HC Deb 31 March 1994 vol 240 cc1100-7

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Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

Our former highly respected colleague Sir Richard Luce, who was a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister for many successful years, had a letter published in The Times on 25 October last year. It began as follows: Having just returned from the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Cyprus I am absolutely clear that in recent years the British people have forgotten about the Commonwealth. Very few of the younger generation know about it. The British Government gives the impression that it has other preoccupations. Although the Prime Minister played a full part in that meeting in Cyprus, being there for the five days, I too detected an unfortunate tone of indifference to the Commonwealth creeping into Government pronouncements of the time.

It has been brought to my attention by supporters of the Commonwealth that in the new national curriculum there is, alack, no reference to the Commonwealth—an omission that I find both surprising and wrong, although I appreciate that it may be mentioned under another heading, such as the nature of community.

The Government have failed to stir the imaginations of the younger generation or their interest in the Commonwealth; perhaps a reference in the national curriculum would be the right way forward. If the Minister has a better proposal, I should like to hear it.

When Her Majesty the Queen visited the Commonwealth Institute last May, she remarked: The institute brings the reality of the individual countries of the Commonwealth alive, and demonstrates the role the Commonwealth can play in the world and among its members. Unfortunately, as the House will know, in September—owing, I believe, to an excessive Treasury squeeze on the FCO budget, and to a belief that the institute should raise more of its own money—the Government announced, without prior consultation, the decision to stop all future funding of the institute. That represented a massive blow to a popular and important institute.

Writing in The Spectator last October, John Simpson, the perceptive BBC diplomatic correspondent, likened Britain's approach to the Commonwealth these days to that of a father who has left home and is inclined to forget the birthdays of his children. He thought that Labour's interest in it had faded and that nowadays there is no political support for the Commonwealth at Westminster … For the Right wing of the Conservative party the Commonwealth represented little more than a large extended begging-bowl. There were no imperial echoes in Thatcherism … As for the left and centre of the party, they are concerned only with Europe; for them, there is no alternative. He took a certain journalistic licence, but there was a kernel of truth in what he wrote.

The purpose of this brief Adjournment debate is to give the Under-Secretary of State, whose lighthearted steps to the golden beaches I have had reason to delay on several previous occasions, the opportunity to tell the House what role he sees for the Commonwealth—it hardly bears repeating that the Commonwealth is not the British Commonwealth—and what role the Government are to play in assisting, guiding and encouraging that future.

I want to spend a few minutes giving him some help with that task. I speak as an enthusiastic and committed supporter of the European Union, who has found in practice over the years that it is only on the rarest of occasions that the interests of the European Union and the Commonwealth are seriously divorced, let alone contrary.

Let the Government help the British people to reappraise the value of the Commonwealth at the end of this century, not just to the United Kingdom but to the world.

For many years, the Commonwealth was distorted by the vexed issue of South Africa, by tired and tedious references to a colonial past and by a false picture of Britain's role in the modern world. Times have changed; South Africa is about to have a crucial, historic election and I welcome in principle South Africa's return to the Commonwealth fold.

There are powerful advantages for Britain in being a member of this unique collection of 50 nations which together represent 1.5 billion people—a figure even greater than the population of China.

The Commonwealth has some of the fastest growing economies such as Singapore and Malaysia. In mentioning Malaysia, cordial relations should be speedily restored between our Commonwealth countries. The Minister will know that one of his colleagues had the opportunity to congratulate the Malaysian defence forces yesterday on the part that they played with great courage in rescuing the British Army mountaineers.

The Commonwealth has the world's most populist democracy—India—and such key regional players as Australia, Canada and Nigeria and 25 per cent. of United Nations members belong to it.

I visited New York last year with a parliamentary delegation and I was told that the Commonwealth delegates have regular co-ordinating meetings and work well together. I hope there is concerted effort to canvass the support of those delegates for Britain's continued seat on the United Nations Security Council and that it is partly regarded as a Commonwealth seat and not just a European Union seat.

Britain should be able to assist the Commonwealth also through its membership not only of the European Union, which is getting ever larger, but of the G7 countries and because of the important part Britain plays in the deliberations of the International Monetary Fund and the World bank.

