I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Commonwealth Day.
It is a privilege and it gives me extreme pleasure to serve under your esteemed and excellent chairmanship, Mr Gray; I know you will appreciate the sincerity of my words.
I apologise for being here today, not only because of the content of my speech but because you were expecting my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller, who sadly cannot be here due to a more recent commitment going into her diary urgently. I want to facilitate a wide debate on the Commonwealth while particularly concentrating on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s international branch and some technical issues around the branch’s status that we are making progress on.
I should not have to remind the House that the second Monday in March is Commonwealth Day—a day of great celebration and a second birthday for parliamentarians across a third of the world. I am pleased to see the Minister in her rightful place; it is a pleasure to work with her in yet another format.
I looked back on previous debates on Commonwealth Day, conscious of vague memories of participating in them as a Back Bencher, as chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and, in 2021, as the Minister responding to the debate. I started by reading the first paragraph of the 2021 debate in Hansard, which was taken up entirely not with Commonwealth matters but with matters to do with covid, including how we were to behave and rules on virtual participation; how far we have moved forward since then. I skipped to the back, which is always the most interesting place, where my hon. Friend Mr Liddell-Grainger was summarising his comments, and something leapt out at me. Not only was there a reference to Emilia Lifaka, who at the time was chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and Deputy Speaker in Cameroon and has since sadly passed away; there was also a glancing reference to the late Sir David Amess, my parliamentary neighbour. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, in characteristic form, was praiseful; he said that Sir David made a lot of “good points”. He somewhat undermined that, however, by going on to say that he did not understand a word of what they were.
I leapt forward, ignoring my studies of the Commonwealth to reminisce about Sir David, who rightly started by saying to the Chair:
“Today, I will not be calling for city status for Southend, because I know that will happen in any case, but I will be celebrating with others Commonwealth Day”—[Official Report,
Vol. 691, c. 65WH.]
and he did, drawing on great experience of visits and a relationship with two Commonwealth countries that are slightly off the beaten track. He made very specific points and demonstrated some of the best assets of Members of Parliament getting involved with Commonwealth countries.
While it was sad to see the trees being replaced in Portcullis House last week, it was a pleasure to see the fluttering of 56 flags of the new Commonwealth. It is always a sign that spring is coming and a chance to reflect on our relationships around the world. Of course, the Commonwealth is not a new thing; it has evolved over time. The modern Commonwealth started in 1949, when its head was the King, although the role is not hereditary; it does not move from monarch to monarch. It moved to Her late Majesty the Queen and then to the current King when he was Prince of Wales. He took up the mantle having visited 45 of the 56 Commonwealth countries, and Her Majesty visited 54. I am lagging behind enormously but hope to visit Togo in the next 24 months, having visited Gabon only a few weeks ago with my hon. Friend Mr Mohindra—despite not having my glasses, I think I recognise him sitting at the Parliamentary Private Secretary desk. It was an excellent visit in which we welcomed Gabon’s application. In all candour, we were a little uncertain as to whether it would be successful that time around, but we were pleasantly surprised that both it and Tonga were successful. The meeting was interesting.
Reflecting again on what Members of Parliament do when they go out to countries, I can say that this was a particularly good visit, because we and other parliamentarians went out into the forest, where there is a big issue of carbon sinks, and saw the detail of how illegal and legal logging was being monitored. In fact, we got into canoes in Gabon. That was perhaps one of my parliamentary low points: I was almost eaten by an hippopotamus. However, the hippopotamus’s loss is Parliament’s gain, as I am still here, Mr Gray.
The Commonwealth accounts for a third of the global population—around 2.5 billion—60% of whom are under the age of 30, which is a particular issue for the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth works across human rights issues. There is also the sports of the Commonwealth. Sadly, in some countries, the Commonwealth is more related to sports than to the broader Commonwealth relationship, thus demonstrating that we have still more work to do.
LGBT issues are always quite prominent in any discussion, as are freedom of expression and the promotion of democracy more generally. However, having elections alone is not enough to provide democracy; it goes much deeper than that. Trade is an increasing issue: 9% of UK trade is with the Commonwealth, but for some Commonwealth members the trade with other Commonwealth countries is even more important. It is very tricky to do a trade deal with Eswatini, where I was a banker, and do that same trade deal with India, which a massive percentage have said to block.
It is great to have welcomed the Francophonie. In fact, Rwanda has headed up both the Francophonie seat and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting within the past 12 months, which shows that we can work through French groupings and English-speaking groupings. Indeed, as well as Rwanda, Togo and Gabon, there is the Lusophone country of Mozambique within the Commonwealth, thus demonstrating that the Commonwealth is growing. There were originally eight members in 1949. By the 1970s, that number had risen to 31, and by 1990, it was 50. I predict that, in another five years, the number will not be 56, but nearer 60, as people want to come together in different ways to work.
We also see the Commonwealth in the City of London. The City of London Corporation is very active through the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. I praise its work in investment and also in its facilitation of work with the Commonwealth parliamentarians both here in this Parliament and when we have incoming delegations.
As hon. Members know, the CPA UK branch is very active. There have been some excellent chairs, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset, and Lord Haselhurst, who also went on to serve internationally. Recently, it held the 71st seminar here in the UK. It has done post-election work in Grenada. Next week, we are sending a delegation to South Africa. Colleagues are going to visit our partners in Canada. There has been work on violence against women and girls, an awful lot of work on modern slavery, working with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and also work on the issues around overseas territories, which is a particular passion of mine. There have been election-observing missions in places such as the British Virgin Islands—good work if you can get it, Mr Gray. There is quite a lot of detailed work, particularly on public accounts committees, which are new forms of committees and new ways of working. More recently, I have been involved in trade and scrutiny work.
