The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, first, I join noble Lords in genuinely and sincerely thanking—I say this from the bottom of my heart—my dear noble friend Lord Howell, who has been an incredible champion of the Commonwealth and remains so. I thank him for tabling this debate in such a timely fashion as we return from Kigali. I also thank him for his dedication to the Commonwealth, including as a Minister, as the honorary president of the APPG and through the various other Commonwealth organisations that he has led with great leadership and aplomb.
From the outset, let me say that I very much welcome this important debate. I recognise the important and valuable work of all the noble Lords who contributed, strengthening not just what the Commonwealth stands for but, through this debate, its importance to a progressive, forward-looking, open United Kingdom as we strengthen our relationships across the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about the 2018 CHOGM. I put on record my deep thanks to the many noble Lords who mentioned my old role and longevity in office; whenever that is mentioned, I wonder—because our debates are followed—who is listening, and where and when. As a Minister, one should always practise one important attribute: keep your bags packed. That is perhaps for another moment but I am really grateful for their kind words. Equally, in expressing those words, I understand noble Lords’ dedication and devotion to the Commonwealth in this respect.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned each deliverable. After 2018, a specific spreadsheet on every single line of the communiqué was set up. It was included in the annexes and addenda; if the noble Lord will allow me, I will share and circulate them again. This was intended exactly so that we did not lose sight of them. I also worked directly with the Rwandans over our extended period of office to ensure the very continuity mentioned by the noble Lord and others, such as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, from one CHOGM to the next. Yes, we had a slightly extended stay as chair-in-office, but we used that time to strengthen the deliverables for Rwanda, including on some of the Covid protocols at a time when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting had to be postponed.
I will come on to the issue of leadership and the Secretary-General but I assure noble Lords that, during that time, notwithstanding the different perspectives that prevailed, I always took a view based on practicalities. We worked closely with the Secretary-General and the secretariat on the delivery and handover of the chair-in-office role.
I come to a point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, whom I thank for talking of me as part of the new generation. When you reach a certain age, that is a quite welcome remark. I have said before that the issues and history of India and Pakistan, and the wider subcontinent, are defined in my very being. As someone who has heritage and strong connections to both sides, I feel it is important that we look towards the future. In recognising the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, I say to him that ultimately it must be for those countries to decide on, as we say in the Commonwealth, “a common future” which brings people together. There is so much between not only India and Pakistan but the 56 countries across the Commonwealth that ties us together. The issue of the English language, raised by the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, and others, remains central. I quote the Secretary-General, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, on the importance of the English language in defining where the Commonwealth is and how it will remain.
At CHOGM in 2018 the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, mentioned the British Empire, the role of the Queen and history. I greatly respect the noble Lord and say to him that I have been Minister of State for the Commonwealth for five years. It has been a matter of great pride and honour to serve in that capacity, as well as in other areas, because the Commonwealth is about the here and now and the future. The fact that Rwanda, a country that does not have the history of the old empire, and other countries that have no history with what was the British Empire, wish to join, including one of the new members, is a sign of the vibrancy of the Commonwealth network of states.
At the start of CHOGM 2022, President Kagame said:
“The fact of holding this meeting in Rwanda, a new member with no historical connection to the British Empire, expresses our choice to continue re-imagining the Commonwealth, for a changing world.”
That underlines the perspective of many a Commonwealth country. I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, for qualifying that the decision for the Prince of Wales to succeed Her Majesty the Queen was not that of one country, Britain, but came from the consensus of all members of the Commonwealth. I was there at CHOGM when these discussions took place, and it is right that the Commonwealth is defined by the important issue of consensus.
I have mentioned the Secretary-General, the secretariat and the member states. Equally I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, for her incredible work within the Commonwealth network. She mentioned the CPA. It was lovely seeing Stephen Twigg there, though we did not get a chance to sit down. There were a few respective taps on the shoulder as we rushed from one meeting to the next, but I recognise fully the important role that the CPA and the CPA UK play in strengthening inclusive and accountable democracy across the Commonwealth. Other networks play an equally important role. The youth and women’s forums, the business forums and civil society forums were mentioned by noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and my noble friend Lord Marland. Yes, they did feed back directly. I will come on to the important role of civil society, which is central.
