HL Deb 29 January 1997 vol 577 cc1171-211

5.26 p.m.

Viscount Waverley rose to call attention to the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to be held in Edinburgh; and to move for Papers.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the forthcoming biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is the first time in 20 years that Britain will be the host and the first time that it will be held in Scotland.

Tomorrow, the Foreign Secretary will launch the UK Year of the Commonwealth in recognition of the significance to Britain.

The Commonwealth is a unique organisation of 53 countries which is developing new relevance, not only politically, but economically. The liberalising of economies has led to increased competitiveness and the creation of new opportunities for trade and investment. Some of the world's fastest-growing economies, countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, are members; yet it is also the first and only organisation to recognise that small states are a special category which merit separate consideration and action. The Commonwealth's global reach has gained ever-reaching importance.

Previous CHOGMs have focused on differing issues with the underlying theme of international developments and considered ways of improving co-operation between members. Singapore, in 1971, resulted in an important statement of principles being agreed, including, inter alia, a commitment to equal rights for all, regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief; democratic self-determination and non-racialism; an end to poverty, ignorance and disease; and the achievement of a more equitable international society. Harare, in 1991, sought to redefine Commonwealth objectives with its significant declaration. Key principles to which all governments were expected to conform included the concept of good governance and the building and strengthening of democratic processes, according to national circumstances, respect for human rights, the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, sustainable economic development and gender equality.

During the most recent CHOGM in Auckland, heads of government adopted a Commonwealth action programme to fulfil more effectively the commitments contained in the Harare declaration. It sought to promote and protect the Commonwealth's core values in three parts: advancing Commonwealth fundamental political values, promoting sustainable development and facilitating consensus building.

The action programme identified steps in the event that a member country was perceived to be in clear violation of the Harare Declaration, with heads establishing a mechanism of a Commonwealth ministerial group (CMAG) to deal with serious or persistent violations of the principles. Since then, the secretariat, in consultation with CMAG, has been engaged in assisting the successful elections and the search for peace in Sierra Leone, undertaken a process of dialogue with the Nigerian authorities following suspension action taken at Auckland and offered help to The Gambia in its programme of transition from military to democratic rule.

At the time of the Harare Heads of Government Meeting, no less than nine Commonwealth countries were led by military regimes or one-party governments. Since then, however, the Commonwealth, in pursuance of its political values, has contributed to reducing that number to one. Since 1990 it has organised 20 election observer missions—indeed, I had the honour to serve as an observer in the recent Bangladesh election—and has assisted many member states in their constitutional review, in reinforcing their electoral systems and in gaining familiarity with parliamentary institutions and procedures.

And so to Edinburgh. It is not possible at this stage to know with certainty the issues likely to dominate the 1997 CHOGM. Members have a great capacity for the unexpected. But it can be anticipated that three themes will be evident: democracy and human rights, sustainable development and consensus building. I would like to refer to existing Commonwealth work in these areas. The list is formidable and is by no means illustrative of all the good works carried out. I am constantly surprised by the depth of activities.

Work promoting good governance includes the provision of technical assistance for addressing the rule of law and for reforms in administrative and managerial practices in judicial institutions, including the restructuring of civil service and public enterprises. Additionally, the Commonwealth has an active human rights programme which, through education and training, exchange of information and the strengthening or the creating of national institutions, seeks to raise public awareness of the role of human rights.

Substantial work is undertaken in the area of economic and social development and development co-operation by helping member countries address problems of poverty and sustainable development and so contribute to political and social stability. Policy advice is offered with technical assistance and training in tackling a range of problems, primarily through the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC), and although small in size, the fund has acquired a reputation for being flexible and responsive in meeting the needs of member countries, including an active programme of assistance in debt management.

While on the subject of debt, debt continues, as your Lordships will be aware, to be a major impediment to investment, growth and poverty reduction in a number of Commonwealth countries. The secretariat undertakes much technical work to strengthen the analytical case for relief. I believe that it is also right to record that the United Kingdom has been instrumental in placing the issue of multilateral debt centre stage on the international agenda.

Several member countries seek and obtain useful policy advice and operational technical assistance when undertaking structural adjustment programmes, including privatisation of public enterprises. The Commonwealth is also involved, at a time when aid resources are declining, in assisting members gain better access to international capital markets through the establishment of such mechanisms as the Commonwealth Equity Fund and the Commonwealth Private Investment Initiative, under the aegis of which the Commonwealth Africa Investment Fund (COMAFIN) was established.

Taking advantage of opportunities arising out of the Uruguay Round trade agreement, with particular attention being paid to the needs of countries which can be adversely affected by the erosion of preferences and high food import bills, is yet another area where assistance is offered.

Development of human resources in areas such as education, training and health by paying special attention to the needs of women, youth and children remains a high priority. The Commonwealth Youth Programme is, for example, a unique programme of this kind and contributes to national youth policy development, youth empowerment and human resource development for young men and women.

A priority has been to tackle particular security and economic problems of small states by establishing a ministerial group on small states to bring focus at global and pan-Commonwealth levels to their special concerns. In addition, the secretariat monitors and analyses political, security, economic and social issues of concern to small states. The secretariat also manages a Commonwealth Joint Office at the United Nations which enables nine small member states to maintain permanent missions at the UN.

Finally, consultation being the lifeblood of the Commonwealth association, senior officials' meetings provide opportunities to member countries for the mutually beneficial exchange of views, experiences and co-operation.

Yet for all the positive work, concern for the future of the Commonwealth exists in certain quarters. There are those who argue that the Commonwealth is outdated, irrelevant, ineffective and will not continue as a force for good through the millennium. I would like to address that. While the Commonwealth association is based on ties of shared history, common institutions, laws and language, it is essential that members recognise that nothing works effectively if taken for granted. I believe that all members should take a renewed interest in building stronger links with Commonwealth partners for many reasons, but not least that the Commonwealth is now seen as presenting economic opportunities for member countries on a trans-regional basis.

Edinburgh could also play its part by addressing underlying concerns in four main subject headings: the Commonwealth's role in relation to small states; the Commonwealth's role in dealing with wrongdoers in member countries; the criteria by which the Commonwealth expands its membership; and the strengthening of CHOGM as the Commonwealth's most significant decision-making mechanism.

Many small states embrace the Commonwealth as a major, if not the major, platform in their foreign policy. As we approach the 21st century, the people of those states will look to the Commonwealth to produce jobs and growth. Faced with large economic groupings, such as the European Union and NAFTA, small states confront a prospect of increased poverty and lower standards of living.

There has been a tendency for the Commonwealth to shy away from the internal problems of its member countries. The success of CMAG is an essential ingredient for the credibility of the Commonwealth. If the Commonwealth is to retain a relevance as the 21st century approaches, it will have to be ready to speak out and take appropriate measures, with the secretariat empowered and funded to develop the capacity for preventing and managing conflict.

Indeed, I have long thought that the Commonwealth might have a peacekeeping role within the aegis of the United Nations. It should be remembered that the secretary-general has been involved in efforts to resolve potential and actual conflicts in member countries, including Bangladesh, Kenya, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zambia.

The Commonwealth must act in accordance with its principles or the people of the Commonwealth will lose faith in it. While welcoming Cameroon and Mozambique, membership issues must be addressed. The recent enlargement poses a challenge.

I believe that the unique attributes of language, style of informality, intimacy and consensus must be retained. Success of past CHOGMs has been the Retreat. Practical concerns are that of accommodating 53 Heads in an atmosphere to encourage spontaneity and flexibility—key elements of Commonwealth decision-making. This is an important issue and should be grappled with.

I favour the re-introduction of regional meetings. This was tried and tested some 15 years ago, but circumstances have changed since then, with a global move to regionalism. I believe that they used to be referred to as CHOGROOMS; but whether at Heads level or a meeting of foreign ministers in the intermediate years of CHOGM, there should be, in my view, serious consideration. That initiative would instil a sense of urgency and keep the issues alive.

Finally, it would be inappropriate if I did not refer to a cornerstone of the Commonwealth, the secretariat. No debate would be complete without comment on the machine which administers on behalf of Heads of Government. Since the Harare meeting, the secretariat has been engaged in a continuous review of its programme in line with the Harare priorities. It has also enhanced its cost-effectiveness and impact with a restructuring in 1993 and so reducing its overheads by 16.5 per cent.

At the same time, it initiated major independent reviews of its work programme in order to establish areas of best impact and comparative advantage. They demonstrated the value of the Commonwealth's programmes and what the Commonwealth can achieve with the limited funds at its disposal.

Heads decided in New Zealand to restore the secretariat's development programmes to their 1991-92 levels, but while the efficiency savings and programme reviews have helped to maintain the secretariat programme of work in substantial measure, the Commonwealth agenda has expanded significantly since Harare. This has the overall effect, through lack of adequate funding, of curtailing the scope of some programmes.

If the expectations of the Harare Declaration and the Millbrook Action Programme are to be fully realised, there need to be additional resources.

Industrialised countries and countries whose economic capacity has been improving in recent years should recognise and support more tangibly the association's potential by devoting a higher proportion of their multilateral budgets to collective Commonwealth endeavours. There is little question that there is a considerable capacity to do more if given the resources.

In conclusion, the challenge of Edinburgh should be to place social and economic development alongside the Harare principles as the driving force behind the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth will then come alive and vibrant.

The Commonwealth has been marginalised for long enough and that has led to neglect and indifference. Membership benefits, both political and non-political, can and should be beneficial to all, but the importance must be recognised and acknowledged. The United Kingdom Government should strive to make the forthcoming Commonwealth meeting relevant and effective.

Frankly speaking, I believe this conference is coming to our shores not a moment too soon. We stand at a cross-roads. The European question is fast approaching the point of no return and the way we respond will affect future generations for ever more.

It should never be forgotten that Commonwealth members are real friends, friends with a mutual respect for one another. We in the United Kingdom cannot do without them. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

5.41 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, Margery Penham, in her Reith Lectures, the Colonial Reckoning, said: Immense difficulties face the new slates through which Africans intend to assert their equality. It may be a very long time before they succeed in this. The lamps of Africa may go out even before they are fully alight…Whether they do or not will depend very much upon the degree of understanding and help which we in the West give to Africa in the next two or three critical years". She spoke in December 1961, against the background of the chaos of the former Belgian Congo, at a time when both Nasser and the Russians were leading a vociferous anti-colonial campaign.

Today we live in a world free of the Cold War—not least a world in which South Africa is back in the Commonwealth, a strong political force for stability and leadership. We have moved a long way since then (even despite the sad fate of Nigeria) although ironically, once the Cold War threat went away, so, to some extent, the West and especially America have tended to see less urgency in the problems of Africa.

I speak chiefly of Africa because I know it best, but, of course, the old Commonwealth has a vital role to play, even though our economic links with it have been affected to some degree by our move towards Europe. But in so many vital areas—technology, development, and higher education—the Commonwealth countries remain very close to us, as the Rhodes and Nuffield Scholarships, the Oxford Australian Fund, Queen Elizabeth House and a hundred other such connections all testify.