I said that I wanted to turn to the CPA’s international branch, which forms the core of my asks for the Minister today. I spoke this morning to Stephen Twigg, late of this parish, who, I think, was just on the way to bed. He is in Tonga at the moment doing a post-election seminar. He wanted me to thank the Department for its work on the issues of CPA status. The CPA international branch is currently based in the UK, but it has charitable status. That charitable status causes some countries around the world a problem because to a poor, small-island state or a state that is receiving money, giving moneys to a UK charity seems somewhat incongruous. However, there is a massive benefit in the CPA being located here under some such auspice, and it is good that we are working closely with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office around those issues.
I was pleased to see the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke being debated on Second Reading. Sadly, it did not go through, but it did provide a place setter. I praise Lord Goldsmith for his engagement on the issue, alongside the Minister. Having been involved in these issues over a number of years—I hate to think how many—let me say that it is quite exceptional for any Foreign Secretary to engage in such detail. Therefore, it was pleasing to see the recent letter from the Foreign Secretary saying that he wanted to help and to resolve the situation to the satisfaction of both CPA international and the FCDO, and it was amazing to read that he had secured Government time for that. I would appreciate the Minister confirming that that is not just a promise from the Foreign Secretary, but something that is being worked through via the normal channels, so that if we need legislation, the time for it is there.
Time is indeed pressing because the issue is outstanding and because it has caused friction in some countries. A number of countries are looking at the
I think we have the right people in place. I was pleased to see Jo Lomas of the Foreign Office, whom I worked with a number of times years back. I picked up the phone to her and received in response an international warble. I decided that I had probably phoned her old Burundi or Rwanda mobile and hung up immediately, not wanting to speak to the new Minister, only to find it might have been her current mobile, as she is in Fiji. I am sure that, on her return, this issue will be high up in her in-tray and the in-trays of a number of others. I am sure the work of Jon Davies—again, formerly of the FCDO—will be called upon. No doubt he will be reading Hansard closely following the debate. Jon is an excellent individual who has served CPA UK very well, and who is well disposed to help Stephen Twigg and the international branch.
As punishment—in the unlikely event of my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset not being available, although I can promise anything on their behalf, including their dropping everything and cancelling their holidays to attend whatever meeting is needed—I stand ready to serve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. Last year, I finished taking part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I know you do a lot with the scheme, and I want to draw the attention of the House to the links between people from the Commonwealth and the British armed forces. When I took part in the Royal Air Force segment of the scheme, I saw those links and had the privilege of meeting some of those people.
I thank Sir James Duddridge and the members of the Backbench Business Committee for securing this important debate. I wish there were more speakers from both sides of the House, but I guess I could argue that it is quality rather than quantity that counts.
One of the primary aims of the Commonwealth is to increase trade within the membership, and I understand that we are looking at $20 trillion of trade among those nations by 2030. The target is ambitious, and our Government should support and work towards it. I get a large amount of constituency correspondence regarding the environment and climate change, and one outcome of the previous Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which took place in 2022, was commitments regarding climate change and biodiversity. Those commitments reaffirmed commitments to the Commonwealth Blue Charter to help to address ocean pollution and to protect marine environments. The combined population of the 56 member nations is about 2.5 billion, so taking action on climate change and protecting our environment would go a long way. In the context of global population, Commonwealth nations have a large footprint, so those are positive developments.
The Commonwealth is not just about trade; it is also about fostering closer cultural and educational links between nations and people. Let us be honest: there is always more to be done. I represent the constituency of Stockport in Greater Manchester, and one of the great things that the Commonwealth organises is the Commonwealth games. The great city of Manchester hosted the Commonwealth games in 2002, which is not that long ago, and they were a massive success. The invitation remains open to Commonwealth delegates to come back to my constituency in Stockport and to the Greater Manchester city region. There is so much more to be done not just on sports, but on cultural and language ties and, of course, food.
I have already mentioned that the organisation has 56 member states and a population of about 2.5 billion people. Of those 2.5 billion, approximately 1.4 billion are Indian nationals—people from the Republic of India—so India makes up a large chunk. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East has referred to the trade deal that Britain is negotiating with India, so I take this opportunity to highlight that I have been campaigning for a long time for a direct air service between Manchester airport, which is the third largest airport in Britain, and key cities in India, particularly Mumbai and New Delhi. I mention that because we have tens of thousands of people of Indian heritage in Greater Manchester and the north-west region. Manchester airport is also quite close to Yorkshire, which also has a large community of Indian heritage, so having direct air services between Manchester airport and Mumbai, which is the economic hub of India, and New Delhi, which is the political capital, would be helpful.
It would be helpful not just for trade, but for cultural and educational links. My understanding is that Indian students now make up the largest segment of international students in the UK. It used to be Chinese nationals, but in the past two years, or at least 18 months, Indians have made up the largest segment of international students in the UK. Having that direct flight from Manchester airport to Mumbai and to New Delhi would benefit not only trade, but jobs at Manchester airport, the economy in Greater Manchester and organisations and businesses in the north-west region, and in Yorkshire as well, so I wanted to take the opportunity to highlight that.
I will end on the fact that the Commonwealth is a force for good—it does a lot of good. Of course, there are several issues that need to be addressed in member nations when it comes to equality and, in particular, LGBT+ rights and democratic systems. There are lots of issues that need to be addressed. I welcome this debate and once again thank the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East for securing it and the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for it. I hope the Government take forward the work on environmental issues, but also thank our serving soldiers and veterans who come from Commonwealth nations. That is an important issue. I hope the Minister will use her good office to push forward the flights issue from Manchester airport.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to follow Navendu Mishra. I do miss Dame Maria Miller, but Sir James Duddridge has stepped admirably into her shoes. I hope they were flat ones.
