Thursday 24 February 2022
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Before I call Marion Fellows to move the motion, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that the Government have applied to appeal the findings of the High Court in relation to the lawfulness of the UK disability survey. These proceedings are therefore live before the courts under the terms of the House’s sub judice resolution. However, Mr Speaker has exercised discretion to allow reference to the issues concerned, given their national importance. Nevertheless, Members should remember that these matters are still before the courts, and they are encouraged not to discuss the legal proceedings in any detail whatever. I would also like to remind Members of the advice on covid.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to raise these matters. Around the world, 1 billion people live with a disability. According to World Vision 20% of the world’s poorest live with a disability, and according to the UN around 80% of disabled people live in developing countries. Here in the UK, nearly half of disabled people—49%—live in poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. In spite of that, disabled people’s rights at home and abroad have been consistently ignored and deprioritised by the UK Government.
The UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, or the UNCRPD, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2006 and ratified in the UK in 2009. It introduced obligations to
“ensure and promote the full realisation of all human rights and fundamental freedoms”
for all disabled people, including taking into account
“the protection and promotion of the human rights of persons with disabilities”
when making and assessing policy. Following a parliamentary inquiry on disability and development in 2014, the UK committed to become a global leader on this neglected and under-prioritised area in its bilateral development review. However, eight years and a global pandemic later, we have seen glacial progress in the policy area of disability rights in the UK.
Last week, the second global disability summit was hosted by the International Disability Alliance, the Government of Norway and the Government of Ghana. The aim of the summit was to mobilise efforts for the implementation of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, the principles of “leave no one behind” and building back better, and more inclusive programming with regards to covid-19. Although I was glad to see the UK Government making 18 commitments at last week’s summit, they will not meet the real needs of disabled people or allow us to do our duty as global citizens to protect the human rights of disabled people at home and abroad. Sadly, this was a missed opportunity once again, and the UK Government’s commitment fell way short of what is needed. Ahead of last week’s summit, the Scottish National party called on the UK Government to enshrine the UNCRPD in law. That was another missed opportunity to protect disabled people’s rights at home and abroad and to advance the rights of everyone.
The UN committee overseeing the UNCRPD not only called on the UK to incorporate the convention into legislation and allow domestic remedies for breaches in 2017, but has investigated the UK over “grave and systematic violations” of the convention in 2016. Although the UK Government recently published their progress in response to the recommendations late last year, the socioeconomic landscape for disabled people has changed beyond recognition since 2016, when the recommendations were made. Examples include coercion of disabled people or their carers to sign “do not resuscitate” orders, and failure to include disabled people in Government plans for financial and social support during the pandemic. Thus, disabled people’s rights remain a great cause for concern.
The Oxford University disability law and policy project and the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights report, “An Affront to Dignity, Inclusion and Equality”, published on 2 July 2020, referred to a
“failure of the government to implement properly its legal duties with respect to the rights of people with disabilities.”
The report stated:
“The government’s policymaking in response to the pandemic has failed to fulfil its own Public Sector Equality Duty under the Equality Act 2010 with respect to disabled people and its obligations under the United Nations Convention”.
Despite the progress that the UK Government claim to have made, disability organisations have expressed concerns to me and others that disabled people’s rights as set out in the convention are not being protected by the Government. One carer working with the Disabled Children’s Partnership shared her story:
“My name is Sarah, and I live in Devon with my daughter, who has an acquired brain injury...There is horrendous resentment towards disabled people in our society, and carers are massively undervalued. As one of the richest countries in the world with an apparent commitment to human rights, you would have thought the UK could respect disabled children and their families—but we are treated horrifically. We need to change attitudes, change services, and fight the injustices that affect disabled children and families”.
Another carer, Joanna, told me:
“The system is broken....It doesn’t get us the services we have a right to to live a good quality of life, and makes us spend a fortune. It needs reform”.
The national disability strategy, published last summer, committed to being “mindful” of the UNCRPD in its implementation—but being mindful of disabled people’s rights is just not enough. In Scotland, as part of taking forward the 30 progressive, bold and ambitious recommendations of the national taskforce for human rights leadership for a new human rights framework for Scotland, a new human rights Bill will be introduced to the Scottish Parliament during this parliamentary Session. The Bill will incorporate four international human rights treaties, including the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. It will be a significant and historical milestone in the Scottish human rights journey. It will give effect to a wide range of internationally recognised human rights—belonging to everyone in Scotland—as far as possible within devolved competence, and it will strengthen domestic legal protections by making them enforceable in Scots law. It will also demonstrate global human rights leadership, placing Scotland at the forefront of human rights legislation and, most importantly, practice. The inclusion of those rights will empower people, enabling them to claim and enforce their rights in multiple ways domestically, including in a Scottish court. Incorporation of the CRPD will give greater impetus to public bodies to remove barriers and support disabled people to participate fully in society, such as by being able to access information and services and living independently with dignity.
The Scottish Government have created a comprehensive delivery plan to help Scotland meet the requirements of the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. “A Fairer Scotland for Disabled People” was the Scottish Government’s delivery plan for that. It covered 2016 to 2021 and aimed to make equality of opportunity, access to services and independent living a reality for all disabled people in Scotland. Flowery phrases are all well and good, but setting challenging targets is the correct way to push forward on the rights of disabled people. That sometimes leads to not achieving all targets, but overall it leads to improvements in the lives of disabled people. The Scottish Government have committed to publishing a new disability equality plan, which will be published this year. Will the Minister follow the Scottish Government’s lead, commit to enshrining the UNCRPD in law and champion disability rights at home and on the global stage?
The UK Government have exhibited a continual pattern of deprioritising disability inclusion in their policy and decision-making processes. One of the key recommendations following the 2017 investigation by the UN committee into the UK’s implementation of the convention was to involve disabled people and disabled people’s organisations in planning and implementing all laws and policies affecting disabled people. The UK Government said that because the convention was ratified, all UK Government Departments “need” to consider it when developing policies that affect disabled people. However, UKIM, the UK independent mechanism for monitoring progress on the UNCRPD report, said in October 2018 that it
“remains seriously concerned about the continued failure of the UK Government to conduct an assessment of the cumulative impact on disabled people of multiple policy and law reforms in relation to living standards and social security.”
That was exemplified by the national disability strategy published in summer last year, which beyond being, frankly, a lot of bluff and bluster with no meaningful action, failed to consult disabled people in an adequate manner. Disabled people need more than warm words and a surface-level appearance of engagement with the disabled community. Will the Minister commit to properly engaging with disabled people and disabled people’s organisations in planning and implementing all laws and policies that affect disabled people at home and abroad?
Just last month, the High Court ruled that the UK Government’s attempt to involve disabled people and disabled people’s organisations in the consultation that shaped the strategy was both unlawful and inadequate. The chief executive officer of Disability Rights UK, speaking about the strategy, said that it was
“disappointingly thin on immediate actions, medium-term plans and the details of longer term investment”
and that there were
“scant plans and timescales on how to bring about vastly needed improvements to benefits, housing, social care, jobs, education, transport, and equitable access to wider society.”
Some of those issues are devolved, but I am not just talking about people in Scotland: I want people across the UK, especially those with disabilities, to have what is their right. I refer to what I said earlier about challenging targets and how the Scottish Government try to improve the lives of disabled people. On 3 February 2022, the Department for Work and Pensions was refused an opportunity to appeal against the High Court’s ruling. Notwithstanding what you have already said, Mr Stringer, will the Minister confirm whether the Department intends to apply for permission to appeal that decision to the Court of Appeal?
The organisation Sightsavers has raised concerns about the vagueness of the commitments made at the global disability summit last week and about a continual lack of transparency on the implementation of disability inclusion policy by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. For example, it has expressed concern about the UK Government’s commitments to move from equality awareness to equality transformation, which encourages collaborative work to empower women and girls, people with disabilities, and other socially marginalised people. The commitments made at that summit risk being little more than aspirational language with no measurable objectives and few or no financial commitments or plans to report results. While the Scottish Government welcome the UK Government’s commitment to fund the Global Action on Disability network, the FCDO has not made any other financial pledges in its commitments. Without tangible reporting on the results, they hold very little weight in upholding the UNCRPD and protecting disability rights on the global stage, so will the Minister join me in asking the FCDO to make the monitoring framework and action plan that will accompany the disability, inclusion and rights strategy available publicly?
Globally, disabled people are disproportionately impacted by poverty, natural disasters, healthcare barriers and covid-19, but they are still excluded from many aid programmes, which do not take disabled people’s needs into account. Unfortunately, we do not compare completely favourably in a global context, as here in the UK, poverty is consistently higher for disabled people. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, there is a gap of around 12 percentage points in poverty rates between disabled and non-disabled people.
The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, highlighted in a 2018 statement concerns about changes to legal aid since 2012, which he said had
“overwhelmingly affected the poor and people with disabilities”,
meaning that they were
“effectively deprived of their human right to a remedy.”
In November 2020, the UK Government announced that they intended to spend 0.5% of gross national income on official development assistance in 2021, down from 0.7% in the seven years from 2013. An unpublished impact assessment of the reductions, written in March 2021, reportedly concluded that this would result in a significant reduction in the number and size of programmes targeted at women, girls and disabled people.
World Vision found that less than 0.5% of all international aid targets disability inclusion. Aid was equivalent to less than $1 per person with disabilities in developing economies. The five most disability inclusion-focused donors target just 3% of their aid to this purpose. The SNP was front and centre of the attacks on the Government’s shameful decision to cut aid by over £4 billion this year and by £2.2 billion last year. The unpublished impact assessment I referred to found that this would result in a significant reduction in the number and size of programmes targeted at disabled people. Only six of the 1,161 aid programmes funded by the UK Government had disability inclusion as their primary objective in 2018.
The new disability inclusion strategy launched by the FCDO last week said that it will work to
“accelerate implementation of the UNCRPD”
globally by supporting Governments to fulfil their responsibilities under the convention through legislation and development and through improving local accountability mechanisms.
I congratulate the hon. Member for obtaining this debate; she is making an excellent opening speech. Would she agree that the UK Government must lead by example by implementing the convention here in the UK before they can preach to anybody on the world stage?
I totally agree with the hon. Member. That is one of the reasons I wanted this debate. I want the Government to commit. The FCDO’s new disability inclusion strategy said that it will work to accelerate the implementation of the UNCRPD globally. Well, as the hon. Member said, the Government cannot preach to others about what they have not done themselves. The strategy lacks any solid financial or measurable commitments to protect disability rights on the global stage.
Will the Minister join me in asking the FCDO to commit to tripling the number of aid projects that have disability inclusion as their primary objective by 2023, prioritising grassroots disability aid projects and ensuring that disabled people are not further excluded from global aid? Further, will she join me in asking the FCDO to commit to including disability in the eligibility criteria for applying for refugee status in the UK, in recognition of the disproportionate disadvantages disabled people face globally?
The UNCRPD seeks to ensure and promote the full realisation of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all disabled people. Being “mindful” of human rights is not enough; the incorporation of the convention into domestic law will provide the legal enforcement and protection required. It is time for the UK Government to follow the UN committee’s recommendations, match Scotland’s ambition and enshrine the UNCRPD in law, to champion disability rights on the global stage and here in the UK.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing this debate, which is both important and very timely. I absolutely agree with the central tenets of her excellent speech, and I particularly agree with her on one point: how can we possibly preach internationally when we cannot get our own house in order?
However, I want to look at some of the positives. In the current context of global mayhem—I think that is probably the best way to refer to what is going on in the world at the moment—it is always good to see areas, and policy areas in particular, where countries can unite and show a joint commitment, although, as the hon. Member said, for the UK to be preaching internationally is not particularly seemly; let me put it that way.
The hon. Member mentioned the investigation that the UN’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities undertook back in 2016, which happened because of the concern about the breaches that the UK Government were believed to be making, contrary to the articles in the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. As she rightly said, the committee found that the Government’s policies had led to “grave or systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people. I gave evidence to the committee back in 2016, but I will pay tribute to the hundreds of disabled people and disabled people’s organisations that really drove the committee’s inquiry.
The committee’s report emphasised the impact of changes to housing benefit entitlement, eligibility criteria for personal independence payment and social care, and the closure of the independent living fund. It showed that the austerity policies brought in by the Government in 2010 to reduce public spending, such as the destructive bedroom tax and the damaging cuts to the social security and social care budgets, are infringing the rights of disabled people. Despite the rhetoric from successive Administrations, we have seen sick and disabled people being failed consistently. And the response to the UN’s findings? The Government dismissed them out of hand.
