I beg to move,
That this House has considered the International day against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate at such an appropriate time, given that the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia is tomorrow, and was also marked by the House last year.
In previous debates, including last year, I spoke about how LGBT+ rights are now a tale of two worlds. A year on, it is worth recapping where the world has gone forward, and also where it has gone backwards. Seventy countries still criminalise homosexuality, or at least sexual acts between men, and 45 of those also criminalise sexual acts between women. Only 42 states actively protect against hate crimes based on sexual orientation, and 11 countries still carry the death penalty as a maximum punishment for LGBT conduct. Only three countries in the world—Brazil, Ecuador and Malta—have nationwide bans on conversion therapy, and we have seen alarming reverses of LGBT rights in countries such as Armenia, Brunei, Chechnya, Tanzania, and Turkey. I will come on to those issues shortly. First, however, I think it is worth acknowledging that in other countries things have been moving in the right direction.
In September last year in India, section 377 of the penal code, which prohibited same-sex intimacy as against the order of nature—doubtless a legacy of the UK’s laws—was struck down by the Supreme Court of India after a case was brought by a coalition of civil society groups. Homosexuality is now effectively decriminalised in this major country, although it is also true that there are no legal protections against discrimination. This is a momentous decision, because the Indian penal code was used as a template in other former colonies. There is a huge role for the UK to play in supporting legal cases against those colonial laws for which we have an historic responsibility elsewhere in the Commonwealth.
I am exceedingly grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this truly important debate. He mentions the Commonwealth. We are currently chairing the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting was held here last year. It will be held in Kigali in Rwanda in 18 months’ time. I know it was on the agenda last time, but does he agree with me that it is extremely important that the Foreign Office—I know the Minister cares deeply about this issue—keeps challenging Commonwealth countries on the discrimination of LGBT communities in their own countries? We must preach and change our own laws of course, but it is right that we use our soft power to influence Commonwealth countries around the world.
I agree with every word the hon. Gentleman says. The UK can play an important role in that respect. The Prime Minister said the right things at CHOGM last year, but we must follow through with funding. The Minister will no doubt tell us about that and he supports action in this area. We must continue to encourage the Government to pursue this issue.
In Angola, a new penal code was adopted in January this year to replace the Portuguese legacy colonial penal code. It removed a “vices against nature” law that criminalised same-sex activity. New legislation adopts broad new legal protections, banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and employment, and offering services to LGBT people.
In March this year, the Kenyan Court of Appeal ruled that an LGBT non-governmental organisation could be registered, on the grounds that registration was constitutional and that forbidding its registration was unconstitutional because it contravened the freedom of association or assembly. That is a very important advance in a Commonwealth country. Similarly, a court ruling on decriminalisation is anticipated in Botswana next month.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the High Court ruled last month that the criminalisation of “buggery” was unconstitutional, as it contravened the law protecting human rights to privacy and expression. That could provide an important precedent for other Caribbean countries which share similar colonial laws.
In February this year, the Taiwanese Government introduced draft legislation to promote equal marriage. That followed the ruling by the constitutional court in 2017 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. It gave that Government two years to introduce legislation. A referendum rejected amending the civil code, but significantly the Government have gone ahead and introduced a new law anyway. It will be the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage.
Chile, Portugal, Luxembourg, Pakistan and Uruguay have all made it easier for trans people to change their legal gender. Across the piece, these are encouraging advances but they make the reverses elsewhere seem even more stark.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this very important debate. As we celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia and show proudly that we stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, does he agree with me that it is horrifying and deplorable that hate crime against the community here in the UK has been on the rise? Between 2016 and 2018, police-recorded hate crime based on sexual orientation and gender equality increased by 27% and 32% respectively.
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the rise in hate crime in this country. While the UK does so much to promote LGBT+ rights abroad, we must remember that there is work still to do in our own country. I will come to that.
I want to talk about the reverses in LGBT+ rights seen elsewhere in the world, some of which are really serious. In Tanzania in November last year, LGBT activists were forced into hiding in Dar es Salaam after officials announced a taskforce to identify and punish gay people. In the same month, there were police arrests at a same-sex ceremony in Zanzibar. The national Government in Tanzania has refused to intervene in worrying provincial crackdowns, following a ban on NGOs that had been distributing contraception and outreach to control the spread of HIV/AIDS.
There have been other crackdowns on private events, meetings and roundtables convened to ensure HIV advocacy. That development, seen in Tanzania, in other African countries and in Asian countries, is worrying because it interferes with the important global public health agenda to tackle HIV/AIDS. If some of our most discriminated-against and marginalised groups are oppressed in that way, we will make it harder to ensure that they have access to treatment. The concern is not just about human rights, important though that is. It is also about effective global healthcare programmes. That gives us a second and important reason to be concerned about the discriminatory policies and practices in these countries.
Notoriously, earlier this year Brunei announced that it would apply sharia law, which would impose the death sentence for homosexual conduct between men. There was an outcry, with action by civil society and business boycotts. It was discussed in this House, and I know the Government took action at a diplomatic level to persuade the Sultan of Brunei that enforcement of this sharia law was completely inappropriate for a modern country. It is therefore good that the Sultan announced that the death penalty moratorium will be extended for these offences, but it is important to say that that is not good enough. The status quo ante is restored for that specific offence, but that still leaves in place sharia law for other offences. Frankly, we should not welcome that as an advance when all that happened was, following an international outcry, the leadership in Brunei, buckling under pressure, were required to reverse a terrible announcement.
While that sharia law remains in place, despite what the Government have said about signing up to conventions on torture, it remains a huge concern that we see, in this country and others, increasing pressure on LGBT+ people with religion used as a pretext. We must stand up for the universality of human rights and say it is wrong to have such offences, which should not be on any kind of statute book. They certainly should not be enforced.
In Armenia, incredibly, Members of Parliament called for a trans activist to be burned alive after she addressed their Parliament’s human rights committee last month. In Turkey, Istanbul pride was cancelled and last week in Ankara 75 LGBT+ activists were arrested and are currently awaiting release.
In the debate last year, Members raised the brutal treatment of gay men in Chechnya. We expressed concern about the fact that the Russian Government had not done enough to crack down on that terrible treatment of gay people. There was meant to be an independent inquiry and there was meant to be a report, but nothing effective has happened.
