Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018 Debate - 22 March 2018
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friends Lord Ahmad and Lord Howell for initiating this important and timely debate. I am grateful that we have a chance to discuss the impending CHOGM together with the International Relations Committee report, which provides us with a helpful framework to better appreciate the UK’s relations with the Commonwealth past and present, as well as to shape the future.
My noble friends Lord Ahmad and Lord Howell make an excellent team to take the Commonwealth to the next level. I say that because our Commonwealth relations have often been treated as a binary choice of focusing our engagement on either the Commonwealth or the European Union. That was always a flawed dichotomy. I believe that the Commonwealth should have always remained a central part of our foreign policy strategy. Nevertheless, I welcome the renewed drive to revive this remarkable organisation which reaches so deeply into the history and heart of our nation.
Trade is one area where I passionately believe we can make a difference, especially with African members, and I am glad that my noble friend has recently visited Gambia and Ghana. Some noble Lords might know that as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Rwanda and Uganda, I have visited those countries a number of times. It is impossible to overstate how welcoming African countries have been of UK engagement and how enthusiastic they are about doing more business with British companies, but also how let down they have felt due to the UK’s retreat from the Commonwealth platform. The question I often hear is, “Where have you been?” I answer truthfully that we have been too focused on Europe, not without good reason, but for a country that has always proudly claimed to be global, we were, at least in economic terms, almost exclusively continental.
Africa is a continent close to my heart. I have a personal interest in helping it thrive as much as a professional one in making our relations a success. But I have also witnessed incredible transformations which I believe make the continent ripe for business: more stability, less corruption and a steely drive to replace aid with trade. Africa back then is not Africa now, and it has a wonderfully bright future ahead. But I sense that our perceptions and preconceptions, which I call the “Band Aid lens”, are obscuring our ability to see the full picture of opportunities in infrastructure, agriculture, health, education and energy. Africa is the new frontier, with a young population who are more educated and aspirational than ever before and hungry for reform, modernisation and prosperity.
In my relatively short time as a trade envoy, I have seen how quickly UK businesses have been able to make their mark. A British company is building a new airport in Uganda to the tune of £310 million. Two British companies have been shortlisted to build an oil pipeline worth $2 billion. I recently led a successful horticultural mission in Rwanda. These material achievements demonstrate that Africa is not the continent of poverty to which we have been accustomed, but a continent of immense promise and untapped potential.
The upcoming CHOGM will, I hope, hit home the message that Africa and indeed the whole Commonwealth is a perfect network for business. It is home to one-third of the world’s population and boasts a combined GDP of $14 trillion, yet it currently accounts for only 9% of our trade. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, quite rightly said that Germany’s trade with our colonial countries is roughly 17%, more or less double what we do.
The summit should reinforce our collective will to reshape the Commonwealth into a global trading body that reflects the vast opportunities that are ready for the taking. Where there is a will, there must be a way. It is essential to have the right infrastructure in place so that we can deliver UK goods to Commonwealth markets, facilitate transactions and allow our global vision to become a reality. It is on this that the UK needs to focus, and first is aviation. One of my biggest achievements to date was to open a route between London Gatwick and Kigali. However, the process of securing the route laid bare some serious shortcomings in our aviation policies. We used to have a bridge between the UK and Africa; today we can barely catch a flight to an African capital. This is problematic, because ease of access will be a central consideration for exporters. I have argued many times that we should build more runways without delay so that we can literally open up more avenues of travel, revive abandoned routes, such as those previously operated by BA—which used to fly all over Africa—and, in the simplest terms, connect British businesses to Africa. As many noble Lords might know, our direct routes from Heathrow to Freetown, Entebbe, Dar es Salaam and Lusaka, among many others, have stopped in the last five years. It is about time that we fly back to those African countries.
Secondly, we need to have the right financial infrastructure. We claim that London is the world’s financial centre, yet there is only one British bank operating in Africa—Barclays—which, after 100 years, is in the process of selling out this month. Banks, like air routes, are a basic and indispensable resource for businesses. They are the bridges of which I speak. We should be building, not dismantling them. Further down the line, as I have previously argued, we should consider establishing a Commonwealth bank. For now, I can tell noble Lords that the exodus of iconic British brands such as Barclays and BA does not inspire confidence in our African partners that the UK is fully open for business.
Does the Minister agree that, as we prepare for life after the EU, our actions must keep with our words and our infrastructure must adapt to our ambitions? Will he demonstrate the political will to treat Africa as a serious business destination? We must be fully equipped in every sense of the word if we are to meet all the challenges that lie ahead post Brexit and if we are to realise our bold global ambitions. The good news is that history has given us the advantage. The Commonwealth family, with our historical bonds and shared language and values, is alive and well. There is an old Maori saying which talks about preparing for the future by honouring the past. They call it, “walking backwards into the future”. For the UK, Africa and the whole Commonwealth, our common past can show us the way forward.
The full debate can be read through the following link: