Commonwealth Day 2006

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament at 5:51 pm on 16th March 2006.

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Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 5:51 pm, 16th 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.