HC Deb 25 January 2002 vol 378 cc1164-70

Order for Second Reading read.

2.4 pm

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I had hoped that the House was so crowded on a Friday to support the Second Reading of my Commonwealth Bill. However, the Industrial and Provident Societies Bill seems to have attracted greater interest than my own, and I am pleased that that Bill has secured its Second Reading.

The purpose of my Bill is very modest. Having come 17th in the ballot of private Member's Bills, I had no illusions that I should use my lowly place in the ballot to push forward a controversial measure or tweak the Government's nose. This measure goes back to decisions taken by the Conservative party when it was in government, but I hope that it is supported by both sides of the House. I am pleased to see the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), on the Front Bench.

The Bill aims to tackle two practical problems concerning the future of the Commonwealth. My party is strongly committed to that, as are Members on both sides of the House. The Bill essentially tidies up the statute book and severs the Government's statutory link with the Commonwealth Institute, although the Government will continue to support its work. It also makes provision for the recognition in the United Kingdom of the admission to the Commonwealth of Cameroon and Mozambique, which happened in 1995.

Before I briefly describe those two important parts of the measure, let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). He is involved with the Commonwealth Institute and approached me to suggest that I bring forward such a measure when I had secured a place in the ballot for private Member's Bills. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his encouragement and advice.

The first part of the Bill concerns the Commonwealth Institute. I should explain that the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington has nothing to do with the Commonwealth Club in Northumberland avenue, now an outrageously trendy restaurant, which I am sure is the Minister's spiritual home. That is a separate organisation.

A decision has been taken, which we strongly support, to provide that the management of the Commonwealth Institute no longer be under the direct control of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Bill repeals the statutes that provide for the management of the Commonwealth Institute as a Government-supported body. I know from letters that I have received from those at the Commonwealth Institute that they have been pressing for this measure for some time, and strongly welcome it.

The Bill would change the law following the severance of the institute from the FCO's responsibility and its establishment in January 2000 as an independent charitable company. In particular, the Bill would transfer the balance of the institute's trust fund—some £50,000—from the trustees to the institute, and terminate the Government's statutory responsibilities for the institute.

If I called this privatisation, I would be in danger of stirring up controversy, when that is not the Bill's purpose. However, we all welcome the fact that the institute, which has for a long time been under the direct control of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, will have a greater independent existence as a free-standing charitable body. It has done great work in the past to promote learning across the Commonwealth. It is an independent agency, and we strongly believe in it in its new form.

As a free-standing charitable body, the institute will be able to flourish and expand. It delivers education programmes to schools and offers exhibitions and events at its centre in London. Its mission is to work with young people across the Commonwealth so that they grow up inquisitive about other cultures as well as their own It is aimed particularly at spreading understanding of other cultures around the Commonwealth, which I strongly support.

The second part of the Bill acknowledges in United Kingdom law the admission of Cameroon and Mozambique to the Commonwealth. That decision was taken when my party was in government and Baroness Chalker was the Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth. That was in 1995, and all the practical steps to ensure full membership of the Commonwealth for Cameroon and Mozambique have been taken, but sadly, various parts of British law have not yet caught up with the new reality. The Bill ensures that all legislation on the Commonwealth fully takes account of the new position. That involves amending and correcting legislation that previously would not have covered those countries' membership.

For example, the Bill amends the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957 to include Cameroon and Mozambique in the definitions of "Commonwealth force" and "Commonwealth country". Other legislation is amended to ensure that the forces of Mozambique and Cameroon can be treated as visiting forces from a Commonwealth country under those statutes.

It was an entirely correct decision to admit Cameroon and Mozambique to the Commonwealth. It was encouraging to see countries that did not have the same historical links with the Commonwealth as most members asking to be admitted. That shows the strength and power of the Commonwealth. Having taken that decision back in 1995, it is important that we now have the legislation to make a reality of it.

