I beg to move,
That this House has considered Pride Month.
It is a pleasure to open this cross-party Backbench Business Committee debate as Pride Month 2021 comes to its conclusion. All too sadly, once more coronavirus restrictions have meant that it has been more online than on the streets, and less visible and impactful because of that. Coronavirus has hit the LGBT community especially hard, because it has caused huge disruption in those sectors that often provide employment, as well as closing completely many of the safe social spaces on which the community relies.
Pride Month is a time when the LGBT community can celebrate our diversity, commemorate those who fought to end our oppression, and support those who continue to fight against the ongoing discrimination and bigotry that are sadly still prevalent in our society. This Parliament has made great progress since I was first elected, as I think your predecessor in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, was anxious to say at the end of the last debate. We have transformed ourselves from a virtually LGBT-free legislature into one of the gayest Parliaments in the world—that is often on my mind when I sit on these green Benches waiting to be called. I therefore look forward to contributions to today’s debate from all parts of the House.
It is impossible, however, not to observe that this debate is taking place against a confusing backdrop of simultaneous progress and backlash for LGBT+ people in our own country, and across the world. On the one hand we have the historic and welcome decision by the Methodists to allow same-sex marriage, but on the other we have an increasingly hostile atmosphere for LGBT people on our streets. It demonstrates that while we celebrate the progress made, we cannot take it for granted or give up on the fight for global LGBT rights across the world.
Here in the UK, the cross-party agreement on LGBT rights, which has been such a welcome feature of our politics since 2010, appears to be under some strain. That strain may not be reflected in today’s debate, but it is demonstrated by the Government’s increasing appetite for fomenting divisive culture wars that seek to pit one group in society against another. That emboldens bullies and problematises vulnerable minorities. It generates fear and resentments, which can only do harm. That divisive tactic has especially been directed towards trans people, who are often among the least protected and the most vulnerable in our community.
Theoretical support for LGBT+ rights is of course hugely welcome, but we must judge a Government by their actions as well as their words. An LGBT person here in the UK might have been badly affected by the Government’s decision to end funding for anti-bullying work in schools last November. They might be worried that the Government are intent on rolling back some of the progress already made, by tearing up their 2018 LGBT action plan and disbanding the advisory panel because, in the words of the current Secretary of State responsible for equalities, it was created by a “previous Administration”.
If a person is trans or non-binary, they might be mortified that here in the UK their very existence appears to be up for debate in the name of someone else’s “free speech”, while crucial health support for them is increasingly unavailable. Meanwhile, out on our streets, homophobic hate crimes have soared, increasing by 19% last year, with transphobic hate crimes up 16%. Over the same period the number of prosecutions has plummeted from 20% of reports to a mere 8%. If an LGBT person looks abroad, they might see their Hungarian counterparts being subjected to a section-28 style anti-LGBT law that bans the so-called “promotion of homosexuality”—that has a familiar ring to it—or their Polish counterparts being forced to live in newly established “LGBT free zones”.
Although the Government’s LGBT envoy Lord Herbert has rightly condemned the new Hungarian law, our own Prime Minister’s eagerness to roll out the red carpet in Downing Street for its author Viktor Orbán was an unconvincing way of expressing his official disapproval. The total silence that has accompanied the homophobic baiting of Kim Leadbeater, Labour’s candidate in the Batley and Spen by-election, sends its own signal to those perpetrating the abuse.
To improve on their LGBT credentials, the Government have to make good on the promises they have already made. As a minimum, they must introduce a ban on conversion therapy, with no religious exemptions and no loopholes; progress the long-promised reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004; and oversee the proper introduction of inclusive sex and relationship education in schools, with robust, proactive guidance. The Government must take action against demonstrations outside schools that are organised to stir up hatred and intimidate children and teachers.
In March this year, we had a very disappointing response from the Minister for Equalities to the petitions debate on banning the abhorrent and abusive practice of conversion therapy. This led to an unprecedented cross-party letter to the Government in support of an outright ban, signed by the LGBT+ groups of eight political parties represented in this House. A full 12 months have passed since the Prime Minister’s pledge to ban conversion therapy. We are told that a Bill is in the works—I sincerely hope one is—but all we have seen are the assurances given to the Evangelical Alliance that “religious freedoms” will be upheld. If the forthcoming Bill creates exemptions for religion, it will not actually constitute a ban, because 50% of conversion therapy takes place in a religious setting.
The leaderships of all the major religions have stated that they are in favour of a ban on conversion therapy, as is the UN. Abuse, coercion, corrective rape and exorcism have no place in a civilised society and no place in acceptable religious practice. The UN independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity has concluded that conversion therapy is
“degrading, inhuman and cruel in its very essence”.
The US independent forensic expert group on conversion therapy has concluded:
“All practices attempting conversion are inherently humiliating, demeaning, and discriminatory”,
and that they
“generate profound feelings of shame, guilt self-disgust, and worthlessness”.
It is no wonder that those subjected to conversion therapy often suffer mental health breakdown as a direct result, so what on earth are the Government waiting for? They should now proceed with a complete ban, with no loopholes.
The Government have reneged on their own stated intention of reforming the Gender Recognition Act. Instead, they appear to be much more focused on encouraging the waging of a disgraceful hybrid war on Stonewall because it is trans-inclusive. The Government should concentrate instead on modernising the arrangements around gender recognition to make them more humane.
Trans people are finding themselves under siege, used as an excuse to bring back the same old anti-LGBT tropes, which those of us who are old enough to have experienced them recognise from the 1980s: stirring up fear about predators, safety in bathrooms and, most insultingly of all, the safety of children. This Government seem to have completely forgotten that at the heart of this long-overdue reform are people who are just trying to live their lives.
I am a proud lesbian, a proud feminist and a trans ally, and I see absolutely no contradiction between any of these values. The battle for equal treatment, dignity and human rights for all can be achieved only with empathy and solidarity between those who have been oppressed by discrimination and bigotry and their allies. Change is achieved by working together. That is why some seek to foment fear and division to prevent progress to a fairer society, free of all discrimination.
The Government continue to claim that the UK is a world leader in LGBT rights. For that to be the case, they must stop giving a green light to those stoking fears and isolating an already vulnerable community that feels under siege and increasingly abandoned. The Government must follow international best practice and allow trans and non-binary people to obtain legal gender recognition through a simple administrative process. To address another myth head on, that does not mean that Keith will be able to identify as Kathy whenever they choose and then switch back again. It means that trans people can establish their legal status in a simple process and do the things that the rest of us take for granted, such as getting married in the right gender or having their pension and insurance policies administered in the right gender. The current bureaucratic, demeaning and intrusive process, which involves them having to get doctors to agree that they are suffering from a mental illness and to certify that they have lived in their preferred gender for two years, is no longer fit for purpose. Again, I implore the Government: you promised you would do this, now just get on with it.
On 27 March 2019, this House took a historic decision when it voted by 538 to 21 to approve a set of draft regulations to introduce inclusive sex and relationship education in our schools, putting it on a statutory footing. That guarantees that children are properly equipped for adult life and ensures that they can be supported to live a happy and safe life. The Government must recognise and defeat the challenge posed to Parliament’s intention by the organised demonstrations outside schools which lie about the content of the lessons and seek to foster panic and hatred, while intimidating children and teachers. They must be robustly dealt with.
We have come a long way in our campaign to ensure that LGBT+ people are a part of our society, with equal rights under the law. We have further to go to ensure that those theoretical rights exist in reality in our country and in the world. I for one will continue to fight until LGBT equality is achieved.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle). I was proud to co-sign the application for this important debate.
To begin, I wish everyone in this House, in my constituency, in the UK and around the world a very happy Pride indeed. It has not looked the same this year as it has in previous years. We have been moved to online events and we have not been able to have our usual festivities and celebrations, but I hope that from 2022 onwards we can certainly get back to that to celebrate the contribution of LGBT+ people to this country, recognising how far we have come, and acknowledging the work that is still left to do and the progress that is left to be made.
We are now more than 50 years on from the Stonewall riots in the United States and from the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in the United Kingdom. Next year, we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first ever Pride rally in the UK, in London. LGBT history, however, stretches far back, not just over the past 50 years, but to the beginning of time itself, as I am sure the Minister knows—by that, I do not mean that the Minister was there at the time and could tell us all about it.
I believe it to be a sign of better times that I can stand here today as a proudly openly gay man in what was until last year, when New Zealand beat us to the post, the gayest Parliament in the world, happily engaged to my fiancé Jed, having grown up with an accepting family, a supportive school, supportive workplaces and in a country that recognises my rights. Indeed, just yesterday, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Wallasey, we reached yet another milestone with the Methodist Church’s welcome overwhelming support for same-sex marriage in their churches.
During Pride, it is important that we recognise the progress that has been made and celebrate those champions who fought to get us to this point, but it is especially important to recognise that there is still much to do. There are so many issues that it would be important to raise but, in my short contribution today, I cannot do them all justice. However, I want to highlight some of the most pressing.
The first is the need to remember that, while we are lucky to live in a country that does recognise the rights of LGBT+ people in law, to this day, around the world, LGBT+ people face persecution and even the death penalty simply because of their sexuality, gender identity or expression. In some countries, particularly in eastern Europe, in places such as Hungary and Poland, we do seem to be taking a step backwards. So the United Kingdom must remain strong in condemning these abhorrent human rights abuses, and I hope that we can use our position as the host of that global LGBT+ conference to push that agenda and re-establish that commitment.
We have made great strides in the UK, but far too many LGBT+ people in this country still experience hate crime and discrimination. Since being elected as an MP, I have received a death threat that focused on my sexuality. I had a shocking reminder of that just this week when my gay office manager, Tommy, was spat at and called a “faggot” in the streets. I met members of the LGBT+ community at the Pride reception that the Prime Minister held on Tuesday, where I was sad to hear the story of Josh, who was brutally attacked in Liverpool.
Since 2015, recorded hate crime based on sexual orientation has doubled and hate crime based on gender identity has tripled, but, as we know, so much goes unreported. I know that a review is taking place into hate crime, so I wonder whether the Minister can set out how the review will seek to improve those statistics. No one should feel unsafe to be simply who they are. One way that we can move towards that is by bringing about that all-important ban on LGBT+ conversion therapy in the United Kingdom.
Since being elected as an MP, it has been my privilege, and it has been humbling, to work with colleagues, campaigners and survivors over the past year and a half on trying to bring about that ban and I am delighted that plans to do so were in the Queen’s Speech. As I led the Westminster Hall debate on this issue only a few months ago, I do not want to revisit all of the points that I made there and that were very ably made by the hon. Member for Wallasey. But it does bear repeating that these abhorrent practices have not been consigned to the past; they are happening right now, today, in the United Kingdom. People are being forced to go overseas to undergo some truly abhorrent treatment. We owe it to them, after hearing the heartbreaking stories of those survivors, to secure that ban and I hope that it will be this Parliament that secures it.
I know that the Government are issuing a consultation on this prior to legislation. I would be grateful if we could get an update on the steer and scope of that consultation and on timelines, because every single day that we delay there is a chance of another person being subjected to these practices.
Another area in which we need to make much greater strides is, of course, LGBT+ healthcare. The powerful telling of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the TV series “It’s a Sin” has brought back into sharp focus how far we have come in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. June 2021 marked 40 years since the first cases of HIV were reported. A lot has changed since then in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. It is no longer a death sentence in the United Kingdom. We are now in a position to end new transmissions by 2030 and the Government have committed to that goal, but it will not be easy to achieve it. The action plan must be worthy of its name. Any update that we can have on the date of the publication of that plan will be very welcome.
Elsewhere in the UK, accessing healthcare can still be very difficult, uncomfortable, and, in some cases, even traumatising for LGBT+ people, particularly for the trans community, who face years and years of waiting lists, no support in that time and, often, when they are eventually through the door, a less than satisfactory service. I hope that we can use this moment here today to take some of the heat out of this debate and discussion, because having an increasingly polarised debate helps no one whatsoever. We need to be leading from the front. Sadly, politics, media and academia have been responsible for a lot of the polarising discussions that we have been having not just in the UK, but across the world. It is our responsibility to try to calm that back down, have a sensible discussion and do what is right by those thousands of people who are just trying to live their lives.
Pride is more than just a four-week period of parties, parades, festivals, and companies changing their logos in the western world, but not in the middle east. Pride is a shared experience, but also a deeply individual one. To me, Pride is about exactly what it says on the tin: it is about pride; about being proud. It is a seemingly simple notion to feel proud in your own skin, to be proud of who you are, but one that, sadly, way too many LGBT+ people in this country and around the world are still unable to feel in themselves. Instead, they live with confusion, anguish, or even fear. It is for this reason—because there are those who live in fear, those who suffer violence simply because of who they are, and those who in the most tragic of circumstances believe that they would be better off dead—that Pride is still so important and still needed to this day.
It means a great deal to me to speak in this debate.
If I could give one piece of advice to a young person today, it would be this. Be proud of who you are and who you choose to love. You may have had the frightening realisation that you feel different from the expectations that society has for you. You may be questioning your relationships, your gender or your sexuality. It is frightening. There is good reason to be fearful. Coming out is scary and you might suffer because of it. But what you probably have not been told is that hiding who you are into adulthood will cause you far more suffering anyway.
Just growing up LGBT, with the cumulative effect of the daily denials, the constant fear of being found out and the internalised shame, causes a deep trauma. Despite social progress, and despite many of us never having experienced direct discrimination or abuse, rates of depression, loneliness, substance abuse and suicide among gay men are many, many times higher than across society, each of these in turn causing more shame, more fear and more trauma.
That is what happened to me. It took me a long time to admit that I was struggling with my mental health and alcohol addiction. Actually, it took repeated interventions from the people who really love me. I did not know, or I denied, that I had a problem. I suppressed my emotions, as I had learned to do as a kid, and I told myself things were fine. Only looking back now have I been able to accept that in my 20s I twice nearly lost my life to alcohol; I was saved only by the actions of others. Drinking was destroying my body. It was damaging to me, to my relationships and in so many other ways.