In 2017, the committee held a session in Geneva to examine further the Government’s failures to protect and promote disability rights. During that session, once again we saw the UK Government obfuscate and dodge key questions from the committee that covered all articles in the convention. The UK was repeatedly told by the committee that it was not a global leader on disability rights, and the chair stated that cuts to social protection, which was how the committee referred to social security in the UK, were a “human catastrophe” that was being visited on disabled people.
The UK’s human rights watchdog stated that the examination by the UN had seen a “disconnect” between the UK Government’s replies and
“lived experiences of disabled people”.
In conclusion, the rapporteur stated that the committee was
“deeply concerned about the lack of recognition of the findings and recommendations of the conducted inquiry”.
The committee’s “concluding observations” report called on the Government to
“initiate a process to implement and follow-up the recommendations issued by the Committee”
in its inquiry report. Unfortunately, that never happened. Instead, as the hon. Member has already mentioned, we see an ongoing onslaught against disabled people, or at the very least action without any consideration of the impact on them, which is against the CRPD and against our own equality laws.
Just this week, we have seen the lifting of covid restrictions. Few people know that disabled people were more likely to die of covid than any other group—60% of covid deaths were of disabled people. There is an additional burden when we adjust for underlying conditions. There is still an extra risk that someone will die just because they are disabled. As the restrictions are lifted today, what assessment has there been of the impact on disabled people? Are they and their families being provided with free testing? What additional support is being provided if they still have to self-isolate?
Yesterday we had a debate in this very room about how children are being subjected to sexual exploitation and abuse. We heard about how those targeted were predominantly children and young people with disabilities and learning difficulties being groomed online. Everyone present at that debate—including the Minister—was rightly outraged. Where there are system failures in local institutions, councils and the police, they should be exposed and held to account. But what about the Government’s culpability? What assessment did they undertake of the risks to safeguarding, with council and police budgets cut to the bone?
A few weeks ago, the Government were yet again found to have unlawfully discriminated against disabled people in two cases. In view of your initial statement, Mr Stringer, I will not stretch that point, but I need to make people aware that the first case was to do with the consultation on the national disability strategy. I appreciate that the Government intend to appeal in that case, but the second case upheld an appeal that the Government had decided to pursue against two severely disabled men who had been transitioned on to universal credit after having been on employment and support allowance, with additional support in disability premiums. They had lost all those premiums, and the High Court upheld that that was a discriminatory act against them. The Government decided to appeal that decision, but it was upheld against them. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw was absolutely right when she said that if the Judicial Review and Courts Bill is enacted, the first case that I mentioned—the one on which you, Mr Stringer, have said we must not go into detail—would not have even happened. That is what this Government are doing.
Yesterday I heard from a constituent about the only station in my Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency, which has appalling access issues. You probably know it, Mr Stringer. It has a bridge; if someone has mobility issues, there is no way they can get over it. They can go to Manchester, but they cannot come back. It has been decided that the disability toilet will be closed too, which is absolutely outrageous. We have been trying for years to get the Government to recognise that they are not enabling proper access for disabled people to go to work, which is what the Government say they want all disabled people to do.
It is the attack on disabled people through the social security system over the last decade that I want to close on. A few weeks ago, the Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2022 was laid before the House. It announced a 3.1% uplift in social security support from April, including for disabled people. We know that inflation is currently running at 5.5% and is estimated to increase to more than 7% in the spring, which is, in effect, a real-terms cut in support to social security claimants.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has identified a cut in support to disabled households of £6,500 since 2010 as a result of cuts to social security and public services. Accordingly, half of the households living in poverty have a disabled person living in them. I recently asked the Work and Pensions Secretary what assessment had been made of the impact of the 3.1% uprating on disabled people, but one had not been undertaken. Again, that is contrary to our equality laws, and it just shows the lack of commitment to disabled people at home and abroad.
Yesterday, the Work and Pensions Committee took evidence on pensioners living in poverty. I am sure you will not be surprised, Mr Stringer, that disabled people are disproportionately represented in that group as well. There are sanctions targeted at disabled people, woeful health assessments—I could go on. Separate from the covid deaths, we have no idea of the scale of the deaths of disabled people, because this Government are not making that transparent. It is an absolute disgrace that our public policies contribute to the deaths of our most vulnerable citizens.
I have been calling for an independent inquiry into this for a number of years and I will not stop until that happens. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw for bringing this debate forward, because this Government’s treatment of disabled people is an outrage.
I appreciate being called to speak early in the debate, Mr Stringer. I am nearly always at the end of the queue. I am not worried about that, by the way—I always think that getting to speak is more important than when I am called. The good book says that the first shall be last and the last shall be first; today, I have been elevated to one of the first, so I am very pleased.
When the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) asked me, as I am sure she did everyone, “Would you come down and speak?” I did not have to be asked twice, because this subject is of particular interest to me. I will mention a couple of things that I think will resonate with other Members present. I thank the hon. Lady for her tireless work on behalf of those with disabilities—I want to put that on the record. It is often said in this House, but she truly is a disabilities champion. I have heard the word “champion” used so many times in the Chamber that I think it has lost its importance, but when I say it today, I mean it. I want her to know that.
The hon. Lady has perfectly underlined that we have obligations to those with disabilities. I share her frustration and that of the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), who is a good friend as well. I say this respectfully to the Minister and the Government, but I have seen how the Government pick and choose how they interpret those obligations. In Northern Ireland, they chose to interpret the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women as a legal obligation; they circumvented the Northern Ireland Assembly and, in so doing, circumvented the principle of devolution. That is not what this debate is about, but I just want to put that on the record.
At the same time, the Government have refused to uphold the protections to prevent unborn babies from being terminated for a disability as repairable as a cleft lip. Under their interpretation, having Down’s syndrome is reason enough not to live. I find that absolutely unbelievable and reprehensible. I believe we are witnessing something that is morally wrong, and I do not think I will ever be able to understand or accept that rationale. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw has outlined many further failings of this Government pertaining to our obligations to disabled people.
I want a society where disabled people have the same rights and opportunities as we have and where they are treated equally. That is the society I want to live in. Maybe I dream too much, or maybe, through this debate, we have an opportunity to express the hope that every one of us can have the same opportunities in life.
I want to give some examples to illustrate the issues raised by the hon. Lady, although they are absolutely frustrating. I have a full-time member of staff in my office who is dedicated solely to filling out forms for those who are unwell. Unfortunately, she is never out of work. Her name is Yvonne; she is an important member of staff. All my staff are important, of course, but Yvonne has a very important role to play. I wish I could bring her here to explain in her own down-to-earth way the living nightmare that some of our disabled people endure to get their disability benefits.
One of my constituents, Sharon, was born with a severe mental impairment. I know the young lady and her now elderly parents, who have cared for her for 50 years. Due to the distressed mental impairment she has, she used to simply watch the TV and walk up and down the living room. However, she is now 50, and her mobility has decreased. After 50 years of being on her feet, pacing up and down the hall, she needs hip replacements. There is something seriously wrong when a Government Department questions whether such an operation is necessary when it is very obvious that it is. In this case, there was a successful conclusion, but only after a fight. Everything I do for disabled people is a fight, and there are always so many obstructions put in front of us.
Consultants have questioned Sharon’s ability to go through rehab after the operation and do not feel it will be successful. She cannot deal with the pain of walking and mentally cannot deal with sitting down for prolonged periods, because that is how her condition affects her. Her disability living allowance, as it was then called, was up for renewal. After that was explained, a house call was set up and Sharon was asked to do a number of physical exercises that she was physically and mentally unable to do. Her parents told me that she screamed for hours afterwards due to the upset that it caused her. Is that fulfilling our obligation? No, with great respect, I do not think it is. Her medical records clearly indicated her difficulties, yet the form-filling and the check-box exercise put her and her elderly parents through an awful time getting her benefits, which should never have been in question.
My brother Keith was injured in a motorbike accident some 18 years ago. It left him unable to do multiple tasks. Every one of us in this room is blessed. We can walk down to the room below; we can chat and walk, have a drink and eat a biscuit, use a mobile phone—we can multitask. He can only do one thing at a time, let alone fill in all the questionnaires that our mother and I have to go through as his court appointees. We are appointed by the court because he does not have the ability to look after his financial affairs. That is a fact of life; it is what happens. But then a Department comes along with so many exercises for someone to go through that they feel downtrodden and burdened almost before they even start. They are asked, “Can you stand on one leg?” Keith cannot stand on one leg; he would fall over. People such as Sharon, the young lady I mentioned, are asked to do things that they cannot physically do, which should be clear from their notes.
That is the story of just one of my constituents, many of whom suffer from mental health issues. They are put through the mill when a cursory glance at their medical records would show everything that needs to be shown. I welcome efforts to get those who are able to work back to work; I want them to do that, and they want to get back to work too, if possible. But tormenting—I use that word on purpose—people who are unable to is simply not acceptable. It is time that our definition of “disabled” gave more protection than the disability discrimination Act offers at this stage.
I represented a constituent with ulcerative colitis who worked for the civil service. She had her DDA form in, but she was still medically retired at the age of 27. She is a lovely young girl; I have known her since she was a wee tote, as we would say back home, and I know her parents very well. The civil service could not find a flexible way of working around her disability, so I went to appeal with her as her DLA said she was able to care for herself. Really? Had they not comprehended the seriousness of the issue? One Department said, “You’re fine” and another said, “You’ll never work again,” and the doctor was saying, “Give her antidepressants to deal with the upset and effect of it all.” I question whether those Departments work hand in hand.
I know that others want to speak, so let me conclude with this. How dreadfully sad it is that the Government’s own employees do not have the flexibility to allow them to stay in work when they so desperately want to do so, especially now that staff can easily and effectively work from home.
I commend the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, the other hon. Members who have spoken and those who will contribute later. I am confident that the Members here today, as well as others who are not present, have compassion for the people we are here to help—those with disabilities and those who cannot cope with the troubles of life in the way that we can. We are privileged to be Members of Parliament and to be able to help others, and to get paid to do it. One of my great pleasures is helping people who are disabled and those who have real problems on the journey of life that they tread, and today’s debate gives us an opportunity to do that.
Something must be done about the way that our disabled people are viewed and treated—not by those speaking in the debate and not by the Minister, but we really need central Government and the civil service to have a better grasp. The change needs to start in this place and work its way down. All the disabled people we are speaking on behalf of today should have the benefit of a Government with compassion and a system that understands them, and should get the help they need when they need it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I normally speak before the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), so it is an honour to follow him this afternoon. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) for drawing attention to this important topic. I want to commend her and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for ensuring that this issue is always at the forefront of their campaigning, and for giving a voice to many constituents across our respective constituencies. In these two Members of Parliament we see fantastic champions for disabled people.
As we know, the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities was a landmark treaty, signed in 2007. It places a positive obligation on Governments to promote the full equality of disabled people under the law. It is fantastic that over 200 countries recognise the convention. However, I want to take a moment to reflect on what it says about the place of disabled people in society, both here and abroad, that we even need to state that disabled people are fully equal citizens. Surely that is so obvious that it should not need to be said, but too often we see disabled people and accessibility treated as an afterthought. Often it is not conscious discrimination, but a reflection of how much society is built around those who are not disabled.
I confess that I was not fully aware of the scale of the issue until a wheelchair user joined my team. Walking around with him, even in this place, I have seen at first hand the small everyday things that he is disadvantaged by: a dropped kerb on the side of the road that is not matched by the one on the other side, public venues that do not have a disabled toilet, and light switches that are placed far too high for him to reach. I could go on, but my point is that disabled people simply should not have to put up with workaround solutions to simple everyday activities, such as turning on lights. These are things that, if we are honest, most of us in this room take for granted.
Sadly, I have heard from several constituents in Vauxhall who have invisible disabilities, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or dyspraxia, who are afraid to speak out and ask for the support they need in the workplace for fear of being judged. These experiences are replicated for millions of people up and down the country who do not have their access needs met. It will not change until we start to take the UN convention’s words seriously and proactively consider accessibility in the planning, design and organisation of everything we do—it must be front and centre. By fixing problems with a sticking-plaster here and there, we will never truly live up to our UN obligations.
Any of us could become disabled at any time, so prioritising access future-proofs all of us and enables the valued perspectives of disabled people to be heard. Will the Minister please ensure that accessibility is no longer treated as an afterthought, and work on a cross-party basis to deliver the transformative change that disabled people need and deserve?
It is a pleasure to speak under your stewardship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing this important debate and on her continued campaigning and championing of such an important issue.
The UN convention on the rights of disabled people—I will say disabled people because I subscribe to the social model of disability, so I will refer to it in that context going forward—is timely because it follows the global disability summit, which was the second of its kind. Many of us will remember that the first summit was hosted by the UK, and I made a number of comments back then about the Government leading by example. Disappointingly, we have progressed in years but there is still no change from the Government.
