Monday 8 March 2021
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Press Freedom and Safety of Protesters: India
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Welcome to the first hybrid meeting of Westminster Hall. I remind Members that there are changes to some of the rules in the new hybrid arrangements. Members present must stand when they are speaking. Interventions are allowed on Members present in the Room, but not by or on Members who are speaking virtually.
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 563473 relating to press freedoms and safety of protestors in India.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this return to Westminster Hall debates, with virtual participation—something I know many Members are grateful for—which gives e-petitions awaiting a debate the public hearing that the petitioners deserve.
Farming protests in India may not seem to be the most obvious issue for a petitions debate, but the Petitions Committee has always accepted petitions calling on the UK Government to engage with other Governments on human rights issues. The petition focuses on the protests in Delhi and across India following the agricultural reforms agreed by the Indian Parliament. It calls on the UK Government to
“Urge the Indian Government to ensure safety of protestors & press freedom”.
It argues that
“democratic engagement and freedom of the press are fundamental rights and a positive step towards creating a India that works for all”,
and calls for “transparency & accountability” from the Indian Government.
The petition has already been signed by more than 115,000 people, and it has until 17 June to run—a fact that highlights the public interest in, and topicality of, the issue. The close ties, and many family connections, between these islands and India are another factor. The petition was created by Gurch Singh, whose family is from a farming background in the Punjab, after the distress he observed when he found his mother in tears watching the Indian news channels’ coverage of the protests. He then spoke with relatives in India about the distress they were in, and with members of his local community. It is testament to his efforts that his area is in the top 10 constituencies for signatories. Gilles Verniers, a political scientist at Ashoka University, has said:
“Every farmer community everywhere is discussing these farm laws. It is not just a local or regional matter.”
He is right. It has even found its way to being debated in these islands.
The farming protests are complex in their nature and origins. Indeed, even as a Member who takes a keen interest in India and has family connections there, I must admit that, prior to the scheduling of the debate, I had little knowledge of the subject, other than having seen some brief news footage of clashes between farmers and police in riot gear, from which I gleaned that it was something to do with farming laws, and that several high-profile celebrities such as Rihanna and Greta Thunberg had spoken out about it. I am grateful to those who have taken the time to speak with me over the last few days, and to those who have provided briefings. The House of Commons Library, the Indian high commission, the petitioner, and several political contacts with first-hand experience have all greatly assisted my understanding of the issue.
Today, we are not having a debate about the merits of the agricultural reform Bills passed by the Indian Parliament. The UK Government have repeatedly acknowledged that it is a sovereign matter for the Government and people of India. In their diplomatically worded response to the petition, the UK Government stated:
“We respect that agricultural reforms are a matter for India”.
That new-found support for self-determination and sovereignty from the UK Government is quite encouraging —those of us from Scotland are paying close attention.
The Indian Government’s right to enforce law and order is also not in dispute, and again that has been repeatedly acknowledged by the UK Government in their statements on the protests. In their response to the petition, the UK Government stated:
“We also recognise that governments have the power to enforce law and order if a protest crosses the line into illegality. We look to the Indian government to uphold all freedoms and rights guaranteed in India’s strong constitution.”
However, this debate is an opportunity to note concerns raised regarding the safety of protesters and press freedoms in reporting on the protests.
To help those who may be coming to the debate with a similar knowledge base to the one that I had a week ago, I believe the background to be as follows. It can be argued that the farmers have been ripped off for generations, that the sector requires reform, and that they have suffered a huge loss of income due to the covid lockdowns. Agriculture is controlled by the state in India, and three farm laws were passed by India’s Parliament last September, resulting in opposition from farming groups. There are arguments about the constitutionality of the laws, which is an issue for India’s own legislative and judicial process.
The farm laws allow, for the first time, farm gate sales to corporations. They put an end to warehouse capacity limits for processors, and they introduce tax-free, privately owned corporate yards, or mandis. We have heard reports of water cannons and tear gas being used against protesters in the early stages of the protests, repeated clashes between police and protesters, and the suspension of mobile internet access and social media accounts in late January and early February. There are good links to reputable sources on those events in the House of Commons Library debate pack.
Sadly, several farmers have suicided in protest, and others have died from exposure during the winter conditions of the protests. Indian farmers have been occupying roads around Delhi since 26 November, and on 26 January—Republic Day—they drove more than 120,000 tractors to the capital. The vast majority of those taking part, it should be stressed, did so peacefully. I believe it was inspired by an American farmers’ “tractorcade”, which brought Washington to a standstill in 1979. It is a small world.
Across India, some 750 million people are directly engaged in agriculture. That is around half of India’s population. Land has been described as sacred, and farming seen as a religious duty or way of life. It is a very significant issue for India, and has a resonance with the Indian diaspora around the globe, and for concerned environmental and political activists. While the protests been largely peaceful, they have on occasion involved the use of direct action such as strikes and blockades, which have disrupted road and rail traffic. The most significant clash between police and protesters so far came on 26 January, when one protester died and more than 80 police officers were injured after protesters deviated from an agreed protest route, including breaching security to enter the iconic Red Fort in Delhi.
The BBC cited local media reports of police using tear gas and batons, and of police officers being targeted by protesters driving tractors. The violence was condemned by farmers’ groups and union leaders. In response to the violence, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs put out a statement on 3 February arguing that the violence on 26 January had been the result of “vested interest groups” influencing the protests. It argued:
“Indian police forces have handled these protests with utmost restraint”,
despite hundreds of police officers being attacked. The statement also noted that the Government have held multiple rounds of dialogue with protesters’ representatives and farming unions, and had offered to suspend the implementation of the laws—an offer rejected by the farmers’ unions, who want to see the laws fully repealed.
Following the violence at the end of January, the Indian Government also temporarily suspended mobile internet access in three areas around Delhi where protesters had gathered. The Indian Government claimed that the suspension was in order to maintain public safety. The UK Government have since acknowledged and welcomed the removal of those restrictions in their answer to a House of Lords written question on 22 February. However, on 9 February, Amnesty International released a statement calling on the Indian Government to stop what it referred to as an “escalating crackdown” on protesters and farming leaders, citing reports of arrests, threats and harassment of peaceful protesters. The International Press Institute took the matter up in its communication directly with Prime Minister Modi, in which it urged him
“to take immediate steps to ensure that journalists can work without harassment and fear of reprisal”
from the Government,
“and to direct the state governments to drop all charges against journalists, including those under the draconian sedition laws, that have been imposed on them for their work”.
Press freedom and the right to peaceful protest is central to any democracy, so the images emerging from India over the past few months are deeply worrying. Some 67 journalists were arrested and detained last year alone. The escalation in violence and the press crackdown, including over social media accounts, cannot simply be ignored, especially at a time when the UK Government are keen to strengthen ties with the Indian Government.
As the world’s largest democracy and a key regional player, India has a pivotal role to play on the world stage. That is why it is vital that the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary impress on our Indian partners our joint convictions on free speech and the right to protest. I look forward to hearing the contributions to the debate, and I hope that the Minister will advise whether these concerns will be raised by the Prime Minister on his trip later this year.
Before I call the Back-Bench speakers, I have two points to make. I am going to put a time limit of three minutes on speeches. I also announced at the beginning that hon. Members who were not present for the start of the debate would not be allowed to speak, but this is the first time we have had these arrangements so at the end I will call two hon. Members who were not here at the start—one of whom I think I went to Westminster Hall, as opposed to the Boothroyd Room, which is understandable. I do not expect there to be that flexibility after this sitting, but it makes sense to do it this way for this first meeting.
Thank you for your stewardship of this first hybrid meeting of Westminster Hall, Mr Stringer. We are addressing a critical issue. This is the largest trade dispute in the world at the moment, and it is not just about people having a deal to be able to survive; it is about their livelihoods.
Huge numbers of farmers have committed suicide. Those with small shareholdings of up to five acres will suffer hugely under this law change, which is not about looking after the welfare of farmers in India, who are by and large one of the most downtrodden communities across the whole of Indian culture, because of the work that they do with their hands and the fact that the whole family has to be involved. When they have sought a peaceful change to the legislation, the Indian Government have abused them and delivered lathi charges—charges by the police with batons of wood. They hit elderly people and women, not seeing who was there. By and large, the farmers have been peaceful. Some individuals from outside the movement have tried to instigate violence, but that has been condemned by the farmers’ unions.
The dispute is about livelihoods. It should not be treated in a way that disregards all of the issues that the farmers wish to raise in Parliament. The dispute could have been finished quite easily. It did not need to go on for the 100 days that it has gone on for now. The Government must listen, but they have chosen not to. They should work with these poor farmers, but they have chosen not to. They have taken a belligerent attitude towards a community that provides crops for the whole of India, a community whose livelihoods support the people to eat. Some of the most impoverished people in India can get support from agriculture and the work that the farmers do. The Indian Government—
Anywhere in the world, in whatever country and on whatever continent, agricultural reform is very, very difficult. It is always accompanied by division and controversy, and in some instances there are protests and even law breaking. For example, our nearest neighbour across the channel has a farming sector often prepared to embark on civil disobedience and direct action.
Many of the laws governing India’s system of farm support date back to the ’50s and ’60s, a time when the country was sometimes on the edge of famine. Thankfully, there has been massive change for the better in the intervening decades. Reform of farm subsidy and support has been under active and intensive discussion in India for 20 years, and international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund have welcomed Prime Minister Modi’s attempt to take action on this challenge, which many of his predecessors have backed away from.
I accept and understand that protesting farmers feel insecure about their future, but Prime Minister Modi’s Government have repeatedly said that a core purpose of the reforms is to make farming more profitable, raise the incomes of people who work in farming and promote investment in agriculture in order to increase yields. Food security is obviously a priority for every Government around the world.
Although the three items of legislation that have sparked so much controversy will mean change, they also leave many structures, principles and rules intact, and Mr Modi was emphatic in a speech on 8 February that the commitment to a minimum support price has been retained and will not be removed by any of the new laws. Moreover, his Government have offered to postpone the implementation of the new laws for 18 months to allow for more engagement, consultation and discussion with the farming sector.
I hear the concerns expressed about the response to the protests, but when thousands and thousands of people are involved in demonstrations and encampments lasting months and months, no policing response can altogether avoid controversial episodes. After all, complaints about police officers here in the UK are frequently made after mass protests, but that is not evidence that democratic values are under threat in this country, and nor is it in India.
India is a country where respect for the rule of law and human rights is constitutionally protected and embedded in society. The authorities’ approach to the protests should not shake our faith in that central truth. Rather than denigrating India with unjustified criticism, we should celebrate it as the democratic success story that it is.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing the debate, and on the excellent way in which he introduced the subject today.
The fact that over 100,000 people have signed a petition in support of Indian farmers shows the strength of feeling in the Indian diaspora, as well as in the rest of the communities all across this country. From clothing workers in Leicester to shopkeepers in London and elsewhere, many people in the diaspora have signed a petition to ensure that this debate takes place, because of the unprecedented nature of the demonstrations in Delhi and because of the unprecedented nature of the support for those taking part. For all those hundreds of thousands of protesters in Delhi, many more have joined in, and when a national call was made for a strike, 250 million people took part in it—the biggest ever industrial dispute in the history of this planet—so we should think about why those people are protesting.
They are protesting because they are predominantly small farmers on less than five acres, many of them very poor. Over 22,000 have committed suicide in the past few years as a result of the stress they are under. It is as if globalisation has been forced upon them, and they do not want it, so this debate is about the media reporting, and it is about the views that people take on this issue all over the world.
When a protest takes place, as the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) pointed out, there are often complaints. However, the nature of the way in which the protesters—the strikers—have been attacked in Delhi is unprecedented, as has been the reaction of the Indian Government to the way in which the media have responded: internet access has been closed down, media access has been prevented, and mobile phone access has been limited. The media have been prevented from getting their message out to the wider world.
Last week, a number of colleagues now participating in this debate, including my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), had a meeting with representatives of the National Union of Journalists. On behalf of their colleagues in India, they told us how concerned they were about the way in which Indian journalists have been prevented from reporting on this issue. Indeed, most of the British media have barely reported on it.
In the few seconds I have left, I would like to quote Sabina Inderjit, the general secretary of the Indian Journalists Union, who concluded:
“Our brief view of the prevailing situation: Democracy in India is in danger. Its fourth estate is badly bruised and battered. Over the past five years, the country’s independent and free press, which has aided India to gloat of being a vibrant democracy, is being systematically and ruthlessly attacked like never before.”
We should listen to Sabina Inderjit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. What happens abroad affects us here. This is evident in a pandemic but true in many other ways. Peterborough is a diverse, multicultural city: we have a large diaspora from the Kashmiri region of Pakistan, and we also have many families of Indian heritage. The events on the subcontinent are of daily personal concern and, quite rightly, my inbox and postbag fill when we witness the disturbances in New Delhi and elsewhere.
We can all have our views on the rights and wrongs of the changes to the Indian agricultural law. It is not necessary to rehearse those here today, nor for the UK Government to side with one view or another. Diplomatic norms should be observed, but those norms assume others. The actions of the Indian Government in response to the farmers’ protests break accepted norms; they cross a line. It is terribly sad that we have reached this point, because India is a great country and a proud democracy. As such, it should conduct itself like a democracy and uphold its own constitution. However challenging the situation becomes, this democratic value should not be suspended, even in the face of provocation.
Instead, the Indian Government have blocked the use of the internet on mobile phones and arrested journalists, and now we read the reports of new legislation to force social media platforms to censor posts and break into encrypted messages. These are illiberal measures. The strength of feeling of protesters does not make them acceptable, and the excuse of national security does not make them any less authoritarian.