Alcohol addiction is not just about drinking every day or drunkenness. For me, it was about losing who I was over a long period of time. It was desperate isolation. It was shutting down my personal life using a drug, alcohol, to feel better but ultimately to escape and give up on living. I now know that it has blighted most of my adult life. Fortunately, I have a mother who would protect me at all costs, a father who is the most generous, selfless man I have ever known, a brother who supported me through all this without judgment, and friends who quite literally saved my life.
I am now in the third year of recovery, and I am proud of it. Like so many in the recovery community, I am happy, I am healthy, I love my life, I have a wonderful, loving partner, and I appreciate everything that I have. But it took AA meetings, psychotherapy and counselling to get here, and, honestly, to stay here takes commitment and daily determination. I am in a privileged position. I am all too aware that not everybody makes it. Addiction is fatal if not treated. I have gone from not recognising addiction in myself for so long to seeing it everywhere, and doing its worst damage in the most deprived communities. Addiction is killing more people and ruining more lives than ever. It has killed Members of this House, yet we would still rather hide its ugly reality.
I hope that my openness today can help challenge the stigma that stops so many people asking for help, and nothing would mean more to me than turning the pain I have been through, and that I have put my family and loved ones through, into meaningful change. I know I have to be authentic if I am going to do that. Pride is about celebrating who we are without shame. In the end, it is a simple choice: choose to hide, or choose to live. My advice is to choose to live.
What a hugely impressive, moving contribution we have just heard from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden)—a really brave thing to do, but important, because a lot of people outside this place do not think that the people within it address and deal with these issues themselves. It is really important, but it doubles down on a bit of guilt that I personally have, because I feel that I have found it very easy since I came out. That is because of the work and efforts of so many other people, and other people who have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say today will have their journeys impacted and made easier by it.
I do not think there is any definitive way to come out, and we must not in any way try to prescribe what people should do. Everybody has to do what is right for them, and they have to make their own decisions, but I have no regrets. I benefited from a loving family, great friends, and the supportive working environment here. There was already a strong cross-party LGBT+ community within Parliament, and it was extremely supportive. Coming out did not seem to stand in the way of what I then regarded as a political career, either, because I was the first openly gay Conservative Cabinet member, and I was hugely honoured when my then Cabinet colleague Justine Greening subsequently said to me that I had been the inspiration for her own coming out.
Only one constituent has raised the issue negatively with me face to face on the doorstep, although I realise that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) set out, that is not the same for everyone. However, we do now face the well of poison that is social media, and I am sad to say that homophobia is a real part of that. I try not to pay too much attention to what is said there: like, I assume, so many people here today, I do not read a lot of what is said about myself, but sometimes we do have to push back. For me, that occasion was when a blogger called “Wings Over Scotland” asserted that gay people should not have children, with particular reference to my older son, who is a Member of the Scottish Parliament. Among others, Kezia Dugdale, the former Labour leader in the Scottish Parliament, spoke up for us, and she, for her support, ended up being sued by the self-same blogger who had put up the article. The matter went to court in a well-documented case in Scotland, but I am pleased to say that he lost. I regard that as a victory, at least in Scotland, for those willing to stand up against homophobia, and I remain particularly grateful to Kez for her support.
As we have heard already, my positive experience is not shared by everyone, and for many it is still hard to come to terms with their identity. Although we have a record number of LGBT+ MPs, I am sure there are others who have chosen not to come out. As I said in my initial remarks, it is always a personal decision, and there is no one approach or right answer as to how to do it. What is not acceptable is that people feel unable to come out because of fear of abuse or discrimination. I think that particularly we as parliamentarians have a duty to ensure that sexuality is never a barrier for people who wish to pursue a career in public office.
Of course, this is not just about MPs or public office; it is our job to stand up for the young people bullied at school, those discriminated against whatever their workplace, and particularly, as the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) very eloquently set out, the trans community, who continue to experience so much discrimination and inequality and have their human rights abused. I strongly believe that education is our most powerful tool to bring about real change—and I particularly welcome this Parliament’s effort in providing more LGBT resources for school students to develop their thinking about LGBTQ+ rights, equality and legislation—but there is much more that needs to be done in that regard.
I acknowledge particular initiatives such as the TIE—Time for Inclusive Education—initiative in Scotland, which has done so much to promote the need for LGBT+ education in our schools, and School Diversity Week, which was an initiative of, among others, Paul Brand, the ITV reporter. I particularly want to commend Paul because I think he is a great ambassador for the community, especially in moving into the position where he is now. He once told me that if people were LGBT in the media, it was fine if they were an arts and culture reporter, but they were not allowed to do serious news, but Paul has absolutely demonstrated that that is just not the case.
As I have said, as MPs we have a responsibility to call out discrimination and highlight the injustices that members of the community face, but—this has already been touched on—not just in the UK. I see this as an important part of my role as a member of the executive committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I hope that we will be able to push LGBT+ equality and human rights up the Commonwealth agenda, delivering better rights for LGBT+ communities around the world. It is absolutely and completely unacceptable that in some Commonwealth countries the death penalty still applies for homosexuality, and that in others LGBT+ people are routinely harassed or arrested by the authorities. As the Terrence Higgins Trust and others have pointed out in relation to combating HIV, the criminalisation of LGBT+ people in many countries is actually one reason why those from the community receive such poor treatment or no treatment for their HIV.
I particularly commend the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), who, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on global LGBT rights, many of whose members are participating today, is promoting a scheme that will link Members of this Parliament with groups in countries around the world where the LGBT community is under threat. I look forward to playing a part in that scheme.
I echo much of what the hon. Member for Wallasey and my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington said about conversion therapy. The debate that we took part in was totally unsatisfactory; I hope that it was then a catalyst for the action that we have seen from the Government—obviously, that now needs to be followed through. One development since then that I particularly welcome is the appointment of Lord Herbert as the Prime Minister’s envoy. Few people have done more in this place and elsewhere to promote LGBT+ rights around the world than Lord Herbert. I am convinced that he will be a force for good.
I want to finish on a positive note, about this Parliament. I was asked to write an article during history month about the role of parliamentarians and Parliament itself. What I found out was that since I was first elected in 2005, Parliament itself has made great strides to become more inclusive and diverse. The House of Commons and Parliamentary Digital Service have a higher representation of LGBT+ staff—at 5.6%, as of 2020—than the civil service, the UK or London. They have become a really good working environment for those of us in the LGBT+ community. The efforts of Parliament’s LGBT+ workplace equality network, ParliOUT, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, have played a huge role in achieving that. On the back of that, it has been especially encouraging to see so many LGBT+ colleagues elected at the 2019 general election. As is the theme of Pride, I was myself very, very proud to be one of them.
The UK once played a major role in exporting homophobia around the world, but over the last decade, I am glad to say, we have actually had a relatively positive story to tell. Previous speakers have talked eloquently of the progress that we have made, but this Pride month it is important for us to take a snapshot of what it is currently like to be LGBTQ in the UK.
As we have already heard, there is evidence today that we are more likely to self-harm, to feel suicidal and to have negative experiences in accessing healthcare. We are more likely to be a victim of a crime, but less likely to feel safe enough to report it to the police. There is no shortage of areas where we still have work to do. But a trans person is even more likely to experience everything I have just listed—and worse. That is because over the last five years there has been an organised and concerted international campaign against the trans community, and the UK is no exception.
Where 40 years ago the media, the religious right, and the institutional powers would spread fear and distrust about homosexuals, today we are witnessing the same tactics being recycled and deployed against the trans community. We know this because the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation published a study just this year looking at the evolution of extremism in the first 100 days of the Biden Administration, and it found that:
“Transphobia has long been one of the most major and ubiquitous narratives around which the far right mobilises… Transphobia should be recognised as a security concern.”
We also know it because the Southern Poverty Law Centre in the US noted an annual right-wing, fundamentalist event called the Values Voter Summit, where transphobia was openly discussed as a tactic to be deployed, because rallying against homosexuals was not working any more. In 2017, one of the far-right panellists said:
“Trans and gender identity are a tough sell, so focus on gender identity to divide and conquer…trans activists need the gay rights movement to help legitimize them…If you separate the T from the alphabet soup, we’ll have more success”.
Is it not interesting that this was around the same time that we saw a swathe of online Twitter accounts seeking to establish themselves in the UK and purporting to speak for LGB people against trans rights, especially when studies consecutively show that LGB people overwhelming support the trans community?
That panellist went on to identify a range of potential allies outside the fundamentalist right who could potentially be most effectively drawn in. The list includes
“women, sexual assault survivors…ethnic minorities who…value modesty, economically challenged children…and…children with anxiety disorders”.
As with all far-right recruitment tactics, a minority has been targeted, and hatred and distrust are stoked against them by preying upon people’s fears—in this instance, by projecting a manipulative and false narrative that there is conflict between trans rights and women’s rights, when the truth is that we are battling the same problems and the same patriarchal beast. Trans people are just as—if not more—likely to experience poverty, crime and sexual violence.
Looking at the UK, we can see what was advised at this right-wing event playing out. We see self-proclaimed organisations and blogs, which have already been mentioned, projecting things that are factually and scientifically incorrect. We see trauma and poverty being treated as a recruitment tool. We see attacks against women’s organisations and rape support crisis centres for daring to be trans inclusive. But worse yet, we see a media in this country that continually platform and project these hateful, disproportionate views, uncritically.
I have always been clear that in order to progress, we have to give people the space to educate themselves and ask the ignorant questions without fear of repercussion, otherwise nobody moves forward, but this has to be done respectfully and on the terms of those who are affected most. That is not what is happening with the trans community, and that alone speaks volumes.
More personally, my office and I have been left in a position for years whereby our workload has been increased not just by world events, but by people—not just my own distressed LGBT constituents, but people from all across the UK—who have contacted me because they are too frightened to contact their own MP. These are constituents of Tory MPs, Labour MPs, and, I am ashamed to say, SNP MPs. I have ran out of excuses to give them. There are numerous parliamentary inquiries and reports that make clear the expert legal and medical advice, and explain clearly the lived experience and reality for trans people. It is there for anybody who wants to educate themselves on the matter.
Be in no doubt, we are living within a moral panic right now, and it is being fanned by organised disinformation and online radicalisation. If we as legislators capitulate to it, all we do is send an international message that disinformation works.
My final remarks are to trans and queer people directly. This is an ugly and shameful time for all of us, but that shame is not yours to feel or yours to carry. In the same way that we teach young people about gay history now and they are horrified when they hear of our past treatment, so, too, will future children be when they find out how trans people were treated today. This will pass and, in the meantime, know that there are allies everywhere that are with you and are fighting for you publicly and behind the scenes, and as our community is so often having to tell people, we are going absolutely nowhere.
First, I thank the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) for securing this debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) for his powerful personal contribution to it. I think we were all very touched by his words in this House.
LGBTQ heritage is everywhere in central London in my constituency of the Cities of London and Westminster. It is embedded in the buildings, in the landscapes and all around us, as well as in the significant contribution made by the personalities connected to those landmarks. I feel truly honoured to represent an area with such a rich LGBTQ social and cultural history, from the west end, Covent Garden and Piccadilly Circus to the incredible cultural hub that is Soho. In fact, the first gay bar in Britain in the modern sense was The Cave of the Golden Calf, which opened in 1912 in Heddon Street in the heart of the west end—[Interruption.] I think a couple of my fellow Members may have been to the opening.
With Pride Month drawing to a close, I want to put on record how incredibly proud I am of our community for rallying together to celebrate. Despite the great challenges faced by LGBTQ people during covid-19, one thing that the crisis has shown is the value and power of community. I am proud that when I became leader of Westminster City Council, one of the first appointments that I made was to establish a lead member for the LGBTQ community. I am delighted that Councillor Ian Adams, who I appointed, retains that position today. Owing to his success of championing LGBTQ rights in London, Ian has won the global OUTstanding LGBTQ role model award, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in celebrating that momentous achievement.
Of course, in normal times, we are so fortunate here in London to have such a wealth of celebrations during Pride Month, not least the great London Pride march, which, last time that it was held, in 2019, attracted an estimated 1.5 million spectators. I took part in that Pride march. It was my first and by no means my last; I was part of the Westminster City Council parade group. I am not sure if there is one in Parliament, but perhaps if there is not, we should organise a cross-party parliamentary group from both this place and the other place to take part in the next Pride march.
Even without the scale of events we are used to, I remain proud of my constituency’s LGBTQ history and how people here have still made sure that we have had a really great Pride Month. It is this fortitude that represents the ultimate triumph of London. After all, although the vibrant festivities remain a key part of our celebrations, what this year has afforded us is the time to reflect, remember and regalvanise our efforts to support the LGBTQ community. On this, I wholeheartedly support the Government in their ambitions to ensure that the UK remains one of the most open and tolerant countries in the world. Like other Members, I also welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that the UK will host its first ever LGBTQ conference in June next year, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the first ever London Pride march. It is my hope that here we can bring into sharp focus a fresh discussion on legislative reform to tackle violence and discrimination, and ensure equal access to public services, including health services, for LGBTQ+ people.
I also want to take this opportunity to welcome the Government’s landmark ban on conversion therapy. Our special envoy on LGBTQ+ rights, Lord Herbert, is correct when he says:
“It is a cruel practice which has no place in a modern society”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 May 2021; Vol. 812, c. 607.]
Especially in London, this Pride Month is wholly different from previous years, but it still serves as a tribute to all those who have fought for an equal society where people can love freely and live in peace and without inequality. We stand on the shoulders of giants and we thank them for all they faced to get to where we are today. Even in this place, I was shocked to discover, it was only 19 years ago, in 2002, that Sir Alan Duncan became the first sitting Conservative MP to voluntarily announce that he is gay.
I wish everyone a happy Pride Month. May the spirit of love continue throughout the year. As a former member of my constituency, the brilliant Oscar Wilde, once said:
“Keep love in your heart. A life without it is like a sunless garden”.
I am very pleased to speak in this debate, which was opened so strongly by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle). I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) for his deeply honest and brave contribution, with its incredibly powerful message.