Worse still, since our debate there has been a further crackdown. There have been reports that at least 40 people in Chechnya, presumed to be LGBT+, were detained in concentration camps and tortured, and that there were at least two deaths. Human Rights Watch has reported that it interviewed four men who were detained for between three and 20 days between December 2018 and February this year at the Grozny Internal Affairs Department compound. Police officials there kicked them with booted feet, beat them with sticks and polypropylene pipes, and tortured three of the four with electric shocks. One man was raped with a stick. There have even been murders of gay men by the authorities in Chechnya.
What have the Russian Government done to condemn that, and to assure the global community that such activities will not be permitted in future in the state for which they have responsibility? Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory to the European convention on human rights. It is absolutely intolerable that it should permit such brutal treatment of any section of the community—any minority—in a state for which it has responsibility. The message must go from this House to the Russian Government, loud and clear, that we will not accept these egregious breaches of human rights, that we and the global community will hold the Russian Government to account, and that we will not stop raising this issue until they do something about it.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. Excellent organisations such as Stonewall have highlighted what has been going on in Chechnya—just as he has done—for three years. Does he agree that, while it is good that our Government are condemning it, they must continue to put pressure on the Russian authorities in calling for an immediate end to these atrocities, and also join in the demand for an independent investigation?
I will make a fraction more progress, if my hon. Friend will allow me.
Let me raise two further key issues. The first relates to how we respond. I shall leave it to the Minister to set out the many ways in which the Government have used their resources of soft power and, indeed, funding to ensure that groups around the world can promote LGBT+ rights. We must commend them for that, but we must ensure that the funding is sustained. Few countries in the world are in a stronger position than the United Kingdom, because of our own record on human rights, because of what we have achieved in our own country, and because of the soft power that we are able to exercise globally and in organisations such as the Commonwealth, to promote LGBT+ rights on the world stage. I congratulate the Government on taking many initiatives in this respect, but those initiatives must be sustained.
The Government will shortly assume the co-chairmanship of the Equal Rights Coalition, a nascent intergovernmental organisation to promote LGBT+ rights, along with the Argentine Government. I urge the Minister and his ministerial colleagues in other Departments—including the Defence Secretary, who is responsible for equalities, the Foreign Secretary, and the new Secretary of State for International Development—to note the importance of that chairmanship and of the conference that we will hold next year, and to ensure that sufficient resources are committed to what will be a very important period. It is an opportunity for the UK to lead in this area, but that initiative requires greater co-ordination, greater organisation and dedicated resources.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his work in leading today’s debate and for shining a spotlight on many other occasions on corners of the world where LGBT people have been facing genuine hardship. May we, and in particular the Minister, use this opportunity to urge on countries that have been quite progressive on this but where we have seen some slippage—I reflect particularly on Cuba, where organisations such as Cenesex, which was led by Mariela Castro, drove LGBT rights but where only last weekend the LGBT march in Havana was outlawed and disrupted and people face arrest, and on Paraguay and Brazil, where we are hearing similar mood music, with LGBT rights slipping back? It is important that we support our friends to do the right thing.
The right hon. Gentleman is talking about this country showing leadership. Last year the World Health Organisation removed the classification of gender dysphoria as a mental illness, which was an important step forward and no doubt happened in part thanks to pressure from the UK. But the application process for gender recognition certificates in this country is still largely based on the conception that gender dysphoria is an illness. I have written to the Minister for Women and Equalities, who I believe also happens at present to be Foreign Secretary—
Through the hon. Gentleman’s intervention he has made his point to the Government and I am sure the Government will reply. But the broader point is right: in order to lead on the world stage we must ensure that our domestic agenda is fully complete. There are still outstanding issues in relation to trans equality, to ensuring education is genuinely LGBT-inclusive and to asylum for LGBT+ people. There are intersex issues where a response to a consultation is awaited. Most obviously there is still Northern Ireland’s failure to introduce equal marriage despite strong public support for that in Northern Ireland. All those things need completing as well.
None of this is for Governments alone, although the UK Government’s role is vital: it is also for business, civil society and NGOs to play their part. I congratulate all the NGOs that are engaged in promoting LGBT rights both in the UK and globally on their work. The all-party group on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, which I have the honour to chair, will continue to work with them.
We have a common objective. It was very well expressed by the Prime Minister in her foreword to the “LGBT Action Plan” that the UK Government published last year. She said she wanted to make the UK
“a country where no one feels the need to hide who they are or who they love”.
That should be our ambition for the world as well.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing this debate, ahead of tomorrow’s International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. I join him and others who will celebrate the gains that LGBTQI people in the UK have made since the decriminalisation of homosexuality over 50 years ago. It is a mark of how far we have come that this debate is taking place and that both major parties finally recognise the inherent justice of treating LGBTQI people as equals, at least in law if not quite yet in reality.
I am especially proud to have been a part of the Labour movement that recognised at its Bournemouth conference in 1986 that LGBT people needed particular protection after the oppression visited upon them by the odious section 28. That disgraceful and overtly discriminatory measure was put on the statute book by the Thatcher Government, egged on by the red-top tabloids in full cry. It effectively singled out LGBT people as a threat in our schools, treated them as though they were alien and delegitimised their very existence in law by referring to their relationships as “pretend”. It caused untold misery and suffering.
As the first openly out lesbian Minister in any UK Government, I was very proud indeed to have been part of a Labour Government who largely achieved equality in law for LGBT people during their 13 years in office. Indeed, the civil partnership legislation normalised LGBT relationships by granting legal protections equating to marriage. These were landmark social reforms, but their achievement was not inevitable. Positive change was not accomplished easily. Each reform was hard fought and resisted by the very forces that had given birth to section 28 in the first place.
Eliminating discrimination against LGBT people in UK law required heavy political lifting. It was undertaken out of conviction and it carried considerable political risk at the time, even if it seems in retrospect that it was all straightforward. I got fed up of seeing the Labour Government I was part of characterised in the tabloids as being obsessed with LGBT rights or seeing us being lampooned as being run by a “gay mafia”. Section 28 was not repealed easily, as those of us who were there will attest. It took three years to get it through the House of Lords, and the Conservatives fought tooth and nail to keep it. Equalising the age of consent was not achieved easily. We had to invoke the Parliament Act to get it on to the statute book after three attempts because the Lords simply would not vote for it. They also outdid themselves in the debates by comparing gay sex to bestiality.