This is the moment to invest in the future. We are part of a powerful engine for change. We are looking at 1.5 billion people, half of whom are under 25—a world within the world, bound together by one language, English; by one legal tradition, the rule of law; and by one unifying factor which is unique to the Commonwealth, the Crown. There are moves from time to time, in Australia, for instance, to assert nationhood by rejecting the Crown connection, but that is not true of the Commonwealth in general where the Queen is the most powerful symbol.

In the appalling media circus, known as "The Monarchy Debate" on Channel 4 recently, it was heartening to hear Bernie Grant MP remind that audience that the Queen was the head of the Commonwealth, admired throughout the world; that her reputation in the Caribbean was one to inspire pride; and that she took as much interest in a tiny island as in a big country. With respect, our Prime Ministers and Foreign Secretaries come and go, but the Queen is always there, familiar with the problems of those countries.

When I was serving in the Congo, a week after independence, three of Lumumba's Ministers came to me to ask whether that country could become a British colony under the Queen. When I showed the film of the Royal Family to the diplomatic corps in Hanoi in the middle of the Vietnam war, the Soviet ambassador gave an admirable short lecture on the valuable role of the Queen in both the UK and the Commonwealth. A prophet is not without honour save in his own country.

Nick Ross said with a note of contempt yesterday on his radio programme, hearing someone praise the monarchy, "Why do you all want to look backwards to the days of tribal chieftains?" Perhaps that is exactly why Africans in particular, from Mandela to Museveni, can understand and relate to her: she stands for tradition and a life of service; for dignity and ceremonial; but she is also, like them, part of the modern world. We should indeed look forward, not back.

I hope that before we enter into the Commonwealth Conference we shall recognise that this is a critical turning point, as the noble Viscount said. There is a job to do and we have an instrument to do it with. The UN has been incompetent, profligate, arrogant, overmanned and rudderless, but it is all that we have, and now we have a new Secretary-General, a Ghanaian, who is widely experienced. This is the moment to hammer out a Commonwealth policy to ensure that some sensible things are done at the grassroots by the UN agencies, and that the World Bank and the IMF stop trying to treat countries which still have no sophisticated infrastructure as if they were African Switzerlands or Denmarks.

We need to agree some limited and clear objectives, for instance, to protect the slow but sure return to sound government in Uganda and Ghana, and, as a multi-faith body, to resist such developments as the promotion of Islamic fundamentalism in Africa.

Let us build on what works for a start. I know that my noble friend the Minister has built a most effective network of working relationships with Commonwealth leaders, based on the very practical tasks which our aid effort executes so well—grassroots operations in partnership with the countries being helped, but backed by a long-term strategy.

I am much impressed by the broad sweep of activity in the Commonwealth, promoted by the Commonwealth Institute, the Secretariat, the Commonwealth Development Institute and the Royal Commonwealth Society. As the noble Viscount said, the sweep of their activity is immense. I hope that the Government will indeed, as I believe that they are minded to do, renew their support for the institute, but I have one concern and one proposal.

Despite all the interaction with the national curriculum, I fear that what is being taught in schools may be rather peripheral and give a false, if politically correct, picture of the Commonwealth's origins. The Commonwealth countries began as colonies. It is not reasonable or reassuring to read in the list of publications, "Education Pack for Schools—From BBC documentary on Cecil Rhodes, updated". We do our school children a disservice if we say nothing of the great positive work of the Colonial Service when every African leader known to me had deeply respected friends in that service. Robert Gardiner, that great Ghanaian, who was head of the Economic Commission for Africa and, incidentally, the only man who made the UN operation in the Congo work, told a seminar of young African diplomats that Britain had brought one great and priceless gift to Africa, the rule of law. "Did they really regret the rule of the witch doctor?", he asked.

My proposal is that Her Majesty's Government should use the conference not only to renew the commitment of the Commonwealth to making the UN work and to all its many virtuous intentions, but should also announce a number of millennium scholarships and fellowships. I submit that we do not need a building; we need to build a new Commonwealth generation—and we can do that with scholarships. People may ask, "What is in it for us?" What is in it is membership of an immensely powerful, special and valuable family of friends in the UN and elsewhere—a group that is unique.

5.50 p.m.

Lord Rea

My Lords, my contribution will consist of two broad questions, both of which concern democracy and the observance of human rights in two countries: the Republic of Cameroon, which is the second newest Commonwealth member, and Nigeria, which has been suspended from the Commonwealth but is still very much on the agenda. When the Republic of Cameroon joined the Commonwealth it was hoped that the observance of human rights in that country would improve because it would be under an obligation to adhere to the principles of the Harare Declaration and would be more open to scrutiny. The regime of President Paul Biya has been the subject of strong criticism by opposition parties in Cameroon and human rights groups inside and outside the country. They say in effect that the regime remains in power through election-rigging, interference with press freedom and coercive use of the police and armed forces.

The British Council is to be congratulated on taking the initiative in organising the training of electoral observers in Cameroon. There are about 2, 000 of them.

Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us a little about this operation. However, the electoral fraud that has bedevilled recent elections in Cameroon, the presidential elections in 1992 and the local elections last year, has occurred before the poll has taken place, at the level of electoral registration. Evidence has been presented by the committee for human rights in Cameroon and the opposition parties which shows that in areas that are known to favour the government party registration lists roughly equate to the adult population resident in those areas—and sometimes greatly exceed it—while in areas that are known to favour opposition parties often there has been considerable under-registration.

Officially, registration lists were open for most of last year. Registration officers from the electoral commission, despite the lists being "open", have been reported arriving unannounced and leaving villages and towns after only a few hours. In many districts there is not a permanent office for registration and no effort is made to inform the population on what day and time the officer will arrive. When the deficit in registration is pointed out, often the official answer is that the electorate has been busy on farms and cannot be contacted. Divisional electoral commissions are supposed to have representatives from all parties, but they have often been formed without opposition representation so that registration is carried out without accountability. Although polling and vote counting could be handled well and come up to the standards of international and other observers, some of the electorate might well be disfranchised and unable to take part.

There are other ways in which an authoritarian regime can swing elections in its favour. There may be obstruction of freedom of assembly. It is not usually a total ban because that is too obvious. There may be control of the media, which is a common method. There is evidence that both methods are used in Cameroon as elsewhere in many countries both in the Commonwealth and outside it where democracy is a new concept or is under threat. The recent election in The Gambia rather falls into this category. These are the more subtle ways of swinging electoral results other than the actual falsification of ballot papers or the deliberate miscounting of them. They are rather more difficult to detect and record but by no means impossible if the will is there. However, the Commonwealth must be made aware of these anti-democratic practices and take action to end them.

Apart from the information that must be being gathered by the High Commission, I ask the noble Baroness what monitoring of the pre-election phase in Cameroon is taking place. Does CMAG (Commonwealth Ministers Action Group) have the resources to do this? If not, should it not be a priority for the near future? The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, wondered whether CMAG should have greater resources.

Legislative elections in Cameroon are due in March and presidential elections in October of this year. In the absence of a CMAG monitoring group, can the noble Baroness say what efforts our High Commissioner is making to collect information on these worrying anti-democratic activities in the pre-election phase? For instance, can she say whether the Government will make the Cameroon Government aware of their concerns if they find these malpractice going on? Will the question of political freedom and electoral malpractice in Cameroon and elsewhere be raised at the Edinburgh meeting with which this debate is concerned?

I should also like to touch on the situation in Nigeria. What I have already said about Cameroon is relevant to Nigeria as General Abacha moves towards his stated aim of transition to civilian rule. I should like to take this opportunity to raise the case of Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, a distinguished Nigerian doctor, who has been detained since August 1995 following a trial which was as much a travesty of justice as that of Ken Sara Wiwa in Ogoniland. According to the latest information I have, he is not well and is held in solitary confinement in Katsina in the far north of Nigeria, 500 miles from his family, only one of whom is allowed to visit him for one hour per month. His daughter Morenike wrote to me after I raised his case in a Written Question about six months ago. In answer to my suggestion that General Abacha did not seem to take much notice of the British Government, she says: Contrary to your impression, I must say that the British Government does have a lot of effect on the Abacha regime. This regime is very 'conscious' of the influence that the British Government can have on the European Union and the United States of America. These power blocks look to the British Government for guidance on this issue because of what they perceive to be its understanding and familiarity with the Nigerian socio-political environment [by virtue of Nigeria's former colonial status]". I ask the noble Baroness to do all in her power to achieve the release of this distinguished political prisoner, whose health is declining in custody, or at the very least press for him to be transferred to Lagos where his family can visit him more easily. But he is only one of many in a similar situation. I have a list of 87 names, some of whom are very distinguished people. I am sure that they are by no means the total number of political prisoners in custody in Nigeria. Surely, their release must be a necessary pre-condition for any moves towards the rehabilitation of Nigeria within the Commonwealth.

5.58 p.m.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for choosing this moment to raise this very important subject. I had the privilege of being chairman of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in 1986. For two years thereafter, between 1986 and 1988, I had the privilege of being the first Speaker of the United Kingdom Parliament to be chairman of the Commonwealth Speakers and Presiding Officers. I took the opportunity to visit as many Commonwealth countries as possible, particularly the smaller countries.

I shall spare your Lordships' blushes tonight by not recounting my introduction to the Parliament of Vanuatu in pidgin English. It was in our terms slightly unparliamentary. However, I vividly remember going to church on a Sunday while I was there. I found myself on my knees praying to "Big fella him live along topside". One of the glories of the Commonwealth is that at meetings the "little fellas" have a voice that is equal to that of the "big fellas". No doubt that will be so in Edinburgh next October.

In my brief contribution this evening I want to pay tribute to the Commonwealth NGOs and to concentrate on one of the "little fellas". The Commonwealth community is by no means just a matter of government and politics, though it is true that our mother of parliaments is the lodestone of theirs. Many non-governmental organisations spread a wide variety of professional, caring and educational skills which can be said to provide the glue necessary to hold the Commonwealth peoples together.

A shining example of this is the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League based in London. It is only one of many, of course. I had the privilege, as some of your Lordships may know, of serving in the old imperial Indian Army for some 5 years, in the 19th King George V's Own Lancers. I owed my seat in Parliament to my declining command of Urdu. The contribution of that army can never be overstated: over 2 million men and women under arms and everyone a volunteer. But let us not forget the contributions and the bravery of the troops from other parts of the Commonwealth: from Africa (West, East and South), from the Caribbean, from islands such as Fiji and many other smaller dependencies.

I was fortunate in July to be given a slot on "The Week's Good Cause" in support of the AUK appeal to raise money for the veterans of the old imperial armies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, many of them today in grave distress and poverty. I was told that £10, 000 is the average to be raised by "The Week's Good Cause". I am pleased to tell your Lordships that to date the amount is over £82, 000. According to the BBC that is the second largest amount that has ever been raised through "The Week's Good Cause". I mention that only because it is a tremendous tribute to the fact that the contribution of these servicemen and women has not been forgotten 50 years on. The fund is managed by the British Commonwealth Ex-Services League, a very small NGO with a staff of only four in London but with representatives in 53 countries of the Commonwealth around the world to ensure that support and help is given to those most in need. I am glad to say they will be represented in Edinburgh in October.

