned, I am glad to see Malawi develop its interest in golf and in many other sporting pursuits.

We are right to support the CPA, which has the vision to influence Governments by highlighting the ways in which they can help others. With mutual co-operation from our global neighbours, we must work hard to drive back the frontiers of poverty, ignorance and disease so that we help citizens to enjoy longer lives and a higher quality of life. In general, we must make the world not just a wonderful place in which to live but one that is enjoyable as well.

Photo of Alex Neil Alex Neil Scottish National Party 5:19, 16 March 2006

I congratulate Sylvia Jackson on securing tonight's debate and on the excellent way in which she led last month's delegation to Malawi, of which I was a member. I also put on record the delegation's gratitude to Roy Devon and Margaret Neal for their first-class support both in our preparations beforehand and while we were in Malawi. I apologise to the Deputy Presiding Officer for my having to leave for a constituency engagement after my speech, although I do not make a habit of leaving debates in which I am a participant.

I am probably one of the fiercest critics of Executive policy, but I stand four-square behind the First Minister in his policy of trying to re-establish the special relationship between Scotland and Malawi. The resounding message that we received every day of the week of our visit was about the warm feeling that exists towards Scotland because of everything that our predecessors have done to help the people of Malawi and the surrounding countries in that part of Africa. Indeed, the first lady whom I met at a reception on the Friday evening when we arrived had a good old Scottish name—Molly. From then on, it was almost like being in Scotland.

I say to the Executive that we have to look to the medium and long terms in this relationship. Consideration should be given to the establishment of a permanent representative in Lilongwe to facilitate that relationship and to help to co-ordinate and support the on-going and developing special relationship between Malawi and Scotland.

Until I went to Malawi, at the encouragement of my good friend Michael Matheson, I had absolutely no idea how bad poverty and deprivation were there. In schools, the kids sit on bare floors: there are no desks in any of the schools that we visited; there are no pencils, no rubbers and no paper; there is only the teacher and, sometimes, a blackboard and something to write on it with. That is how poverty stricken the education system is in Malawi, but the classes are full. Sometimes they contain 120 pupils—very enthusiastic young people who are desperate to learn and to be educated. One of the great tragedies is that the number of teachers who are dying of HIV/AIDS each year exceeds the number of teachers who are coming through the teacher-training colleges. Not only is Malawi unable to catch up, it is unable to stand still.

On the economic front, if we can get the governance issues sorted out—there is a great deal to be optimistic about on that front—there is much that we can do to help the Malawian economy. I have already been in touch with one of the members of parliament there, whom Murdo Fraser and I met, about the establishment of a canning factory to develop and add value to the fruit and agriculture sector.

There is a great deal to be said about Malawi. It is a fantastic country and the people are lovely. We should continue to develop our relationship with Malawi and try to help those good people to sort out their problems.

Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green 5:23, 16 March 2006

I echo those words and thank Sylvia Jackson not only for leading the debate, but for leading the CPA visit to Malawi, which I attended. I, too, thank Margaret Neal and Roy Devon for putting together a multi-faceted programme that ran extremely smoothly throughout the 10 days we were there. It was my first visit to Africa, and it was the first time that a Green politician from these shores had been on an official Commonwealth parliamentary visit—not before time. We all have a responsibility to make sense of globalisation and to connect with people, communities and other parliaments around the world. The Commonwealth has a clear role to play in that, which I value.

There are numerous challenges that we need to address throughout the world and through the Commonwealth. One of the challenges, which the Executive has acknowledged, is that if everybody lived as we do in Scotland, we would use up three times our planet's resources. The situation in Malawi is different. If we all lived as Malawians do, we would need only half the planet's resources, but we would be living in extreme poverty. These are two countries that are, for different reasons, living completely unsustainably but there are the possibilities of dialogue between them and of their learning from each other.

In many ways, Malawi is able to jump to some of the solutions that we are now considering in Scotland. Malawians are perhaps able not to make some of the mistakes that we have made over the past 150 years. In some respects, Malawi is blessed with a very low demand for electricity and energy. That will have to grow so that the country's economy can grow over time, but it could potentially move straight to the endgame—to renewables and decentralised energy. That is very important and we can develop that link.

This morning we talked about making poverty history and we reflected on the themes of trade, aid, debt and climate change. One of the things that really resonated with me and other members was our visit to fair-trade sugar producers. That is an incredible organisation that has grown and has real capacity to trade with the United Kingdom under fair-trade premiums. I was struck by the investment that the organisation had managed to make in health care, education and its community.

