A Government Ambassador on Freedom of Religion or Belief?

House of Lords 19 July

Baroness Berridge To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans, if any, they have to appoint an Ambassador on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, on 4 July, I was greatly honoured and humbled to be appointed by the Prime Minister as her special envoy on freedom of religion or belief. I assure noble Lords that I will continue to mobilise the diplomatic network to give due attention to this priority and to strengthen bilateral and international engagement as part of its diplomatic engagement with host Governments. I shall also work with parliamentary colleagues to ensure we leverage all expertise and experience, as well as strengthening collaboration with civil society and religious faith groups in pursuit of the common objective of protecting and strengthening freedom of religion or belief.

Baroness Berridge
I am sure your Lordships will wish to join me in congratulating my noble friend on his recent appointment, but might also share my concern that this adds to an existing seven areas of ministerial responsibility plus his being the Prime Minister’s special representative for preventing sexual violence in conflict. On 18 April, in your Lordships’ House, my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott accepted that having two part-time staff in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office working on freedom of religion or belief was resource-light. Will my noble friend please outline what additional resources he has been allocated to fulfil this additional mandate?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
I thank my noble friend for her kind words. I look forward to working with noble Lords across the House, which I know has immense expertise and experience in this respect and to strengthening our work in this area. My noble ​friend is right to draw our attention to resources. I assure her that, in taking on this role, my discussions with the Prime Minister and others were important. It is an important priority and, in that regard, I believe that my role as Minister for Human Rights will add strength to it. Having a ministerial office in support of an envoy role will also strengthen access. As for specific support, noble Lords will be pleased to hear that this is a cross-government initiative. I am delighted to announce that we will be getting additional resource through colleagues from the Department for International Development, who will support me in this important work. This is in addition to the existing resource at the Foreign Office. We will also be strengthening our focus on this important priority and post.

I am also delighted that I will be working on the domestic agenda, because it is important we strengthen our work in that area. It is entirely apt, therefore, that I am joined by my noble friend Lord Bourne, who, as many know, is the Minister for Faith and Communities in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark
My Lords, I too extend my congratulations and those of the Lords spiritual to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, on this appointment. Does he agree that in several countries of the Middle East, where the Christian faith has existed since the time of the apostles—Iraq, Syria and Egypt among them—the scale of persecution renders the condition of the remaining Christian communities one of great humanitarian priority?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
I absolutely agree with the right reverend Prelate. I assure him that one of the primary motivations behind my right honourable friend appointing me to the role is exactly that: the increasing concern about the plight of Christian minorities across north Africa and the Middle East. There are always, however, glimmers of hope in that grey cloud. Recently, I visited Tunisia and Algeria. As the right reverend Prelate may know, because of our diplomatic efforts and those of others, Algeria has announced the reopening of two of the churches it had closed. As I arrived, I was pleased to be informed that a third church that had been closed has now been reopened. Christian minorities in that part of the world and beyond are an important priority and part of my role.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, the Minister has a long track record of upholding Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the right to believe, not to believe or to change your belief—and I join others in the House in welcoming his appointment to this important role. Will he explain the difference to us between the idea of having a roving ambassador, which is the subject of the Question, and having an envoy? Given that the call for an ambassador on freedom of religion or belief was in the manifesto of both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party in the past, what is that difference? Where does it clash with ministerial responsibilities—for instance, upholding DfID policies or issues around declarations of genocide? How will the Minister’s responsibility as a Minister clash with those of the independence that is required a special envoy?

​Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
First, having special envoy status strengthens the role. Many countries around the world have employed ambassadors and they continue to make representations to Governments. Being at the heart of government, I believe that I will be able to influence policy on exactly the kind of points and issues that the noble Lord raises. I assure him that I have represented this particular area in my wider brief as Minister for Human Rights, and the ability to influence the direction of policy and statements that are made is an immense privilege. To do that within government as well as being an envoy to the Prime Minister will, I believe, open further doors.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
I completely accept the ability of the noble Lord to wear many hats and I think everyone in this House will admire the way that he has carried out his previous responsibilities. But the key here—he is absolutely right—is that it is a cross-Westminster, cross-departmental responsibility. Can he tell us a little more about how as a Minister for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office he will ensure that there is co-ordination across Westminster and Whitehall departments to ensure the effective implementation of this policy?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
That is a very important question and I assure the noble Lord that that will happen both in terms of ministerial engagement and with officials. We are currently setting up the structures on a cross-departmental basis. There is already strong working between DfID and the Foreign Office. But I want to extend that further from a local government perspective in terms of the initiatives domestically and in education. In that regard, I shall be meeting my noble friends Lord Bourne and Lord Bates later today to discuss the framework. That ministerial engagement will happen on a regular basis.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD)
My Lords, in congratulating the noble Lord, I also recognise the excellent work that his predecessors, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Warsi and Lady Anelay, from this House have done on inter-faith relations. I am glad that he recognises the links between the domestic agenda and the international agenda. Does he see part of his role to explain to significant foreign Governments the extent to which what happens in their countries spills over within Britain, whether it be the actions of fundamentalist Christian groups in the United States or fundamentalist Muslim groups in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
The noble Lord speaks from his own wide experience and I pay tribute to his work during the coalition Government in this respect. He is of course right. I join in his acknowledgement of the role that both my predecessors, my noble friends Lady Anelay and Lady Warsi, played in strengthening this role. We should be proud of the fact that we in the UK have incredible diversity of communities, of faith and of those with no faith. That is not something that we hold back from. It is an incredible strength that we have in our incredible nation and we need to protect it.​

It is right that we raise these important issues bilaterally with Governments elsewhere. But I also believe, as I said in my original Answer, that working with colleagues across your Lordships’ House and in the other place, strengthening the role of civil society and of faith players in what we do domestically and internationally will be a vital part of how we can strengthen and consolidate our position on standing up for all beliefs and none, not just in the UK but around the world.