House of Lords discuss the APPG report

Lord Singh of Wimbledon
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief Commentary on the Current State of International Freedom of Religion or Belief (2020), published on 1 March.

The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
(Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, we have taken note of the APPG’s report. The United Kingdom is committed to defending FoRB for all and we have made this a core element of the integrated review. We readily report on FoRB violations, and I worked closely both on the production of the Human Rights & Democracy report, in which FoRB features, and alongside the special envoy for FoRB, Fiona Bruce MP, on the implementation of the recommendations from the Bishop of Truro’s report on FCDO support for persecuted Christians.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB)
I thank the Minister for his very helpful reply but, as we say in deepest Punjab, fine words butter no parsnips. The report shows that ignorance and exploitation of supposed religious difference is one of the greatest causes of conflict in the world today. The reality is that different faiths share many common ethical teachings. Does the Minister agree that the teaching of RE should focus on commonalities, rather than superficial difference? Does he also agree that the Government are sending out a wrong and shameful message in Dominic Raab’s statement that human rights should be ignored in the pursuit of trade deals?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, I first dispute that my right honourable friend has articulated such a statement. What he has made clear is that we will call out human rights abuses irrespective of the trading relationships we have with different countries. Being half-Punjabi myself, I am very conscious of the need for action. Being also a product of a Church of England school, and sending my own children to Catholic school, I am fully aware of the commonality of faith but recognise that each faith brings its own attributes to the diversity and strength of a country such as the United Kingdom. In our actions and our representations, we share those values with other countries in raising issues of FoRB around the world.

The Lord Bishop of Leeds
I thank the Minister for the priority he gives to freedom of religion or belief, but Her Majesty’s Government are reducing aid to many countries and regions prone to serious freedom of religion or belief violations, including an apparent 58% cut in ODA to Nigeria while the country faces immense challenges due to a surge in religious-based violence. Will the Minister describe the anticipated impacts of these aid cuts on violence and stability in Nigeria and indicate how any such impacts might be mitigated?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, we work closely with different agencies on the ground, including in Nigeria. I assure the right reverend Prelate that, notwithstanding the challenges and the reductions to the ODA programme, we are working with key partners to ensure that freedom of religion or belief and the persecution of religious minorities remain very much at the forefront of our work, both in development engagement and diplomacy.

Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone
The House will know that the training of Orthodox clergy at the Halki theological seminary near Istanbul is essential for the survival of the Church in Turkey and the ancient Greek Orthodox community. The seminary has now been closed for 50 years. Can the Minister press on the Turkish Government the importance of respect for beliefs, cultural legacy and rights of minorities, and that their continued refusal to allow the reopening of the seminary is at odds with the tolerance shown in the past and constitutes a serious infringement of religious freedom?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we continue to raise freedom of religion or belief issues directly with Turkey. I will certainly follow up directly the matter she raised, both in our representations through the embassy and in any direct contact I have with representatives and Ministers from Turkey.

Baroness Cox (CB)
My Lords, I follow up the important point raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds, focusing on Nigeria. The Government’s decision to cut spending on foreign aid to Nigeria by an apparent 58% is at a time when tens of thousands of civilians experience escalating, grave violations of freedom of religion or belief. Will the Minister describe the anticipated impacts of these aid cuts related to ideological motives? As the right reverend Prelate asked, how do the Government intend to mitigate any such impacts?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, as I said, we are working on all levels, including through development and our diplomatic engagements. For example, my colleague the Minister for Africa visited Nigeria in April and discussed the ongoing conflict but also the impact it has on issues in Nigeria, particularly on minority faith groups. I once again assure the noble Baroness that this remains very much at the forefront of not just my engagement, in my broader responsibilities as Human Rights Minister, but the direct engagement of my colleagues across FCDO, including my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary.

Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab)
My Lords, it would be churlish not to recognise the provisions made on the matter before us and the reports that have received such positive responses from the Government. They have said that they will encourage, support and monitor the implementation of the recommendations. The pandemic has created an even greater threat to religious freedoms than hitherto. I ask the Minister to give us an assurance that monitoring of religious freedoms is being undertaken, and perhaps even intensified, while the pandemic still rages. Can he assure us that parsnips are indeed being buttered?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
I assure the noble Lord that I have my buttering knife out. We continue to monitor and report. Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic has been used as an opportunity to further suppress the rights of minority faiths across the globe, but we stand very firm in ensuring that we raise this issue consistently and monitor it quite closely.

Lord Jones of Cheltenham (LD)
The all-party report shows that the world is a long way from perfect, but did not last night’s display at Wembley show that people of all religions and none, working together, can achieve a lot? Will the Government use that example to challenge intolerance everywhere?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord. I assure noble Lords that, as my daughter said, I was “not very Lord-like” in vocalising my support when the second goal went in at Wembley. Nevertheless, it showed the real diversity and strength of our country: we come together for a common purpose. Sport is a living, working example of exactly that.

Baroness Sugg (Con)
My Lords, I welcome the report’s focus on gender. It specifically highlights the plight of girls in Pakistan at risk of forced marriage, violence and slavery. According to the FCDO’s own Development Tracker website, bilateral support to Pakistan is being cut by £175 million compared with what it was in 2019. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that Development Tracker is accurate and that this is the correct figure?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
There has been a reduction in development support to Pakistan, but my noble friend will acknowledge the important work we are continuing—for example, the AAWAZ programme until 2024, with a specific focus on women and girls. That was part and parcel of my recent diplomatic engagement in Pakistan. When I visited on 22 June to 23 June, there was a reassurance. We are also seeing what practical further steps we can take to ensure that any reductions in support are met through direct diplomatic engagement.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
My Lords, the APPG report raises important issues facing religion and belief communities around the globe. The Bishop of Truro’s independent review for the Foreign Secretary on support for persecuted Christians contains many inclusive recommendations. However, they are built on evidence relating to, and focus on, Christian persecution. Will the Minister consider conducting further reviews into religion and belief persecution, including the plight of the non-religious around the globe? Many people have referred to Nigeria, and the Minister knows I have raised the case of the atheist Mubarak Bala in Nigeria. I hope he will consider that action.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
I can give the noble Lord that direct reassurance. We will do exactly that.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, I take the Minister back to what he said about the Truro review and specifically to recommendation 7, which asks the Government to put in place effective mechanisms to deal with the crime of genocide against religious and ethnic minorities. In that context, the report published this morning by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons recognises that a genocide is under way against Uighurs in Xinjiang and calls on the Government for a much stronger response. Can the Minister tell us what that response will be?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My Lords, I have yet to read the report in full, although I am aware of its publication. I have not yet reviewed it. Bearing in mind its publication, I am sure that in due course the FCDO will respond accordingly. I can share with the noble Lord—I am sure he is aware of this—that the United Kingdom has consistently, regularly and directly raised the persecution of the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang in China. We continue to do so. We recently worked through a resolution at the Human Rights Council led by Canada. In the past few weeks, I have met Uighur representatives visiting the UK to hear about their plight. I assure the noble Lord that this remains among our key priorities and will continue to be so.