HL Deb 01 December 2003 vol 655 cc103-5

3 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

asked Her Majesty's Government: What proposals they have made for strengthening the Commonwealth in advance of the forthcoming meeting of Commonwealth heads of government in Abuja.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Abuja, from 5th to 8th December, which the Prime Minister will attend, the Government will participate fully in taking forward heightened Commonwealth collaboration in a number of important areas, such as strengthened work to achieve the millennium development goals, combating HIV/AIDS and terrorism, the promotion of NePAD and a call from the Commonwealth for the Doha development round to restart. The situation in Zimbabwe will also be under discussion.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. Further to the last part of her Answer, will she comment on reports that Robert Mugabe is behind plans to replace the current Commonwealth Secretary-General?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, we believe that the president of Sri Lanka is behind the candidacy that has come from Sri Lanka.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, further to the noble Lord's supplementary question, what comfort can my noble friend give those who think that NePAD is worth supporting, when few African leaders agree to take action on Zimbabwe?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important issue that I know exercises and concerns many noble Lords. The Government believe firmly that NePAD, on which progress is being made, is worth supporting. We should support the peer review that is progressing, in which 16 NePAD countries have volunteered to participate. We should not discourage that. Neither Africa nor NePAD should be held responsible for the actions of a single country— Zimbabwe.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there will be widespread support for the statement made by the Secretary' of State for Education and Skills, Charles Clarke, at the recent meeting of Commonwealth education ministers in Edinburgh, that education is at the very heart of the Commonwealth? Will the Government support strongly the action plan for a Commonwealth education strategy that was put forward at the meeting in Edinburgh for the CHOGM in Nigeria? Will the Government, in particular, ensure that this time, unlike the last occasion, education will be a central part of the communiqué?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, the Government strongly support the recent action plan that emerged from the Commonwealth conference of education ministers that they hosted in Edinburgh in October. There is a great deal of support for the action plan. As noble Lords will know, the theme was the closure of the gap, access, inclusion and achievement. The action plan will make a difference to the education opportunities of primary and secondary children in all member countries. I will certainly pass on the noble Lord's strong remarks about the inclusion of education in the final communiqué.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that the basis of the Question relates to Zimbabwe? I am sure that she does. We have heard much about the banning of independent news in Zimbabwe and the torture that is apparently taking place there. The Question is about strengthening the Commonwealth. Does my noble friend feel that patience is being stretched to the limit, and that we must make a categorical statement about the actions of the Mugabe government that will demonstrate realistic, not discriminatory, attention to the problems of the people of Zimbabwe?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I strongly agree with my noble friend's points. The Prime Minister will make clear to fellow Commonwealth leaders in Abuja next week that we see no justification for the readmission of Zimbabwe to the councils of the Commonwealth at present. We recognise fully that the Daily News and many other press outlets have been closed illegally and that there has been a glut of arrests of civil, trade union and political leaders during the autumn in Zimbabwe.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, do the Government take seriously President Mugabe's threat to leave the Commonwealth?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, we are aware of that threat. It is up to Mr Mugabe and his regime to do whatever they wish.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the noble Baroness not think it absolutely wonderful that, decades after the demise of the British Empire, we still have the great British Commonwealth, which represents a quarter of the world's population? Does she agree that, so long as we have that marvellous organisation, there is no need to fear that we shall be isolated in the world under any circumstances?

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, I shall resist the underlying force of my noble friend's question. I agree absolutely that the values of the Commonwealth make an enormous contribution to peace, stability and progress in the world.