I remind hon. Members that they should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them, and dispose of the materials as they leave the Chamber. Members are also asked to respect the one-way system around the room. They should speak only from the horseshoe. Members can speak only if they are on the call list. That applies even if debates are under-subscribed. Members cannot join the debate if they are not on the call list.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of the covid-19 pandemic on freedom of religion or belief.
It is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. Yesterday, 25 November, the world marked Red Wednesday, whose purpose is to draw attention to the plight of those who are persecuted for their religion and beliefs, and the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. To mark them, the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief tabled early day motion 1179. I thank colleagues who have already signed it, and I ask others please to do so. In that EDM, we urge the Government and the international community to act to mitigate the impact that covid-19 has had on vulnerable minority communities globally and on women and girls from them, who are doubly discriminated against because of their gender and their beliefs.
The chair of our all-party parliamentary group, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) led the call along with the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) to secure this debate. We thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us time. The hon. Member for Strangford is unable to be with us today, and his compassionate voice will be much missed during this debate. As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group, I am sure I speak on behalf of many of us when I express the most sincere thanks to him for his dedicated work for the persecuted.
I aim to highlight with examples from around the world how, tragically, both Government and non-state actors have exploited this global health crisis to violate human rights, and in particular the right to freedom of religion or belief. I will show how living conditions have worsened for those who are detained, whether in prison or as refugees, on account of their conscience. I aim to illustrate that the distribution of aid and humanitarian relief is often biased or withheld from those with minority beliefs, and I will speak of the spread of misinformation targeting minority religious or belief communities. There is clear evidence of an increase in violence, both domestic and more widely, affecting those with particular beliefs. I will demonstrate how, in other ways, the right to worship and manifest faith or belief has been curtailed.
All that illustrates how important it is for our Government to be vigilant in pressing others to uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms during this pandemic, including in particular the freedom of religion or belief. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in particular is doing so.
In countries around the world, many marginalised religious and belief communities have faced intensified discrimination since the outbreak of covid-19. According to the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief,
“Antisemitic hate speech has risen alarmingly since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis”.
Many faith communities have even been blamed for the virus. The BBC reported that in Somalia, the Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab is warning Muslims that Christians are transmitters of the disease. Such messaging is terrifying for the handful of Christians there who are already forced to practise their faith in secrecy for fear of their lives.
In India, Muslims faced accusations that they were deliberately spreading the virus and a campaign of Islamophobia, in which Muslims were labelled bio-terrorists and corona-jihadists ensued, leading to many instances of violence and discrimination against Muslims. For Christians in India, too, life has become more difficult during the pandemic, on top of a serious increase in anti-Christian violence over the last few years—I see the hon. Member for Glasgow East nodding—particularly but not exclusively in Uttar Pradesh.
We hear of problems in India of mob vigilantism, violence and surveillance of home churches by non-state actors. I thank the Backbench Business Committee, which has already approved a separate debate on the persecution of Muslims, Christians and other minority groups in India. I hope that parliamentary time will be found for that much-needed debate very soon.
The scapegoating of minorities during this pandemic is a truly global problem. According to the Institute of Development Studies:
“In a significant amount of the nations which have encountered outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, politicians and opinion leaders have openly condemned religious minority populations under the guise of epidemiological containment, through hateful messages on social media, public speeches and official policies.”
That scapegoating has contributed to the many reports of individuals from these communities around the world being attacked, denied aid or otherwise prevented from accessing life-saving humanitarian interventions.
Accounts of discrimination in food distribution and the biased distribution of humanitarian relief materials are widespread. Alliance Defending Freedom International reports from the Gulf region that people have become so desperate that they are forced to trade their religion for food—they are forced to convert to Islam for just one sack of flour.
In Iraq, there are reports of Christian communities being the last to get necessary food and medical supplies. In Pakistan, there have been reports of non-governmental organisations denying food and aid to Hindus and Christians, or serving only them after Muslims have been served. Some members of the ethnic and religious minority Hazara group in Pakistan have claimed that they need to disguise themselves if they hope to receive medical treatment or testing.
One of the problems is that where national Government aid is being distributed by local groups or where foreign organisations use local staff at the frontline of aid distribution, discrimination against minorities can occur at that point, regardless of the foreign organisation’s central anti-discrimination policies. It is important that our Government do what they can to call for mechanisms to be put in place to ensure that religious minorities at the frontline of aid distribution, particularly UK aid distribution, do not face additional discrimination because of their faith.
Certain states have also utilised the covid-19 outbreak as an excuse to intensify persecution of marginalised communities, and not only through church closures. In Uganda, there are reports that the Government’s response to covid-19 has systematically excluded religious minority groups, by allowing only certain major religions to attend consultative meetings on the coronavirus response.
China has increased its interference and surveillance of Tibetan Buddhists, under the pretence of attempting to tackle the coronavirus, even using contact tracing apps to monitor every movement of Tibetan citizens. Also in China, where the clampdown on freedom of worship over recent years has been alarming, the pandemic has sadly given an opportunity for state surveillance of religious worship by minorities to increase. Some church members who tried to meet for online worship were detained and had police stationed at their homes to prevent them from joining online services.
I turn to the plight of refugees and internally displaced persons. Many already live in overcrowded conditions, rendering them particularly vulnerable in the event of an outbreak of covid-19. Many are from religious communities who have experienced rights violations that occasioned their displacement and internment in the first place, such as the ethnic minorities who fled Burma’s decades-long years of conflict.
Covid-19 has reached the Rohingya refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border, leading aid organisations to warn of an impending humanitarian disaster. First-hand observations by CSW—Christian Solidarity Worldwide—in the Rohingya refugee camps confirm that social distancing, self-isolation and even regular handwashing are an impossibility.
Elsewhere, the pandemic has highlighted failings in legal systems and criminal proceedings, and has underlined the degree to which religious discrimination can be institutionalised in some legal systems. In Sudan, for example, the legal system all but ground to a halt on account of the virus. Cases involving church leaders and church property, which were already proceeding slowly, faced further delays. Overcrowding in prisons during the pandemic has posed an additional threat to the welfare of inmates. A large number of prisoners are in Evin prison in Tehran, where conditions are overcrowded and unsanitary, and where prisoners have contracted the virus.
Eritrea is of particular concern; there, a stringent covid-19-related lockdown, enforced with violence by the armed forces, has provided the Government with an additional means of curtailing freedom of movement, which was already restricted. Tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience there, including long-standing Jehovah’s Witness detainees, are held in unsanitary, ill-equipped and life-threatening conditions, where insufficient access to water, food or medical facilities makes their plight desperate. An appeal by the UN special rapporteur for Eritrea for low-risk offenders and vulnerable prisoners to be released was rebuffed.
