HC Deb 19 July 2002 vol 389 cc603-9

Not amended in the Standing Committee, considered. Order for Third Reading read.

12.46 pm
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

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

I am delighted to speak in support of the Bill, whose purpose is twofold: to sever the Government's statutory link with the Commonwealth Institute and to make provision for recognition in the United Kingdom of the admission to the Commonwealth of Cameroon and Mozambique, which happened in 1995. Conservative Members fully support this small but important Bill. In doing so, we join the Leader of the House who said at col. 427 of Hansard yesterday that the Government fully support the measures.

In 2000 the Commonwealth Institute was established as an independent charitable company and links to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were severed. The management of the Commonwealth Institute is no longer under the direct control of the FCO. We have always supported severing the links with the Foreign Office and giving the institute greater independence to promote learning across the Commonwealth. The Bill repeals the statutes that provide for the management of the Commonwealth Institute as a Government-supported body. More importantly, it will ensure the transfer of the institute's trust fund, which is approximately £50,000, from the trustees to the institute.

The second part of the Bill enables us fully to recognise Cameroon and Mozambique. They were admitted to the Commonwealth in 1995 when my good Friend Baroness Chalker was Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth. The Bill tidies up parts of the law covering the Commonwealth. For example, it 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.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Gillan

No, I am drawing my remarks to a close.

There is nothing more to add to my comments. I hope that the Bill has a safe passage.

12.49 pm
Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I do not want to speak at length because overall I welcome the Bill. It is interesting that we are debating it when the Commonwealth games are about to commence. In addition, The Guardian today has an interesting section on the future role of the Commonwealth which raises some questions. However, I am sure we all agree that the Commonwealth is an important institution to support.

The membership criteria for the Commonwealth were set out in the Harare declaration and reinforced in Edinburgh. The Edinburgh communiqué states: to become a member of the Commonwealth, an applicant country should, as a rule, have had a constitutional association with an existing Commonwealth member;…it should comply with Commonwealth values, principles and priorities as set out in the Harare Declaration; and…it should accept Commonwealth norms and conventions.

On Second Reading, I raised the human rights record of Cameroon. I also said that a new electoral commission had been appointed and that elections would be held this year. In view of the criteria for Commonwealth membership, I remain worried about Cameroon's human rights record. There are serious tensions between Cameroon and Nigeria over the border area, which contains oil. A case is before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and we hope that it will make a ruling soon. Nigerian communities have repeatedly reported alleged attacks by Cameroon gendarmes, despite the fact that there is a case before the International Court of Justice.

The election campaign has been marred by violence. Indeed, elections were postponed because of irregularities, intimidation and election fraud. It is interesting to note that the election, which was postponed for a week, has been challenged and that the court in Cameroon has ordered a rerun of the election in nine constituencies because of fraud. However, the Opposition parties are worried that many of their objections and allegations of fraud have not been properly investigated, although many were accepted as valid. It was argued that petitions were filed too late or that there was a lack of sufficient evidence. The latter is a serious problem.

The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture states that torture is commonplace in Cameroon. Its report refers to serious abuses. Amnesty International's 2002 report, which covers January to December 2001, relates some horrific examples of human rights abuses and the lack of the rule of law. They include intimidation and attacks on the defenders of human rights and journalists. I shall not go into that in detail, but the report is available in the Library.

I remain worried that Cameroon's record does not fulfil the high standards that we should expect from a member of the Commonwealth.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Does he agree that we need to strengthen the monitoring elements in the Commonwealth so that we can be sure that they are ever vigilant not only of new but of existing members?

Mr. Dismore

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I do not want to oppose Cameroon's membership of the Commonwealth, but if it is part of that organisation, it is incumbent on Commonwealth institutions to do all that we can to help Cameroon to improve its democratic and human rights records.

Mozambique has proved a success story. Although the Amnesty International report raises questions about political abuses, it is not as damning as the information on Cameroon. For example, in Mozambique, the death penalty has been abolished and police officers have been dismissed and have faced prosecution for abuses. Progress has therefore been made in Mozambique. Arms have also been handed in. A programme that was backed by Christian Aid destroyed more than 100,000 guns, grenades and rocket launchers.

However, Mozambique faces serious economic challenges because of the floods. I am pleased that efforts have been made through the African Development bank to build dams to control that problem. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need for food aid. When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope that he will say what the Government are doing to help with prompt action on the African famine through the Commonwealth and by ourselves. The United States has already begun to tackle that.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

On the subject of human rights and aid, does the hon. Gentleman think that it would be appropriate if the Government were to adopt a policy of smart aid, whereby the delivery of non-humanitarian, non-NGO aid is linked to the development of good governance and human rights?