In contrast to that was our visit to the coffee producers in the north of the country who are not yet trading under fair trade with the UK. There is a real potential for us to channel some of the Executive's aid into sustainable economic development and to help the producers to develop the capacity to trade with us in the west. That is kind of capacity that David Livingstone wanted. He wanted Africa to develop solutions to its own problems; we can help to facilitate that and bring some wealth into the country.

Malawi's Government has only £500 million to spend every year, so it therefore obscene that it is still paying back debts to the west. There are issues about governance—as Alex Neil mentioned—and we in the Scottish Parliament can play a role in assisting with those issues.

My overwhelming impression of Malawi was that it is a very good place to live until a person gets sick or the rains do not come, and then there are huge food-security issues. It is clear that parts of Malawi, and other areas throughout sub-Saharan Africa will become inhospitable in the years ahead, which will create tensions. People will migrate from those areas and will put pressure on the areas that are still viable because of rainfall and food security. That will create huge problems that will stifle development. We in the west therefore have a moral imperative to tackle climate change, to work with our partners and to reduce emissions here. We can thereby allow Malawi's emissions to increase so that the country can have some economic development and room to breathe.

The trip to Malawi has affected me deeply on a personal and political level. I look forward to building links with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and with the people, communities and parliamentarians whom we met on the trip.

Photo of Irene Oldfather Irene Oldfather Labour 5:27, 16 March 2006

It is a privilege to be able to speak in today's debate to mark Commonwealth week, and I add my congratulations to Sylvia Jackson on securing the debate and on the personal interest that she has shown in these matters through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

We in Scotland have a strong role to play in the Commonwealth. In particular, we have forged an exceptionally strong relationship with our friends in Malawi. I was delighted to see some very familiar people in the gallery this evening; people who are committed to progressing that friendship.

I recall when Chris Patten, as a European commissioner, visited Parliament to discuss European and external affairs. On that visit, I asked him what role the European Commission and Europe had in contributing to Malawi and to alleviating the problems in Africa. At that time, we did not have a cross-party group on Malawi, and we had not visited the country. In the short period of time that the Parliament has been in operation, we have made significant progress through the cross-party group that is led by Karen Gillon, and through a significant number of members—not least our First Minister—visiting the country and committing to developing our friendship.

Of course, Scotland has a long and proud history of association with Malawi. Scottish churches have had an enormous impact on the daily lives of Malawians, and of course, the work and the commitment of Dr David Livingstone to the country lives on in Blantyre and Livingstonia. Malawi has had consular representation in Scotland for more than 20 years; no other sub-Saharan country has shown that level of commitment to us over such a sustained period. The connection runs even deeper in my constituency with the consular representative for Malawi, Colin Cameron, being based in Irvine.

Much is known about the history of the links between Scotland and Malawi, but less is known about the close links between communities in my area and communities in Malawi—particularly the educational links—so I take this opportunity to mention one or two of them. Since 2000, St Michael's academy in Kilwinning has been building relationships with St Peter's secondary school in Mzuzu. With financial assistance from Irvine and Seagate Rotary clubs, a teacher from St Michael's was sent to spend a year teaching at St Peter's in Malawi. Since then, the relationship has blossomed. In June this year, five staff and four senior pupils from St Michael's visited Malawi on the first phase of an exchange project to assist in developing the educational links and to work on an irrigation project.

I have not been to Malawi, but I was staggered by the stories that the pupils and teachers from Malawi told me about the challenges that they face every day. St Peter's school has limited facilities. The classrooms have no windows and pupils share desks. There is no electricity and whole-school assemblies are held in the open air or on the school's netball pitch. Those circumstances are so far removed from what we are accustomed to in Scotland.

Malawi benefited from the exchange, but I think that the Scottish pupils benefited, too. We had a question-and-answer session with the Malawian students and I was staggered to hear Scottish kids asking, "What are school dinners like in Malawi?" of people who walk 10 miles just to get to school and there are no school dinners. Lord James mentioned designer clothing. One question that was put to the pupils from Malawi was, "What kind of clothes do you change into at night?" It is good for pupils in my constituency—and for everyone in Scotland—to learn about the difficulties and challenges that are faced by communities in Malawi.