The theme of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference is to be trade and investment development and the road to prosperity. I often reflect that in our obsession with Europe we have tended to forget and to neglect the great asset and the opportunities we have as members of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is as diverse as the United Nations but it is united in a common bond of language—as has already been mentioned—of parliamentary institutions, of friendship and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Park, has mentioned, the Crown. It was always a matter of great pride to me that the toast of all the conferences I attended when I was chairman of the Commonwealth Speakers and Presiding Officers was Her Majesty the Queen, Head of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth is growing in size, as we have heard. Pakistan has returned to the fold. It is a great thrill to have South Africa back in the Commonwealth, as well as Mozambique and the Cameroons. I must tell your Lordships that when I was in Speaker's House, the Ambassador from Mozambique came to see me to ask if it would be possible for his country to join the Commonwealth. I had to say to him then that it was bad luck because he really ought to go and see the Portuguese and not us. But it is a pleasure to find in 1995 that they are in the Commonwealth. Angola, of course, is knocking on the door. It is, as I have said, an underestimated asset and I hope that the forthcoming conference will focus attention upon the importance of the Commonwealth as we enter the new millennium.

I end with a little story which I was told by the Speaker of the Canadian Parliament, John Fraser, at the last Commonwealth Speakers' Conference I attended. It was a true story of nature about geese—some of your Lordships may know it. He said that when a flock of geese take to the air they fly in formation because the uplift of the wings of the flock helps all the geese to progress. Furthermore, if one of the geese gets out of formation it is honked back into position. The lead goose changes from time to time. If a goose happens to fall to the ground for any reason, two other geese go down to see if they can help it. The importance of the story, of course, is that the flock reaches its destination in unity and in safety. I commend that story to your Lordships. It is a little tale which may have equal relevance to our membership of the European Union.

6.4 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, it would be a fine thing to report that democracy and liberty flourished throughout the Commonwealth. But several Commonwealth countries do have endemic human rights problems built into undemocratic systems, yet they remain members in good standing, enjoying the numerous and important benefits which membership brings.

The state of press freedom provides a useful litmus test for assessing a country's respect for human rights in general. The press is always among the first targets when power begins to corrupt. One organisation that is fighting to ensure that press freedom and human rights gain higher priority on the Commonwealth agenda is the Commonwealth Press Union. It represents 700 publishing groups, newspapers and news agencies from 47 Commonwealth countries and deserves support for helping to ensure that the Commonwealth adheres more closely to its fundamental principles.

My family has long supported press freedom in the Commonwealth. The Astor Award, inaugurated by my father, is presented at the biennial conferences of the Commonwealth Press Union and recognises services to a free press and the newspaper industry in the Commonwealth. Its most recent recipient is Fred M'membe, publisher and editor of the Post, one of the few privately owned publications in Zambia. He was presented with the award at the CPU conference in Cape Town last October. Far from warmly applauding its citizen for being so honoured, the Zambian Government launched a most extraordinary attack on Mr. M'membe. So extreme and hysterical was this that the CPU feared for his well-being and took steps to ensure he could return home in reasonable safety. Two days ago, this last Monday, Mr. M'membe appeared in the High Court in Lusaka to face charges under the State Security Act. His alleged offence against this Orwellian law was to report that the government was considering holding a referendum on proposed constitutional changes. If convicted, he may be jailed for up to 25 years.

It is bad enough that a journalist should be charged with publishing a report on an issue of such obvious public interest, particularly as the government had called for a public debate on a new constitution. What makes Mr. M'membe's situation so much worse is that the charges he faced on Monday are only the beginning of his legal nightmare. He and his colleagues face more than 50 other charges, including one for reporting that a former minister said, in court, that President Chiluba was a "twit".

Mr. M'membe and two colleagues were condemned by the Speaker of the Zambian Parliament to be detained, indefinitely, for contempt for reporting a statement—made in parliament—which was critical of the government. The three were released from a maximum security prison after 23 days only on the orders of the Supreme Court. The campaign against Mr. M'membe is not confined to the courts. Editions of the paper have been banned. He and his staff are monitored by the secret police and have been threatened by gangs. Trucks carrying his newspapers have been hijacked and their contents destroyed. And all this by a government who claimed, just six years ago, that they were introducing democracy to a country which had suffered for decades under one-party rule.

Zambia is one of the poorest countries in Africa. It needs political and economic freedoms to pull itself out of its terrible situation. It needs friends. It needs the Commonwealth. But police brutality, corruption and abuses of power seem to be all the government can offer its people. The administration's only response to newspaper reports about its shortcomings is to attack the messenger. Zambia is not alone in that.

The noble Lord, Lord Rea, touched on Cameroon. As Nigeria was being shown the door in 1995 in Auckland, Cameroon was being ushered in. This expansion of the Commonwealth is certainly a good thing. Cameroon is a most welcome addition to the family but it must learn to follow the democratic ways the Commonwealth is increasingly seeking to pursue. One of the Cameroonian delegates to the CPU's conference was Pius Njawa publisher of the independently-owned Le Messager Group. Mr. Njawa is one of West Africa's most distinguished newspapermen. On returning to Cameroon from Cape Town—from a meeting which spent much time considering press freedom and human rights—he was sentenced to six months in prison for "insulting the President" by reporting proposed constitutional changes. Mr. Njawa was held in appalling conditions and denied medical treatment for a serious diabetic condition, despite repeated pleas by his doctor. Eventually, after international protest, he was freed. But he and his colleagues still face legal action from a government unable to accept any criticism.

Zambia and Cameroon might feel aggrieved at being singled out. Offenders against the freedom of the press also include Kenya, Sierra Leone, Ghana and The Gambia in Africa and Papua New Guinea and Tonga in the Pacific—united by their governments' disregard for democratic practice; each in serious need of help the Commonwealth can deliver; each trying to hide chronic failings by attacking its small independent press. And that is the heart of the matter. The development of democratic government throughout the Commonwealth requires the establishment of media which can operate in a tolerant and legally secure environment.

The Edinburgh Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting is a splendid opportunity for the United Kingdom to propose ways to strengthen adherence to the Harare Declaration's commitment to democratic government. One vital element of this will be to provide tangible support to NGOs such as the CPU, to enable them more fully to monitor human rights abuses, campaign against them and develop practical programmes to enhance the work of fledgling democratic institutions such as the press.

6.14 p.m.

Lord Moore of Wolvercote

My Lords, as one who has espoused the Commonwealth cause for many years and has always stressed the importance of the Commonwealth to Britain, I believe that the message is at last beginning to get home in this country. It is interesting to see how many people are starting to appreciate that in the Commonwealth we have a priceless asset. Perhaps the most significant development was the report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of another place published 10 months ago—an excellent report which brought out clearly both the importance of the Commonwealth to Britain and the valuable contribution made by the Commonwealth in international affairs.

I fear that the FCO may still have some way to go. Four years ago I pointed out to the then Secretary of State that the departmental report of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—please note the last part of the title—contained no reference to the Commonwealth in the statement of objectives of British diplomatic policy. That was happily rectified in the 1993 report. I was therefore astonished to find, in the FCO's 1996 report, once again no reference to the Commonwealth in the statement of the aims of British diplomatic policy. I hope that the Minister, who is a good friend of the Commonwealth, can give a firm undertaking that there will in future be a proper reference to the Commonwealth in the objectives of British diplomatic policy.

Generally, however, the change of attitude towards the Commonwealth by Her Majesty's Government is encouraging; the Prime Minister has been outstanding in his support. The FCO is gradually accepting that while Europe is of fundamental importance to Britain, the focus of power is shifting to a great wide world outside Europe and that in that world Britain occupies a unique position through its membership of the Commonwealth. It is a far cry from the days when Britain was at bay on Rhodesia and South Africa and the Commonwealth was a dirty word both with HMG and in the British press. Today things are very different. Indeed, as the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs is tomorrow giving a reception to mark the UK Year of the Commonwealth. So the timing of this debate could not be better. We are much indebted to the noble Viscount for having initiated the debate and for having given such an excellent overview.

With the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting being held in Edinburgh later this year, it is right that we should consider where Britain stands in relation to the Commonwealth and how the Commonwealth stands in relation to the world. There can be no more appropriate venue for the meeting than Edinburgh since so many Scots have made such outstanding contributions to the history and development of the Commonwealth. The Royal Commonwealth Society deserves enormous credit for having designated 1997 as the UK Year of the Commonwealth, and it is splendid that the Secretary of State will be endorsing it in such a special way tomorrow. As a result of the Royal Commonwealth Society's initiative, many organisations throughout the country are holding Commonwealth occasions. No effort is being spared to drive home the Commonwealth message.

In a short debate it is possible to make only a few points. I should like to express just three—two about Britain and the Commonwealth and the third about the international role of the Commonwealth. For some years it has been clear that the British themselves do not today properly understand the new Commonwealth nor our role in it. There is still too much nostalgia about a lost empire and a failure to comprehend the new Commonwealth of 53 independent nations. Far from regretting our lost empire, we should pride ourselves on being the first country in history to have successfully devolved its empire into a unique organisation of independent states.

Educating people in this country about the Commonwealth must begin in the schools. The Commonwealth Institute and the Royal Commonwealth Society have given a splendid lead. The Commonwealth Institute will be running student CHOGMs throughout the country prior to the CHOGM itself in October. A notable recent advance has been the very welcome decision of the Education and Employment Secretary to include the Commonwealth in the history curriculum for 11 to 14 year-olds.

With the CHOGM being held in Britain, there is a wonderful opportunity to spread understanding about the Commonwealth in our schools. The Joint Commonwealth Societies Council will be issuing a first-class brochure to schools for Commonwealth Day on 10th March. We cannot expect Britain to play her vital role in the Commonwealth if our people do not understand its importance to us.

Here I pay a tribute to the British Council and to the Council for Education in the Commonwealth. The British Council is represented in 30 Commonwealth countries and is now playing a major part in disseminating information not only about Britain but also about the values, institutions and cultures which we all share in the Commonwealth. The Council for Education in the Commonwealth plays an invaluable part in strengthening the ties which bind the Commonwealth through our educational systems which have so much in common. The Commission on Commonwealth Studies, under the chairmanship of the distinguished Canadian professor, Tom Symons, recently produced a compelling report drawing attention to the importance of Commonwealth studies in higher education. Indeed, I wish to endorse most warmly what the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, said about the invaluable work being done by the NGOs.

My second point concerns the importance of the Commonwealth to Britain in terms of trade. The centre of gravity of the world's economy is shifting in Asia's direction. This will give Britain wonderful opportunities through its Commonwealth connections and the world-wide use of the English language. Some years ago a Commonwealth conference took place at Cumberland Lodge under the chairmanship of an outstanding Indian businessman, Madhu Patwardhau, who sadly died last year. He emphasised to the conference the tremendous opportunities for Britain which were opening up in India and the Far East. It has taken a few years for the penny to drop, but it was very heartening to see the Prime Minister recently leading a delegation of British businessmen to India. We must seize these opportunities while we can still be first in the field.