Even supporters of the agricultural reforms must have concerns about freedom of speech. The fears of my constituents are evident. One regards the response as an attack on “the minorities of India”, particularly the Sikhs. He worries equally about
“the safety of the protestors and the censorship”.
“All we are asking for is for our voice to be heard by constitutional and right means. If you think I am just in my demand as your constituent then please do something about it.”
They doubt some of the allegations levelled at the protesters, and they reiterate the heavy-handedness of the Indian Government’s response.
My constituents with family connections to India are right to be worried. It is right that concern is expressed in this House, and I hope the Minister will convey our Government’s concern. Upholding the law should never be allowed to slide into authoritarian oppression.
I offer my absolute support for, and solidarity with, the farmers protesting in India. Their protests have brought the world’s attention on India, and particularly on the abuses of the extreme far-right Government led by Prime Minister Modi and the Bharatiya Janata party. The protests are for a just cause, as the farmers are fighting against significant privatisation of agriculture, which would negatively impact on their livelihoods. As we all know, however, the BJP and Modi have responded to the protests with repression. Political opponents of Modi in India are at risk of arbitrary arrest, and the civil liberties of all Indians are being eroded by an extremist, right-wing Government.
Therefore, I demand that the UK Government condemn Prime Minister Modi and the actions of his BJP Government. The Government’s history of abuses and criminality is well documented. They continue to abuse the human and civil rights not only of farmers, but of Kashmiri people through the military occupation of the region. They are cracking down on press freedom and political dissent, censoring critics and blocking access to the internet. A British man, Jagtar Singh Johal, remains imprisoned in India on spurious charges. Furthermore, both Modi and the BJP Government are linked to the rise in violent religious persecution within India, including attacks on Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.
Therefore, I am calling on the UK Government to consider the imposition of sanctions—diplomatic and otherwise—on Prime Minister Modi and his Government. Those sanctions should include banning Modi and other representatives of the BJP Government from entering the UK, and they should extend to the seizure of any UK-based assets belonging to Modi or BJP Government figures until such abuses stop. The UK should work alongside international organisations to protect human and civil rights in India and Kashmir, including the release of all political prisoners and an end to the crackdown on the freedoms of press and speech.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I know that numerous colleagues are keen to speak and that we do not have many minutes, so I will endeavour to be brief.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (James Murray) is unable to be present today, but he asked me to make the Minister aware of his concerns and the strength of feeling among his constituents who have been in touch with him. They are deeply concerned about the Indian authorities’ use of force, and are adamant that the farmers must be able to exercise their right to peaceful protest. I am pleased that the debate has been called on the issue of safety of protesters and the continuation of press freedoms. It can never be wrong to stand up for human rights and for the right to peaceful protest in safety. The right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of democracy and a right that thousands of Indian farmers are using today, and which they have used for months now.
Both sides need to step back and recognise the need to come to an agreement. I hope that the Minister will commit to helping that cause by offering British skills in negotiation and compromise to help both sides bring the issue to a close. I know the farmers of India—I grew up in that same community. They worked hard to feed their families and the nation. I know that they would not be out there protesting if they could avoid it, so a solution must be within reach.
Until that is possible, I thank every constituent who signed this important petition. The continuation of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly is important to everybody with a commitment to democracy. All those who are speaking today, all those who signed the petition and everybody who has written to me is part of that call. We are speaking to represent the more than 100,000 people who have signed the petition. They are British citizens, British Indians, and the Indian diaspora, who all care so very deeply about an equitable solution. I implore the Minister to use our skills in compromise to help find a solution that works for both sides.
I represent thousands of constituents with family roots in India. Many are Sikhs with family roots in Punjab. I have received a great deal of correspondence on this issue in recent months, and many of my Wolverhampton South East constituents have signed the petition on press freedom and the defence of the right to public protest. There is a great sense of solidarity with those who are protesting, and a sense that they are fighting for their livelihoods and the right to earn a living. Punjab has long been known as the breadbasket of India. The Punjabi community in the UK have deep family ties with many of the people who are protesting.
The roots of the issue are the three farm laws that were passed last year, which those protesting fear will expose them to huge multinational forces and remove the minimum price guarantees they currently enjoy. Of course India, as a sovereign nation, has a right to debate and legislate for its own laws on that, but—and this is also the case if we look at ourselves—how many countries operate a fully free-market system when it comes to agriculture? Systems of subsidy are very common.
There is a great deal of anguish at the sight of protesters being ill-treated, the internet and social media accounts being cut off, and the arrest of activists. I would always say that protest must be peaceful, but I note the dignity of the protesters, with the provision of langar—free food—not only for each other among protesters, but often for those policing them, too. There is also a rejection of the idea that those engaged in the protests are somehow not loyal to India, or that the response to people fighting for their livelihoods should be to suggest that they are somehow externally controlled, or to place a question mark over their motivations, saying that they are against the state in a broader sense.
What unites those signing the petition, and the hon. Members present, is a defence of the right of peaceful protest and a desire to see a peaceful resolution to the conflict, so I ask the Minister to convey the concerns of the UK Parliament, to stand up for the right of peaceful protest, to defend press freedom, to explain why there are such concerns in the UK, and to urge a peaceful resolution to this long-running and very serious dispute.
Some supporters of the governing party in India have said that this is an internal matter—“Foreigners, keep your nose out of it.” I can tell them why everyone is so concerned. It is because human rights are universal, and a world in which they are upheld in all of our interests.
Hundreds of farmers have died already because of the freezing cold and because of ill health while protesting. Imagine the collective pain for those of us whose parents and grandparents have been tilling the land in the Punjab, who have a strong connection with the land and whose family and friends are involved in the protests, when we see scenes of tear gas, water cannon and brute force being used against them, and when we see them herded into the protest sites like animals, with metal barricades, barbed wire and deadly steel spikes installed in the road, as if it were some sort of international border and not the outskirts of the capital city. The irony is that many of the protesters have served on the border, or have children or grandchildren currently serving in the army. Mercilessly, their water supply, sanitation, electricity and internet have been intermittently cut. Trade unionists, human rights activists and journalists, including young women, have been arrested, with reports of sexual assault and torture while in custody.
The millions of protesters are from across India and different faiths, yet because a significant number of them are Sikhs, they have been singled out and branded separatists and terrorists by unscrupulous elements of the mainstream Indian media. It is part of a pattern where Muslim Indians are labelled as Pakistanis, Christians as being under foreign influence, and Sikhs as Khalistani separatists—but we see you, and so does the world. Let me let Members into a little secret about the Sikhs: they are taught to feed millions of those in need for free, year in and year out, regardless of background, colour or creed. They are brought up to stand up for the rights of others, so we can bet our bottom dollar that they will go to the nth degree to stand up for their own rights.
Those of us, like me, who dare to speak up for the farmers are faced with a deluge of hundreds of fake profiles from the Twitter troll factory, and are accused by some disingenuous elements of being, among other things, racist. I do not need lectures from them about the wonders of India. I have been fortunate enough to have lived and studied in India for over four years, learned to converse in Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu, travelled the length and breadth of that beautiful country, and experienced at first hand the warmth and welcome of its lovely people.
While I am at it, let me debunk another myth used to silence anyone in Britain who offers anything but praise: that they must apparently have a colonial hang up. To those people I say that while we spend most of our time discussing national issues, the beauty of being a British parliamentarian in the mother of Parliaments is that almost every day we conduct debates about what is happening around the world. It will not be lost on anybody that the UK Tory Government, in their desperation to get a trade deal, are failing spectacularly to stand up for the human rights of the protesters, so I call on the Government to request that the Indian Government speedily resolve the deadlock and ensure peace and justice for those farmers—
I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on securing the debate. It is an honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who speaks very passionately about the subject.
The truth is that we should not need someone such as Rihanna to speak up on such issues as the farmers’ protests in India for the world to take notice, but that in some ways explains how the world now works. The powerful are heard with a single tweet, while the average person’s voice is often ignored. That is one of the central arguments that the Indian farmers are making.
The very argument made by the innocent farmers is that when the new laws take effect, taking away the regulated markets that allow for minimum prices for their crops and replacing them with deregulated markets that work in the favour of the big, powerful corporations, who then will listen to the average farmer? The Indian Government talk about how prices will be able to be negotiated, but as we all know, without the safety net of minimum prices, when the big, powerful corporations do the negotiating, it is the average farmer who is left worst off. That is what the debate is really about: ensuring that the voices of ordinary farmers can be heard.
Let me be clear: when we raise such issues because they are a very serious concern for our constituents, who often have families in India struggling in such circumstances, it is not about being anti-Indian. India is the fifth largest economy in the world. It is ranked second in the world in agricultural production and ninth in the world for agricultural exports. India has a rich history and culture, and is a rising economic power. However, with such increases in economic opportunity comes responsibility. It is important that we support the average farmer, especially when they are faced with large and powerful corporations.
This is not a debate between two equals. These farmers are already struggling. More than 52% of India’s farmers are living in debt, which is causing a shocking increase in the suicide rate. In 2019 alone, nearly 10,300 Indian farmers killed themselves. Such an alarming situation cannot be ignored.
In addition, because the protests have been dominated by Sikh protesters from Punjab, the Government have tried to silence their voices by marginalising the issue to one that affects a single community. The current Indian Government’s record on minority rights is not one to be proud of. I urge them to consider the issues of globalisation and capitalism in a serious way, and to avoid making this situation another case of nationalism and marginalising yet another minority community in India.
Thank you, Mr Stringer. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I speak today as the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson proudly to support Councillor Gurch Singh, the Liberal Democrat councillor who organised this important petition, amassing more than 115,000 signatures. I hope that all hon. Members and the Minister will join me in applauding him for his hard work to galvanise greater action on this issue.
It is right for British MPs to speak about this issue, not just because of our constituents who may have family ties with India, but because wherever democracy and human rights are under threat we cannot look the other way. We all know—in this virtual Zoom room or elsewhere—that democracy does not just happen at the ballot box. People must have freedom to protest, freedom of the press and freedom to debate, which are all cornerstones of a thriving democracy.
This is no small matter: more than 250 million farmers have been protesting since August last year. We are witnessing what could be the largest organised protest in human history, yet the police brutality and arrests against peaceful protesters and journalists covering the protests are of deep concern. Tens of thousands of police have been mobilised across India to quash the protests. Barricades and roadblocks have been set up to block protesters, and more than 248 farmers have died just outside New Delhi in camps. Some have died of health issues and others from suicide. These farmers are sacrificing so much and all they want is to be listened to.
My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I have written to the Foreign Secretary, calling on him to work together with India to ensure that democratic values are upheld and that fundamental freedoms—such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly and association —are respected. I am afraid to say that so far his response has been woeful.
Of course we welcome close relations between the UK and India, but they must be based on a mutual commitment to human rights, freedom of religious belief and the rule of law and democracy. The UK must work to ensure that these principles are consistently upheld. Can the Minister please update us on what steps the Department has taken, including at the Human Rights Council, since the Foreign Secretary met his counterpart in India 12 weeks ago? Can he tell us what assessment has been made of whether the new farmers laws in India are in breach of article 9 of the international treaty on plant genetic resources on food and agriculture? Will he speak to the Food and Agriculture Organisation about this matter? The UK has a prominent position on the world stage and in UN institutions. We need to take this responsibility seriously, and I urge the Government to act without delay.
As the granddaughter of Punjabi farmers, I am proud to speak today in solidarity with the millions resisting Modi’s regime. Farmers from across India—of all faiths and none, of all genders and all castes—are protesting against laws that threaten livelihoods. In total, 250 million workers went on strike in solidarity. That is the largest strike in world history. In response, in order to stoke communal violence, the Indian Government-controlled media has demonised protesters as Sikh separatists. Protesters have been met with state repression and brutality.
It is timely that the debate is being held on International Women’s Day because women are leading this historic revolt. In January, the courts told women protesters to go home. They suggested that women farmers were not real farmers, but the women workers of India are refusing to be silenced, from farmers’ leaders, such as Jasbir Kaur Nat, to jailed climate activist Disha Ravi, to Dalit trade unionist Nodeep Kaur, who was wrongfully imprisoned, reportedly sexually assaulted and tortured by police.
These women could not contrast more sharply with their sexist Government and the misogynistic movement that supports it. When Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, he was banned from entering the EU, Britain and the US for his part in instigating the 2012 riots that saw more than 1,000 Muslims killed, so it should concern everyone that this Conservative Government are a close ally of the far-right Hindutva regime in India. Modi spoke alongside David Cameron when he visited the UK, our Home Secretary is an active supporter of the BJP and there are billionaire donors who bankroll both parties.
In the 2019 election, Hindu nationalists mobilised for the Tories, and the Tories are responsive to their bigoted agenda, like their opposition to banning caste discrimination. Modi and Amit Shah decried the truth as propaganda and divisive, but it is not protesting farmers, Rihanna or Greta Thunberg who are dividing India; it is the BJP. This Conversative Government need to decide which side they are on: the side of farmers or the side of fascists.
May I apologise to you, Mr Stringer, and to the Minister? I am also listed in the Budget debate and I might have to leave before the Minister responds. It is beyond my control; I am sorry.
I speak as the secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, but, like others, also as a friend of India, not just because of my constituents who originate from India but because of my own family ties. As a firm and true friend, we have to be honest with our friends in India.
As has been said, India is the largest democracy on the planet, and democracy needs the firm foundation of a free press and media. Tragically, democracy is being undermined because there are those that seek to prevent the operation of a free press and media. It is unfortunate that it is those in government who are part of the process of undermining that free press. Regrettably, as reported by the International Federation of Journalists and others, eight journalists have been killed over the last 12 months. The Government use false arrests and legal actions to deter and intimidate. Journalists are arrested on trumped up charges of sedition, incitement or illegal demonstration. We have even seen the tax authorities in India used against media operations. As has been mentioned, there has also been suppression of the internet and access to social media.