There is so much more that I want to say but I know that the Presiding Officer is urging me to conclude. One of the staggering figures that I heard during the Malawians' visit to Ayrshire last week—they left yesterday—is that there are more Malawian doctors in Manchester than there are in Malawi. I think that that illustrates how important it is for the UK Government's code of practice to ensure that we do not recruit specialists from sub-Saharan Africa. I am glad that the Deputy Minister for Finance, Public Service Reform and Parliamentary Business reiterated that that is the Executive's position in the debate earlier this afternoon.

I support the motion in Sylvia Jackson's name.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 5:32, 16 March 2006

As the most recently appointed member of the Scottish committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I am to some extent the new boy on the block. I congratulate Sylvia Jackson both on securing the debate and on the excellent speech that she made. I did not go to Malawi. I have never been to Malawi, but I have learned more about Malawi in the past 33 minutes than I ever thought I would, so I congratulate all the members who have spoken on their excellent speeches.

I will concentrate on the first part of the motion, which mentions the role of the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. It is worth reminding ourselves that the modern Commonwealth of nations, to give it its correct name, evolved as

"an international partnership of countries dedicated to co-operation and governed by mutual respect".

Today, it consists of no less than 54 member countries throughout Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, the Mediterranean, North America and the Pacific. Up to 1.7 billion people—more than a quarter of the world's population—live in the Commonwealth and more than half of them are young people aged 25 or under. At the core of the Commonwealth are the notions of equality, justice and democracy. They are reflected in the decisions of Commonwealth heads of Government and ministers and in the activities of the various Commonwealth organisations and agencies that other members have mentioned.

Every year, the second Monday in March is Commonwealth day, when the beliefs, principles and diversity of people from different countries are celebrated. It is worth remembering that, at the 1992 summit at Harare in Zimbabwe, the Harare Commonwealth declaration prioritised the promotion of democracy, good governance, human rights, the rule of law and sustainable economic and social development. I point that out merely to remind members of some of the guiding principles and purposes of the Commonwealth.

It is interesting to note that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association was founded in 1911 as the Empire Parliamentary Association and that there are active CPA branches in no less than 170 national, state, provincial and territorial Parliaments and legislatures. Believe it or not, the organisation has a total membership of almost 14,000 parliamentarians. One can appreciate the importance of that linkage. Every member of the Scottish Parliament is a member of the CPA, which fosters co-operation and understanding and promotes the study of, and respect for, Parliament as an institution. Those aims are endorsed regularly by heads of Government and parliamentarians throughout the world.

My belief in the value of the Commonwealth is linked to my belief in the purpose of Europe, which I share with colleagues in my party and in many other parties. Along with every other family, my family lost members in the first world war—two great uncles of mine were shot. European integration is an important way of ensuring that we work together. I put it to colleagues that the Commonwealth stands for exactly the same thing—the promotion of peace, understanding, co-operation, welfare and health. I applaud Sylvia Jackson for securing the debate.

Photo of Mike Pringle Mike Pringle Liberal Democrat 5:36, 16 March 2006

I, too, congratulate Sylvia Jackson on securing the debate and on using one of her small number of opportunities to select a topic for a members' business debate to discuss the Commonwealth. I am sorry that I will not be able to attend the reception afterwards because I have a long-standing engagement at a school in my constituency this evening.

I congratulate not only Caitlin McClatchey and David Carry, but Chris Hoy, who I am sure is disappointed that he won only a bronze medal when he had hoped to do better. Scotland is sitting second in the medals table. I have not had time to research whether that has happened before at a Commonwealth games, but it certainly represents a great achievement on the first day of the games. I wish the rest of the Scottish team in Melbourne all the best and hope that they come home with many more medals.

I hope, too, that the First Minister has every success in bringing the 2014 Commonwealth games to Glasgow. He is in Melbourne to discuss that issue and I wish him success in his efforts. Hosting the games would benefit the whole of Scotland and I am sure that we can show that we have the experience and expertise to hold such a wonderful event again.

I have always been a supporter of the Commonwealth, perhaps because I was born in what was Northern Rhodesia and is now Zambia, which meant that from a very early age I was aware of the close ties that existed with the UK. I remember that when I was a small child, the late Queen Mother visited my home town of Luanshya in Northern Rhodesia. That was a huge event, which I still have a record of through my father's cine films.

I will not repeat the history of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which Jamie Stone has outlined. How that organisation has grown and how successful it has become. It is always good to welcome Commonwealth delegations to the Scottish Parliament, but the group that came from Malawi was, for me, the most significant. The two-day conference that was held in November 2005 was a great success. I was particularly impressed by the address that was given by the President of Malawi, Dr Bingu wa Mutharika, whose honesty and openness—which I found refreshing in an African politician—can only bode well for the future of Malawi.