I should explain that citizens of Mozambique and Cameroon already have the status of Commonwealth citizens for the purposes of the British Nationality Act 1981. That Act has already been amended, so the Bill contains no provision on nationality. It ensures that in other respects the legislation for the Commonwealth takes account of the decision that those countries should enter.

I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to give the Bill a Second Reading. It is intended to be uncontroversial. It is difficult to see how people could oppose two practical measures that ensure that the statute book gives greater freedom to the Commonwealth Institute to conduct its affairs as an independent charitable body, and that legislation governing our affairs fully reflects the decision that Mozambique and Cameroon should join the Commonwealth. I therefore hope that the private Member's Bill that I have great pleasure in bringing to the House today will secure a Second Reading.

2.12 pm
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) on choosing this topic for his private Member's Bill. As we have heard, it is a technical measure and it does a job of tidying up the statute book. It will remove the Government's statutory link with the Commonwealth Institute. It makes provisions to acknowledge Cameroon and Mozambique as members of the Commonwealth in several UK Acts of Parliament.

During the 1999 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Durban, the then Foreign Secretary, who is now the Leader of the House, announced the agreement between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the institute that it was to become an independent, pan-Commonwealth agency. At the time, David French, director general of the institute, welcomed the decision, suggesting that it was fantastic news for the institute and the Commonwealth". In February 2000 the Minister for Europe stated in response to a written question: This development means that the Imperial Institute Act 1925 and the Commonwealth Institute Act 1958 need to be repealed".—[Official Report, 1 February 2000; Vol. 343, c. 542W.] I congratulate my hon. Friend on doing that work for the Government. Although the institute has been operating as an independent agency since January 2000, until today there has been no sign of the legislation to repeal the Acts in question.

I notice from the Bill that my hon. Friend has not stopped at the two Acts referred to in the written answer. A list of Acts will be repealed in part by the Bill, and that list is almost a catalogue of all the countries in the Commonwealth.

The institute's mission is a worthy one, and it plays a valuable role. From the list of successes noted by the chairman David Thompson in the institute's annual review 2000, it is clear that its role is being taken forward with relish. Among those successes, Mr. Thompson states that the education team has secured more than £1 million in new project funding, and that more than 750,000 people have visited the website to browse the information contained on it.

As a consequence of making the institute an independent body, the Bill also deals with the disposal of the endowment fund referred to in the Imperial Institute Act 1925. That is the last remaining asset held by the old trustees for the benefit of the Commonwealth Institute. The capital fund will be transferred, free of restrictions, to the Commonwealth Institute in its reconstituted form. If the Bill becomes law, the old trustees will have no remaining functions and will cease to exist.

The second purpose of the Bill, as we have heard, is to recognise in United Kingdom law the fact that Cameroon and Mozambique were admitted to the Commonwealth in 1995. In particular, the Bill contains a provision—although, as my hon. Friend has said, many measures have already been taken—to allow forces from Cameroon and Mozambique to be treated as Commonwealth forces.

The final provisions, in clause 3, repeal the enactments relating to the Commonwealth Institute, which will cease to have effect under the provisions that I have already highlighted. I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill and doing some of the work that the Government possibly should have done earlier. I wish him and the Bill well in its passage through Parliament.

2.15 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I add my welcome to the Bill and commend the skill with which my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) has steered it thus far. I am delighted that it is getting a proper, if brief, debate today because that is the way that things should always be. I will not use the far-flung that my hon. Friend so sensibly avoided, but any move that seeks to give a genuine degree of independence to something as distinguished as the Commonwealth Institute must always be welcomed, and I admit that it particularly pleases me. I am sure that the institute welcomes the fact that it is managing to get out from under the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—if I may put it that way—although I know that the relationship between the FCO and the institute has always been of the most harmonious.