Now we have a welcome agreement across political parties that LGBTQI people should not face legal discrimination, and I speak in this debate as just one LGBT MP in what has been called the “gayest Parliament in the world”. Who would have thought it? As we celebrate that progress, though, we have to remember that the forces of reaction have not been vanquished completely here and certainly not in the rest of the world, as the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said. IDAHO day calls on us to contemplate the work we still need to do to ensure that our LGBTQI sisters and brothers across the globe are able to achieve their own liberation from discrimination and bigotry.
That moment is a long way off, however, when we realise that 70 countries still criminalise same-sex relationships and that this involves the potential application of the death penalty in 11 of them. Stonewall’s international work shows that one quarter of the world’s population still believe that being LGBTQI should be a crime. LGBTQI people are losing their lives as a result of the bigotry and violence directed against them; it is estimated that there is a killing every two days.
So while we have seen the forces of progress advance in recent years, there is still much work to be done. We cannot and must not be complacent about what has been achieved, because we are in an era of backlash, and that should remind us that things can go backwards and that rights, once achieved, can be taken away. In 2019, the warning lights are flashing. The 2019 Rainbow Europe list shows that LGBTQI rights are even going backwards in Europe for the first time in 10 years. As the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs said, Turkey is failing to uphold fundamental civil rights, and Bulgaria has repealed a law allowing trans people to change their names and gender. Poland has made it harder for lesbians to access reproductive rights. Everywhere, the rise of the far right is threatening work to counter bigotry and discrimination against LGBTQI people and in some cases it is reversing gains already made.
The far right use the politics of hatred and resentment to foster blame against identified groups of people whom they can scapegoat for all society’s ills. They are organised globally and they often adopt similar tactics, wherever they appear. Call them right-wing populists, call them the alt-right; they are hostile to difference and they wish liberation movements, be it for LGBT people or women, to be crushed. They want us back in the closet and back in the kitchen. They also direct their ire at the black and ethnic minority communities, religious minorities and foreign nationals. I believe that there is a connection between all forms of prejudice and bigotry, and we are undoubtedly living in an era when discrimination is accelerating in its most reprehensible forms. It must be exposed and opposed.
The hon. Lady is delivering a fantastic speech. Does she agree that social media, although a force for good, is also a key change that is unleashing horrific views around the world and helping to take us backward, when actually we should be using social media to help us to move forward and make the argument?
I could not agree more. I will refer to social media briefly later, but I think we need to contemplate far more when considering how to tackle the threat.
In the aftermath of the EU referendum in the UK, there was a spike in all sorts of hate crime. In the three months after the vote to leave, such crimes against LGBTQI people rose by a massive 147%. There is a sense that that type of bigotry has somehow now been normalised, and the LGBTQI community is suffering because of it. So are others—women, religious minorities, black and ethnic minorities, the disabled. We now have candidates standing in the EU elections across Europe who openly advocate removing civil rights from sections of the population or scapegoating immigrants; others are unapologetic about issuing on social media rape threats against serving politicians. Much of the anger and hostility is being spread by social media, as the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) pointed out.
We have much to do to counter those disturbing trends if we are to be able to celebrate our progress on future IDAHO days. We must not fail in that crucial task.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle). She is, of course, entitled to her perambulation back through history to a time when the records of our respective parties were perhaps not in the same place, but even then and throughout that period, there were champions in the Conservative party who had been working for change for many decades.
I grew up in a period of British history when it was hard to be gay, and I know the weight carried every day—that it was wrong to feel this way; that it was the secret part of me that no one could ever know. I understand exactly what it is like knowing that social and professional death would follow if the fact were ever discovered. But at least I do not have to live with the possibility of actual death, unlike 600 million of our fellow citizens on the planet who live in jurisdictions where they could be sentenced to death for their sexuality. Freedom from that fear is the most important event of my life.
I am a social liberal. For me, freedom starts with the right of individuals to be who they want to be—to be how we want to be, to love who we want to love, to form the relationships we want to form, and to create a family and home to share that love with others. I will no longer be party to a society where that is not possible.
Here in the United Kingdom, many of us now enjoy unprecedented freedom. There were 7,019 marriages between same-sex couples in 2016. In 2018, one in eight adoptions in the UK were by couples in a same-sex relationship, a civil partnership or a same-sex marriage. Furthermore, as the hon. Lady said, there are now, I believe, 45 Members who publicly identify as LGBT.
That said, there are many whose plight is only just beginning to be recognised, and here I will deal with the trans community. In July 2018, the Government Equalities Office published the national LGBT community survey. Of the 108,100 valid responses to the survey, 40% of people said they had experienced a negative incident in the previous 12 months involving someone they did not live with that was due to their being of the LGBT community or being thought to be a part of it.
For transgender people, however, their likelihood of experiencing threats of physical or sexual harassment or violence is double that for the rest of the LGBT community. We are just waking up to the fact that transgender people continue to face some of the worst discrimination in our society. Almost half of trans people in the UK have attempted suicide. Given that there are 200,000 transgender people in the UK, this means that an avoidable death is a threatening reality for many in our community—for our very friends and family.
Out of these 200,000 trans people in the UK, only 4,910 have been issued with a gender recognition certificate since the Gender Recognition Act 2004 came into force. The GRA enables trans men and women to update their legal gender by applying for that certificate, which allows them to change their gender and, if they wish, their name. It is required by trans people if they are to be recognised, legally and officially, as male or female. The Act was groundbreaking at the time but is now out of date. The process of obtaining a gender recognition certificate is intrusive, bureaucratic and medicalised. It also fails to make provision for non-binary people.
In 2017, the Government announced a welcome reform of the Act to streamline and de-medicalise the process, and after much delay the results are being analysed. I look forward to an update from the Minister on when these results will be published, along with plans for next steps. It would be a welcome conclusion to this debate. I can only hope it will help everyone to understand that being transgender, or indeed lesbian, gay, bisexual or intersexual, is not a lifestyle choice but usually an agonising realisation that no one would choose to go through. Accepting this crucial clarification is perhaps the biggest step towards ending aggression towards the LGBTI community.
That begins with education. My own choice had been to hide and to disguise myself. It was not until I got here that I understood enough about myself and everything else that I eventually found the courage to be open and to be myself. Education—the knowledge that it is not a matter of choice about who you innately are—is the cause that has to be won. The latest furore against the values of the Equality Act 2010 at Parkfield Community School in Birmingham was a stark reminder to us all of not only how far we have to go, but how easily we will backtrack on progress if we are not careful.