I should like to think that Britain remains the Commonwealth psychological centre, helped by the presence here in London of the Commonwealth Secretariat in one of our historic old houses.

At the important Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting—I have the highest possible regard for the role of our royal family on such occasions—Britain had the opportunity to get its point of view across to 49 other members with their cross section of religion, culture and levels of development. But Britain also has the opportunity to gain a special insight into a vast and ever-changing range of world problems, including those concerning health, social issues and the environment.

We should never forget the occasions when Commonwealth countries have been able to help us when we were in trouble. The invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 was one such moment in recent history.

As a former member of the executive committee of the British section of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and as a member of the House of Commons who has participated in a number of CPA visits to Commonwealth countries, including Australia and Zambia, I draw attention to the association's splendid work. Commonwealth Members of Parliament are frequently surprised, when they meet in different corners of the world, to learn how much they share in common. In our divided, turbulent and frequently violent world, greater understanding is vital. Its value is unquantifiable.

The CPA can help buttress Commonwealth Parliaments. I recall the encouragement a British delegation tried to give a Speaker in an African country who was under unwarranted pressure—in fact, he was receiving personal threats—from the head of state. After all, this House has a deep historical knowledge of such matters and a good record of putting the high and mighty, insensitive and arrogant in their proper places. New hon. Members do not have the international background that some of their predecessors had—particularly of those who served abroad during the last world war. Also, the last group of Conservative Members of Parliament elected did not include, for the first time in many years, someone from the diplomatic community. They welcome visits to Commonwealth countries.

The secretariat has played a useful part in building stronger democracies. Multi-party democracy is being restored in many Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth is busily engaged putting its own house in order and that effort should be both sustained and acknowledged. Experts of the highest quality have been despatched to help strengthen democratic systems and the rule of law. Governments have been assisted in adopting international best practice in their administrative, judicial and regulatory functions. That work is immensely important and offers hope to future generations.

I will focus on the mounting of 11 election observer missions—a crucial and comparatively new activity involving this House. Such missions are undertaken only at the invitation of the Governments concerned and with the agreement of all major political parties. Independent observers closely examine all aspects of the conduct of the election and decide whether the result reflects the wishes of the people. Recently, elections have been held and observed in Zambia, the Seychelles, Ghana, Kenya and Lesotho.

Time allows only a brief reference to the Harare declaration at the 1991 Commonwealth summit, which takes forward the core Commonwealth beliefs and defines 10 key areas of action. They include the protection and promotion of fundamental political values, equality for women, access to education, promoting sustainable development, protecting the environment, and combatting drug trafficking. Britain is heavily committed to success in them all.

In his letter to The Times in support of the Commonwealth, Sir Richard Luce wrote of a vast and unique network of contact between the people of the Commonwealth fostered by the provision of scholarships and fellowships and the work of many Commonwealth professional organisations. Recently representatives from over 500 universities in the Commonwealth were able to meet in Swansea. Britain fully supports such activities and gives £14 million for Commonwealth scholarships—50 per cent. of the total. We also pay 30 per cent. of the secretariat budget, and I am told that we provide the building free. Like the European Union, the Commonwealth represents a highly successful club. As John Simpson put it, it is a matter of considerable prestige to be a member. Angola and Mozambique, though former Portugese possessions, are both seeking to join: it represents security for them, and a way back from the utter despair they have endured". I am greatly encouraged by the number of Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians, as well as British people, that one can now find working in Commonwealth countries in Africa and Asia. The Commonwealth, under its superb Secretary-General, has built up a considerable life of its own, and we have every reason to be proud of it.

I end with some words that Chief Anyaoku used in his report last year to the Heads of Government: The very existence of the Commonwealth and its history in modern times give grounds for optimism in postulating future possibilities for international co-operation … The Commonwealth has grown out of the deepest and most enriching currents of its times: decolonisation and national freedom, individual liberty and democracy, racial equality, development and the struggle to alleviate poverty, international co-operation and understanding across historical divides, and the quest for world peace.