The convention was established in 2006, and it was the last Labour Government who ratified it. Twelve years on, there has been no implementation of it by this Government. As other hon. Members have asked: why is that?
The pillars of the convention are to ensure health, education, employment, access to justice and information, personal security and, most importantly, independent living for disabled people. It is the benchmark, the blueprint, the gold standard of all policy making to ensure that disabled people can live independently and that we have equal rights: it is about equality. If we say that we are serious about equality, the convention must absolutely be the blueprint for it.
Unfortunately, during more than a decade of austerity we have seen cuts to social security, to social care and to every public service. As I continue to say, that has created a hostile environment for disabled people. Almost half of people in poverty in this country are disabled or live with a person who is disabled. I think we all know, as we proceed further through a cost of living crisis, that that is only going to get worse. The convention is clear on support for disabled children, but there is a gaping funding gap of more than £2 billion in support for those disabled children. Their families report that they are struggling to support them without adequate support.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) mentioned, the independent living fund—the clue is in the title—was cut and scrapped, and was not replaced with a proper independent living fund or support to enable disabled people to live independently. What is the Minister doing to support people in social care? Although the funding that was announced last year is welcome, we all know that it certainly is not enough, because more than 18,000 people’s access to care and support has been affected by the cut.
We all know about the social security cuts; we were all here for the debate about them that I led a few weeks ago. The cuts to employment and support allowance, which remove the work-related activity component, and the changes to PIP have made things incredibly difficult for ill and disabled people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth highlighted, we need an independent public inquiry into the deaths caused by the cuts. As we all know, far too many people have lost their lives—let that sink in—as a result of cuts to their social security, which is the very thing that is supposed to be a safety net enabling us to live. Sadly, that is happening on this Government’s watch.
I appreciate that the Minister is not the Minister for Disabled People, but ultimately, she is the one who is here and she is responsible, so I really hope that when she responds, she will address some of these issues.
As a result of the cuts to all those services and support, the UK became the first nation state to be investigated for human rights violations against disabled people. That highlights that everything we had been lobbying and campaigning for before I even entered this place was true. I commend the thousands of disabled people who really fought for that investigation to take place. What did the UN committee conclude? Members have already said it, but we cannot say it enough: in 2016, the UK Government were guilty of “grave or systematic violations” of the rights of disabled people. I want the Minister and everyone here to let that sink in. They are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. How can that be right?
What is more worrying is that since the UN commissioner looked at independent living, social security, the right to work and so on, the Government have been required to provide annual updates to the UN committee, but in last year’s update they failed yet again to address the main challenges. Why? Why will the Government not carry out a cumulative impact assessment on all those areas, including independent living, poverty and inclusion in our communities and in employment? I and many other Members from across the House have called for that, but there has been no progress. The years of inaction raise the question: are the Government taking that UN inquiry seriously?
We know the impact that the pandemic has had on disabled people; the numbers do not lie. Six out of 10 covid-related deaths were of people who had underlying health conditions or were disabled. That is a scandal. At the start of the pandemic the Government failed to provide proper signed interpretation; they were found to be liable for that in the courts—we know that happened. We also know that the £20 uplift to universal credit was not applied to those on legacy social security, 2 million of whom were ill and disabled people.
The pandemic has really shone a light on how badly this Government are treating disabled people. This week, when the Prime Minister declared the end of all restrictions, there was still no plan on how we are going to protect the most vulnerable, some of who are disabled. Where is this plan and where is the equality impact assessment? Ultimately the Government do have an obligation to do that.
Other Members have spoken about the issues around consulting disabled people and their organisations. I will not go into detail on the national disability strategy, because the Government are planning to appeal the High Court decision ruling it unlawful. Let us be clear: that is just another decision in a long line of court rulings where the Government were found to be acting unlawfully against disabled people. The Labour party has been clear in its support for disabled people, and we will continue to hold this Government to account for their treatment of disabled people. As I said at the start, we ratified the UN convention; it is time for the Government to implement it. I ask the Minister to tell us why the Government are still choosing not to, and when they will implement it. Does she agree with all of us that the convention should be implemented? That would be a good start.
We disabled people make up a large proportion of the UK population. We face a cost of living crisis. There are so many challenges confronting all of us in society, but we must give a thought to those who are so vulnerable, many of whom are disabled. I ask the Minister, please, to consider that when she responds.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I think it is a really important debate, and I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) secured the time today and delivered an excellent speech, which covered many important issues. I know that she, like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), is very focused on this issue, and I have no doubt that she will continue to be. I hope that the important questions that she put to the Minister are answered, because I have no doubt that she will keep asking them; they really matter. The other speeches today have underlined why that is the case: the impact of inaction on the lives of disabled here and across the world is profound. The additional vulnerabilities that often come with a disability make that doubly concerning as we—hopefully—emerge from the covid pandemic.
We have heard from hon. Members about the important voices of disability organisations. I will take a moment to refer to one of those located in my constituency. East Renfrewshire Disability Action group do a powerful job advocating at home, but also for people further afield, on disability issues. We heard a familiar tale about access issues; I know that East Renfrewshire Disability Action group would find that tale very familiar. The power of the work that goes on, day in and day out, is a testament to those groups. It should also give us pause for thought as to why groups of disabled people are having to do the heavy lifting that should be done in Parliament. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) spoke very powerfully about why that matters.
The remarks of the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) were key, because she spoke about big and small things, and why both matter. She spoke very clearly about why disabled people should not have to put up with the lack of focus in this place. It speaks ill of us all—and of our priorities—that that undoubtedly is the case. I commend her for pointing out the importance of recognising invisible disabilities in the context of this conversation.
As we all know, and as I am sure the Minister would recognise, the inequalities that people with disabilities face in everyday life have been exacerbated during the pandemic. As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said, in the UK half of people with a disability live in poverty. Progress in moving that on in recent years has been very slow, and I fear that covid has arrested it entirely. My hon. Friend also noted that although the SNP welcomes the UK Government’s 18 commitments at this year’s global disability summit, the FCDO has not gone far enough in that regard. The commitments do not meet the needs of disabled people.
That takes us to the vexed issue that we have heard about from a number of hon. Members—the UK Government’s failure to agree to enshrine in law the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, which the Scottish Government will do. The hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) outlined very well that the UK Government cannot preach to others when they are not even taking that very straightforward action themselves. We need to think about all of that in the context of the new reality that covid has wrought.
Around 1 billion people in the world are living with a disability. Some 80% of them are in developing countries, and there are higher levels of disability among women, the poor and the elderly. We can read that through to lots of other vulnerabilities that really exacerbate the situation. We have noted the reason why that really matters for policy making, but having listened to the debate so far, my concern is that the UK Government’s “being mindful” approach is not bold enough, is not ambitious enough, and will not deal with the inequalities that people face daily. The hon. Member for Battersea hit the nail on the head when she talked about that in the context of equality, which is what this is all about: it is about the lack of equality for disabled people, which leads to what is often almost a hostile environment for people to try to navigate. That clearly should not be the case, but it is the situation that people face here in the UK and globally. We have a responsibility here to acknowledge that, and to act. As we heard from the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth, the additional vulnerability is not factored into the UK Government’s decision making. That means that we are in a somewhat difficult situation in trying to pin down some of the challenges that people have, which is extraordinary, because we do not have the data to allow us to do so.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw eloquently set out, the Scottish Government have a number of concerns in relation to the UK Government’s decision not to enshrine the UNCRPD in law. Their commitments do not contain enough detail about measurable objectives; the language is rather vague, to say the least, so it is difficult for us to see how the UK Government will be able to provide tangible results. As I said, such things are not measurable or quantifiable, so I hope the Minister can say something about my hon. Friend’s questions on that.
We have called for progress on a number of things, and it would also be good to hear from the Minister on the number of aid projects that have disability inclusion as their primary objective, and on the UK’s support for grassroots disability aid projects. We should ensure that there are proactive steps to prevent further exclusion of disabled people from global aid, and we must look at disability in the context of the eligibility criteria for applying refugee status. Those are only some of the issues on which the UK Government need to make progress. Of course, there is also the issue of the percentage spend on official development assistance, which is something that underpins all that and is a cause for significant concern. The reality is that many aid projects are not specifically aimed at disability inclusion, so disabled people are often left behind in aid spending.
Whether we are looking here or farther afield, the bottom line is that poverty is consistently higher for disabled people, and that impacts on life chances and choices. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, there is a gap of around 12% in poverty rates between disabled and non-disabled people.
The hon. Member for Strangford was very powerful in setting out why, on the domestic front particularly, we need to see progress to improve the life chances and life choices for disabled people, and to ensure that basic dignity is available for them. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth spoke very powerfully about the failures of the UK social security system in terms of disability. I do not intend to repeat all that she said, but I hope that the Minister has some responses to her points, because those issues make such a difference to people’s daily lives.
I would, however, like to speak about the missing employment Bill, which I would dearly love to see appearing. I have been saying that for a long time, so I am not sure that I hold out a huge amount of hope. However, it is important—and increasingly so, as we move out of the pandemic—that we have the opportunity to look again at things like flexible working, which can make such a difference to people’s ability to secure and sustain employment. That kind of issue, which really has a profound effect on the lives of disabled people, is an illustration of why all the elements of policy need to be considered by the UK Government when they are looking at disability and how best to move things forward.
I will conclude by asking that the Minister responds to the key questions that have been put. I am reinforcing that this issue really matters, because the impact on people’s lives cannot be understated. Disabled people need far more than our warm words and positive sentiments. We must ensure that we are taking action that goes right below the surface to improve the lives of people here and across the world. The best way to start doing that is for the UK Government to step up, enshrine the convention in law, and take some of the clear, positive steps set out today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank everyone who has contributed today. I highlight in particular the work of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), and congratulate colleagues from across the House, including my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), and, indeed, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), on their contributions. I am grateful to them for raising such important issues.
I also pay tribute both to disabled people and to the organisations that represent them. In particular, I thank those who carry out important work in the constituency of Reading East, which I have the privilege of representing, both in the town of Reading and in the neighbouring town of Woodley.
It is important that the decisions we take in this House are led by disabled people and experts, and informed by experience. As we have heard, in 2009 the UK pledged to follow the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, on the basis that it protects and promotes the human rights of disabled people, including by eliminating disability discrimination, enabling disabled people to live independently in the community, ensuring an inclusive education system and that disabled people are protected from all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse. I am glad that that there is agreement across the House on that, and we are right to seek to take it forward. I believe that we must go much further in our efforts to uphold human rights and equality for disabled people, and that is why the UN convention on the rights of disabled people should now be incorporated into British law.
I should also add that I am proud of the last Labour Government’s record on improving the lives of people with disabilities, whether in cutting NHS waiting times, introducing free bus travel—a subject very dear to my heart, as those who know me well may remember—and introducing the Equality Act 2010. We know that well-designed policies, implemented and resourced well, and delivered properly, can transform the lives of disabled people.
I also pay tribute to the individual efforts of many Ministers and Government staff and Back Benchers during the years of the coalition and Conservative Governments. However—and I would like the Minister to reflect on this—there is so much more we should be doing.
Figures published last month show that 1 million more disabled people are trapped in hardship than were a decade before. Data from the Department for Work and Pensions reveal that 3.8 million disabled people live in poverty. We have heard eloquently from colleagues today about the pressure that that puts on disabled people and their families. I am sure that that is a trend that colleagues across the House would like to reverse.
As the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw said, it is worth considering that a recent report by the Oxford University disability law and policy project and the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights found that there has been a
“failure of the government to implement properly its legal duties with respect to the rights of people with disabilities.”
That is set against the backdrop of a significant lack of appropriate support for disabled people during the pandemic. Almost 2 million ill and disabled people did not receive any additional support, despite the fact that disabled people on average face additional costs of £583 per month. In addition, as was said earlier, while universal credit was temporarily increased by £20 a week—we supported that decision and indeed campaigned for it to continue—it is important to note that other social security support such as the employment and support allowance and the jobseeker’s allowance were not increased. The pandemic has hit everyone in our community, but it is wrong that it should have a particularly hard impact on disabled people. I am afraid that that lack of support is part of a wider picture of the Government failing to give disabled people the support that they need.
I appreciate the point you made earlier, Mr Stringer, about the sub judice nature of some of the issues with the national strategy for disabled people, so I will try to stick to the ruling that you rightly made, but I will say that there were two years of delay before the strategy was published in July 2021. Even when it did arrive, it appeared not to be the bold strategy that so many people had looked forward to, but more a series of unrelated announcements, with only £4 million of extra money pledged for disabled people, which amounts to just under £30 for each disabled person in the UK, a relatively modest amount. Disabled people and the organisations representing them said that they felt excluded from the process and had not been consulted when the strategy was drawn up.