What drives me and so many others in politics is a determination to make sure that the future will be better than what has gone before. In so many ways, the struggle for LGBT+ rights is one that shows us that things can get better. I do not mean that they have got better for everyone, either in our country or around the world, and progress should never be taken for granted or assumed to be permanent; but as a testament to the power of politics and activism to change things for the better, the LGBT+ rights struggle is one that has given me and many others hope.
In the year I was born, there were no openly LGBT+ MPs. The following year, Chris Smith came out. And 35 years later the most recent general election returned more lesbian, gay and bisexual MPs than any other Parliament around the world. I have spoken to Chris Smith over the years, and I have always been incredibly grateful to him for his personal support and for being one of the giants on whose shoulders I and so many others stand.
So many of the basic rights that we have today—from being able to get married, to being protected from discrimination—were not in our country’s law when I first began to understand the problems caused by their absence. Yet a coalition of campaigners, activists, trade unionists and progressive politicians made it possible to change our country for the better. As a teenager, I remember the Labour Government abolishing section 28, which had caused so much harm. When I was in my 20s, we introduced the Equality Act 2010, which made discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex and gender identity illegal. In my 30s, our votes were crucial in winning marriage equality.
By the grace of fortune, my story of coming out as a teenager is one of brilliantly supportive family and friends. My story as a young gay man is one of acceptance in this great city that I was born in and love—from my first London Pride parade, volunteering as an access steward in 2005, to joining the Mayor of London as one of his deputies in leading the parade just over a decade later. And my story as someone in his late 30s is one of representing the area I grew up in, where my partner and I have now made our home.
It is not true, however, to say that I have avoided homophobia in my life—from the more blatant incidents I can remember, to those moments when I was younger when I bit my tongue or did not feel able to call out what someone else had said. Crucially, while we should be thankful to all those who have fought for the progress we have made, the fight for equality for everyone in our country and around the world must continue with urgency and conviction. Far too many young people have families who will refuse to accept who they are if they come out. Members of the trans community suffer some of the worst violence and hate crime in society, and they need our solidarity and support. Around the world, the law in 69 countries still criminalises homosexuality. Hungary shows us how the law can move backward. Here, the abhorrent practice of LGBT+ conversion therapy remains legal.
As we have heard, conversion therapy has no place in modern Britain and should already have been banned. A survey in 2018 found that well over half of the people subject to this practice had suffered mental health issues as a result, with a third having attempted suicide. The Government promised to outlaw conversion therapy three years ago. Their prevarication is unjustifiable and it raises deep suspicion among those of us who want a comprehensive and effective ban to be in place without delay. There must be no more excuses.
As an MP, some of the messages from my constituents that I remember most vividly have been from members of the LGBT+ community, particularly young people who have said that my being their MP and talking about being gay encouraged them as they learned to understand their identities. That is an important part of what made me so keen to speak here today. We know that LGBT+ people can face greater mental ill health because of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, as well as difficult experiences of coming out and rejection, and we know that young people can be particularly vulnerable. Almost a quarter of young people at risk of homelessness are LGBT+, usually because their families reject them, and half of LGBT+ young people have said they fear that expressing their identity to family members would lead to them being evicted.
If that promise of politics, a determination to make the future better than what has gone before, is to mean anything, we must continue to fight for LGBT+ equality here and around the world, and particularly to stand up now for the next generation. Pride Month is a moment to be motivated by knowing we can change the world for the better, but not to rest for a moment in making that happen.
This debate has been marked by incredibly powerful contributions, not least from the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray), whom I have the privilege of following in this debate. Even before we began, the statement by Mr Deputy Speaker from the Chair sent its own message about the importance of this debate and the example that this, the mother of Parliaments, can show around the world to other Parliaments about the progress that will be made as human societies become more comfortable with people being able to be themselves; not seeing that as a threat to order in their societies, but as a positive asset in the richness that can be brought to the life of a whole country and a whole nation, as well as the enormous enrichment that then comes from the individual being able to live their life as they wish.
All of us taking part in this debate so far have been on that journey. My experience is similar to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell). That is the reason why both of us are contributing to this debate and making it an important part of our contribution to Parliament as long as we have the privilege of remaining here. It is why Mr Deputy Speaker, in closing the previous debate and teeing this one up, made the statement he did. I am very proud that in Pride Month we all can be so proud of the contribution that this Parliament has made and will make.
It is my pleasure and privilege to chair the all-party parliamentary group on global LGBT+ rights and to do that with the support of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), who opened the debate so powerfully. I associate myself with everything she said. She is quite right to point out how much needs to be done and how, even in the United Kingdom, the atmosphere has not necessarily changed for the better over the last couple of years. I want to look forward. I think this Administration have now started to grip the issue and perhaps, in due course, ground will be made up on one or two things that slid in the last year or so —in particular on the misfired response to the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004.
I want to try to focus on the positive elements of what we can do going forward, and particularly on the parliamentary liaison scheme that was referred to so generously by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale. However, the debate has been so dominated by the speech of enormous courage from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden). He is right to link the trauma that can be found in the whole process of coming out with, too often, the problematic use of drugs to manage that trauma. Trauma is also associated with the addiction that goes with that to make one feel better. In his case, the drug he turned to was alcohol, and he was brave about the journey he has been on to manage that addiction.
I want to refer to the other issue to which I am principally devoting my time: reform of our drugs policy. There is a link to the trauma that colleagues have been through, because so many people manage trauma by a problematic use of drugs, whether legal ones such as alcohol or illegal ones. Frankly, we are in a real mess with our drugs laws and drugs policy in this country. That is not new—it has been in a process of development for more than 60 years—and perhaps, rather like a frog not noticing the temperature of the water gradually rising around it, the water is now boiling fiercely and thousands of our fellow citizens are dying needlessly as a consequence of our drugs policy. As a consequence, there are a terrifying number of victims of crime who need not be in that position. However—this is important for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton and the lesson he gave us—there are huge opportunities that we have missed as well.
In our rush—the world’s rush—to prohibit drugs that, with evidence, sounded as though they might be dangerous, we have prohibited classes of drugs such as cannabis and the psychedelics with no proper cost-benefit and risk analysis in evidential terms and therefore put science and research back 50 years. There is now really exciting research about treatment for addiction. The psychotherapy through alcoholics anonymous and others that the hon. Member referred to can now be reinforced through microdosing treatments including methylenedioxymethamphetamine, lysergic acid diethylamide, dimethyltryptamine and, in particular, psilocybin, which open up the prospect of dealing with addiction, trauma and depression. Millions of people could benefit from that treatment. We are on the verge of a great step forward in mental health treatments if only we get our laws right in this House. I hope the Government will attend to this with due dispatch and open up their stated position to lead in this field, be a bioscience leader and have evidence-based policy.
This debate is obviously about Pride, and I hope that with the development of the parliamentary liaison scheme over the rest of this Parliament, we will be able to have pride in the achievement that we will make in contributing to the advancement around the world of people having the right to, and being able to, be themselves in their own societies.
This idea is based on an experience I had in 2014, courtesy of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which sponsored a visit for me to Kenya. Other colleagues at the time had dropped out of that visit so I was on my own and able to focus on my priorities, terrifically supported by the British high commission. The Kaleidoscope Trust helped me visit activist groups in Nairobi. They were in pretty interesting parts of Nairobi, it has to be said, because they are not very public in the community there, then or now.
The trip enabled me to meet newly elected Kenyan parliamentarians, who privately were much more sympathetic to advancing LGBT rights than they dared to be publicly because of the control of the public sphere, particularly by the Churches. I was also able to meet the Kenya Human Rights Commission, courtesy of a great conference put on by our high commission, which was trying to advance the position of LGBT people, particularly through campaigns around the treatment of HIV/AIDS.
Bringing all those links together, I was able to quietly enable the activists to be put in touch with those Members of Parliament who were likely to be sympathetic—if not publicly, at least privately—and have those conversations. I also had a conversation with the Speaker of the Kenyan Parliament through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit, partly to request and receive the assurance that the “stone the gays” Bill, which was in the hands of three radical MPs who had been recently elected, was never going to see the light of day and besmirch the reputation of Kenya in quite the same way as had gone on with their neighbours, Uganda, with similar legislation. In those ways, I believe I was able to make a positive contribution, and that was the kernel of the idea that I put to colleagues with the parliamentary liaison scheme.
For however long colleagues serve and the APPG continues to exist and support the parliamentary liaison scheme, one colleague, either in this House or the other place, will take on the responsibility of being a point of liaison for the activist groups in countries overseas and for individual jurisdictions where being LGBT is either criminalised or people are under active oppression. That person can then enable those links between those activist groups who are bravely, heroically, promoting the case for change in those countries, along with the British mission in the country concerned—whether it is a high commission or an embassy—and the parliamentarians. Through that, we can have that conversation directly with our colleagues, and many of us can use our experiences to say that they ought to be on the right side of history and understand that sexuality is not a choice.
As soon as we have achieved that part of the argument, the duties of everyone as a parliamentarian to their constituents are clear, wherever they are in the world—people who have a minority sexuality are just as deserving of their time and of attention to their rights as anyone else.
That simple point, made by one parliamentarian to another, can help open up the conversation with the local representatives in the country about how to face down the press and the Churches, if they are taking the wrong position, and how to use the law or constitution of those nations, which will often guarantee the freedom of individuals and their rights under international treaties or anything else, to enable the position to be advanced. All that will need a degree of time and resources, but I am so delighted that about 90 colleagues in both Houses have so far volunteered to take part.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) will be replying to this debate—indeed, it may be the first time he has spoken from the Front Bench—and I hope that through the overseas development assistance budget, the Government will enable us to bring that sense of freedom to so many hundreds of millions of people, by getting serious and making a reality of Britain’s leadership in the promotion of LGBT+ rights around the world.
One is well aware of the cuts to the ODA budget, and I am delighted that we are going to return to 0.7% at some stage. I am thrilled that last November, the Prime Minister confirmed from the Dispatch Box that in this place we are going to make a reality of being a global leader. Even with a cut budget, that would mean spending in the order of £40 million a year on global LGBT+ rights, and the benefit in terms of the richness of the soul and of the spirit in being able to be oneself is, as many Members present will testify, incalculable.
My apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker. Of course I will do that. In conclusion—I was about to do this anyway—will my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green confirm that we will deliver as a Government on the commitments undertaken? That will give us the capacity to lead globally on LGBT rights in a way that will also work well with the parliamentary liaison scheme. A decent proportion of that money should be spent through embassies and the missions in-country, because every jurisdiction is difficult and there is a challenge faced by LGBT people globally. In that way, we can make our British missions overseas more effective in advancing the rights of LGBT people globally. Our message will be delivered much more effectively if every ambassador and high commissioner who represents the United Kingdom in countries where people like us are criminalised or actively oppressed, can bring to bear resources in whatever way is appropriate to support local organisations and legal challenges, and to support the shaping of the media debate around achieving the “right to be me”.
I am more than proud to follow the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt). I found every minute of his speech fascinating and inspiring, just as I did the powerful and courageous speeches that preceded me in this debate.
“What was important was the liberty of us all to live as we wished to live, to love however we wanted to love”.
Those are the words of the author, historian and journalist Jan Morris, who was an important figure in culture life and to the LGBT community in Wales and internationally. She lived in Llanystumdwy in the constituency I am proud to serve. Sadly, Jan passed away last year, but her words serve to remind us of why Pride Month is so important. It is a chance to celebrate, affirm and remind ourselves that despite the progress, LGBT people still face significant barriers.
In Wales, hate crimes based on sexual orientation and trans identity are on the rise, there are long waiting lists to access the Welsh gender service, and LGBT people still face health inequalities. In Westminster, the Government have been slow to act, and I echo the calls made by other Members for the Conservatives to fulfil the promise they made in 2018 to bring forward a legislative ban on so-called conversion therapy. This must include a ban on children being taken out of the UK for conversion therapy abroad and on the advertising and promotion of such abhorrent practices.
I also add my support to the calls for urgent action on reform of the Gender Recognition Act. It is yet another example of the jagged edge of devolution that although trans and non-binary people in Wales should be able to access a streamlined, de-medicalised process based on self-declaration and in line with international best practice, we do not have the levers—the means—necessary to introduce such vital changes in Wales.
Given the broken promises on conversion therapy and meaningful reform of the GRA, it is no surprise that the UK Government are now pushing ahead with breaking their legally binding promise on international aid. The decision has resulted in an 80% cut in funding for vital UN programmes that support people who suffer with AIDS and HIV, condemning people to avoidable deaths and risking decades of progress.
The cut to international aid should be seen in the context of increasing hostility against LGBT people and activists around the globe. A report by Amnesty International shows a global surge in attacks against human rights defenders. Amnesty has documented numerous Pride marches that have been cancelled or at which demonstrators have been vulnerable to attacks or even attacked by counter-protesters, violating their right to peaceful assembly. When will the UK Government publish a comprehensive strategy setting out how they will improve support and protection for human rights around the world and particularly, of course, for LGBT defenders in countries where their sexual or gender identity is still criminalised?
One such country is Senegal, with which I am really proud to say—especially after the hon. Member for Reigate spoke so coherently about this earlier—I have been partnered by the parliamentary liaison scheme run by the APPG on global LGBT+ rights, which I congratulate on all its work in that respect. In Senegal, same-sex sexual activity between adults—referred to in law as an “unnatural” act—is punishable with up to five years in prison. During the 2019 presidential elections, LGBT rights activists voiced concerns about politicians using homophobia—that ugly card—to gain political support.
LGBT people in Senegal face increasing levels of discrimination and stigmatisation. At a rally in the capital Dakar last month, demonstrators called for it to be made illegal to identify as a gay man. In the weeks that have followed, activists say that there has been a worrying increase in violent attacks on gay men. I urge those at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to make representations to their counterparts in Senegal on this matter, and to support and assist co-operation between LGBT activists and members of the Senegalese Government to secure meaningful change.