In this connection, perhaps I may say how delighted I am that we are to have a new "Britannia". I believe that I was the first in your Lordships' House to deplore the over-hasty decision to decommission "Britannia" before a replacement was in sight. Now we have the welcome decision to build a new Royal Yacht and the gap will be only five years. I have had the privilege of experiencing personally the enormous value "Britannia" has in the promotion of British trade both in the Commonwealth where the Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, always receives a wonderful welcome and in other countries. "Britannia" sailing up the Delaware River to disembark the Queen at Penn's Landing in the heart of Philadelphia as a tribute to the United States of America in its bicentennial year brought Britain enormous prestige in the USA—something that no other country could match.

My third point is to underline the part the Commonwealth can play in conflict resolution, not usurping the role of the United Nations, but taking advantage of a world-wide network of bilateral and regional contacts to defuse situations before they reach the stage where UN action may be required. A notable recent example was the part played by International Alert, which is based in London, in bringing about an agreement between the government and the rebels in Sierra Leone. We shall be holding a Commonwealth conference on conflict resolution at Cumberland Lodge in July. I hope that we shall be able to play a small part in identifying some of the issues for the CHOGM later this year.

I trust that the holding of the CHOGM in Britain and the designation of 1997 as the UK Year of the Commonwealth really will mark the beginning of a new understanding in this country of the significance of the Commonwealth.

6.25 p.m.

Lord Thurlow

My Lords, I believe that all noble Lords present will be regarded as geese in the sense described by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill; we are all anxious to move together in the same direction. We all support the objects of the Commonwealth. I should like briefly to endorse two points. The first was made by the noble Lord, Lord Astor. It was the central importance for any healthy policy in the Commonwealth of a free press. During my service in the field I experienced abuse of freedom of the press in disgraceful circumstances. I do not believe that one can exaggerate the importance of the role of a free press.

Secondly, like the noble Lord, Lord Moore, I was surprised by what is, I hope, a drafting lapse in the report of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. One hesitates to make references to the internal machinery, but as one who has been in the bowels of the department I noticed that in the extraordinarily interesting and valuable report of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the other place there was among its 64 recommendations and comments, which were mostly positive, a fairly strong suggestion that the time might have come for some kind of structural or other changes to emphasise the Commonwealth and the work of the FCO. I do not express a view about that; it is an internal matter. I am sure that the lapse will be rectified.

It has rightly been said by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, that the Commonwealth is, in effect, a new creature. It has changed so much. One of the features of the world today is that networking is taking over from structures and hierarchies in the business world and everywhere. Decisions are reached by consensus and team working rather than by top-down hierarchies. The Commonwealth is a great international network which has evolved from old and rigid structures of control with millions of personal links as its lubrication. It supplements and in no way supplants formal connections. The old dichotomy about which we heard so much when we joined the EC was completely false. But it still rears its ugly head a little.

It has never been easy to obtain a clear perspective of what Commonwealth relations really amount to. That is partly because by far the greater part of the day-to-day work between Commonwealth countries is bilateral, as indeed it is in relation to foreign countries—protecting British interests in each of the 53 countries of the Commonwealth and promoting trade.

But certainly before 1965, the Commonwealth Office, with the ODA, was responsible for organising all the principal matters involving the Commonwealth states collectively. As I recall it, the work did not take up a great deal of time and effort. It involved co-ordinating Commonwealth agencies at the time and arranging ministerial meetings, especially Heads of Government meetings. I was a humble secretary myself at the first Commonwealth Prime Ministers' meeting in 1948, the first one at which there were more than five Prime Ministers present. There were only eight but they all represented substantial countries.

When, in 1965, the responsibility for manning the collective projects passed to the Commonwealth Secretariat, a long process of build-up started. In my view, it achieved fulfilment only when the present Secretary General took over. Before that there was not really quite the required combination of administrative capacity with diplomatic experience at the top. But the secretariat has now come into its own as a powerful organising and innovating force and its work is remarkably cost-effective.

By nature, it is essentially a catalyst but it performs a growing range of tasks at the instance of its member governments, latterly moving increasingly, as has been said, into the area of actively promoting good governance. It has a delicate and sensitive role which the secretariat is qualified to perform well. It works on what, in terms of national budgets, can only be described as a shoestring. In turn, its work is supplemented by that of the extremely valuable Commonwealth Foundation with regard to NGOs and the professional field.

After the first 20 years, as with most other organisations, there was scope for restructuring the Commonwealth Secretariat. This was encouraged by a drastic financial squeeze in 1991, with a budget cut of 20 per cent. in real terms over the succeeding four years and, as the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said, a 16 per cent. reduction in staff.

Since then, the work has increased steadily at the request of Heads of Government meetings. The Minister has probably already started the ball rolling—I have no knowledge on the subject—to arrange for a greater vote, a significant increase in the budget of the Commonwealth Secretariat at Edinburgh. I have no doubt in my mind that that money could not be better spent.

6.34 p.m.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, any noble Lord who inspects the Great Seal of the Realm will find an extraordinary symbol. Historically, there is always shown on the front, the obverse, a representation of the sovereign crowned and enthroned and on the reverse there is the sovereign as a military or strategic leader on horseback in military uniform.

Since the Attlee Government persuaded the rest of the Commonwealth to accept and welcome India's independence as a republic, while India accepted and recognised the British sovereign as "Head of the Commonwealth", the seal has been reversed. This means that the former reverse is as legitimate as the former obverse so that the Great Seal of the Realm now shows the sovereign as a military or strategic leader—and perhaps strategic is the better word—something to which any Commonwealth republic can adhere.

The inscription around that figure is a Latin aphorism attributed to the late Lord Butler. It is supposed to be a Latinisation of the term "Commonwealth". It reads Consortionis Populorum Princeps, which might literally be translated as "Head of the Gathering of the Peoples".

With all respect to the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, here was no Whitehall endeavour to define the meaning, purpose and variety of the Commonwealth. Implicit is a concise and simple statement that Commonwealth countries still have a strategic common interest in the defence of their standards.

Symbolically, on the very day that the sovereign was anointed, the world's highest peak, Mount Everest, was itself scaled. Its name in Tibetan, I am told, is Chomo Lungma, which means "Mother of the World".

Since those heady days of the Attlee Government we have seen some frightening changes. South Africa was driven out and has been welcomed back in. Other states—Cameroon, Namibia and more recently Mozambique—have joined from the outside. If I am correct in my interpretation of an off-the-cuff reply to a supplementary at Question Time some months ago, when a country joins the Commonwealth it makes a statement of acceptance of the Queen as head of the Commonwealth. I have given notice of this question to my noble friend. When she winds up the debate, perhaps she will tell the House whether indeed there is a common form in which that declaration is required or how it is done. Also, perhaps my noble friend will tell the House how many countries seem to be thinking of applying to join the Commonwealth, because when my researcher rang the Foreign and Commonwealth Office a day or two ago, the answer was, "We have lost count".

There is a telling and perhaps rather prophetic phrase buried in the Harare Declaration to which the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, referred so enthusiastically. I wish I could share his enthusiasm for that declaration. I am afraid that I find that it is verbose, prolix and complex, compared only, perhaps, with the 39 Articles of the Church of England. It is complex to a degree and, in my view, it made the mistake of trying to define something of the Commonwealth's constitution. I believe that that is a mistake and really goes against the grain of what the Commonwealth had been growing up to do.

The question which stands out at the moment is: just what is a country joining when it joins the Commonwealth? For all its rhetoric, the Harare Declaration is of little help and in any event it has been ignored by some rather high-handed action recently, not least by the President of Pakistan in his abrupt dismissal of the Prime Minister of Pakistan.

The Harare Declaration runs to nearly 20, 000 words and covers all sorts of matters—"global change and economic development", "reforms in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union", investment funds, capital markets and so on. Fashionably, and no doubt inevitably, the environment had to be squeezed in somehow along with natural disasters and alongside "sustainable tropical forestry" to say nothing of "women and structural adjustment". Few indeed of the great themes that today are fashionable in the media and the press were not addressed. They were dismissed in most cases with a trite little comment that, Heads of Government reaffirmed their commitment", and so on. There are now, it is said, so many other countries, without any previous connection with the British system, queuing up for admission that, as I said before, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office told my researcher that it had lost count. Of course, any accomplished Whitehall draftsman could put together a paragraph or two about representative government, civil rights and what have you; but seriously to boil down the common interests that Commonwealth countries do share to a meaningful focus, has so far defied the best brains. As a matter of fact, I thought that my noble friend Lady Park came near to it when she called the Commonwealth, a world within the world".

I was also much impressed by the comparison made by the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, regarding the way that a flock of geese manage their flights. Perhaps there is something there for us to consider. At any rate, we need to refine the idea of the Commonwealth and turn it into something politically meaningful. That will not be easy. I suggest that it would have to be a good deal more meaningful than the current talk about the European Union, with all its formalist, centralist Roman law flavour and traditions. It will not be easy to boil down the Commonwealth's essential value and meaning to a phrase, let alone anything as good as that attributed to the late Lord Butler.

Worldwide, much is being done under the influence of the United States' power and rhetoric, nominally authorised through votes in the Security Council; but, in fact, endeavouring—as we have seen with Somalia and, again, in the Dayton Accords about Bosnia—to impose on persons and societies of very different origins today's version of the key principles of justice and self-government for which, in the 17th century, the Pilgrim Fathers, drawing on the Magna Carta, set about founding what we now know as the United States.

It may be that in a world bedazzled, if not be-drugged, by talk of the European "Union"—indeed, almost obsessed by that discussion—other associations between national states, including the UN, are all, as one might say, talked about as of something quite familiar. But, in such a world, surely we need a new idea for the Commonwealth. If we are looking for a sort of regimental cap badge and motto, the allegory of the flying geese is not a bad one. However, as I said, I was greatly impressed by my noble friend's description of the Commonwealth as, a world within the world".

In the Commonwealth we have a global grouping of nations with much common history and, in two world wars, much common sacrifice. There are great interlockings of interests, straddling strong regional concerns—whether in the Atlantic, the Pacific, South-East Asia or the Mediterranean. In each there has yet to be identified a realistic thread of common interest in both political and strategic terms. This must be seen to transcend—if not also, in some sense, to subsume—the many vortices and conflicts—for example in Cyprus, that between Hellenistic nationalism on the one hand and, on the other, the geopolitics of Central Asia.

However, whether we can devise a system and a theme which can embrace the many conflicts which a worldwide Commonwealth is bound to some extent and at some point to be embroiled in and touched by, remains to be seen. It calls for the vigour of a seer and its realisation requires the work of a giant—it is a task for giants.

6.44 p.m.

Lord Acton

My Lords, I am particularly grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for introducing this debate because I am a son of the Commonwealth. I was brought up in colonial Southern Rhodesia and left after UDI in 1965. Subsequent to independence in 1980, I returned to live in Zimbabwe for four years. That country owes the Commonwealth a great debt of gratitude for helping end its dreadful civil war.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, I wish to express my admiration for the skill and energy that Chief Anyaoku has shown as Commonwealth Secretary-General for the past seven years. In 1980, when he was Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General, I was fortunate enough to have some dealings with him. They concerned a matter in Rhodesia during the interim period while the late Lord Soames was Governor. I found Chief Anyaoku very kind, and his advice and help were outstandingly effective.