1.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mark Lennox-Boyd)

My hon. Friend should be congratulated for raising this subject. Members such as he ensure that we discuss matters which we would otherwise perhaps not discuss often enough. I know from his remarks that he has demonstrated that there is no lack of political support for the Commonwealth at Westminster when there are Members such as he in the House.

My hon. Friend mentioned the size of the Commonwealth. It represents a large cross-section of the world, with 1.5 billion people. I think that it is best described as an organisation with a membership which is one quarter of the human race. My hon. Friend mentioned the enormous powerful commercial interests and advantages which accrue to Britain through its membership of the Commonwealth. He mentioned Singapore and Malaysia. It would be right to add India to that list, as another burgeoning economy in the Commonwealth.

As in the case of most international organisations. the role and image of the Commonwealth has changed immeasurably in the past few years. It is, in spite of being one of the oldest and by no means the smallest, probably the least discussed and has the lowest profile. That lowness of profile is one of its strengths. It gets on with its business quietly and effectively behind the scenes. Of course it was an invention of the British, originally designed to make the transition from empire to independence as smooth as possible, but it has some notable advantages nowadays over other institutions. Perhaps its greatest advantage is that it has no fixed, unchangeable objective. Its strength is in its continuing vocation for informal co-operation and contact. It is not an organisation with voting rights or elaborate machinery for dealing procedurally with disagreements between members. All those features are its strengths.

My hon. Friend has expressed some disappointment that the word "Commonwealth" is not mentioned in the national curriculum. He is being a little unfair. If I were to challenge him to read the national curriculum in its entirety, and to list the number of subjects of interest about which he would like schoolchildren to be taught, he would find that the Commonwealth is not the only subject that is not mentioned in the national curriculum. Frankly, he is asking more of the national curriculum than is possible. I would have thought, like my hon. Friend, that all types of occasions provide opportunities to demonstrate to schoolchildren Britain's membership of the Commonwealth, and the interest in the Commonwealth of so many British subjects whose parents came from Commonwealth countries.

From what I have said, it is obvious that the great challenge facing the Commonwealth now is to consider how its future relevance and its flexible role will develop. I am happy to endorse my hon. Friend's comments about the present Commonwealth Secretary-General. He has been enormously successful and has built well upon the initiatives of his predecessors. He has done a particularly good job in promoting good government and on election monitoring. That is an area in which the Commonwealth is particularly well qualified and where it has a special contribution to make. I welcome that and see it as giving new life to the Commonwealth.

In 1991 at Harare the Heads of Government opened a new chapter in the Commonwealth's history. The declaration on good governance made at that meeting has since proved its worth. It gave the Commonwealth new unity and purpose in promoting good governance and democracy. It certainly demonstrates the Commonwealth's relevance today.

My hon. Friend touched on a number of the successful elections that have taken place since 1991 which led to democratic government in Commonwealth countries. There have been elections in Zambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho and the Seychelles. They were all undertaken with observer missions, to which my hon. Friend referred, and with Commonwealth assistance. The Secretary-General's good offices were instrumental in bringing to a peaceful end the recent troubles in Lesotho.

Last year's conference in Cyprus was able to concentrate on the practical and constructive work of the Commonwealth. As we know, its members have important shared economic interests and agreement was reached on a range of important subjects.

The Limassol statement on the Uruguay round expressed the Commonwealth's strong collective commitment to a comprehensive, equitable and balanced conclusion on the general agreement on tariffs and trade. Other important areas were covered. Additional measures were called for to reduce the debt burden of developing countries. A strengthening of co-operation in combating the international menace of financial crime, proposed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, was agreed by members. As a result, a financial crime workshop for Commonwealth small states, which are so vulnerable to sophisticated international financial crime, will be held in Port of Spain in May this year.