Although information from North Korea is difficult to obtain—I have the privilege of having been co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on North Korea for some years now—last week there were disturbing reports about North Koreans with covid-19 being left to die in so-called quarantine camps. The full impact of covid in North Korea remains unknown, but we should not underestimate it, given that country’s virtually complete lack of respect for human rights, its limited health system and its concentration camps housing thousands of prisoners of conscience—all of which coincides with North Korea’s having suffered substantial food shortages this year.
The all-party group is currently conducting an inquiry into human rights violations in North Korea as a follow-up to the UN commission of inquiry of 2014. There is an opportunity to contribute to it through our website, appgnorthkoreainquiry.com, and submissions would be most welcome, particularly in the light of the limited information on the impact of the pandemic in North Korea.
Elsewhere across the world, it is clear that the pandemic has led to discrimination in employment. Open Doors reports having been told of Christian nurses being deliberately assigned coronavirus cases. When India went into lockdown to combat the coronavirus crisis, hundreds of thousands lost their jobs overnight. Many usually work as daily labourers and earn each day what they need to survive; without the day’s income they have no money to buy food.
Many work as sanitation workers. They are often from the Dalit community, which is the most neglected and marginalised in India—indeed, I would say, virtually in the world; it is heart-rending to hear how some of them can only come out at night. Their work involves great health risks, collecting waste, emptying sewage and cleaning the streets. We hear via Open Doors from Hyderabad how these people face a serious predicament and are putting their lives at risk, with even women sanitation workers performing these sanitation tasks without gloves, protective masks or even shoes, and often working by hand.
There is no financial safety net or furloughing scheme in India. Official aid is nowhere near enough for the people who need it and, sadly, Christians are often last in line for essential covid aid and food because of their faith. However difficult the pandemic has been in this country, these reports—I thank in particular CSW and Open Doors for their reliable and often first-hand accounts—show that the difficulties in other countries are further exacerbated for the vulnerable, minorities and women.
There is a second debate this afternoon on international development and gender-based violence, so I will not take any further time from other colleagues in this debate by focusing on it now. Suffice it to say that reports in The Lancet indicate that domestic violence against women and girls has increased by as much as 30% in some countries during the pandemic. This huge increase in domestic violence has led to several reports of women from minority communities, such as Yazidis, taking their lives.
Tragically, that increase in violence is by no means restricted to domestic situations during the lockdown. In Nigeria, villagers in Kaduna state and Plateau state were obeying state directives to stay in their homes to prevent the spread of the virus. Sadly, that made them even more vulnerable targets for attack than they were before the pandemic, because they effectively became sitting targets. Fulani militants have carried out multiple raids on villages, and there are reports that Christians have been killed. Christians believe that the militants are taking advantage of the pandemic to uproot them from the area, and although they have made efforts to alert security agents to the attacks, nothing has been done to prevent them. Once again, I call on the Government actively to address the concerns and recommendations of our all-party group’s report “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide”, which was published earlier this year.
I look forward to colleagues’ contributions. Before I conclude, in the light of this debate, I ask the Minister to reflect on recommendation 21 of the Bishop of Truro’s report, about which I have spoken in a number of debates over recent years. The report highlights the importance of recognising the negative consequences of what he refers to as a “need not creed” mantra; of rejecting that mantra; and of the negative consequences of our aid being “religion-blind”.
Will the Minister consider the importance of challenging international partners to ensure that disinformation is combated; that there is access to justice; that where religious communities are attacked, there is accountability; that any emergency powers are proportionate; and—during this unprecedented crisis, now more than ever—that the needs of, and pressures on, religious minorities are taken into account, not ignored?
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who opened the debate and set the picture rather eloquently. I commend my friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who secured the debate at the Backbench Business Committee. Those of us who are Westminster Hall season ticket owners will know that the hon. Gentleman is not normally one to miss a debate, especially one on freedom of religion or belief. I know that I speak for us all when I say that we look forward to his return to the House to lead on this issue, about which he has spoken with so much passion and authority.
I also thank our friends at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Open Doors and Aid to the Church in Need for their excellent briefings and their wider work on freedom of religious belief, not just during the pandemic, but before it. It has so often fallen to non-governmental organisations and charities to step into the breach and support religious minorities who face intolerable levels of persecution, and that has been compounded by the covid-19 pandemic.
One example of such practical support on the ground is the Open Doors covid-19 relief package, which is making a real difference in countries such as Nigeria and India. Every £56 donated equips a rapid response team to bring emergency food aid to a family of persecuted believers who are affected by the pandemic. That is vital because research shows that covid restrictions mean that many persecuted Christians have been ignored when aid is distributed.
To understand the challenges faced not just by Christians, but by other religious minorities, we can look at CSW’s excellent advocacy work and country profiles. On the situation for prisoners of conscience in Iran, overcrowding in prisons during the pandemic has posed an additional threat to the welfare of inmates and increases the likelihood of the virus spreading in those locations. A large number of prisoners of conscience are imprisoned in Tehran, in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. By August this year, at least 25 people in the prison had contracted the virus, and on 10 August, several political prisoners staged a sit-in to protest their unsatisfactory conditions, inadequate protection measures and lack of medical care in prison. When the Minister sums up the debate, can he specifically say what representations the Government have made to the Iranian authorities about prisoners of conscience?
The pandemic has highlighted weaknesses and biases in legal systems and criminal proceedings. It has also underlined the degree to which religious discrimination is institutionalised—very much—in several legal systems. I will not repeat the point already made by the hon. Member for Congleton about the situation in Sudan, but we know that that is a particular concern there, so I ask the Minister whether the FCDO has raised it with the Sudanese authorities.
There have been notable occasions when authorities have misinformed or concealed information from the public in a bid to portray a more positive national image or, indeed, to create conspiracy theories that have adversely affected certain religious communities. There are examples in China, Laos and Vietnam, where people have been arrested for circulating information or rumours about the virus online and, in some cases, for simply questioning official figures or wondering why their respective Governments have not done more to contain the outbreak.
When Governments fail to provide adequate social services, humanitarian relief and healthcare, civil society—obviously and most notably, religious organisations—and individuals invariably attempt to fill the void. However, that can cause suspicion, and that leads to discrimination and even violence. There have been several incidents in Pakistan in which Christian and Hindu communities have been denied food by organisations, which stated that the relief supplies were only for members of the majority faith. Such discriminatory distribution of relief supplies has been reported in the Sindh and Punjab provinces; there have also been posters on mosques and madrassahs stating that food distribution is only for Muslims, which is of huge concern.