The farmers’ protests have excited the latest round of harassment of journalists, and now it seems that simply reporting the actions of the state and the police in violently attacking protesters is somehow an illegal act. Journalists are continuously being targeted by arrests and intimidation, and falsely accused of criminal charges. Tragically, the political leadership feels it can act with impunity.
We understand that Prime Minister is seeking to visit India in due course. May I suggest that before that the Government call out the actions of the Modi Administration and what they are doing to undermine press freedom? When the Prime Minister visits India, he should meet the National Union of Journalists (India), as well as the International Federation of Journalists, to find out the exact truth of what is happening there. Through the Prime Minister, the Government should demand that the intimidation ends and that the freedom of press and media is firmly guaranteed for the future. That is what a true friend advises.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) has pointed out on many occasions, it is not anti-Indian to voice concerns about the policies of the Government of the day in India, whoever that may be. I want to make it clear that I stand in complete solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers, as do tens of thousands of my constituents in Ilford South who understand that the freedom to protest, wherever it takes place, and the ability to provide food and welfare for one’s family is clearly an international human right. The issue has so galvanised the Indian diaspora community, especially those from a Punjabi or Sikh background and others who have land links or familial links to farming in India, that tens of thousands have engaged in global protests, including hundreds and hundreds in streets, towns and cities across the UK.
Many of my constituents in Ilford South have been horrified to see how Sikh farmers, many of whom are their family members, have been treated by the Indian Government. They have had water cannons hitting them, and tear gas and brute force used against them repeatedly while peacefully protesting against the so-called farmers Bill. Everyone has a fundamental human right to protest peacefully, and the actions of the Indian Government cannot go unchecked. In Ilford, we have a hugely diverse community, and they are fully in support of the Indian farmers, with support extending way beyond our large and vocal Sikh community. There are posters up in mosques and churches across Ilford about how outraged people are about what is going on in India.
I speak regularly to the members of the Singh Sabha London East Gurdwara in my constituency, and, thankfully, they have been leading the campaign and globally co-ordinating the effort to shine a light on what is going on. Like many hon. Members, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough, I have signed a letter to the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, urging them to engage properly over this issue. It is important that the torch of truth is shone on what is happening.
India is one of the greatest democracies in the world, but using water cannons and police to crush dissent strikes me as highly undemocratic. There are reports of elderly protesters being beaten and police even vandalising tractors owned by poor farmers who are protesting. India’s leaders are not behaving in the traditions that have made India such a great democracy, and that is of great concern to thousands of people in my community in Ilford and to millions globally. Given the urgency of this matter, I call on the Minister to ask our Prime Minister to speak to Mr Modi and seek assurances that there can be a better way forward.
The situation is bringing such damage to the reputation of India globally. It is simply not acceptable that our Prime Minister is not prepared to raise this with Prime Minister Modi. Now is not the time for the British Government to look the other way. Trade deals and crucial business with India or any other nation should not come before standing up for human rights globally. The world is watching. “Bole so nihal, sat sri akal”, as my constituents would say at our local kabaddi club.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. A large number of my constituents have parents and grandparents from India—indeed, the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) was one of them. He will confirm, as he did in his speech, that very large numbers of them, and virtually every such family in my constituency, either have relatives working on farms or own land. This is really a huge concern and worry to many of those families. It affects not just Sikhs, but every geography and every creed in India.
I say to the Minister that I fully appreciate that we have limited leverage. The idea that the Prime Minister could tell the President of India what to do is clearly preposterous. However, I plead with the Minister and the Prime Minister to express their concern in the most powerful way possible. Looking at the TV images of some of the brutality, it really is quite extraordinary and utterly disproportionate. The other point I would urge the Minister to make is that India is a great democracy and should have the self-confidence to treat a free press properly.
It is indeed a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer, and to speak in the debate. I thank the Petitions Committee and Gurcharn Singh, who organised the petition, which was signed by more than 3,400 people in Feltham and Heston. It is of great concern to many of my constituents and those of other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury), who was unable to join the debate today. We have friends and family who are deeply affected by the situation, who understandably feel anxious that things could escalate further. Indeed, our local gurdwara in Hounslow has raised the issue with us. My family, two generations ago, worked in agriculture in Punjab. We are all friends of India, and that is another reason why the issue cuts very deep.
Men and women have been away from their families on a protest that has now gone on for more than 100 days, day after day, in incredibly tough conditions. Indeed, on the front of Time magazine this week, the week of International Women’s Day, are three generations of women, forming part of the protest. According to Oxfam India, 85% of rural women work in agriculture.
We know that the issue must be resolved through discussion and democratic means, in India alone, but in doing that, along with democracy there is a right to press freedom and safety for protesters. No one supports violence, and that has rightly been condemned. The laws in question have been suspended for 18 months by the Supreme Court, and a solution must be found. While the largest protests have been in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, there have been smaller ones across the country involving people of different faiths. It is not a religious dispute. The Indian Government have said that they will preserve the minimum support price, but there is not yet a legislative base for that. The laws have led to fear about income and livelihoods. Experience in other countries has suggested that, rather than improving farmers’ incomes, corporatisation has depressed them, and it needs to be debated.
Whatever assessment is made of the laws, today we are discussing concerns about press freedom and the safety of protesters. Those issues led to the Leader of the House saying:
“As India is our friend, it is only right that we make representations when we think that things are happening that are not in the interests of…the country of which we are a friend.”—[Official Report, 11 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 495.]
The world saw the arrest of 25-year-old Nodeep Kaur, and then of climate activist Disha Ravi. The sessions judge said, in granting bail, that
“citizens are conscience keepers of government”
and that they cannot be jailed
“simply because they choose to disagree with the State policies”.
Medical support staff have been beaten at rallies. Concerns have been raised about journalists. The Sikh Human Rights Group, an NGO with special consultative status at the UN, has received highly credible evidence, in the form of 20-plus first instance reports from the senior advocate overseeing cases, about allegations of unsustainable charges being made by the police. Those who have made any comment against the abuses have been subject to a tirade of abuse from far-right forces. Indeed, also, an approach against gurdwaras in three cities a few weeks ago—
Order. We now move on to Front-Bench speeches. There is time for no more than 10 minutes from each Front-Bench spokesperson, leaving a couple of minutes at the end for the proposer to wind up. We go to Scotland and the Scottish National party spokesperson, Brendan O’Hara.
It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair for this afternoon’s debate, Mr Stringer. I am sure that I speak for everyone in thanking the House staff who have worked so hard to get Westminster Hall debates back up and running this afternoon. I thank all colleagues who have contributed to the debate, and I pay tribute to the tens of thousands of people from across the UK who have signed the e-petition, asking that we in this House take the time to consider the plight of Indian farmer protesters and the difficult situation of many journalists currently working in India.
I acknowledge in particular the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), and thank him for the thoughtful way he opened the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. As he said in his opening remarks, the issues are complex. It is important that we reiterate, and make it clear, that in today’s debate in the UK Parliament we have no locus on the merits or otherwise of the agriculture reform Acts passed by the Indian Parliament last year. The future of Indian agriculture is a matter entirely for the people of India and their Government.
Likewise, it is right that the Indian Government appropriately enforce law and order, and should protests cross the line into illegality, it is not our place to say that they cannot police that appropriately. But what is undeniable is that in a democracy the Indian Government have an obligation to uphold and defend the rights and freedoms guaranteed to her citizens by the Indian constitution. That includes the right to protest and the right to a free press: one that is not subject to harassment, intimidation, violence or state censorship. Therefore, while the internal political matter of agricultural reform is not a matter for this House to discuss, I do believe that on matters concerning international human rights, people outside India can, and indeed should, make their voices heard.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said, since the start of the protests there have been numerous and widespread reports of violence being meted out against protesters by both the police and Government-supporting mobs. We have all read the reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and, indeed, other human rights organisations about the beatings, harassment, intimidation and unjustified detention of farmer protesters that have sadly escalated in recent weeks. Since the tractor rally and the violent clashes on 26 January, protest leaders have claimed that more than 100 people have gone missing as the Indian Government resorted to using laws of sedition to clamp down on protest. That move prompted the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to call on the Government to
“stop threatening, demonising, and arresting peaceful protesters and stop treating them as ‘anti-nationals’ or ‘terrorists”.
Amnesty International called for the
“immediate and unconditional release of activists and others who have been arrested for simply exercising their right to peaceful protest and for the government to stop the harassment and demonisation of protesters.”
In many ways, I am glad that the UK Government have called out the Indian Government. They have made their position clear: they will continue to champion human rights, and they regard the rights to peaceful protest, freedom of speech and a free press to be a vital part of any democracy.
As we heard from so many right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the crackdown against farmer protesters did not happen in isolation. It was coupled to a raft of draconian measures affecting the ability of the press to report freely what was happening. The hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) was right when he described the clashes on 26 January and how the Indian Government ordered mobile internet service to be suspended in the Delhi area where the farmer protests were ongoing, claiming that it was to maintain public safety. The move was quickly condemned by campaigners and trade unions, who pointed out that under international human rights law, Indian officials should not use broad, indiscriminate shutdowns to curtail the free flow of information or to harm people’s ability to assemble freely or express their political views. A few days after the suspension of those internet services, the Government actually ordered Twitter to suspend the accounts of hundreds of users, claiming that they were inciting violence. A report in The Guardian afterwards said that those accounts belonged to
“news websites, activists and actors”.
As we have heard, at about the same time, eight journalists covering the protests were arrested on what Human Rights Watch has described as utterly baseless criminal charges.
With eight journalists facing criminal charges including sedition, promoting communal disharmony and making statements prejudicial to national integration, it is right that we as an international community speak out in condemnation. As the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) pointed out, the arrest of the journalists came just before other detentions including that of the 22-year-old climate activist Disha Ravi, who was accused by the police of being a key conspirator, a formulator and a disseminator of a protest toolkit for farmers. Indeed, they also claimed that she shared that knowledge with Greta Thunberg.
I was struck when the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) suggested that what was happening was nothing unusual. I beg to differ. These draconian clampdowns on press freedom and individual freedom of expression have not just been condemned by international organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights watch; a whole raft of journalist groups in India have been unequivocal in their condemnation. The National Union of Journalists in India, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Club of India, the Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Kashmiri Journalists Association, the Delhi Union of Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Without Boarders and the Indian Journalists Union have all released statements on the crackdown on press freedom and in support of the journalists covering it. As we heard, the International Press Institute has taken up the matter directly with the Prime Minister and has asked him to intervene.
As was said in the opening minutes of this debate, how India wants to organise its agricultural sector is entirely and exclusively a matter for the Indian Government and their people, but human rights abuses and the silencing of the press are a matter for us all. Rajat Khosla, senior director of research, advocacy and policy at Amnesty International, said:
“We have seen an alarming escalation in the Indian authorities’ targeting of anyone who dares to criticise or protest the government’s repressive laws and policies…The crushing of dissent leaves little space for people to peacefully exercise their human rights including the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly in the country.”
There has been an alarming escalation in the Indian authorities’ targeting of anyone who dares to criticise or protest against them. We add our voice to those in the international community and domestic organisations calling for the Indian Government immediately to stop their crackdown on the protesters, the farmers’ leaders and journalists. We want to see the immediate and unconditional release of all those who have been arrested and detained solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. The shutting down of the internet, the censoring of social media and the use of draconian laws against protesters and journalists who have been peacefully voicing opposition to the new laws and questioning the Government’s methods must immediately cease.
Freedom of speech, the right to protest and a free press are the hallmarks of a democratic society. A democracy cannot function if those fundamentals are under attack, suppressed or eroded. Right now, it appears that all is not well in the world’s largest democracy. It is up to the Indian Government to show their own people and the international community that they want to protect that democracy and create a country that works for all its citizens. I urge them to take heed of what has been said here this afternoon, and indeed across the world, look at their own actions and act for the benefit of all their citizens.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I thank the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for opening this debate. I pay tribute to the many tens of thousands who secured the debate through the petition process—what a great example of democracy in action.
We have heard many memorable and passionate contributions. I look forward to the Minister setting out what actions the Government will be taking. I particularly thank the other contributors to the debate, not least my 11 hon. Friends who made some truly compelling arguments. The fact that the overwhelming majority of contributions to the debate have come from the Labour Benches shows how hugely important this issue is to our party.
The farmers’ protests taking place in Delhi relate to three new agricultural laws that affect farmers. Taken together, they loosen the rules relating to the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce, allow private buyers to stockpile essential commodities for future sale, and set out rules for contract farming. The legislation is deeply controversial, and Opposition figures and the protesting farmers have complained that there was insufficient consultation. The ongoing protests on the outskirts of Delhi illustrate the strength of feeling and the level of anger that so many members of the farming community feel. Prime Minister Modi will by now be acutely aware of the backlash against his policies, but India is a sovereign, democratic nation, and its agricultural laws are a domestic matter.
In a democracy, there will always be different views on the right course of action to take. We acknowledge and fully respect that those views are held passionately by many British Indians and those who retain close ties to India, but as it is a domestic issue it would not be appropriate for the UK Labour party to comment on the specifics of the legislation itself, so I will not do so today. However, since the first worrying evidence of escalating violence emerged, the Opposition have been urging the Indian authorities to protect and defend the universal human rights of all those protesting in India. I assure hon. Members present that we shall continue to do so without fear or favour.
The Labour party’s foreign policy puts the rule of law, democracy and universal human rights and freedoms at the very heart of our global agenda, and we call for those principles to be upheld consistently in every country across the world. Let me stress in absolute terms that the Labour Front Bench stands firmly behind the rights of Indian farmers to exercise their right to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest.