Along with Karen Gillon, I was extremely fortunate to be part of the delegations that visited Malawi in 2005 and 2006. There can be no doubt that both visits had a profound effect on those who went on them. Many people—not just members— have asked me what differences we noticed and what improvements had been made since 2005. The sun shone for the duration of the two-week visit in 2005. Members might think that that was good, but they would be wrong. The result was that starvation occurred throughout Malawi at the end of last year and the beginning of this year because the rains should have come in February, but they did not. This year we had some sun but, boy, we had lots of rain, which means that the prospects for the maize crop in 2006 are good. The irony is that the improved rainfall has resulted in considerable flooding in some parts, which has damaged much of the crop in the affected areas.

I am pleased that the Executive has focused on Malawi, but given that it is putting in £3 million when the Department for International Development is providing £65 million, choices must be made. Along with the other members of our group, I saw some of the projects that the Scottish Executive is supporting. For example, at the Mulanje Mission hospital, we met the only local doctor who qualified from the medical school in Malawi and who is still working there; all the others have gone abroad.

The project that I most want to highlight is the maternity unit at Bottom hospital, which we visited on both trips. The Scottish Executive has given funding to ALSO—advanced life support obstetrics—which is a training programme for midwives. The programme, which in turn develops midwives into trainers, is being delivered over three years by Graeme Walker and a group of midwives from across Scotland, who have also raised considerable funds for the hospital. Those of us who visited the hospital on both trips saw the improvements that have been made as a result of that funding and fundraising. We could see that Grace and Taliq Meguid, who run the maternity unit, were definitely in better spirits. Although there is still a lot to be done, they are looking forward to better times for Bottom hospital.

The long-term aim is to rebuild the maternity unit at Bottom hospital. If anyone who is listening to the debate, either in the chamber or elsewhere, knows where I can get my hands on $2 million, I would be extremely pleased to hear from them.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 5:41, 16 March 2006

It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate. Without a doubt, the Commonwealth is a tremendous institution. The Commonwealth, through its many facets, brings together people from all corners of the globe. I am proud of the distinct and respected role that Scotland plays in the Commonwealth and I am equally proud of our long-standing relationship with Malawi. I am privileged to have visited the country twice. As I watch the Commonwealth games in the days ahead. I will be cheering just as loudly for the Malawian athletes as I will for our Scottish competitors. It will be a case of divided loyalties in my household if Malawi and Scotland end up competing head-to-head for a gold medal.

Malawi is a bit like that; it attracts loyalty. It got to us in simple ways, but mainly through the warmth and friendliness of its people. It is for good reason that Malawi is called the warm heart of Africa. It got to us for another reason, which is that it cannot be right in the 21st century that people in Malawi have to live in abject poverty when people in countries such as Scotland live in relative wealth. I believe that there is much that we can do about that.

As I said, I have made two visits to Malawi. In the course of our most recent visit, which was so ably arranged by Roy Devon and Margaret Neal, we again travelled the length and breadth of the country. I ventured south, to the very hot Chikwana district, to see at first hand the work that Tracy Morse and her team are doing. I saw the challenges that they face in tackling terrible diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS. We saw mums who had walked great distances to have their babies in the hospital. We also saw children, some of whom were younger than my own two boys. Sadly, as we debate the issue today, I know that it is unlikely that those children in Chikwana are alive today. Visiting that district hospital was a harrowing experience; it was an experience that changed people We also visited a village where we met the local people and the chief to discuss their needs. They told us that their primary need was for a borehole that would provide a clean and safe freshwater supply. They said that a borehole would not only provide clean water, it would free the village girls from having to walk miles to collect it; they would instead be able to attend school.

Their next priority need was for a bicycle ambulance, which is a bicycle and trailer that can be used to take people to hospital. The village did not have an ambulance, but the villagers wanted to be able to get people to hospital in a better way and more quickly. The cost of a bicycle ambulance is about £100.

The final need that the villagers told us about was for a medical box. I was a bit surprised when they told us that, as I did not know what it was. On further discussion, it transpired that a medical box was a box in which medicines were made available locally—medicines such as paracetamol that we take for granted in our homes, never mind at local level.

