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What is the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association?

The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) was founded in 1911 and brings together parliamentarians and public officials from across the Commonwealth to promote and strengthen parliamentary democracy (PDF).

As of 2021, the CPA is constituted of over 180 legislatures in 53 Commonwealth countries, and functions at both the national and local level. It supports an estimated 17,000 parliamentarians and parliamentary staff (PDF).

The CPA’s constitution sets out its objectives for the:

pursuit of the positive ideals of parliamentary democracy, and [commitment] to the core values and principles of the Commonwealth on democracy, development, equality, gender, human rights and protection of the environment as declared by the Commonwealth Charter.

The CPA is divided between nine regions of the Commonwealth. The UK branch, CPA UK, is part of the British Islands and Mediterranean Region, which in addition to the UK Parliament includes 12 other members including the Overseas Territory of St Helena, the Crown Dependency of Guernsey, Scotland, and the Republic of Cyprus.

The CPA supports training and professional development to improve the functioning of Commonwealth legislatures, and promotes the participation of women, young people and disabled people in Commonwealth parliaments.

The Commons Library research briefing on the Commonwealth provides background to the Commonwealth organisation and its membership.

The status of the CPA

The CPA is a UK-registered charity

The CPA was registered as a UK charity in 1971. As a UK-registered charity, it is subject to regulation by the UK Charity Commission and related UK legislation on the charities sector.

Under the Charities Act 2011, for example, the Charity Commission has the power to register, investigate and issue warnings to charities and, following legal processes, direct the removal of charity trustees.

The CPA is seeking a change in its status

As set out in the CPA’s strategic plan for 2022 to 2025, the CPA is seeking a change in its status to “an international, interparliamentary organisation.”

In 2018, the CPA presented the UK Government with a business case for status change and continues to engage with the UK Government on this issue.

In June 2023, the CPA Secretary-General said the UK Government “has been left in no doubt about the determination of the CPA to secure recognition in legislation” and that the October 2023 CPA conference in Ghana will be a “pivotal moment [….] as we seek to finally resolve an issue which has been on the CPA’s agenda for more than thirty years.”

In 2022, Chair of the CPA executive committee, Ian Liddell Grainger MP, warned that CPA headquarters may leave the UK if no changes to its status are made:

He further stated that if the British Government would not recognise the new international Parliamentary organisation, the CPA would have to move its headquarters to another country in which case the Secretariat would request Member Countries to volunteer to host the headquarters.

CPA arguments in favour of reform

Calls for the reform in the status of the CPA are-long standing, and there have been regular discussions since the creation of a working party in 2010.

The 2018 working group said there was “consensus in the CPA” on recognising the CPA as an international inter-parliamentary organisation. The group cited arguments in favour of this, including:

  • Charitable status limiting the ability of the CPA to sign certain international conventions
  • Restrictions on UK-registered charities pursuing “political purposes,” which have hindered the ability of the CPA to criticise Commonwealth government actions against parliamentarians, including instances of unlawful imprisonment
  • The power of the UK Charity Commission to investigate and potentially remove charity trustees as “inappropriate given the [international] nature of the CPA”
  • Limits on the ability of member parliaments to amend the CPA constitution because it is a UK charity
  • Concerns among several CPA members on their ability under national laws to use public money to fund a UK charity and the appropriateness of charity status for the parliamentary organisation of the Commonwealth.
  • The charity status limiting the CPA’s ability to participate fully in Commonwealth work, including Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings. Currently, it can only participate as a civil society organisation.

The African branch of the CPA states it is a “strong advocate” of changing the CPA’s status from a charity to a diplomatic body. It argues international status would “give this association international recognition and ensure that its resolutions are binding to the executives and parliaments of its member states” (PDF).

In addition to the issues raised by the 2018 working group, in 2021 Africa region spokesperson and Speaker of the National Assembly of Kenya, Justin Muturi, said the CPA and its office holders should be granted privileges and immunities “as other organisations of the Commonwealth” (PDF) such as the Commonwealth Secretariat. Without this, the Speaker argued, threats to its independence from UK regulators would remain.

In 2022, the Southern Africa subregion of the CPA Africa region also expressed its “displeasure at the UK’s hesitancy to legislate” on the change of status for the CPA, arguing the current status “disadvantages Africa and its allies.”

UK Parliamentary bills

While in the UK Parliament several bills have been proposed by MPs and Peers to change the status of the CPA in UK law, these have not made progress.

The most recently introduced bill is the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (Status) (No. 2) Bill, by Dame Maria Miller MP, chair of the CPA UK executive committee. The bill’s second reading is scheduled for 8 September 2023. The bill text has not been published.

2022 legislation introduced by Baroness D’Souza (also a member of the CPA UK executive committee) would have established the CPA as a corporate body. It would have also exempted the CPA from specific taxes (to maintain the same terms on which it operates as a charity) and give the Crown the power to introduce an Order in Council to determine the privileges and immunities of the CPA under the 1961 Vienna Convention (PDF) and the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964.

Ian Liddell-Granger MP (Chairperson of the CPA executive committee), who introduced a bill with the same wording as Baroness D’Souza’s in 2022, said the change in status would:

make no fundamental change to this place [the UK Parliament] and no difference to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It will make no difference to the way we [the CPA] operate. We will operate in exactly the same way, but it will make a massive difference to the way that we are seen in the world, and the organisations we can become part of.

UK Government undertakings to support the CPA

The UK Government previously rejected calls for primary legislation in the 1990s, 2013 and 2017, instead requesting further information from the CPA on the functional need for privileges and immunities. In 2017, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister (FCDO), Lord Ahmad, said:

Regarding the Government’s position on privileges and immunities for the CPA, in principle we are willing to consider the request, however, we would appreciate more detail from the CPA about the functional need for such privileges and immunities. In addition, it would be necessary to introduce primary legislation for the CPA to receive privileges and immunities and you should be aware that, for the foreseeable future, the Parliamentary timetable for legislation will be heavily focussed on work related to the UK leaving the EU.

However, I remain eager and willing to work with you on this important issue for the CPA and will, of course, give any business case you provide my fullest consideration.

In recent years, the UK Government has committed to work with parliamentarians to protect the role of the CPA in the UK, following reports its headquarters may leave the UK (this would not affect the UK CPA branch). In 2023, the Government confirmed the FCDO is “working with the CPA secretariat to find an acceptable solution by legislative means if necessary.”

On 28 June 2023, Sir James Duddridge asked the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak if the Government would provide the necessary support to avoid the association leaving the UK. The Prime Minister said:

The United Kingdom values the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that he does not want the CPA international to relocate. He wrote to it in March to confirm that officials from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office would work with the CPA to find a mutually acceptable solution to the status issue, and I look forward to seeing progress.

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