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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:48 pm on 21st March 2018.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Joint with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 3:48 pm, 21st March 2018

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and a particular pleasure to respond to such a debate, where there has been a common thread among colleagues and where the speeches have all emphasised different aspects of a remarkable institution to which this House and all its Members are deeply committed. It is a joy to be able to respond. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Richard Graham for securing this debate at such an important time for the Commonwealth, and for a charming and erudite speech in promotion of its values and everything else.

As my colleagues from the respective Front Benches said, there was too much in the speeches to cover everything, but I will try to pick out individual points. I must say that my sense that the Commonwealth is in good hands, as far as colleagues in the House are concerned, is very much enhanced by what all have said in picking out the different aspects of this extraordinary relationship that we all wish to enhance. That task within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office falls to Lord Ahmad; I speak here on his behalf. I praise the work he has been engaged on over the last few months. He was worked tirelessly in relation to CHOGM and continues to do so.

Many colleagues have spoken warmly of the connections we all share with other members of the Commonwealth, and of the organisation’s enormous potential for good. My family is no different from any other. Three cousins in Dundee looked at their futures in the early 1920s. One went to South Africa, one went to Canada and one stayed in Scotland. That is not an unfamiliar family pattern, particularly for my family north of the border. Families and other close ties cover so many different aspects of the Commonwealth relationship. As I will make clear, there is no sense that the only particular focus is on the trading relationship. It covers so much more, as almost all the speeches made clear.

The belief in the organisation’s potential as a force for good is shared by the Government. I will set out how we would like next month’s CHOGM meeting to agree ways in which together we can drive progress in realising the full potential of the Commonwealth. Next month promises to be a wonderful celebration of the modern Commonwealth, starting with two weeks of friendly athletic endeavour at the Commonwealth games in Australia’s Gold Coast.

Peter Grant may like to explain his concept of a medal-less games to the Australians. I wish him joy in that. However, his point was well made; it is indeed “the friendly games” and always has been. However, there is importance in winning. When I was a 15-year-old cross-country runner and Ian Stewart won the 5,000 metres in Edinburgh in 1970, that made us all incredibly proud. Winning matters, but the spirit of the Commonwealth games clearly matters far more, as the hon. Gentleman was right to put it.

I wish my right hon. Friend Dame Caroline Spelman very well for the games coming up in Birmingham. She was right to flag how important that is and how important it will be for the city, just as it was for Manchester and all that was contributed there. That sense of athleticism and of joy that is created around Commonwealth games and Paralympic sport is something we all value hugely.

The week after the Commonwealth games, there will be a summit here in the UK, and the month will conclude with celebrations marking the 92nd birthday of Her Majesty the Queen. I put on the record, on behalf of the Government, our admiration of the extraordinary contribution made by Her Majesty over the years. The Westminster Abbey quote used by several colleagues emphasises how much the Commonwealth means to her. Indeed, His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, whose commitment to the Commonwealth, and the passion with which he speaks about it throughout all his charitable work and other endeavours, speaks for itself. We should be very proud of the contribution made by both Her Majesty and His Royal Highness to the Commonwealth.

For the summit we will have the privilege of welcoming to the United Kingdom national leaders, Foreign Ministers, business and civil society representatives and, perhaps most importantly, young people from every corner of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is a unique global network. Its member countries together cover more than a quarter of the world’s land mass, are home to a third of the world’s population and account for a fifth of the world’s trade. Perhaps most importantly for the future of this great institution and the wider world is that more than two thirds of the Commonwealth’s people—around a billion people; one in seven of the world’s population—are under 30 years of age, as has been mentioned. Those figures show the Commonwealth’s immense potential to be an influential player on the global stage in the years ahead.

We have seen the tremendous impact that the Commonwealth can have when it acts as one, as it did in helping South Africa to transition from the injustice of apartheid to the free and democratic society it is today. At the last summit in Malta in 2015, we saw how Heads of Government came together to press for the ambitious climate change agreement forged in Paris just one month later, and we witnessed the valuable work of the Secretary-General and Commonwealth secretariat in helping to broker a political agreement in Zambia.

However, if the Commonwealth is to continue this important work and remain strong, relevant and fit to face the challenges of the 21st century, it must have a clear purpose that is supported by all 53 member states. My hon. Friend Andrew Bowie, in his excellent speech, which set out what the Commonwealth is not, managed to indicate what it is: this coming together of states, nations and peoples for no other purpose than their wanting to be together, which is so important.

All member states have agreed to focus on four clear priorities at the summit next month—to reassure hon. Members, each priority is as important as the other—and they will all be focuses on which the leaders will agree action. The first aim is to build a more prosperous future by making the compelling case for free trade as the best way to promote higher living standards around the world. My right hon. Friend Sir Hugo Swire—a former Minister for the Commonwealth—made clear, when talking about the Commonwealth business forum, what needs to be done. He spoke of the real work that will follow the summit, and he is absolutely right.

My right hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Soames, in talking about global Britain and the opportunities of that, made the point that global Britain is fine as a slogan, but that we have to deliver. The Commonwealth provides an opportunity, in conjunction with other work we will do, to do just that. Again, the commitment to the Commonwealth shown by both my right hon. Friends over the years has been extraordinary. We are in their debt.

The second priority is to build a safer future by addressing new security challenges, such as cyber-terrorism and online extremism. A cyber agreement is being discussed as we speak. The third aim is to build a sustainable future by helping small island and vulnerable states to mitigate the effects of climate change and by helping the Commonwealth to face other crises. In that context, we can look at some things mentioned by colleagues as they look at other crises. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester talked about malaria, which is a serious health concern for many Commonwealth countries. No decision has been taken on what will be raised at the summit, but we are pleased to note that Malaria No More will hold a malaria summit. It is a matter of great concern.

The final aim to be talked through is to create a fairer, freer and more inclusive future by promoting the values, enshrined in the Commonwealth charter, of democracy and good governance. So many things were mentioned about that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden spoke of the importance of addressing migration and modern slavery. That will absolutely be right up there. The summit is also certainly an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on the education of women and girls, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester mentioned. It will certainly be raised.

My hon. Friend Stephen Kerr raised two questions, freedom of religion and belief, and the preventing sexual violence initiative. Both subjects will very much be raised at the summit and we anticipate discussions on both. We will use the summit to uphold the values of the charter, which are so important to many here. My hon. Friend Gillian Keegan raised the sustainable development goals— I am glad to see her wearing the badge—and the CHOGM summit will be important to that. I know that this also matters to Mr Sweeney, who raised the importance of LGBT issues. Those are other issues of real value. Although some of the subjects are difficult, he can be assured that the values are clear and that the determination will be strong.

The summit is a priority for the Government, and our ambition is encapsulated in the theme, “Towards a Common Future”: to reinvigorate the Commonwealth and to help to make it an even more active and influential global network. We want the summit to be an important milestone for the Commonwealth—a point in its history where it shows it is fit and able to take on the challenges of the 21st century. If the speeches today are anything to go by, I am sure it will be.