That is all deeply disappointing. The Government could and should do so much better. I ask the Minister to look at that again in much greater detail with her colleagues—I appreciate that it is not her area of responsibility—and, collectively, to change their approach fundamentally, to give disabled people the support that they so clearly need.
Eliminating disability discrimination, enabling disabled people to live independently in the community, ensuring an inclusive education system and that disabled people are protected from all forms of exploitation, violence and abuse must be a priority for all of us. The Government should now incorporate the UN convention into UK law. That important legal change will have real effect in the everyday lives of disabled people.
It has been a privilege to speak today and to contribute to this important debate. Once again, I thank colleagues from across the House who have also contributed, and I thank disabled people and the organisations that represent them. I hope that the Minister will take on board the points made by colleagues from across the House and respond by letting us know how the Government plan to address these very serious issues.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) on securing this debate on the importance of the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. It is a pleasure to respond, and I thank all hon. Members for their insightful contributions. I am here on behalf of the Minister for Disabled People, who is disappointed that she cannot be here today, due to a medical appointment.
The principles in the UN convention are at the heart of the Government’s approach. We remain fully committed to the treaty, which we ratified in 2009, as has been mentioned, and to our obligations under it. No one wants to see any of their constituents held back from fulfilling their potential. I reassure all hon. Members that the UK Government and the devolved Administrations share the common goal to improve the lives of disabled people in the UK.
I will just make some progress, if I may. I would also like to share with the House that for nearly 30 years, my father lived with an acquired brain injury due to a criminal incident at work. It turned us into a family who cared, and I applaud all unpaid and family carers for all they do with the utmost love and care.
First, I will speak to the action we are taking as a Government to improve the lives of disabled people. In July 2021, we published the national disability strategy. Of course, we have sought permission to appeal and cannot comment further on any legal proceedings, but it is really important to highlight the five essential elements of that strategy, which complement those of the UN convention and underpin how we will continue to implement it in the UK. Those elements are to ensure fairness and equality; to consider disability from the outset; to support independent living; to work to increase participation by disabled people in all aspects of society; and to recognise that complex challenges will very often require joined-up local solutions.
I extend my best wishes to the Minister’s father. What she has said about what he went through was very moving, and reminds us that eight out of 10 disabilities are acquired—that most disabled people have lived lives without disability. The Minister started by saying that we want disabled people to fulfil their potential. Do the Government believe that there is a social model of disability, in that society puts up barriers that prevent disabled people from living their lives? It is not up to disabled people to enable themselves; it is also about society, via the Government, ensuring that those barriers are not there.
Thank you, Mr Stringer, and I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words. It was quite ironic that during his working life, my father was the first person to put in supported disabled crossings for people with blindness, and became blind later in life due to his acquired injury. It is very important for all of us in policy making to understand that people are not necessarily born with a disability or a health condition.
The hon. Lady mentioned her train station. We have similar access issues in East Grinstead in my constituency, and we are trying to improve them. The Department for Transport also has an access programme under way, so she may want to look at that.
I echo the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), and commend the Minister for sharing her father’s story. Is the Minister aware, however, that we were supposed to meet our obligation to deliver an accessible transport service by 2020, but we failed to meet that target? The Access for All fund was very welcome, but we are not doing very well when it comes to making our stations more accessible.
The hon. Lady makes an important point: I have not even mentioned my Wivelsfield station, so the reality is that we still have work to do. I know that my hon. Friend the Rail Minister, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), is very committed to that.
The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, who opened the debate so eloquently, asked about committing to spending on aid projects, and I will address that later in my speech. I am trying to cover various points, so I hope hon. Members will bear with me while I make progress.
Alongside the Government’s national disability strategy, we have published the health and disability Green Paper and the Government’s response to the “Health is everyone’s business” consultation on minimising the risk of ill health and related job loss. Those publications demonstrate that we are taking a holistic approach to improving the lives of individuals living with disability. I think it is important for anybody listening and engaging with this debate to notice and to know that progress is being made. Of course, there is always more to do.
Significant progress has been outlined in the national disability strategy. At the DWP, we have piloted the adjustments passport, which supports disabled people’s transition into employment. The passport is personalised to the individual and captures in-work support needs, enabling the employer to have an informed conversation with the passport holder—we have just heard about flexible working. In addition, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has launched an online advice hub offering accessible information and advice on employment rights for disabled people.
BEIS has also completed a consultation on making flexible working—we have seen hybrid working too—the default in Great Britain unless employers have good reasons not to offer it, and it is reviewing the responses. I think that consultation is crucial and necessary. The pandemic has given us an opportunity to bust the myth of presenteeism and show that, moving forward, many sectors can be flexible and work in a hybrid way and can absolutely be inclusive of people who are disabled or living with a health condition. That will make opportunities so much more accessible for our constituents, which is what we all want.
I want to turn to the comments made by the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth on the pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, the Government have worked hard to ensure that disabled people have access to employment support, disability benefits, financial support, food, medicines and vaccines, as well as accessible communications and guidance. I, like other Members, had constituents asking for all of that and more, and I am glad that we have been able to respond.
Of course, the NHS is offering new antibody and antiviral treatments for people with covid-19 who are at greater risk of becoming seriously ill, such as those who are immunosuppressed or face other risks. There is separate guidance and there will be additional boosters coming forward as well, which many of our constituents may be eligible for. It is important that we let people know, whoever they are and whatever is going on in their lives, that when it comes to the challenges of living well out of the covid-19 pandemic, we recognise that we must understand the impact on those with a disability or health condition. We are absolutely committed to that.
The Prime Minister made clear in launching the national strategy that we fully recognise the need not only to deliver on our near-term commitments but to go further. I can assure the House that we are doing so. As an example, in the autumn 2021 spending review, we provided an extra £1 billion via the Department for Education to support children and young people with more complex needs, including those with a disability. That will bring the total high-needs budget next year to over £9 billion.
It has been mentioned that work is an important part of disabled people’s lives. It is absolutely right that we in the DWP place the emphasis on supporting people into work where possible. Of course, we know how valuable that is. It is more than just a pay packet; it is camaraderie, friendship, and a reason to get up and get going. It makes such a difference to be part of a team and to achieve what we are able to achieve. I am passionate that, whoever someone is, wherever they are and whatever barriers to progression they may face, if they are able to work, they should be well supported to fulfil their potential by the Government, the community and jobcentres.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that really important point. I recently had some engagement with the construction industry about really good, inclusive work practices, reaching out and being more equal. For example, 50% of the population—females—is under-represented in the sector.
Many employers often do the same recruitment and end up with the same people. They want to be more inclusive; they want the different voices and experiences that we have found so important this afternoon, but unfortunately we end up recruiting the same people because recruitment processes are not open and wide enough. We need to do more.
I have found this through our 160-plus youth hubs at DWP. Many people have neurodiversity. Young people have been very anxious and nervous. It has been really great to give people that “can-do” experience; it makes such a difference, in terms of being inclusive. People with a disability or a health condition are absolutely perfect for some jobs, and it will be right for them to be in that workplace. Let us challenge employers. Let us not just talk about it, but push for action. I am proud that DWP has led the way in supporting disabled people by recognising what they need in order to get into employment. We are there to help.
The Minister has spoken enthusiastically about employment, and I agree about the value of ensuring that everyone can secure the employment opportunities that they absolutely deserve. Can she shed any light on the employment Bill mentioned earlier, which would assist us?
I thank the hon. Lady. If the Bill fell in my portfolio and that of my Department, I could shed many lights on it, but I am afraid it sits with BEIS. I am sure that it will take note of the hon. Lady’s query.
On levelling up opportunities, the work and health programme offers intensive personalised employment support, and we are working with the NHS to improve access to psychological therapy services across England. There are also measures under the access to work scheme, which provides employees with grants of up to £62,900 a year for workplace adaptations, such as special equipment, support workers and help to get to and from work. Last financial year, almost 36,000 people with disabilities and health conditions received tailored and flexible support to do their job under access to work. Not enough people know that that is out there, and I am pleased to make the point today.
Disability Confident is another really important part of the package. We talked about employers seeing the value of having a mixed group of people in their workplace. It is a voluntary, business-led scheme, designed to give employers the knowledge, skills and free resources they need to recruit and retain disabled people, and to help them to develop their skills. As of 30 September, over 20,000 employers were actively engaged with the scheme, which covers more than 11 million employees. It is right that we push harder on this, and we will do that through our national employer partnership.
The Minister talks about the Disability Confident scheme. More than 4 million disabled people of working age want to work. While she may applaud the 35,000 figure, it is not enough. An employer can be a Disability Confident employer and not employ a single disabled person. What quality assurance and monitoring is there to ensure that the scheme will provide for disabled people? At the moment, I am not confident in it.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. If I may, I will let the Minister for disabled people, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), pick up on that issue and write to her.
I turn to international engagement—the hon. Lady who introduced the debate, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw, would be upset if I did not. It is right to emphasise that the UK has a proud record of furthering the rights of disabled people. We have not got it all right, but we are using our overseas development work to go further, and we always have to do more. The UK is a leading global voice on disability inclusion; it hosted the first ever global disability summit, which was mentioned.
I need to make progress. I may try to come back to the hon. Lady.
In the same year, we also launched the disability inclusion strategy, setting out our priorities for social protection, economic development, education and humanitarian action. On our commitments to progress on disability inclusion in the FCDO’s diplomacy, policy and programming—
I am speaking, if I may. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw will be pleased to know that we are publishing on gov.uk all the details of the ways in which we absolutely are being more inclusive in our aid programme. I hope that is something she will ask for. On our support for global disability rights, we have committed to spending £10 billion in 2021-22, making the UK’s official development assistance, as I mentioned, disability-inclusive. I am very pleased to see that coming forward. We are absolutely committed to implementing the convention through our strong policies. [Hon. Members: “Will the Minister give way?”] I have given way enough, thank you.
On the treaties that were mentioned, the Government are absolutely sure that the substantive provisions are already largely reflected in our existing domestic policies and legislation right across the UK. We note the recommendations, but the Government’s approach is to put in place a combination of policies and legislation to give effect to the UN human rights treaties that we have already ratified.
I need to give the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw some time to respond, so I will try to do that, after making a final point. I would like to underline fully this Government’s commitment to the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, and to transforming the lives and opportunities of disabled people, both in the UK and internationally. We are unwavering, and I hope that the announcements last week will sit right with those listening today. We will continue with the wide-ranging commitments made in the national disability strategy. We will consider how we can build on that and go further, making sure that disabled people’s lives are better every day, and we will do that in the context of a central goal: to level up, and to create a society that is more positive, more engaging, and fairer for all, where everybody can get on and progress.
I congratulate the Minister on her robust defence of what I will not refer to as the indefensible, though that is there in my thoughts. She has done a grand job—she has a job, and she has done it—but unfortunately she has not convinced anybody on this side of the Chamber with her arguments.
One of my main asks was: does the Minister agree that the Government should enshrine the UNCRPD in law? If that was done, then lots of other things would follow from it. Warm thoughts and good intentions from the Government are great, and I am really pleased that the Government have them, but we really need hard law to make all these things possible. The Minister referred to the employment Bill—where is it?—and access to work, which is the subject of another debate that I will apply for. Hon. Members have reflected on the effects of austerity, too.
I will raise one other issue: the Government’s silo mentality. The Minister had a hard job, because there was discussion of FCDO and DWP—and she also managed to bring in BEIS. Again, I go back to the importance of enshrining the UNCRPD in law, because then Departments would almost be forced to work together.
Something the Minister said struck me. She said that people should be treated fairly and equally. We heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), among others, about how people applying for PIP and other DWP benefits are assessed. Could the Government please start treating disabled people with dignity, fairness and respect? That would go a long way towards making things different for disabled people, here and further afield.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Christians and Religious Minorities: India
I beg to move,
That this has considered the matter of the persecution of Christians and religious minorities in India.
It has been a while since we had a debate on this issue, although a few days ago we were fortunate enough to have a debate on India-UK trade negotiations, introduced by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). I commented on the issue of the persecution of Christians and other ethnic groups in India during that debate, ever mindful that this debate was coming up. I am pleased to see the hon. Gentleman here; in fact, I am pleased to see everyone here. I wanted to mention that debate, because perhaps it was a warm-up for this debate. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. Looking around this hall, I see that most of the people here are members of it. Indeed, some are officers of the APPG.