That is why on 1 February I issued a statement in which I drew attention to the escalating violence and the clashes between the farmers and police, and the threat to essential democratic rights. I called on both sides to show restraint, but made it clear that the onus is on the Indian authorities to protect the farmers’ right to peaceful protest, to respect their right of freedom of assembly and expression, and to respond to any incidents of civil disobedience in a proportionate and appropriate manner. For instance, we are deeply concerned about reports of live ammunition being used by the police. We of course call on demonstrators to keep their protests peaceful and within the constraints of the law. The Red Fort incident on 26 January is an example of where both sides must understand the limits of what is acceptable, and that certain actions are likely to provoke outrage and escalation.
In recent weeks, campaigners have been particularly concerned about the Indian authorities’ disregard for freedom of expression, and specifically for media freedoms. Human Rights Watch has stated that during the protests the authorities have introduced politically motivated charges against activists, and charged journalists and Opposition politicians with sedition simply for reporting on claims made by the family of a dead protester.
Following the Red Fort clashes between protesters and police, the Indian Government shut off the internet as a way of curbing the protest, suspending 4G mobile internet services in three areas around Delhi, where tens of thousands of protesting farmers are camping. Services were restored, but it is clear that bans of that sort violate basic freedoms. The Labour party therefore calls on the Indian authorities to recognise the vital role that independent journalism plays within a democracy, and to protect its journalists from reprisals.
In terms of independence, and the link between the Government and certain celebrities, the farcical manner in which some Indian actors and cricketers copy-pasted the official Government line simultaneously on to their social media accounts not only exposed to a global audience the 2019 Cobrapost cash for tweets sting operation, but severely dented their credibility of conscience. Does my hon. Friend agree that if our Government had issued such an edict, they would have been laughed out of our country, and subsequently celebrities with a conscience would have tweeted out the exact opposite in defiance?
I agree that the media and social media should never be manipulated for such political purposes, speaking through others in such a way that it is not clear where the originator of the message is coming from. It is important that the media is used as a neutral source of information rather than one that is loaded with a particular agenda.
Another universal human right is that of religious freedom. Prime Minister Modi will be aware of the deep concern about how protests by farmers on economic issues, which is what this is about, have resulted in a significant backlash against Sikhs. He will have seen Government supporters holding rallies outside Sikh places of worship and the fear that that will have engendered. Mr Modi must recognise his responsibility in line with international law to keep—
My hon. Friend will be aware of the car rallies that targeted Southall, Leicester and Birmingham two weeks ago. They caused great concern, and I pay tribute to the Home Office and the police. Does he agree that this is why it is so important that inter-faith communities such as Southall Faiths Forum and Hounslow Friends of Faith come together, as they did at that time, to say that they stand firm against right-wing groups that want to harm our community? It is vital that across the world we defend our democracies and freedoms and protect our communities from attempts at division.
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. Let us be clear that this issue must be seen be as an economic and political one. It must never be allowed to tip into prejudice around people’s faith or ethnicity. It is vital that we keep focused on the issue that the protesters are protesting about. Mr Modi needs to recognise that the world is watching and that what happens in India resonates here in our country. He must recognise his responsibility, in line with international law, to keep the Sikh community safe and confident in India’s law enforcement. Such recognition is important for the individuals and families affected, and also for those of us who are keen to see India flourish as the great, successful, multicultural nation that we know it to be.
The UK Government naturally and rightly value their trade relationship with India, which stands at more than £18 billion annually, but the UK-India relationship must be broader and deeper than just trade. It should be based on working in partnership on issues of security and climate change. Critically, it must be about the joint promotion of democracy, human rights and upholding international law.
On 1 February, I asked the Foreign Secretary to raise the issue of human rights with the Indian Government, and today I urge the UK Government to engage more actively and more urgently with New Delhi. What steps has the Minister taken to engage proactively with his counterparts in New Delhi to ensure that the right to peaceful protest is upheld? Secondly, what representations has he made to his Indian counterpart about the need to resolve the situation peacefully by working with all parts of Indian society, including trade unions, and the need to advance the negotiations that have stalled? Thirdly, will he publish a broader strategy to defend internet and media freedom, not only in India, but in other places such as Belarus, Hong Kong and Uganda? Fourthly, what steps have the UK Government taken to support the rights of Amnesty International, which was recently forced to discontinue its operations in India?
Finally, the invitation to join the G7 in Cornwall represents a significant development in India’s role as a leading nation in global politics. Will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister will take this opportunity to stress to Mr Modi the need for India to adhere to the high standards that are expected within the international community, particularly with regard to universal human rights and the rule of law?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, under these new arrangements. So far, so good—the technology appears to have worked very well. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing this debate in an excellent way. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on the Petitions Committee. I am also grateful for the contributions from all right hon. and hon. Members, many of whom have given passionate speeches this afternoon—under-standably so, given the interest in their constituencies and their own personal connections with India.
I also want to thank Councillor Gurcharn Singh, whom the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) rightly commended for initiating the petition and ultimately this debate. There are clearly very strong feelings, both inside and outside the House, about the farmers’ protest and about press freedoms in India, as indicated by the fact that more than 100,000 people have signed the petition. May I thank every single one of them for taking such a keen interest and for bringing the subject to the House? I will try to respond to many of the points raised by right hon. and hon. Members, but I am conscious that I need to give the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk a few minutes at the end of the debate—he says hurriedly, looking at the clock to see how long we have. Perhaps you might give me a pointer, Mr Stringer.
I will begin by saying that the officials in our network of high commissions in India have monitored and reported back on the protests in response to the agricultural reform laws ever since they first flared up in September. In January, the Indian Supreme Court suspended the reforms and established an expert committee to scrutinise the laws. We understand that the committee has completed its consultations with concerned parties and will give a final report to the Supreme Court at the end of the month. We are also aware that the Indian Government have met farmers’ unions on several occasions and that those talks remain inconclusive, but are ongoing.
Understandably, those events have caused alarm and uncertainty for many British people who have family ties to farming communities in India. The Government’s written response to the petition aimed to address those concerns while making clear that agricultural policy is a domestic matter for the Indian Government, as the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), confirmed. The UK Government firmly believe, however, that freedom of speech, internet freedom, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and many others, and the right to peaceful protest, are vital to any democracy.
We also accept that if a protest crosses the line into illegality, security forces in a democracy have the right to enforce law and order in a proportionate way. We encourage all states to ensure that domestic laws and the way in which they are enforced comply with international human rights standards. In that spirit, we look to the Indian Government to uphold the freedoms and rights guaranteed to the Indian people by the constitution and by the international instruments to which India is party.
Concerns about press freedom in India were raised by right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow), the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma), and the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara). Again, let me be clear that this Government believe that an independent media is essential to any robust democracy. That is why we are committed to championing media freedom around the world, as is evident from our ambitious media freedom campaign that we launched in November 2018.
India has a vibrant media scene that promotes lively debate across the political spectrum, and the UK Government have worked to support that democratic tradition. In 2019, for example, we awarded scholarships on our flagship Chevening programme to seven talented and aspiring young Indian journalists. Last year, we supported the Thomson Reuters Foundation to run workshops for Indian journalists to help them report on human rights issues.
My colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon is the Minister responsible for both human rights and our relations with India. He regularly discusses media freedom, including the Media Freedom Coalition, of which the UK is a founding member, with India’s Minister of State for External Affairs. Right hon. and hon. Members will recognise that this is a time of great ambition for the UK’s relationship with India. Both Governments are working to advance shared priorities across trade and investment, health, sustainability, climate change, and defence and security. We are also working with India as a force for good on the UN Security Council, and it is one of the Prime Minister’s guest countries at the G7 summit later this year in June. This co-operation will help us to fix global problems and it will strengthen prosperity and wellbeing in India and the UK.
While this is an exciting time for the UK-India partnership, it does not hinder our raising difficult issues. A number of right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and the hon. Members for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) spoke about the Prime Minister’s upcoming visit to India. This will be an opportunity to discuss a range of bilateral issues with India. Where we have serious and specific concerns, we will raise them directly with the Indian Government, as would be expected of a friend and neighbour. Candid discussions are an important part of our mature and wide-ranging relationship with the Indian Government.
The hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon and for Aberavon wanted to know what further discussions the United Kingdom has had since the Foreign Secretary discussed the farmers’ protest with his counterpart during his visit to India in December. This month alone, senior Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials have met with the Indian high commissioner and discussed this very thing—the UK parliamentary interest in the freedom of civil society groups, for example, to operate in India—and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon speaks regularly to his counterparts in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, as well as to the high commissioner here in the UK. Human rights issues are an essential part of these conversations.
The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon raised the issue of article 9. We have not made an assessment of India’s agricultural bills in relation to article 9 I will certainly consult officials on this, but I would stress again that these reforms are a domestic matter for India. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali) raised the issue of sanctions. This sanctions regime, which we launched in July, enables the UK to impose sanctions on those who commit serious human rights violations or abuses. It is not appropriate to speculate on who may be designated under the regime in future, as to do so could very well reduce their impact.
The Opposition spokesman also raised the issue of Amnesty International in India. We raised this case with the high commissioner on 1 December and with officials via Lord Ahmad, and our officials have raised our concerns most recently in November, as well as in December. We have requested that Amnesty’s accounts be unfrozen while the investigation is ongoing, and in our contacts with the Government of India we have noted the important role in a democracy of organisations such as Amnesty.
I can; thank you, Mr Stringer. Let me end by reassuring colleagues that the UK Government will continue to monitor developments relating to the protests incredibly closely. Where we have concerns, we will continue to raise them with the Indian Government, while respecting the fact that these agricultural reforms are an internal matter.
I thank all who took part in this debate. It is fantastic that these debates are taking place, so I also thank the House authorities for facilitating them, although we could clearly have done with a much longer debate. The spirit of today’s contributions was very much one of concern born out of friendship. The images and testimonies that we heard today are thoroughly depressing. We rightly regard India as a valuable friend and ally, which makes it imperative that we do not turn a blind eye to the events taking place. To do so would be a failure of both diplomacy and friendship.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the sitting. Please will Members participating physically leave the room promptly by the exit door on the left while observing social distancing. Thank you.
LGBT Conversion Therapy
[James Gray in the Chair]
[Relevant Documents: Correspondence with the Minister for Women and Equalities on LGBT conversion therapy, reported to the House on 27 July and 22 September 2020.]
We come now to the second of these hybrid debates in Westminster Hall, which are actually being held in the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House. From my point of view, they are an extremely good innovation.
Before we start our debate on LGBT conversion therapy, perhaps I can remind Members of one or two matters. Social distancing must be maintained in this room, as it has been already. Those who are here are expected to be here for the beginning and the end of the debate, including those who are with us virtually; please stay until the end. And those who are here physically should use a wet wipe to clear up their space after they have spoken.
With that, I call Elliot Colburn, who is appearing virtually, to propose the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 300976 relating to LGBT conversion therapy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. The petition is entitled, “Make LGBT conversion therapy illegal in the UK”. The prayer of the petition states that
“I would like the Government to:
• make running conversion therapy in the UK a criminal offence
• forcing people to attend said conversion therapies a criminal offence
• sending people abroad in order to try to convert them a criminal offence
• protect individuals from conversion therapy
Despite all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies in the UK, including the NHS, condemning LGBT conversion therapy, it is still legal and LGBT individuals in the UK are still exposed to this psychological and emotional abuse to this day. The very thought of this sickens me, and I would like to see it stopped one day.”
When the petition closed, it had 256,392 signatures, including 487 from my own constituency of Carshalton and Wallington.
I can think of few moments so humbling as opening this important debate today. II is a testament to the importance of this issue that the debate was heavily over-subscribed, and I know that many colleagues who wanted to get in could not do so. Briefly, I want to thank and acknowledge from my side of the House the campaigning done by my hon. Friends the Members for Darlington (Peter Gibson), for Bracknell (James Sunderland), for Aylesbury (Rob Butler), for Redcar (Jacob Young), for Watford (Dean Russell), for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher), for High Peak (Robert Largan), for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham), and others.
In preparation for today’s debate and throughout my campaigning on this issue since being elected as an MP, it has been my absolute honour to speak to campaign and charitable organisations, to experts from the fields of health, religion, education, law and beyond, and to legislators from across the world, including Malta, Canada, Australia, Spain and New Zealand, where these practices have either already been banned or are in the process of being banned. Most importantly, I am grateful to the survivors for speaking out and sharing their stories. Their bravery in shining a light on these abhorrent practices will help to save countless lives in the future if we can secure this ban.
First, we must ask ourselves what conversion therapy is and why it needs to be banned. According to a May 2020 report by the UN Office for Human Rights, and indeed according to a definition from the Government Equalities Office, so-called conversion therapy is an umbrella term used to describe interventions of a wide-ranging nature, all of which have in common the belief that a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity can and should be changed. These so-called therapies can manifest in many forms, from pseudo-psychological treatments and aversion therapies to practices that are religiously based, such as purification or fasting. At the most extreme, there has been evidence that this practice can also involve physical and sexual violence, including so-called corrective rape.
I will share just some of the stories of the survivors who have bravely shared their stories with me and the world, in an attempt to help campaign for the end of this practice in the UK. The first is Joe’s story. As a boy, Joe grappled with his hidden gay identity before leaving for his year in a yeshiva in Israel—a highly significant moment for many young Jews. He sought out conversion therapy and began weekly phone calls with a so-called therapist. After a year this clearly had not worked and instead he sought in-person therapies, where a group leader would force them to process moments of homosexual attraction, only for them to be scrutinised, judged and shamed, leaving Joe with an immense sense of depression. Thankfully, after hearing other gay Orthodox Jews speak out about their own experience, he stopped his conversion therapy, but the experience has left a scar to this day.
