HL Deb 11 October 2002 vol 639 cc578-86

12.47 p.m.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I am very pleased to introduce this Bill to the House. It was introduced in the House of Commons as a Private Member's Bill by my honourable friend the Member for Havant, Mr David Willetts. Credit is also due to another of my honourable friends in the other place: my honourable friend the Member for Banbury, Mr Tony Baldry, who is involved with the Commonwealth Institute. He proposed that Mr Willetts, when the latter drew a place in the ballot for Private Members' Bills, might take up this subject.

Members of the other place supported the Bill and it received backing from all parties. I hope that noble Lords will also support it. The Bill will tidy up the statute book and allow us an opportunity to demonstrate our continuing support for the Commonwealth. It has two purposes. The first is to repeal the statutes that provide for the management of the Commonwealth Institute as a government-supported body, following the severance of the institute from the responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and its establishment as an independent charitable company in January 2000. Secondly, it acknowledges in United Kingdom law the admission of Cameroon and Mozambique to the Commonwealth by amending various Acts of Parliament so that those states are listed and treated as Commonwealth countries.

The Commonwealth Institute was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 1962. The institute grew out of the work previously done by the Imperial Institute. Changing times and circumstances in 1962 meant that a new organisation was required. For 40 years, the Commonwealth Institute has built up a reputation for promoting knowledge of the Commonwealth to a generation of our children through its exhibitions and educational programmes.

In Her Majesty's Golden Jubilee year, the institute has been at the forefront of producing educational materials about today's Commonwealth for our schools as part of the build-up to the 17th Commonwealth Games, held so successfully in Manchester this summer. The institute was also the driving force behind the marvellous final procession, devoted to the peoples of the Commonwealth, that ended the Jubilee parade in the Mall in London on 4th June.

In recent years, the building of the institute in Kensington has transformed itself into an award-winning conference and events centre. The revenue generated has helped to fund its activities in promoting the Commonwealth in this country. For many years, the institute was a non-departmental public body responsible to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which provided grant-in-aid annually to support its activities.

In the late 1990s, the institute sought greater independence from government. It negotiated a severance arrangement with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that changed its status to allow it to become an independent charitable company and determine its own future as a pan-Commonwealth agency, meeting the demands of that association as it entered the 21st century, just as, 40 years ago, the establishment of the Commonwealth Institute responded to the needs of that era.

That is very much in the spirit of the vibrant development of the Commonwealth, committed to adding value internationally, as signalled so clearly at this year's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia. The heads of government endorsed a report outlining the role of the Commonwealth in the coming decades. It demonstrated that the association continues to evolve and meet today's challenges, whether, for example, of terrorism or the digital divide.

We can see that change in the institute's status as part of the wider continuing response of the Commonwealth to meet the demands of change. I have paid tribute to its past record of achievement but I also welcome this change, which will permit the institute to define its own role and make contributions that advance the Commonwealth in the years ahead—without government control.

I believe that one of the most important changes which the now independent institute is making is to move its focus and activities from being predominantly in the United Kingdom—informing the United Kingdom people about the Commonwealth—to serving the needs of the Commonwealth as a whole. That is a major change, and I believe it is to be highly commended.

One aspect of that will be education—recognising that there is a correlation between education and economic well-being. The chairman of the institute, Judith Hanratty, tells me in a recent letter that the trustees are in contact with Cambridge University about the establishment of a new centre for Commonwealth education there. Arrangements are not yet finalised, but that seems to me to be an enormously exciting proposal. Cambridge is pre-eminent in teacher training, but the centre will not be limited to that. Activities contemplated include research and development projects of benefit to Commonwealth countries, training educational research students, developing programmes with Commonwealth countries to increase education expertise, and undertaking consultancy projects on matters of interest to Commonwealth governments—for example, on the development of high-quality educational systems.

This emphasis on education is very relevant as more than 60 per cent of Commonwealth citizens, who number in total 1.7 billion, are under the age of 25. Indeed, the mission of the institute is, to work with young people across the Common wealth so that they grow up inquisitive about other cultures as well as their own". The Bill grants independence to the institute. It has four clauses and three schedules. Those relating to the institute are found in Clauses 1 and 3 and Schedules 1 and 3. Primarily, those repeal the Imperial Institute Act 1925 and the Commonwealth Institute Act 1958. They also deal with the disposal of the endowment fund, which amounts to some £50,000, referred to in the 1925 Act, and thereby ensure that the statute book is tidied appropriately. I commend those parts of the Bill to your Lordships.

The second part of the Bill is quite different. It deals with the acknowledgement in United Kingdom law of the admission of Cameroon and Mozambique to the Commonwealth by amending various Acts of Parliament so that those states are listed and treated as Commonwealth countries. Both countries joined the Commonwealth in 1995. While their citizens have been given the status of Commonwealth citizens by Order in Council under the British Nationality Act 1981, it has not been possible to secure government legislative time to recognise these two new members in United Kingdom law. The Bill rectifies that situation. The admission of those two countries underlines the sustained importance of the Commonwealth.