In my remaining time, I want to consider refugees and internally displaced people. Refugees and IDPs generally live in overcrowded conditions, which renders them particularly vulnerable in the event of an outbreak of covid-19. In some cases, those providing assistance, some of whom are religious actors, have been rendered vulnerable.
In May, it was confirmed that covid-19 had reached the Rohingya refugee camps on the Burma-Bangladesh border. The confirmation of at least two cases in the world’s largest refugee camp led aid organisations to warn of an impending humanitarian disaster. CSW has reported visiting the Rohingya refugee camps twice, and it is clear from its first-hand observations that social distancing, self-isolation and hand washing are an impossibility in camps in which families live cheek by jowl and with a limited supply of clean water, and poor sanitation and rudimentary healthcare. The same is true of the absolutely abominable concentration camps in which Uyghur Muslims are also being held. I therefore ask the Minister to comment specifically on camps, which are an enormous concern to us all on the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief.
Concerns about the impact on freedom of religion or belief during the pandemic are legion. I remain extremely concerned that the Government have yet to appoint a new special envoy for FORB at the Foreign Office. Ministers—indeed, the Minister in the Chamber today and, of course, the Prime Minister—have said repeatedly that an appointment will be made in due course, but that has not yet happened, which is a source of great concern to those of us who are following this in the FORB community.
Given the wide-ranging list of countries, referred to by me and by the hon. Member for Congleton, that are clearly violating freedom of religion or belief, this must be a priority for Her Majesty’s Government. I therefore look forward to the Minister summing up the debate and confirming when the appointment of a special envoy will be made and who will take forward this vital policy agenda.
It is a pleasure to speak in these debates, but it is pretty grim that we have to keep having them. The bad news is that the situation continues to get worse and not better, which is why it is so important that we, who have the immense privilege of being able to speak out in the freedom that we enjoy in this country, do speak up for others around the world who do not enjoy the freedoms that we do.
I speak as a Christian myself, but I am here this afternoon to stick up for the Uyghurs in China and all people of the Muslim faith who are suffering persecution. In her excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) spoke about the persecution suffered by Dalits, which is absolutely unacceptable. We have heard of Hindus not being treated well in Pakistan, in terms of distribution of aid and so on.
This debate is about freedom of religion or belief, which of course includes the right not to believe in God. A very good Christian friend of mine, Ben Rogers, went to visit an atheist in prison in Indonesia a few years ago—a Christian going to the support of an atheist whose rights not to believe in God were being taken away. I seem to remember they had a very interesting conversation about Mark’s gospel—I do not know whether the atheist ever came to faith, as I never caught up with the end of the story. That just makes the point that, regardless of whether someone is of faith or no faith, this debate is for them. The right to freedom of religion or belief is universal and should be applicable all the way around the world.
Having said that, I note that—as the former envoy on this issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), said in the main Chamber only this morning—Christians are the most persecuted group in the world. That is something that we just need to say, because we should speak as the facts dictate. In the more privileged west, we sometimes do not realise that most Christians in the world are quite poor and disadvantaged; they are not wealthy, privileged people. They are often at the margins and not in the mainstream, and it is easier to take advantage of them. Although I think, noting our manifesto, that yesterday’s decision on aid was unfortunately a regrettable one, I am grateful that combating persecution against people on the grounds of religion or belief remains a Foreign Office priority, which is very important indeed.
It is necessary to understand the context of the debate, because we will all mention some countries, which is absolutely right. I will read out the top 20 countries on the Open Doors 2020 world watch list, because they need to be named so that people are aware. No. 1 is no surprise, because it has been there for a long time: North Korea. Following that is Afghanistan, a country where there has been significant UK involvement for many years, then Somalia, Libya, Pakistan—a major recipient of UK aid spending and a Commonwealth country to boot—Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen and Iran. India, a proud member of the British Commonwealth and a great friend to this country, is at No. 10. I am a huge friend of India, but sometimes friends have the conversations that they need to have but do not always want to have. That is certainly the case with India, as a fellow Commonwealth member. No. 11 on the list is Syria. Then there is Nigeria, which is another Commonwealth country, followed by Saudi Arabia, the Maldives, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria, Uzbekistan, Myanmar and Laos. They are the top 20, which gives an idea of the geographical spread of this issue.
As I say, things are getting worse. Some 260 million Christians live in the world watch list’s top 50 countries—that figure has increased from 2019, when it was 245 million. In countries such as Sri Lanka, where there used to be a degree of stability, an increase in destabilising violence has led to much greater difficulties for Christians. In Burkina Faso, we saw a relentless rise in violence throughout 2019, and Islamic militancy has taken a hold within the country.
The situation continues to get worse in China, which has risen hugely in the world watch list, to No. 23. More than 5,500 churches have been destroyed, closed down or confiscated during the reporting period. In 2018, China was ranked at 43, so that is a huge increase. Many people were upset not to be able to get into our own churches earlier this year and in the last month or so, but what we have had to “suffer” is simply of a different order from 5,500 churches being destroyed, closed down or confiscated.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and highlighting that churches have been closed. Even where they are open, however, Government laws restrict who can attend them. For example, it is now illegal to take a child under 18 into a church and people in certain occupations, such as the military, cannot attend. In just the last few years, the restrictions in China have been incredible. I thank him for highlighting that again in this place.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that extra information, which she has usefully put on the record. I note that many leading campaigners in Hong Kong and many hon. Members on both sides of the House are inspired by their Christian faith to speak out against what is happening in Hong Kong.
In India, in 2019, there were 1,445 physical attacks and death threats against Christians. In Nigeria, in the 2020 reporting period, it was estimated that 1,350 Christians were killed for their faith, and abductions continue, often of children and young people. I was privileged to have Leah Sharibu’s mother in my office a few months ago. The pain in her eyes that her daughter has still not been returned to her encourages me to keep on speaking out on the issue.
I hope that this debate gets some publicity. I am generally a great fan of the BBC, but I cannot help noticing that debates on this issue do not always feature as prominently as they should on BBC outlets. I hope that will change and that this important debate will get some coverage.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this important debate. The covid-19 pandemic has drastically altered how we work, interact with one another and enjoy our lives. The manner in which we congregate in prayer has also drastically changed, causing some who have contacted me to question the state of freedom of religion in the United Kingdom. As I had hoped, this debate has provided the much-needed perspective to answer them by starkly contrasting the situation here with that suffered by untold millions around the world.
