Future of the Commonwealth — [Philip Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 21st March 2018.

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Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester 2:30 pm, 21st March 2018

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future of the Commonwealth.

It is a particular pleasure to hold this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and as a child of the Commonwealth and as the founder chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the Commonwealth. The fact that so many Members are here—at least on the Government side of the Chamber—is testament to the enduring importance of the Commonwealth. Today is a good day to have this debate, because it is only a few weeks before the first Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in this country for 30 years.

Much has been written about the Commonwealth, and it has been written off many times, but we can be confident that a recent article in The Guardian entitled “Empire strikes back: why former colonies don’t need Britain after Brexit” was suitably disobliging. A 69-year-old multilateral body that spans all continents and has 54 nations, from the very large to the minute, some 2.4 billion people, great forests of diversity, billions of pounds of intra-trade, a headquarters in a royal palace and a logo that appears to be a globe swallowed up by a hedgehog does not need to worry too much about The Guardian. What the Commonwealth needs to do is ensure that it is looking firmly forward, surprising us with its constant reinvention, giving the younger generation responsibility and, above all, looking confidently towards a bigger, better future—one that the American poet Aberjhani called

“reinvigorated substance, a fresh flow of ideas, and splendidly revitalised colour.”

Let me share a few thoughts about what that might look like in practice and what Britain might contribute. I cannot today namecheck the more than 100 Commonwealth organisations based in London, or pay tribute to their individual contributions to this great brand that we all want to see shine ever more brightly, but I can start by welcoming the fact that Prime Minister Modi—he is the Head of Government in India, which is the Commonwealth’s most populous nation—will be at this CHOGM. It is the first time that the Prime Minister of India has been for 13 years. That is important.

In that context, I strongly support the Royal Commonwealth Society’s call for a new visa partnership with India, modelled on what a number of us worked hard to achieve with China only a few years ago. That partnership would recognise that we are such an important investor in and visitor to each other’s countries. Let us build stronger links with India and encourage her to take a bigger leadership role in the Commonwealth. At the same time, let us use our huge development reach through the Department for International Development to realise two big development goals across not only India, but all the nations of the Commonwealth.

First, we should have a vision to increase vision, using the technology of apps and the success there has been, primarily with cataract operations. That concept was brilliantly outlined by Peek Vision during the Commonwealth service in Westminster Abbey, and it has realised huge success in east Africa and further south, especially in Botswana, whose Minster of Health was there beside our Prime Minister during the service. On that occasion, some Members will have heard the charity’s co-founder explain how the apps that have been developed can be used by teachers to diagnose what an impaired sight or blind person is suffering from and how they can be cured. There are more than 100 million people with bad or no eyesight in the Commonwealth and together, as a unified entity, the Commonwealth can help many of them, if not all, to have better vision.

Secondly, we could affirm the determination to eliminate malaria, not least through the charity Malaria No More. Across our Commonwealth and throughout the continent of Africa, malaria prevents so many people—especially the young—from reaching their potential or even enjoying a life beyond childhood. As someone who had malaria on his wedding day in east Africa, I feel I owe the mosquitos one. I hope that the Secretary of State for International Development and the Minister will say more about Malaria No More.

By combining development funds with national programmes, international charities and the power of giving across so many countries, I believe the two dreams of giving almost everyone in the Commonwealth sight and ridding the Commonwealth—and ultimately the world, but let us start with the Commonwealth—of malaria could be achieved. That would unite the people of the Commonwealth in a shared understanding of what we can achieve together. By eliminating malaria, we can make real advances on an issue that I know the Foreign Secretary cares hugely about and loses few opportunities to advocate: delivering 12 years of education for the 130 million girls in the Commonwealth currently not in school. I hope that the Minister will say more about what we can achieve to ensure that every girl in the Commonwealth gets the chance to go to school.

Nor is what the Commonwealth can achieve limited to change that directly affects humans. We can make the Blue Charter project come alive in islands in the Caribbean and the Indian and Pacific oceans. On land, we can protect more forests through the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy scheme. I hope that the Commonwealth will commit to that during CHOGM and bring that Blue Charter project alive.

These visions, projects and development causes will strike a light with many young people in different nations, and I agree with those who want to bring alive the values of the Commonwealth by doing more to promote gender equality through, for example, the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network. Of course that will sometimes prove controversial and uncomfortable in parts of the Commonwealth, as have other similar causes, but I hope we will not be shy in promoting the values that all nations have signed up to in the Commonwealth charter. Perhaps the Minister will say more about that.