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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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The United Kingdom and the Commonwealth

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Meg introduced the debate in the House of Commons on ‘the Uk and the Commonwealth’, her opening remarks are below. Her concluding comments and the rest of the debate are available at: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmhansrd/cm080320/debtext/80320-0006.htm#08032078000002


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Meg Munn): I beg to move,


‘That this House has considered the matter of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.’


I am delighted to open this debate on the UK and the Commonwealth. I intend to set out the continuing importance of the Commonwealth to this Government and this country.


The House will know that last week was Commonwealth week. I want to thank the members and staff of the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for their work and for hosting the 57th Westminster seminar. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary recently reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to the Commonwealth. Indeed, this month the Prime Minister highlighted the Commonwealth’s importance to a meeting of all the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s heads of mission.


The Commonwealth is an extraordinary global network of countries big and small, rich and poor, and it represents more than a quarter of the world’s population. If it works together, the network has the potential to shape a better world for us all.


Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): This House of Commons was bombed in 1941 and rebuilt after the war. The Dispatch Box on which the Minister is leaning was a gift from New Zealand, the Table in front of which she is standing was a gift from Canada, and the Chair in which Mr. Deputy Speaker is sitting was a gift from Australia. Given that the Commonwealth has played such a central part in Britain’s heritage, why are the Government advancing proposals to get rid of the ancestry visa that is so important to people in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia Canada and elsewhere around the world?


Meg Munn: First, I salute the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of the Chamber. That he has learned all that in his relatively short time in the House is a credit to him. The Government’s proposals in connection with visas are exactly that—proposals. I understand that the consultation closed on 10 March, and that representations were received from Commonwealth countries. Representations were also made to me, and they have been passed on to the Border and Immigration Agency.


The UK is by far the largest contributor to the Commonwealth secretariat budget, and we are proud to remain so. In addition, we spend seven times that amount supporting other Commonwealth programmes on development, youth and education. I think that
hon. Members on all sides of the House are looking forward to hosting the Commonwealth games in Glasgow in 2014.


Don McKinnon steps down in the next two weeks as Commonwealth Secretary-General after eight years in the job, and I want to record the Government’s gratitude for his deft stewardship of the Commonwealth secretariat. He has modernised its working practices, developed links with other international organisations and dealt with some very tricky political situations, not the least of which is that in Zimbabwe. We look forward to welcoming Kamalesh Sharma as his successor.


One of the Commonwealth’s great advantages is that it is able to cut across traditional alliances and regional blocs. We should like to see it develop a more active role in identifying and helping to defuse potential conflict situations. It can also be a very positive force on important world issues, such as tackling radicalisation and climate change and advancing human rights and good governance.


Last year, when I was Minister for Women and Equality, I had the honour to represent the UK at the meeting of Commonwealth women’s affairs ministers. The meeting looked in detail at issues of gender equality and provided an opportunity for countries with shared values to learn from each other’s experiences and to support each other’s development.


It struck me at the time that it is not necessarily the richer countries in the Commonwealth that are in the forefront on gender equality. For example, many of the newer democracies have much better records on women’s representation. As I look across at the Opposition Benches I am sorry to say that, with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), only men are present for this debate.


The Commonwealth plays a vital role in giving small and poorer states a voice on the world stage. The Commonwealth-sponsored Office of Small States in New York, to which the UK is a major contributor, is a fine example of that. It gives a number of very small countries a presence next to the UN headquarters that they would otherwise not be able to afford.


Our historic links to many of the smaller nations remain important and are reinforced by our membership of the Commonwealth. As the Minister with responsibility for the South East Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean, I know how much those countries value that relationship.


Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Given the region for which she has responsibility, will the Minister tell the House what are the Commonwealth secretariat and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office doing to address the deteriorating situation in the Maldives? Democracy there is fragile, to say the least, and campaigning for the elections to be held later this year is not allowed to be based on either the Copenhagen or Commonwealth-Harare criteria. Will the Minister ensure that our mission in Sri Lanka has a more impressive presence in the Maldives than it does at the moment?


Meg Munn: The Maldives are the responsibility of Lord Malloch-Brown, but he has discussed the matters that my hon. Friend raises with that country’s
President. The Commonwealth has offered technical assistance to help to bring all sides together so that the reforms are kept on track. My hon. Friend is right to raise those concerns, and I shall ask my noble Friend to give him further information.


Simon Hughes: The Minister will know how much I welcome this debate, which I hope will become a regular annual event. She identified how the Government support activities such as those undertaken by the Commonwealth secretariat, but does she agree that the Foreign Office’s decision to withdraw money for Commonwealth scholarships has been sorely felt? That budget has been cut by £10 million, and many scholarships are now unavailable. Will she go back and discuss that cut with the Foreign Office to see whether the programme can be restored?


Meg Munn: I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman who, if he is unhappy with my answer, can return to the question later.


We have reviewed our funding for scholarships and fellowships to ensure that it is in line with overall foreign policy goals. We are proposing a smaller and better organised programme that will focus on those people from a wide range of backgrounds who will be the leaders of tomorrow. The Commonwealth scholarships and fellowships plan has been used to fund awards for the eight most developed Commonwealth countries—Australia, the Bahamas, Brunei, Canada, Cyprus, Malta, New Zealand and Singapore—but they are not the countries that need the money the most.