Under the terms of the present lockdown, which will last until 2 December, it is illegal for churches, mosques and any other places of worship to open for congregational prayer. All significant assemblies of people, however pious, whether that be at entertainment venues, sports halls or other arenas, have been severely restricted under the current measures.
Together with all God-fearing folk who are respectful of the law, I am relieved that it will not be a criminal offence to gather for worship in the new three-tier system in England following the current lockdown. Regardless, I do not believe that the measures undertaken by Her Majesty’s Government can in any way be construed as representing an attack on the freedom of religion or belief. Rather, they represent restricted access to gathered worship in the interests of public health. Although that is certainly not normal, the essence of religion remains free.
All people of faith should be united in the common belief that the only true way to worship and serve the Creator is to love and protect his creation. I would argue that the very act of following the Government’s guidelines, if the intention is to protect one’s fellow citizen, is in itself a meritorious act of worship.
During the height of the pandemic and the lockdowns, religious leaders transferred their sermons, prayers, studies and meetings to Zoom calls and other online video-conferencing platforms. Rather than access to religious services being limited, they have arguably become all the more accessible, and it is the same with a wide array of social interactions. Irrefutably, it has been neither the purpose nor desire of Her Majesty’s Government to exclusively target worship and religious houses in the fight against coronavirus. However, I appreciate that virtual congregation should never, and indeed could never, replace physical congregation or the feelings and experiences that mass gatherings bring to both an individual and the wider community.
Freedom of religion and the right to believe is actively under assault across the globe. In Pakistan, Ahmadi Muslims are systematically persecuted by the state. Ahmadis can be imprisoned or even sentenced to death for simply describing themselves as a Muslim or describing their mosque as a mosque. In China, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned, up to 1 million Uyghur Muslims, Christians and adherents of Falun Gong have been rounded up and placed in re-education camps, where they are subject to political indoctrination, forced sterilisation and violent torture. My hon. Friend has provided vivid and deeply distressing examples—a litany—of the crimes faced by those who wish to believe, and she described how such actions have been amplified by the perpetrators of such crimes owing to the covid pandemic.
The situation that we in the United Kingdom currently endure in our fight against covid bears absolutely no resemblance to the atrocities inflicted on religious minorities around the world. Freedom of religion here is enshrined and protected and has not been infringed by the state. Rather, temporary measures on access to places of worship have been regrettably implemented to control the spread of covid-19. Religious leaders, churches, synagogues, gurdwaras, temples, mosques and other places of worship have already proven their ability to provide a vital spiritual service to their congregation during the first lockdown through the use of technology.
I pray for the day when all the restrictions are lifted and worship can return to normal in the UK, and that all people, wherever they live in the world, are soon able, like us, to take as a given their right to live, work and worship as they choose without threat or fear.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I apologise to you and to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for arriving after the start of her speech. I congratulate her and thank her for securing this important and timely debate.
I will not speak at length about persecuted minorities around the world, not having great experience on the topic, but I do have a powerful memory of visiting the Anglican church in Baghdad in 2003, just after the invasion of that country, with Canon Andrew White, who was the vicar of Baghdad and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative to the middle east. I tagged along with him on his first visit back to Baghdad after the invasion, and he reopened the church, which had been closed during the war, or during the invasion.
I remember the most joyful service. There were children running around and people from all walks of life, including American and British soldiers. I remember clearly the caretaker, who had looked after the church and kept it going through the invasion and the war. Within a couple of months of that visit, that man and his whole family were dead, and the whole church had been dispersed. That was the beginning of the persecution of Christians in Iraq, which led to pretty much the eradication of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. That terrible scenario has been repeated across the world in all sorts of terrible ways, and not just affecting Christians, as we have been hearing.
The debate is about the pandemic and the role of faith groups, and I want to make two points in the light of that. The first is about how important faith groups are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has said, in reaching the poorest and working through their networks to ensure that support, whether with healthcare or with economic assistance during the crisis, reaches them. Obviously I entirely endorse everything that my hon. Friend said about standing against discrimination on the basis of faith in the developing world.
I also want to observe how important faith groups will be, in the developing world and at home, in countering misinformation about the vaccination programme that is beginning soon. I suggest that we need some religious literacy in working with faith groups and ensuring that misinformation is properly countered. Too often in our debates—frankly, in those about development as well as those about vaccination and misinformation—mainstream opinion seems to be that religion is part of the problem, and that if only people could be disabused of their fanciful superstitions it would be possible to convince them of what the science tells us. That is not going to help.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton talked about forced conversion. It makes me think about what we are asking people of faith to do. We are asking people who are suspicious of secular Governments, big companies and non-governmental organisations to abandon, effectively, what their faith says about those things and to undergo a vaccination that they do not believe in. We have to be much more respectful of them. I would put this, Mr Rosindell—I hope you will forgive me—in spiritual terms. The devil is in the structures of the world. There is injustice. There are bad people doing bad things, and people are victims of injustice through no fault of their own; but I do not believe that the Government—this is the argument we need to make—and big pharma or the NGOs are more particularly evil than the rest of us.
I will quote from Ephesians: “Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the rulers of this dark age, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Our battle is not against people or organisations, but against spiritual forces, and that is the reality that people of faith hold, recognise and believe in. We have to help them to understand where the real enemy is. I suggest that the devil gets into the resistance to secular globalised organisations as well as into those organisations themselves, sowing distrust and spreading deceit. That can be seen in some of the malign forces that are operating in the way that disinformation is spread through social media. It is a spiritual battle and we need to respect people who think that way and not just tell them they are stupid.
My second point—raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton—is about religious freedom at home. We closed churches through the lockdown, and I regret that. We effectively abolished the freedom of assembly throughout the country, and in all institutions. Okay, fair enough. We only overturned freedoms that were won 400 years ago, in that instance—but in closing churches we overturned the foundation of our constitution itself, which was laid 800 years ago. The first line of Magna Carta, as you will know, Mr Rosindell, is that the church in England shall be free. I suggest that it was unconstitutional for the Government to pass a law ordering the closure of churches for collective worship.
I note in passing that in answer to a written question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) earlier this month, the Government said that shutting churches was justified under article 2 of the European convention on human rights—that the right to life, interpreted as the right to health, justified the closure of churches. I am sorry that the ECHR has been held to trump Magna Carta.
I interpret what has happened differently. I think that churches shut voluntarily and were under no compulsion to do so. I respect the decision that they made to shut voluntarily, for the sake of closing down the pandemic. I am very pleased that the Prime Minister has said that churches can open for services after 2 December. Sadly, there will be no mixing outside people’s bubbles, which means no sign of the peace—a bit of a relief for some of us who do not like that bit of the service. But it is a shame that we cannot mix in churches. However, the principle that churches can remain open is vital—and I obviously extend that to all faith groups, and all communities of faith in this country.
