Commonwealth Day 2006

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:27 pm on 16th March 2006.

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Photo of Irene Oldfather Irene Oldfather Labour 5:27 pm, 16th 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.