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Freedom of Religion and Belief

Volume 788: debated on Thursday 18 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the recommendations of the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Article 18: From Rhetoric to Reality.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government warmly welcome the report, which is well informed and demonstrates the deep commitment of its authors. I wrote to the all-party parliamentary group on 8 December with an initial response to the recommendations, several of which have already been reflected in the Government’s approach to freedom of religion or belief. As we continue to push forward on this issue, we will continue to reflect on the recommendations made in this excellent report.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his response. He will know that the Government stated in their response to the APPG report that the stabilisation unit meets with religious and other key actors overseas to better understand FoRB. I am pleased the Government have expressed a desire to look for ways to strengthen this work. Can the Minister explain how information gathered in these meetings is currently being fed into government programming, and to government posts, to help better understand and tackle patterns of religious persecution? Can he also inform your Lordships’ House how he is tracking and assessing the responses from ambassadors and high commissioners to the letters he sent, which asked what they are doing to advance freedom of religion and belief?

I am pleased to inform my noble friend, and indeed the House in general, that there is very much cross-government co-ordination in this respect. I am delighted that, in our approach to the importance of focus on freedom of religion and belief, there is underlying support, by colleagues across DfID in particular, on ensuring that that essential element of our human rights provision is also understood across the world. On the specific issue of the different posts, I wrote to every post shortly after taking up the position of Minister for Human Rights, and in that regard we have had a positive response. Most recently, together with my right honourable friend Mark Field MP, the Minister for Asia, I wrote to each high commission and ambassador for the priority countries of Asia, and we have received very positive responses about the importance of prioritising freedom of religion and belief in our diplomatic efforts across the world.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the APPG. I certainly support its work and its report, but religion is often used as a cover for oppressing other minorities, particularly the LGBT community. A charity I am a patron of, an HIV centre in the East End of London, is working with faith groups on practical ways we can build respect and address concerns. Does the Foreign Office see the benefit of this sort of work, and is it supporting such work in other countries?

The noble Lord knows I agree with him totally. We have seen exactly those kinds of initiatives working domestically, which are of great value. In discussions we have had—and he will be aware of this—I have often said that faith communities should approach all these issues, including those of LGBT rights, as defined human rights issues. When we look at these issues through the prism of religion, the issues of fairness, equality and justice should prevail.

My Lords, as a member of the APPG for Freedom of Religion or Belief, I fully support the need to look beyond rhetoric towards positive action to protect freedom of belief and human rights. Will the Minister agree that we urgently need to decouple the linking of trade with human rights? Only last September, the then Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, cautioned against criticising human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia because of the danger of losing contracts. Does the Minister agree with the Soviet human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, who said that we must always be even-handed in our pursuit of human rights?

I believe that is our approach. Through our diplomatic corps, to whom I pay great tribute, we are able to have not only public but, importantly, private and candid discussions with countries around the world on the importance of human rights and the equality of human rights. The other area of opportunity where I believe the UK can play a key role is that, as we build democratic institutions and countries look towards their constitutions, those constitutions must reflect equal human rights for all.

My Lords, as a founding member of the APPG, I thank the Minister for his response to the report. Can he provide details about the £600,000-worth of projects funded by the Magna Carta fund which the Government have said have led directly to positive freedom of religion or belief outcomes in 20 countries? If they are so positive, what will the Government do to ensure that the principles behind those projects will be spread elsewhere?

First, through the Magna Carta fund we have been working in our priority countries to ensure that freedom of religion and belief is raised, not just directly but—a point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Collins—by building and working with civil society organisations and human rights defenders within those countries to ensure that they have political, diplomatic and financial support. In further support of those objectives, I am delighted, as I said earlier, that we are working hand in glove with our colleagues at DfID. There is an added fund now of £12 million which is targeted at development assistance but also at ensuring that human rights, including freedom of religion or belief, are enshrined in our projects and support across the world.

My Lords, noting recommendation 5, will Her Majesty’s Government provide detail about how DfID assesses its partners’ commitment to freedom of religion and belief when determining where the funding goes around the world?

The right reverend Prelate is right to draw attention to the detail. I have written specifically on that point to the APPG. There are assessment criteria that colleagues at DfID apply. Those ensure that freedom of religion and belief, as well as other elements of the wider human rights agenda, as I said, are protected in the support that we provide.

My Lords, can I bring us back home and welcome this week’s announcement by Sajid Javid that the Government will fund a new strand of the Lessons from Auschwitz programme in support of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Union of Jewish Students to tackle anti-Semitism, prejudice and intolerance on campus? Does the Minister agree with me that it may be a welcome initiative if each political party—some more than others—would ensure that all future candidates be taken on such an educational visit before they enter Parliament?

My noble friend is quite right to raise the important issue of anti-Semitism. It is a scourge that we all despise, and it is important that we come together and raise our voices wherever we see religion being used to discriminate, be it anti-Semitism or Islamophobia—or any particular view or belief. On the specific point of Auschwitz, if I may provide a personal anecdote, I remember visiting Auschwitz with schoolchildren just before I took on my ministerial responsibilities at the Department for Communities and Local Government. As anyone who has been there knows, while we have heard about it and may have seen films about it, the first experience you have is chilling, and then you reflect on the importance of what is in front of you. I totally agree with my noble friend: it ensures that your mind becomes focused, that never means never, and that we never allow such a genocide to take place again.