I am subject to similar regulations in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman has already quoted scripture from Ephesians, but it should be put on record as well that we are reminded that when two or more are gathered, he shall be present. The four walls of a church are just a building. When we come together in fellowship, whether that is by Zoom or on the telephone, we can still worship God.
I recognise that. The Holy Scripture was written for the age of Zoom. There is a sense that the church is the body of Christ, which is the people. However, it is established doctrine that the body consists of people gathering together. I appreciate that “two or three” gathered together is sufficient, according to the Bible, but I feel that the principle of collective worship being physical and the body of Christ being allowed to gather, in physical form, is part of our constitutional foundations.
I appreciate the opportunity we have had to discuss this subject and I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has said.
As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Rosindell. I thank everybody who has made a contribution to the debate today. There have been some strong and powerful contributions.
I particularly commend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate, alongside others. Although he is sadly absent today, he has always been a steadfast defender in this House of the right to religious freedoms. I also thank the hon. Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Glasgow East (David Linden) for leading the debate today and for their contributions. I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and I commend the Bishop of Truro’s report on the persecution of Christians that was referenced in the recent debate.
As a Christian myself, I was drawn last night to the words of the Gospel of Matthew about our responsibilities to the poor and the persecuted, particularly at this time:
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”
This is a most pertinent debate to have today, as we begin to understand the impacts of the Chancellor’s regretful breaking of the Conservative party’s manifesto promise and the commitment shared across this House, including by Members present, to 0.7% for international aid. The decision will have an impact on our work on crucial international issues, such as our work to protect freedom of religion or belief, and, more broadly, to support faith-based organisations and other non-religious but deeply ethically principled organisations in their work responding to the covid-19 pandemic and standing up for development, human rights and justice more broadly.
The hon. Member for Congleton particularly mentioned the situation for girls and for those persecuted around the world. We should reflect on the words of Malala Yousafzai, who was herself a victim of extremists in the Pakistan Taliban, who said this morning that she is deeply disappointed at the abandonment of the 0.7% target when a generation of girls are leaning on that support.
I spent yesterday speaking with a number of faith-based organisations and faith leaders working in South Sudan and Ethiopia. Their warnings were stark about the threats to peace, human rights and development in those two countries, with which we have had strong partnerships. They warned of famine, atrocities and disaster, on top of the impacts that covid-19 was already having on their communities.
I am sorry to say that it has been a deeply disappointing few months from the Government on these issues. Abolishing the Department for International Development already risked undermining UK leadership on freedom of religion and belief. As we know from a similar debate a few weeks back, the Prime Minister’s own special envoy on freedom of religion and belief, the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), resigned over the Government’s planned intention to break international law. Members do not have to take my word or the hon. Gentleman’s word for this. Earlier this year, the now former Minister of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Baroness Sugg, responded to a debate in the other place on freedom of religion and belief. She rightly and proudly listed the work of the Department for International Development with the John Bunyan fund, which had funded an Institute of Development Studies-led programme on building religious freedoms. She said DFID had a director-level champion on those issues and was working in Rohingya refugee camps, and in many more instances besides, and that
“prioritising freedom of religion or belief can save lives and prevent humanitarian disasters before they emerge.”
She also said that
“withdrawal of our overseas aid will obviously affect the persecuted minorities and the very poor, whom we are aiming to help.” —[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 February 2020; Vol. 801, c. 1878.]
Ministers from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have spent the last month refusing to be drawn into discussing any specific spending commitments. Now we have had the Chancellor’s announcement, can the Minister tell us today which of the programmes supporting human rights, specifically on freedom of religion and belief, will be funded in the years ahead, and which will be cut? Beyond that, what role does the Minister see for faith-based organisations and other organisations of no religious principle but with deep ethical principles in our global development and human rights efforts?
Faith and religious communities have on the whole responded with responsibility, care and compassion to the pandemic at home and abroad. Responding to the Bishop of Winchester on 11 November, Baroness Sugg said faith groups
“have been incredible in their response to Covid-19. They are among the first to respond and can play an effective role in bringing about the behaviour change essential to slowing the spread of Covid and reducing infection and illness.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 November 2020; Vol. 807, c. 1025.]
Across the Anglican communion—I declare an interest as a member of the Church in Wales—the impact of covid-19 on church life, which was mentioned by the hon. Members for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) and for Devizes (Danny Kruger), has been of the same order in the UK, with impacts on church buildings, the suspension of public worship, impacts on rites of passage, gatherings and so on. There has also been an impact on clergy. I know that will be felt by the leaders in many other faiths around the world. There is increased burn-out and stress as they seek to respond to the needs of their communities.
I have had some difficult conversations in my constituency with churches and other faith organisations, but—the hon. Member for Wakefield made some sensible points on this—there is a stark difference between what we see in this country and what we see abroad, from the wider threat of violence to the use of blasphemy laws. In many other countries, covid-19 restrictions have regrettably been manipulated to oppress religious minorities. Just a few weeks ago, in this place, we heard powerful examples of the persecution of Christians. That concern has been expressed by groups such as Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. We have also seen antisemitism at the heart of many of the conspiracy theories about covid-19 in this country and abroad
In China, as we have heard, there is an ongoing attack on religious minorities by the Communist regime, including against Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, and other religious and non-religious minorities. Catholic bishops have disappeared. Temples, statues, mosques and churches have been destroyed under the Government’s direction. The Uyghur Muslim population is facing a monstrous Government-co-ordinated programme of police surveillance, enforced re-education, disappearances, internment and mass detention. We have even heard reports of forced sterilisation. Of course, 1 million Uyghur Muslims may have been living in camps since April 2017. The risks of that in relation to covid-19 are obvious.
The situation in India was mentioned, where Muslims are demonised by wild conspiracy theories that blame them for the spread of covid-19. Members of some Islamic movements were quarantined despite not having been at risk or having symptoms. In Pakistan, as was mentioned by the hon. Members for Glasgow East and for Wakefield, Christian and Hindu communities were denied food aid by organisations that stated that relief materials were only for members of a majority faith. We have seen attacks and discrimination against the Hazara minority and baseless allegations against them for being involved in the spread of coronavirus. The longstanding persecution of the Ahmadi population has continued in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Where prejudice existed before the pandemic, it has also had a significant impact on testing and tracing. In South Korea, where an outbreak occurred among members of one particular church, other members refrained from testing to avoid discrimination because they are seen as heretical by other Protestant South Korean churches. The Sufi religious community is persecuted in Iran. In Sri Lanka, the Muslim community’s rights on burial practices have been suppressed. The pandemic has affected rights and freedoms of the non-religious, too. Humanists International made some powerful points about the impact on the humanist movement, and the impact of lockdown on those being forced into religious practices when they hold no such religion and the impact that has had on them and their communities.
