The Commonwealth Charter is a sham!

November 2013 saw the most recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Following the previous CHOGM, Her Majesty the Queen signed into being the Charter of the Commonwealth, which draws together the “shared values and principles” agreed through the CHOGM during the last decade or so. Each of the countries, including the United Kingdom, has signed to embrace the principles of “consensus and common action, mutual respect, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, legitimacy, and responsiveness” which include a “commitment to the security, development and prosperity of every member state” and opposition to “all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds”. The Charter is a sham.

Despite its signature to the Charter, UK Government openly discriminates against half of its pensioners who choose to live overseas. It allots the annual increase awarded to pensioners in the UK, also to ex-pat pensioners in America and other countries, but refuses to do so for pensioners who retire to Commonwealth countries. On enquiry, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) will tell you that “it has always been so” but that rather stretches the facts behind the development of British pensions. It is true that the original non-contributory, means-tested state pension created by a Lib-Lab coalition in1908 excluded the few ordinary Brits who, in those days, chose to live overseas; however, the continuation of that exclusion was fiercely opposed by Parliamentarians when the contributory insurance scheme was introduced in 1925 by the Conservative government. There were numerous statements in the House of Commons declaring that, “This is a contributory pensions Bill, and inasmuch as a man or a woman has paid toward the pension, you have no right to take that pension away”. But there was a good reason for the exclusion of all overseas residents – pensions in Britain were collected from the Post Office (as many still are today) and that facility was not available to pensioners in overseas countries - they were excluded only because of administrative difficulties. The 1924 Pension Increase Act did not exclude overseas pensioners and the administrative difficulties were overcome by the Labour government in 1929 which “removed the restriction, and retained pensioners' rights subsequent to their going to British territories overseas”.

Another DWP get-out says that “pension parity is applied only in countries that “have bilateral agreements with the UK”. The UK has avoided such bilateral agreements since 1992 though it attends an annual bilateral forum with South Africa with the self-interested aim of increasing British exports to BRICS countries; frozen pensions are excluded from the agenda. Recent skirmishes in the House of Commons have identified that it is not a matter of bilateral agreement but Clause 20 in the regulations, controlled by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that freezes certain pensions and could easily be changed by him – members of the House of Commons can refuse to accept the regulations in their entirety but cannot exclude or change a single clause. In fact, DWP has recently confirmed, in writing, that a bilateral agreement is not necessary for pension parity to be applied.

The Chancellor effectively discriminates against thousands of British pensioners, for reasons that the EU Human Rights Court has described as “political”. He says that “the country cannot afford to pay the uprating to more ex-pats” while ignoring the ethics of paying some ex-pats but not others, and of paying all pensioners the insurance to which they contributed all their working lives in Britain. Meanwhile, of course, the UK pays out around £12 billion in overseas aid, some to wealthy countries such as Russia and China and for projects such as Nigeria’s space programme, and admits that more than enough to pay the pension uprates actually goes missing every year. In addition, the government has recently “found” R1.8 billion to fund extra resources for the substantial increase in the Territorial Army, to offset the sacking of thousands of trained British soldiers which many MPs oppose. The list of questionable government financing choices and waste is endless. We also know that, at the click of a finger, the Prime Minister would have allocated billions of pounds to a military assault of Syria had not the House of Commons stopped it, despite the fact that it is the United Nations and not Britain that should be making that decision. I quote an MP during a pension debate: “I put this to honourable Members opposite - if, instead of wanting a sum next year for pensions, we had wanted it for battleships, they would have given it to us. Broadly speaking, whether a nation can afford a thing or not depends upon how much it wants it.” That was in 1929. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose!

The 1991 CHOGM meeting pledged “an adequate flow of resources from the developed to developing countries”. In fact, the UK’s frozen pension policy discriminates not only against individuals but also against countries – the UK denies to the economies of countries, many of them still developing economically, the total income that should come from uprated pensions. On average, according to government figures:

  • Australia loses around £318 million a year
  • Canada loses around £199 million a year
  • New Zealand loses around £67 million a year
  • South Africa loses around £49 million a year
  • Developing countries lose around £62 million a year

The loss to the developing countries in particular is hardly in the spirit or terms of the pledge of the Commonwealth Charter to ensure “an adequate flow of resources from developed to developing countries”.

So, since the Charter makes these pledges, surely the Commonwealth organisation can call to account a government which persistently violates its principles and values? After all, the Charter also pledges to “support the role of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to address promptly and effectively all instances of serious or persistent violations of Commonwealth values without any fear or favour”. Unfortunately, the Commonwealth Secretariat is an organisation with responsibilities but no authority, a regulator without teeth, nothing more than an information collecting and disseminating adjunct of the UK Government controlled by a UK Government which pays most of the administrative expenses. Accordingly, the CMAG  is prevented from addressing the human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, an issue which caused Canadian Premiere Stephen Harper to boycott the 2103 CHOGM, because it would be showing discrimination by not similarly addressing British abuses of pensioners and Commonwealth countries. The Commonwealth Secretariat is in violation of its own principles and values by not acting as stated in the Charter; it is prevented from acting by the UK Government. No wonder the Conservatives have been called "The Nasty Party".

I do not want to think that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth knew any of this when she signed the Charter, though by section 179(1) of the Social Security Administration Act 1992, she is empowered by Order in Council to make provision for modifying or adapting the relevant pension legislation in its application to cases affected by an agreement with a country outside the United Kingdom – she could effect change if she wanted that to happen. I also want to believe that the UK government intended to correct the discrimination against ex-pat pensioners as part of its current overhaul of the pensions system. If that is not the case, then this Conservative government – proclaimed upholder of Queen and country – at best has embarrassed the Queen by failing  to comply with the Commonwealth Charter; at worst it has betrayed her signature on the Charter and the trust that Her Majesty has built with Commonwealth countries throughout her reign. I hope that she will speak out about this apparent "snub" at one of her meetings with the Prime Minister, even though she declines to make her views known publicly. Or, perhaps Prince Charles as the new head of CHOGM, will comment in due course; after all, he has in the past spoken out on a number of social issues, including genetically-modified crops, farm prices of food, fox hunting, religion, and architecture. In his new position, I hope he will be as angered as I am by the discrimination against WW2 veterans, since he is the titular head of this group; and by the discriminatory treatment of Commonwealth countries of which he has become the titular head.

President Yahya Jammeh of Gambia also boycotted CHOGM 2013, stating that “it is a neo-colonial organisation”. Amid the well-reported extremes of his policies and statements there had to be some truth.

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