This evening's debate concerns the Edinburgh Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. The theme in Edinburgh—originally proposed by the British Prime Minister—is, as the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, said: Trade, Investment and Development: The Road to Commonwealth Prosperity". The starting point of discussing Edinburgh must be the key report of the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place, cited by the noble Lords, Lord Moore of Wolvercote and Lord Thurlow, entitled The Future Role of the Commonwealth which was published on 27th March 1996.

The report stresses that the Commonwealth contains some of the world's fastest growing markets. It emphasises Singapore, where income per head is one-fifth higher than in the United Kingdom, and Malaysia, which is fast catching up. Both countries were mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, in his opening remarks. Figures quoted in the report show that in 1994 United Kingdom exports to the Commonwealth were worth £14 billion, just over 10 per cent. of the global total. Moreover, while the UK in 1994 had a substantial overall deficit in goods and services, its goods exported to the Commonwealth exceeded the value of its imports by £360 million.

In a notable speech to the Confederation of Indian Industry in Calcutta on 9th January of this year, the British Prime Minister explained the importance of trade with India. He said: We already conduct a vast amount of trade together and the volume is increasing steadily. In the last four years our trade has almost doubled to 3.5 billion pounds sterling every year". The Prime Minister continued: Now that is a remarkable achievement, but remarkable though that is, I am convinced that we can still do far more, both in trade and in mutual investment". Another market which must be mentioned is South Africa, now happily back in the Commonwealth. It is full of future possibilities. The report of the Foreign Affairs Committee highlights how a combination of the English language, similar legal structures, a common business culture and educational links assists trade and investment within the Commonwealth. In his oral evidence to the committee, Chief Anyaoku said: When a businessman or businesswoman from one Commonwealth country goes to another Commonwealth country, he or she fits in quite readily [and] understands the concepts". With the benefit of those links and the Asian and potential South African markets, the Foreign Affairs Committee concluded: The old Commonwealth ties could therefore become for the United Kingdom, the new Commonwealth opportunities". One especially important feature of the Commonwealth is the annual Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting. Successive Chancellors of the Exchequer have found this to be the right forum to launch initiatives on international debt—a point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley. Thus, in 1990 the Prime Minister, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the Trinidad Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting, proposed a formula on debt that has come to be known as the "Trinidad Terms" and has become an accepted international approach to dealing with debt.

The current Chancellor of the Exchequer at the Malta Commonwealth Finance Ministers meeting in 1994 proposed that repayment terms on some concessional loans from the IMF be eased. His plan has been backed by his fellow Commonwealth Finance Ministers at subsequent meetings of the IMF and the World Bank, as the Commonwealth Secretary-General stresses in his new year statement for 1997.

At paragraph 70, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee strongly recommends similar regular meetings of Commonwealth Trade Ministers. I give my wholehearted support to this suggestion. Surprisingly, at the moment there is no forum where Commonwealth Trade Ministers can exchange ideas. At such a meeting, Trade Ministers could discuss practical ways of increasing and promoting trade among Commonwealth countries. They could discuss trade by country or by sector—for example, information technology or commodities. The meeting would give an opportunity for bilateral trade talks outside the formal sessions. Ministers could discuss multilateral trade issues which lie before the World Trade Organisation. The Trade Ministers, when they reached consensus, could go to the World Trade Organisation as an important bloc.

Britain has found the Commonwealth Finance Ministers meetings of great use. As the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said, similar meetings of Trade Ministers, could become an important vehicle for the United Kingdom to encourage free trade". If there is one particular monument to the work of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting at Edinburgh that I should like to see, it would be regular meetings of Commonwealth Trade Ministers. I very much hope that the British Prime Minister will take the initiative and launch the idea at Edinburgh, and I should be most grateful this evening if the Minister would give an indication of the current government thinking on this subject.

I do not wish to exaggerate the importance of the Commonwealth. It does not hold the solution to all the international problems of Britain or of any other country. However, the tendency is usually the other way—to underrate the Commonwealth.

I shall give an example. The Commonwealth Secretary-General has described the highly positive report of the Foreign Affairs Committee as, a judgment that we had not heard from a parliamentary body for years". Upon publication of the report, the Foreign Secretary formally responded to it as "a fresh impetus" in Britain's relationship with the Commonwealth, and spoke of "significant initiatives" on the part of the British Government to enhance the Commonwealth's contribution to international issues.

The report and the Foreign Secretary's reaction, both important news events, received the grand total of one commentary and one short article in all the British national broadsheet newspapers, while the tabloids said nothing at all.

We should neither underestimate nor exaggerate the importance of the Commonwealth. I think it accurate to describe the Commonwealth as a distinctly useful body. Let us be sure to make the very best use of it at Edinburgh and beyond.

6.53 p.m.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, the Commonwealth is alive and well. We are not lining up to defend it from any adversaries because there is none, but, as the previous speaker said, it needs more definition and public recognition.

As we have heard, the Government Action Programme agreed at Millbrook in November 1995 took the Commonwealth more deeply into three basic commitments arising from the Harare Declaration. I have read through much of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report—as others have said, a milestone in Commonwealth affairs—and conclude that the Millbrook plan, coming so soon after political change in South Africa, marked a decisive change in our Government's perception of the Commonwealth.

In simple terms, I believe that the Commonwealth under Chief Anyaoku is a far more equal and dynamic association than it has ever been. It used to be said that the Commonwealth depended on Britain. But it is now also true, contrary to public perception, that Britain needs the Commonwealth for its own guidance in foreign affairs.

Half a century ago my father was speaking for the Commonwealth, in another place but in this very Chamber, saying how foolish we would be to desert our colonies in favour of the Common Market. I do not agree with his conclusion but the question remains. In our obsession with European integration, are we neglecting an opportunity to do more with the Commonwealth? Are we genuinely going forward as an equal partner of an association which has an international purpose well beyond Europe?

South Africa is a useful case study. I well remember the critical role of the Eminent Persons Group 10 years ago on sanctions against South Africa and the way a consensus was finally achieved against the grain of Conservative Party thinking. The Commonwealth, alongside many active churches, organisations, pressure groups and individuals, saved our Government's face and saved Britain's face. Mother of Parliaments we may be, but we can also be Mother Goose, with due deference to the former Speaker, my convener, who sits beside me. We are no longer in a position, if we ever were, to moralise to the Commonwealth about its human rights, race relations and even its democracy. Whatever our government, Britain's policy towards asylum-seekers and immigrants will be judged by Commonwealth standards as well as our own, as we may judge, under Commonwealth auspices, the admittedly sorry state of press freedom in Zambia or India's prisons. Let us not forget that we have Commonwealth citizens languishing in our own prisons, detained without any charge.

I was encouraged to read the Prime Minister's speech to the Commonwealth Institute recently in which he quoted Iain Macleod on the brotherhood of man and said that acts of racial discrimination were,

utterly repugnant in a civilised society". We may believe that we are civilised but we need to go one further than that and believe that we can learn from civilisation in other countries as well as our own.

All parties, I hope, now accept that the Commonwealth has become one of the three pillars of our foreign policy, along with the European Union and NATO. I regard the UN as more arch than column. We have heard how important the Commonwealth is to our trade, including the important safeguards for the smaller states under the Lome Convention, our aid, and debt relief for the poorest countries. We all know how much is done by the British Council for education and training despite the unequal cost of our universities for overseas students. The Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, among others, has an excellent track record and Britain can take at least one-third of the credit for that.

I was pleased to see the confident tone of the Foreign Secretary in his evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee and to learn that in future the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will have, separate, self-standing objectives on the Commonwealth". Yet it was interesting to read that the FCO devotes significantly less time to the Commonwealth than to the European Union with only 87 out of 3, 500 staff. I hope that the Minister will comment on that level of interest because it may be that limited success has been achieved with relatively fewer resources and that the Commonwealth now deserves more attention, especially as we are giving it a higher priority.

Through Millbrook, Britain has a new commitment to pursue human rights and development programmes in tandem, to alleviate poverty through a combination of social and economic initiatives including those which are directed towards the poorest communities.

One of the most exciting developments is the spread of Commonwealth NGOs, or CONGOs. Among them are CONGOSA, which is specifically designed for South Africa and Mozambique, and COMMACT, the Commonwealth Association for Local Action and Economic Development, which recently organised a series of conferences in South Africa to bring skills and services into local communities which might never have access to the mainstream economy.

I well remember during the South African elections being taken to one of the poorest areas of Kwazulu/Natal to see the work of a very effective NGO called the Philisizwe Association. Its essential purpose was to spread skills in rural crafts and small-scale agriculture, but it had been diverted into the more pressing requirements of the election in an area where the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party were in sometimes mortal conflict.

The problems of rural poverty in Kwazulu/Natal remain; they deserve urgent attention. I was delighted to learn that the same association is on the list of active South African NGOs engaged in small business development, benefiting from contact with a range of Commonwealth sources of funding and technical aid. That is the front line of Commonwealth development, where human rights and economic enterprise go hand in hand and can achieve so much at grassroots level—at least where the semi-arid soil allows those grass roots to grow.

At a higher level the Edinburgh meeting will certainly review the work of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, now based in New Delhi, on such issues as child labour legislation or Hong Kong's stateless citizens. I hope that noble Lords will see the CHRI as an enterprise worth supporting, not as an attack on any individual state. I was relieved that the Minister was able to salvage the cuts in the bilateral aid programme. However, perhaps she will say whether she agrees that the figure of 12 per cent. devoted to basic needs excluding emergencies is still too low.

Noble Lords have mentioned the sorry case of Nigeria, at the diplomatic end of human rights initiatives. I urge further action at the highest possible level, and quote a telling phrase from the writer, Wole Soyinka, on nationhood. He says: A nation is a collective enterprise; outside of that, it is mostly a gambling space for the opportunism and adventurism of power". Soyinka says that nationhood is frustrated by, the refusal of a section—be this understood in terms of class, ethnic groupings, profession or religion—to grant others the simple right of participation in the process of deciding a collective destiny". This is a large subject, but I believe the debate helps to explain the underlying purpose of the Commonwealth and our support for the principle of consensus diplomacy which has had such good results in South Africa and elsewhere. It is to extend nationhood into a wider arena in which the varied experience of democratic achievement can be shared with practical advantage.

The empowerment of local communities in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world is not only what the Commonwealth stands for but what it can achieve more effectively on the ground than any institution, including the United Nations itself which does much to foster these relations. It has the political and economic muscle to further those aims in Edinburgh. I hope that the Government give its new initiatives the support they deserve.

7 p.m.

Viscount Torrington

My Lords, when the president of Kenya, Mr. Daniel Arap Moi, recently called my noble friend on the Front Bench "that bossy woman", he paid her, although I am sure that he did not intend it, a very considerable compliment. With her justly deserved reputation for "telling it how it is" to certain world leaders, she has often reached the parts that more veiled and circumspect criticisms cannot reach.

