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Commonwealth: Discriminatory Legislation

Volume 791: debated on Monday 21 May 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, what specific activities they expect to support under new funding announced by the Home Office to support proposals to repeal discriminatory legislation in Commonwealth countries.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I draw attention to my interests in the register.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has committed to supporting Commonwealth countries that want to reform their outdated legislation. The new £5.6 million of funding will support civil society to accelerate social and legislative change, provide legal policy research tools and expertise and convene regional dialogues to strengthen co-operation, understanding and policy exchange. The aim of the programme is to advance the legal equality and rights of all Commonwealth citizens, regardless of gender, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. Thirty years ago, under Section 28, this Parliament gave the world a blueprint on how to discriminate against LGBT people, so it was extremely welcome to listen to the Prime Minister’s proposal during CHOGM. What is the funding supposed to support? What activities do the Government envisage will be carried out under this programme? Does the Minister agree that those religions that have colluded to harm LGBT people around the world should perhaps offer restitution by supporting this initiative?

On the noble Baroness’s second point, as we promote LGBT rights, it is important to discuss this issue with religious leaders and approach it with sensitivity—I fully accept that—but it is also important to look at this as being about the equality of all citizens. Issues of justice and equality for all resonate with all faiths. On the specific point about funding, the noble Baroness is right to point out that our Prime Minister, Mrs May, was very clear at the Commonwealth summit plenary session about where Her Majesty’s Government stand on this. The funding that was announced has been allocated specifically to look at these issue across the Commonwealth. I welcome practical suggestions from the noble Baroness—I know that she leads on this subject and has wide insight into it—because this money is to be allocated primarily to civil society organisations.

My Lords, I welcome the £5.6 million fund and the commitment of the Prime Minister to address the discrimination faced within the Commonwealth. Does the Minister agree that, vital though it is to work with Stonewall, the Kaleidoscope Trust and others, it is imperative that we work with NGOs and individuals in those countries so that there is no suggestion of neocolonialism or imposition from outside?

My Lords, as the Minister knows, we had discussions at CHOGM about this issue and he is absolutely right about the need to support and engage with civil society. That includes churches as well as civil society groups such as trade unions, which can actually promote equality and non-discrimination policies at work and, in doing so, ensure that LGBT rights become a workplace issue—not simply one that brings us into conflict with faith groups and others but a much more practical issue. Has the Minister had the opportunity to meet trade unions to discuss how he can approach this issue?

I know the noble Lord had a very productive event that he attended during the Commonwealth summit engaging with trade unions directly. As the noble Lord knows, we are meeting very shortly—although I have invited everyone in for a cup of tea in the middle of Ramadan, so I am not sure how I will partake—to hear practical suggestions about the groups and individuals we should be engaging with to ensure that this funding that has been allocated is allocated appropriately and where it can be used to best effect.

My Lords, while I welcome the Minister’s response, I remind the House that the Commonwealth charter was adopted unanimously more than five years ago, declaring an implacable opposition to all forms of discrimination. It is a sad fact that, still today, 37 out of 53 Commonwealth states criminalise same-sex relationships under 19th-century laws. They may have been our laws, but we are talking about Commonwealth laws now and, in that respect, despite the benefits of a Commonwealth common legal system, we still seem to be dragging our feet. What progress do the Government anticipate making in tackling discrimination while Commonwealth chair-in-office? What support will they provide in this to the Commonwealth Secretariat, the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, all based here in London?

My Lords, the Government’s view is very clear. I quote the Prime Minister when she addressed the plenary session:

“the UK stands ready to support any Commonwealth member wanting to reform outdated legislation that permits discrimination, including against same-sex relations”.

The funding is to be allocated to help countries build up their legal systems. I assure the noble Lord further that, in our bilateral exchanges with Commonwealth partners, we also ensure that issues of equality have a primary focus. It is about working in partnership, taking communities and societies together, and that is the approach we are taking.

My Lords, when the noble Lord is looking at outdated laws in the Commonwealth, will he reflect on the meeting that he kindly attended last week that considered blasphemy laws, particularly those that operate in countries such as Pakistan, and also the Pakistan penal code, which specifically requires the country’s significant Ahmadi minority, some 5 million people, to register as non-Muslims in order to be able to qualify to vote, thus disqualifying them from the franchise? Surely this is a law that needs to be overhauled.

First, I thank the noble Lord for chairing that meeting, all three APPGs which convened the meeting and all who attended. When we look at blasphemy laws around the world, they were in many ways a legacy of the days of Empire. It is important that we take a lead responsibility in ensuring that those who are now using laws that were intended to protect religions to discriminate against minority communities, such as the Ahmadi Muslim community and Christian communities, are met on the front foot and that we deal with it directly and bilaterally. Equally, when those laws are used to discriminate on important issues such as excluding people from elections, as they are in Pakistan, they should also be called out for what they are: they are straightforwardly discriminatory and should be eliminated and eradicated.

My Lords, one minute we are being told that we should beware of the ills of neo-colonialism, and the next moment we are telling sovereign Governments in the Commonwealth how to conduct their affairs.

All I will say to my noble friend, whom I listen to attentively on every occasion, is that I used and stressed the words “in partnership with”.