Finally, I look forward to using my role in Westminster and the theatre that we have through Parliament to make as much difference as possible to people’s lives around the world. In that respect, we must do the best we can for our fellow human beings.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate as we mark the end of Pride Month. Yesterday, I was delighted to attend Longfield Academy to meet members of the SMILE group who have produced artwork to mark Pride, alongside Darlington’s deputy mayor and our town’s LGBT champion.
Pride flags are now a common fixture of almost every organisation in June. That is an important measure of how far we have come as a society, celebrating diversity; embracing acceptance, tolerance and understanding; and recalling the struggles that our LGBT community have had and the battles still to be won, both here and abroad,
Pride marches grew out of the Stonewall riots in New York, and the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village in New York remains a place of pilgrimage for LGBT visitors. It seems hard to imagine that a fairly small bar could become the catalyst for a worldwide movement that has brought about so much change and freedom around the world.
For some, including me, Pride is something deeply personal: it is a public display of recognition of our worth and dignity as individuals, when for so many years we were criminalised and did not enjoy the same rights and protections as others. Every day I am reminded of the battles and struggles we have overcome. Indeed, my being in this House as an openly gay man, among many others, is an indicator of how far we have come. There is not a gay Conservative who has not had the shame of section 28 thrown at them in debate. Although we cannot forget this party’s past, I am proud of how far we have come to now be the party of gay marriage. Section 28 and its impact on our community might now be in the past, but we should be mindful of the steps being taken in Hungary that, sadly, reflect very similar provisions. I was in secondary school in the late 1980s and suffered elements of homophobic bullying, and although the spectre of that Act may have hung over them I have nothing but praise for the supportive pastoral care given to me by teachers such Dorothy Granville.
This August, I will be celebrating 13 years since my civil partnership, which was an important milestone in my life and a day on which my partner and I fondly reflect. For many there just a short time after the law had changed, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), it was their first attendance at such an event. Since that time, many thousands of couples have celebrated civil partnerships and marriages, with records indicating that there are now already more than 100,000 same-sex marriages.
However, much still remains to be done. I am proud to be part of these diverse Conservative Benches, with many openly gay colleagues in this place doing the job they love, free to love the person they do, and free from the fear that will have been experienced by our predecessors, who lived in fear of being outed. This Conservative Government are tackling the scourge and abuse that is conversion therapy. That such practices still exist in our free and modern society should be a warning to all that dark forces are never far away.
Solidarity with the trans community is important too. The “T” in LGBT is just as important to our family and to my family as the “L”, the “G” and the “B”. As I learned of my nephew Luke’s transition and his coming out as trans, I am reminded of the same journey of fear, acceptance, love and celebration that gay men and women go through. We may live in enlightened times, but there is always more to do. Pride, the rainbow flag, is a celebration of our diversity and a symbol of how far we have come, but it is a challenge to those countries around the world that do not share our love, tolerance and respect for the entire LGBT community.
Finally, I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for appointing Lord Herbert to the position of his special envoy on LGBT rights. He will lead the first ever global LGBT conference next year, here, during Pride Month. We can as a country be rightly proud of how far we have come and what we are doing, but we must not forget that for many, especially those abroad, there is still a very, very long way to go.
Let us consider these words:
“People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.”
So wrote the late, great James Baldwin in his much lauded 1956 novel “Giovanni's Room”, in which the author writes profoundly of the rife gay shame of his time. I am so pleased to have secured this debate with my friend the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle). We have heard some wonderful, deeply moving contributions.
For the past month, we have been celebrating Pride. What a contrast Pride is to the shame taught to gay kids for so much of the century in which every one of us here today was born. This shame was much of the source of much of the suffering our LGBT+ communities endured. That enduring stigma forced many lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people into the closet. For many, living a lie, however painful, was safer than living openly with the truth. Decriminalisation in England and Wales in 1967, and in Scotland in 1980, laid the groundwork for change. Even after decriminalisation, many homophobic laws remained on the statute book and homophobic attitudes were commonplace in society, which entrenched the inequality faced by LGBT people.
Since the turn of the millennium, we have seen further progress towards our overall pursuit of equality. My Turing Bill—the Sexual Offences (Pardons Etc) Bill—which sought to pardon all those convicted of sexual offences no longer on the statute book was, sadly, filibustered by a Conservative Minister, despite the Government’s promise to support it. The SNP Scottish Government, however, picked up my Bill and passed it with all-party support at Holyrood. It is a source of great pride to me and, I think, to the First Minister. This year, too, we have seen a long-awaited law reform. Only two weeks ago, the blood donor ban, which prevented so many men from donating, was finally lifted.
Huge advances have been made at home, but LGBT people live in great peril abroad. Hungary’s recent introduction of its version of clause 28 drags civil rights backwards in the very heart of the European Union. Russia under Putin is a hellish place for gay people to live, and 69 countries round the world still criminalise homosexuality. Half of them are in Africa. On the roll call of shame, Iran and Saudi Arabia still have state-sanctioned murder for consensual gay love.
We must not be complacent at home, however. Older LGBT people are more likely to be socially isolated so, during the pandemic, many have felt that they have nowhere to turn and no one to turn to. We know, too, that young LGBT people bullied at home are more likely to become homeless.
Also, while our legal rights have seemed increasingly enshrined, as other speakers have noted, an onslaught against our trans siblings has been unleashed over the past year by social conservatives, importing the cultural wars from the United States, amplified by social media and whipped up by the right-wing press. The transphobic bullies in the sinister LGB Alliance and elsewhere claim that they represent ordinary voters, but, as we saw in the Scottish elections, when they emerge from behind their keyboards they get trounced at the ballot box: 0.5% percent for the Scottish Family party and, for the Alba party, 1.666%—a significant number, surely.
The future is full of promise. Young people hate intolerance and they hate bigotry. They have gay friends, gay teachers and gay role models. The TIE—or Time for Inclusive Education—campaign does wonderful work in schools. It is a world away from the society in which I grew up in the 1970s. While we on the SNP Benches find much to criticise this Parliament about, I will end on a proud note: my party has more openly elected LGBT members than any other parliamentary party in the world, and our very gayness has made Westminster the second gayest Parliament in the world.
I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution to this debate just after the end of Pride Month, not least—if I do absolutely nothing else—to pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) for sharing his experiences and his story in a way that will help other people to make their lives easier. What on earth can be better than that in this place? He has done and will do many great things in this place, but his speech today is a parliamentary life well spent in itself. I thank him.
I want to make a very short contribution, because a lot of hon. Members want to say important things. I thank people for volunteering, campaigning and working in my part of Wales to make other people’s lives easier. First, I pay tribute to the work of LGBT+ groups across Newport East, such as Rainbow Newport, founded by my constituent Adam Smith. I thank him—I know he will be watching—for his tireless work and for, this week, becoming the chair of the new Newport County LGBT+ supporters’ group. I also thank Stonewall Cymru, Pride Cymru and Bi Cymru for working to make Newport East a friendlier place for all the community.
I am also keen to highlight the work of those at Newport Youth Council, who have been formidable campaigners on LGBT+ issues and who, working alongside Newport City Council, produced new guidance for schools after young people across the city told them that their experience
“wasn’t represented correctly—or to the level it should be.”
Their aim is to create the
“inclusive, tolerant and welcoming atmosphere that every young person deserves.”
I very much commend them for that. This is just one of the many things that Newport City Council has done to improve rights across our city. Earlier this week, the council passed a motion to become a diversity and democracy council that commits to ensuring that the council chamber is more representative of the communities it serves, which can only be a good thing. This year the council flew the Progress flag to celebrate Pride. Newport City Council leader Jane Mudd said that this was done to recognise
“the breadth of sexual and gender identities that we welcome”
in Newport. I thank her and Councillor Laura Lacey, LGBT+ champion at the council, as well as former leader Baroness Wilcox, for their leadership and their work on this.
While Pride is a chance to celebrate the progress we have made so far, it is also really important, as many hon. Members have said, to remember that Pride was born out of protest and so must also serve as a chance to reflect on what we still need to do to improve the lives of LGBT people. As the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) said, our recognising that hate crimes are on the rise is just one example.
As a Member for a Welsh constituency, I am really proud of the work that the Welsh Labour Government have undertaken to address inequalities. They have already taken action to push forward curriculum reform and to be the first nation to offer PrEP free on the NHS. Earlier this week, the Welsh Labour Government reaffirmed their commitment to try to become the most LGBT-friendly country in Europe and provided £25,000 of new funding for Pride Cymru, with plans to substantially invest more as well as to establish a Wales-wide Pride fund to support grassroots events. As the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd said, they are working to secure the devolution of as many aspects as possible of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and commissioning legal advice on all available powers to introduce a ban on conversion therapy, regardless of UK delays.
Equality cannot simply be about empty gestures and warm words. To echo the comments made earlier this week by the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership, Hannah Blythyn, to whom I pay a big tribute for her leadership and her passion about this in the Senedd, “Progress is never inevitable.” As such, I really urge the UK Government to work with the Welsh Government to create not just a more equal Wales but a more equitable UK.
I am grateful and thankful for being able to participate in this very important debate and to do so as an open member of the LGBTQ community.
The last time I spoke on issues relating to LGBTQ rights related to our relationship with the Sultanate of Brunei, a Commonwealth state that clearly criminalises the entirety of the LGBTQ community. As I said on the Floor of the House at that time, it is where people of our identity are
“stoned, hanged and murdered”
“having sex with someone of the same gender, along with lesbian women, who are…whipped.”—[Official Report, 4 April 2019; Vol. 657, c. 1278.]
We should be under no illusion that our relationship as a state with other Commonwealth nations must be robust and frank on the issue of LGBTQ rights.
Closer to home, I want to pay tribute to colleagues in Georgia who continue to be frustrated in their ability to have equality in the Georgian state, no matter that the constitution itself gives them the right to full equality. I pay tribute to the work that Georgia Pride did in June and continues to do.
It has to be clear that not all members of the LGBT community are pro-LGBTQ rights. For many of us, especially men, including white men who are vocal and who, for example, are in Parliament, because of certain economics or demographics, we need to be clear in challenging our own concepts of what it means to be LGBTQ in this state. We need to hear more voices from women, from young black people and from people from other minority ethnic communities. I say that as co-chair of the all-party group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. The LGBT community there are starting to become a vocal part of representing their culture and history.
I have a short time to speak. I often say that our diversity is our greatest strength. That strength, however, is being torn asunder at the moment by what I would call non-state actors targeting the most vulnerable, specifically our trans brothers and sisters. I stand in solidarity with them today.
As I come to my conclusion, I pay tribute to those in my own community who, over the years, through intolerance and fear, have not been able to get this far, who have taken their own lives, and whose lives have been ended early due to ill health—not receiving the appropriate support—and isolation. I pay tribute to the men and women of West Dunbartonshire who never made it. We need to recognise, as I have said, that diversity is our greatest strength and we should not allow non-state and state actors to undermine that very strength.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), whose very presence, bravery and courage in this Chamber have paved the way for so many of us, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) on securing this debate.
The first debate that I recall truly engaging in and feeling like I had a vested interest in was the debate on equal marriage that took place a number of years ago, before I was even in this House. I remember watching that debate. I say this because each one of us today has spoken personally, emotionally and truly movingly. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), who rightly spoke up. The first debate I heard was the debate on equal marriage. I heard the rhetoric, I heard the fear and I heard the concern. I respected the religious diversity of opinions, but I heard fear. I was scared for my world, for the future that I could have, and for the life that I could have. I will be honest: I never ever imagined that I would be here myself. I am so grateful that I can be here and be a voice that is diverse, that is different and that celebrates being a woman, openly gay and an SNP MP—something that I truly never thought I would be.
This is now the second year running that, due to covid, Pride celebrations have been cancelled or relegated to being online. Pride is many things to many people. It is a protest, it is a celebration and it is a party. Sometimes it comes with a sense of community. It is an opportunity to bring families together, a moment to reflect and a chance to call for change. But with celebrations being far less visible than usual, it is especially important that we are having this debate today, so do not underestimate your presence in this Chamber and the voice that you have.
I am pleased to take part in this debate. I specifically wanted to be here in person, because I felt that it was important to be that voice. I recognise my privilege to be in this House and I am grateful. We are definitely seeing more acceptance and celebrations of life events such as same-sex marriage and civil partnership. More and more people are starting their own families and there are more routes to parenthood than there used to be, so we are seeing more and more rainbow families. That in itself is something to celebrate and to recognise: in future, there will be many, many more parents who will look different. Perhaps we will not fear this idea that parents can look different, that families can look different and that this House can start to represent the rest of society.
The real reason that I wanted to speak today is that I grew up in a community where, through no fault of their own, I did not get a choice and I was brought up Catholic. It was not a choice I made, but it was a faith that I followed, that I respect and that to some extent I admire, but it was a faith that made me believe that Iusb could never grow up and marry the person I loved, and that I might never have a family. For many years, I felt a deep shame and probably a bit of reticence about celebrating who I was. I am incredibly proud of who I am. I am proud to celebrate Pride, I am proud to be an MP and I am proud to be one of the many SNP MPs who are from the LGBT community.
That is something I can celebrate, but there are so many people in the world who do not get that opportunity. They do not get to celebrate who they are, where they come from or where they are going. That is true for so many people, but particularly for those asylum seekers who come to this country. They seek haven, they seek refuge, they seek our support and they seek a safe place to live. They are rejected because they perhaps do not meet the criteria, even when they clearly state that their sexuality, sexual orientation or, for that matter, sexual identity might mean—the concept is almost dumbfounding—that they might not maintain their life in their home country. But they cannot come here and they cannot secure citizenship here.
My only call to the Minister today is to look carefully at the Home Office policies. There are so many people who look to the UK as a beacon of light, and we can be that beacon of light. I urge the Minister to liaise with his Home Office colleagues and make this possible. So many people look to us to give them a safe place and a home, and we must make that possible.
It is a genuine pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley). Her own testimony highlights the importance of a debate like this. It was a very simple message that everybody should feel comfortable telling people who they are or what they are. It is as simple as that. It tells us quite a lot about the different influences that we have had in this country down the centuries—she touched on the role of the Churches and there are doubtless others—that it should seem remarkable, or something to be celebrated, that we are able to do that.