One of the projects that the Executive is supporting focuses on the villages in Malawi. It offers training to local people, initially women. If I learned one thing from my visits to Malawi, it is that changing the lives of the women of Malawi is the thing that will change the country for the better. When women begin to take charge of their lives, tackle some of the existing gender violence issues and begin to get involved in developing their country, Malawi will have turned a corner in its development. Those women will be able to educate others on hygiene, lifestyle, sexual practice and disease prevention and they will be able to get some of the materials that we talked about.

However, the real difference will be community involvement, which is key in education as well as in health. Two Scots—Tina Dean, who is one of my constituents, and Janet Chesney, who is one of Sylvia Jackson's constituents—are involved in community development through education. We visited an AIDS project at Paradiso House, where I was given a foundation stone to lay for the new building by children aged seven, eight and nine who have AIDS and will die because they cannot get access to the medicine and support that we take for granted. That had a huge impact on me. The project is trying to help people to get access to the medicine and support that they need.

I am passionate about Malawi—I have got the bug, like many members and people in the gallery today. The Scottish Parliament cross-party group on Malawi is essential, because it keeps a focus on Malawi in the Parliament and builds links in Scotland. I hope that colleagues in Malawi will establish a cross-party group in Malawi's Parliament with which we will be able to liaise. Our relationship with Malawi is not a fly-by-night or short-term relationship; it must be long and sustained if it is to make a difference to people in Scotland and Malawi.

When we went to Malawi we met a number of people whose love and respect for Scotland made them proud to describe themselves as black Scots. Likewise, I would be proud in time to be known as a white Malawian.

Photo of Murdo Fraser Murdo Fraser Conservative 5:46, 16 March 2006

I commend Sylvia Jackson for securing the debate and for her motion on Commonwealth day. I have enjoyed listening to members' reflections on the visit to Malawi by the delegation from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Scotland, of which I was glad to be part. As others have done, I thank Sylvia Jackson for leading the delegation and Roy Devon and Margaret Neal for shepherding us around. I also thank fellow members of the delegation for their generally genial company during the visit.

I offer a few reflections of my own. Malawi is a land of contrasts. On the one hand, we saw heartrending sights. We witnessed desperate poverty and saw people who do not have enough to eat. We saw people who live without basic amenities and have to walk for miles to obtain clean water. We saw people who lack basic health care and have access to only primitive opportunities for education. On the other hand, we witnessed many good things, many of which I am pleased to say are being supported by people in Scotland. I am not always a vocal supporter of the Scottish Executive, but the Executive is doing the right thing in giving effective support to Malawi that is delivering on the ground.

The delegation could see for itself that a little of our money goes a very long way in Malawi. What are to us very small sums of money can make a huge difference to people. I encourage people in Scotland who contribute to Malawi to redouble their efforts and I encourage other people to join them, because we can make such a difference to people's lives.

The tragedy of Malawi and sub-Saharan Africa is that there is no natural reason why the region should be poor. Malawi has suffered from drought in the past but the country has had rain this year and a good harvest is expected, as Mike Pringle said. Malawi has been blessed with peace, is generally stable, has reasonable natural resources and has people who are kind, friendly and hardworking. The failure of Malawi is a failure of politics and as the former colonial power in the country we must accept our share of responsibility for that. Malawi's Parliament has not met since October and might not meet again until April. All the things that need to be done in the country are difficult to achieve without a properly functioning democracy and the enforcement of the rule of law. The Scottish Parliament can and should help to strengthen the institutions of democracy in Malawi. Members mentioned the parliamentary reform programme that has been proposed, to which we should give our enthusiastic support. We should consider how this institution can help in kind, perhaps by sending members of staff such as parliamentary clerks to build links with people in Malawi. I suggest not that we tell Malawians how to run their country—we did enough of that in the past—but that we offer practical help. We should remember that there has been democracy in Malawi for only the past 12 years. We cannot expect Malawi immediately to become a country like ours, which has had a democratic system for 300 years.

My final words—which are probably the final words on behalf of the delegation—are to reflect on Karen Gillon's comment that Malawi is the warm heart of Africa. We all found that when we were there. For me, the highlights of the trip were our visits to churches, particularly during the second weekend, when we visited St Andrew's church in Mzuzu, which has a congregation of 2,500 people, the average age of which is probably about 25. Some people had walked miles to join in the worship. The faith and spirituality of people in Malawi puts us to shame. They may be poor in our terms—in material terms—but they have a richness that we seem to have lost. As we develop the relationship with Malawi, we can give people there a lot and they can learn a lot from us, but it is important that we remember that we can learn a lot from them.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 5:51, 16 March 2006

It is a privilege to take part in the debate on behalf of the Executive. I thank Dr Sylvia Jackson for giving us the opportunity to celebrate Commonwealth day and the valuable work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. There have been some superb speeches that reflect the personal experiences of those who have visited Malawi. I will touch on some of the issues that they raised.