We were represented in Kigali by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, and the Prime Minister, as well as by me and the COP president, Alok Sharma. Returning, we reflected and talked of the four years but, more importantly, it was an opportunity to look to the future and foster a renewed sense of unity and purpose for the Commonwealth at a time of great change.
I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord St John, mentioned the importance of digital. I will come on to some of the points that we discussed but, equally, in our report as chair-in-office, we focused on initiatives such as cybersecurity, to demonstrate the importance of the Commonwealth. What is the Commonwealth? If you are a small island developing state such as Vanuatu, you will not have the capacity and technical expertise to deliver. That is what the Commonwealth delivers, in bringing people together.
It is about the future. It is not a legacy of the British Empire of old. The vibrancy of discussions demonstrates that, as well as the issues that we discussed. Climate change is becoming increasingly important for small and less-developed states. Of course, Covid-19 remains very much alive and part of us in terms of its impact on us all. Therefore, even notwithstanding the Covid lockdowns, the Commonwealth family acted together on these important issues, including in a statement. As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, highlighted, from academia to private sector engagement and manufacturing, it saw us and India come forward with an important and lasting partnership, tied together by the fact of the Commonwealth’s advantage. There was the ability of companies within those two different countries to be tied together by the common contractual nature of green contracts and common languages. That has also resulted in benefit not just to India’s manufacturing but to inward investment in the United Kingdom and a lasting partnership.
The Commonwealth family makes up a third of the world’s population and 30% of the votes of the United Nations. The United Kingdom over the past four years has had a role in strengthening the voice of the Commonwealth within the context of the United Nations. Perhaps I may share a personal note, since the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, was mentioned. Prior to the closed session, where the Secretary-General issue was taken, the United Kingdom did not hold back. During an earlier session when I attended the last meeting of CMAG, the governing council, I made specific announcements on the United Kingdom’s continued support for the Commonwealth Small States Office in Geneva, which is carrying out important work on human rights issues. I therefore hope that I have given a practical perspective; while different perspectives or differences may arise, in terms of practicality, the United Kingdom has always sought to, and will continue to, engage directly and constructively with the secretariat on all aspects of the Commonwealth institutions.
The CHOGM 2022 programme was also varied. My noble friend Lord Howell rightly highlighted the importance of our global soft power, as the Commonwealth network was very much in play. As Minister for the Commonwealth, I had direct bilateral meetings. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned human rights issues but it is not always a question of collective discussions. The Commonwealth is also defined by opportunities for world leaders, Ministers and others to come together sometimes to discuss some of the more sensitive issues around human rights—at times candidly, constructively but also privately. The Commonwealth network also provides for such discussions to be undertaken.
I personally represented the United Kingdom in a number of ministerial meetings, negotiating on key issues. A point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, about the language on Russia and Ukraine, as well as on climate. I assure the noble Lord that I sat through the Foreign Ministers’ meeting and while there were differences of views and opinion, the Commonwealth is defined by consensus. The agreement in the communiqué that the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, rightly highlighted, ran to several pages. While it was perhaps not reflective of what was achieved under his stewardship as PUS at the Foreign Office during our time, it was important that there was a leaders’ statement summarising some of the key issues. That reflects a learning and constructive carry-forward by Rwanda of something that we started in London back in 2018.
I also had the pleasure of being invited to the business forum, which was a grand affair; prior to that, I went to the exhibition of businesses. It was profound and on one of the biggest challenges, as my noble friend Lord Marland said. I pay tribute to his stewardship. We talk about longevity; he is another example of someone who has banged the drum of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council—and rightly so. It was an incredible event but I was taken by the businesses there, which were providing practical solutions to food security and climate issues. I say to the noble Lord, Lord St John, that many companies there, including British ones, were showing expertise in digital.
I also took part in the intergenerational dialogue about sport in the Commonwealth. I met the England goalkeeper David Seaman, among others, and the FIFA chairman. These events, as highlighted by my noble friend Lord Marland, brought together businesspeople, youth and sport. We look forward to the hospitality of the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, when we all go to Birmingham for the Games. Indeed, I am going there on Saturday; I will be attending meetings of the OSCE that are taking place there. I am very much looking forward to Birmingham hospitality.
On the leaders’ statement, the UK Government believe that the Commonwealth gets stronger as it grows. It is about encouraging other countries—