We have strong protections in Britain. The Equality Act is clear that people can be of different race, religion, disability and sexual orientation. This is non-negotiable. Homophobia exists, in part, because of a lack of education, and inclusive religious and sexual education is a cornerstone of ensuring that our children grow up to be some of the most well-rounded, inclusive, understanding and tolerant people in the world. We must remember and protect that.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful speech. Is there not some irony—I use the word carefully—here? The weekend gone, I went to the East Lothian Pride Saltire festival. It was a gathering of the LGBTI community, along with friends, families and communities of East Lothian. Since I had the honour of becoming an MP, I have not attended a more welcoming, open, friendly, inclusive gathering of people. The irony is that the prejudice is all one-sided.
Obviously I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
It must be a central characteristic of global Britain, with our people, culture and history, that if we as a nation do not understand difference at home, we undermine what is special about the United Kingdom abroad. People who dislike the idea of people with different sexual orientations may have children or grandchildren who do not conform to their social norms. In fact, statistically, of course they will. There are children who have two fathers, and there are children who have two mothers. There are children who are gay. Those are facts.
All children need education on what Britain is like and what Britain stands for, which is tolerance and inclusivity. Pretending that such people do not exist only serves to misinform and continue the bullying of these children. Education is a prime opportunity for the Government to step up and champion LGBT rights. It is a duty. Backing teachers who teach and promote equality should not be a hard ask. Indeed, if a group of people demanded that their children should not learn about physics, history or British values because they believed that that was wrong, we would not be having this discussion.
I will close by showing that there is light at the end of this tunnel. The decision in India was the most momentous for the most enormous number of people, but it has been accompanied by change in places such as Angola and Trinidad & Tobago, where laws criminalising same-sex acts have been repealed. I commend the work of the Commonwealth Equality Network. When people stand up together to challenge exclusion, they can achieve great things. As part of Britain’s place in the Commonwealth, we need to continue to support LGBT people globally and ensure that the British values of inclusivity, tolerance and respect reverberate around the world.
We rightly acknowledge —especially those of us who are a little older—just how much freer and fairer our society has become for LGBTQI people in a short time. We usually do not stop to think that if equality has come so far and so fast, it could be eroded just as quickly. We cannot stop building solidarity around gender, sexuality, race, religion, disability and class. This is about not just policies, but exchanging stories and coming to understand each other better. Our mission is to resist those who spread lies, fear and division, and to keep on with positive conversations about who we are, how we are different, and how we are the same.
I will concentrate on just three issues on which the Government’s response must be stronger. First, I want to know when we are going to get moving on reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. No matter how difficult the debate, we have to find the courage to help some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. Secondly, I want to know why PrEP is not being rolled out to absolutely everyone who needs it without delay, because it raises the genuine hope that we can end HIV transmission entirely. That is incredibly exciting, so why are we not acting faster? Thirdly, I want to know why our Government are not treating President Bolsonaro of Brazil as the active threat to LGBTQI people that he clearly is, and I need to speak strongly on that issue.
Bolsonaro has used homophobic slurs as weapons against his political opponents, straight and LGBTQI alike, over and over again. He has repeated the incredibly damaging lie that LGBT parents are child abusers. He has repeated the lie that young people are recruited into being LGBT by activists who are simply in pursuit of sex. Just last month, he presented gay tourists, including British citizens, as a threat to Brazilian families. He has already acted to remove the responsibility to protect the rights of LGBT Brazilians from the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights in a country where more than 100 trans people, and many more queer folk, are murdered every single year.
Most despicably, Bolsonaro is a man who has encouraged parents to beat their children if they do not conform, who has explicitly endorsed violence against gay couples on the streets, and who has said repeatedly that he would prefer his sons to die rather than be gay—he would prefer them to be run over by a truck. This is a man who took a smiling selfie with his neighbour, the police officer charged with murdering the heroic bisexual councillor Marielle Franco last year. She was murdered for her human rights activism, and Bolsonaro alone refused to condemn her murder.
I want to finish by mentioning one specific case among many hundreds. In 2014, after Bolsonaro had made his comments about beating children who are not acting in line with their parents’ gender expectations, an eight-year-old boy was murdered by his father near Rio. He was beaten because he liked having long hair, because he liked to dance, because he tried on his sister’s clothes and because he liked helping to wash the dishes. Because he did not fit, his father beat him until he was dead. I can only conclude that Bolsonaro would have approved. He appears to me to be a vicious misogynist, transphobe and homophobe, and a clear danger to LGBTQI Brazilians and visitors alike. I think him reprehensible.
I want to hear the Government tell the truth about Bolsonaro and tell me what action they are going to take to oppose this evil. That is the very least we can do for that murdered child and so many other LGBTQI people who are living in absolute fear in Brazil today.
I wanted to speak in this debate to add my voice to those who are rightly celebrating sexual orientation and gender identity diversity on Friday 17 May all over the world. I also wanted personally to support my excellent parliamentary neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), who has done so much work, in this House and around the world, to raise awareness of and campaign on the issue.
I am proud that the UK is a leader in the field of LGBTQI equality, but much more progress is needed to ensure that we all live in an open and tolerant society. We are making good progress in this place, as we have the highest number of LGBT MPs elected to a Parliament. The Conservative party is also making great progress. I remember knocking on doors a few years ago when many people were concerned about gay marriage, but when I asked a recent open meeting of Conservative members in my constituency how many of them were concerned about gay marriage, only two people put their hands up, and even they did so very reluctantly. Attitudes are changing. They take a long time to change, but when they change they change very quickly. What we have heard today is evidence of that.
One of the most worrying statistics I have heard recently comes from Stonewall, which says that more than one third of LGBT+ staff do not feel confident enough to come out in their place of work. The figure for trans staff members is higher, at 51%. Given that many more people feel safe to come out at university or even at school, it is a concern that people feel that they have to go back into the closet at work. This should be a wake-up call to everybody who has responsibility for managing a place of work.
We need people to bring their best and most confident self to work. The fact that so many LGBT+ staff members do not feel comfortable being out at work means that companies and we as a country are losing out. How so? We know from academic studies that diverse organisations are more successful than those that are not. They make better decisions because they get a wider range of inputs. They are more in touch with their stakeholders, customers and employees. In short, discrimination costs us dearly, not just because of the harm it does to the individual concerned, but because it prevents people from being at their very best by simply being themselves.