This year, Commonwealth Day took place on Monday last week. It marked a week of activities and celebrations around the theme of forging a sustainable and peaceful common future, serving as a reminder of the deep ties and shared goals between Commonwealth nations. I think we can all agree with that. The Commonwealth still has a long way to go in adapting to a more socially conscious and multipolar world; however, that must be done in the spirit of equality and mutual benefit.
The Commonwealth must make progress on the charter adopted in 2013. It was full of aspirations for justice, democracy and human rights, and we all want to see those things. The UK Government should formally acknowledge complicity in and make amends for the UK’s role in the slave trade and the legacy of colonial atrocities around the world. Scotland is doing that. Work is going on in schools, but more needs to be done across the UK.
There are many deep ties between the UK and the Commonwealth. Despite that, 90% of pensioners affected by the frozen pensions policy live in Commonwealth countries. I am using this debate as an opportunity to highlight the unfair treatment of British pensioners, including veterans and former public servants, and Commonwealth citizens who have contributed to this country, only to be abandoned and forgotten as they face financial hardship. I am grateful to endfrozenpensions.org and the all-party parliamentary group on frozen British pensions for the briefing that I received. I have been talking about this matter since I arrived in Parliament in 2015, and I will continue to do so at every opportunity.
An example of a pensioner affected by the frozen pensions scandal is Anne Puckridge, a 98-year-old world war two veteran who receives a state pension of just £72.50 a week after moving to Canada to be closer to her family. In the coming months, she will be excluded once again from the annual uprating, bringing the total she has lost during her retirement to £41,000. Research by the APPG on frozen British pensions found that half of frozen pensioners receive £65 per week or less, and more than 50% struggle financially because of their frozen pension.
The UK owes a debt of gratitude to the Windrush generation, but the story of Monica Philip, who moved to the UK from Antigua, tells a different story. She worked for 37 years in the UK, including as a civil servant for the City of London social services and the Ministry of Defence. She returned to Antigua to care for her ailing mother and, as a result, receives a frozen UK state pension of just £74 per week.
Reverend Maxwell left for England from Antigua in 1957. He worked in the UK on the railways. Eunice Hughes worked as an NHS Nurse. The couple moved to Jamaica following a pastoral calling, and the UK Government encouraged the Reverend Maxwell to top up his British pension voluntarily by £3,000 to ensure he had made the full contribution. When they lived in Jamaica, the couple received their full pension uprating every year. However, they have since moved to Antigua, where their pensions are now frozen.
Commonwealth countries such as Canada are ready and willing to work with the UK Government to end this injustice. The Canadian Government’s most recent request to negotiate a new reciprocal social security agreement was just last year—the fourth time since 2013—yet the UK Government continually refuse to engage on the issue, leaving nearly half a million British pensioners to face a retirement of poverty.
All UK pensioners with national insurance contributions are entitled to a British state pension regardless of where they live. However, nearly half a million UK pensioners overseas are excluded from annual payment upratings because they live in the wrong country. That means their pension is frozen at the level it was at when they left the UK or first withdrew their pension, and it is falling in real value year on year. Government inaction to address the issue is a stark failure to protect our most vulnerable and is leaving our own citizens in poverty. All it takes to end this injustice—
Order. I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Lady. She is making a most interesting speech, but it is quite wide of the subject we are discussing, which is Commonwealth Day. The Minister might find it difficult to reply on a matter that is not her responsibility. The hon. Lady might like to return to the subject of Commonwealth Day and the role of the Commonwealth.
The subject of the debate is Commonwealth Day and the role of the Commonwealth, rather than people who happen to live in a Commonwealth country. It might be sensible to return to the main topic under discussion.
I respect your advice as Chair, Mr Gray. I will not continue on this; I believe I have made my point forcefully. I ask the Minister to listen carefully to what I said, because this is an injustice that must end.
It is a pleasure to participate in today’s debate on Commonwealth Day, and I thank all hon. Members who have made contributions with salient points, as we reflect, celebrate, remember and enjoy the day.
I have great pride in this nation; I love this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as we all do. We rejoice in the role it has played in bringing together four nations in this Commonwealth as one. As we look to the coronation of King Charles, it inevitably brings to mind the life and legacy of Elizabeth, the great and faithful. One of her greatest achievements was not only her faith in action that honoured God and inspired nations, but the Commonwealth of nations, which was her pride and ours.
The Commonwealth is a cultural, historical and family organisation, which we love. It is like a gathering of the clans, if that is the right terminology to use, whenever the Commonwealth comes together. What joy it brings to us all that, from this nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Commonwealth grew. The tenets of democracy, liberty, freedom and faith have been espoused by the Commonwealth across the world.
We have heard recent attacks on the legacy of the Commonwealth from sources who should know better, and that wilful misdirection must be challenged. I thank Sir James Duddridge for raising the subject and allowing the opportunity to debate the truth, rather than the devious innuendo that platforms seem able to stream with no impugnment or accountability. I want to put on record the full nature of Her Majesty, who said, when she talked of her duty:
“My whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
The great family to which she referred was the Commonwealth of nations—a group of 53 distinct and unique nations, whose common ground enabled the fostering of trust and the building of a relationship from which we all benefit.