Meanwhile, the Department for International Development is increasing its combined contribution to that fund and to the Commonwealth shared scholarship scheme by £1 million, which means that its total contribution for 2008-09 will be £15.93 million. The money will go directly to fund scholarships for developing countries—that is, those countries that will really benefit.


I want to say a brief word about the candidates from the eight countries that we were funding previously. Candidates from Cyprus and Malta come under the European Union’s Erasmus programme, but candidates from the other six nations are eligible to apply to the Chevening scholarship scheme. Several are also eligible for Chevening central partnership scheme scholarships, co-sponsored by an outside organisation and a UK university. I hope that gives the hon. Gentleman some reassurance that there will be continuing support for countries where students can least afford to study in the UK.


My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was delighted to meet Caribbean Heads of Government at Kampala in November, where they held positive discussions on trade, among other issues. Meanwhile, we look forward to hosting the UK-Caribbean ministerial forum in London in July. It is a key event for the UK-Caribbean relationship. The agenda will include security, climate change and economic development in the Caribbean.


The Commonwealth is unique among international organisations in having the Commonwealth ministerial action group, of which we are a member. The group has the power to suspend members who have breached the Harare principles of democracy and good governance that guide all member states. We are hopeful that in future the group will do more as an early warning mechanism, providing peer pressure and mediation support in conflict situations.


Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): The Minister has just referred to good governance, and earlier she talked about the UK’s powerful influence in the Commonwealth, so why is the UK not doing more to put pressure on South Africa to deal with the terrible situation in Zimbabwe?


Meg Munn: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I am sure other Members will want to talk in more detail about Zimbabwe during the debate. We talk regularly to South Africa about the issue. South Africa is experiencing directly the problems arising from the situation in Zimbabwe. Millions of Zimbabweans are coming across the border to South Africa and they have to be supported there. South Africa is taking part in the process to try to resolve things in the region. I freely admit that there has not been as much progress as we want, but we talk to South Africa—it is not a failure of our Government.


Last November, the Commonwealth ministerial action group responded to the state of emergency in Pakistan by setting five conditions to be met within a given timetable. When the conditions were not met, it suspended Pakistan from the councils of the Commonwealth. I think that was helpful in Pakistan. The attempt by violent extremists to derail the democratic process was faced down by the Pakistani people. They showed courage, and in doing so have given Pakistan the chance to build a stable, secure and prosperous future. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that Pakistan should return to the fold of the Commonwealth and I hope we can see that process through in the coming weeks.


In November, the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Kampala acknowledged that climate change is rapidly becoming a defining global issue of our times and a natural focus for the organisation. It was appropriate that the theme of this year’s Commonwealth day was “The Environment—Our Future”. The states comprising the Commonwealth are enormously significant, bringing together a critical cross-section of countries—major greenhouse gas emitters, emerging economies, energy producers and poor and vulnerable states. Climate change affects the member states differently.

Some perched only just above sea level, such as the Maldives, which my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has already mentioned, find that their very existence is at stake. Others, including many African states, face higher energy and transport bills, together with the loss of agricultural production measures that will threaten their economic future if they remain unaddressed. In the Pacific island countries even minimal sea-level rises could cause conditions that are likely to force people from their land and create a generation of economic migrants on Australia’s doorstep.


Last October, I took part in the Pacific island forum in Tonga. Like so many Commonwealth member states, the people of Tonga and those of neighbouring
islands are directly on the front line of climate change. As they live on low-lying islands their whole way of life is threatened, and some fear they may have to abandon their homes if sea levels rise or catastrophic weather events become more frequent.

As the Lake Victoria declaration recognises, climate change threatens the vital national interests of all Commonwealth countries. We all face the same dilemma: how to grow and develop our economies while not destabilising the climate and thereby wrecking the foundations needed for our growth, stability and development. The Commonwealth Heads of Government at Kampala committed to helping each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, to carry out an assessment of the impact of climate change on their economies and development. The assessment is to include how we integrate climate resilience, as well as the transition to low carbon, in our development plans.


The Government believe that the Commonwealth’s very diversity has a role to play in combating radicalisation. The UK supports, and helped to fund, the Amartya Sen report “Civil Paths to Peace”. We think that the countries of the Commonwealth can take forward ideas from the report and continue and expand work in communities to prevent radicalisation from taking hold.


The Secretary-General was asked to form a small group of Commonwealth Heads of Government to discuss international institutional reform and make recommendations before the next Commonwealth Heads of Government in 2009. The UK was one of the member states that encouraged that initiative. Effective international institutions are vital in establishing the rules, predictability and norms that underpin multilateralism. The Commonwealth, representing as it does such a diversity of global interests, is a natural forum in which to forge new thinking about how to adapt governance and its functioning to new times.


We believe that the Commonwealth can go from strength to strength. The interest from prospective new members is an indication of the continuing dynamism of the institution, and the UK welcomes the membership report that was adopted at Kampala. Rwanda in particular is keen to join, and discussions about membership have already begun with the Commonwealth secretariat. We welcome the prospect of Rwanda joining.


The Commonwealth matters greatly to Britain. Last November, when the next secretary-general, Kamalesh Sharma, accepted his appointment, he described the Commonwealth as a “great global good”. That is certainly the view of the Government. 

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