Labour stands firmly by our international human rights obligations, including on freedom of religion or belief. Everyone has the right to freedom of through, conscience and religion. The necessary restrictions in the UK because of the coronavirus pandemic have meant difficult times around Easter, Ramadan, the Jewish high holidays and Diwali. People are now thinking about how they might celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah in limited circumstances. We all face challenges, but in far too many places globally, necessary limitations have been superseded by discriminatory and oppressive measures, using public health to cover up persecution and the whipping up of hatred.
Like many others in this debate, I am a person of faith. My Christian beliefs very much underpin why I went into the humanitarian development sector before I came into this place. I want to return briefly to the point about the 0.7% commitment. I could not agree more with the Most Reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who described the move yesterday as “shameful and wrong.” I am reassured by the many Conservative and other Members who had the courage to speak out yesterday and today. This is an issue that transcends party politics. It is about right and wrong, and it is about Britain’s national interests.
It matters to this debate, too, because when we talk about a global Britain standing up for freedom of religion and belief and getting behind the incredible efforts of organisations of religious faith and non-religious principle—whether that is directly combating persecution, supporting persecuted communities or supporting communities with the material needs of those affected by conflict, gross poverty, inequality and now covid-19—it cannot just be about words.
Christians often turn to the story of the good Samaritan, but I am reminded of the words of Christ himself in the gospel of Mark, recounting the parable of the widow’s mite. He says:
“He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
That is the example set by many faith and non-religious organisations worldwide. As a country, we cannot just be a fairweather friend to the persecuted and the poor when we have plenty. Britain is better than that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate, and I commend them for their long-term commitment to freedom of religion or belief. I agree with my hon. Friend that these debates are not quite the same without the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—nor is any Adjournment debate, for that matter. As my hon. Friend said, his passionate voice has been sadly missed from today’s debate, but I am sure, via the miracle of the internet, he will be tuning in to the debate. We wish him well in his isolation.
I also thank hon. Members for their ongoing work with the all-party parliamentary group, which continues to raise the profile and awareness of human rights to parliamentarians and the public alike. Like my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), I very much hope that today’s debate gets picked up and gets some publicity. It is an issue that is debated regularly in Westminster Hall and in the main Chamber, because it is important to so many colleagues.
The pandemic continues to have a huge impact on countries and communities around the world. In this time of stress and uncertainty, religious and belief actors have a role to play in providing social and humanitarian services. Meanwhile, Governments must work with those actors to increase community cohesion and resilience, as well as to communicate important public health messages. Let me take this opportunity to reaffirm our unwavering commitment to championing freedom of religion or belief for all and to promoting respect between different religious and non-religious communities.
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
Freedom of religion or belief is a long-standing priority for this Government. Lord Ahmad, my ministerial colleague, continues to champion the cause as Minister for human rights at the FCDO. Religious intolerance and persecution are often at the heart of foreign and development policy challenges. Where freedom of religion or belief is under attack, other human rights are also threatened.
The FCDO is using all its diplomatic tools to ensure that nobody suffers because of their conscience. Nobody should be excluded because of their religion or belief. Discrimination not only damages societies, it holds back economies. Countries cannot fully develop while minorities are oppressed and communities are invariably stronger when they include everyone.
Development and diplomacy work hand in hand, and the FCDO is working on two particular freedom of religion or belief programmes: one is an Institute of Development Studies project, working with minority groups in Africa and Asia; and the other, with the University of Oxford and parliamentarians in nine countries, is working to reduce the use of language that intimidates minority religious groups during elections. That work is vital to advancing freedom of religion or belief.
The pandemic has undoubtedly brought out the best in many religious and belief communities around the world. We have seen remarkable acts of kindness, not least in the UK, including enhanced efforts to care for the vulnerable and actively sharing credible advice on health and safety precautions. Notwithstanding the overwhelmingly positive example set by many communities, we remain deeply concerned by the severity and scale of violations and abuses of freedom of religion or belief in many parts of the world, as has been raised by hon. Members today, including a worrying increase in hate speech and the rising conspiracy theories that certain faiths or beliefs are to blame for the pandemic. We have heard examples of that today. Such incidents are completely unacceptable. The United Kingdom will continue to refute those divisive and harmful claims. No one should suffer in the pandemic because of their faith.
To ensure that the issue is not forgotten in these most challenging of times, we have stepped up our engagement at the United Nations and in other multilateral forums to ensure that freedom of religion or belief remains a top priority for all countries. In June, Lord Ahmad urged states to take steps to mitigate the impact of covid on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society, including religious and belief minorities, during the UK’s closing statement at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Just over a fortnight ago, we demonstrated our concern about the rise of antisemitism, which has been mentioned today, and other forms of discrimination in the wake of covid, in our statement to the UN General Assembly.
We will continue to use our influential voice to raise freedom of religion or belief at the UN, including urging the international community to work together to face the challenges presented by the pandemic. We have also issued a joint statement with the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, calling on states to ensure that any restrictions to the right to freedom of religion or belief are necessary, proportionate and time-limited to protect public health. Last week, Lord Ahmad attended the alliance’s Ministers forum, where he urged renewed efforts to prevent acts of violence that target individuals on the basis of their religion or belief.
It is particularly important at this time to ensure that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society are actively included in response and recovery efforts. As we have heard today from all hon. Members in this Chamber, members of minority communities are suffering terrible discrimination and abuse throughout the world, so our work in the multilateral forum must be informed by what is happening on the ground. In Pakistan, for example, hate speech and attacks have been aimed at Shia Muslims and Hindus, and Christians are being denied food, support and healthcare. We continue to urge the Government of Pakistan to ensure that all citizens enjoy the full range of human rights, as laid down in Pakistan’s own constitution, enshrined in international law and demanded, frankly, by human decency.
We are also concerned by the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment and the decision by the Sri Lankan Government to mandate cremations for all those deceased due to covid—Lord Ahmad has raised that issue with the high commissioner. Ministers and officials at the high commission in Colombo continue to urge the Sri Lankan Government to ensure the protection of Christians, Muslims and other minorities in that country. In Iraq, covid has had a significant effect in the regions of the country formerly controlled by Daesh, including on religious minorities such as Christians and Yazidis. Many still remain in camps, where covid is leading to reduced services, and those outside the camps are struggling with livelihoods and access to essential services.