A glance at the basic Commonwealth statistics online quickly outlines the many benefits. Some are financial benefits, but they are important and maintain the stability of nations. Of the 53 Commonwealth members, 31 are small states, mostly with populations of well under 2 million. Member countries have successfully obtained more than 1.8 million square kilometres of seabed through the United Nations, with our assistance, and more is still to be claimed.
More than 60 countries, including 15 non-Commonwealth countries, have benefited from our debt management programme. Our software helps to manage more than $2.5 trillion of debt globally. The combined gross domestic product of Commonwealth member countries was estimated to be $14 trillion by 2020. Trade in goods and services between Commonwealth members is estimated to be more than $680 billion, and it is predicted to surpass $1 trillion. The trade, economic ties and benefits from trade and cultural exchanges are important for countries’ future.
Commonwealth members’ combined exports of goods and services are valued at $3.4 trillion, which is about 15% of the world’s total exports. Intra-Commonwealth flows of remittances are estimated to be $45 billion, of which $42 billion went to developing countries. The most innovative economies in sub-Saharan Africa —eight of the top 10—are Commonwealth member countries. Those are all indications of the importance of Commonwealth trading to world exports and trade. Five of the best performing 15 countries in the youth development index are Commonwealth members. It is about that interconnection, that acknowledgment of each other and the fairness that arises from trade within the Commonwealth. That speaks to me not of a boys’ club, but of a community engaged in mutually beneficial sharing of information, training and trading. We should be incredibly grateful to Her Majesty for that, and for everything that she did over the years.
The Commonwealth games offer countries such as Northern Ireland, with 1.9 million people, an opportunity to contribute to the Commonwealth medal tally. At the last games, we did so in sports including boxing, bowls and swimming, and some of the winners were people from my constituency. I am thinking of Barry McClements, who won the bronze. That wee boy, who was disabled as a child when he lost his leg from the knee down, managed to achieve a bronze medal in the Paralympics. That has made that young man, and his interaction with other Commonwealth countries is something we cannot ignore. By their very nature, the Commonwealth games bring us together to participate. We are united through the Commonwealth and a love of sport, but the games also give smaller countries, such as mine, the chance to excel—and, boy, did we excel last time, like never before.
Every Commonwealth nation has the ability to leave as they determine; we do not operate like the EU, with rules and penalties for daring to step aside. Yet the fact is that each nation is content. Just as Scripture says that two is better than one, it follows that 53 must be even better.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir James.
It is certainly not Sir James—[Hon. Members: “Not yet!”] Just Mr Gray will be fine.
Forgive me, Mr Gray. I am sure I have just highlighted something that is missing but will arrive eventually.
First, I pay tribute to Dame Maria Miller and Sir James Duddridge for securing this debate about Commonwealth Day. This year marked a significant milestone for the Commonwealth and the UK’s international relationships, and a new phase for the UK’s diplomacy and soft power. As we recognise the first Commonwealth Day since Queen Elizabeth’s passing, we have an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the Commonwealth, to acknowledge the damage of British colonial history and, I hope, to begin to forge a path to more conscious, thoughtful and honest relationships with Commonwealth countries.
I want to dwell a little on some of the contributions that have been made. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East spoke of the work of Commonwealth Parliamentary Association branches in areas such as election observation and on issues relating to women and girls. Navendu Mishra highlighted how the Commonwealth can foster closer cultural links, language ties and economic opportunities—and, indeed, transport links between Manchester and Mumbai in the future. He also touched on some of the concerns that I will focus on in my contribution.
My hon. Friend Marion Fellows spoke eloquently of the injustice of frozen pensions, which affect many people from Commonwealth countries. She has pursued that matter for some years, and I am sure those people are grateful to her for bringing it up today. Jim Shannon described the Commonwealth as a family—indeed, as a “gathering of the clans”. He welcomed the fact that this debate allows us to debate the truth, highlighting the economic and trade benefits. He also mentioned the positivity of the Commonwealth games in bringing nations together in their love of sport, and I very much agree with him. The Commonwealth games in Glasgow were a tremendous occasion for us all in Scotland.
We have witnessed some historic changes across the Commonwealth in the last few years. Barbados became a republic in 2021, and Jamaica has served notice that it intends to do likewise by 2025. In Australia, the arrival of the new young Queen in the ’50s seemed to herald a new start, and the Commonwealth of Nations was a very appealing concept after the misery of two world wars, but the gloss of those early days has faded. Republican voices in Australia, New Zealand and Canada have strengthened, particularly following the increase in the knowledge and understanding of the effects of colonisation on indigenous people. The Jamaican Government have announced plans to seek compensation for an estimated 600,000 Africans who were shipped to the island for the financial benefit of British slaveholders.
There are many now who feel that this reckoning with history should be embraced, paving a new way forward for the Commonwealth based on respect and a real acknowledgement of the past. The SNP’s policy is to join the Commonwealth once Scotland is independent again, because we want to co-operate with the rest of the world, not be apart from it. At the same time, we sincerely wish the Commonwealth to meet this moment of reflection and change positively and constructively.
Although one welcomes the royal family’s attempts to address Britain’s bloody imperial past—King Charles, when he was prince, attended a ceremony in Barbados in 2021 and spoke of the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains British history, and Prince William spoke out against the injustice of the Windrush scandal—there is still a very long way to go to improve relationships and outcomes with Commonwealth countries.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and raising important points. On atrocities, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which took place in 1919 in Punjab, impacted a lot of people at the time, and there is a justice campaign in this country and India. Does she agree that there should be a formal apology?
I am not familiar with the complete details of that situation, but those are exactly the sorts of issues that Commonwealth countries should be discussing among themselves. If a country is involved in something that it needs to apologise for, it should absolutely do so.