It is important that we have a debate like this in this House, because people across the country and, indeed, in other parts of the world look to us, as parliamentarians and as people in public life, to give a lead, and it is incumbent on us to take a lead. I would suggest that holding a debate like this is one small way in which we can do that. All of us who are in public life have a responsibility to understand that our words always have consequences. For those who are not here, who are not espousing views of equality and inclusion and who are expressing homophobic views—whether they are parliamentarians, people in public life or just individual citizens—it is not the people who are espousing those views who are responsible necessarily for the homophobic attacks and for the angst of young people who do not feel comfortable coming out. However, we have to understand that, when people in public life espouse those views, they legitimise those who will throw the punches and the kicks. That is why there is a responsibility on us all—in this House, particularly—to send a clear message that nobody in this country should feel constrained in saying who they are or what they are.
We have made significant progress over the years. The ending of section 28 was a significant moment. I was here at the time and led for my party on the creation of civil partnerships and then on the creation of equal marriage. These have all been significant events, and it is right that we should celebrate them. I was absolutely delighted, and genuinely moved, to see just a few weeks ago so many Facebook posts from friends of mine who are gay men and have given blood for the first time. That is in many ways a small and mundane part of everything, but it sends a genuine message of inclusion. To exclude people from making that kind of contribution to their community on the basis of their sexuality was a wrong that was overdue for righting, and I am delighted that it has been done.
Of course, there is still more we can do within our own communities, and as we look around the world, as others have said, we see that there is a lot more to be done. I have to mention in particular the proposals coming from the Hungarian Government at the moment that would create their own version of section 28. I wish they would learn from the experience of those of us in this country of how section 28 operated and the effect it had, especially on vulnerable people who, as a consequence of the operation of that law, did not feel that they were able to be open about and engaged in their sexuality.
I absolutely acknowledge that, and I do more than acknowledge it: I agree with it absolutely, and I think we are right to call that out. To use someone’s sexuality against them for a political purpose, or using their skin colour or other defining characteristics—something with which they are born—has to be just about as low as it is possible to go. I remember Albert Lutuli saying in the context of the anti-apartheid struggle that apartheid was the only absolute tyranny, because it discriminated against people for something they had absolutely no power to change, which was the colour of their skin. For all of us, our sexuality is something with which we are born: it is not a choice. I will argue with people in all parts of this House, and possibly even on my party’s own Benches, about the choices that we make, but we should not be divided on the basis of things about which we have absolutely no choice.
I do not want to detain the House for too long, but I want to place on record a small piece of Pride history, which is that last weekend, we celebrated a Pride first. We had the most northerly Pride yet in the United Kingdom when we had the Pride festival in Kirkwall in Orkney. It was a joyous occasion—it was obviously curtailed as a consequence of covid regulations, but to see so many Orcadians out there, talking about their pride in who they are, was a truly remarkable moment. Walking around Kirkwall town centre, seeing so many shops and businesses with Pride flags in their window, was a tremendous signal that everybody was valued as part of our community—we have a very strong sense of community in Orkney—and that that inclusion was there for all, regardless of their sexual orientation.
I look forward to having the same first again next year, because we will have the new most northerly Pride in the United Kingdom when Shetland Pride is celebrated next June. A tremendous amount of work and planning is already going into that, and I commend those who are responsible both for Orkney Pride last weekend and for the planning that is going into Shetland Pride for June 2022 for everything they are doing to send a signal that in every community, right across the country, the right of individuals to be included on their own terms is inalienable. It is something that we should celebrate, and something that we do, in fact, celebrate here today.
May I start by congratulating the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle)? Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey, who has been instrumental in bringing forward this important debate, in particular deserves the recognition and gratitude of the House for her tireless pursuit of equality and justice for LGBT+ people: thank you very much. It has been an honour and a privilege to listen to contributions from hon. and right hon. Members today, in particular the moving and inspirational personal account of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden).
Pride Month is a welcome opportunity to reflect on all the hard work being done and the progress that we have made collectively on LGBT+ rights. I praise all the groups the individuals in my Slough constituency that are working to provide advice, services, safe spaces and advocacy for the LGBT+ community. That includes Slough Borough Council, voluntary groups, businesses and public services, and all the people who work hard for equality and human rights.
As we have heard this afternoon, we have made great advances as a society since the dark days of the 1950s and before—the days of homosexuality being classified as an illness, of the threat of blackmail, stigma, social isolation and imprisonment, and of the horrors of electric shock aversion therapy, electroconvulsive therapy and chemical castration.
We all know the story of one of Britain’s greatest heroes, Alan Turing—a man whose work, some academics argue, saved 14 million lives and shortened the world war by more than two years. He was a perfectly healthy gay man in his 30s, a brilliant mind and a great patriot, who was forced by the law into sickness and death. Alan Turing is just one of thousands of men and women harassed, arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed by the British state’s homophobic laws. We owe each and every one an apology, and their families too.
Let us reflect on progress: the Sexual Offences Act 1967; the abolition of section 28; civil partnerships; same-sex marriages; the securing of LGBT+ rights in law, especially the Equality Act 2010. But we should also reflect that progress does not always travel in a direct line. For every two steps forward, there are those who want us to take one step back—for example, on trans rights.
In each generation, the struggle for rights takes on new forms. I am in particular thinking about the struggle against so-called conversion therapy. The idea that someone’s sexuality should be subject to forceable conversion into something different is shockingly insulting. I welcome the Government’s commitment in the Queen’s Speech to ban so-called conversion therapy, but where is the ban? I say to Ministers, we do not need more consultation; we need action. My great fear is that the Government are dragging their feet ahead of some kind of climbdown on their promises or in order to include exemptions. We must be clear that there can be no acceptance of or acquiescence to the proponents of gay conversion therapy. It must be swept into the gutter, where it belongs.
Let me address the international aspect of the debate. Around the world, there are nations where LGBT+ people live in fear and stigma, where violence and murder are commonplace and equality is outlawed. There are 69 member states of the United Nations where consensual same-sex activity is illegal. There has been some progress. For example, Botswana’s high court ruled in favour of decriminalising homosexuality in 2019; Mozambique and the Seychelles have scrapped anti-gay laws; and in 2018, a court in Trinidad and Tobago ruled that laws banning gay sex were unconstitutional. But unfortunately, Nigeria and Uganda have recently tightened their homophobic laws, and in Europe, as we have heard from other hon. Members, Viktor Orbán’s Government in Hungary have intensified their attack on the LGBT+ community. Why should our British Prime Minister be rolling out the red carpet for such an individual?
There are plenty of cities where Pride marches are not celebrations and festivals, not expressions of solidarity and love, but instead subject to bans, violence and hate. We must therefore ensure that the Government outline what they are doing to encourage our friends and allies around the world, especially in the Commonwealth, to repeal homophobic laws and bring in real and lasting equality for all. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr:
“No one is free until we are all free.”
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. and right hon. Members who have made some really excellent contributions throughout. It is a poignant debate, because we can think about how far we have come, we can think about how far we have to go and we can also remember the importance of solidarity, respect and love across the political divides in the spirit of equality.
In that spirit, I start my remarks by paying tribute to Leeze Lawrence. She was a resident of Stirling, a member of the SNP Stirling branch and the convenor of Out for Independence, and she passed away a couple of weeks ago. She was a force of nature and a force for good, and she achieved in her short life much more than many others will in theirs. She will be very much missed by her friends and her family, and I pass on my deepest sympathies to them.
It is important to remember that Pride was a protest—it still is a protest. Some of that has been lost in the corporatisation of Pride events in some places, but Pride is a protest against injustice, a protest against inequality, a protest against ignorance and a protest against bigotry. It is easy to take the equality we enjoy for granted, and we must not do that. Progress is not guaranteed and rights are reversible.
We have come a long way—we really have—and it is worth acknowledging that. I was the first SNP politician to come out in 2006. I was not the first gay SNP politician, but I was the first to make a song and dance about it. I am proud to say that the SNP is one of the gayest parties in these islands, and contributing to equalities runs through everything that we do. We have come a long way.
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We have made progress in these islands—we have made progress in Scotland, and we have made progress in the UK—but there are countless millions around the world who do not enjoy that freedom and equality, and who are not in the fortunate position we are. It is incumbent on all of us to protect and promote equality, and to work with allies abroad to secure the equality of others. Homosexuality remains illegal in 69 countries around the world, and some even punish it with death. We really do have a long way to go.
Closer to home, as well, rights are reversible. We have heard already that Hungary’s anti-LGBT law is a shame on the European conscience. I am glad that Dr von der Leyen and the European Commission are taking action. I would like to see it happen faster, and I would like us to be vocal in it as well, because it is an utterly counterproductive law coming from bad politics and bad information. It is also a reminder that things can go backwards.
In that spirit, I reaffirm today my complete solidarity with our trans brothers and sisters and I also reaffirm my complete solidarity with women and women’s rights. I do not see that those two statements are mutually exclusive or in conflict. I see nothing in trans equality that would diminish women’s rights. I see nothing that women have to fear from the trans community. I see plenty of reasons why women should fear abusive men. It is in the debate online particularly that we have seen abusive men—bad actors and false friends spitting hate and poison into the debate—and it is incumbent on all of us to push back on that and fight them with good information, respectful dialogue and mutual understanding. I would never be a part of anything that would diminish women’s rights. Women have nothing to fear from trans equality. It is a challenge for all of us to make sure that that debate takes place in the right way and gets the right result.
Pride is a protest and rights are not secure. Rights must be maintained and fought for on a daily basis, but if we all look after each other, we will all win. Pride is not about special pleading. It is about equality for all of us.
I thank the hon. Members who secured this debate today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), and I thank her for her incredibly important contribution today and for all the work she has done and continues to do. We have heard so many powerful speeches, including that of the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), but I am extremely proud to have been in the Chamber today to listen to my great friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden). His moving and brave contribution will live long in the memory of everybody here who witnessed it and watched it today.
I worry about the division that we are seeing now in political discourse and everyday life. Division of communities leads to a breakdown of cohesion and the opportunity for hate and fear to flourish. I fear that we can see this graphically and worryingly with the rise in hate crime.
Just in Liverpool over the last few weeks, there have been a number of homophobic attacks in our town centre. The images have shocked the city and last week a demonstration took place saying that hatred and homophobia had no place in Liverpool or any other place. But if we look at events in Hungary, as has been mentioned, the fear grows that this hatred and division among communities is being encouraged and actively sown. Orbán’s decision to ban LGBT content in schools and the media is exactly where this direction of travel ends. I was delighted to see the EU’s ultimatum to cease and desist these attacks or leave the EU. I wonder whether the PM gave him a similar message when they met last month.
Education is a huge part of the solution—I know that from personal experience. An education was given to me by the likes of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, when we worked together on his campaign to ban the abhorrent practice of conversion therapy when we found out that a local church in Anfield was offering these so-called therapies, including ritual starvation. The light that my hon. Friend and the Liverpool Echo shone on those practices in our community has increased awareness and facilitated further understanding and education, and galvanised the campaign to end them.
At Fans Supporting Food Banks, an organisation I co-founded, we work closely with the LGBTQ+ supporter groups at both Liverpool and Everton football clubs, to promote tolerance and understanding in football. The use of homophobic language was common in songs at football grounds. About six years ago, I got elected to the Liverpool FC supporters committee and I met a fantastic person in Paul Amann, who educated us all in what a member of the LGBTQ community might feel when hearing those songs in the football ground. It provided a real wake-up call and a genuine education to me personally. We worked on making grounds more inclusive, raising awareness and tackling this kind of language. I am extremely proud that we have made Liverpool football club the first club to explicitly prohibit homophobic language in the ground. It was Paul’s patience and bravery on this issue from which I learned so much and for which I admire him so much.
Education and community cohesion go hand in hand, and Pride Month does so much to achieve that. But as recent events have shown, we have so much work to do. I am proud that our party scrapped Thatcher’s appalling section 28, but there is lots of work to be done to ensure that we do not go backwards and that we work to defeat the voices of division and hatred in our communities by showing the same tolerance, understanding and education that was shown to me.
You timed that rather well, Madam Deputy Speaker; God is shining on us this afternoon, is he not?
I am grateful to be called in this debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) and others on securing it. Like others, I commend the actually beautiful speech from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden). He will be called brave and all sorts of things from now on, but “beautiful” is the best way to describe what he chose to do this afternoon. Like the whole House, I am sure, I wish him well in whatever he goes on to do next.
As has been mentioned quite a few times in the debate, this is the gayest Parliament in the world. The great irony is that, if we go back to 2015, it was the arrival of so many Scottish National party Members of Parliament that made this place the gayest Parliament in the world. So when we go, as we will eventually, hon. Members will have a job to do in maintaining that status —and in that, of course, we will wish our neighbours well.
It has been said that we have to take account of the progress that we have made—and progress has undoubtedly been made. There are the recent changes to allow men who have sex with men to give blood; I was pleased to play a small part in that as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on blood donation, along with my friend, Paula Sherriff, the former Labour Member of Parliament—she is no longer with us in Parliament, and the House misses her dearly.
There have been all kinds of other progress over the years—marriage, adoption rights and education. A Scot, in the form of Lawrence Chaney, has finally won “RuPaul’s Drag Race”—arguably for many people, the best bit of progress that we have made. Of course, it is the case that, as Pride Month becomes more visible and more people attend, the corporations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) has said, will get in on it as well. It is great to see flags on buses and trains, and when we go into shopping centres or down the high street we see rainbow flags everywhere. I say to the corporations, however, that Pride is not just for the month of June; it is not about flying a rainbow flag, taking it down the next day and going back to business as usual. Standing in solidarity with us is about more than just flying those flags. When the corporations release their special Pride products for the month of June next year, how about some of the profits go to help LGBT+ charities in this country and elsewhere, rather than cashing in on something that, thankfully, is at least popular for some?