Discrimination is harmful not only to the individual concerned, but to society as a whole. Discrimination has unpleasant companions, namely bullying and self-harm. Bullying is not only distressing and isolating; it can also affect education and damage mental health. It is welcome that we are now investing £3 million to help primary and secondary schools across the country to eradicate this type of bullying. According to the Trevor Project, each episode of LGBTQ victimisation, whether physical or verbal harassment, increases the likelihood of self-harming behaviour by two and a half times on average. LGBTQ youth are almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. That is just not okay.
I was really pleased with the creation of a LGBT support group in Chichester, which started in February. I spoke to the group in preparing for this debate after being told about it by one of my own party members, Christopher Baldock. The support group was set up by Melissa Hamilton, a local trans woman. Growing up as trans she was met with a wall of apathy, and she found there were no adult services to support her. She told me that a common response was, “Why don’t you just head to Brighton?” I am delighted that she stayed in Chichester and set this group up.
I would love to network her with the Wandsworth LGBT Forum, which, similarly, has been well-established for many years, has brilliant people involved in it and does fantastic work in our local community. I am sure they could help my hon. Friend’s LGBT community to get further, faster with the support they can provide locally.
That is brilliant and I will definitely take my right hon. Friend up on that offer, and I am sure Melissa will be delighted.
Another story I heard was from two girls who had gone to Brighton to celebrate Pride. They went back home on the train, still wearing their rainbow colours, which we have all got on today. While they were walking home, a car full of young men hurled homophobic abuse at them as they drove past. The car then turned around for another drive-by insult. This incident was, understandably, distressing, but we are so much better than this and we need to call it out wherever we see it.
The group is already up and running, and I am sure it will go much faster now thanks to the help and support from my right hon. Friend. It allows the LGBT community in Chichester to come together for the first time, to share their stories and experiences, and to support one another. Without this support, it is so easy to feel isolated and unable to be yourself. I will join the group at one of its future get-togethers and look forward to meeting everyone in person.
Of course, this Friday is also a day when we draw attention to the issue of LGBTQI rights internationally. Our country is a leader in the world, much respected for our influence and the example we set. I am proud that it was a Conservative Prime Minister who put same-sex marriage on the statute book, but, as many colleagues have said, there is much to be done in the wider Commonwealth countries. I was particularly disappointed to see what was happening in Bermuda, which still seems to have a problem with LGBT rights. I mention Bermuda as my husband is the grandson of a Gosling, a very well-known Bermudian family, famous for Gosling’s Rum. One would think that a wealthy and important British overseas territory would take a more enlightened and tolerant approach, and I call on it to do so.
In conclusion, I want to thank my colleagues who have enabled us to have this important debate today. We are making progress in Chichester and across the country. I am looking forward to working across the House, as a straight ally, to ensure we continue to be an open, tolerant society that stands firmly against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, both now and in the future.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I rise to talk about the hope and promise of change, how far we have come and how far we still have to go. At a time of rising, rampaging populism across Europe and across other democracies around the world, and throughout the tyrannies of the world, it is important to remember that there is so much that we have none the less achieved and that the country we live in today is so much better than the one I was born into. That is largely because in this place openly gay politicians such as myself stand on the shoulders of giants—the giants who forced through legislative change in this place, not just by walking through the Division Lobby, but by marching through the streets demanding change. I am talking about those great social movements that have managed to change not just the laws of the land, but the hearts and minds of the people living in it.
One of the reasons the LGBT community was so disturbed by the protests at school gates around the country accusing gay people of proselytising to children, wanting to convert them and sexualising them is that the horror of section 28 rings so heavily in the our memories. For young people who have gone through school without having to endure section 28, it has come as a shock—that realisation that the rights we have won and that have been fought for can be rolled back. For the older generations who founded organisations such as Stonewall to undo the damage of section 28, it was a reminder that there are battles that we thought were won but that can easily return. For those of us who stand somewhere in the middle, we recognise the heavy burden of responsibility we bear not only to defend the rights we already have, but to extend the freedoms even further.
I took hope from what Imam Ibrahim Mogra said last night on “Newsnight”. There is no doubt that he is a devout believer in his own faith, and I suspect he has traditional views on human sexuality, but on “Newsnight” he said this about homosexuality:
“It’s something you don’t choose into or opt out of.”
He also said that
“if there is a child who comes to school with two mummies or two daddies it’s only right that his”—
“classmates know about this. That would reduce bullying and discrimination.”
What a great message of hope, respect and inclusion.
The journey that the Conservative party has been on has already been referred to. I pay tribute to Conservatives who fought from within to change their party’s position on LGBT equality, meaning that I could march through the Division Lobby to support, for example, measures to extend compulsory sex and relationships education. I pay tribute to those people who are still fighting battles—for example, Alison Bennington in the Democratic Unionist party. She is the first openly gay DUP candidate. Whatever we think of the DUP’s politics, we certainly need more Alison Benningtons and fewer of the likes of Jim Wells.
I say to all of us in this House that there is still unfinished business. It is an absurdity that Northern Ireland is the only place on the island of Ireland and within the British Isles where marriage equality is not enjoyed by everybody. I am appalled that the trans debate has been conducted in an atmosphere of such vicious intolerance, with abuse and threats of violence traded from one side to the other. That is not the way to approach what must be a sensitive and thoughtful debate and consequent action. We have already heard expressed so eloquently the powerful role that this country has to play in undoing the damage in countries around the world where LGBT people are persecuted, often as a result of the House’s colonial legacy.
Finally, as I consider tying the knot, I hope that one day, like my dear friends Ann Limb and Maggie Cook, who married this weekend in a Quaker ceremony, my own church might bless my marriage, even if it does not take place in a church.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), the hon. Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), and my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) on securing this much-needed debate to mark the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.
This year, 2019, marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of Stonewall. Its founders had been active in the fight against section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. I welcome the new legislation that the House passed just a few weeks ago to extend relationship and sex education to include LGBTI issues. The backlash that we saw against LGBTI-inclusive education has faint but highly worrying echoes of the repressive section 28 from the 1980s. It is truly shameful that two in five LGBTI pupils between the ages of 11 and 19 are never taught anything about LGBTI issues in school. That does not create a healthy atmosphere in which LGBTI pupils feel they can talk to an adult about being LGBTI in school, and we know that being able to do so dramatically increases the mental wellbeing of LGBTI students.