I do not speak in this House very often. I therefore take this opportunity, possibly my last before the election, to pay a more straightforward tribute to my noble friend's tireless efforts to bring sense, calm and wise counsel to parts of the world where for too long East-West rivalry fostered a profligate and slightly "spoilt brat" attitude among many ruling elites. That rivalry is now over and a degree of realism prevails. Sadly, I suspect that my noble friend will not be occupying her customary slot on the Front Bench after the coming election. I say that not through any lack of faith in the ability of the present Government to prolong their tenure beyond 1st May, but because I have witnessed my noble friend's punishing schedule. Five hours of debate today is but a minor engagement along the way. I do not believe it would be reasonable for anyone to ask her to do another five years of the same. All of which, sadly, leads me to deduce that it is unlikely that my noble friend will be representing Britain at the Edinburgh conference in October. I therefore hope that today's debate will give her an opportunity to tell us a little of what she would have said had she attended the conference.

Like my noble friend Lady Park, my thoughts in these matters tend to turn to Africa, the continent that I know best. That continent has had a confusing year, with moves towards greater democratisation in some countries and increases in civil unrest and curtailment of civil liberties in others. From a Commonwealth perspective, only Sierra Leone has suffered a recent civil war, which mercifully now seems to be over. But Nigeria, as the noble Lord, Lord Rea, told us, continues to detain its former presidents or presidents elect and quite a few other people. It remains suspended from the Commonwealth. Will it, should it, can it be readmitted?

Uganda seems a great success story, with a rising economy and satisfactory elections last year. However, I hope that President Museveni, who is, I believe, partly Rwandan, will resist the temptation to become too embroiled in the Rwanda muddle.

On the debit side, President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, after his apparent transition from communist to capitalist, does not seem to appreciate that he has only got about as far as the Julius Nyerere school of African socialism and is talking like a recording from the 1960s about redistributing land from commercial farmers to inefficient subsistence smallholders. Everywhere else in Africa they are trying to reverse that process.

Violent crime worsens daily under the benign, but slightly ineffectual (at least in terms of law and order) Government in South Africa, and there are again to be heard the old jokes such as, "A patriotic South African is a man who can't sell his house". The new, rather cynical reply is, "If he waits long enough, he can claim on the insurance when it's stolen".

Outside African Commonwealth countries, but deeply affecting them, are other developments. Angola's civil war seems to be over and Liberia's also seems to have quietened down, although it is difficult to get much first-hand information. Most of us remain totally confused about the tragic genocide and refugee migrations of the African Lakes district; but even there a temporary peace seems to reign.

Everyone as usual seems to want to unseat Libya's Colonel Gadafi. However, he has survived another year and another coup attempt and even hired a well-known parliamentary lobbyist to demonstrate that he is really much nicer than we all thought even if he will not let balloonists cross the country.

Sudan's leadership continues its charm offensive in the West, but a rather nastier kind of offensive at home, with repercussions for its neighbours, including Uganda. I find myself wondering why it is that the Sudan was never a member of the Commonwealth. After all, it was run by the British political service for many years. I wonder, if countries are queuing up to join the Commonwealth, whether we could not bring some influence to bear on the Sudanese Government to clean up its act and bring Sudan into the Commonwealth.

The decaying President Mobutu still thinks that he rules Zaire, but nobody else is quite sure whether he, or indeed anyone at all, does. Mr. Algy Cluff, the well-known mining and oil man, recently described Zaire to me as the most comprehensively deregulated country in Africa. Rumour has it that it is finally proving a bit too deregulated even for him.

Those are a few of the matters about which I should be thinking if I were on my way to Edinburgh. Above all, I should be wanting to impress upon African leaders in particular that they no longer have a sponsor for bad behaviour—Uncle Ivan's wallet is empty (or perhaps I should say Uncle Boris's)—and that, if they want to improve the lot of their citizens, their countries must become magnets for foreign investment and attractive hosts for industries, whether high employment or high-tech. That means open government, reduced corruption and bureaucracy, improved personal security and the rule of fairly administered law. In other words, they must strive to offer the comforts of Europe with the opportunities of Africa.

I hope my noble friend will endorse some of these sentiments. I am sure she will have some carefully directed and pithy messages of her own for Commonwealth leaders, although she will be an equally good listener. I hope that she will share her thoughts with us. I believe that her successor, whoever he or she is and of whatever political colour, will listen carefully to her remarks.

7.8 p.m.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I have some rather personal reasons for being grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for initiating this very timely debate. In 1967 I became Britain's last Commonwealth Secretary. Ten years later, in 1977, the then Prime Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, asked me whether I would go round the Commonwealth to help prepare the last Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that took place in this country.

I agreed with most of the noble Viscount's remarks. However, I refuse to follow him in that absolutely ghastly acronym, "CHOGM". I shall continue to call it a summit meeting or a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

That particular mission gave me a vivid impression of the great importance attributed to these meetings by those who are in the Commonwealth. I then had the difficult task of persuading the brand new Prime Minister of India, Mr. Desai, who had just taken office—I was his first overseas visitor—to leave his office and come to the Heads of Government Meeting. It was the easiest diplomatic triumph that I have ever had. Nothing was going to stop him coming to the meeting in London, provided he had the assurances which I gave him—totally irresponsibly—that his special dietary requirements could be met at the banquet at Buckingham Palace.

I regarded, and still regard, the transformation of the Empire into the Commonwealth as Britain's greatest post-war achievement. The hopes, however, of making the Commonwealth a significant multiracial influence in world affairs, which many of us shared in years gone by, were undermined by the Rhodesian rebellion, on the one hand, which went on for so long and the South African apartheid situation, on the other. Those issues remained deeply divisive, I remember, at the 1977 Heads of Government Meeting. But the significance of our debate today is that they are now behind us and the Commonwealth can look to the future. There is an opportunity at the Edinburgh Summit to give Commonwealth co-operation what the Foreign Secretary has called "a fresh impetus" in a number of different directions. The noble Lord, Lord Acton, mentioned the important possibilities in trade and the advantages of bringing Trade Ministers of the Commonwealth together. I very much agree with him.

The report of the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth contains all kinds of useful examples of the good work that has gone on over the past year or two in promoting democracy, in trying to work away from military regimes towards democratic regimes and in other ways—combating crime, battling against drugs on a co-operative basis, co-operative work in the field of money laundering and so on. Much can be done in a constructive way in the new situation by the Commonwealth.

However, on the important and central issue of doing our best to promote and protect human rights in the Commonwealth, I do not believe that we can be happy about the progress that has been made in Nigeria since the Auckland-Millbrook Statement. Other noble Lords, including the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, in a milder way than I shall, have said how important it is to make progress on the matter. It is vital to do so at Edinburgh. It would be damaging if the Commonwealth Action Group came to be regarded rather as a Commonwealth "inaction group".

The Commonwealth has changed dramatically since 1977. Mention was made of the extraordinary additions to the African Commonwealth. Who would have thought a few years ago that a dominantly Francophone country like the Cameroon Republic or a country like Mozambique would today be part of the Commonwealth? I say in parenthesis to the Minister, who follows these matters closely, that I share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Rea, about the Cameroon Republic. We have a special responsibility there to the Anglophone minority in that predominantly Francophone country.

The lines between the old Commonwealth and the new, between the white developed Commonwealth and the new developing Commonwealth that used to exist, have changed radically. Some of the tiger economies of Asia are now leaving us behind. But there is much to do, especially in Africa. I remain of the view that Commonwealth educational co-operation is of the greatest importance in laying the long-term foundations of economic and democratic progress. I am talking about education at all levels, from primary to tertiary, and also about education in relation to specialist training. I listened with great concern to what the noble Lord, Lord Astor, said about what is happening in the press in Africa. The work of the Commonwealth Press Union, the Commonwealth Journalists' Association and the Thomson Foundation—of which I am a trustee and which seeks to help to train journalists from the African Commonwealth—is of long-term importance in providing a sounder basis for democracy and human rights.

The Commonwealth Education Ministers will meet in Botswana in July this year. No doubt their conclusions will be part of the agenda for the Edinburgh conference. I was grateful for the tribute paid by the noble Lord, Lord Moore, to the role of the Commonwealth Education Council, whose work I have known well over many years. It has made the point to us in preparation for the debate that the infrastructure for Commonwealth co-operation in education is largely in place. Great work has been done over many years in that field. But today it is underfunded and under-used.

Britain should give a lead in strengthening the multilateral programmes of intergovernmental educational co-operation in the Commonwealth through the various organisations that exist. In particular, we should offer to increase our contribution to what is called the Commonwealth of Learning that uses these new and marvellous techniques of distance learning. We should restore our contribution to the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, in which I have had a personal interest over many years. I say to the Minister that I do not think we should do so unconditionally but as part of a collective approach in which other countries play their part.

Finally, if there were ever a distinguished servant of my old Commonwealth Relations Office, the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, could claim to be that. I endorse what he said generously but accurately about the way in which the Commonwealth Secretariat is conducted under the Secretary-General. It seems to avoid the kind of things that happen in the United Nations in terms of a bloated bureaucracy and charges of extravagance. On a pretty modest budget it achieves remarkable goals. The time has come—and I think Edinburgh would be a good time—to do something about obtaining collective agreement to some modest but significant and useful increase in its budget.

The Commonwealth of educational exchanges underlines the fact that the Commonwealth exists and has reality at many different levels in professional exchanges of all kinds. The level of the political leaders who will gather in Edinburgh is of great importance. But, left to them, I am inclined to feel that over the years the Commonwealth might have suffered a good deal of fragmentation.

At the highest level, the role of Her Majesty the Queen, with her commitment, courtesy and patience over a blessedly long reign, has been of historic significance in maintaining the Commonwealth. As a Scot, I am pleased that she will preside over the 1997 conference in Edinburgh and St. Andrews. Scotland has countless links with the Commonwealth.

The most recent experience of Scotland in hosting the Commonwealth Games was not a notably happy one, partly because of the troubles of apartheid in sport dividing the sporting side of the occasion and partly because of the financial manipulations of Mr. Robert Maxwell. Mr. Maxwell is no longer with us, but fortunately President Mandela will be present with the Queen in Edinburgh in the autumn. I hope that everyone associated with the Government in this country will give the maximum backing to make a thorough success of the Year of the Commonwealth in the United Kingdom.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Judd

My Lords, perhaps I may start by taking up the theme introduced in his closing remarks by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson. I think we would all want to put on record our profound appreciation and respect for the tremendous leadership in the Commonwealth given by the Queen. I hope that I am not out of order in saying that in my view—because I had the privilege in my early years of experiencing his contribution—we are particularly fortunate to have with us in this debate the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Wolvercote. We all know what a powerful and important contribution he has made, second to none, in this context.

The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, deserves our appreciation for having initiated the debate. It has special significance, not only because the United Kingdom will be host to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting but because that meeting is to be in the context of the United Kingdom Year of the Commonwealth, to be launched at Lancaster House tomorrow.

There is at times an unhealthy amount of myopic xenophobia in this House and, indeed, in the other place. Fortunately, it has not been reflected in this evening's debate. But a fundamental reality of life is increasing global interdependence. Every time I consider the future of my first grandson I realise that there is hardly a major issue that will impinge on his life which can be satisfactorily handled or resolved in a national context alone: the economy, trade, resources, the environment, global warming, health—I know that I have emphasised all this in debates before—ethnic conflict, security, crime, drugs, population, migration, terrorism, air and sea transportation—the list is endless. A major test of government, any government, is therefore the contribution they are making to viable global policies. International co-operation is not just a nice idea; it is essential. That will be as true of the new Labour government as of the outgoing Conservative Government.