As others have said, Pride has been cancelled/put online for the past 12 months. Last year I hosted a weekly series of online Pride events with various activists in eastern European and central Asian countries. What a learning experience that was. I thank activists in countries such as Georgia, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), and, as Members would expect, I thank activists for the work that goes on in Ukraine, including my friend Maxim Eristavi, who does so much to raise the profile of this issue all around the world but in particular in that region of Europe. My most memorable Pride happened three years ago in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. There was not a single Coca-Cola float or any other big brand. It was a proper shouting protest. And my goodness, the bravery that they show in continuing to do that is an inspiration to us all.
As has been said, the progress made is great but we want to see action on conversion therapy. I had never thought of my own experience as being one of conversion therapy, but it goes back to when I was a teenager and had got mixed up in an evangelical church for a couple of years. I remember the laying of hands on me, trying to pray the gay away, as it were. In fact, I had not even realised at that point that I might be gay. I know that that might be difficult for some people to even consider, but I remember being told at the time that it was bad for me, that God would deliver me from it and that it was a satanic spirit that was doing this to me. The confusion in my mind at the time was incredible, but until a recent discussion with a woman from the Christian church who is against conversion therapy, it had not even occurred to me that that was a form of conversion therapy. It is not always the case that people are sat on a chair in a room and talked at by people in white coats with Bibles or whatever; it is often more discreet, but equally sinister. The Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household is a good man, but I implore the Government to bring this forward without delay.
The last thing I want to mention is the issue of transgender rights and the well of poison that that discussion has become. We do not have a community if we expel one part of it. I refuse to do so, and I know that Members in this House will refuse to let it happen. However, it has become, I am afraid to say, the polite bigotry of the middle classes. Transphobia is acceptable in the good newspapers—The Times, the Telegraph and the Glasgow Herald. It has become entirely acceptable. If some of the things that we read, like the obsessions about girls wearing trousers to school, were written by an imam, people would go tonto—they would go off their nuts—but they are written by these privileged and largely, though not exclusively, white, middle-class people who have become so radicalised on the issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and others have mentioned the online discussions. This is radicalisation and there is no other way to describe it. Where does it take us? Last month was the anniversary of the shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Right now on Netflix we can watch a documentary about the Soho bombing that happened just over 20 years ago. We see young people—this was mentioned by the previous speaker—being attacked in the street for who they are. We are heading for something bad if this does not get dealt with, if this is not tackled and if those of us who do stand with trans people do not come out vigorously in their defence.
What gives me hope? Yes, I get discouraged by all that poison. Yes, I get discouraged by the fact that, in this rather perverse debate we now have, Stonewall is now akin to ISIS in some people’s view. Rape crisis centres that help or employ trans people are being targeted by bigots and bullies. All that gets me down, but what gives me hope is the young people who do not give up. I get exhausted with it, but I keep going and keep doing what I can. When I see young people involved in Stonewall, the Equality Network and their own political parties coming together and fighting that poisonous disinformation and ensuring that steps always go forward and not backwards, that is what gives me hope.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said that nobody should be restrained in having to be who they are—even Liberal Democrats, I would extend that to. [Laughter.] That is so important and all power to their elbow. I will be with them side by side, but it is a fight we need the Government to get onside with too.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) who spoke movingly about his personal experiences. It is unbelievable to think that conversion therapy is still lawful in 2021. I hope the Minister will come back with a timetable for banning it here in the UK.
Our Parliament is the best of us when we have these debates. The leadership shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) not just in her introduction to the debate with her speech but more broadly in being solid and wise counsel for so many—not just those within the community—is a beacon for LGBT rights in Parliament. Her work, together with others across Parliament, has really outshone the Government in many ways, particularly with what has been achieved in the last few years. It has allowed the space in our Parliament so that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) is able to speak about his own experience: how his identity was made clear to him, some of the paths he has taken and issues he has dealt with in coming to terms with his own life, and the strong role models he has had. We all know there are so many young people who have not had those supportive parents or a supportive environment in school and they may still be suffering the discrimination that can go with being LGBTQ.
I want to briefly talk about my concerns about reductions in funding for the inclusive teaching of equalities in our schools. Some of the proactive guidance around the banning of section 28 at that time, which this country led on, has now been watered down to some degree. I worry about where our schools may not be high-performing schools and whether that bullying continues. I fear that it probably does.
I also worry about some of the reductions and cuts in the work that we are doing abroad. For example, there is the excellent work that the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) is doing with parliamentary colleagues across the globe through the liaison scheme between Parliaments to promote equality by visiting LGBT groups during trips abroad or by linking up with networks in other Parliaments. I fear that work of that kind is undermined by some of the reductions, for example, to British Council spending—the British Council is very focused on values and on the soft power of our media. I fear it will also be undermined by reductions in the BBC World Service, where we have really good programming and first-class stories, poetry and music on LGBTQ issues that may be a shining light, which people who do not live in a free and fair democracy might hanker for.
I also want to pay tribute to some of the grassroots groups in the London Borough of Haringey—other Members have paid tribute to groups in their constituencies. We have a terrific group called Wise Thoughts, which is available particularly for black young people and young people from backgrounds where their parents may not be familiar with equalities legislation or be particularly open about the fact that their children are gay. Wise Thoughts is always present at every single job fair or community safety event, quietly flying the flag but also being available to talk to young people. I am also really grateful to our wonderful community choir, which plays and sings at events. Unfortunately, this is the second year in a row that it has been unable to be particularly active, but we did have the spontaneous singing of our community choir underneath a tree in Crouch End in 2016, when the terrifying terror attack on the Pulse nightclub took place. It is just so wonderful to see those grassroots groups coming together to stand up against inequality and, in that case, a terror attack.
I also want to draw attention to the cross-party nature of today’s debate. I was really delighted to see that on a British-America Parliamentary Group tour in the US, the Minister was working cross-party with us on questioning the reductions to the HIV/AIDS budget that the former President of the USA was attempting to introduce at the time. It was fantastic to work across Parliament as the British-American Parliamentary Group to make the case for continued funding for HIV programmes abroad. It shows the best of our Parliament when we work together across the piece on those important programmes. In the same spirit, may I encourage the Minister to question whether rolling out the red carpet for Viktor Orbán, as was done by No. 10, is the right tone? I worry that the struggle for equal treatment for LGBTQ communities is being set back in that part of Europe. The hon. Member for Glasgow South described his experience in Kiev. It is a struggle—a day-to-day, hour-by-hour struggle there—and we must never forget that.
In conclusion, I first want to ask the Minister to address in his final remarks what he thinks should be done to support the training of classroom teachers—whether at primary or secondary school level, or in our further education colleges and universities—so that here at home, when young people are questioning and want to talk to people and when they want to come out, we can be sure that there is support for them. We know that recent research has shown that it takes the human brain up to the age of 25 to be fully formed, so people in their early 20s may still need assistance, talking therapy or even just support to know that their feelings, belief and identity are okay. Will the Minister outline whether he believes that there is sufficient inclusive training and support for different groups in our schools?
Secondly, will he outline the progress on the Gender Recognition Act 2004? There is a sort of half debate being had and it would be really good to know the exact timeline on that. Thirdly, I would like to know the exact timeline on the banning of conversion therapy. It has been clear during this afternoon’s debate that we all feel we need to urge the Government to get on with that.
Finally, will he outline the Government’s role in being a beacon within our region so that we can, with confidence, challenge the policies of countries where it is not right, where people are being treated unfairly and where equalities are not being observed? Will he stand up today and encourage this Government to get it right with countries—even some that are within our region—so that we can be sure that we are sending the right message, not only as a Parliament, but so that that the Government are too?
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate today and hear so much cross-party consensus. Pride Month is about celebration, activism and commemoration. It is about recognising the progress that we have made since the Stonewall riots, and it is about continuing the fight for equality alongside our LGBT+ family and friends. There is so much more to do, and we must not forget that.
Along with so many others today, I find myself once more speaking about a specific inequality that should have been dealt with many years ago: the legality of so-called conversion therapy. Conversion therapy by its very definition is designed to rob LGBT+ people of their identity. It is nothing short of medieval. It is not healthcare; it is not ministry; it is abuse, yet it remains legal.
In the 2015 general election campaign, the former Prime Minister pledged to ban conversion therapy. That was more than five years ago. That winter, the Conservative Government backtracked and there was no ban. Then in 2018, the next Prime Minister pledged to ban conversion therapy, but the Government backtracked again and there was no ban. The current Prime Minister, who campaigned on some promises of progress and change, also pledged to ban conversion therapy. The proposal even made it into the Queen’s Speech, but still there is no ban. As far as I am aware, there are no firm plans for a ban. I hope the Minister will be able to correct me on that point.
Instead, we are being told we must wait for a consultation that has not even been scheduled. Why? The only conceivable purpose of this consultation is yet more delay. The consultation can only tell us what we already know and what the Government have apparently believed for five years—that conversion therapy should be completely banned. In these circumstances, it is difficult to accept the continued promises. When will the Government act?
LGBT representatives from every major party, including the Conservative party, have called for an immediate ban. They called the Government’s commitments
“disappointingly weak, vague and unempathetic”.
That was from Members of their own party. This clearly is not good enough. LGBT+ people are being let down by this Government.
Last Wednesday, Alan Turing took his rightful place on our £50 note. We easily forget that Turing was forced to receive chemical castration at the hands of the state, all because he was guilty of the crime, as it was then, of loving another man. This chemical castration was meant to suppress his sexual orientation. It was a conversion therapy—one that our Government at the time had made into a legal instrument. We have come a long way since then. Homosexual acts are no longer illegal. Gay marriage is now legal, and I am proud of the Liberal Democrats’ role in making that happen, but as long as conversion therapy is legal, using Turing as a figurehead seems to be some form of big hypocrisy.
The NHS, international observers, LGBT+ organisations, professional bodies in health and social care, interfaith organisations and senior figures in all major parties are united: we must ban conversion therapy now. As this year’s Pride Month draws to a close, I urge colleagues from all parts of the House, including Government Ministers, to make it an urgent priority.
May I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) for securing this debate? We have heard many heartfelt contributions today, but none more so than from my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden). It took absolute bravery and courage. He is a true inspiration, and it is great to see such representation and such inspirational representation from Liverpool as a whole.
I rise as someone who hopes to be a good ally to LGBTQ+ people in Luton North and across the country and to the brilliant LGBTQ+ colleagues who have spoken in the debate. I pay tribute to my wonderful friend Sue Hackett, a fantastic GMB union activist and equality champion who has been the heart and soul of equalities at GMB London region. Women like her show what a difference a true ally, a true sister and a true trade unionist can make in workplaces and in our movement. I wish her the happiest retirement, because after 42 years she certainly deserves it.
There was a time in my living memory when a debate such as this, in this place would never have happened—when parties would market themselves as “the straight choice” against gay candidates, when MPs would proudly describe homosexuality as a
“sterile disease-ridden, God-forsaken occupation”
and when Prime Ministers decried children apparently being taught that they had a right to be gay. We can be proud of and hopeful about the progress we have seen over the last 25 years on LGBTQ+ rights. However, I am standing here as a Labour MP because I know there is nothing inevitable about progress. People have to fight for it every day. The fight might be easier on some days than others, but if we let our guard down, we will see that hatred and bigotry can easily rear its ugly head again.
When the last Labour Government repealed section 28, introduced civil partnerships and adoption and, yes, brought in the original Gender Recognition Act, those things did not happen because MPs woke up one day and thought, “Well, that’s a good idea.” It took years of hard work by activists, trade unions and LGBT+ people who campaigned and got beaten up in the streets but were still loud and still proud. Since then, we have had gay marriage and, as we have heard many times today, our Parliament has become the gayest in the world. I pay tribute to our fantastic, steely candidate in Batley and Spen, Kim Leadbeater, who I hope after 10 pm will be joining us here on the green Benches.
However, I speak to some LGBTQ+ people and, while there is so much to be proud of, there is sometimes a resurgence of fear. I know, as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on hate crime, that in the past year the hate crime of homophobia, as with every other protected characteristic, has seen an increase. They are fearful when some Members of this House pander to voices who speak of trans people as a dangerous lobby who want to cause harm to others. They are fearful when parts of the media use terms like “trans Taliban” to describe trans people who just want to get on with their lives. They are fearful when people who call themselves activists acting on behalf of women attack Stonewall, and fearful when so-called charities who oppose banning conversion therapy for trans people try to divide LGB people from trans people.
The new wedge issue politics, culture war campaigning is no feminism, activism or progressive campaigning as I would recognise it, but it exists as a stark reminder that there is nothing inevitable about progress. Over the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that the fight on LGBT+ rights is not over. When we allow bigots a free pass to attack trans people and media outlets continue spinning the most vicious bile about trans people and, often, the rest of the LGBT community as well, we need to start seriously asking ourselves who these people are coming for next.
Those who genuinely believe in human rights do not choose which human’s rights they support and which they do not. Anyone who has been attacked for who they are, how they look or what they believe knows what it is to be on the receiving end of abuse, hatred and division. That is exactly why Pride remains a protest—and I know that sadly we have not had a Pride in person during the pandemic. Pride is a protest because one in five LGBTQ+ people has experienced a hate crime because of who they are or who they love. It is a protest because there are people abroad who are left seeking asylum for their sexuality. It is a protest because more than half of LGBTQ+ young people are still bullied in school because of who they are, and it is a protest because trans women are women, and trans men are men, and their fight is ours. Those should not be controversial statements. The fact that they are shows just how far we have to go to achieve true equality in our country. But true equality is always worth fighting for, because that makes it a safer, fairer and brighter place for everyone to live in.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) on securing this important debate, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) for his personal and powerful testimony. I thank all those who have contributed this afternoon.
I welcome this debate and the opportunity to wish people a very happy Pride Month, and send my solidarity to LGBT+ communities in Liverpool, Riverside, and across the country. Although this debate is an opportunity to celebrate and take pride in the existence, struggles and successes of those communities, we must also recognise the violence and oppression that LGBT+ people still suffer. Just last month, hundreds of people marched through Liverpool city centre to protest against a spate of vicious homophobic attacks on our streets in the past few weeks. I pledge my solidarity with the victims of those appalling attacks, which were especially horrific because they happened during Pride Month. I call for justice to be swiftly served, and action taken to ensure that all our communities feel safe on our streets.