Next is Josh’s story. In 2017, Josh went undercover for the Liverpool Echo to a Liverpool church that offered a cure for homosexuality through a three-day starvation programme. The assistant pastor told Josh to starve himself and not drink any water before taking part in weekly prayer sessions, referring to being gay as “the deceit of Satan”. In the prayer groups the assistant pastor would shout phrases such as “kill it with fire” and “die in the fire,” while members of the congregation were seen crying, shaking, sweating and appearing to speak in tongues. It is shocking that the assistant pastor was an NHS doctor at that time, and I can find no evidence that he is no longer an NHS doctor.
Finally, I want to talk about Carolyn. At 17, Carolyn confided in her local vicar her feelings of self-hatred and depression, and her suicidal thoughts, because she did not feel like a boy. Her vicar took her to a doctor and a psychiatric hospital, where Carolyn was strapped to a wooden chair in a dark room. As images of women’s clothing were projected on to the wall in front of her, doctors would deliver painful electric shocks, hoping to associate the feelings of being a woman with memories of intense pain. As with Joe and Josh, that experience remains with Carolyn to this day.
Joe, Josh and Carolyn are just three survivors I have had the privilege of speaking to, and they experienced a wide range of so-called conversion therapies. I commend them for their bravery in speaking out, sharing their stories and campaigning to end these practices in the UK. Sadly, they are just three of many. In 2018, the Government’s first ever national survey of over 108,000 LGBT people in Britain found that 7% of respondents had either undergone or been offered conversion therapy. Some 13% of trans respondents had undergone or been offered conversion therapy. Of those who had been offered it, 51% said that it was conducted by faith groups and a further 19% said that it was done by healthcare providers or medical professionals. As the Ban Conversion Therapy coalition has outlined, though, given the clandestine and deceptive way these so-called conversion therapies are offered—giving them different names or dressing them up as alternative treatments—the real number is likely to be a lot higher. Tragically, we will never hear the testimonies of many who, grappling with their own identity while being told how wrong they were through these therapies, were left feeling that they had no other option than to take their own life.
It is important to point out that we are not talking about harmful practices that occurred some time ago; this is happening today, here in the UK, right now. A UN report into conversion therapy last year summed it up perfectly when it concluded that any and all forms of conversion therapy are
“inherently degrading and discriminatory. They are rooted in the belief that LGBT persons are somehow inferior, and that they must at any cost modify their orientation or identity to remedy that supposed inferiority.”
So strong was the report that it called for nothing less than
“a global ban on conversion therapy.”
Here in the UK, the practice has received almost universal condemnation. In 2017, a memorandum of understanding on conversion therapy in the UK was signed by NHS England and 12 other psychotherapy and health bodies, charities and organisations. I thank Igi Moon for their time speaking to me about the impact this has had. In another powerful intervention, in 2017 the Church of England also passed a motion condemning these practices and calling on the Government to ban them—a call that has now been echoed by over 370 global religious leaders and organisations. I pay particular tribute to Jayne Ozanne and her foundation for her leadership, her courage and her tireless efforts in campaigning on this issue.
Finally, in the national LGBT action plan of 2018, the UK Government committed to bring forward proposals to ban conversion therapy—a call that has been echoed many times in the House since that commitment was made. We have the agreement, the commitment and the coalition of voices from all parts of society urging a ban to be implemented. What we need now is the action. With every day that passes, another person is at risk of being subjected to this degrading treatment. We risk losing even more lives of people who feel there is no other way out.
I have two final points to make today. On what the ban must include, the Government do not need to start from scratch. Highly praised examples already exist in places such as Madrid, Malta and Victoria in Australia. Learning from those examples, and in line with the UN report’s recommendations, a ban must cover both the public and the private spheres and all forms of intervention, no matter what they might be, whether that be healthcare, religious, cultural or traditional, and so on. It must cover children and adults, those who have been coerced and indeed those who consented to such conversion practices. There must be an up-to-date definition of advertising to ensure that it encompasses public, private, community spaces and online advertising. The ban must include the sending, or the threatening to send someone, overseas to undergo so-called conversion therapies. As well as investigative frameworks, a punishment framework for non-compliance must be established, and mechanisms created for support and redress to victims. Finally, it must truly protect all LGBT+ people.
The ban cannot be just on gay conversion therapy. It must cover degrading and inhumane interventions aimed at changing anyone’s sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. We must remember that this is about the practice itself and about the fact that absolutely no one should be subject to such abhorrent interventions. To avoid confusion and to protect those delivering real and actual support to LGBT+ people, laws passed elsewhere in the world have introduced specific mention of what should not be considered as part of a ban, including safe and supportive therapies.
My final point is about the need for a timeline. We have the commitment, the evidence and the international working examples, so what we need now is a Bill. I appreciate that the Government have been gathering evidence, looking to understand this better and exploring options, but I hope that the Minister will deliver some good news and tell us when a Bill will be published, so that we may debate it on the Floor of the House.
To conclude, the evidence is clear. So-called conversion therapy does not work. There is no scientific basis for it whatever. Parts of every section of UK society have come together, united in their condemnation and calling for it to be banned. Since 2021 looks like a year of restarting, reopening and regrowing, let us add to that positivity by getting a conversion therapy ban on to the statute book this year. As a gay man and on behalf of LGBT+ people in the UK and around the world, I will end by saying, we are here—our existence is real, our lives are valid, and we cannot and do not need to be cured.
It may help the House to know that some 50 people originally put in to speak in this debate, of whom Mr Speaker has selected 20. If we are to achieve that number, as a courtesy to each other, I suggest a maximum speaking time of three minutes—two minutes would be even better.
“Converting gays”—just wonder for a moment about how primitive that concept is. It is a cruel hangover from a darker time—a time when to be gay, lesbian or trans was to be flawed or inadequate.
I do not know why I am gay. I do not know why I have green eyes or curly hair, but I do know that no one made me gay; I was born gay. When I was younger, to borrow from Alfred Kinsey, I would have taken a magic pill to make myself straight, but I now know that that was not because I hated being gay, but because I did not want to be the victim of prejudice. Who does? We know that there is no magic pill, nor do we need one. We need love and acceptance.
LGBT conversion is the very antithesis of that. It promises a cure where none is available and none is needed. We look back in horror at the tortures endured by our LGBT brothers and sisters, even in recent history—electro-shock therapy, lobotomy and the chemical castration endured by Alan Turing at the hands of a vicious and ungrateful political class and legal system.
Changing people’s sexual orientation is, as we know, scientifically impossible, but that does not stop bigots from trying. “Pray away the gay,” cry some religious groups, who somehow see no contradiction with the command that thou shalt love thy neighbour. People who hold out the promise of conversion are cruelly targeting the most vulnerable. It is abuse.
Some hon. Members know I was a journalist before entering politics, and I once made a film for the BBC in which I interviewed a conversion therapist. It was one of the most chilling encounters of my career. The man in question, who was utterly untrained, advertised himself as offering the last chance at a normal life. He preyed on the young and the vulnerable: teenage boys and men in their early 20s who were terrified of who they were. He talked of weak fathers and overbearing mothers. I sat in on one session, and it was gibberish.
I asked the man what his motivation was, and he told me that his gay son committed suicide using the car exhaust pipe in their garage. The boy had written two suicide letters: one for his father, and one for his lover. The man showed me the letter that had been written to him. The handwriting tailed off as the boy lost consciousness. He was pleading with his father to understand his anguish. He could not reconcile his certainty that he had been born gay with the church’s teachings, and he implored his dad to befriend his boyfriend and learn acceptance. “So what did you do?” I said to the father. He said he redoubled his efforts to convert and confuse the young. We must protect society from men like him. I welcome the petition, and the Government must now act.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on leading the debate so well, and I congratulate his Committee on securing it. I have two key points for the Government. The first is that we must legislate. Deliver the promise to protect in law. Use the work done in the Government Equalities Office before 2019. Use the examples elsewhere, particularly in Spain and the Australian state of Victoria, which have already legislated. Our common law system enables the drafting challenge of defining conversion therapy to be met. There is no need to overcomplicate this issue. The police, prosecutors and jurors will know conversion therapy when they see it. Most critically, the victims will know it too, and they will have been equipped with a defence mechanism.
Such a law is an important step as a declaratory statement, as it is as a legal tool. If someone is LGBT, the law says that the state supports them. It supports how they want to live their life. When victims find themselves under pressure that is improperly applied to convert them to something they are not, they will know that it is against the law and that they can call it out. They can say to the person or people who are the source of this—[Interruption.]
The law gives the victims the opportunity to go to the police and, therefore, to have a weapon in their hand against the source of a conversion therapy. The state is on the side of victims’ freedom—the freedom that that individual is trying to take away from them.
The second point I want to make is that such protection must include trans people. They are by far and away the most vulnerable group among the LGBT community. Identity around gender dysphoria is surely a much more challenging thing to meet than a minority sexuality, but all must be protected. The law must include trans people, and not only because they are the group who need it the most. In 2018, it appeared that trans people were on a trajectory to achieve their rights and protections to live their lives as they wished, supported by the Government’s comprehensive LGBT action plan, but all that now seems to have changed. Trans people are a community under siege. Organisations whose principle raison d’être is to attack and challenge the very legitimacy of trans people have come into being, and they appear to trans people to be firmly in the ascendant.
The lived experience of trans people reflects the awful paucity of services for them in the United Kingdom, as graphically illustrated by VICE News in January and November. They also see 250 articles a year attacking them in our newspaper of record, The Times. They see that groups such as the Conservative Women’s Pledge and LGB Alliance, whose purpose seems to be to protect cisgender women from trans women, have the ear of Ministers. They see reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 abandoned, and the principle of gender-neutral legislation was reversed only last week.
Gender is much more complicated than sexuality, and the drafting of the ban on conversion therapy will need to protect those giving informed, regulated and properly peer-reviewed advice to assist those on the path to reconciling their gender dysphoria. If the legislation does not include the protection of trans people, however, it will send to them the unmistakeable message that their Government do not want to protect them, do not value them and, at some level, do not really accept that trans is really a thing. That awful message would inadvertently make the Government themselves party to the practice of conversion therapy.
I was proud to be a Minister in the last Labour Government, which did so much to ensure that LGBT+ people were finally afforded equal rights in law. There is a difference, however, between ending bigotry and prejudice in law, and making the right to equal treatment and respect a reality for every LGBT+ person in our country. The petition aims to move us further towards that point.
That would seem like an obvious, non-contentious step when considering the mistaken beliefs that underly the existence of the degrading and dehumanising practice of conversion therapy: that sexual orientation can be changed; that LGBT+ people are a threat to society, evil or disordered; that LGBT+ people are ill, sick or can be cured; and that LGBT+ people can be persuaded or forced to become heterosexual by undergoing treatment or counselling. If that approach sounds almost medieval, that is because it is, yet every day, people in our country have their lives and mental wellbeing put at serious risk by being subjected to attempts, by people who have power over them, to change their sexual orientation.
The extent of the prevalence of conversion therapy in the UK is shocking, as we heard in the excellent opening contribution by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn). There is very strong evidence of the harm that conversion therapy inflicts: more than half of those who have gone through it report mental health issues, including breakdown, eating disorders, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. Evidence also shows that it is being inflicted mainly, but not only, on vulnerable LGBT+ teenagers. That is horrific, but it is not surprising. Being told by faith leaders or your family that you are sinful, evil, and disordered for being yourself creates self-loathing and trauma that only the strongest can survive. Being told to pray harder to change and to question your innermost feelings and thoughts, and being taught to hate yourself—none of that should be legal.
Conversion therapy certainly causes untold damage and trauma for those who encounter it. Many survivors need specialist help because of the damage that that unethical and degrading process has caused. The Government must end the delay and bring the ban forward now. I welcome the petition, and I look forward to what I hope will be the Minister’s positive response and a timetable for legislation.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his thoughtful opening of the debate and his moving acknowledgment of survivors. I think it very important that we see the debate as an opportunity for a call for action from the Government.
The debate is obviously of moment, particularly for the quarter of a million people who signed the petition. It is an acknowledgment, as the national LGBT survey demonstrated, that this is going on in our country: 2% in the LGBT+ community had received such therapy and 5% had been offered it. We must treat the term “therapy” with the contempt it deserves, because we must be clear that this is not therapy; it is a pseudo-psychiatric 21st-century snake oil. There is nothing more pernicious than to deem someone sick and then to try to coerce them into treatment for something that is right at the core of who they are and who they love. We cannot tolerate it continuing.
There was a similar petition in the Scottish Parliament entitled “End Conversion Therapy”, which was dealt with last year by its Public Petitions Committee. Stonewall Scotland, Equality Network, Scottish Trans Alliance and LGBT Youth Scotland all supported the principles of that petition. In response, the Scottish Government—positively, from my perspective, because this is not always how they respond—said they wanted to work with the UK Government to bring about a ban. I want to encourage that working together on this issue so that we can deliver a ban that works across the United Kingdom and impacts on those in my own constituency in Scotland who might be put in this position. I also want to see the Scottish Government and the UK Government working on the GRA issue. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) mentioned in relation to trans issues, we need that to be dealt with—on a UK-wide basis, in my view.
While I am sure that the Government’s intentions are positive and the Prime Minister’s statement will be honoured, the Government have given the impression of being tardy, and now is the time to end that impression. As the chief executive of Stonewall, Nancy Kelley, said:
“The UK government must stop dragging its feet and make good on its promise to bring in a full legal ban, and put a stop to conversion therapy in the UK for good.”
