On Tuesday 16 March, Sir David Amess spoke at the Commonwealth Day debate in the House of Commons. Sir David is Chairman of All-Party British-Maldives Parliamentary Group and is a supporter of the British Tamils, especially the local Tamil community in Southend.
Sir David Amess said:
Today, I will not be calling for city status for Southend, because I know that will happen in any case, but I will be celebrating with others Commonwealth Day.
The CPA is a wonderful organisation; the Minister is a former chairman and is my parliamentary neighbour. Over the years, I have been fortunate to visit many Commonwealth countries. Her Majesty the Queen does a brilliant job in leading the organisation.
I will concentrate briefly on two countries: Sri Lanka and the Maldives. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a supporter of British Tamils, especially the Tamil community in Southend. My constituents have raised the issue of how Mrs Ambihai Selvakumar is being treated and her hunger strike. She is protesting at the violations of human rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka, and I want to raise that today.
I have recently written to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office about the hunger strike and the destruction of Tamil memorials in Sri Lanka. I was pleased to table early-day motion 305 in support of improving water quality in northern Sri Lanka, where the Tamil community is disproportionately affected. As a nation, we should help those individuals in Commonwealth countries, and improve their quality of life and access to freedom. That most certainly includes the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The Maldives is a wonderful country; I have been the chair of the all-party British-Maldives parliamentary group for a number of years, and we held the AGM yesterday. Last year, the Maldives was readmitted to the Commonwealth, so one nation leaves and another one joins. That has been a long-term goal for the nation for several years and it is a testament to the high regard in which the Commonwealth is held that membership is so important.
The benefits of membership have included the promotion of mutual understanding and friendship between its member states, giving increased opportunity to strengthen conservation, democracy and human rights. On a lighter note, the Maldives will also participate in the Commonwealth games next year in Birmingham.
When people think of the Maldives, they first think of luxury holidays, with sandy beaches and all the rest of it. However, that does not present an accurate reflection of the way people live in the Maldives. Tourism counts for nearly two thirds of the GDP, and covid-19 has forced the Maldives to close its borders and tourism industry for months. GDP was forecast to contract between 11.5% and 29.7% in 2020. The country is now in debt to the tune of 128% of GDP.
The Maldives’ main industry, after tourism, is fishing. I have had useful meetings with two of my hon. Friends who are the responsible Ministers. The fishing industry employs around 30% of the country’s population and is responsible for virtually all of the country’s exports. Last year, due to the pandemic, the tuna industry was the sole contributor to the Maldives economy.
The vast majority of the fish caught are tuna, all of which are line and rod caught, which is much better than the other method of, frankly, hoovering them up. The Maldives tuna industry has gone five times beyond the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission’s requirement to reduce overall catch of yellowfin tuna. The way the fish are caught and the scale of fishing make the industry entirely eco-friendly and sustainable. Women have always participated in the fishery sector. Although industry is dominated by men in most of the world, in the Maldives the current fisheries Minister is a woman. Women also make up the majority of employees at the fish-processing plants.
The Maldives is part of the Commonwealth Blue Charter action group on sustainable coastal fisheries, which aims to support ongoing fisheries programmes and the sustainable management of coastal marine resources. That is central to the sustainability of the country’s fishing industry in the face of climate change.
Given the importance of the fishing industry to the Maldives economy and how sustainable and equal it is, one would have thought that the United Kingdom would have a good trading deal with the country. However, the UK currently imposes import tariffs of 20% on tuna. The Maldives is the only comparable Commonwealth country where that happens. Almost all of the 38 small island developing states have a preferential trade agreement with the UK, and the Maldives is the only Commonwealth country that is not accorded preferential trading.
I have yet to hear a good reason for that; it is such a shame. Considering how sustainable the fishing industry is, I hope the Minister will pass that message on to other Ministers.