The United Kingdom desperately needs a stable and prosperous world in which to trade. Today, in too many parts of the world, nationalism and ethnic rivalry—frequently aggravated and fuelled by economic disadvantage and social injustice—threaten global stability. Ethnic rivalry is literally tearing states apart, hence the anxieties earlier this evening about Cyprus. The consequences are seldom contained within the states concerned. They spread—not least by migration and terrorism—across the globe as a whole.

To respond to all this we need effective international institutions. The problem is that few are as effective as they could be. Some have outlived their usefulness. Political rationality demands that we should not withdraw in exasperation from international co-operation but, instead, use all our experience to make a priority of recommitting ourselves where it matters. That is why it is so important to get the European Union right, NATO and the Western European Union right, the OSCE right, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank right and, above all, the UN system right. But do we need the Commonwealth? The sentiment of this debate has been unambiguous in that respect.

I am happy to refer—as other noble Lords have done—to that first-class report produced by the all-party Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place last year. It was equally unambiguous in its judgment when it said, Our report therefore has a central and explicit conclusion. It is that the Commonwealth is acquiring a new significance in a rapidly transforming world and that United Kingdom policy-makers should bring this major change to the forefront of their thinking". I hope I will be forgiven if I say that, if it was suggesting that United Kingdom Ministers should bring it to the forefront of their thinking, there was an implication that perhaps not all United Kingdom Ministers have got it in the forefront of their thinking now.

The Commonwealth has 53 member states and a population of 1, 500 million—in excess of a quarter of the total population of the world. It encompasses every major regional bloc and economic zone and virtually all the world's great religions. Through its members it has access to 22 regional organisations. Simply because of its voluntary, flexible character, based on history and political and cultural links, it has a special potential, perhaps second to none, for a creative, dynamic contribution to global governance both within itself and as part of other regional and global institutions. That is why we should make use of our Commonwealth links far more than we do in our approach to the reform and work of the UN and international financial institutions. We should also certainly draw on our experience and involvement in the Commonwealth—I was glad to hear this emphasised in the debate tonight—in our role within the EU, not least in determining the future of Lomé arrangements.

Let me quote from the Harare Declaration of 1991, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, referred in his introductory remarks. In that important document the Commonwealth leader stated, The special strength of the Commonwealth lies in the combination of the diversity of its members with their shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law … It is uniquely placed to serve as a model and as a catalyst for new forms of friendship and co-operation to all in the spirit of the Charter of the United Nations". The Commonwealth's strength does indeed lie in its diversity, and that is something desperately needed in the world. If humanity is not to destroy itself we must learn to celebrate diversity and build upon it. It is, after all, the essential richness of the human species.

But there is a danger. The danger is that the Commonwealth could deceive itself by finding a common rhetoric but failing to deliver. Let me again turn briefly to the Harare Declaration. In that important document the leaders pledged themselves to, the protection and the promotion of … democracy … the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, just and honest government; fundamental human rights … provision of universal access to education … the promotion of sustainable development and the alleviation of poverty … the development of human resources, in particular through education, training, health, culture, sport … protection of the environment … help for small Commonwealth states in tackling their particular economic and security problems; support of the United Nations and other international institutions in the world's search for peace, disarmament and effective control; and in the promotion of international consensus on major global political, economic and social issues". To embrace those objectives but to leave them unfulfilled would inevitably strengthen cynicism and play into the hands of the ethnic entrepreneurs and racists, the dangerous nationalists and the little Englanders. At Edinburgh there will have to be an honest review of just what has been achieved and of what more needs to be done and how.

The noble Viscount referred to progress, and progress there has certainly been. But we must never be complacent. How much impact has the Commonwealth's Ministerial Action Group had on Nigeria or The Gambia? What of the executions, the political prisoners, the continued deprivation of human rights? Why was it that the Ministerial Action Group—about which my noble friend Lord Rea spoke—visited Nigeria without seeing the opposition or the political prisoners? How does that compare with the significant role played by the Eminent Persons Group in South Africa in 1985? Is not there now a likelihood that in Nigeria General Abacha will follow the example of President Jammeh in The Gambia with the rigged presidential election there in the absence of media freedom? And that Abacha, too, will take off his uniform and supposedly run as a civilian in the same unconvincing way? What is the Commonwealth doing about that? Indeed, what is the Commonwealth doing about the worrying situation in Cameroon described by my noble friend Lord Rea?

What of the aid flows? How far are those going to the poorest? And, similarly, what of private investment? How is this helping the nations worst off of all in sub-Saharan Africa? How far is education, especially primary education, being given the priority for which the Harare Declaration called? And as for peace, disarmament and effective arms control, how has the Commonwealth been able to help? How great a part has it played in conflict resolution, in pre-emptive diplomacy, and in any moves to bring the arms trade to account?

Those questions must be asked and honestly answered at Edinburgh. We all know that it is easier in politics to start than to finish. But unless we evaluate performance against aspirations all the time, and where necessary take corrective action, it can too easily all become elaborately and expensively counter-productive.

The Commonwealth has been well blessed in its distinguished line of Secretary-Generals. The present Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, is a fine example. They have been supported by a small and dedicated staff. We owe it to them to gear the member states all the time to effectiveness not platitudes.

Before concluding, I should like to emphasise to the House that as the new Labour government go to Edinburgh, they will take with them a firm determination to give the Commonwealth greater priority and support in their foreign policy than has been the case with the present Government. The pedigree is there. The Attlee Government played a crucial role in the transition from the British Empire to the Commonwealth. The Wilson Government led in establishing the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1965. The Callaghan Government were firm in their commitment. The Blair government will build on that record. They will draw on the good will established by Labour's consistent support for the anti-apartheid struggle and liberation in South Africa.

Our priorities will be to enhance the role and status of the Commonwealth section within the FCO and to ensure that the "Commonwealth dimension" is considered in all aspects of Britain's external relations; to work to strengthen the Harare Declaration and its implementation as it applies to human rights and democracy; to develop the Commonwealth's advisory role in the development of democracy in Commonwealth countries; and, most essential, to press for a Commonwealth economic declaration, with an accompanying action plan, covering trade and sustainable development. The economic declaration we favour will set out firm proposals to increase trade and economic co-operation between member states and expand opportunities for direct investment. It will also seek to ensure that the benefits of that trade and investment are far more fairly distributed across the Commonwealth and that concern for the environment is integral to the economic policies of member states. To support all this the Labour government will encourage educational and professional exchanges across Commonwealth member countries and we do believe that the impressive Commonwealth Institute has an important part to play.

I conclude by emphasising that our whole strategy will be to fulfil that conclusion to the Harare Declaration in which the Commonwealth pledged itself to renew and enhance the value and importance of the Commonwealth as an institution which can and should strengthen and enrich the lives not only of its own members and their peoples but also of the wider community of peoples of which they are a part.

7.31 p.m.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister of State for Africa and the Commonwealth as well as Minister for Overseas Development, I live in the real world of what is going on at the present time. For that reason I am particularly grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for initiating this debate.

The relevance of the actions we take in the Commonwealth in the 21st century should never be underestimated. We are a vital component of development for so many countries. The Government greatly look forward to welcoming all those Commonwealth heads of government to the meeting to be chaired by the Prime Minister in Edinburgh in October. As the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, said, this will be the first time that this vital meeting has been held in Britain since 1977. We are looking forward to working with the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Anyaoku, and his excellent staff here in London at the Commonwealth Secretariat to ensure the success of the meeting. I shall return to the Commonwealth Secretariat a little later.

Perhaps I may begin by mentioning the theme already quoted by some. In October last year, senior officials of the Commonwealth met in London at the Commonwealth Institute under the chairmanship of the FCO Permanent Secretary Sir John Coles. They unanimously agreed to the Prime Minister's suggestion that the theme for this year's Heads of Government meeting should be "Trade, Investment and Development, the Road to Commonwealth Prosperity". That is very much doing what the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, said—making the Heads of Government meeting relevant and effective. Without trade, investment and development, the Commonwealth will not be firmly on that road to prosperity.

The theme reflects the Commonwealth's determination that the Harare Declaration of 1991, under which Commonwealth members have committed themselves to agreed standards of democracy and human rights, should be built upon so as to benefit the prosperity and wellbeing of the Commonwealth and its peoples. Throughout the world, private direct investment flows now outweigh official flows—including development assistance—by more than two to one. Only those Commonwealth countries which commit themselves to liberalisation and creating a pro-business environment will keep winning investment. We can see that in many other fora. Investors seek political stability. By adhering to the Harare principles and thus establishing a sound political, good governance base, Commonwealth members can attract that vital investment. That will be all the more important as we enter the next century.

The Commonwealth Secretariat is already playing a leading role in this field. The Commonwealth private investment initiative was launched at Marlborough House during President Mandela's historic visit to Britain last July. It has been a notable success. Our own Commonwealth Development Corporation is making a major contribution.

We do not forget the importance to Britain of Commonwealth countries as trade and investment partners. I was delighted to hear the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Acton, and others about trade. The Commonwealth includes 13 of the world's 20 fastest growing economies in per capita terms. Our balance of trade with the Commonwealth is healthier than our balance of trade with the European Union or the rest of the world. Exports to the Commonwealth, far from declining as some feared with our entry into the European Union, grew by 65 per cent. from 1992 to 1995. The dynamic emerging economies of Asia—Malaysia and Singapore—have contributed to our economic growth in recent years. We should never forget that. In the past five years, our exports to Singapore and Malaysia have more than doubled. The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, mentioned the recent visit by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Those countries are becoming increasingly important trading partners. They have founded much of their development on what they have learnt from us and with us. The good thing about the Commonwealth is that we learn from them as we all progress in this highly competitive world.

However, the trade is not all one way. In 1994 Britain was a major importer from over half the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth is an important recipient of British overseas investment—some £36.4 billion, over 20 per cent. of our investment stock. We also provide substantial development assistance to the Commonwealth. In 1995-96 we gave £460 million, 54 per cent. of our bilateral development assistance programme. In addition we gave £19 million to Commonwealth development programmes; £8 million to Commonwealth multilateral programmes; and £11 million to the Commonwealth scholarship and fellowship plan. That is an important element. I like the idea of one noble Lord who suggested that the millennium should perhaps concentrate on giving more scholarships to help people develop their skills within the Commonwealth.

I can say to the noble Lords, Lord Acton and Lord Moore of Wolvercote, that we are determined to do much for trade with the Commonwealth. We are particularly keen that all government departments look at the opportunities. We have deputy secretary-level officials in the DTI and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who are charged with advising on and administering the UK trade promotion strategy, and the Commonwealth dimension in particular. They must ensure that good use is made of all Commonwealth ties in high level visits and in encouraging British companies to visit Commonwealth markets for the first time. A good deal is going on. There will be a continuing need for discussion of trade and economic issues not just at Edinburgh but also at the meetings of finance Ministers to which reference was made in the debate. We do not declare that there should not be specific ad hoc meetings of trade Ministers, but it is much better to focus them either on the regional dimension or on specific sectors. Trade in the round is just so wide that the conversation often becomes very diverse. So focused meetings on trade are the most important way forward.