I am always an optimist, and always have been; I live my life along those lines. I always look to better things. This debate looks to better things in India, ever mindful that we have a special relationship. It is my hope that things in life will get better. I prefer the glass half full to the glass half empty, and think we should try to build the world a better future. That is at the crux of this debate. With prayer and perseverance, crises may resolve, relationships will heal, and collectively we inch towards a better world. I believe we can achieve that if we all have the same motivation, and try to achieve the same goal.
I am pleased to see the Minister for Levelling Up Communities in her place—I look forward to her response—and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) on the Opposition Front Bench. I am also glad to see my good friend from the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson)—there is not a debate that she is at that I am not at alongside her, and vice versa. I am very pleased to see the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), who has just joined the all-party parliamentary group, here to support the debate. I thank the Library for the background information it has given us.
Freedom of religion or belief is always my hope, but looking back on the past year in India, it cannot be said to have been there for Christians and other religious or belief minorities. Back in 2016, in his address to the United States Congress, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, said that
“For my Government, the Constitution is its real holy book. And in that holy book, freedom of faith, speech and franchise, and equality of all citizens, regardless of background, are enshrined as fundamental rights.”
To be fair to President Modi, he has the motivation to do that, but the reality is very different. Some of the examples I will refer to are evidence of where that is not happening. That is what the debate is about. President Modi also said, referring to some extremely violent clashes, that a new law would have
“ no effect on citizens of India, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Buddhists.”
Well, if only. In fact, it has an effect on all the religious minorities. They no longer have the freedom they once had. They can no longer follow their beliefs and express their religious views. Today’s debate offers time to stop and reflect on the situation regarding freedom of religion or belief in India and the problems that persist today.
In January 2021, this same topic was discussed by this House. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Harrow East and everyone else here was present for that debate. Some might wonder why we are raising the subject again. Well, I will tell the House: we are raising it quite simply because, looking back at developments in India over the last 12 months, we find a string of human rights abuses and the suffering of Christians. More than ever, Her Majesty’s Government need to take additional steps to encourage full and rigorous defence of freedom of religion or belief for all. The steps they have taken so far are clearly not enough. Christians and other minorities continue to be failed by efforts in this regard.
In the previous debate, I commented on the lack of representation of Christians and other groups in the political sphere, but looking through the Library background briefing, I see it shows that at least one of India’s states is taking steps to ensure that there is political representation of all groups.
The right hon. Lady is right that there are examples in the past, but in many Indian states, representation for minority groups is not in place. Previously, there was a free country where freedom to practise one’s religion was in place, as President Modi said in 2016, but today, in 2022, the same cannot be said. I note that the right hon. Lady is a sponsor of the annual Open Doors event. I gently remind her that in the past year, India has seen grave violations of freedom or belief. A report by the United Christian Forum highlighted that 2021 was one of the worst years for attacks on Christians in India, with ongoing impunity for the perpetrators of violence. In 2013, Open Doors’ world watch list ranked India 31st of the 50 countries where Christians face the highest levels of persecution; and last month, in its latest list, India was ranked 10th. In short, there can be little doubt that the situation is getting worse at an alarmingly fast rate.
The research sounds the alarm on the escalation of freedom or belief violations in India—not just against Christians, but against those of other faiths and beliefs. In many cases, freedom of religion or belief is a litmus test for the full realisation of other human rights. When citizens cannot freely exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief, it is depressingly inevitable that other human rights are being compromised.
At the heart of all freedom of religion or belief is the ability freely to change one’s religion or belief, free from fear. In other words, a Hindu should be able to become Muslim or Christian. Unfortunately, that is practically impossible in about a third of India’s states. There is some flexibility in some states, but there are certainly states where there is no flexibility at all. A third of India’s 28 states prohibit or limit religious conversion to protect the dominant religion, Hinduism, from perceived threats from religious minorities. That is entirely unnecessary; it stems from prejudice against non-Hindu religions and support for Hindutva, an ideology that does not count Indians who are Christian or from other religious minorities as true Indians because they have allegiances that lie outside India. They might believe in something other than Hinduism, but their allegiance to the Indian state is not in doubt. The Indian Government must look at where they are on that, discuss those issues, and make sure that there is opportunity for all.
Speaking of opportunity, the background information given to us for this debate says:
“Christians and Muslims…do not qualify for the officially reserved jobs or school placements available”
“putting these groups at a significant economic and social disadvantage.”
These things need to be fair. If a country’s constitution mentions freedom and equality, the country should ensure those things, not draw away from them.
This is not an easy debate. I am well aware of our countries’ close relationship and I welcome it. Indeed, the other day, the hon. Member for Harrow East and I mentioned how important that closeness was, particularly when it comes to trade between the UK and India.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the close relationship between India and the UK. Does he agree that that relationship puts the UK in a unique position to be a positive force for change, and to encourage and pressure India to respect religious minorities?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I hope, as I think we all do, that we can achieve that through this debate. That is why I look forward to the Minister’s response. She is always fair and always gives a calculated response. We are conveying our feelings and thoughts to her, and ultimately, I am sure, to India, so that it takes the opportunity to address these issues.
It is not my wish to alienate a close ally, but these caveats must not prevent us from speaking up when we see the mistreatment of minorities and mistreatment on grounds of religion or belief. Indeed, it is the close relationship between the UK and India that necessitates our raising the alarm, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran says. The UK is the third biggest investor in India, and in 2020, India became the second largest investor in the UK, so trade is clearly an important issue. To be frank, people including my constituents—and me; I am no different—care where their taxpayers’ money goes. Customers increasingly care about corporate responsibility and social impact; our country should not think that it is above such standards. We are not. The majority of people think that if the United Kingdom were to trade with a country that violates and abuses the human rights of its citizens, the UK would be somewhat complicit in that abuse.
In various debates this week, most of them to do with Russia, we have highlighted human rights abuses and persecution. We have also talked about China and where it has done wrong. In the main Chamber and Westminster Hall, and through our Government officials and the steps that the Government are taking, we are highlighting these issues, and today, we are doing the same. One thing is clear: our nation cares about human rights abuses in India. A majority of people think that the amount of foreign aid that the UK provides to a country should be tied to its performance on certain human rights standards. It is undeniable that one human right currently being violated in India is freedom of religion or belief. A range of religious and belief minorities, not the least of whom are Christians, are suffering infringements of this right. I will go through some of these violations.
Attacks against Christians have been refuelled in recent years and months by the impact of online disinformation and hate speech. How easy it is to hide behind a screen and destroy people, or fill people’s head with things that turn them against others. On 6 December last year, a mob armed with stones and iron rods attacked St Joseph’s school in Ganj Basoda, days after a video was circulated on social media that falsely claimed that the school was forcibly converting Hindus to Christianity. The video was not filmed at the school; it was not even filmed near the school, and none of the students were present, yet the misinformation was peddled through that video. The language and disinformation in the video were deliberately provocative and sought to target the local Christian minority community.
The video succeeded in its aim, which was the attack organised for the following day. When the school’s principal was warned of the imminent attack, he immediately requested police protection, but—alarmingly—no such protection was provided. That is a terrible stain on the police. Although the police assured him that the protests would be peaceful and that they would send officers to guard the school, on the day itself the police failed to show up; they arrived only after the crowd had dispersed, having already caused distress and destruction. As this tragic event shows all too well, online misinformation and hate speech accelerate violent attacks, and the relevant authorities often do not do enough to prevent the brutality. There is no doubt that online misinformation can lead to violence, which happens on a frighteningly regular basis, and indeed today.
Another example of the horror that Christians face can be found in countless reports issued over the last year. Ours is a country of freedom of religion and belief, free from persecution and intimidation, and we know that Christmas is a very important date in the calendar for Christians—indeed, for many people, but especially Christians. In the run-up to Christmas in India, many churches in Karnataka state were forced to cancel their Christmas celebrations following threats from radical groups. More than 150 churches did not open over Christmas due to the fear of attacks, and many other churches opted to limit their Christmas celebrations. Their caution was not without cause. On 24 and 25 December, Christmas eve and Christmas day, dozens of churches were attacked across the states of Assam, Haryana, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh. Services were stopped short, Bibles were set on fire, a statue of Jesus was torn down and the crowds shouted, “Death to missionaries!” Is that what their religion tells them—“Death to missionaries”? It is not what my religion or my beliefs tell me, and it should not be what any other religion or belief tells anyone else either.
Father Anand, a priest at one of the targeted churches and therefore on the frontline, said that the protests were indicative of the increased attacks that Christians in India have been facing in recent months. He said:
“This is a symbol of what is happening because these people have impunity, and it creates tension…Every Sunday is a day of terror and trauma for Christians, especially those belonging to those small churches”,
which feel under threat. I go to church every Sunday, Mr Stringer, as I suspect others in this place do. We are free to do so and we enjoy it in peace, but for those Christians in India every Sunday is a day of terror and trauma. Let the devastation of that phrase just sink in; think about what that means. When we go to church on Sunday, we do so in peace, and we thank God for it. If we had to go through a crowd to get to church, and if we came out to be stoned or potentially face attacks against our property or damage to our cars, it would put things into perspective.
Christians are not the only ones who suffer. In recent years, there have been several high-profile murders of well-known rationalist leaders. I am not sure my Ulster Scots accent will aptly render this gentleman’s name, but in 2015, Malleshappa Madivalappa Kalburgi, a 77-year-old scholar and university professor, was killed after receiving death threats following criticism of idol worship during a seminar. In 2013, Narendra Dabholkar, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, a member organisation of Humanists International, was murdered in Maharashtra state. Despite both cases being high profile, to this day there has been inaction and a failure to prosecute suspects for either crime.
Muslims suffer challenges and attacks too. At a conference of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha political party on 31 December, delegates were encouraged to attack Muslims with the words,
“If 100 of us become soldiers and are prepared to kill 2 million”
“then we will win. We will protect India, and make it a Hindu nation.”
That is not what should be said by any religion, and it certainly should not be said by the Hindu political party. My God tells me that he is a God of love. He is also a God of judgment, but he is a God of love. I suspect that everybody else’s religion tells them something similar, so why turn it into a campaign? Despite immediate international condemnation, Pooja Shakun Pandey, who made the remarks, was only arrested weeks later after sustained pressure from the international community.
The double vulnerability faced by female Muslims was also highlighted this year when Karnataka state introduced a ban on Muslim schoolgirls wearing a headscarf. Malala Yousafzai has since responded by saying that the move is forcing Muslim girls
“to choose between studies and the hijab.”
The choice between an education and one’s religion should never be a dichotomy that anyone, let alone a child, should ever have to face. In addition to the attacks, Muslims have faced increased discrimination during the covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, Indian Government Ministers accused the Muslim Tablighi Jamaat minority of spreading covid-19. It was an absolute fallacy, but people were geed up and fired up by it, and they took action against Muslims.
I thank the hon. Member for securing the debate. I would like to speak briefly on behalf of my constituents in Bolton North East. I have one of the largest Indian Gujarati Muslim communities in the United Kingdom—it numbers somewhere around 14,000. What are the hon. Gentleman’s views on how important it is that, as we increasingly develop our bilateral relationship with India, we bring all the opportunities and things that could be better to the table in those sorts of discussions?
That is one of the objective of today’s debate, and we hope that we can reach a better understanding. The views that I had when I was 20 are very different from the views that I have now, in my 60s. I see things very differently today from when I was younger. I feel responsible for the words that I use, which is why I try to be very careful with my terminology and what I say. As the hon. Gentleman says, it is important that we pick our words and try to understand someone else’s point of view. We may not agree with it, but we should certainly understand it and appreciate that they have a point of view. The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest there is a duty on us all to do so, and I make that point on behalf of Muslims, because it is important.
As I mentioned earlier, freedom of religion or belief is a gateway right and a strong indicator of the future trajectory of the human rights landscape in a country. Often religious or belief minorities are the first groups to be targeted before other rights are eroded. Sadly, we are now seeing warning signs that attacks on fundamental human rights are targeted not only on religion or belief minorities, but on journalists and critics of the Government. Human rights apply to religious minorities and ethnic groups, but they also apply to journalists who are critical of President Modi and who often find themselves being denounced as anti-Indian. Earlier I said that they are not anti-Indian, but they want to have freedom. They are as proudly pro-Indian as any other citizens. Two UN special rapporteurs recently highlighted the treatment of journalist Rana Ayyub, who is a victim of intensifying attacks and threats made online by far-right Hindu nationalist groups due to her critical reporting on Prime Minister Modi and issues affecting the Muslim community—the very people to whom the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mark Logan) referred a few moments ago.
