HL Deb 04 July 2000 vol 614 cc1379-81

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede asked Her Majesty's Government:

What part the Government and the Prime Minister will play in the meetings of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to be held in London and Edinburgh in September.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, as is customary, a Minister will lead the UK delegation at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association's annual conference in September. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for International Development, Mr Foulkes, will take on this role. In addition, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will attend the opening ceremony and give a speech at the opening plenary session.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. I am pleased to hear that so many government Ministers will be represented at the conference. What are my noble friend's hopes for the high level group of Ministers which will meet at the conference? What aspirations does she have for this series of meetings?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we very much welcome the important CPA meeting which is an opportunity for parliamentarians from the Commonwealth to come together to discuss issues of real importance. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Durban Ministers agreed to establish a high level group to review the role of the Commonwealth and advise how best it could respond to the challenges of the new century. The group has not yet met but the first official level meeting is planned for late July in Pretoria, South Africa. The Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Sir John Kerr, will represent the UK at that meeting. It is hoped that the Heads of Government will meet in September in New York.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the Commonwealth today should increasingly be regarded as a valuable resource and a network to serve both global and British interests? Does she accept—this is not a party point—that when the Foreign Secretary came to office his mission statement, which gave high priority to the Commonwealth, raised a number of expectations? Does she think that those expectations have been fulfilled? Can she say precisely whether more or fewer people are now employed in the Commonwealth section of the Foreign Office than was the case three years ago?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to highlight the mission statement made in 1997 by my right honourable friend. He gave a commitment to strengthen the Commonwealth and to improve the prosperity of its members and co-operation between them. Her Majesty's Government have delivered on that promise and have done much to strengthen it. I cannot give the precise numbers of people working in the various sections of the Foreign Office. However, since 1997 our ability to work with our Commonwealth partners has been strengthened and we have gained much from that. It is an initiative that we intend to continue to pursue with increasing vigour.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, given that the Commonwealth is a unique association of both developed and developing countries, will the Minister consider suggesting to the Commonwealth Secretariat that it might be useful to provide some of the legal and expert assistance that developing countries desperately need in their negotiations with the World Trade Organisation? Will she consider suggesting that that might be one of the most useful roles that the Commonwealth could fulfil in the first decade of the new century?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I certainly join with the noble Baroness in highlighting the need for legal and expert assistance. At the Heads of Government meeting it is hoped that there will be a review of the role that should properly be played by the Commonwealth in the next century. We hope that officials will take that matter forward in South Africa and that it will be pursued in September. I assure the noble Baroness that our endeavours will be focused on ensuring that the best opportunities are reaped from the association with the Commonwealth.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will attend the Commonwealth parliamentary meeting. Can we be assured that diaries will have room to enable meetings to take place with representatives of other governments and to make necessary ministerial visits? The noble Baroness will be well aware that the Foreign Minister had to cancel his visit to Warsaw the other weekend, as I believe that she went instead. The Prime Minister has cancelled two visits to Warsaw in the past year. I understand that there is a queue of Prime Ministers from applicant countries of eastern Europe who await an opportunity to visit London to talk to our Prime Minister. There is a general sense, particularly in the east European countries, that British Ministers do not have time in their diaries to allocate to this important aspect of British foreign policy. Will the Minister give us encouragement on that matter?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have taken every opportunity to see Heads of Government. The noble Lord will know that a huge amount of work has been carried out recently in the international sphere because of the security issues that have been uppermost in people's minds. I assure the noble Lord that the Government will continue to make every effort to meet Heads of Government as we understand that it is a priority.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, will there be any discussion at the CPA meeting or in the margins on compliance with the Harare Declaration? Have the Government any new proposals on mechanisms to ensure that Commonwealth countries will observe its terms once they have signed up to it?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I hope that the whole House will understand the nature of a CPA conference. It provides an opportunity for parliamentarians throughout the Commonwealth to come together to discuss matters which are of importance to them in relation to their regions and for the regions to come together to discuss those issues. We hope that good, positive lines that can be followed thereafter will come out of the conference. But its most important role is as a vehicle which enables Commonwealth parliamentarians to come together to discuss and consider how best to help one another.

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