I will now address some of the more specific issues raised by hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton was absolutely right to raise Red Wednesday. I can confirm that the FCDO was lit up in red lights to demonstrate our solidarity with persecuted Christians across the globe. We will continue to work across Government to ensure that these international days are respected in the appropriate manner. She rightly raised cases of oppression of those of faith and other minorities across the globe. She cited evidence of some states allegedly, or actually, using the pandemic as an excuse to clamp down on minorities. She raised, as did other hon. Members, the plight of the Rohingya in refugee camps. I am proud of the work that we are doing to alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya. We are the second-largest donor of relief and support to those people, both in Bangladesh and in the camps.
My hon. Friends the Members for Congleton and for South West Bedfordshire spoke of North Korea. It is very difficult to assess the situation there, as they can imagine. Due to the pandemic, we have had to take the difficult decision to close our embassy in North Korea temporarily, basically to give our dedicated staff there some relief from the situation—they literally could not go out of the perimeter of the compound they were staying in. We took that difficult decision, but we hope to be able to return to that country at the earliest opportunity.
When the Foreign Secretary made his very welcome statement about Magnitsky sanctions, North Korea was one of the countries raised. He mentioned organisations, because it was not possible at that time to identify the individuals who led them. Has there been any progress in identifying the individuals concerned, to whom those Magnitsky sanctions will apply in North Korea?
My hon. Friend is right to mention sanctions. These Magnitsky-style sanctions can have great effect in holding people to account, especially those with assets outside particular countries. He will appreciate that it would not be correct to speculate on individual names—to do so would likely lessen the effect of any potential sanctions—but what I can tell him is that we are constantly monitoring potential individuals for our sanctions regime.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton mentioned the Bishop of Truro’s report. We have made great progress in adopting those recommendations. On recommendation 21, which focuses on sharing lessons from the implementation of the review’s recommendations, we continue to consider the best way to do that. We will implement them over the next 18 months, as we have committed to doing. We are very grateful to the bishop for his review. My hon. Friend also mentioned India. We are very concerned about reports of discrimination against minorities there, which is linked to covid. We condemn any form of discrimination based on religion or belief. India’s strength, like that of the UK, is in its diversity. We call on and trust India’s Government to address the concerns of peoples of all religions.
The hon. Member for Glasgow East rightly raised Sudan. Our embassy in Khartoum constantly monitors the human rights situation there, including on freedom of religion or belief, through engagement with civil society and their politicians, and we raise our concerns with authorities. Most recently, on 28 January, Lord Ahmad raised the importance of freedom of religion or belief with the Sudanese ambassador, including concern at the appalling burning of three churches in Blue Nile state. Lord Ahmad stressed the need for the Sudanese authorities to investigate that incident. We are undertaking project work to strengthen the effectiveness of the Sudanese National Assembly. This includes ensuring Sudanese policies and legislation better serve minorities and religious groups, in line with international standards on freedom of religion or belief.
Lord Ahmad also raised the issue of discrimination towards and the targeting of the Baha’i community in Iran. We regularly raise specific concerns about laws that might end up discriminating on the basis of religion or belief, and we do so publicly and privately—we make a judgment on which we believe will have the most positive effect. He also mentioned a replacement for the special envoy. I again pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) for his work in that role. The Prime Minister will be appointing a special envoy replacement in due course.
I have a lot of respect for the Minister, but I am getting slightly fed up with hearing the words, “in due course”, which I know are a favourite of the civil service. Can he at least commit to saying that the appointment will be made before Christmas? Given how often we are in this Chamber raising these issues, it is rather frustrating to be told that they will be raised “in due course” when this does not actually happen.
I understand where the hon. Member is coming from. This is a bigger point. This is not something that needs to be rushed. There will be a replacement, but by no means are we stepping back from our commitment to this role. We know how crucial it is for liaison with the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. However, the hon. Gentleman must forgive me if I cannot give a commitment on whether the appointment will be made this side of Christmas, however welcome that would be.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire is a long-time champion for freedom of religion or belief. He rightly highlighted a wide range of countries where there are serious concerns about the ability to worship freely. We will always condemn any form of discrimination. We will always raise our concerns directly with the countries. He focused on China and the Uyghur population. We are deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang. We all know about the so-called re-education camps. Our diplomats have visited Xinjiang periodically to observe that situation, because first-hand access is not easy.
We have repeatedly taken an international role in holding China to account on the issue, including statements at the UN Human Rights Council in June and in the UN Third Committee last October. At the time, the UK was the only country to have led a joint statement at the UN. On 6 October, the UK and 38 other countries made a statement at the UN Third Committee in New York, expressing our deep concern about the situation in Xinjiang, including the mass detention of Uyghurs. This reflects our diplomatic leadership internationally, including the personal involvement of the Foreign Secretary, in raising the issue with a wide range of partners.
On 25 September, we devoted our item 4 national statement to human rights issues in China at the UN Human Rights Council. That was only the second time the UK has dedicated its national statement to a single country—the first time was in 2018, on Russia, following the Salisbury poisonings. In July, the Foreign Secretary raised Xinjiang directly with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi. I raised my concerns directly with the Chinese ambassador in March.
As usual, my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) spoke eloquently on a subject that is very close to his heart. His experience of the discrimination that he has suffered as an Ahmadi Muslim makes him uniquely placed to comment on these injustices. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) said, we all look forward to being able to worship to some degree in the UK after 2 December, in all places of worship. Collective worship is clearly preferable to services via Zoom, but that is a step in the right direction at least.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes also talked about his personal experience in Iraq. The suffering of Christians and many other groups in Iraq is a matter of serious concern. We are firmly committed to protecting members of religious minorities in Iraq and providing assistance on the basis of need, irrespective of race, religion or ethnicity. We have committed £261 million in humanitarian support to Iraq since 2014, which will provide a vital lifeline of food, shelter, medical care and clean water for the most vulnerable, including the Yazidi and Christian minorities. We have also contributed £23.15 million to the UN development programme funding facility for stabilisation, which works to restore vital services across liberated areas of Iraq, and is heavily committed to areas that are home to minority communities—principally, and historically, those are Christian areas.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) brings great experience in this area to his role as Opposition spokesman, and it is always good to see him across the Chamber in these debates. He rightly raised the issue of the reduction of the development assistance budget from 0.7% to 0.5%, but the pandemic has had a huge and severe impact on our economy, which has fallen to the worst levels in 300 years. That has forced us to take an incredibly tough decision to spend 0.5% of our national income on global poverty reduction next year, rather than the usual 0.7%. That was a very difficult decision to make, but it is a temporary one. We must protect the economy during the pandemic, but we intend to return to 0.7% as soon as possible.