What is happening in India cannot be overlooked and deserves greater attention from the international community and Her Majesty’s Government. There is broad consensus among academics and civil society that there are increased attacks against India’s religious and belief minorities. The evidential base is there and cannot be ignored. When a country’s constitution calls for freedom for all religious and ethnic groups, it has to mean more than just words. There has to be action as well.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Amnesty International, Genocide Watch, the London School of Economics, the Institute for Development Studies, Humanists International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Hindus for Human Rights and Open Doors—the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) is a great promoter of that organisation, and we never miss the event that she hosts every year—all agree that the situation for religious and belief minorities in India is dire. The hon. Member for Bolton North East, whose accent gives him away, knows that we use that word often and regularly, because it describes the issues very well.
This is the question we are asking: when will our Government gently remind President Modi and his Government that they have to do more to address the issues? Important though trade is, that is a key question in the debate and from me to the Minister, to my Minister in my Government. Earlier this week, in the debate led by the hon. Member for Harrow East, I encouraged the Government to raise the human rights violations as a new trade deal is negotiated with India. Since the 1990s, it has been the norm to include human rights provisions in international trade deals, and such provisions have the overwhelming support of the British public when they are asked if the UK should take into consideration human rights standards in a country with which we are negotiating and signing a trade deal.
As a country, we must use our new trade agreements to pursue broader international objectives and defend human rights across the world, in particular the right of freedom of religion or belief—I believe passionately in that, as the chair of the APPG. I believe in standing up for those with Christian beliefs, those who have other beliefs and those who have no belief, on the grounds that that is the right thing to do. That is what the debate is about today. This is just one of many things on which more can and must be done.
To conclude, India shares a very close relationship with the UK—we all know that well, and the Minister knows it in particular. My hope is that the debate is not seen to be disrespecting that relationship. Always, my hope and prayer is to strive to improve it, as I believe we can. Just as we are judged by the company we keep, so too are states by the allies and trade partners they keep. In the interests of accountability and of ensuring full freedom of religion or belief for all, the Government of this country—my Government and my Minister—must strive to hold all allies and friends to higher standards when it comes to freedom of religion or belief. No longer can we turn a blind eye—that cannot be the default.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer.
Freedom of religion is a fundamental right that must be defended and should be a high priority in our foreign policy. I have spoken out many times on the plight of Christians facing discrimination and oppression around the world, but it is vital that we base debates on such crucial issues on the facts. I am concerned that India is not getting a fair hearing in this Parliament.
Diversity, inclusion and respect for minority faiths has been a core principle of the state of India since its inception. In any country, there will be wrongdoers and extremists who commit crimes and incite hatred against minorities. Think of the vile abuse shouted from the so-called “convoy for Palestine” on the Finchley Road—just one of a record number of disgraceful antisemitic incidents recorded in this country last year alone. What is important is to look at is how a state responds to such criminal and unacceptable activities.
It is clear that India’s respect for the rule of law, its independent judiciary, its Human Rights Commission, its vibrant free press and its thriving democracy ensure that the greatest efforts are made to protect minorities from attack and from unfair treatment. Equality before the law and religious freedom are constitutionally protected in India. Not only that, the right of minorities to promote their identities and cultures is also constitutionally protected.
Institutions such as the National Commission for Minorities and the Ministry of Minority Affairs work actively to safeguard the rights of minority faiths. There are extensive government assistance programmes dedicated to minorities, including the Nai Roshni project to support leadership development among women. India’s phenomenal economic success in recent years is bringing millions of people of all faiths out of poverty across India.
Any person in India who has been attacked or treated unfairly because of their religion has my sympathy—especially Christians, whose faith I share. All such cases must be taken seriously by law enforcement authorities. However, we need to view them in the context of a minority population that could be as high as 200 million people. Among such a massive group, it is sadly inevitable that some will be victims of crime and disorder.
I find it disturbing when hon. Members assert that law enforcement authorities are somehow complicit in such attacks. If there is evidence, it should be brought to the attention of the appropriate authorities in India; if there is not, claims of complicity by the authorities should not be repeated. I would make a comparison with the allegations routinely made against the Royal Ulster Constabulary during the troubles in Northern Ireland. Just as it is wrong to stigmatise the RUC with allegations of collusive behaviours without solid evidence, it is wrong to make those allegations about organisations in India.
I would also say that before trying to pass judgment on other countries, we should reflect on where the UK has failed minority groups. Most notoriously, the Windrush scandal caused deep hurt and suffering, and systemic problems at the Home Office clearly contributed to what happened.
In conclusion, India’s record on minority faiths is infinitely better than that of almost all its regional neighbours—especially Pakistan and China, where there are grave concerns about the treatment of religious minorities. In contrast, members of Christian, Muslim and other minority communities in India play a hugely successful, visible and positive role in business, politics, public life, media and culture. It is something we should all celebrate. It reflects the Government of India’s vision of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas”: together, for everyone’s growth, with everyone’s trust.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this important debate and on his work in support of religious freedoms.
As a member of the APPG, I stand firmly behind the rights of minorities to religious freedom, both India and across the world. With the rise of nationalist and populist politics all over the world, we are witnessing increased threats to minority rights. According to recent research by the V-Dem Institute, authoritarian regimes outnumber the world’s democracies for the first time since 2001, and the number of such regimes is growing. It is therefore essential for democracies—of which India is, of course, the world’s largest—to stand firm together in defence of universal human rights.
We must lead by example and stand up for the freedoms of expression and religious belief. They are the cornerstones of the values that we in the United Kingdom, and particularly in the Labour party, hold dear; they are values that democrats across the world should defend. That is why, on behalf of my Sikh constituents—many of whom have families living in India—I would like to call attention to and condemn in the strongest possible terms the persecution of Sikhs and other religious minorities in India. We saw that persecution during last year’s farmers’ protests in India, where Sikh men and women faced the most appalling violence. I reiterate that the farmers in India must have the right to protest peacefully, and that the Indian authorities must commit to upholding that right.
We have seen a recent legacy of persecuting other religious minorities in India as well. In 2019, India passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which offers amnesty to non-Muslim illegal immigrants and expedites the path to Indian citizenship for members of six non-Muslim faiths. Both measures explicitly exclude migrants who are Muslim. Amnesty International has said that this Act
“legitimises discrimination on the basis of religion”.
The situation has been compounded by recent mob violence against Muslims—often working class men—in what Human Rights Watch has called “mob attacks against vulnerable communities.”
Equally as grave, we have heard reports of gruesome violence perpetrated against Christians across the country. Open Doors recently published a report based on research from the London School of Economics in which they refer to the case of Sunita, a Christian woman who was eight months pregnant. She was brutally assaulted by a group of men and suffered the death of her unborn baby as a result. The report also detailed the case of a Christian teenager in Odisha who was lynched and murdered by a vigilante mob.
These harrowing stories speak for themselves. We must use our platforms to shout down the appalling persecution of religious minorities in India. British foreign policy must place the rule of law, democracy and human rights at the heart of its agenda, and we must be clear that religious freedom is a critical right that must be universally upheld. I call on the Government to do just that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on leading the debate, and on setting the tone for it and the other contributions that have been made. May I gently but firmly correct him? Shri Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister of India and not the President. The hon. Gentleman referred to him as that in his speech, and I am sure he will want to correct that when he sums up at the end of the debate.
We have to be cautious when we come to lecture India on protecting religious freedom when in this country, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) alluded to, antisemitism is at its peak, anti-Muslim hatred has been launched and anti-Hindu feeling is strong. When so many people feel threatened, it ill befits us to lecture India. Equally, the history of the United Kingdom in India is not completely blame free, particularly in Punjab; the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) referred to her Sikh constituents.
We have to be cautious and to remember that India’s constitution directly protects and safeguards religious minorities. Minority community status for Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Buddhists and Jains is not only protected by law, but they are encouraged to promote their individual identities. That is in the constitution.
I am always cautious about talking about somewhere I have never been, and I declare my interest as the co-chair of the Indo-British all-party parliamentary group who has had the opportunity to visit India on seven occasions. I have been to 14 states in India, which is about half the states, and seen at first hand what protection of religious minorities is available, and I will come on to that later. I have spoken to many parliamentarians in India, and I assure hon. Members that they like nothing more than to debate their constitution. The constitution is very important to all the representatives of the Indian Government and the Members of Parliament.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet said, the Indian Government have enabled many programmes to protect religious minorities and to promote the opportunities that they should have. In many Indian states minority religions are practiced by the majority of people in those states.
I am honoured to represent one of the largest Goan populations outside India. Of course, they are devout Catholics. Would my hon. Friend agree with the observation that the largest non-agricultural landowner in India is the Roman Catholic church? That underpins the important differentiation we need to make between atrocities against religious minorities and wilful acts or omissions by the state of India. The two things are different, and we should remember that in this debate.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his intervention. He rightly refers to investments that have been made, not only by the UK but by the various different religious groups across India.
We should also remember that India has state government as well as federal government, and therefore the state government should make decisions as well as the national Government. Indeed, independent democratic institutions, such as the National Commission for Minorities, the National Human Rights Commission of India and the Ministry of Minority Affairs, safeguard those rights. National Minorities Rights Day is observed in India every year on 18 December. Given that we are talking about what should happen in India, perhaps we might think about having a national rights day in this country. India has one already, so let us learn the lesson from India and give minorities that opportunity.
We should equally look at the growth of the different minority religions’ populations. India is an incredibly diverse country; there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan and Bangladesh combined. We should remember that minority religion is growing demographically, up from 15% in 1947 to around 20% in 2011. That is completely unlike the trend in our country. With over 207 million followers of Islam, India has the second largest population of Muslims in the world. Indeed, that is 10% of the world’s Muslim population. Not only is that number growing, but it is expected that by 2050 India will have the largest Muslim population in the world, overtaking Indonesia.
Of the 28 states, four—Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Nagaland—have a Christian majority. I hope that they have enlightened policies and enable other minority religions to prosper and grow. Kerala and Tamil Nadu have the largest section of Christian population anywhere in India. I know the hon. Member for Strangford has not had the opportunity to do so yet, but I invite him to come with me on a visit to India and we can see that first hand. Kerala is the state that is visited most by people from the UK, and there not only the churches but the synagogues are preserved. It was the centre of the Jewish population in India before Israel came into existence, and, after that, many of those people chose to migrate to Israel from their ancestral home. These circumstances demonstrate that clearly not only is there an opportunity but there are centres of Christianity in India.
Jammu and Kashmir has a Muslim majority and Ladakh has a Buddhist majority, so it is not fair to say that India is not a diverse country. That can only be possible when minorities feel safe, secure and nurtured. Across the board, minorities have been the torchbearers of India’s scientific and economic success and leadership. From Indian states in the north-east and regions in the north where minority religions form the majority, minorities’ visibility, success and leadership in all spheres of human activity—from the civil services to political representation and civil society, and from media to corporate houses—is a true reflection of the Indian people’s genuine commitment to their age-old tradition.
In any thriving democracy there are bound to be questions, debates and challenges from time to time. There might have been—and have been—isolated cases and reports of minorities facing discrimination. However, there are independent institutions to address them, such as the National Commission for Minorities, and others that I have mentioned, as well as an independent judiciary. Those reports and cases need to be reflected on in the context that there are 200 million religious minority members. The incidents are very rare, relative to the population size.
We should also consider the concerns that have been expressed to me by many people of Indian origin about the activities of those who seek to convert people from one religion to another. We have to be very cautious about that approach. I agree that it is the fundamental human right of an individual to choose their religion. However, it is not reasonable—it is unacceptable—for people to be forced to convert against their will, and against their family’s will as well.
Of course, if the individual is of age, he or she will be able to make their own decision about which religious viewpoint they wish to pursue or follow. May I say gently to the hon. Gentleman—we are good friends, and I am always very mindful of that fact—that Open Doors, whose event the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) chairs every year, said in its report that India was 31st on the list in 2013 and is 10th today, meaning that it went up the ladder of where religious incidents are recorded? That shows that there is more persecution, so how does the hon. Gentleman equate those facts? Whenever persecution is rising in India, the number of incidents rises, and he cannot ignore that.
Clearly there are tensions, and I would never say that any attacks on individuals because of their religion are acceptable. What I would say, however, is that when a country has a growing population with growing opportunities for employment, wealth and getting people out of poverty, there are bound to be clashes. There are often clashes in India over religious sites, and there is fault on all sides in that respect. In many cases, the clashes occur where there has historically been a temple when a mosque or a church has been erected on that site, or the other way around. That leads to fundamental clashes between religions. It is up to the Government of India and the forces of India to ensure peace and harmony between people, and it is up to the religious leaders of the religions in India to encourage and promote that harmony as well.