The UK Government could start by acknowledging Britain’s complicity in historical crimes, and by seeking to make amends for its role in the slave trade and its frankly shameful legacy of many colonial atrocities around the world. The SNP is aware that the UK and Scotland must do more to address our colonial past. We all need to have an open and honest conversation about goods acquired via colonialism, as well as about the systematic and structural issues that perpetuate ongoing inequality.
Ignoring the crimes of the past undermines our leadership and our ability in the present to ensure the Commonwealth lives up to what are perceived to be shared values. As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said, 10 years ago the Commonwealth adopted a charter full of laudable aspirations—justice, democracy and human rights—but it has much to do to ensure adherence to those principles. For example, in 2013, President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka hosted a Commonwealth summit at a time when his Government stood accused of presiding over war crimes.
The human rights picture across the Commonwealth varies greatly. Most Commonwealth states—32 out of the 56—criminalise same-sex acts between consenting adults. Many such laws were introduced in the colonial era. As of September 2020, only 70% of girls in the Commonwealth attended school. That is a shocking figure, and we must do much more to address it. I hope the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East will touch on that in his closing remarks. He mentioned the CPA’s involvement in that, and I would be interested to hear more about that. Only 20% of parliamentarians across the Commonwealth were female in 2018. Of course, the figure is just 34% in this place, so we do not have much to brag about.
Something else that we cannot brag about is the fact that, regrettably, as Commonwealth chair-in-office between 2018 and 2022, the UK Government wasted a key opportunity to recentre human rights and respect for international law. They refused to make covid-19 vaccines more readily available for the global south by protecting intellectual property barriers, they concluded that there was no evidence of institutional racism in the UK via the Sewell report, and they cut international development spending by at least £4 billion in 2021-22. It seems to me that a nation that genuinely cared about the Commonwealth in the truest sense of the word—the commonweal; the happiness, health and safety of all the people of a community or nation or, in this case, nations—would immediately reverse the damaging cuts, including those inflicted on people living in extreme poverty in Commonwealth countries.
Last year, the UK handed over the Commonwealth chair-in-office role, as I think has been mentioned, to Rwanda, despite some very grave concerns about Rwanda’s human rights record, governance structures, reports that the Rwandan Government are arming the M23 militia group—the March 23 Movement—in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and widespread gender-based violence in those countries. The UK Government introduced the immoral and illegal Rwanda scheme. The SNP opposed the Immigration Bill when it went through Parliament and also opposed the anti-refugee Nationality and Borders Bill, as well as the damaging Rwanda proposal that the Bill would enable. We will do the same with the Illegal Migration Bill. Criminalising people is not the answer. Such policies have no place in a tolerant society that respects international law, particularly one that frequently proclaims itself to be a shining example of such qualities.
The UK Government could follow the lead of the Scottish Government and establish a comprehensive loss and damage policy, prioritising vulnerable regions in the Commonwealth that are already suffering devastating effects from the climate crisis. It is vital to ensure much greater investment in renewables and to avoid any new fossil fuel projects, which threaten our path to net zero—the precarity is underlined by the fact that 49 out of the 56 Commonwealth countries border the sea. That would demonstrate genuine commitment to the theme of Commonwealth Day 2023, which is to forge
“a sustainable and peaceful common future…especially through climate action”.
Just days ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change delivered a “final warning” on the climate emergency with the publication of the final part of its sixth assessment report. A significant proportion of the 3 billion people whom the IPCC says are highly vulnerable to climate breakdown are based in Commonwealth countries. The report shows that the 1.5° limit is still achievable—just—but only if action to address the crisis is fast-tracked by every country and on every timeframe. We need to go further and faster, and the UK needs to take much more of a lead.
King Charles’s Commonwealth Day message highlighted the Commonwealth’s
“opportunity, and responsibility, to create a…durable future…in harmony with Nature” to
“secure our unique and only planet for generations to come.”
The IPCC report is a stark reminder—as if one were needed—that this window of opportunity is rapidly closing. I am aware that climate change was on the agenda last week in London at the Commonwealth Foreign Affairs Ministers meeting, with an emphasis on building on the outcomes of COP27, but we know that 1.5° will not be met under the final agreement with no deal on reducing fossil fuel usage. Therefore I urge the UK and the Commonwealth to now recognise the opportunity and responsibility that King Charles mentioned, before it is too late.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank Dame Maria Miller for securing the debate and I am sorry that she could not be here. She has been a strong advocate for women and girls around the world, and we hope that the UK and all Commonwealth nations can live up to those aspirations.
We have heard much today about the power of the Commonwealth—its strength, size, diversity and vitality. We have also heard great examples, from Sir James Duddridge, my hon. Friend Navendu Mishra and Jim Shannon, of the work and collaboration that the Commonwealth fosters through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Members have made significant contributions on topics including promoting democracy across our Commonwealth nations, economic prosperity, human rights, and connectivity. It is wonderful that my friend the hon. Member for Strangford even mentioned the Commonwealth games.
However, the past year has been another of great disruption and loss. I must start by remarking on the sad death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. This year has been the first in 70 years that she has not been the Head of the Commonwealth. During those remarkable 70 years, the Commonwealth has changed beyond all recognition. Then, it was made of only seven members; today, there are 56 members, representing more than 2.5 billion people. Her Majesty will be remembered as a symbol of the links between our many nations. As she put it,
“the Commonwealth is an example of multilateralism at work”.
That is a poignant reminder of the significance of today’s debate. This is not a cosy members’ club, but an important vehicle for global co-operation and change, and that work is not yet done. I take this opportunity to express my welcome to His Majesty the King taking his seat as the new chair of the Commonwealth. I am sure he will carry on his mother’s legacy with distinction.