The diversity of Liverpool is one of our greatest strengths, and those attacks show that we must do more to ensure that everyone is welcome on our streets, and that violence, hatred and bigotry are not. Although responsibility for the attacks must be borne by the perpetrators, and justice must be served, they did not happen in a vacuum. This year, the Government have waged a culture war against trans rights, attacking leading LGBT organisations such as Stonewall, for its campaigning on trans rights. They have disbanded their own LGBT+ advisory panel after a series of resignations over the delay in banning conversion therapy practices.
Despite promising a ban on conversion therapies three years ago, the Government have yet to take action. Instead, they have kicked the can down the road into yet another consultation. Soundings from the Prime Minister, and others, threaten significant loopholes, notably regarding faith-based practices, as well as trans people. We know from the Government’s own national LGBT+ survey that 51% of those who have undergone conversion therapy said that it had been conducted by faith groups. I am a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, which is currently conducting a review of the reform of the Gender Recognition Act. Time and again I have heard evidence of the harrowing impact of those practices and their disastrous implications for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Such evidence is not new. Indeed, the Government are well aware of it, given their recent consultation.
Will the Minister set out to the House an exact timetable for legislation to ban conversion therapy? Will he reassure Members that the legislation will include a total ban on those cruel practices? On this Government’s watch, waiting times for gender identity clinics have increased to unlawful levels, leaving at risk thousands who are in need of urgent support. Instead of facing up to the scale of the challenge and committing sufficient funding to alleviate pressures on those services and the rising demand, the Government have plans to open a mere three new gender identity clinics. Such plans will leave nearly 10,000 people on waiting lists.
This is a crisis, and I call on the Government to go back to the drawing board and bring forward a properly resourced plan to support trans and non-binary people who are in urgent need of support. They must bring an end to the unlawful and excruciating waiting times for treatment. This Pride Month I call on the Government to refrain from paying hollow lip service to queer solidarity and liberation, and I call instead for practical actions that are fully within their power to support LGBT+ people.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, in the excellent company of SNP colleagues and others across the House, particularly the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), who made a speech today that will change people’s lives. A lot of speakers in this debate have spoken from personal experience, and I cannot say that I do. I rise, however, because it matters that all of us speak up and speak out.
Like the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) I am a feminist, and I see no contradiction between that and my support for LGBT rights and issues. In fact, I believe that all of our rights are imperilled by any attempts to erode the rights of any minority groups. Where things are now feels very much like a tale of two halves; yes, we have much to be positive about, but I have serious concerns, which have been expressed eloquently by others, about issues here and further afield.
I am concerned, for example, about the shameful situation in Hungary, which has been described many times today. While I am on that topic, let me tell UEFA that its decision not to permit the stadium in Munich to be lit up in Pride colours was shocking; its decision was a political one, regardless of how it chose to spin it, and that is not acceptable.
In America under Trump, we saw a deeply damaging rolling back of rights and protections for LGBT citizens. I am glad that a different approach is starting to become evident now, but although that change of tone is welcome, it also demonstrates clearly that we cannot take anything for granted on rights, particularly given the concerted efforts by people who are intent on distributing misinformation, which many Members have clearly described.
It is will be no surprise if I tell the House that I am firmly committed to Scottish independence. I would like us to be independent now—or preferably yesterday. I cannot wait for the referendum, which we will be having soon. I want Scottish independence because I believe we can have a more equal, open country. Crucial to that is being fair. My Scottish National party colleagues will know the following quote, which was popularised by Alasdair Gray and is inscribed on the wall outside the Scottish Parliament:
“Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”.
That is what I want to see: a better, fairer, more equal, inclusive country, where diversity is celebrated. Scotland has been helping to lead the way on LGBT equality. The SNP Government have a strong record of advancing and championing LGBT rights. They have delivered the most progressive and extensive equal marriage legislation, and the reformed blood donation rules, which we have heard about. It was good to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) about his work on the Turing Bill, which the Scottish Government enacted—and I could go on. The thing is that that all these great strides need to be our incentive to keep on and to do more.
What we have heard about the current climate is why education matters so much. I wish to mention the work of the TIE campaign; the more our young folk are helped and equipped to understand difference in a sensible, positive and inclusive way, the better. I have said to my teenagers before that there were no LGBT people in my school, which they found hard to believe; I went to quite a big school and if I think about that now, I know that that cannot possibly have been true. Yet that was the late 1980s and the days of section 28, and there were apparently no LGBT students. Of course I keep up with a number of school friends and it turns out that that patently was not the case; a number of them are actually gay but they were not able to say that as young people, because goodness knows what would have happened—whatever it was, it would not have been good.
We have come a long way in many respects, which is very welcome. Despite that, I am very aware that things are still not always easy, and education is crucial in making sure that young people know that they are grand, whoever they are, however they are. It is really important that others around them hear that too and that there are visible role models for them, such as the hon. Members here today, and champions such as Christina McKelvie, the Scottish Government Minister for Equalities and Older People, who is a tireless and inspiring advocate for equality, and Out for Independence, the SNP LBGT group. As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), our Out for Independence convenor Leeze Lawrence sadly died a couple of weeks ago, and I am sure that people in this Chamber would want to send their sympathies to her family and friends.
One thing I want to be very explicit about today, because it is, sadly, necessary—I am not the only one who has said that—is that I am very aware of the toxic environment in relation to trans people, particularly, but not only, online. It is something that I have had a number of discussions about lately, and I am grateful to people who have given me their time. I want to say very clearly that nobody’s identity should ever be up for debate. There should be no excuse for transphobia or for the othering or monstering of a group of people who are simply going about their lives—a group of people who may already be facing challenging situations and who are already marginalised.
Trans people should feel safe, secure and welcome; surely that is just the bare minimum that any of us should expect. In reality, I am heartsore at some of the utter bile that I have seen. It is disgraceful, and we need to call it out and step up and deal with it where possible. To be clear: the SNP welcomes trans people. We are glad to have you and we have committed and are committed to making sure that that is a reality. Although it is not always as straightforward as it should be, we will persist. I want to live, and I want my children to live, in a Scotland where everyone is safe and all our LGBT communities are safe, welcome and playing a full part in making our country the best it can be. For that to be possible, people have to be able to be themselves.
I have previously spoken at length about conversion therapy—as have others today—and how abhorrent it is. Nobody needs to be converted from being themselves. We should not accept that that is okay in any way. The harms that have been caused by so-called conversion therapy—because, of course, it is not a therapy—are terrible. We need to see the progress that the UK Government have promised, and we need to see it soon. To be clear: the SNP fully supports a ban. We know that making a ban fully comprehensive involves powers in reserved areas, so we would like the UK Government to get a move on and do what they said they were going to do. If they do not, the Scottish Government will look to move forward with their own legislation, within the powers that sit in the Scottish Parliament.
I conclude where I started: there are challenges, but when I look around the Chamber today I see that there is also much to be positive about, and we should celebrate that. We do, though, need to work on making sure that everyone has the ability to live freely, just as themselves. That really would be something we could all be proud of.
This has been an excellent debate on Pride Month. Indeed, I am exceptionally proud to respond to it on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition as shadow Minister for Women and Equalities and a proud LGBT parliamentarian. After today’s by-election in Batley and Spen, I hope that another LGBT MP will join us tomorrow, in Kim Leadbeater.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for securing this essential debate, and specifically to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) and the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) for bringing it forward.
I pay specific tribute to the moving contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden), and I thank the many contributors to this debate, including my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing North (James Murray), for Newport East (Jessica Morden), for Slough (Mr Dhesi), for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), for Luton North (Sarah Owen), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson).
On a personal level, as the Member of Parliament for Warrington North I am particularly pleased that there has been such a strong showing from the north-west, given the attempts by the Conservative party and the media to paint the interests of the so-called red wall and the interests of the LGBT community as somehow at odds with each other. I know that that could not be further from the truth in communities like mine.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton North was exactly right when she drew parallels between the hate crime and discrimination faced by other groups and that faced by the LGBT community. We all have more in common than that which divides us, and none of us are equal until we are all equal.
Pride Month is an opportunity to celebrate both who we are and how far we have come, and the giants on whose shoulders we stand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North said. It is also an opportunity to highlight ongoing issues and to challenge the Government and our society to go further to reach full equality for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people and other groups.
In the years since the Labour Government came to power in 1997, we have seen dramatic action to remove barriers for LGBT people, including the scrapping of the Conservatives’ homophobic section 28; the creation of civil partnerships; the introduction of same-sex adoption; and the protections of the Equality Act. And yes, we have subsequently seen the establishment of same-sex marriage, supported by the Labour party. Unfortunately, that progress is now under threat from Members on the Government Benches, who have been described by members of their own LGBT advisory panel as
“creating a hostile environment for LGBT people”.
Although this is a year when the pandemic has prevented the Pride marches that we all enjoy—indeed, I lament the fact that my wonderfully supportive mum sashaying down the streets of Manchester in her rainbow feather boa has been again postponed—these changes have made the UK a better country and one where community, corporate, media and political groups will wave the Pride flag this month, rightly recognising and celebrating these advances. I thank them for their visibility, but there is further to go.
Just last week, UEFA gave its logo a Pride makeover while refusing the city of Munich’s request to illuminate its stadium with rainbow colours for Germany’s match against Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, on the grounds that it was “political”. Well, I am sorry, but supporting LGBT rights is political. We are not a colourful add-on to brands that do not challenge ongoing homophobia or transphobia. A rainbow does not mean that every storm has ended.
I mention Orbán because he was only the second EU leader that the Prime Minister invited to visit after leaving the EU—rolling out the red carpet for Europe’s leading promoter of anti-LGBT ideology and laws. Under Orbán, as has been raised by many hon. Members across the House today, Hungary has banned same-sex adoption, implemented a section 28-style ban on gay people from featuring in school education materials or TV shows for under-18s, and ended legal recognition for gender changes. Actions speak louder than words.
Globally, 72 countries still criminalise same-sex relationships and the death penalty is threatened in eight of them. In more than half of the world, LGBT people may not be protected from discrimination by workplace law, and most Governments deny trans people the right legally to change their name and gender. What more can Ministers do to change this, particularly in the Commonwealth, where these rights are still criminalised in a majority of countries?
It is all very well for Government Members to laud their “Safe To Be Me” conference, but LGBT people in the UK are not safe to be with them. This is a Government who are actively rowing back on their commitments to LGBT people, from dropping their plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004, to delaying the urgent need to ban so-called conversion therapy, to attacking LGBT charities and pursuing a culture war against so-called woke issues—or, as they are better known, basic human rights.
Here in the UK, we have seen hate crimes against LGBT people surge in recent years. Reported hate crimes have almost tripled, from 6,655 in 2014-15 to 18,465 in 2019-20, and 80% of LGBT people do not report hate crimes. Behind those statistics, there are people hurting now. Although we are privileged in this place, even being an MP does not shield us from this. Since being elected, I have received a number of hateful communications sent to my parliamentary office based on my sexuality, and LGBT MPs receive disgusting abuse online and in person, as has sadly been raised by a number of hon. Members during this debate. The rise in hate crime is deeply concerning, yet the Government seem complacent and would rather spend hundreds of millions of pounds on a royal yacht than use it to crack down on hate crime. What will the Minister promise to do about it?
Trans people face daily discrimination, and it is vital that steps are taken to provide the equality of services and support that people need. Specialist health needs are often best addressed by trans health services offered by the NHS Gender Identity Development Service, but figures obtained by the BBC show that more than 13,500 transgender and non-binary adults are on the NHS GIDS waiting list in England. The average wait for a first appointment is 18 months, according to the national LGBT charity, the LGBT Foundation. That is in breach of patients’ legal entitlement under the NHS constitution to have their first appointment in a specialist service within 18 weeks of referral. The Government have promised to open three new clinics to reduce waiting lists by 1,600 by next year, but that will still leave more than 10,000 people, so what more will the Minister do, or will he blame that on the previous Health Secretary? Instead of taking action to end unlawful wait times and to update the Gender Recognition Act, the Government waste time and resources on stoking division within the LGBT community.
Last month marked 40 years since the first HIV cases were reported and, as we mourn and remember the members of our community who did not make old bones due to the AIDS pandemic, and the many elders whose support and wisdom my generation grew up without, we are all glad of how far we have moved on since then. In the UK, with our medical resources, HIV is no longer a death sentence. That is not yet the case throughout the world, however, and it is another reason why the Government should not cut our aid budget. We are waiting for Ministers to publish the HIV action plan that would set out action to end new cases of HIV in England by 2030 and specifically what that says about increased testing for HIV and the availability of PrEP.
All those issues lead to disproportionately high levels of poor mental health among LGBT people, with half saying they have experienced depression. That has been an even greater challenge during lockdown, particularly among younger people, who in many cases have been confined with people—sometimes including family—who are unaware of or hostile to their sexual identities. As we heard in the incredibly powerful and courageous speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton, that can manifest itself in many ways, including turning to drugs and alcohol to try to bury the hurt and trauma, as facing up to it without support can be too painful to bear.
Unfortunately, unlike with other equality groups, we do not have enough data to assess the impact of the pandemic on LGBT people. Have Ministers asked those questions, or sought to find out over the past year? What will they now do to reach out to LGBT people to ascertain the facts?
There is also some confusion as to what plan the Government are working on to end LGBT inequality. Will the Minister confirm to the House today whether the LGBT action plan—published in 2018 and endorsed by the Prime Minister during the general election campaign—is still the work plan being followed by the Government Equalities Office? If so, what funding is being committed to achieve those outcomes? If not, what plan is the GEO following?
It is absolutely unacceptable that the Government have failed to bring forward legislative proposals to ban conversion therapies. It was promised under the previous Prime Minister in 2018 and then delayed and delayed and delayed. Now fears are growing that it will not be a comprehensive ban after all. Labour is clear: we will support a ban on all harmful conversion practices for LGBT people. Anything less will be just another broken Tory promise. We must hope that the current Minister has not converted her party away from its previous commitment and we will be scrutinising the legislation closely when it is finally brought forward.