I hope that the setting of the final seal of approval on the relationship with Cameroon and Mozambique will carry with it the responsibilities that go with Commonwealth membership. I am sure that we all welcome new countries that, as my hon. Friend said, have expressed a wish to be part of the Commonwealth. However, that must be a two-way process, and I hope that those countries accept—as I am sure they do—the very real responsibilities of Commonwealth membership, which is not always without its difficulties and problems, as we all know in a different context altogether.

In that regard, I was intrigued by my hon. Friend's reference to the implications for visiting forces from a Commonwealth country, which he said were part of the thrust of the Bill. I hope that that reference carries an implication not only that visiting forces will be welcome on appropriate occasions but that the new members of the Commonwealth will be prepared to carry their share of the burden where required, where Commonwealth forces may be involved in completely different contexts.

Mr. Willetts

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point; perhaps I may clarify it. In both cases there are powerful historical and geographical reasons for those countries' becoming members of the Commonwealth—full participating members of the Commonwealth, as he is emphasising. Mozambique is, of course, surrounded by Commonwealth countries—South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe—so its membership of the Commonwealth has enabled those countries to form a stronger regional group in southern Africa for mutual assistance and support.

Although I was not aware of the fact until recently, we do have an historical interest in Cameroon, in that for a long period of the 20th century we administered part of it, under a mandate under the original League of Nations. Therefore in both cases there are historical and geographical ties, which I hope and believe will make those countries' membership of the Commonwealth real in exactly the way that my right hon. Friend suggests.

Mr. Forth

Ah, I am always glad to hear about the good old days, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of them. I have one brief question, which he or the Minister may be able to help me with. As a layman, when I read the list of repeals in schedule 3 and see that the Nigeria Independence Act 1960 and the Sierra Leone Independence Act 1961 are being repealed, I trust that that does not mean that those countries are coming back under our imperial guidance and pleasure. At first glance, the repeal of all those independence Acts would appear to carry with it some intriguing possibilities.

Mr. Willetts

I can assure my right hon. Friend that as we are now in the process of Modernising the Conservative party, such a move would be inconsistent with the strategy that our party is now taking, and it is not part of this legislation to reverse the independence of those great states.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I am sure that those countries are equally grateful that their independence is not being prejudiced by the Bill. All in all, I add my welcome to the Bill. I hope that it will safely receive its Second Reading today, and I am sure that it will be properly scrutinised in Committee.

2.19 pm
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) on introducing the Bill. He may have drawn a low place in the ballot, but that does not detract from the importance of the subject that he has chosen to promote.

We have an opportunity in this relatively short debate to stress the importance of the Commonwealth to world society. Around the world, there are detractors who say that the Commonwealth is a thing of the past, but the fact that, in this day and age, two African countries are seeking to join the Commonwealth shows that it has an important role to play, especially in developing the continuing dialogue between the developing world and the western world. The hon. Gentleman has done the House and the countries involved a service in introducing the Bill.

I was very interested to hear what he had to say about the Commonwealth Institute, which is an important organisation. I have visited it on many occasions, and it serves an important and continuing purpose, particularly in relation to some of my younger constituents who were born in the United Kingdom, but whose parents, grandparents and, these days, even older generations may have come from far-flung corners of the world in the days that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) perhaps still hankers after in his inimitable way.

Those places were far-flung parts of the empire and later the Commonwealth but are now independent countries. Those young people have an opportunity to visit the exhibitions and cultural events at the Commonwealth Institute and to learn not only about their heritage but about the relationship of those countries to the United Kingdom—the country of their birth.

I very much agree with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst when he talks about the countries that have joined the Commonwealth accepting the responsibilities of Commonwealth membership. Membership involves rights as well as responsibilities—the time-honoured phrase of new Labour. Cameroon and Mozambique are contrasting countries, and the Commonwealth can offer them, and they can offer the Commonwealth, different things in their different ways.