Mr. Dismore

I agree, and I hope that we shall start to develop such a policy. In The Sunday Telegraph on 7 April, there was an interesting article about the fact that Mozambique is welcoming refugee farmers from Zimbabwe and helping them to re-establish themselves.

Both Mozambique and Cameroon are welcome. Despite all the serious challenges it faces, Mozambique is making a lot of progress with the assistance of the Commonwealth and other countries, and I hope that we will start to see better progress in Cameroon.

12.55 pm
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I shall be extremely brief—in fact, if the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) had been willing. I would have preferred to intervene on her than to make a speech. I mean no disrespect to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or to other hon. Members, but I must briefly leave the Chamber at 1 o'clock. I hope that I will not miss an important part of the Minister's reply to the debate as a result.

I broadly support the Bill. I hope that the Minister will be able to explain why no earlier opportunity was taken to make the statutory changes in respect of Cameroon and Mozambique. I am aware of legislation sponsored by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and by the Department for International Development which could have been used as a vehicle for such minor changes to British law in respect of those two countries.

I understand and support the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). It is important that the Commonwealth is conscious of the need to do more than require that lip service be paid to human rights, but to monitor and ensure that Commonwealth members live up to such expectations. Having said that, we should welcome the admission of Cameroon and Mozambique to the Commonwealth.

Cameroon is part of what is normally considered francophone Africa—perhaps the Minister knows whether it is simultaneously a member of La Francophonie—but it is clear that within Africa the Commonwealth is regarded as a better vehicle for countries' aspirations to development and co-operation than La Francophonie. That is a good thing for Great Britain and its interests.

Mozambique is in a unique position. Not only has it never been part of the British empire, but it is lusophone. It is the only lusophone member of the Commonwealth, which is an excellent thing. Mozambique's recent history is terrible. A great deal needs to be done to deal with the corrosive effects of war—especially landmines, as the Minister knows—and the after-effects of natural disasters such as floods. Offering the greatest co-operation we can to the people of Mozambique, including enabling the armed forces to take part in combined operations to deal with the natural disasters which I have no doubt will strike that country in future, is to be applauded.

I am well aware of the work of British non-governmental associations in Mozambique. One NGO based in my constituency, Action on Disability and Development, has done a great deal of work with people in Mozambique who have been disabled, mainly by landmines. The connection between our two countries is extremely important to both of us, and I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill to cement that relationship.

12.59 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

It is a pleasure to support the Bill, and to follow the hon. Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). Let me express my admiration for the latter, whose range of interests and intellectual agility allowed him to move seamlessly from the behaviour of guide dogs in private hire vehicles to human rights in Cameroon and flooding in Mozambique. Those are all important matters.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) rightly said, the Bill will regularise the legal footing of the Commonwealth Institute, an independent body that promotes learning throughout the Commonwealth, by severing the statutory link with the Government, which has become necessary because it is now an independent charitable company. The Bill also acknowledges the admission of Cameroon and Mozambique to the Commonwealth.

The institute is a force for good in the Commonwealth. We all deeply appreciate our links with the Commonwealth and its Parliaments. I am conscious of the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham is a member of the international executive committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. This year, with the role of the Commonwealth in the golden jubilee celebrations and the Commonwealth games coming up in Manchester, we can all agree about the value of the role of the Commonwealth, in which the institute certainly plays its part.

1.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) on the progress of his Bill, as well as the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who is standing in for him today.

As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office said on Second Reading, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) said in Committee, the Government are committed to the Bill. I hope that the House will give it its full support today. As the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) reminded us, it has two key purposes: to repeal the statutes providing for the management of the Commonwealth Institute following its severance from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's responsibility and its establishment as an independent charitable company in January 2000; and to acknowledge in United Kingdom law the admission of Cameroon and Mozambique to the Commonwealth, by amending certain Acts of Parliament to allow them to be listed and treated as Commonwealth countries.

The Commonwealth Institute has made a distinguished contribution to British understanding and appreciation of the Commonwealth since it opened in 1962. In the late 1990s, its board of governors agreed that it should seek to change its status from a non-departmental public body responsible to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to that of an independent charitable company. We were asked to support the change. We examined it in detail and agreed to do so. We negotiated terms with the institute and drew up a severance contract that allowed it to determine its own future.

As an independent organisation, the institute continues to develop its role to meet the challenges and demands of the Commonwealth at the start of this new century. I want to recall the impressive contribution that it made to the golden jubilee of the Queen as head of the Commonwealth. It organised the Commonwealth aspect of the bank holiday procession in the Mall, demonstrating the strength of the Commonwealth in this country and the contributions made by many of its people to our multicultural society at the start of the 21st century. As part of its contribution to the 17th Commonwealth games, which open in Manchester next Thursday, it has devised and distributed educational materials to schools throughout the country, deepening children's knowledge of the Commonwealth and its contributions.