The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Lord, Lord Acton, mentioned the role of this country in alleviating the debt burden, starting with the 1990 discussion at the Commonwealth Finance Ministers' meeting and the eventual Trinidad terms. There is also the new debt initiative first formulated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the Malta meeting of finance Ministers.

There is a great deal going on. I am glad to say that we have a Commonwealth working group now on private capital flows. As a result of a UK initiative, that has become a very important way forward. We are trying to build on the diverse experience of Commonwealth countries for the next meeting of Commonwealth Finance Ministers in Mauritius in September. There will be a report on the role of national and international policies in encouraging private investment. The establishment of the group recognises the increasing importance of private flows and the first meeting takes place next month in London.

In recognising the importance of the theme agreed for the Heads of Government meeting we are working on the idea of holding a business forum just before the meeting itself. Commonwealth business people will be able to meet, exchange experiences and set out their own views for Commonwealth heads of government to consider when they discuss the theme.

We want too to reflect the importance of the non-governmental sector. To do that the Royal Commonwealth Society, with the full support of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, will organise a Commonwealth centre in the margins of the Heads of Government meeting to which non-government Commonwealth organisations are invited to participate.

I noted particularly what my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever said about the importance of the Commonwealth Press Union. In Auckland in 1995 I addressed the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association, which is doing very valuable work. None of the remarks made tonight about Zambia, Cameroon and Nigeria in respect of journalists and the freedom of the press will go un-noted or without action. I say in particular that the CPU and many of the other organisations are being helped particularly by the initiative of the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Foundation. They are drawing together the Commonwealth family in this Commonwealth centre at the Heads of Government meeting.

The Commonwealth is a voluntary organisation. Some members have chosen to leave it; some countries who may be eligible have chosen not to join. In the 1990s we welcomed Namibia, South Africa, Cameroon and Mozambique. The constitutional report written by Sir Paul Reeves of New Zealand on Fiji offers that country a way back. Whether that opportunity is taken or not remains to be seen.

The Commonwealth Secretariat, which so ably conducts the affairs of the Commonwealth, is now considering the criteria for membership of the Commonwealth, at the request of the last Heads of Government meeting. The issue will be on the agenda at Edinburgh. Closer to home, the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Wolvercote, mentioned the Foreign Affairs Committee's welcome report which was debated fairly fully in another place in June.

The Commonwealth is acquiring a new significance in a rapidly transforming world. The Government agree with that view. It was the end of disagreements about South Africa—a feature of Commonwealth meetings for nearly 30 years—which gave Commonwealth relations a new, positive focus. Certainly, the adoption of the Harare Declaration in 1991 set a benchmark to which other non-Commonwealth governments might aspire.

As the noble Lord, Lord Rea, my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever and others have said, not all Commonwealth governments are yet meeting the standards set by the Harare Declaration. That was why we agreed the Millbrook Commonwealth Action Programme at Auckland. We are working on that in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group in order to deal with violations of that declaration. In Edinburgh we shall be considering the findings of the group on which I serve and particularly Nigeria's current suspension from the Commonwealth.

There is much work to be done to make sure that Nigeria improves her treatment of her own people. It is true that there were no official meetings with any of those who are detained in Nigeria when the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group went there last November. But I managed to meet representatives of the National Electoral Commission, the transitional committees, the leaders of five recently registered political parties, the traditional rulers and the chairman of the Nigerian Human Rights Commission. I also managed to see a number of other people, including the daughter of Doctor Ransome-Kuti with whom I had a very positive conversation.

While in Nigeria we tried to see Chief Abiola. We asked to see General Obasanjo. But that was not possible then. We have been working on making all our contacts even more vital, ensuring that we get the information and continue to work. We had an audience with General Abacha. I believe that we were not officially supposed to meet the representatives of the human rights and pro-democracy groups. I can assure noble Lords that I had little sleep but a very good visit.

What we were pressing for as a group, not just for the sake of Nigeria, but for the sake of the Commonwealth, human rights and democracy throughout the Commonwealth, was the prompt restoration of accountable 'civilian government in Nigeria; the immediate release of all political prisoners including Chief Abiola; the rapid resolution of the case of the 19 Ogonis who face the same charges as the late Ken Saro-Wiwa and his associates; and a review of the prison conditions. We shall be meeting next month to consider the material that we received during the visit and further material that has been sent to us. We shall decide on the next steps that need to be taken in preparation for the Edinburgh meeting later this year.

I believe that it is too early for me to comment on what those recommendations will be. There is much work still to be done. But we are very conscious of the need to monitor the implementation of the Nigerian transition timetable. The local party elections rescheduled to take place in March will be the next important benchmark. These must be free and fair. We continue to watch the human rights situation not only in Nigeria but also in Cameroon. I shall certainly take up the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rea, and those of my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever.

The noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, asked about membership of the Commonwealth. I have already said that we have a study in the Commonwealth Secretariat now about membership in the future. It is not true that the department has lost count of how many countries hope to join the Commonwealth. There is no formal application to join the Commonwealth currently outstanding. I hear all sorts of reports and rumours. My colleagues sometimes tease when I go to a country which is outside the Commonwealth, saying, "Don't get them too interested in Britain. We have not yet worked out what are the rules." That is because that work is going on.

There are no formal rules for admission to the Commonwealth at the moment. A decision is taken by the heads of government and by consensus. In the Harare Declaration the Commonwealth defined itself as comprising nations which have a shared inheritance in language, culture and the rule of law. As I believe all your Lordships know, the declaration also outlines the standards of democracy and human rights to which all Commonwealth members should aspire. There are no formal membership rules, but I can confirm to my noble friend that all members acknowledge the Queen as head of the Commonwealth.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, how is that done? Is there a formal declaration?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as I said, there is no formal ceremony, but there is an acknowledgement by countries when they become members of the Commonwealth. The situation described by my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth about Africa in the Commonwealth is very important. The Commonwealth has probably meant more to African countries in their development than it has done to many others. I am very conscious of the responsibility that I carry for Africa within the Commonwealth.

I was grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Torrington, for his kind remarks. I shall not take up his tempting invitation, but perhaps I may advise him that having worked on Africa for more than 11 years trying to open up economic opportunities, to combat corruption and to get people on the right path, whatever happens to me in a few months' time I am not giving up on Africa. That may comfort a few people who think that they are going to see the back of me; they are not.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, about the budget for the Heads of Government meeting. There is an adequate budget for the conference and we shall ensure that the conference does both Britain and the Commonwealth proud. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, also asked about resources. I advise him that we pay very real tribute to the vital contribution which Chief Anyaoku and the secretariat make. The Commonwealth as a whole has agreed on zero real growth. The UK pays 30 per cent. of the costs. We do so willingly. We believe that we are getting value for money, but that is always something that one continues to watch. Sadly, many Commonwealth members are in arrears. That is one of the problems that the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Heads of Government meeting must tackle.

There will be a seminar on democracy in Africa shortly in Botswana, encouraging all countries to put into practice that to which they signed up in the Harare Declaration. That is where we can press hard on those who are falling behind in their respect for human rights and the rule of law.

I am conscious that I should not take too much time in this debate, but I must express to all those involved with us in the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, in the work set upon us from the Auckland meeting, how grateful we are for the support of the Commonwealth Secretariat, and particularly for that of the Deputy Secretary-General, Mr. K. Srinivasan, who has been a real stalwart in what has been a very difficult task. It is easy to pull the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group apart. It is much harder to build on the Harare Declaration the sort of future which all eight members seek.

We are proud to be involved in the Commonwealth. I pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Moore of Wolvercote, about the absence of the word "Commonwealth". For many years I have tried to go through every document produced by the Foreign Office to make sure not only that the word "Commonwealth" is there but that it is there with a meaning and with back-up. Obviously, I fell down on the job in the recent report—probably because of endless travel.

However, not only do we have an excellent and dedicated department for dealing with Commonwealth co-ordination, which has been significantly reinforced for the Heads of Government meeting, but, also, bilateral relations with Commonwealth countries occupy a very large proportion of the time of all of the staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Now, with the renegotiation of Lomé, many more people who are attributed to the European Union department, are working on Commonwealth situations. There is no way in which the Commonwealth is forgotten. Perhaps we should have a spell check so that as soon as "Foreign" is printed, the word "Commonwealth" has to follow it. At least the Foreign Secretary, in his reply to the excellent report of the Select Committee on Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, gave the undertaking that we would re-examine what happened. We are currently considering how we can reflect our existing and on-going commitment to the Commonwealth in our 1997 departmental report.

I could say much more about this marvellous organisation, the Commonwealth. This year is a very special year. I pay my tribute also to Her Majesty the Queen. Not only has she given 40 years' tireless service to the Commonwealth and, more, to its people, but she will take a very full part in this year's Heads of Government meeting which comes just after the 50th anniversary of her wedding. Her Majesty has been absolutely indefatigable. Whenever I meet present and past Commonwealth leaders, I am reminded of their deep affection for Her Majesty and for the tremendous example she sets to everyone else. If we could all emulate even a tiny part of what Her Majesty has done for the Commonwealth, we would be able to achieve even more than we have so far.

I am delighted that the Royal Commonwealth Society has declared 1997 the UK Year of the Commonwealth. I am sure that the whole House joins me in endorsing that initiative. The Foreign Secretary will launch the year tomorrow. Sadly, I am not able to be present, but I shall certainly be there in spirit.

Britain's role in the Commonwealth will not diminish once the Year of the Commonwealth is over. We look forward to taking a continuing full role in future Commonwealth activities. In particular, we look forward to taking part in the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and to welcoming Commonwealth athletes to the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002. In the meantime, we have much to do and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in October in Edinburgh will be a very important milestone in the unique venture of international co-operation which the Commonwealth represents. It is worthwhile. It is good news for all its members, and we have to make it even better for those who have not yet lived up to the Harare Declaration.

7.56 p.m.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, it remains for me to thank all speakers who have taken part in the debate. I take the upbeat messages contained in all contributions as an endorsement of the Commonwealth approach. I had prepared a few short remarks on all speakers' contributions, but given the late hour I hope that I may be forgiven for addressing just one point.

I was distressed to hear the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Astor and Lord Rea, but I consoled myself that identifying problem areas is what in large part the Commonwealth is all about. I have just returned from Cameroon and had the opportunity to call on a number of Ministers—

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Lyell)

My Lords, the time allotted for this debate has now elapsed. Does the noble Viscount wish to withdraw his Motion?

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, may I appeal to the House to take up one more minute of its time? I believe that I have five minutes in which to wind up. With the permission of the House, may I have one more minute? Any objections?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, perhaps I may advise the noble Viscount that the time allowed for this debate is two-and-a-half hours. It is not a question of time being allocated for wind-ups. The two-and-a-half hours have now expired.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, then perhaps I may reiterate my remarks and thank everyone for coming. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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