The changes to RSE have taken too long to happen, and we cannot wait another 33 years for urgent reforms to be made. To start with, urgent reforms to the Gender Recognition Act need to be made sooner, rather than later. To put it in simple terms, transgender women are women. A reformed Gender Recognition Act needs to be committed to de-medicalising the process. The Government have consistently made it clear that being trans is not a mental illness, and the Act needs to be reformed to truly recognise that. Currently, transgender individuals must provide medical evidence from a mental health professional, with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, before their gender is recognised. The Government themselves predict that just 12% of trans people in the UK have a gender recognition certificate. There are too many barriers in place that stop trans people from getting gender recognition certificates, which has meant that although new legislation has been introduced to improve the lives of trans people, the majority of trans people have not benefited from that legislation.
It is important that the House recognises that this is Mental Health Awareness Week. It is important that we acknowledge that in this debate because of the vast amount of research that suggests that LGBTI youth are more likely to struggle with their mental health. Today’s LGBTI youth generally come out at younger ages, and public support for LGBTI issues has dramatically increased in recent years, but we must ask ourselves why LGBTI youth continue to have significantly higher rates of depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation than their cisgender/heterosexual counterparts.
I am proud to represent a party that has done so much for LGBTI rights in the UK, including through the repeal of section 28, the introduction of civil partnerships and the reduction of the age of consent for men in same-sex relationships to 16. In one of my first surgeries after I was elected as a Member of Parliament, a constituent came to see me about his status as a European citizen. It truly upset me that this constituent, who was in a same-sex relationship, told me that part of his anxieties about his immigration status were to do with him not feeling safe if he had to return home.
I am deeply concerned about the treatment of LGBTI people internationally. Very recently, we have seen the introduction of the death penalty in Brunei for men who choose to sleep with other men. Both nationally and internationally, we have to do better. Together we can create a world where men are not afraid to love one another, where women are not afraid to love one another and where trans people can live safely. But in order to do that, cisgender and heterosexual people need to stand alongside our LGBTI citizens and not speak over them on this massively important issue. I know that, together, we can overcome homophobia, transphobia and biphobia.
I want to start by saying that I am very proud that Scotland is one of the world’s leading LGBTI+ rights countries in the world, and I am proud that I and the Scottish Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004 in particular.
I know that I am not alone in feeling that ignorance is rearing its ugly head again, but it is our job to make sure that we bring people with us. The reality is that most folk do not know a lot about trans people; they do not know a lot about trans issues; and they do not know a lot about the laws that we are seeking to reform. I want to use today as an opportunity to take a little heat out of such discussions and explain and answer some of the concerns that people have about the Gender Recognition Act and trans rights more broadly.
First, the Act provides a process for trans people to obtain a gender recognition certificate, which is basically the equivalent of a new birth certificate, but it reflects who that person is. In order to take part in this process, a person must pay a £140 fee; they must be over 18; they must not be married and if they are married spousal consent has to be given; they must have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria through medical and psychiatric reports; they must prove that they have lived fully for two years in their gender; and then they must present this dossier of evidence to a gender recognition panel, which we know from gathering evidence is a really redundant system and which asks a lot of totally inappropriate and irrelevant questions.
Let me talk about the problems with the GRA as it stands. First, not all folk can afford the £140 fee. That cost can be covered in instances of low income, but medical and psychiatric reports, which can cost an absolute bomb for a lot of people, are not covered. Then there is the idea that someone needs spousal consent if they are married. That is a medieval kind of rule. For someone to prove that they have lived for two years in a certain gender is as redundant as it is hypocritical. Action for Trans Health warned that this requirement can force trans people to conform to outdated norms of gender and behaviour. It also risks outing these individuals, because if they are challenged at some point in those two years, they do not have a gender recognition certificate and could therefore find themselves in a dangerous situation, so it is a totally unjustified ask.
Finally, the requirement of a diagnosis of gender dysphoria is absolutely ridiculous. The World Health Organisation removed trans gender from the international classification of diseases. Another look at this shows that it removed homosexuality only in 1992. Gender dysphoria is defined as distress or discomfort caused by a mismatch between gender identity and the identity assigned at birth. It is important to say that not every trans person experiences gender dysphoria. A comparable hypothetical situation would be if I had to go to a doctor and get a clinical diagnosis of anxiety or depression before someone believes that I am gay. Of course, a lot of gay people experience anxiety and depression in relation to their sexuality, but that is because of the way that the world treats us at the minute; it is not a medical consequence of being gay. The same is true of a trans gender person experiencing gender dysphoria.
The great thing about the Gender Recognition Act when it first came out in 2004 was that it recognised that not all trans people are physically or mentally prepared for surgery for a whole range of nuanced and different reasons. The everyday bigotry and ignorance experienced by trans people creates a vicious cycle of harassment and exclusion. I for one understand why many trans people are too emotionally exhausted to entertain this process to even get a GRC.
Under the reforms that have been put forward in Scotland—this place is looking at similar reforms—an individual would appear in person before a justice of the peace to make a statutory declaration confirming the truth of their application and their intention to live in their acquired gender for the remainder of their lives. The penalty for obtaining this by fraud would be two years in jail. This would bring us into line with international best practice, as we already see in Argentina, Malta, Norway, Denmark, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland. No evidence from any of those countries suggests that the system is abused in any way.
The Scottish Government’s consultation ended in March 2018. There were 15,000 responses, all of which were overwhelmingly in support of the reforms. Close the Gap, Equate Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Women 50:50 and Zero Tolerance support all these reforms, and released a joint statement saying:
“We do not regard trans equality and women’s equality to contradict or be in competition with each other”.
To be clear, there are absolutely no suggestions that we should change the exclusion clause in the Equality Act 2010, and it is the Equality Act that deals with single-sex services, where a lot of the recent concerns that have been surfacing seem to lie. If anyone wants to look this up for research purposes, page 7 of the Equality Act states that exclusion clauses can be used where
“a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”
can be shown.
It is important to follow that by saying that Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid already provide trans-inclusive services on the basis of self-ID, and have done so for well over a decade. They appreciate that trans women are running from the same abuse, the same toxic masculinity, and the same sexual and physical violence as other women they serve. We hear concerns such as, “What if an abusive male partner turns up to a refuge centre and starts self-identifying as a woman?” Well, the reality is that they would be treated in exactly the same way as an abusive lesbian partner turning up to a refuge. These questions already have answers. People have a right to express legitimate concerns and questions, but what I am saying just now is that either we are witnessing an open attack on rights that are already established and long have been, or we are seeing a worrying level of ignorance.