We wish the institute well in its new independent role. I commend the Bill to the House in respect of its repeal of legislation to allow the institute to determine its own future and how it can best contribute to the needs of the modern Commonwealth.

Clause 2 formally ensures that the admission of Cameroon and Mozambique to the Commonwealth is properly recognised in UK legislation. I should point out to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that past efforts to secure the parliamentary time necessary for considering this issue have not been successful. However, thanks to the hon. Member for Havant and his Bill, we have now been able to do so, and we are grateful for that.

Of course, the Commonwealth as a whole operates in a spirit of consensus, and all its members agreed to the admission of Mozambique and Cameroon in 1995. The House should be aware that the Bill does not imply that any further formal approval is needed for the membership of these two countries; it simply tidies up the statute book. However, their membership highlights the value of the Commonwealth as an international organisation.

Mozambique had no traditional links with the association. Surrounded by Commonwealth countries, its membership resulted from its active and constructive engagement with problems in the then Rhodesia and South Africa. Once both countries secured majority rule, Mozambique applied to join the Commonwealth, and it was warmly welcomed. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome said, it has proved a committed and enthusiastic member. Its role in the Commonwealth has proved to its benefit, and to the benefit of the Commonwealth itself.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr Dismore) said, Cameroon's membership of the Commonwealth has proved somewhat less encouraging. Member countries are expected to uphold the Commonwealth's principles of good governance, the rule of law and respect for human rights. International concern about Cameroon focuses on the need for reform in these areas. The Commonwealth has actively engaged with Cameroon since it joined in 1995, and it has looked at particular ways in which it can help Cameroon to uphold Commonwealth principles.

In the light of last month's legislative and municipal elections, there is now even greater emphasis on the need for electoral reform. Although the official results are not yet available, we are concerned about indications of procedural irregularities and flaws. There is a real need for reform before the presidential elections in 2004. We are pleased that the Commonwealth sent observers to monitor the recent elections, and we welcome the Commonwealth Secretary-General's appointing of a special representative to Cameroon—the Canadian Christine Stewert—to support its efforts to meet the requirements of Commonwealth membership.

In response to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I should point out that—despite some concerns about Cameroon's human rights record—it is right that we welcome it into the Commonwealth, and that we seek to challenge it to improve its human rights record. As part of that exercise, we shall work with Cameroon as closely as we can—as, no doubt, will the Commonwealth as a whole.

Mr. Edward Davey

The Minister is using much of his speech to point out some of the existing problems, particularly in Cameroon. He agreed with the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that perhaps the best way to deal with those problems is to allow Cameroon into the Commonwealth, and to offer the support network that only the Commonwealth can provide. Can he say a little more about that, and about how soon he hopes to see those improvements? We are being asked to vote for a Bill that, in many ways, will give up one of our existing sanctions. The Minister shakes his head. He may wish to say that we will consider the case for removing Cameroon from the Commonwealth in due course, after discussing it with our partners, if it fails to meet the mark, but he should reassure the House that Her Majesty's Government will be very strict with Cameroon and Mozambique if they fail to meet the standards required.

Mr. O'Brien

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but let me make it clear, as I thought I already had, that the Bill does not secure the entry of Cameroon into the Commonwealth. Cameroon joined in 1995, and the Bill simply tidies up our statute book by recognising something that has already occurred.

The Commonwealth Secretary-General has engaged, as we have, in a number of ways with Cameroon, and there have been discussions with its Government to ensure that they are aware of our concerns about a series of issues, some of which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon touched on, and others of which we could go into, no doubt at great length, today.

The point is whether through the Commonwealth and particularly through the appointment of Christine Stewert by the Secretary-General to enter into close discussions with Cameroon and support its membership of the Commonwealth, we can engage it in a serious discussion of how it can improve its human rights and electoral system. We are talking to Cameroon and ensuring that it is aware both of our concerns and of the fact that there are ways in which we can encourage it, and provide some practical assistance if it wishes to improve its electoral and other procedures to protect human rights better.

We believe that membership of the Commonwealth is important to enable our partners to encourage Cameroon to meet its commitments, and we hope that the way in which we and the rest of the Commonwealth are engaging with it will start to secure some change. There is no point in making threats and wild statements. We need to engage constructively and seek to change the way in which things are done. I hope that hon. Members will feel that the Bill is worth supporting, and I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.