Noble Lords will perhaps be interested to know something about why those two countries have been admitted to the Commonwealth. Membership of the Commonwealth was traditionally possible if the applicant had experienced direct or indirect British rule or had been linked administratively to another Commonwealth country. Cameroon qualifies under those terms because part of the country was administered by the United Kingdom under a mandate from the League of Nations.

Mozambique is in a somewhat different situation. It is surrounded by Commonwealth countries. It has demonstrated a keen interest in and support for the Commonwealth's contribution to solving the problems facing both Rhodesia and South Africa in recent decades. As what was then termed a "Front Line State", Mozambique attended as an observer several Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings. Southern African states, led by President Mandela, urged member countries of the Commonwealth to admit Mozambique in 1995. As noble Lords know, the Commonwealth operates by consensus and this extension to the two new members was accepted unanimously.

In 1997 at their next meeting in Edinburgh, after the 1995 meeting, Commonwealth heads of government clarified the membership criteria to ensure that in future an applicant country should be admitted on three pre-conditions: first, if it had a constitutional association with an existing member state; secondly, if it complied with Commonwealth values, principles and priorities, as set out in the 1991 Harare Commonwealth Declaration; and, thirdly, if it accepted Commonwealth norms and conventions. Again, the decision in 1997 demonstrates how the Commonwealth continues to develop.

I welcome the inclusion of Cameroon and Mozambique. Commonwealth membership has much to offer them and provides them with a set of principles to which they must adhere. Those principles are central to the kind of world in which we want to live. We should welcome the opportunity to include these two new members into an association that we all value in this House.

That is important, particularly for Cameroon. Its adherence to the principles that membership requires needs to be strengthened. We do have concerns about Cameroon's commitment to human rights and the conduct of its recent elections. But we should recognise that the Commonwealth is a forum that can help to achieve improvements. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth has appointed a special envoy to Cameroon—Miss Christine Stewert, a former Foreign Minister of Canada—to encourage reform. That is an example of the Commonwealth making a contribution towards ensuring that its values are upheld and not ignored, engaging constructively with the problems facing a member country.

The Bill recognises the admission of both countries to the Commonwealth and amends various Acts, as well as granting the Commonwealth Institute a new status. I warmly commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Blaker.)

12.58 p.m.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Commonwealth Bill. In doing so, I declare an interest as a governor of the Commonwealth Institute. I value my membership because it is a unique body, which promotes learning across all cultures. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, and endorse almost everything that he has said about the work of that organisation.

It is a body that has in its membership representatives of all High Commissioners. Such a partnership is also unique, and there is therefore a common objective that binds them together. That objective concerns working with people across the Commonwealth so that they can enhance their knowledge of other cultures as well as their own. More importantly, they subscribe towards a diverse society in a global environment.

There have been fundamental changes in recent years. There has been a fairly amicable divorce from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. More importantly, the institute is now independent and owned by Commonwealth governments. It is now responsible for raising its own funds and no longer relies on grant aid from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

It was a daunting task to move away from the Foreign Office, but to the credit of its chairman, Judith Hanratty, and the chief executive, David French, the institute is raising its own funds. A small example was the raising of over £1.5 million for an education programme.

It is very much a success story. The old idea of different countries setting out their cultural and historical stalls has now been replaced with online programmes on the web and in schools. No longer is the institute restricted to the people of London and its surroundings. It is now available to the nations of the Commonwealth through the Internet. That alone has provided resources which are acclaimed throughout the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Institute is an added example of how we contribute towards a better understanding, in particular in some of the under-developed countries.

We have all been impressed by the majestic building in Kensington, with the flags fluttering as one enters the building. It is a listed building and the restoration is now complete. No one can dispute that its impact has been fantastic.

Much of the income of the institute is derived from conferences and events. Again this is a move towards self-sufficiency. Some of us received a briefing from the chairman and it is worth putting it on record. She says: The general theme of education has always been central to the Institute's purpose since its foundation in 1893. Today delivering quality primary and secondary education is relevant to and provides, in different ways, a challenge for all countries in the Commonwealth. Such a focus will ensure that the Institute has a purpose that is relevant over the long term and which can underpin the fundamental drive of all of us to strive for a better life that is at the core of a Commonwealth of the future. It provides a sustaining and sustainable purpose". It is a success story of which we must all be very proud. I welcome, therefore, the arrangements in the Bill for the Commonwealth Institute.

1.2 p.m.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, it is a pleasure to welcome the Bill introduced in another place by my honourable friend Mr Willetts and taken up in this House by my noble friend Lord Blaker. As we have heard, the Bill is not controversial. It tackles two practical issues concerning the Commonwealth which have arisen from developments over the past seven years.

The Commonwealth Institute has welcomed the severance of its statutory link with the Government. As noble Lords have heard, the institute became an independent charitable company in January 2000. Since then its education team has secured more than £1 million in new project funding. The Government continue to support its work which seeks to spread an understanding of other cultures around the Commonwealth, particularly among young people. I am sure that this important work will continue to flourish when the institute becomes in law a free standing, charitable body. The transfer of the institute's endowment fund from the trustees to the Commonwealth Institute will consolidate its independence.