I say to the hon. Member for Strangford gently that, having had the opportunity to visit many of these parts of the world and to see at first hand the position in India, I would argue strongly against the position he has taken. Yes, there are problems—there will be problems all over the world—but they are very rare relative to the size of the population and the number of people who celebrate their religions in peace and harmony.
India is a robust pluralistic democracy where the aim is harmonious co-existence of people of all religions, cultures and ethnicities across the length and breadth of the country. That is a fundamental characteristic of the people—certainly in my visits, I have always experienced that. Safeguarding and celebrating India’s unity and diversity is central to the Indian Government’s social and political ethos, and is firmly embedded in the constitution of India through inviolable provisions and plays out in spirit in myriad ways. Finally, India’s unique example of protecting and nurturing religious minorities offers important insights for other countries, including this one.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on securing this debate and on all the work he does as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, which I think we would all acknowledge is dedicated, committed and sincere.
Speaking in my capacity as vice-chair of the APPG, I recognise that when it comes to India, there is understandable reticence when tackling the subject of this debate, given the historical and current ties between the UK and India. To put it bluntly, the largest democracy in the world should not need or want other countries—not least the UK, given our colonial history—to criticise it about a fundamental human right and foundation of democracy, namely freedom of religion or belief. However, it is because of our close relationship with, friendship with and support for India, as well as because we want freedom of religion or belief for everyone everywhere, that we have to call out the concerns, particularly those expressed by Muslims and Christians in India, about serious violations of freedom of religion or belief in that country.
It is because India is a great country, founded historically and constitutionally upon a respect for other religions, that we take seriously the concerning reports of increasing discrimination and persecution of religious minorities in some parts of India. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said, India is a massive country. It has 1.4 billion people. It is complex, so any judgment on India will be multifaceted.
My hon. Friend also said, quite correctly, that virtually every country, including our own, has lessons to learn about freedom of religion or belief. Having said that, FORB is not just a lobby for religious minorities’ rights or indeed for one religion or another. It is for everyone, everywhere. It is the foundation of a good, functioning democracy, and it is good for a growing economy and for peace and security. It is testament to the Hindu Sanskrit verse Vasudeva Kutumbakam, meaning “The whole world is one family”, that faith communities such as Jews, Parsis and Christians have long found a home in the wonderful land of India, even before its young secular constitution came into effect in 1950.
It is worth noting that Christians have been living and flourishing in India for over 1,500 years. They were free to manifest their faith and were key contributors to modern India’s development. There are many Christians and churches flourishing across various parts of India. Some have thousands attending every Sunday, and those who are able to attend do so without any issue whatsoever. However, in recently years we have sadly seen a decline in tolerance towards the Christian faith in some—I emphasise the word “some”—of India’s states, particularly in rural areas and where churches are run independently.
Any state has the right to scrutinise Christian churches and organisations that are run illegally, but the burning of churches, desecration of altars and beating of pastors or congregation members by various radical mobs is totally unacceptable and must not be tolerated. It is not the India we have known for hundreds of years, nor does it reflect its historic principles or, as we have heard, the principles in its constitution.
It was deeply worrying to hear reports in December that the Karnataka assembly secretariat had instructed the department responsible for minorities’ welfare to submit a report on all religious conversions in the state over the past 25 years, in what appears to be groundwork for the anti-conversion law that the ruling Bharatiya Janata party has promised to announce. BJP MLA Gulihatti Shekhar, who presided over the meeting, has controversially instructed district authorities and the police intelligence wing to conduct a survey of the state’s 1,700-odd churches and prayer halls to examine their legality.
Although this may seem like a direct attack on the Christian faith, it should also be noted that Hindu temples have been and still are under security in various states for the status of their legality. After independence, the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1959 was passed, and Tamil Nadu temples are under the control of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department. That is incompatible with the fundamental rights granted to every Indian citizen in the constitution. This should matter to all in India’s 75th years of independence who seek to uphold the constitutional principles described by Prime Minister Modi as the real holy book.
As Sadhguru, the founder of Isha Foundation, wrote last year,
“If people do not have the freedom to practice their religion the way they want, what kind of freedom is that?”
India is experiencing Islamophobia and Christianophobia, which in response can lead to Hinduphobia. This is all a far cry from the founding principles of India. It is a sad stain on modern India.
People of all faiths, especially Hindus, Muslims and Christians, should stand together in solidarity, both in the UK and India, and must surely condemn some of the following incidents. Some 505 violent incidents against Christians were recorded by the United Christian Forum for Human Rights in 2021, including false accusations leading to arbitrary police detention, arrests and prosecution, forced conversion, hate campaigns, assault, death threats, illegal occupations of churches, forced displacement, acts of public humiliation, disruption of religious gatherings, and the looting and destruction of Christian homes, church buildings and other Church-owned properties. The attacks against the Chhattisgarh Christian community in January included imprisonment, injury, arson and forced conversion.
We have heard about the controversy surrounding rules to regulate conversion, but I get the very strong impression from those who understand those issues that the laws are designed to protect people from forced conversion, which is a very real risk—it is also a problem in Pakistan. It is very often young Christian women who are vulnerable to the pressure of forced conversion, forced marriage and forced conversion to Islam. That is what the laws are trying to prevent.
The concern, of course, is the misuse of such laws.
Pastor Rakesh Babu and his family were brutally beaten at their home in Chandauli, Uttar Pradesh, by unidentified men armed with wooden logs as they gathered to pray in their parsonage, a tiny room attached to the church where Pastor Babu had served for 15 years. A week earlier, he had been threatened with jail if he continued to encourage others to join him in prayer. Worryingly, after the attack, the pastor struggled to get local police to properly register his report. Mervyn Thomas, the founder-president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, told me that police often refuse to register first information reports and that over a number of years, perpetrators of communal violence in a number of areas have not been penalised. More information about that can be found in the CSW reports.
The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) made the important point about referring things to the police. A number of incidents against Christians—particularly the desecration of churches, the beating up of people, the burning of bibles, and the injuring of people going in and out of churches—have been reported to the police, but there have been instances of the police not turning up as requested. There is an evidential base that cannot be ignored.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As I said, more details about such reports can be found in the Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports on India.
I will mention two further reports. On 20 May, Pastor Alok Rajhans was attacked at his church by Hindu nationalists. Most worryingly, we learnt about the death in judicial custody of Father Stan Swamy, one of 16 humans rights defenders, on 5 July. We should applaud Indian civil society for last week launching a popular petition opposing the anti-conversion Bill, which was approved in the Karnataka state Parliament on February 14.
Ram Puniyani, the co-ordinator of the National Solidarity Forum—a consortium of more than 70 organisations and civil society groups of different origins and inspirations—said:
“Wherever the anti-conversion law, ironically called the ‘Religious Freedom Law’, has been passed, it has become a justification for the persecution of religious minorities and other marginalized groups. Attacks on minorities have increased significantly in recent years since this law has been used as a weapon against Christians and Muslims, especially Adivasis, Dalits and women”.
To those who criticise us for calling out those incidents in India, and who ask what it has to do with us, I say that we are all in this together and we must all join together, as demonstrated by this cross-party debate, to unite around the universal human right of freedom of religion or belief. I look forward to working as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for FORB—across party lines and across all faiths and none—to continue upholding that fundamental human right.
I am delighted to participate in this afternoon’s debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing it. I also pay tribute to him and to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for all the work they do on these matters.
As we have heard today, India’s minorities face increasing intolerance under the Modi Government. The principle of freedom of religion is inviolable. The freedom to practise one’s faith freely and without persecution is a basic human right. I have listened very carefully to all the viewpoints in this debate, but the reality is that Prime Minister Modi’s Government have presided over discriminatory policies and delivered the persecution of religious minorities, so much so that in April last year the US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that India be designated as a country of particular concern for egregious religious freedom violations and placed on a religious freedoms blacklist alongside countries such as Syria, Saudi Arabia and Eritrea.
According to the South Asia State of Minorities report 2021, human rights defenders and religious minorities in India who dare to protest against discriminatory laws and practices have faced restrictions, violence, criminal defamation, detention and harassment, while recent legislation has limited freedom of opinion and expression under the guise of preventing disharmony and disaffection. More and more of India’s states have adopted controversial and radical anti-conversion laws, which we have heard a lot about today. These laws are used by militant Hindu groups to prosecute members of religious minorities and make false allegations against them. It seems that these laws often provide justification for attacks on Christian leaders, which are carried out with impunity.
In 2021, Open Doors—a very important charity that supports the freedom of Christians to practise their faith in the face of persecution around the world, and one to which I pay tribute for its excellent work—ranked India as the world’s 10th most dangerous place to be a Christian. The Open Doors report concluded that since the current ruling party took power in 2014, Hindu extremists have fuelled a crackdown on Christian house-churches and attacked believers with impunity, believing that to be Indian is to be Hindu. In rural areas, Christians were told that one church would be closed down every week, because they have been destroying local tradition and culture by luring non-Christians to convert to Christianity. It is also common for Christians to be cut off from local water supplies and denied access to Government-subsidised groceries.
International Christian Concern has told The New York Times that Christians are being suppressed, discriminated against and persecuted at rising levels in India, like never before. Indeed, last year was branded the most violent year in recorded history for India’s Christians, with the United Christian Forum recording 486 violent incidents of Christian persecution, which exceeded the previous record of 328 violent incidents in 2019.
The evidence seems pretty clear. Of profound concern is the growing number of arrests in India of human rights defenders, student leaders, feminist activists, Dalit and Adivasi rights campaigners, trade unionists, opposition politicians and writers, artists, lawyers, academics and journalists who are critical of the Modi regime.
The UK has a considerably interlinked and close relationship with India, as we have heard today, and every diplomatic tool at the UK’s disposal must be used to effect change in India, in order to ensure that religious minorities are protected and flagrant abuses of human rights, of which religious freedom is only one, will not be tolerated.
During the UK-India free trade agreement negotiations, the UK Government have a clear opportunity to send a clear message that a trade partnership between the UK and India will not be ratified unless there is real and meaningful change on human rights and religious freedom in India. The UK has a very positive relationship with India, so it is in an excellent position to exert such influence. The UK must demand more from its friends, and human rights and religious freedoms in India must be at the forefront of our conversations and trade negotiations with India.
The human rights text in the clauses of any free trade deal with India must have policy teeth and must be enforceable. Will the Foreign Office, with help from the Department for International Trade, undertake human rights impact assessments before any trade and investment agreements are finalised with India? Will the UK Government work towards an integrated framework of atrocity prevention in the UK’s India strategy to ensure that at the very least UK officials can monitor risk and communicate the risks internally and externally? Will the UK Government ensure that human rights and environmental specialists are included in trade delegations?
India has ratified only six out of the eight international labour organisations’ core conventions. Will the UK Government make access to UK markets conditional on the Indian Government ratifying and effectively implementing key human rights conventions?
In 1995, it was agreed that every new EU trade deal would make human rights an essential criterion, allowing a treaty to be suspended if human rights commitments were broken. It is deeply concerning that the Foreign Secretary appears to have edged away from that principle in trade deals with Turkey, Singapore and Vietnam. Will the current Secretary of State for International Trade, or indeed the whole UK Government, go down the same path?
It is abhorrent that people can be prosecuted simply for practising their faith and worshipping their God. The constructive relationship between the UK and India gives the UK influence, perhaps uniquely among all the international actors, to effect change and exert influence—to pressure, encourage, cajole and do whatever it takes to ensure that India is governed by tolerance, understanding and equality, and that that is shown to Indians who are a part of a religious minority.
The ongoing trade negotiations with India represent a very important moment to focus minds on this matter. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that that is exactly what will happen, and that the UK will stand up to India as a critical friend to make it clear that basic human freedoms are inviolable, and we expect our friends and allies to recognise, practise and respect that principle.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who as ever has secured a debate to continue to champion his interest in religious freedoms across the world. He, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and others in this House are assiduous members of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief. They stand up also for people with no faith, and that is a very positive part of their group.
As we know, India is a proudly diverse and multifaith democracy with a secular constitution that places freedom of religion or belief at its heart. That is welcome statutory backing for equality and protection of minority rights. India’s diverse communities and its proud record of religious freedom with rights for religious minorities is unthinkable in many other countries of Asia. It is also noteworthy that in India there is political representation for minorities in Parliament and in the Cabinet. There is still some disproportionality relative to other countries in the region, but the attempt to diversify and provide role models from different communities in leadership positions should be recognised and placed on the record.
We have heard Members in today’s debate express multifaceted and broad-ranging concerns about increasing numbers of attacks on minority groups. As Members have highlighted, there is a raft of anti-conversion laws that have targeted Christians in some Indian states. Although the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has reported that very few arrests have been made under those laws, it cannot be right that people face sentences of up to four years for violating anti-conversion laws. I urge the Minister to address that question in her concluding remarks.