The modern Commonwealth comprises 1.7 billion people—30 per cent of the world's population—from 53 member states that have a shared belief in freedom, democracy, international peace, the rule of law and equal rights for all. Commonwealth day promotes the understanding of global issues and this year is no exception, with the theme of health and well-being. Many of the speeches have touched on that theme in relation to Malawi. The Commonwealth has had to face some serious situations in its history and is, no doubt, likely to do so again in the future. On occasion, it has its differences and arguments, but its strength is its diversity and ability to discuss and find solutions to problems. The difficulties are not always political—we cannot forget the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan and northern areas of India on 8 October 2005.

Scotland has many historical links with Commonwealth countries. Scots engineers, doctors and missionaries worked in many countries of the Commonwealth. Their contributions helped to develop and shape those countries in the past 200 to 300 years. I will name but a few of them. Sir John Macdonald was the first Prime Minister of Canada and was central to bringing about the confederation of Canada in 1867. Catherine Spence became Australia's first female political candidate and first woman journalist and novelist. She was a lifelong campaigner for women's suffrage and wrote the first legal studies textbooks in Australia. Members have mentioned David Livingstone, the explorer and medical missionary, who discovered Victoria falls. Those are just some of the Scots who played a major part in shaping the countries that make up the Commonwealth.

Members have rightly focused on the special relationship between Scotland and Malawi. We have a long history of collaboration, particularly in health and education. Both countries wish to build on that history by actively engaging through partnership. None of us could fail to be moved by the health statistics that Dr Sylvia Jackson mentioned. The figures on life expectancy, mortality and infant mortality are truly shocking. It is difficult for us in Scotland to comprehend just how difficult and challenging life is in that country. To reflect on what Lord James Douglas-Hamilton said, it is truly humbling to compare the lot of people in Malawi with the benefits that we in Scotland enjoy. We have a right to health and education services that are second to none, but those people do not. Our work in Malawi should tackle some of those key issues.

Some members will know that Scotland signed a co-operation agreement with Malawi on 3 November last year. The partnership is reciprocal—it is based on sharing experiences and skills and is an opportunity for Scotland and Malawi to learn from each other and to recognise each other's needs. The agreement covers co-operation in a number of broad areas—civic governance, sustainable economic development, health and education—that members who have visited Malawi recently have touched on.

We have agreed principles that will underpin all the health engagement between Scotland and Malawi. The Ministry of Health and Population in Malawi has identified its priorities as being to increase the number of front-line health professionals of all cadres, to improve their skills and to support communities so that they can access and deliver health services as part of the Malawi national health plan. As Karen Gillon said, a simple thing such as a bicycle ambulance for £100 can make a big difference. That shows what the money that we in Scotland are trying to invest to help Malawians can achieve. Scotland aims to support the priorities by building capacity in training institutions and facilitating in-country specialist and community training to enable the Malawi essential health package to be delivered. We are actively engaged in delivering our commitments to Malawi. A team from the Health Department is due to visit Malawi at the end of March and other actions have already been identified and planned.

Our focus is capacity building, but we recognise the critical importance of the wider determinants of health, including poverty alleviation, the promotion of gender and disability equality, education— particularly the education of girls, which is the key to unlocking some problems in Malawi, as Karen Gillon rightly stressed—sustainable livelihoods, safe water, improved nutrition and security. I assure members that our work in Malawi is not short term—it is longer-term work because we need to engage on a long-term basis if we want to make a difference.

On this important day, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Commonwealth games. Members will be aware that the Scottish Executive supports Glasgow's bid to host the 2014 Commonwealth games. The First Minister and the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport have been active in trying to generate support for the bid throughout Scotland and both are now in Melbourne attending the 2006 Commonwealth games with representatives of the Glasgow 2014 bid team. They have introduced Glasgow's bid to other Commonwealth games associations to show that Glasgow is the right choice. I am sure that all members wish them success in trying to ensure that Glasgow successfully attracts the Commonwealth games to this country and I am sure that all members would like our athletes in Melbourne to know how proud we are that Scotland has already, on the first day, won two gold medals and one bronze medal—members have already mentioned that. I am sure that those medals are a forerunner of many medals to come. We wish our athletes every success in the coming days.

Meeting closed at 17:58.