The only people responsible for abuse are abusers. We understand that men perpetrate more abuse against women, and we have to understand this trend if we want to challenge it, but that does not legitimise framing discussions on trans rights from the viewpoint that trans women are a threat. It is the same tactic used by the far right. For example, the far right portrays sexual crimes by Muslim men as endemic, yet ignores the fact that most rapists and paedophiles are actually white men. We hear arguments that we cannot have a compassionate social security system because benefits scroungers will just cheat and abuse the system, when the truth is that that does not actually happen a lot. The bigger problem is people not claiming what they are entitled to. Fake stories or individual cases are used to smear entire communities, against wider evidence. The same thing regularly happens to the trans community, and it is happening just now.
For me, being a feminist means dismantling the patriarchy. That patriarchy has hurt every different identity in society in different ways—whether it be all the battles that feminists have been fighting on women’s behalf for generations, or men not feeling able to talk about their mental health or to seek help because they cannot be seen as weak or vulnerable. Even within the LGB community, we see the harm that this patriarchy does. We see guys who feel the need to be effeminate because they are gay, or women who feel the need to become butch because they are lesbian. All these insecurities are instilled in people, and it plays out in different ways.
We live in a highly gendered and patriarchal world. Many people fail to grasp that it is also an incredibly heterosexual and binary world, and this goes hand in hand with the patriarchy. It is quite telling that there seems to be little concern—certainly little vocal concern—for trans men and the situations that they might find themselves in. Being an LGBT ally is more than supporting our existence and rights in theory; rather, it is demonstrating and taking personal responsibility to educate ourselves to understand the everyday barriers and prejudices that we face. We have to find out why the general welfare of trans people is so awful, given that they make up less than 1% of the population. People are right to express legitimate questions and concerns, but if they dig deep enough, I think they will find that the answers are indeed there.
It is an absolute pleasure to take part in this debate and to follow the passionate speech by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) in support of the trans community. I sincerely thank the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for securing the debate. His very rounded speech ensured that the debate started in a way that updated us on the progress that has been made, and still needs to be made, globally. He also highlighted the legacy of the UK’s laws and our historical responsibility towards our former colonies. In fact, after he had finished speaking, I thought, “I haven’t really got much to say.”
It is with great pride that I take part in this debate. The theme for this year is justice and protection for all, and we really have to embrace that in its entirety. I always say that equality means equality. This month, on 24 May, we will be celebrating Stonewall’s 30 years of campaigning for LGBT+ people. Stonewall was formed a year and a day after the introduction of section 28 —the legislation that prevented the so-called promotion of homosexuality in schools. It was formed by, among others, Lord Michael Cashman from the other place, Lisa Power and Sir Ian McKellen.
As we have heard, a lot has changed in the past 30 years, but there is still a lot of progress that needs to be made. We often talk about everybody bringing their true, authentic selves to work, yet there are still lots of people in this country and beyond who feel that they cannot do so. One equality does not trump another. You do not have to be gay to fight for gay rights: you just have to believe in equality. That might not come naturally to some—in fact, it may be hard, because they have to confront friends, family members, and even leaders of other countries. However, if that is what it takes to make people feel included, valued and worthy, then surely it is worth it.
The worrying rhetoric surrounding trans rights mirrors the dark early days of section 28 and has led to a spike in hate crimes against LGBT+ people. Members all around the House have said how important it is that we talk about and celebrate the LGBT+ community and the people who have led the way—like my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who was, as she said, the first openly out gay Minister in a UK Government. We can be pretty sure that she was not the only gay Minister, but she was the first to be openly out. The struggle of those pioneers led to hard-won battles that now seem to be being rolled back.
Why is this important? The annual statistics from the Home Office show that between 2016-17 and 2017-18, police-recorded hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity increased by 27% and 32% respectively. Let me read out a couple of quotes. Ava, 56, from London said:
“Someone described their intention to slit my throat and kill me. They went on to say no court would convict them for killing ‘the queer bait’.”
Abebi, 35, from Scotland said:
“I was physically assaulted by two women as I attempted to use the bathroom in a bar. They began pushing me and shouted that I was in the wrong bathroom and pointed out that this was the ladies’ bathroom. I told them that I knew which bathroom it was and I was in the right place, but they persisted. Since then I avoid public toilets wherever possible.”
Can we imagine living our lives avoiding public toilets or walking down certain roads, in case we are attacked just because we are LGBT+?
The consultation on the Gender Recognition Act has closed, but the Government have yet to publish the findings or respond. Many Members mentioned that. Today is a good day for the Minister to tell us more about the consultation, so that we can stop asking this question time and again.
The UK could be better allies. We have dropped from first to fourth to eighth in the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association rating. We need to support teachers in delivering the curriculum. The protests are growing around the country. We need to stop them in their tracks and ensure that teachers are properly supported, so that we can teach this in an informed and calm way. As the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) said, LGBT+ people are people, and children should be taught that we are different but equal.
According to 1 Corinthians, faith, hope and love are three things that people should abide by,
“but the greatest of these is love.”
Martin Luther King said:
“It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
This country should not support any other country where the LGBT+ community face death because of who they love. We should stand up and oppose that at every opportunity. Anybody who tries to turn love into hate cannot be supported. In our role as chair of the Commonwealth, the UK has an ideal opportunity to lead by example, to be a proper ally and to take a bold step and stand in solidarity with the LGBT+ community. The Government should put pressure on Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth nations to effectively repeal legislation that discriminates against LGBT+ people. The Government could also legislate for equal marriage in Northern Ireland and bring it in line with the rest of the UK. Almost 80% of people in Northern Ireland agree with that.
I would like to thank some people who have always informed me as the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities: LGBT Labour, Amnesty, Mermaids UK, Pride, Black Pride, the Terrence Higgins Trust and the Kaleidoscope Trust.
At the end of the day, hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Just imagine a world where there is more love than hate. As legislators, and with the UK as chair of the Commonwealth, we are in a strong position to help make that a reality.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for securing this debate and I pay tribute to his work on the APPG on global LGBT rights. I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate. It is important for the world to hear the British Parliament speak out against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia and in support of this year’s theme, “Justice and protection for all”.
It is important not to forget that, behind the labels that trip off the tongue so easily, we are talking about real people and those who are often subject to discrimination, abuse and, sadly, in so many countries across the world, much worse. I am very proud, so many years on from the event, to be speaking here as the first openly gay Conservative MP and the shadow Minister who helped to steer through the Civil Partnership Bill for the Conservative party.
This country has a very proud record of promoting equality for those who define themselves as LGBT. Indeed, we are recognised as one of the top 10 most progressive countries in Europe for such rights. We have one of the strongest legislative frameworks in the world to prevent and tackle discrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender reassignment.