I hope that the Minister, in her summing up, will give us clarity that that will happen and set out the timescale.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my colleague the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his wonderful introduction to the debate. I have been contacted by many of my constituents about the petition, each of them as shocked as I am that the Government have still not acted to outlaw the practice of so-called conversion therapy inflicted on LGBT people.
The petitioners’ aims are not difficult to enact, nor are they asking too much. Their requests are clear and simple: they simply want LGBT people to live in dignity without having their sexuality or gender identity questioned. Every human being should have the right to express their own identity without the judgment of others. It is clear from the evidence surrounding this practice, compiled by the charity Stonewall, that that is not the case for everyone who identifies as LGBT in the UK. According to Stonewall’s figures, one in 20 LGBT people living in the UK has at some time been subject to or recommended for therapies that question their very identity. That number rises to almost one in 10 among young LGBT adults aged between 18 and 24 and almost one in five for trans people.
In a modern, supposedly decent society, that should not even be an option, and it certainly should not be legal. Many of the people subjected to such practices have them forced upon them by their families. In some cases, LGBT people are sent abroad for treatment by relatives who believe it will somehow cure them, when there is nothing—absolutely nothing—to be cured. The only result is severe distress and untold psychological trauma.
Every recognised medical and professional body in the UK has described the practice as dangerous. Many other public bodies have signed a common pledge against the practice. However, substantial evidence still shows that too many people continue to believe, despite the evidence, that sexuality and gender identity can be cured in some way. Enacting legislation to end these so-called therapies and ensure that no practitioner in the UK can consider them an option to which they can refer a patient would contribute greatly to preventing people from persisting in that belief.
I appreciate that the Government have previously made supportive statements on the issue. The Prime Minister himself described it as “abhorrent”, and as something that
“has no place in a civilised society”.
He made that statement last summer, but nine months on there has been no movement. There is clearly cross-party consensus in favour of legislating to outlaw this practice. Every day that the Government delay legislation, another LGBT person could be subject to this continued abuse. We have the power to act and the support to pass the legislation. All we need is the legislation to put our words into action. We can prevent further damage to the lives of LGBT people in this country, but only if we act quickly.
When I was elected, I said that I would be a voice for those whom others seek to silence, and I stand here today to do exactly that. The need for this ban is quite simple: victims of conversion therapy currently have no legal recourse to justice and, without a legislative ban, lives are being destroyed.
Last year, I submitted to the Minister a proposed legislative framework, backed by more than 15 major LGBTQ advocacy groups and 10 representatives of all major faith groups in the UK. It sets out a framework that would enable prosecutions to stop this heinous practice and enable statutory bodies to give victims support and protection. It would enable us to identify serial perpetrators, stop the advertising of this fraudulent quackery, protect potential victims and prevent them from being taken abroad.
It is only through legislation that we will achieve the protection that those communities need and deserve. I thank the Prime Minister, the Women and Equalities Minister and the Health Secretary for their support for a ban. I want to focus today on the arguments made by those opposing the legislation. First, on the idea that people can consent to this so-called therapy, Parliament and our courts have long recognised that one cannot consent to bodily harm and torture, and conversion therapy is that. Victims of conversion therapy bear mental and physical scars for life, and for that reason consent cannot be freely given.
Secondly, it is said that a ban somehow infringes on the practice of religion. It does not. Religious liberty is fundamental, but so too is people’s liberty to live their lives free from identity-based violence and abuse. We must protect the conversations between religious leaders and members of their flock. This is not a fight between faith and unbelief; rather, it is about protecting the freedoms of the LGBTQ community and stopping those who abuse their authority. We must protect people from those who carry out practices that would never be accepted by any qualified mental health professional. For that reason, representatives of every major faith group, including the Church of England, have backed a ban. The legislation I propose does not prevent individuals from seeking guidance from faith leaders.
Thirdly, it is argued that a ban will not end the practice, and that the worst forms of conversion therapy are already illegal. A practice such as this can never truly be eradicated, but legislation gives victims legal recourse. We need specific legislation, like we have for female genital mutilation, rather than relying on existing general bodily harm laws.
Fourthly, it is argued that conversion therapy is not happening in our country, or that it is happening to very few people and is not that severe. How many lives have to be lost for it to be deemed to be worthy of tackling? In our country, people are being forced to eat purifying substances. They are beaten and whipped, forced to undergo exorcisms and corrective rape, forced into marriages and made to undergo genital mutilation. People in my party have been threatened with, and forced to go through, conversion therapy. Two thousand people in the country have had the courage to tell the Government that they have been subjected to it, but how many more suffer in silence?
Finally, some opponents claim that transgender individuals should be removed from the legislation. It is quite straightforward to introduce a safeguard for professionally accredited individuals who can assist persons considering undergoing a gender transition. Conversion therapy falls disproportionately on this community, and any ban that excludes trans people would make legislation self-defeating.
On my election, I came to Parliament with one legislative change I wanted to deliver, which was a ban on conversion therapy. I particularly pay tribute to the campaigning that took place before I came to this place by my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), and all those LGBT groups and survivors who have worked so hard. To my fellow MPs I say that, as legislators, we have a duty to protect the vulnerable and deliver a ban. To the survivors of conversion therapy and all those hurting—to all those made to feel ashamed—I say today that love is not conditional. You do not need to change. Love is not a pathology, and it damn well does not need treating.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
Conversion therapy, in many ways, is a manipulation. It is a manipulation of emotions; it is a manipulation of the coming-out process; and it is a manipulation of people finding themselves and understanding themselves over many years. I came out when I was 22, nine years after I probably realised that I was slightly different from the rest of the lads at school. People go through emotional turmoil when they are going through that process. Even when I started school—I am only 31—it still was not legal to adopt, and marriage was a distant, far-away thought. Until recently, the NHS still did not want my blood.
We go through this process, and it is incredibly difficult for people to process it, because we put ourselves under so much strain and pressure. For me and so many other people, the emotions that we feel—the emotions that are being manipulated by this conversion therapy—are emotions of shame, of not belonging, and of being selfish. These are the things we put ourselves through. We talk ourselves down and we end up convincing ourselves that we are doing wrong—that we are deliberately trying to behave differently from other people. The reason it took me so long to come out of the closet is that I did not want to tell my mum that she would not be a granny, because I am an only child. We put ourselves through this for years and years. I was very lucky, because I plodded on and managed to get through that very difficult period in my life, but so many other people can have those emotions manipulated. By allowing these conversion therapies to continue, we are opening the door for this sort of practice to continue.
I talk about gay and lesbian people, because I am gay, but I also fully support many of the contributions today that have said that this conversion therapy also needs to end for trans people; I am 100% behind that battle too. I want to send a message to the Government that it has been three years since this promise to ban conversion therapy. We have got to get on with it and make sure that we deliver on it, because every day is a delay; another day in which somebody else has their emotions manipulated; another day in which someone else’s life could be ruined forever by going through these highly traumatic experiences.
That could be any one of a number of us. Looking through these stories, we can see similarities in what we read. We can point them out and think, “This was me at one point during my life” or, “This was a friend of mine at some point during their life.” I look at the apology that was given last year by the University of Birmingham, where electric shock treatment was given to gay people in the 1970s, and think, “That could have been me.”
We owe it to all those people to make sure that we ban conversion therapy as soon as possible, because if we allow that door to be open for much longer, I fear the consequences for so many young people—and not necessarily just young people; it could be middle-aged people; people who are later on in their life who find themselves hiding things and make daily lies a normal thing, as I did, to try to cover their tracks. This sort of stuff puts people through enormous emotional turmoil, which is why it is so important that we ban conversion therapy as soon as possible.
It is easily done, Mr Gray; please do not worry.
I am honoured to be able to take part in this incredibly important and powerful debate, which clearly has cross-party support. I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for the way he introduced the debate and, in particular, for centring the survivors of conversion therapy in his remarks. It is incredibly important in a debate like this to remember those whose voices may not yet be heard in this place, but for whom we need to speak.
I also pay tribute to the journalist Patrick Strudwick and to Vicky Beeching, who have done amazing work uncovering and talking about their own personal experiences, bringing to the fore an understanding of how toxic this treatment is. To everyone who has spoken so far and given their personal experience: that is what Parliament at its best does.
Like previous speakers, I want to take on some of the arguments about why conversion therapy should be made illegal. There has been a lot of focus on whether it works, as if there are any conditions in which such a therapy would be acceptable if it could be shown to be ethical. Many of the major bodies for psychotherapy in the UK have outlawed the practice and said that there is no semblance of an evidence base behind it. However, I believe that we have to make it illegal, to send the clear message that it is not about whether homosexuality is a pathology, because it is not. It is not about whether being trans is a pathology, because it is not. It is a part of who someone is. We in this place need to send the clear message that we will not see the behaviour in question indulged. We will not see the question as one of medical ethics, but as about a progressive, inclusive society that bans practices that demean, belittle and discriminate against people.
Where young people who are gay, lesbian, transgender or bi grow up in communities where they are not supported, they are eight times more likely to have attempted suicide, six times more likely to report depression and three times more likely to use illegal drugs. There are consequences of living in a society where what I am talking about is even a debate, in many different communities, but we know it is a live debate. Right now there are websites where people can go to book conversion therapy, and it is talked about as a matter of free speech. Let us put the argument to bed today. It is not a matter of free speech to cause someone harm in the way that conversion therapy does.
It is also claimed that the matter is about a conflict with spirituality. There is no conflict with spirituality. I will not give a platform to the organisations that can be found, but I want to give a platform to the House of Rainbow and the Reverend Jide Macaulay, who is a proud member of the local community in Walthamstow and our local faith communities too. He teaches every single day that God loves you, not that God cares about who you love. Those are the organisations that we should be supporting. But we also need to send a clear message that it is not just about the medical side; it is simply about living in a better society. We want to outlaw the practice, to protect people from the harm and damage that it does.
We know that it is possible to do that. Frankly, when countries such as China, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Malta and even Samoa have a ban, we could have one in the UK, and quickly. As the debate shows, there is cross-party consensus for it, so I urge the Minister to use the energy from the debate and the support across civil society for action and not to delay further. Let us make Britain proud to be a world leader, for once, on some of those issues, rather than following the pack. Let us tell everyone in the community that we love them not for who they love but for who they are.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I can think of no better way to open my speech than where the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) finished, with a passage from Vicky Beeching, who gave me a lot of support before I came out publicly. In her book “Undivided: Coming out, becoming whole, and living free from shame”, she writes: “There was only one thing that had caused vast emotional shame in my life for years. I had known I was gay since I was 12 or 13. Keeping that hidden for two decades had been wrecking my heart and mind. Now, as I neared the age of 30, it seemed to be wrecking my body too. All these years I’d prayed and fasted, submitted myself to an exorcism, confessed to a Catholic priest, believed that conversion therapy could change a person’s orientation, read the Bible until my eyes were sore and never acted on my attractions even once. I’d done anything and everything to try and become straight or to shut down any desires for a life partner. My immune system, my adrenals and my sympathetic nervous system were all stretched to breaking point from years of living in fight or flight mode.”
If Members need any other first-hand accounts of how devastating conversion therapy is, a good friend of mine who wanted to remain anonymous shared this with me: “I had not known until today what they had endured. It’s only now, at almost 35 years old, that I even have some small level of strength to begin to deal with it. It cost me most of my teenage years and 20s. I still struggle with acceptance of my sexuality to this day, which has affected my ability to have any open and meaningful relationships. I went through years of really dark mental health battles because of this. The first time I tried to kill myself by suicide was at 12 years old, because I wasn’t who I was meant to be, and this was unfortunately the beginning of what was to become a very dark decade of self-hatred brought on because of these practices. It’s torture, and it has had lifelong debilitating effects that affect every part of my life. It has to stop.”
We should not have to choose between our religion and our sexuality, or between following the faith of our choice or the person we love. I might not be formally part of any faith, but I recognise what a huge part faith can play in many people’s lives and in our society. The national LGBT survey of 2018 showed that 51% of respondents who had undergone conversion therapy said that faith groups had conducted it, and 19% said it had been conducted by healthcare providers or medical professionals. As parliamentarians and legislators, we simply cannot allow such a practice to continue.
I was well into my 30s when I came out. Why I did not come out sooner will always be a mystery to me, but a big part of it was because I was from a single-parent family. I grew up in a loving family that I knew would accept me for whoever I was, but I did not grow up in a society that would accept me for whoever I was. I grew up in a society that said heteronormativity and having a parent of each gender was the ideal, and I could not face up to being a lesbian. Now, as the daughter of a single mother and as a proud out lesbian, I realise that they are my strengths, my superpowers, but that is not the case for so many in the LGBT community.
I know how hard it was to come out to a loving family and friendship group. I cannot imagine how difficult it is for people who are oppressed and subjected to conversion therapy, so we must draw a line in the sand. We must ask ourselves as parliamentarians, “What are we here for?” We are not here just to make grand speeches and gestures. We are here to bring about change, to change the law, and to outlaw that abhorrent practice.
It is a particular honour to follow that very moving speech by the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell). Today I received an email from my constituent, Madeline Dhesi, to thank me for my card wishing her a happy 18th birthday, which she is celebrating today. She asked me to speak today in support of the campaign to ban conversion therapy, particularly as articulated by Stonewall Cymru to both her and me. I am honoured to speak in this debate on Madeline’s behalf and on behalf of many of my other constituents in Clwyd South who have written to me with views similar to those of Madeline.
The speakers who have come before me have articulated with passion, emotion and clarity the barbarity of conversion therapy, which is an alarmingly widespread practice that seeks to erase, repress, cure or change an individual’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity. I hope very much that we can end soon the possibility that conversion therapy can currently legally take place in medical, psychiatric, psychological, religious and cultural communities in the UK.