That is not an alarmist view. The Conservatives have made it clear that they are not a party interested in supporting LGBT people. Last November, the Conservatives ended the £4 million funding for anti-LGBT bullying in our schools, in a move that echoes Thatcher’s section 28. This year alone, we have seen their whole LGBT advisory panel disbanded, with members citing a hostile environment for LGBT people. I commend the principles of those advisers but, I am afraid, in this Pride Month, what Ministers should instead feel is shame.
First, I have to say that I am in something of an invidious position because normally I stand behind the Chair urging Ministers to be short. Now I am in the position of having to try to go long while ignoring the Bench Whips.
I pay tribute to the sponsors of the debate. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) and I shared a platform many years ago, probably around 2004, so I know her commitment on these issues over many years and I commend her passion, although I do not always share her analysis. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) is a co-sponsor. I will touch on some of the technical issues he raised, but he also gave a message about having a supportive family. Despite having a supportive family, I still encountered issues, which shows that, while we have made progress, we still have issues to come. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) made a powerful contribution. Indeed, the contributions from all the SNP Members who took part were particularly powerful and, in many ways, insightful.
The debate has, in the main, been one of good humour on both sides of the House. People may disagree on what still needs to be done, or disagree on the history of what has gone before, but the debate has allowed us to celebrate the achievements of what we have seen over the past few years while focusing on the issues that still remain. The first Pride event in this country was held in July 1972, inspired by the infamous Stonewall riots, and brave and determined people marched through Highbury fields in north London with one message: “We are here.” Today, that message remains the same: “We are here.” It is a simple message, but a powerful one. The importance of visibility cannot be underestimated, because to be seen is to be heard and to be counted, and that is the bedrock of our democratic society. There has been some discussion as to whether Pride is a protest or a celebration. In my view, it can be both.
I shall turn to some of the issues raised during the debate. A number of Members raised the international situation. Despite the changes that we have seen and can celebrate in the UK, globally there remain too many places where being LGBT is a daily struggle, where discrimination and violence are a daily occurrence and where tolerance and acceptance are a far-off dream. Members have commented that there are still 70 countries in the world today where it is illegal to be LGBT, and that in 11 of those, the death penalty remains on the statute book. While that remains the reality for millions of LGBT people around the world, it is important that Pride is seen not just as a month of events but as a global movement of visibility.
I am proud to say that this Government will host “Safe To Be Me”, a global equality conference that will bring together Government representatives, business leaders, civil society and international parliamentarians to address the safety of the LGBT community across the world. The conference is the next step in the UK’s journey towards equality and will focus on decriminalisation, progressing legislative reform, tackling violence and discrimination and ensuring equal access to public services for LGBT people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) made reference to the work that we need to do with the Commonwealth. In 2020, we announced an additional £3.2 million of UK-funded projects to help Commonwealth Governments and civil society groups to reform outdated laws and end the legacy of discrimination and violence that persists today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate and others asked whether the commitment from the Prime Minister would be delivered, and I can say that that commitment is still sound and will be delivered. I cannot promise the £40 million that my hon. Friend was asking for; nor can I deliver the reform of the drugs laws. Those matters are well outside the brief of today. In addition to the £3.2 million for work in the Commonwealth, we have given an extra £800,000 to support the vital work of civil society organisations through the Commonwealth Equality Network, which works tirelessly to protect the rights of fellow citizens and to ensure that LGBT people live free from discrimination and violence. I was particularly pleased to see the recent appointment of my noble Friend Lord Herbert of South Downs as the UK’s special envoy on LGBT rights. That further highlights this Government’s commitment to LGBT people at home and abroad.
I will turn to one or two of the specific areas that we have covered today, starting with health. Numerous Members have talked about some of the issues facing the community when accessing health services. That is a regular focus of all our discussions in this House, and it is a focus of this Government’s LGBT work. The appointment of Dr Michael Brady as the first national adviser for LGBT health is another example of our commitment to level up outcomes for LGBT people. Appointed in April 2019, Dr Brady has already achieved a great deal: liaising across NHS England, he has worked to ensure that LGBT health inequalities are given consideration in its long-term planning and implementation. He is working on improving data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity; he has held roundtables on LGBT health; and he has hosted the first national NHS LGBT health conference, highlighting issues that LGBT people experience. This is firmly on the agenda of our Health Department and our equalities team.
On education, our manifesto made clear our commitment to helping teachers tackle anti-LGBT bullying, and the Government continue to fund anti-bullying projects. The Department for Education is tendering for a new anti-bullying programme that will include LGBT in its mandates. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) asked some specific questions, and I will make sure that we get back to her with answers to all of them, but in particular, she asked about teacher training. Being married to a teacher, I know that this issue is covered, but I do not know whether it is covered to an extent that would satisfy the hon. Lady. I will ask my colleagues in the Department for Education who are responsible for that particular section of teacher training to make contact with her, so that we can have a proper discussion as to whether there are any gaps in teacher training that need to be filled.
Turning to one of the achievements, let us not forget that it was a Conservative-led Government who introduced same-sex marriage in 2013, and extended it to include couples in Northern Ireland last year. Between 2014 and 2017, 25,000 same-sex couples married in the UK, myself included—in fact, I think I was the first Conservative MP to use the legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) mentioned his 13-year civil partnership: those of us in this House know the strains of being a Member of Parliament, and will know the importance that we place on the support of our partners and our family. It is right to put on record that we pay tribute to our partners and our family for all they do to help us do our job in this place. That legislation on same-sex marriage has enabled tens of thousands to enjoy the rights, privileges, and joy that marriage can bring. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, who I know is disappointed about his delayed marriage, that I hope that this time next year, he will take part in this debate as a married man.
Of course, there is more still to do. Immense progress has been made since the first Pride march, but we still have to carry on with our progress to achieve full equality for LGBT people here at home. That is why the Government are committed to levelling up outcomes for LGBT people: as well as the groundbreaking global conference, we are committed to banning conversion therapy, tackling hate crime, and making it easier for trans people to access the support they need.
Will the hon. Lady give me one moment? I may answer her question, or I may not.
With regard to conversion therapy, as announced in the Queen’s Speech, the Government will bring forward legislation to ban that practice. In order to ensure that this legislation places victims at the centre of that work, we will launch a consultation in September this year to ensure we get it right. This will be an important and groundbreaking piece of legislation, and the first action that any UK Government have taken to truly end conversion therapy.
The issue of the role of faith is obviously very difficult. From a personal point of view, representing a very diverse constituency, I realise the challenges that any Government face in getting this ban right. In terms of an outright ban, all I can say is that the Government will work to ensure that the harmful practice of conversion therapy will be banned. It is not a question of whether; it is a question of when. It is not if; it is how we will be doing it. In my view, having led the first debate on banning conversion therapy in 2015, if it was easy, it would have been done by now. It is a complex issue that we need to get right, and I do appreciate the drive and the passion to ban conversion therapy. I share that passion, but equally, I want to ensure that we get it right.
Despite all our progress, people continue to face homophobic, biphobic and transphobic hate crime. The Government remain committed to tackling this and work is under way to improve reporting and recording of LGBT hate crime. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington asked how we would be improving not just reporting, but the training for our police officers so that they understand the issue and can respond to it better than they have in the past.
The Home Office funds multiple projects to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic hate crime, which includes funding Galop, the nation’s leading LGBT anti-violence charity, to deliver the national lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans domestic violence helpline.
I will turn, if I may, to the Gender Recognition Act. The Government are clear that people who are transgender should be able to live their lives as they wish. As announced in September 2020, after thorough consideration of the evidence and the wide range of views expressed in the previous Administration’s consultation, the Government believe that the current provisions of the GRA allow for those who wish to legally change their gender to do so. At the same time, the process of applying for a gender recognition certificate should be as straightforward and dignified as possible.
I will, if I may, turn to a couple of other issues. The hon. Member for Wallasey talked very powerfully about some of the impacts of the covid pandemic on LGBT people, such as homelessness, loneliness and not being in a supportive environment. Concerns have been raised that many LGBT people have been confined in homes with families who are not supportive of their sexual orientation or gender identity and with limited access to their support networks, leaving them feeling isolated. I have to say that I and my colleagues share that concern. The equality hub continues to engage with other Government Departments and organisations in the sector to understand how best to support LGBT people during the pandemic and, hopefully, in the final stages of it.
I thank the shadow Minister for that question. I can only promise to take that back to my colleagues in the Government Equalities Office. As she knows, I am not a portfolio holder, but I support the equalities team. I will make sure that that issue is taken back and that she gets a full answer to her question.
The shadow of the pandemic hangs over the community and all the changes and the progress that we wish to make for the community. Pride is a moment of visibility. It is a living tradition, and it is obviously made difficult through doing it online, rather than the physical manifestation of walking through the streets.
There was some debate as to which was the gayest Parliament in the world. I fear, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we may need to have a gay-off to find out which is the gayest Parliament. To be fair, it is rather a nice thing that the crown of the gayest Parliament rests with either the UK Parliament or the Scottish Parliament. The fact that it rests within these isles is a testament to the progress that we have made.
Before I close, I want to mention a couple of colleagues, who I am not sure are in their places. I have to say to the Opposition Whips that given that the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray) was a Pride steward, if he can corral the parade at Pride, I think he has a future in any Whips Office. I would also like to mention the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden). I have to say that I found his words humbling, and I can only say that his friends and family, and above all his constituents, will be enormously proud of what he has done. To bare your soul in such place as this, which can be an unforgiving place—but also a very forgiving place—took real courage, and I pay tribute to him for what he did today. I am sure he will find strength from colleagues across the House in the years to come.
Finally, I would like to pay tribute to the activists who have gone before us. None of us could be here as gay Members of Parliament or allies of the gay community, none of us could have civil partnerships or get married, and none of us could have access to PEP, PrEP and even possibly HIV treatments without the work that so many activists have done before us. I have to say that I stand in awe of those who have put themselves out there to change society on my behalf. As we emerge from these difficult times, we can all be glad that the value and power of Pride is no less and is not diminished since that first march through Highbury Fields in 1972, and I thank all Members for their contributions today.
Normally one would have two minutes to respond, but I have a maximum of nearly 20 minutes in which to wind up this debate. However, right hon. and hon. Members on all sides of the House would probably like to know that I am not going to use the full allocation, and they may just be able to get out of here fast enough to catch that last tube home.
We have had an extraordinarily powerful debate, with contributions on all sides of the House from the many parliamentarians who are out and proud in what may or may not be the gayest Parliament in the world, but is certainly more of a barrel of laughs than it was when I first got here in 1992. I would like to thank my co-sponsors, the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), for helping me to persuade the Backbench Business Committee to hold this debate today to recognise Pride 2021 at the end of this month of albeit mainly online celebrations. I have to say that it was not the most difficult job of persuasion I have ever had in my life, because the Backbench Business Committee was more than happy to accede to our wishes, and I think its members knew that we would have an occasion as moving and profound as the one we have had today.
I would like to highlight two speeches in particular. One was by the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley), talking about her particular struggle being raised north of the border in a very religious environment and coming to terms with her own sexual orientation. Of course, the other speech, which most right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned, was that by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden). I think he has received and will continue to receive very many virtual hugs for the speech he made, because we are not allowed actual ones at the moment.
I think we all agree that everyone should feel confident and respected in our society, whatever their sexual orientation. We all of us agree that that has often been very far from the case, and that we have had to fight as LGBT people for our community to create the circumstances, political and otherwise, where we could make progress towards that end. I think we would all agree that we have made significant progress towards that end in the last 20 to 25 years, from quite difficult beginnings when I first came into this House.
Remember that I am only the second woman ever to come out as a Member of this House, and the pioneering one who came out, Maureen Colquhoun, was deselected and lost her seat as a result of being outed by the gossip columnist Nigel Dempster in the Daily Mail in the most cruel and disgusting circumstances.
Those circumstances, by the way, have an echo in the way that trans people are now being treated in our national newspapers and in the toxic so-called debate that is happening on social media, which is precisely where we should not be having any debates. We should have debates in a calm atmosphere surrounded by respect rather than in the sewer that often is social media. People should understand, as I think they do in all parts of this House, how toxic that particular so-called debate is at the moment. We have to calm it down and ensure that people work together in respect so that we can go forward together.
I am disappointed—I hope that the Minister will not take this personally—that we did not have an Equalities Minister here today, because it is precisely their commitment, in the new Government post 2019, that we wanted to test. The debate that we had on conversion therapy in March was very disappointing in the way in which it was answered by the Minister for Equalities. Everyone in all parts of the House felt that way and communicated it to the Government after the debate in an unprecedented letter from the LGBT+ organisations in eight of the parties represented in this House. I am a little more reassured by what the Minister has said today. However, we must have, as soon as possible, a Bill that bans conversion therapy without loopholes and without religious exemptions, because religious exemptions or loopholes about trans children merely create the capacity for a coach and horses to be driven through the ban. We have not come this far to preside over the putting on to the statute book of something that is ineffectual and that allows this abuse and torture to continue. I hope that the Minister will take that back with him.
Many of us look forward to some progress on GRA reform. Again, the Minister was rather coy about what that would be or when it would happen. I was hoping that he would be able to give us a bit more information. If he would like to write to me with more information, that would be fantastic.
We need a commitment to getting sex and relationship education done properly in schools so that there is proper respect for all children as they are growing up and all children are equipped to deal with life as happy and healthy adults, which is equally important. That will be a contentious area if the Government do not stamp very quickly on some of the lies and incitements to hatred that are being planned and organised outside our schools.
I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate. I look forward to us making further progress. I also look forward to any kind of letter that the Minister might be able to send me to respond in more detail to some of those points. Happy Pride!
Thank you. What an excellent debate! It is always wonderful when we finish a little early, not because it is about saving time, but because it means that everybody who wished to contribute has done so to the full extent that they wished, which is why there have been such good speeches this afternoon.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Pride Month.