Of course, we remain one of the most generous G7 donors: proportionately, we will spend more than the United States, Japan, Canada or Italy. In real terms, that means more than £10 billion to fight poverty, improve global health and achieve our UN sustainable development goals.
I take the Minister’s sincerity, but those are political choices that the Government have made in breach of their own commitments. A lot of organisations, particularly those working on the crucial issues that we have debated, want some of the granular detail on which programmes will be cut, suspended, changed or altered. The Foreign Secretary just mentioned in the main Chamber that there will be another review over the next couple of months. When can we expect detail and confirmation of funding for the critical programmes that we have discussed?
The hon. Gentleman is right to ask. All aid will be focused on seven global challenges where we can make the most difference: covid and global health security; girls’ education; science, research and technology; conflict resolution; humanitarian preparedness and response; trade and economic development; and, of course, climate change and biodiversity. The Foreign Secretary will decide the allocation of aid to other Departments in line with those objectives. All the projects will be assessed through a new management process, led by the Foreign Secretary with input from Ministers about their geographic and departmental responsibilities. That will be laid out, although I hate to use this term, in due course. The hon. Gentleman will have heard the Foreign Secretary’s commitment on that.
The Minister is being extremely generous. I hope that he will reflect on David Cameron’s tweet yesterday about it being a regrettable move, given that we share the world with some of the poorest people. It was a deeply retrograde step. Global Britain is not a project that I and the SNP endorse, although I wish it well, but as Britain emerges from Brexit and goes on to the world stage, it strikes me that moving from 0.7% to 0.5% is not good for global Britain’s soft power. Even at this late stage, the Government should reconsider, because it looks so bad for project global Britain.
The important thing is that whatever aid we give, it has the greatest possible impact overseas. I heard what former Prime Ministers had to say yesterday. Nobody wanted to have to make that decision, but these are extraordinary times. There has been a severe impact on our economy. We will still be the second largest donor in the world in that area.
I would also say that we have managed to achieve 0.7% in previous years. We will be cutting it back to 0.5% temporarily, but I politely say to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth that in 13 years in government, the Labour party never once achieved 0.7%. Not only that, it did not achieve 0.6% either. In two years, it achieved only 0.5%. We are, temporarily, going back to where we were at 0.5%.
The Minister has made that point, and the Foreign Secretary tried to do the same earlier. When they resort to such personal points, it reflects a Government in wider difficulties. The reality is that in 1997, ODA was at something like 0.21%, and by the end of the Labour Government it had come close to 0.6%. There was a steady increase throughout the period after the Thatcher Government, the Pergau dam scandal and many other things.
Rightly—and I have credited them for it—David Cameron, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and others stuck with the commitments and the increases, because there was cross-party consensus. It is a great regret that the Government, and the Chancellor in particular, have chosen to break that consensus. It is deeply regretted by many on the Minister’s side of the House, as he knows.
The Minister mentioned a commendable list of seven areas that will now be the FCDO’s core areas of funding, but I noticed the absence of a vital one. Although he mentioned conflict resolution, there was no mention—unless it is a sub-category of that—of upstream conflict prevention. That is certainly the most cost-efficient and best way to stop conflicts occurring, and it is an area in which the United Kingdom has an incredibly valuable asset.
I used to be an active member of the Oxford Research Group with Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Gabrielle Rifkind and Tim Livesey, who used to be the chief of staff of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband)—it is multi-party. It has a great arsenal of talent and people that it can employ for the sake of security elsewhere. If upstream conflict prevention is not included, are we selling Britain short?
I do not believe so at all. It is important to be mindful of all areas. Prevention of anything is better than cure in many ways and less expensive. My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. We need to strengthen democratic institutions to ensure that these things are headed off. We need to ensure effective governance and free media as part of protecting human rights. All those things are positive contributors.
The effects of the pandemic have been overwhelming and far-reaching, and will continue to have an impact on our lives for some time to come. As a longstanding champion of human rights and freedoms, the UK has a duty to defend our values of equality, inclusion and respect at home and abroad. I thank all hon. Members for their excellent contributions and for the debate that we have had on the issue of the day. I assure the House that the Government will do just that: whatever obstacles lay in our path, we will continue to raise awareness of those who are persecuted for what they believe, stand up for the rights of minority communities around the world and defend the right to freedom of religion or belief for everyone everywhere.
I thank the Minister for his detailed response and for confirming the Government’s increasing engagement on the issue of freedom of religion or belief. I have seen that over the past 10 years, and it is genuine—particularly on the part of the FCO. I think there is a bit of catch-up on the part of the Department for International Development, but I am hopeful that now the two are working together, we will see that increasingly.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) mentioned the envoy appointment, and I think that, after two months, he is right. The Minister talked about Lord Ahmad making representations—for example, at the UN—but the role of the envoy was separated from the Foreign Office Minister’s role more than a year ago because it was felt that we needed to send a signal to the international community and have an individual dedicated to making representations on behalf of our country. I concur with the hon. Gentleman’s comments: that appointment needs to be made soon.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke of the wide range of countries where there are restrictions of freedom of religion or belief. Concerningly, some of the worst are Commonwealth countries: Pakistan, India and Nigeria.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) reminded us that although collective worship has been restricted in this country, freedom of religion has not been. In fact, the use of online technology has perhaps extended the opportunity for people to engage over recent months.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) made a characteristically intelligent speech. I wish I had more time to engage with the comments he made. He talked about the importance of faith communities and the contribution they can make. He is absolutely right. DFID began to recognise that during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, where deaths could have been prevented if there had been greater engagement with faith communities. He spoke of the importance of religious literacy. Yes, there is now a toolkit for the FCO, but are DFID staff being asked to look at that? That is really important.
Finally, my hon. Friend talked about the subtle issue of DFID having over the years claimed to be religion-blind. Actually, in seeking not to discriminate and in seeking to be fair, it has denied the fact that, as I hope we have demonstrated, religion is often an exacerbating factor in aid need, and needs to be taken into account rather than ignored when aid is distributed.
The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) commended the response of faith groups to covid-19. The APPG on faith and society published a report in the past few days on how, here in this country, local authorities are working much better with faith groups. It is a very encouraging report, and I hope it can be looked at by DFID, in terms of our international aid work. There is a lesson that could be learned there. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the John Bunyan Fund for Freedom of Religion and Belief, but I am a little concerned that there has not been much information about what it applies to.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).