HL Deb 20 November 1995 vol 567 cc126-9

2.45 p.m.

Lord Molloy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consider instituting an annual British Commonwealth Day.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey)

My Lords, Commonwealth Day, which falls on the second Monday of March each year, is marked throughout the Commonwealth. In Britain it is marked by a multi-faith service at Westminster Abbey in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does she agree that the Commonwealth, which includes so many people of different religions, colours and races, is a remarkable and outstanding achievement of the British people? Should we not have a higher standard of celebration for the achievement of the British people in creating one of the greatest institutions in the history of mankind?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the Commonwealth is a remarkable achievement, but not just by British people—by all members of the Commonwealth. What is very noticeable is how the Commonwealth is growing in its ability to come to even the most difficult decisions, as it showed in Auckland.

The noble Lord asked about a higher standard of celebration. I can think of no better celebration than the religious service of all faiths in Westminster Abbey. The day was chosen particularly because it is the one day above all others when more school children in the Commonwealth are in school. It is the school children who make the service not only at Westminster Abbey but at all the other celebrations around the Commonwealth. It is a very important day.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, instead of using Commonwealth Day as an occasion for self-congratulation, should not the Commonwealth take the opportunity of addressing itself to some of its defects? In particular, might it not be the occasion for a meeting of NGOs concerned with human rights and democracy so that they could review the decisions which are made by the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, in the same way as the OSCE now has parallel NGO machinery for reviewing what is done at the human dimension review meetings?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I do not believe that any ceremony in Westminster Abbey which is a renewal of all faiths within the Commonwealth is anything but a good thing, and it should not be undermined. I hope that the noble Lord did not intend to do so in his remarks.

There are many meetings of non-governmental organisations of the Commonwealth. No one is complacent. There is much work to be done. The Commonwealth showed at its Auckland meeting that it was determined to keep to the important principles agreed in 1991 in Harare. That is why Commonwealth Foreign Ministers will be meeting next month and regularly—to look at adherence to the principles.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, in order to demonstrate their solidarity with the Commonwealth, will the Government support New Zealand's proposal, carried by the General Assembly of the United Nations, that nuclear weapons should be declared illegal by the International Court of Justice?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, that has absolutely nothing to do with the Question on the Order Paper. If this House is to retain the confidence of the British people, then we should stick to the question.

Lord Rea

My Lords, following on from the question on human rights, can the noble Baroness tell us what resources will be available to the group of nations chosen to operate the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme in New Zealand which is to monitor adherence to the Harare Declaration on human rights? For instance, will that body be able to monitor elections such as the forthcoming municipal elections in the Cameroon Republic? Is it not important to have impartial observers on the ground well in advance of such an election to see that electoral registers are fairly compiled, especially when there is clear evidence that there has been serious abuse of the process in the past?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, local elections in the Cameroons, the newest Commonwealth member before Mozambique, are a long way from the original Question. However, part of the Commonwealth's responsibility is to help with the monitoring of elections. That is something which comes out of the Millbrook Declaration, for which resources will be contributed by the Commonwealth.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that in the light of the previous questions the House should be given a day to debate the Commonwealth? Perhaps I may also draw her attention to the difference between the way in which the Question has been framed with reference to the "British Commonwealth" and my noble friend's Answer referring to the "Commonwealth". May we have a debate on the subject and discuss the Harare Declaration and all the matters that may arise from it, including the possibility of new entrants?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am quite sure that the noble Earl has made his feeling well known given that my noble friend the Chief Whip and the noble Lord the Chief Whip for the main Opposition party heard it. Perhaps I may add that it is not the "British Commonwealth" but the "Commonwealth of Nations". That is why in my first Answer I referred to the contribution of all Commonwealth countries.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when I attended the Anzac ceremonies last year in my capacity as Treasurer of the Anzac Group there was no Minister present, either junior or senior? May I have an assurance that that matter will be put right next time and that in the celebrations for Commonwealth Day we shall always ensure that a Minister of some rank appears?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that each one of us tries very hard to accept one of the invitations which come forward; but the pressure on diaries to attend many ceremonies sometimes means that occasionally one falls by the wayside. I take note of what the noble Lord said. I shall try to make sure that there is a Minister with appropriate interests at the next Anzac ceremony.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that when I was a young girl at school in Kenya we used to celebrate Empire Day? We used to have a day free of lessons and we were all given an Empire apple. Could not something be done on these lines for school children in this country so that they become indelibly aware, as I did, of the role of the different countries in the Commonwealth and the role of the individual within these countries?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am all for encouraging young people to see the value of the celebrations, but I am not sure that a day free from lessons would help them in the long term. It may be that there should be a little more school and a few more apples.

Lord Braine of Wheatley

My Lords, will my noble friend acknowledge not only the existence of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, to which every Commonwealth country is associated, but also the great value of its work in spreading understanding of the Commonwealth? Does she not agree that some of the questions raised today are rather odd in view of the work of that association?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as all of us who have attended the annual conferences and seminars of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association know so well, it is an invaluable organisation. However, in my answers I was trying to stick to the original Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, bearing in mind that the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association is—

Noble Lords

Next Question!

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord. I am conscious of the fact that we do not have much time left. I wonder whether he will allow us to proceed.