The second part of the Bill acknowledges in law the admission of Cameroon and Mozambique to the Commonwealth. These countries have been welcome members of the Commonwealth for seven years. The citizens of Cameroon and Mozambique already have the status of Commonwealth citizens and the Bill will ensure that in other respects the legislation for the Commonwealth takes account of their admission. For example, the Bill amends various defence-related Acts to include the forces of Mozambique and Cameroon in the definitions of "Commonwealth force" and "Commonwealth country".

While the Bill will have the admirable effect of tidying up the statute book, it also consolidates our commitment to the future of the Commonwealth. This point was emphasised, rightly, during the Second Reading of the Bill in another place. Both Cameroon and Mozambique have been fully participating members of the Commonwealth since 1995. Mozambique is surrounded by Commonwealth countries, and its membership has enabled the formation of a stronger regional group in southern Africa. Mozambique also has the fastest growing economy in Africa. In Cameroon a new electoral commission was established last year and I hope that this country's participation in the Commonwealth will lead to other similar projects.

The ongoing participation of these countries in the Commonwealth is most welcome. The work of the Commonwealth Institute is instrumental in affirming the ties between the Commonwealth nations. On both counts, the Bill before us performs admirably. I wish it well in its passage through the House.

1.5 p.m.

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

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, for introducing the Commonwealth Bill into this House. This is a small but nevertheless important Bill which has the full support of the Government.

We want to see Cameroon and Mozambique's admission into the Commonwealth recognised formally in UK law. Mozambique has taken its membership of the Commonwealth seriously, as I have seen during my visits there. This interest is not new. During the years leading up to Zimbabwe's independence and the ending of apartheid in South Africa, Mozambique's Foreign Ministers attended Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings as observers. Surrounded by Commonwealth countries, they understood what the organisation stood for and how it could support Southern Africa and contribute to its development. Given this special relationship, the existing membership rules were adjusted to allow Mozambique to join. Its subsequent commitment has demonstrated the value of this move.

Cameroon's commitment to the Commonwealth's Harare Principles has been disappointing. We and other member countries remain concerned about the irregularities demonstrated during the elections in June this year as well as the independence of the judiciary and the human rights situation. There are also allegations of discrimination against the Anglophone provinces.

These concerns have been sufficiently serious for Cameroon to be discussed at the Commonwealth's Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), the first step to suspension and ultimately expulsion if a member country continues to breach Commonwealth principles. But this demonstrates one of the Commonwealth's strengths—of encouraging reform through dialogue.

As part of this support, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, the Commonwealth Secretary-General has appointed a special envoy to Cameroon, Christine Stewert. She made a first visit to Cameroon in August to review these areas of concern and will return in November to assess whether Cameroon is demonstrating a stronger commitment to the substantial reforms required. We see the Commonwealth as a valuable player in encouraging these essential reforms and Ms Stewert's mission has the full support of the British Government.

Secondly, the Bill deals with the formal ending of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's statutory responsibility for the Commonwealth Institute. Noble Lords have paid tribute to the institute's 40 years of achievements in promoting the Commonwealth in this country, notably in the field of education. We all have our own memories of wonderful events in that unique building in Kensington. And this year the institute has played a major role in bringing the Commonwealth and its diverse communities into the heart of our national life as a central part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations.

When in the late 1990s the institute initiated negotiations to end its relationship as one of our non-departmental public bodies to give it greater flexibility in determining its future, we supported it. The Bill will now pass that request into law. This does not signal the end of our interest in the work that the institute will contribute to the Commonwealth in coming years.

Some noble Lords will have received a letter from the chair of the institute, Judith Hanratty, outlining proposals for the continuing evolution of the institute's educational work. I welcome this initiative as an imaginative response to the educational needs of the Commonwealth. It promises to make a genuine difference to the next generation. Fifty per cent of the population of Commonwealth countries is under 25 years of age. If the Commonwealth can be shown to have made a difference to their lives through such support, it will remain relevant and engage that generation—just as the institute engaged and motivated previous generations of British children with its programmes.

In March of this year I attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Australia. One of its themes was continuity and renewal. This Bill offers both. The change in the Commonwealth's membership criteria showed that it was not stuck by rigid rules but open to change that would benefit its members. The proposals for the Commonwealth Institute demonstrate that one of the association's key non-governmental organisations is reforming itself to meet the needs of the next generation of Commonwealth children. These examples serve to demonstrate the continuing vigour and relevance of the Commonwealth in this new century.

Once again, I confirm that the Government welcome this Bill. I commend the honourable Member David Willetts for taking the Bill through the other place. The Bill did receive cross-party support in that House. I wish it well in this House.

1.11 p.m.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Baronesses, and to the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, for their support for the Bill. I have nothing further to say. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at twelve minutes past one o'clock.