I am glad that the Prime Minister has taken a clear position and has stated that conversion therapy has no place in a civilised society. Put simply, being gay, lesbian or bisexual is not an illness to be treated or cured. I am deeply concerned by the long-term impacts of this practice on victims, both mentally and physically. There are clear links between conversion therapy and an increased risk of suicide. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) said in his powerful opening speech, the issue has cross-party support, and the call to ban conversion therapy is backed by those in the health, counselling and psychotherapy industry.
Numerous countries have already banned conversion therapy and have taken action to tackle that abhorrent practice. The Government have been clear that such a practice has no place in our society, and that they will take action to prevent these activities from continuing. I know that Ministers are considering all legislative and non-legislative options in order to end conversion therapy practice for good, but I hope that the debate will accelerate the Government’s move to legislate for that ban, and therefore enable us to continue to progress towards a world where everyone can live without shame or fear of their sexuality and whom they love.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for introducing the debate, and all Members who have spoken so far for their powerful contributions.
The first thing to say is that conversion therapy is happening. It is happening in this country, and that should be a shame to us. We must act on it. It has no scientific basis. It is torture. It is a denial of basic human rights. It leads to violence. It can, in some cases, as we have heard, lead horrifically to corrective rape. It is abuse and, in tragic circumstances, it can lead to death. I thank the many constituents in Cardiff South and Penarth for writing to me and reaching out, and the friends who over many years have spoken to me of their own harrowing direct experiences.
I pay tribute to the group of organisations, the memorandum of understanding group and all the other individuals and organisations, some of whom I have met with this week, for all the work that they have been doing. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), who has been raising this issue for many years. In fact, he introduced Bills in this place to ban conversion therapy in 2013 and 2018. It is a shame that they were not taken up by the Government before now. This is not a party political issue; it is a human rights issues, as we have seen from the breadth and strength of feeling across the House.
I will speak predominantly about the religious context, because that is where I come from. I am gay. I am a Christian. God created me, God loves me, and I love God, but I have had some pretty unpleasant experiences in repressive environments when I was not able to be clear about my sexuality. I was very lucky that I saw a therapist once, and when I said, “I don’t want to have a sham heterosexual marriage,” she just said, “You don’t have to, Stephen. You don’t have to.” What if there were more therapists like that, instead of some of the horrors that we have been hearing about today?
Anybody who has watched such films as “Boy Erased”, or heard the powerful testimony from such groups as the Ozanne Foundation will know the reality that many people can go through in religious experiences. The 2018 faith and sexuality survey showed that, of the 468 people who had been through conversion therapy, 91 admitted attempting suicide and 193 had suicidal thoughts. Over 50% were advised to go through it by a religious leader.
The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) raised a point about consent. I do not think that someone can give consent to this, and I was alarmed to see, I am sorry to say, in the Secretary of State’s letter attached to the debate, what I fear could be a get-out clause. It talked about “seeking spiritual support”, but we need to be aware of what that can be used to cover up. I point to article 10 of the Evangelical Alliance’s biblical and pastoral responses to homosexuality, which says:
“We encourage evangelical congregations to welcome…lesbians and gay men. However, they should do so in the expectation that they, like all of us who are living outside God’s purposes, will…see the need to be transformed”.
It also states that there is a need for
“pastoral care during this process and after a person renounces same-sex sexual relations.”
That could be used as a cover for some very dangerous practices.
I stand by all those who have stood by the trans and non-binary community. They must absolutely be included in this, and we must also protect the legitimate services that are there to support them through transition and the challenges that they face. We have to ban this, and I hope that the Minister will be able to explain what the definition is of “seeking spiritual support”, how trans and non-binary people will be protected, and when we will get on with this.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I declare a brief interest, in that my husband works for a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender charity that works in schools. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) touched on the fact that society has come a long way. Some of that has been law led and some of it has been developments over time. Ultimately, the discussions around conversion therapy are really about acknowledging who we are—not who we want to be, not who society wants us to be, not who our parents or friends want us to be, but who we are as individuals.
To be different is still difficult. So many things have changed and society has improved, but we still live with tremendous pressures upon individuals, who still feel the need to deny who they are. One of the difficulties that I have had in listening to an amazing array of speeches from people from all parties—this is a cross-party issue and debate—is that we want to solve everything, and to say to every person in this country, “You can be who you want to be, and you can be proud and happy.”
We cannot do that as lawmakers because only so many things are under our control. However, one thing that we can do, and there is clear consensus to do it within this room and among all the people on all these wonderful screens in front of us, is to take a step in the right direction and end this “abhorrent” practice—not my words but the words of the Prime Minister—for which there is no medical justification. The hon. Member for Wallasey said it is medieval, and that term is absolutely right.
I stand here as someone who is openly gay and who came out at a comprehensive school in Doncaster. I am not religious, but I did not have the best experience with coming out, which I am sure many people can relate to. I want to say to all the boys and girls who know that they are a little bit different, whether they are gay or whether they think that something is just not quite right, that we have your backs. We will continue to push for this ban and we will continue to try to make your lives a little bit better.
In my last 30 seconds, I will just say one thing to the online LBGT community who have looked today and said, “Why should there be a debate? We should just crack on and end conversion therapy.” I understand their argument, but I question that arrogance, because there is always a need to win the argument, and there is always a need to keep advancing and making sure that the things that we do here and elsewhere are led by the best arguments, and that we continue to fight that fight.
In my constituency of Arfon, 243 people signed this important petition. I add my support and that of Plaid Cymru to the calls for a legislative ban on conversion therapy across the UK and on minors being taken out of the UK for conversion therapy abroad. This must include a ban on the advertising and promotion of such practices, and proper support for victims.
In 2018, the Conservative Government acknowledged the issue and committed to ending conversion therapy in their LGBT action plan. Nearly 1,000 days later, this practice is still legal. Cranogwen, who was an important 19th-century figure in the history of LGBTQ+ people in Wales and a literary figure of national importance, said:
“It is a pretence in everybody…to try to be what they are not; and it is a loss for anybody not to be what they are.”
Despite progress since then, her words still ring true. In fact, Stonewall Cymru found that a third of LGBTQ+ employees in Wales hid or disguised their identity at work.
Banning conversion therapy is an important step towards creating a truly equal society, as is the Plaid Cymru policy of ensuring that trans people have legal recognition of their gender through a streamlined and de-medicalised process based on self-declaration.
Lastly, the action plan says that ending conversion therapy will require a UK-wide approach. What discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh Government about this issue and have the Welsh Government requested legislative competence to introduce a comprehensive ban in Wales?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on leading this very important debate and on making such a compelling and moving opening speech.
Conversion therapy is a damaging, degrading and discriminatory practice that seeks to correct something that does not need fixing—somebody’s sexual orientation, or their gender identity and/or expression. It causes severe physical and psychological suffering; it violates the human rights of the LGBT community; and it is considered by some to be a form of torture, and for good reason.
If we want to eradicate this insidious form of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic abuse, we need a legislative ban to make conversion therapy illegal and we need one as soon as possible. It is vital that this Government lead the way for our LGBT+ community and make history with an effective legislative ban as quickly as possible.
The national LGBT survey found that 7% of people had been offered or undergone conversion therapy. I should echo comments made in support of trans people, because trans respondents to that survey suggested that they are almost twice as likely to have undergone or been offered such therapies.
It is important to echo the comment that this abhorrent practice is taking place across Britain right now. As it is, the law does not protect my constituents from conversion therapy, despite how harmful and damaging it is.
In the short time I have, I will finish by saying that the Ban Conversion Therapy coalition’s ask for support for victims and survivors—whether through charities, faith groups or mental health practitioners—to help them overcome the trauma that they have endured and rebuild their lives is very important. I ask that it be included in any future services that are offered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington made some very good points about what an effective ban should include, and I echo his statements on that. A ban should prevent people from being threatened or sent abroad, it should protect people regardless of age, and it should support victims and survivors regardless of whether they were coerced into or consented to the practice. It must ban the advertising and promotion of said practices, both offline and online. These are the right things to do, and the sooner the Government take action, the sooner the UK can join the growing number of global leaders in LGBT rights who have taken such steps.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I can be brief.
I called for this debate back in September and am glad to see it tonight. I am also glad to see so many passionate and thoughtful contributions from all points of the compass across the House. This is an issue that we need to act on, and I praise the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his excellent speech. I have to say that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) made a very strong contribution—it is good the see her back, and she has demonstrated why it is good to see her back. She has done a power of work on this issue, and it is great that there is such a cross-party consensus on it.
I will confess that I am a gay man, but I am happy to say that I have no direct experience of this issue. Frankly, the scale of the problem was news to me. According to the UK Government’s 2018 LGBT survey, 5% of respondents had been offered conversion therapy and 2% had undergone it in one shape or another. In the trans community, the figures were even higher: 9% had been offered it and 4% had undergone it. There is much to agree with in the discussion tonight, but it boils down to one phrase: let’s get on with it. I say that as a challenge to the Minister while offering my support for her efforts.
There is a cross-party need for legislation. There is work to be done, of course, but work is well advanced on the proposals for a legislative framework. The NGOs are behind it, the equalities community is behind it and the faith groups are behind it. There is cross-party support. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Senedd and many people in Northern Ireland are supportive of this legislation, and we need to get it done. The only people who are speaking in defence of conversion therapy are quacks, bigots and bullies. They need to be called out for what they are, and their dreadful activities and consequences criminalised. If the UK Government are serious about bringing forward legislation, they will have my support, and I look forward to hearing some good news from the Minister tonight.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and it is a pleasure to have heard such impassioned and important speeches. The stories that people have told have highlighted the damage that has been done and the lasting consequences for lives. That is well understood, so it must be time for action.
When I looked into the background to the debate, I was struck by the number of signatures on the petition that closed in September last year, compared with two previous petitions on the same subject in 2017 and 2018. Across the UK, the number of signatures increased over sevenfold from 2017 to last year’s quarter of a million signatures. In my constituency of East Renfrewshire, the 2017 petition attracted 33 signatures, but almost 400 of my constituents signed last year’s petition, and I have heard from a great many of them by email. That upswing in signatures tells us two things. The first is that there is a growing and welcome recognition of the need to tackle the wholly unacceptable practice of conversion therapy, which we know is not only hugely discriminatory, but so very damaging to those directly affected. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) spoke very powerfully about that.
The second reason for the upswing in support for the petition could very well be a growing frustration that action is taking so long, which results in people who are potentially directly affected feeling that we are not listening to them. A similar frustration was expressed by the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) when, over five years ago, he sponsored a debate on conversion therapies. In that debate, he wondered why we are struggling to get conversion therapy banned, when there is such significant agreement on the issue. Let us be clear: LGBT people do not need their identities debated nor do they need to be converted. That is fundamental. Nobody’s identity should be subject to debate or to change by other people.
When we get to the end of this debate and hear the Minister’s response, I hope that is what she will say. I hope she will accept these concerns about delay, and respond to them by telling us what is the hold-up. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) has just said, let’s get on with it. Is there a reason for the delay? Are the Government experiencing some push-back on this? Who would be doing that? What has prevented action from being taken before now? It is difficult to comprehend. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) described in vivid detail why it matters and the horrific impact it has on many lives.
I accept that the UK Government have been clear that they are committed to banning conversion therapy. I welcome that, but it is nearly three years since they laid out the plan to ban it across the UK. Since then, it looks like inactivity and prevarication to me. It looks like they are kicking the can down the road. Meanwhile, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) so eloquently described, more and more human tragedies occur.
In July 2017, the UK Government launched what would become, with over 108,000 respondents, the largest national survey of LGBT people undertaken anywhere in the world. As the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) has told us, almost a thousand days after publishing the results and an accompanying action plan informed by its findings, it seems that the Government are still at the research stage. What exactly are they researching?
In July last year, the Prime Minister said his Government would do a study on where conversion therapy was happening and its prevalence, and then bring forward plans to ban it, but that information is already there. It is contained within the survey that the Government already did, with over 7,000 people among the respondents who had either undergone conversion therapy or been offered it. That surely provides a clear picture of the geographic spread and the demography of conversion therapies across the UK. This determination to do more research, three years on, does not look like a process of implementing change; it looks more like an attempt to stave off change, and that is not okay.
The UK Government have also said they will take a UK-wide approach to this. The Scottish Government have expressed their support for action by the UK Government. There is already cross-border co-operation on the issue. For instance, NHS England and NHS Scotland both signed up to the 2017 memorandum of understanding, along with other stakeholders, to record their commitment to ending conversion therapy in the UK. Commitments like these, from health groups, counselling groups, psychotherapy groups and many religious groups, are welcome, but we need to do our bit now. We need action.
If we look at the July 2018 action plan, the UK Government said that they would bring froward these proposals, but their correspondence in May 2020 with the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) rights, of which I am a member, raises some serious questions about what progress we are going to see.
There are examples of attempts to implement a holistic ban on conversion therapies, starting with Brazil, which acted on the issue over 20 years ago; that is something we could ponder. Action has also been taken by Canadian cities and by Spanish cities and provinces, including Madrid and Andalusia, which adopted a broad definition of conversion therapies as
“all medical, psychiatric, psychological, religious or any other interventions that seek to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of a person”.
Given these widespread examples, and the widespread understanding of good practice, it is concerning that in her response to the chair of the APPG, the Minister for Women and Equalities, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), mentioned Germany and Albania as countries that she is reaching out to in order to gain an understanding of the way forward. What is proposed in Germany looks like it could be a prohibition on conversion therapies only on minors and on adults whose participation was secured by coercion or deception. That would absolutely not
“end the vile practice of so-called conversion therapy”
that she says is her intention in her letter. There is a real danger that going down a road like that would legitimise conversion therapy, and we are absolutely not prepared to support that. To be clear, and to echo the very sensible words of the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), this is not therapy; it is very unfortunate that that is the phrase that people use to describe the practice.