There are also numerous concerns relating to the treatment of Muslims in India, which is what I want to press the Minister on. Research by the House of Commons Library indicates that some 4,000 people have been arrested in Uttar Pradesh alone under its contentious anti-cow-slaughter legislation. NGOs have criticised the police for their inadequacy in responding to complaints of violence against Muslims in that dispute. I hope that the Minister will mention that in her concluding remarks.
Arguably more worrying, and a point made so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West, is the general direction of travel being witnessed in pockets of Indian society, with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act seen by many as anti-Muslim. Human Rights Watch, among others, has highlighted that “mobs” have been reported assaulting Muslim men with impunity, and that deserves to be looked at closely and to be part of the ongoing dialogue the FCDO is having with India on trade. It is right that these issues are highlighted and addressed by the Indian Government.
I know that many in India have added their voices to the condemnation arising across the world at this trend. Islamophobia, anti-Sikh hate, anti-Christian actions and general persecution of minorities are not something that most Indians believe in. Indeed, the majority would be repulsed by the association of their proud country with these actions.
The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and the hon. Member for Congleton are correct in expressing caution, given the traumatic past relationship between India and the UK, with many painful memories associated with the colonisation period in India. Criticism from this Chamber can be difficult to hear. I hear the exhortation from the hon. Member for Harrow East to visit India, and during the forthcoming Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit to Delhi in April, MPs will seek to develop a deeper understanding of the complexity and diversity of India on the part of the UK Parliament.
In the light of that mutual understanding, does the hon. Lady regret that during the Batley and Spen by-election, Labour circulated a leaflet showing our Prime Minister and Mr Modi together, with the title:
“Don’t risk a Tory MP who is not on your side.”
That was very divisive and it upset many in the Hindu community.
I thank the right hon. Member for her reminder of what was a mistake. I understand that, at the time, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) clarified that that was a moment in the heat of the by-election. I know she is a fierce campaigner and understands the sentiment that this was not the right thing to put out and that it does not contribute to community cohesion.
I urge the Minister to outline what steps the British Government are taking to support freedom of religion or belief in India, and indeed whether it has been raised in discussions with the Indian Government. India is, and will always be, a country that is held in the highest regard by Members of this House and in this country, not least with the large diaspora of British Indians who live in all our constituencies. I think of the community hub in my own constituency, providing such crucial community-based services locally. Those involved are great champions of human rights and have written to me regarding their concerns about today’s debate.
We must redouble our efforts to understand more fully the complexity of today’s India, and we must continue to develop our shared understanding of the promotion of human rights, as enshrined in the constitution of India, without fear or favour and to cherish religious freedom of expression.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate. I commend him for his tireless work in supporting freedom of religion or belief, including as chair of the all-party group. I thank him and his colleagues for their 2021 annual “Commentary on the Current State of International Freedom of Religion or Belief”, published in March last year, which provides valuable insight into the state of freedom of religion or belief around the world. I look forward to the 2022 edition.
I am grateful to the Opposition Front Benchers, the hon. Members for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton North East (Mark Logan) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for their contributions.
We heard many passionate views on all sides, and I hope hon. Members will understand that due to the situation in Ukraine and the debates happening in the main Chamber, I am providing cover for my Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office colleagues, so any topics that I have not been able to address fully will of course be followed up by letter.
The hon. Member for Strangford gave a passionate speech in support of religious minorities. He mentioned Rana Ayyub, and that is a case that the UN is looking into. I want to reassure him that the Government are committed to working for freedom of religion or belief for all and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities. I want to put on record the fact that we condemn all threats, discrimination and violence perpetrated on the grounds of religion, belief or faith.
Although this debate focuses on Christians, we must not forget those who have been persecuted around the world for belonging to other religions and holding other beliefs, or for having no religious belief at all. We want everyone, everywhere, to be able to live in accordance with their own conscience and exercise their faith or beliefs freely. That not only is the right thing to do for individuals, but makes countries stronger. When countries protect and promote freedom of religion or belief, they tend to be more stable, more prosperous and safer from violent extremism.
The Prime Minister reaffirmed his commitment to promoting that agenda globally by appointing my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton as his special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, and I am very pleased to see her in the debate. She has been working closely with the Minister of State responsible for human rights, Lord Ahmad, to drive forward our work on freedom of religion or belief.
My colleagues in the FCDO wanted me to give a bit of background on India, although I fear that it might look shallow compared to the extensive briefing we received from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman)—I think he should probably be briefing the FCDO. As we have heard, India, like the UK, is a society with many different faith communities. It has a proud history of religious tolerance and is among the most religiously diverse societies in the world, with significant religious minority communities, including Christians and Muslims. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East said, it also has strong constitutional and legal protections for human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, and is home to a vibrant faith-based civil society.
We recognise that, in a country of 1.3 billon people, the situation for minorities varies, depending on the region and their social and economic status. It is up to the Government of India to uphold those freedoms and rights, which are guaranteed by its strong democratic framework and legal mechanisms.
We have an open and constructive dialogue with India. As with any issue, where we have concerns, we raise them directly with its Government. We have previously discussed the impact of legislative and judicial measures on minorities with the Indian Government at the ministerial level.
There were some questions that hon. Members raised that I think I have answers to. The hon. Member for Coventry North West talked about agricultural reform laws. I understand that India repealed the three agricultural reform laws in December 2021. We recognise the interest in the Indian Government’s agricultural reforms, particularly among the Indian diaspora in this country.
There were questions around India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act. I wanted to let hon. Members know that Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon has discussed the impact of that and other judicial measures on India’s minorities with Indian Government Ministers. As I said earlier, its strength—like that of the UK—is its diversity, and it is the Indian Government’s responsibility to address the concerns of all Indian citizens, regardless of their faith.
Several Members, and particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, discussed the interfaith marriage laws. My understanding is that the British high commission in New Delhi also monitors all political and societal trends in India. We have noted new interfaith marriage laws in some Indian states, but that is as far as I am able to speak on those laws. I cannot confirm some of the things that Members have said during the debate, but they have been noted, and I am sure that Foreign Office Ministers will be able to address anything required in more detail.
One of the key concerns is around abduction and forced marriage, particularly of young women, which is the prime focus of those particular laws. I am sure the Minister agrees that forcing someone to change their religion after having abducted them from their family is not only morally wrong, but reprehensible.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is morally wrong and reprehensible to carry out such actions.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green requested UK action in India. As other Members have recognised, faith leaders in India are influential figures in their local communities, so UK Ministers and diplomats regularly meet them to understand their perspectives and hold a dialogue with diverse communities across that country.
Our high commissioner has visited a number of different places of worship in India and met faith leaders there. He has met Christian communities, including visiting Sacred Heart Cathedral, where he met the Catholic Archbishop of Delhi, and the Cathedral Church of the Redemption, where he met the Moderator of the Church of North India.
Faith-based NGOs also make a positive contribution to Indian society. Over the last three years, staff across our network in India have worked with local NGOs to bring together young people of different faiths. Through our high commission, we are supporting a UK-India interfaith leadership programme, which brings together emerging Indian leaders of diverse faith backgrounds, including Christians and Muslims, to exchange UK-India perspectives and foster understanding and respect. In May last year, the high commission held a virtual iftar to celebrate the important contribution that Indian Muslims make to Indian society and to bring together different faith communities. My fellow Minister, Lord Ahmad also met with faith leaders while visiting India last March.
I know that Members are interested in the UK-India relationship. It is central to our foreign policy tilt towards the Indo-Pacific. In May 2021, the UK and Indian Governments committed to strengthening the relationship through our new comprehensive strategic partnership. Our 2030 road map, which was launched by the Prime Minister and Prime Minister Modi last year, will guide our co-operation and benefit people across both countries. It will support regional and global security and prosperity.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran asked a few questions to which I am afraid I do not have the answers. I think some of them are DIT questions, but our 1.6 million strong diaspora community provides a living bridge of people, commerce, ideas and culture between our countries. It is an important strategic relationship, but even within that group there are many views that we have to take into account.
Minister, in the Open Doors top 50 league India is now No. 10; it was No. 31. That is clear factual evidence of lots of persecution and attacks on people of religious minorities. I know that it is not the Minister’s responsibility, but will she ask the Minister responsible to bring this to the attention of the Indian authorities? It is important that we are constructive in our contributions, but also that we are friends who can highlight issues that people are telling us are important?
I understand that. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is something that I can ask my colleagues to do. I know that this is the sort of regular engagement that they have with their counterparts.
I can update those Members who raised the UK-India trade relationship. We recently launched negotiations for a comprehensive UK-India free trade agreement, which would particularly benefit the north of England, the west midlands, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. We will work with India to support its COP26 commitments, including through a $1 billion green guarantee and British international investment partnership. Oxford University, AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute of India are enabling the world to navigate its way out of the pandemic with their collaboration to produce covid-19 vaccines at scale.
I now want to turn to the UK’s wider work on freedom of religion or belief. In July we will host an international ministerial conference. We will use the conference to bring Governments from across the world together with faith leaders to drive collective action in promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities around the world, so that everyone, everywhere can practise their religion or belief freely. We continue to work with organisations such as the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the G7, and the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, to bolster international action on freedom of religion or belief.
The Prime Minister’s special envoy—my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton—who even now is working in this capacity by participating in the debate, is currently chairing the alliance, and I thank her for her commitment and leadership. In November, the Foreign Secretary attended the alliance ministerial forum and underlined the UK’s commitment to working with partner countries to support freedom and openness around the world. We and our alliance partners raise awareness of cases of particular concern and advocate for the rights of individuals persecuted or discriminated against on grounds of their religion or belief, as we have heard from hon. Members today.
We also continue to implement the recommendations made by the Bishop of Truro’s review of our work in support of persecuted Christians and members of all faiths and beliefs and those of no religious belief. We have implemented 13 of the recommendations. We are close to achieving a further six and we are making good progress on the remaining three.
To conclude, it is right that we reaffirm our commitment to do all we can to foster intercommunal and interfaith understanding and respect around the world. That is why we continue to discuss issues of freedom of religion or belief with the Indian authorities. This is part of our dialogue and partnership with India, a country with a long history of religious diversity. Our partnership with India is very important to us. It is a partnership that brings great benefits to communities in both our countries.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions, and in particular the Minister for her summing up. The right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) sponsors the Open Doors event every year. We thank her for that. I am sure she will bring to the attention of the Indian Government the fact that India is now No. 10 rather than No. 31. We look forward to her using her position to do so.
I thank the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) for her contribution. She recently joined the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. We are very pleased to have her on board, and thank her for highlighting that where there is persecution we must stand up and say so. Well done to her for that.
The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) knows that he is a good friend of mine. We might agree on some things and disagree on others, but I thank him for the very balanced point of view that he put over today. He acknowledges that there are issues to be addressed. We are not here to give him a hard time, but to highlight the issues. That is our job. People do not come to us when things are all right; they come to us when things are wrong. They tell us these things, and these things have to be addressed. When there is an evidential base and the police are not providing protection, or are letting things happen, that has to be taken on board, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point.
The hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mark Logan) spoke up for Muslims in his intervention. I thank my dear friend, the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for all that she does. The Government made the right decision in putting her in her post. I mean that genuinely. Forgive me, Mr Stringer, for going all gushy, but she is wonderful. She does that job well, and we are particularly pleased to have her in her post.
I am not allowed to take an intervention. The hon. Lady expressed all the concerns that we have about the issues.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who is also my friend, always brings passion and fire to these issues. The conversation in trade negotiations should be about human rights; they must be at the centre of all discussions.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), also highlighted the issues in her summing up. I understand that there are pockets in India where these things are happening. That is what we are here to highlight—where they are happening—not to brush over them like they do not matter, because these people have no one else to speak for them.
I know that the Minister is not responsible for this area, but she always does well and I thank her for that. I am very pleased to know that the Government have the persecution of Christians, and the freedom of religious belief for people of all religions, at the core of what they are doing across the world. As always, I thank the Government for that.
I was reminded by people who emailed or texted me during the debate that, when right-wing groups are emboldened by a culture of state negligence or complicity, such things continue to happen. We need to ensure that they do not happen in India any more, and that the future will be one in which all people, wherever they are from in India and whatever their religious viewpoint may be, have freedom of expression and belief. That is the one thing on which probably all of us present in the Chamber can agree. We believe in that, and we must see it happen. If it does not happen, we look to our Minister and our Government to ensure that they highlight that with the country of India.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of the persecution of Christians and religious minorities in India.