Mr. Cyril D.Townsend

While my hon. Friend is talking about smaller states, what is the Government's view on inviting into the Commonwealth countries such as Angola—by no means a small state in terms of size—which have not previously been part of the British empire?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

It would be nice to think that my views would prevail just like that. I can give only a tentative opinion on what I believe is the Government's view. It is a matter for the Commonwealth, not the British Government. We are an important part of the Commonwealth and we favour the accession of new states, provided that they meet the essential criteria that we expect of a civilised nation and have an interest in being a member of the Commonwealth by reason of geographical location and proximity to other Commonwealth countries. I am happy to say that I think that we would give that proposition a fair wind, but I can give my hon. Friend a more considered reply by letter if he so wishes.

There is no doubt that Britain's entry into the European Community, to which my hon. Friend referred—and our membership now of the European Union—has benefited Commonwealth countries. It has allowed them greater access than ever before to European markets. The Lomé convention offers to 69 developing countries, many of them Commonwealth members, the most favourable trading regime that the European Community gives to any of its trading partners. All industrial goods, except rum, can enter the Community market free from tariffs and quotas, and even rum should soon be exempt.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Commonwealth Institute. The Government emphatically do not want the institute to close. The decision to withdraw our grant in aid after March 1996 was taken with great reluctance against a very tight Foreign Office budget. We want the institute to use the fine building on Kensington High street, provided by the Government, to promote the Commonwealth but to draw after 1996 on non-Government funds to do so. I know that many of the institute's supporters believe that its facilities and programmes could still have a useful function. The Foreign Office is giving the institute a full grant for the current and the next two financial years to enable it to develop a relaunch programme. In addition, separate finance of up to £2.4 million was made available last month to meet redundancy costs. We do not for a moment underestimate the difficulty of the task facing the institute in the next two years but nor do we share the pessimism that has been expressed by a number of colleagues.

I now draw the House's attention to other aspects of our interests in the Commonwealth. Let us consider aid. Because of our shared tradition and common values, it is right that by far the largest part of Britain's official aid programme should go to Commonwealth countries. In recent years, that has amounted to 65 per cent. of the aid that we provide bilaterally. We have always contributed up to 30 per cent. of the secretariat's programme and running costs which, in 1993–94, amount to about £3 million. We have contributed equally towards the Commonwealth fund for technical co-operation since its birth in 1971.

We also provide substantial support each year for scholarships and training awards for students from Commonwealth countries. For instance, the British Chevening scholarships scheme funded 987 scholars and fellows from 49 different countries in 1992–93. A further £600,000 a year goes to the Commonwealth Foundation.

We should not forget the role that Britain has played in promoting the interests of our Commonwealth partners in the international financial institutions and through the European Union. Our aid, like that of other major donors, is closely linked to the drive in recipient countries to secure better government and improved respect for human rights.

My hon. Friend mentioned South Africa, and I wish I had a few more minutes to develop the argument slightly further than he took it. It is enormously important that the Commonwealth is playing such an active role there. For well over a year, the Commonwealth observer mission has been in South Africa, helping to bring an end to the cycle of violence and assisting in the transition to a non-racial democracy. The Commonwealth has helped in the training of mediators and marshals specialising in crowd control and provided assistance in the form of training to the proposed national peacekeeping force. As my hon. Friend knows, plans are currently being finalised to mount, in co-operation with the UN, the Organisation for African Unity and the European Union, the largest ever Commonwealth election observer mission to observe South Africa's first non-racial democratic elections on 27 April next.

I must bring my remarks to a halt in a moment or two. I conclude by saying that Commonwealth members have important shared political and economic interests. Britain's membership of the Commonwealth, as of so many other international organisations, presents and will, I hope, continue to present challenges and opportunities. We regard membership as a strength, bringing different perspectives to bear on mutual problems. Because of its population and geographical diversity, the Commonwealth brings a particular perspective that gives it a valuable and relevant role in the world today.

The living proof is there to see. The Commonwealth is standing the test of time extremely well. We have only to consider all the initiatives that it has produced. In October a number of Members of Parliament, including several of my right hon. Friends and myself, will attend the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association annual conference in Banff. Later in the year we have the Commonwealth Law and Education Ministers meetings. The Commonwealth Year of Sport is to be celebrated in Canada in August, with the Commonwealth Games. And of course, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting will take place in New Zealand in the autumn of next year.