We have heard powerful and moving speeches today but, as always, we recognise that there is more to do. In July last year, we launched the LGBT action plan, which set out 75 commitments and is supported by a £4.5 million fund to improve the lives of LGBT people in healthcare, education, the workplace and elsewhere. In the health sector, our £1 million LGBT health grant fund will back innovative proposals to tackle LGBT-related health inequality. Our new national LGBT health adviser, Dr Michael Brady, is working to improve LGBT people’s experiences throughout the healthcare sector.
We are also exploring options, including through existing legislation, to deliver on our commitment to end the abhorrent and prehistoric conversion therapy practices that some people disgustingly advocate. Such practices have no place in 21st-century Britain. Someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is not something to be cured; it is something we should all celebrate.
In schools and universities, we are supporting LGBT work by students and teachers to improve tolerance and diversity in leadership, and we have made a further £1 million available to expand and extend an existing project to fight homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools—a phenomenon we should all condemn and that is totally unacceptable. In the workplace, we have launched a new £600,000 scheme to help to develop skills and capacity in the LGBT sector and we are working with the police to improve the response to LGBT hate crime incidents.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there is a real problem of homophobic bullying in the workplace and that often those best placed to deal with it are the trade unions? Will he say something about how his Government could assist trade unions in fighting the kind of discrimination that LGBT people face in the workplace every day?
It is the duty of all people, be they managers or colleagues in the workplace, to stand up for anyone who may be discriminated against, and if a collective organisation of any sort in a company can assist an individual, I would wish it to be supported. We have nothing against trade unions doing things on that agenda in the workplace—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady gestures, but we would support any trade union endeavours to help to win the battle against discrimination and to protect individuals from bullying and inappropriate behaviour. I am proud that the UK Government are taking action in all those areas, as that shows our recognition of the extent to which the lives of LGBT people can still be improved, in order for them to be accorded the same dignity, respect and rights as all other citizens.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) referred to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, as did the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), who made an excellent, powerful and very personal speech. Last year we held a public consultation on the reform of that Act, which allows transgender people legally to change their gender. We are analysing more than 100,000 responses and we will publish the outcome later this year. A lot of those responses were extraordinarily personal and contained individual stories and experiences which, if we are to take the consultation seriously, we must understand and properly digest. It would be wrong to say, “We’ve had the consultation and here is what we will do”, because we must use that body of work powerfully to inform the provisions that we need to convert into public policy. That will be followed by a call for evidence on non-binary gender identity that will inform policy in that field in due course.
More broadly, and crucially for the delivery of our action plan, we have created an LGBT advisory panel, with experts from the LGBT sector, academia and the legal world, to ensure that we can engage with the latest research and hear from people working directly with those affected by these issues. As in so many areas of policy, change cannot be affected by Government alone. These partnerships with civil society are absolutely vital.
I am going to run out of time, so if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me I want to move on to the international dimension, which is more my field as a Foreign Office Minister and which I do not want to neglect in my response to the House.
In terms of our international approach, hon. Members will be aware that promoting and defending human rights is an integral part of our foreign policy. That includes speaking up for gender equality and LGBT rights and seeking an end to discrimination wherever it occurs, as I did this year following yet more disturbing reports of persecution in Chechnya. We are clear that every country must fulfil its international human rights obligations. LGBT rights are not special or additional rights. They are not optional rights. They are human rights. They are the very same rights and fundamental freedoms that are enshrined in the UN charter and the universal declaration of human rights and which should be enjoyed by everyone. We are talking about the rights of families, friends, colleagues and neighbours. These are rights for all ages, all races and all faiths. We must be resolute in our campaigning and stand firm by our values. We cannot stand by and allow atrocities to happen.
In such cases, it is often our quiet diplomacy that reaps the most rewards. Where that does not work, we have no qualms about making our case in public. When Brunei implemented the Sharia penal code, we addressed our concerns in both public and private, particularly about the potential impact on LGBT people. Consequently, we warmly welcome the assurances provided by His Majesty the Sultan on 5 May. I hope that those who have been leading bans and boycotts of Brunei-owed equities fairly acknowledge those improvements and changes. We will continue to encourage Brunei to take further steps to protect LGBT people from all forms of discrimination.
We welcome the fact that India and Trinidad and Tobago decriminalised same-sex relations last year but, as we heard earlier today, it still remains a criminal offence in 70 countries, half of which are members of the Commonwealth. That statistic alone is a matter of great concern and regret. That is why it was vital to address the issue at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last year. I am delighted to report that it was the most progressive ever on LGBT rights.
I am going to skip over some things that I would like to say, as I am running out of time, but I want to refer quickly to the Equal Rights Coalition, which was mentioned earlier. I am delighted to announce that next month we will take on the co-chairmanship of the Equal Rights Coalition. It is a group of 40 countries that work together and share expertise to advance equality. It aims to co-ordinate international efforts to tackle violence and discrimination against LGBT people. It is a great pleasure that our partner will be Argentina. We have already worked closely and successfully with Argentina on a number of important issues and I look forward to this being another area of close collaboration. I hope that together we can re-energise the coalition.
I am confident that I speak for the whole House when I say that everyone, no matter where they live, should have the right to be who they are and to love whoever they love without judgment or fear. I hope this debate today will have made sure that the voice of this Parliament can be heard widely and that we can keep pressure on those whose ways need to be amended for the better.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his response and for saying that the Government’s intention is to re-energise the Equal Rights Coalition. This is a really important moment for the UK Government to show continuing leadership in this area.
I thank all my right hon. and hon. Friends and Opposition Members for their contributions. I think we show the House of Commons at its best when we are able to debate these issues on an entirely bipartisan, cross-party basis, and demonstrate that our concern to promote equality is universal in this House of Commons and that we are not divided on the issue. In many speeches, we have recognised that there is still work to do.
A couple of issues raised related to the influence of religion on LGBT+ people. Next week, the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights will announce and call for evidence on a major new inquiry on the relationship between religion and LGBT rights. I think that we have to start to look at that relationship as an important driver of some of the concerns expressed today.
I deeply regret that the commentators who criticise what goes on in this House and constantly find fault with the way in which Members of Parliament conduct themselves and their debates are not here to pay attention to this excellent debate, which has been thoughtful, gentle and constructive on all sides of the House. I only wish that people would sometimes pay attention to what is best about the way in which we conduct matters here in the House of Commons.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the International day against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.