In preparing for today's debate, I read about the problems in Cameroon, where the human rights record is poor. Its approach to democracy is a little lacking. However, I was pleased to hear that a new electoral commission was established at the end of last year, although whether it will be able to play a role in the forthcoming elections remains to be seen. When one reads of detention without trial, torture and extra-judicial executions, one wonders whether that is in the long-standing tradition of the Commonwealth. Although that might be the case in one or two countries, it is certainly not what the Commonwealth is about, and I hope that a longer membership of the Commonwealth for Cameroon will lead it towards greater participation in democratic principles.

Mr. Willetts

The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. Of course, membership of the Commonwealth requires participation in basic standards of human rights. He is absolutely right to say that it is important—whether in Cameroon or, dare I say, Zimbabwe—that those standards are upheld, and I am sure that all members of the Commonwealth wish to ensure that they are.

Mr. Dismore

If we contrast the problems in Cameroon with the position in Mozambique, we can see what can be achieved in a relatively short time. Mozambique has suffered from decades of civil war. It was starting to recover economically, but a couple of years ago was hit by terrible floods, which we all saw on television. Despite that, it has still been able to make a very successful transition towards democracy. Mozambique has the fastest-growing economy in Africa; perhaps it is catching up after those years of being held back by the terrible civil war and the troubles of the region. It was knocked back by the floods—nevertheless, it is able to go ahead.

I am very pleased about the role that our Government are playing in developing the economy. The Government are, I think, the biggest bilateral donor of international aid to Mozambique. It is one of the heavily indebted countries, and we are doing an awful lot to try to deal with its long-standing international debts. If we can help to free Mozambique from the shackles of debt, which has held it back for so long, we will have a very important international partner. It is not one of our major trading partners, but I hope that by strengthening its links with the Commonwealth we will develop commercial as well as diplomatic ties and provide a great future for a country that has been held back for so long, for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Havant. I support the Bill, which I believe has all-party support, and congratulate him on raising such an important subject for debate.

2.25 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) on his success in the ballot. The Government warmly welcome it. It has our full support and we hope that the House will also support it.

As we have heard, until January 2000 the Commonwealth Institute was a non-departmental public body under the direction of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have not even heard of, let alone visited, the restaurant of a similar name to which he referred.

The chairman of the Commonwealth Institute approached the previous Government back in the mid-1990s with a proposal to change the institute's status. We examined the initiative and agreed to support its bid for greater independence. As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, that independence has been extremely successful. The progress has been encouraging and the institute has transformed itself into a pan-Commonwealth educational resource centre. It will be a major player in the jubilee weekend events in highlighting the Queen's role as head of the Commonwealth. It has also successfully built new relationships with new funding partners.

The severance and the institute's continued co-operation with the Government have been successful. The only outstanding issue that needed to be resolved was the repeal of legislation that linked it to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is one reason why we welcome the Bill.

The second part of the Bill ensures that the admission of Cameroon and Mozambique into the Commonwealth is properly recognised on the statute book. As hon. Members said, the applications of those two countries reflect once again the recognition of the value of the Commonwealth as an international organisation. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said how important it is that the relationship is a two-way process. They also mentioned human rights. I agree with everything that they said.

Cameroon joined because President Biya wanted it to be part of an association committed to good governance and to development, and to extend his country's international links. We firmly believe that membership of the Commonwealth can help to address some of the problems and challenges raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon.

Mozambique also joined in 1995. Although it has no traditional links with the Commonwealth, as the hon. Member for Havant said, it attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings for many years because it was surrounded by Commonwealth countries. Its membership arose in large part from its status and special relationship as one of the front-line states and its active engagement with the problems in what was then Rhodesia and in South Africa. I can reassure the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that schedule 3 does not mean that all former members of the empire who have won independence will again be subject to direct rule; it merely repeals legislation in small ways.

With the advent of majority rule in both countries, Mozambique sought a formal role in the Commonwealth, of which it has been, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon said, a constructive and enthusiastic member. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).