I consider myself a child of the Commonwealth. To me, nothing serves as a greater reminder of our place in a global community of nations than my own family story and home. Birmingham is a Commonwealth city; the diverse heritage of my constituents span from Pakistan to Sri Lanka and Somalia to India, from where my family came. There are Brummies who can trace their roots to every corner of the Commonwealth. As a city, our diversity is our greatest strength, and that shone through in every moment of the Commonwealth games last summer.
The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth games were Britain’s most successful ever, beating our previous record medals total in Glasgow 2014 by two. They were also the most streamed games ever, outstripping the previous record sixfold, and represented the character and diversity of our country and Commonwealth tremendously. Our city was proud to have hosted and celebrated a games worthy of Her Majesty. We should not play down the powerful message of inclusion and diversity that the games sent to the millions watching around the world, nor the hundreds of millions in investment they brought to some of the most deprived patches of Birmingham, and the deepened and renewed connections across borders that we helped to forge. It is a great example of the benefits that Commonwealth membership can bring.
This year, Commonwealth Day marks the 10th anniversary of its charter, which gives expression to its defining values: peace and justice; tolerance, respect and solidarity; care for our environment, and for the most vulnerable among us. His Majesty summarised those values perfectly last week, saying:
“In this we are blessed with the ingenuity and imagination of a third of the world’s population”,
and that our shared humanity contains an immensely precious
“diversity of thought, culture, tradition and experience. By listening to each other, we will find so many of the solutions that we seek.”
Nowhere is this more urgent or relevant than in our environment. As I am sure all Members present know from our own constituencies, young people are demanding action on climate change. Across the Commonwealth, the futures of 1.5 billion people under the age of 30 will be defined by this issue. Yesterday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its synthesis report, which was a warning shot: we can still achieve 1.5° this decade, but humanity is on thin ice. Our sovereign has been a committed advocate for action on climate change for many years, and Labour shares that sense of mission and common purpose. That is why we have committed to our green prosperity plan to decarbonise electricity by 2030, phase out dirty imported energy and legislate to ensure that climate flows into every aspect of UK development policy and spending, just as gender does. We recognise that this issue that will define this century, and we have only seven short years to take the action needed.
To their credit, the Government reaffirmed their commitment to the 1.5° Paris agreement goals and nationally determined contributions at the Heads of Government meeting last year. However, it is now a matter of delivering. Can the Minister therefore update Members on the progress made to develop an implementation plan for the call to action on living lands that was promised in Kigali last year? Can she update the House on the progress she has made towards delivering the £11.6 billion of international climate finance that the Government have promised? Does she see a greater role for networks such as the Association of Commonwealth Universities in catalysing innovation and collaboration to tackle shared global challenges? I had the pleasure of meeting the ACU last year. With 500 member universities across 50 countries, it is uniquely placed to develop international policy at scale and pace. We have great institutions; we must not forget to nurture and make use of them.
It was fitting that, in Her Majesty’s jubilee year, the Heads of Government meeting was hosted in Africa—the very continent where she became Queen 70 years ago. I was delighted to see Gabon and Togo join the Commonwealth of nations, and Labour welcomes our newest Commonwealth siblings. Their participation shows that our association is based on not only our shared history, but our shared aspirations for a better future. They are both remarkable countries. Gabon is one of the few countries on earth that absorbs more carbon than it emits, owing to its rich ecosystem. The future of Gabon and Togo can be bright, and Commonwealth membership could help in shaping a positive path. Will the Minister say what efforts she is making to support Togo, along with our other Commonwealth partners such as Ghana and Nigeria, in addressing the increasing threats they are facing from instability in the Sahel?
It is a cause for celebration that the Commonwealth continues to grow, because we hold dear its values of human rights, democracy and inclusion. The eligibility criteria for Commonwealth membership states, among other things, that:
“an applicant country must demonstrate commitment to: democracy and democratic processes, including free and fair elections and representative legislatures;
the rule of law and independence of the judiciary;
good governance, including a well-trained public service and transparent public accounts;
and protection of human rights, freedom of expression, and equality of opportunity”.
We hope that Zimbabwe can turn a new page in its history and evidence the progress on the requirements needed to rejoin the Commonwealth soon. I would be grateful if the Minister provided an update on its progress and the role that the UK is playing to support that.
I am sure that Members will join me in celebrating the progress made by Commonwealth countries. In recent years, India has passed legislation on maternity leave, to the benefit of over 600 million women. Last year, four of our fellow members—Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Barbados and Singapore—repealed anti-LGBT legislation. The UK must acknowledge the legacy of discrimination and laws it helped to create in some of those countries. We must do more to support member states wanting to lead reform.
As we see the sad roll-back of rights and norms in many countries around the world, the Commonwealth can provide a leading example. As every member agreed in the joint statement issued before the Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2020,
“the full social, economic and political participation of all…is essential for democracy and sustainable development to thrive.”
Continued progress and practice in support of human rights, democracy and inclusion is a core Commonwealth principle—something that we must all strive to achieve.
I will end with a few remarks on the future of the Commonwealth and the UK’s role within it. Our country’s ties of history, kinship and commerce with many of the other member states goes very deep. For countries in the global south, many in Africa, the past few years have been an onslaught—covid, climate, conflict and the cost of living. It is essential that the UK plays its full part in supporting them. It is in Britain’s interests to support a safer, more stable world. That is why developed countries have been rightly united in opposition to Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine; the war has drawn many countries in the west closer together as a result.