I want to hear from the Minister a response that tells me whether the Government are actually thinking about introducing a more narrowly defined Bill. I certainly hope not, but if that is the intention, when did that change of policy take place and why? The Minister for Women and Equalities’ mention of Albania raises some serious questions about the Government’s commitment. In Albania, every therapist has to be a member of the Order of Psychologists, and it is that body, not the state legislature, that has banned conversion therapies. There seems to be little that we can learn from the Albanian approach that has not already been implemented in the 2017 memorandum of understanding, so why is it raised as an example?
When I look at all those things, I am concerned that the UK Government are potentially finding diversions along the way to avoid confronting the difficulties they now face due to changes on their Back Benches. I hope I am wrong about that. The LGBT community cannot be held hostage by right-wing politics or changes in political personnel. I say that, but I am mindful of the powerful speeches that we heard today from Members from across the House, including very powerful speeches by Conservative Members. I take some heart from those consistent and clear words.
In that context, and thinking about the people who are directly affected by this practice, I urge the Minister to do the right thing. We have a responsibility to take action to right wrongs. This practice needs to be made illegal. Nobody should be subjected to that kind of assault on their identity. It needs to stop, but it will not until we move this from being a debate to being a reality. It is time to make progress, and I really hope the Minister tells us that will happen.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on securing this important debate.
So-called LGBT conversion therapies are disgusting, exploitative, damaging and a relic of bigotry. In 2021, we recognise better than ever what illness and disease look like. Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans is not a sickness; it is a fundamental part of an individual’s very identity. So-called LGBT conversion therapies need to be banned.
I thank in particular the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), my hon. Friends the Members for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) for their powerful contributions. We are lucky in this place to have such assiduous campaigners on LGBT issues on both sides of the House, and I am pleased that there appears to be cross-party consensus on this issue.
Pedlars of these supposed treatments not only perpetuate a fraud on the public but cause genuine harm, psychological distress and lasting emotional damage. The 2018 national faith and sexuality survey found that 58.8% of people who had undergone such therapies had suffered mental health issues. Significant numbers cited anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders. More than two thirds had suicidal thoughts, and more than a third had actually attempted suicide. That is why all major UK therapy professional bodies and the NHS oppose treatments that try to change a person’s sexual orientation or supress a person’s gender identity.
All our major faith groups support a ban, as was reiterated at the interfaith conference held remotely in London in December 2020. As a religious Jew and a bi woman, I have been heartened by contributions from hon. Members in the debate who hold their faith close to their heart but know that there should be no dichotomy to reconcile between religious freedom and protecting the safety, wellbeing and dignity of the LGBT community. That cannot be a justification for continued delay, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth for making that point so clearly.
A number of countries have fully banned conversion therapies, including Malta. In other federalised countries, various states and provinces have legislated for bans. I commend Instagram and Facebook for banning the promotion of conversion therapies on their sites, and hope that other social media companies will follow suit.
In 2018, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and the Conservatives announced in their LGBT action plan that they would ban conversion therapies. That was apparently still their policy at the last election. However, last year the Prime Minister said:
“What we are going to do is a study right now on, you know, where is this actually happening, how prevalent is it, and we will then bring forward plans to ban it”.
I am sure that colleagues on all sides, not to mention the LGBT+ community, will say that we have waited long enough. Last month, Labour supported the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act 2021 that rightly permitted the Attorney General to take maternity leave. That showed that the Government can take legislation through quickly when they want to—it did not require lengthy studies to consider the prevalence of Attorney Generals becoming pregnant.
There are LGBT+ people experiencing harms from these practices every day and the longer we wait for action, the longer they are denied legal redress. The most recent annual update on the implementation of the Government’s LGBT action plan was published in July 2019. Given that it is now 2021 and that February was LGBT+ History Month, when can we expect publication of the 2020 annual update? Labour has consistently urged the UK Government to live up to their promise and implement the 2018 proposals. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), the shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, has continuously pressed the UK Government to deliver on their LGBT action plan.
Putting laws on the statute book such as protection orders for people who are vulnerable to cultural or religious pressure to suppress, deny or forcibly change their sexuality or gender identity is not merely a matter of virtue signalling; it would make concrete legal defences for people who need them and would make it simpler for statutory support services to work together to help people in need. I commend Galop, the LGBT+ anti-violence charity that I met on Friday ahead of the debate to hear not only the harrowing evidence it has collected about such abhorrent practices but how protection measures, including multi-agency risk assessment conferences, would have allowed individuals to have been safeguarded. The Labour party welcomes the action that the Government have taken in the past decade to legislate against female genital mutilation and to take further steps against honour-based violence and forced marriage where these protection order frameworks are in place. This is a further area where we must now see action.
This is an opportunity to show the world the face of global Britain, setting an example and doing what is right. Our values can be clearly put into law to be seen by other countries where these awful practices are more common. The time has come for the Government to act to ban these practices. If they do, the Opposition will support them.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. May I start by thanking those who signed the petition for raising the important issue of conversion therapy, and my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for introducing the debate? I also thank all colleagues for speaking so passionately about this issue. I know how important it is to so many parliamentarians, and it is right that we should have this time to debate it. I will endeavour to answer the various questions put this evening.
I am pleased to be able to respond not just to acknowledge the importance of the topic but to say more about the Government’s approach to ending conversion therapy. We have a proud record of championing equal opportunity, and it is of great importance to me and the Government that everyone has the freedom to live their life as they see fit without fear or intimidation.
I assure hon. Members that we are committed to ending conversion therapy in the UK and we take the issue very seriously. The Prime Minister reiterated recently that we want to end conversion therapy and underlined that the practice has
“no place in a civilised society”.
It is indeed shocking to think that conversion therapy practices still take place in modern Britain, yet the 2017 national LGBT survey found that 5% of respondents—people in the UK—had been offered conversion therapy and 2% had undergone it. The national LGBT survey was launched in 2017 and received more than 108,000 responses, making it the largest survey of its kind in the UK. The aim was to gather more information about the life experiences of LGBT people in the UK and the biggest difficulties they face, including conversion therapy.
Acknowledging that conversion therapy is wrong and should end is only the first step in tackling such behaviours. The Government want to ensure that we correctly identify and capture these harmful practices. To do that, we have been working hard to establish a clear view of what constitutes conversion therapy. “Conversion therapy” is often used as an umbrella term for a number of acts. On the most egregious end of the spectrum are acts of violence. Around the world, sexual violence, including rape, is used in sinister attempts supposedly to cure someone of an innate aspect of their person. People may also be beaten, or forced to fast or to take snake-oil medicines, all because of who they are and who they love. We are fortunate that in this country we have cultivated a robust criminal law framework for dealing with those types of conversion therapy.
I would like to take this opportunity to be clear that if someone commits an existing offence in the course of conversion therapy, they will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, no matter what their reason for doing so is. At the extreme end of such practices, someone could face charges of rape or grievous bodily harm. At the other end of the spectrum are acts that are primarily delivered through the spoken word or through the guise of healthcare support, such as advertising and selling products, or charging a fee to undergo conversion therapy practices.
The Government have been clear that we do not intend to stop those who wish to seek spiritual counselling as they explore their sexual orientation, but there will be cases when a line is crossed, where someone is actively seeking to change another’s sexual orientation—an innate aspect of their personal identity—via coercion under the guise of spiritual support. The Government will exercise great care when considering what does and does not constitute conversion therapy, and how to intervene. Just because greater care is required, however, it does not mean that we should shy from protecting our most vulnerable from those practices.
It is clear that conversion therapy is associated with significant mental health problems and isolation from a support network. That, in turn, can lead to homelessness and abuse. We are also alive to the need to ensure that the action we take does not push those practices underground, which could ultimately cause more harm to those who are victim to them. Our response to the issue will ensure that we end those practices, not hide them.
It may help to explain the work that the Government are doing to tackle conversion therapy. Officials are undertaking a review of the current legislative framework to see how conversion therapy can be stopped by making use of existing laws and offences. As I have mentioned previously, many acts of conversion therapy are already illegal, including sexual violence and kidnapping, as well as inciting violence. People who engage in those criminal activities can and will be prosecuted for doing so. Where dangerous practices are not already unlawful, we are examining the best ways to stop them without sending them underground.
The Government believe that a comprehensive approach is needed to end the suffering that those practices inflict. We need to explore all measures to combat those abhorrent practices, ensuring that survivors have access to the help and care that they need. In addition to the work on legislative and non-legislative measures to end conversion therapy, we have commissioned research into the scope of practices and the experiences of those subjected to conversion therapy, so that we can fully consider the needs of all those whom it affects. That is important in our approach to establishing the most effective way to stop it happening. Once the findings have been reviewed, we will continue to engage with key stakeholders to ensure that we progress an effective approach as quickly as we can.
I know that there may be questions around what a legal ban could include, and we have heard a number of views on that. We are actively considering that issue, on which we have been consulting widely to seek a broad range of views. We will continue that engagement to ensure that any action that we take is proportionate and effective. As I said earlier, I want to make it absolutely clear that we do not want to prevent LGBT people from seeking support on their own terms. People will always have the right to seek support from anyone and have conversations to rationalise and understand their own identity. We will not restrict the right to seek counsel when needed, but that does not mean that we will tolerate the use of conversion therapy described in the debate. We are working to understand the impacts on wider rights and freedoms of any Government action to tackle conversion therapy. The legal landscape is complex, and we want to ensure that we get our proposals absolutely right.
We will continue to engage with religious organisations and groups to understand how best support to LGBT people of faith. It is not the place of Government to dictate what is legitimate spiritual guidance, but it is the Government’s place to protect all their citizens, and we will not tolerate the use of harmful coercive practices under the guise of spiritual support. I am also pleased that all major counselling and psychotherapy bodies in the UK have agreed to tackle conversion therapy in healthcare settings. We will engage with experts to understand the best way of ending conversion therapy in these contexts in a targeted and proportionate way.
It is also encouraging to see jurisdictions around the world starting to take notice of the issue, and join us with their own commitments to ending conversion therapy. We are in conversations with international counterparts, both those who have introduced a variety of legislative and non-legislative actions and those who plan to. Although it is important to figure out what will work in a UK context, we may also look to our friends around the world to understand the effectiveness of different approaches. Hon. Members have mentioned, for example, that Germany has implemented a ban on conversion therapy for minors only, or when an adult has been coerced, and I understand that other countries such as Malta have also taken this route. However, we understand that different countries will take different approaches that best suit their needs. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
The safety of LGBT people in the UK in every aspect of their life is of the utmost importance to me, including in our work on conversion therapy. However, this is only part of the work we are doing to promote equality for everyone. The Government understand that colleagues across the House who have taken the time to attend the debate are passionate about the work that my officials and I are doing, so I wish to update them on all the broader LGBT work we are undertaking. In April 2019, we appointed Dr Michael Brady of King’s College Hospital to be the first national adviser on LGBT healthcare. This appointment shows the Government’s commitment to improving healthcare for all. I am very proud that in December 2020, the Department of Health and Social Care announced that men who have sex with men in a long-term relationship will be able to donate blood in England, following changes to blood donation criteria that will be implemented in the summer.
I am also aware that waiting times for gender identity services are currently very long. We are taking meaningful actions to address the historical problems that have resulted in long waiting times, and I am pleased that we will establish at least three new gender identity clinics over 2021, with the first of these opened by the Chelsea and Westminster NHS Foundation Trust in July. This is the first service of its kind established in the NHS in England for around 20 years.[Official Report, 15 March 2021, Vol. 691, c. 2MC.]
There is so much more that I would say about the work that the Government are doing, but I am afraid that we are out of time. Our goal now is to end these harmful practices, and we are going to engage widely and listen carefully so that we can develop measures that end them for good. I know that all Members are keen to know the timetable. We continue to work to ensure that the actions we take are proportionate and effective, and will set out our next steps soon. We have heard a range of views and voices, and it is imperative that we continue a constructive dialogue to ensure that we get our proposals right. To answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams), officials from the Government Equalities Office have been in liaison with Welsh Government officials, and the Welsh Government have not requested devolved competence.
Put simply, being LGBT is not an illness to be treated or cured. This is an issue that has cross-party support, and the call to end conversion therapy is backed by those in the health, counselling and psychotherapy industry. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that LGBT people can be truly safe and free to live their life as they wish, and this will be the next important step in ending conversion therapy for good.
I take this opportunity to thank all colleagues who have spoken in today’s debate in support of ending conversion therapy. It is wonderful to see so many people united against this abhorrent practice, and I look forward to many more debates on the issue. I am happy to continue individual engagement, as I have already done, where there are further questions.
In my short summing up, I sadly do not have time to go through everyone’s contributions, but I do want to send my heartfelt thanks to every Member who has spoken today for their very powerful interventions. This has proven to be a truly cross-party moment, and I hope that it has proven that there is true consensus across the House that we want a ban on conversion therapy, and we want that sooner rather than later. I thank the Minister for replying, and I hope we can send her away today with the message that we want to see some proposals made very quickly indeed. I believe I speak for everyone who has spoken today when I say that we would like to see those proposals in the form of a Bill.
I thank you, Mr Gray, for being in the Chair, and for allowing the petitioners’ concerns to be raised this afternoon. I also thank the petitioners for signing the petition, and I will end by reiterating what so many people have said throughout this afternoon’s debate: being LGBT is not an illness, and we do not need to be cured.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 300976 relating to LGBT conversion therapy.