At the same time as the world’s poorest countries struggle, this Government have given the global south the cold shoulder. Many in the world’s poorest countries look at Britain and are losing faith in us as a partner that they can work with and rely on. There has been a damaging departmental merger, as well as promises made and repeatedly not kept, and successive cuts to aid programmes, as the Government divert money to firefight crises of their own making. We ignore the global south at our own cost. Many of those countries have rapidly growing economies, and will be increasingly important in a post-Brexit, multipolar geopolitical era. Together, they are geographically, culturally and economically diverse; the Commonwealth could be one of our most important multilateral institutions, as Her Majesty the Queen said.
Does the Minister think that it right that the Commonwealth received only two passing mentions in the integrated review refresh? Has she given any thought to improving Commonwealth operations out of London, to improve and better reflect the institution’s diversity and global representation? Does she agree that the UK should be playing an active and ambitious role in the shared agenda agreed in Kigali last year? Does she share my concern about the disproportionate impact of the aid cuts on Commonwealth partners in the last few years?
There is so much to be proud of in our Commonwealth membership and relationships. It is crucial to our mutual interests in relation to development, trade, security, climate change, human rights and democracy. It is a great institution that has, at times, been neglected when it needed to be nurtured. The past few years is a prime example of that. I hope the Government will act to correct their course; Labour certainly would.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Sir James Duddridge for leading the debate, and for his dedication to the Commonwealth, including as a Minister and former chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I also thank colleagues for their contributions. Where there are questions that are not within the FCDO purview and for which I am unable to provide a response—some of which you highlighted, Mr Gray—I will ensure that the correct Minister does so in a timely manner.
The Commonwealth is a vibrant and diverse family of nations. It makes up a third of the world’s population and around 30% of the votes on the UN, and has a collective GDP of over $14 trillion. It plays an important role in supporting an open and resilient international order, bringing together states with an interest in promoting democracy, sustaining individual freedoms, driving sustainable development and enabling cross-border trade. In an increasingly turbulent world, where autocracy is on the rise, the Foreign Secretary has renewed the UK’s commitment to what he calls “this extraordinary organisation”.
This is an important year for the Commonwealth. On Commonwealth Day, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Commonwealth charter, which enshrines our shared values of freedom, peace and democracy. We will also celebrate the coronation of His Majesty the King, the new Head of the Commonwealth, on
The UK’s commitment to the Commonwealth is unwavering. We provide significant bilateral aid to Commonwealth countries, totalling over £1 billion in 2021, and we fund and support a wide range of Commonwealth initiatives and programmes. As we look towards the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Samoa next year, the UK will work with partner nations to deliver tangible benefits in our three priority areas: trade, climate and values.
First, we need to boost trade and investment between Commonwealth countries. Encompassing over 2.5 billion consumers, the Commonwealth makes an important contribution to the global market network. Our shared language and shared institutions create what we refer to as the Commonwealth advantage, reducing the average cost of trade between members by 21% compared with trade with the rest of the world.
Building on that advantage, the UK has secured trade agreements with 33 Commonwealth countries, including economic partnership agreements covering 27 Commonwealth African, Caribbean and Pacific nations. However, we need to go further to make sure that all members feel the full benefits of Commonwealth membership, so the UK is working with partners to reduce barriers to intra-Commonwealth trade and to help developing members to attract sustainable inward investment.
Navendu Mishra raised an important point about flights between the UK and India. He is absolutely right to say that they are a tool that could open up both family and trade opportunities. The UK’s airline network is privately owned; different countries run their airlines in different ways. However, I am happy to discuss this issue with him and with colleagues in the Department for Business and Trade, to see how we can encourage the opening of new routes. I have dealt with this issue in relation to other countries, and I am happy to take it up with colleagues.
Secondly, the Commonwealth can drive enhanced action on climate change and the environment, particularly to support its more vulnerable members, including 25 small island developing states. I have had the great privilege personally, both in former ministerial roles and currently as Minister with responsibility for the Indo-Pacific, to visit nearly two dozen of our Commonwealth family countries, and in every one the challenge of climate change—the impact of more extensive and extreme weather events—is a real and present danger to the lives and livelihoods of so many people, their families and their businesses, and to the healthcare and education needs of women and young people most especially.
The UK has committed £11.6 billion to international climate finance, of which £3 billion is being invested in climate change solutions that protect and restore, and provide sustainable solutions to manage nature. The UK will continue to lead globally on this matter, harnessing all our talents, including—as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston highlighted—the ACU, in order to help to find long-term solutions. The UK is also committed to supporting Commonwealth members to access climate finance through our funding of the Commonwealth climate finance access hub. Our investment of around £500,000 in the hub has already helped to mobilise $38 million of climate finance in three Caribbean states. At the last Heads of Government meeting in 2022, the Prime Minister announced further funding, through the new £36 million sustainable blue economies programme, to support small island states to develop sustainable ocean economies.
As Members have noted, the continued commitment by Lord Goldsmith, my FCDO ministerial colleague, has helped to deliver the 30by30 oceans commitment that was announced just a couple of weeks ago, which will afford opportunities to many of our most climate-vulnerable Commonwealth countries and others to support and sustain their ocean economies and protect their livelihoods. These are really important areas of development.
Thirdly, the Commonwealth has the potential to deliver much more on democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law. All Commonwealth member states have committed to upholding those shared values enshrined in the Commonwealth charter. The UK has worked with national human rights institutions across the Commonwealth to strengthen human rights and has supported human rights advisers to help small states engage with the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
We are ensuring that more girls are in school, pledging £217 million to support girls’ education across the Commonwealth at CHOGM 2022. The funding supports global education data gathering, teacher training in Rwanda and programmes to get girls and vulnerable children into school in Pakistan.
We have also delivered programmes for the promotion and protection of LGBT rights across the Commonwealth. Some £2.7 million of funding will continue to support grassroots organisations, such as the Commonwealth Equality Network, to defend human rights and equality for LGBT+ people. However, much more needs to be done, and we will encourage Commonwealth countries to go further to ensure the full and equal participation of all people in society.
The UK values the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to strengthen parliamentary oversight and accountability in the Commonwealth, and the FCDO looks forward to continuing to work closely with the association. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East and my right hon. Friend Dame Maria Miller for their consistent and passionate voices on the legal status of the CPA. They will be pleased to know that the Foreign Secretary has tasked FCDO officials with working with the CPA secretariat to find an acceptable solution by legislative means if necessary.
Will the Minister confirm that, as well as the pledge from the Foreign Secretary, normal channels have agreed that time will be found, if needed, for legislation? Secondly, could those meetings with officials happen as soon as possible, so that there is something a little firmer to go back with to individuals at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association international executive committee meeting on
I absolutely note my hon. Friend’s comment on the need for timeliness in those discussions so that it becomes clear exactly what the right route will be. I will ensure that the Foreign Secretary and his team are fully cognisant of that time pressure so that, whatever the solution is, we can ensure that colleagues on the write-round are able to support it. The Foreign Secretary is clear in his commitment to move forward, but I note that the clock is ticking as regards that meeting.
To drive our three-pronged agenda of trade, climate and values, our mantra needs to be the continuous improvement of Commonwealth institutions, building on the reforms agreed by Heads of Government in Kigali. We will work with the Commonwealth secretariat and members to ensure quick progress ahead of CHOGM 24. In the words of His Majesty the King,
“Let ours be a Commonwealth that not only stands together, but strives together, in restless and practical pursuit of the global common good.”
We will do all we can to meet the challenge he has set us, to strengthen the Commonwealth and to ensure that it delivers clear purpose and value for all its members, whether large or small.
What a wonderful flourish to end on—I am only sorry that I have to spoil it with my final comments. It is great that the Minister quoted his Majesty who, as I mentioned, has visited 45 countries, which is a little better than the two dozen visited by the Minister—not that I have been wasting my time over the weekend, but it is 32 for me, if you are asking, Mr Gray.
However, it has been a great tour de force from the Minister, particularly on small island states, and that is much appreciated by all. I ask her to pass on our collective thanks to the Foreign Secretary, for what is being done and, more generally, for the work he and Lord Goldsmith are doing, which has been exceptional. Getting that commitment on parliamentary time if it is needed, and knowing that the whole Department—from the Foreign Secretary down to the people who do the real work—knows there is that
I thank Navendu Mishra for his comments. I look forward to the Mumbai-Manchester route. I am happy to support that very visibly and vocally if he supports the Manchester-Southend route connecting up with it. Preet Kaur Gill spoke about the impact on constituencies. The Commonwealth games are really passionate, and a lot of people, such as my constituents in Southend, held events involving, for example, children celebrating the Commonwealth. In Southend, the mayor, Kevin Robinson, took part in the celebrations. There is more we can do to celebrate in our constituencies.
Marion Fellows spoke passionately about pensions—perhaps stretching your patience with the detail, Mr Gray, although attention to detail is always admirable—and questions were raised about what type of heels I was wearing. I can reassure the House that I will be leaving my feet under the table so as not to embarrass anybody. Jim Shannon, who is always present for debates in this place, made an excellent contribution, particularly on the youth development index, and went through some of the nitty-gritty detail, which we sometimes brush over.
Deidre Brock touched on a few subjects on which I disagree with her, although we agree on others. I was present for a debate in the Chamber during which you, Mr Gray, disagreed with Members being allowed to use devices to look at Wikipedia. However, had I not spent a little time googling, I would not know that the hon. Lady is a product of the Commonwealth and of Australia. I suspect that, while I was at university, I watched her on “Home and Away”. The only characters I can remember are Charlene—for obvious reasons—from the garage, a dog called Bouncer and someone who went on to appear in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, whose name I cannot remember.
The hon. Lady urged me to talk about schools. We have done a lot of work on girls’ education through the Department—sorry, the Government have. I am mixing up my roles. She also mentioned COVAX, which was rather curious. She should look back on her comments, because I think she will find that it was my right hon. Friend the Minister who brought in a £420 million facility for covid, called COVAX, before the vaccine even came into place, so we had that funding ready to distribute when a vaccine came forward. At the time, I was a Minister, and I spent hours, which I cannot get back, in covid committees looking at operationalising the vaccine and getting it out to different countries, which was somewhat problematic in a number of cases.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston made an excellent speech, drawing on her constituency experiences. I mused on whether there is a constituency out there containing representatives of all 56 Commonwealth countries, and Birmingham could probably muster those people. Perhaps we could all get together to celebrate the 56 nations. I fully support what was said about LGBT issues. We can both be embarrassed about how we have legislated across the Commonwealth against those communities, but we should also be proud of the progress that has been made, while acknowledging that further progress needs to be made.
There were calls for Zimbabwe to come back to the Commonwealth. Brilliant. Bring it on, Mnangagwa. We are ready for you. You just need to do the right thing. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston also discussed whether we make enough of the Commonwealth. We make a lot of it, but we certainly do not make enough of it. It is good to know that not only His Majesty’s Government, but His Majesty’s official Opposition, want to do more with this multilateral institution.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered Commonwealth Day.