House of Lords questions on Freedom of Religion or Belief

24 October – Baroness Anelay of St Johns
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to (1) promote freedom of religion or belief, and (2) mark International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day on 27 October.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, as the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, I am leading the work with our diplomatic network to achieve an increased focus in ​our efforts on this agenda across government. We are seeking to effect change in key countries and to promote respect in education, supported by £1 million of funding. In this respect, I am also working across Whitehall to bring together ministerial colleagues from DfID, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education, and defence. We are marking the international day with an event, which I am delighted to be co-hosting with my noble friend Lord Bates, on 7 November.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Con)
I thank the Minister for his Answer. He holds an important position as the Prime Minister’s special envoy. Can he explain what progress has been made in, for example, providing religious literacy training to departments such as the Department for International Development, so that it can cope better with some of the challenges it faces in countries such as China, Pakistan and Nigeria, where there are repeated assaults on the idea of freedom of religion or belief?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My noble friend raises a significant point about literacy in the important area of freedom of religion or belief. You need only cast your eye around the world to see how freedom of religion or belief is being usurped in many countries, including some of those named by my noble friend. With regard to increasing our focus on this, the noble Baroness will be aware of the work done through the diplomatic network, and I am already speaking to colleagues across DfID, and in the Ministry of Defence, to ensure that those deployed to our international posts are well versed in the local challenges on this important priority.

Baroness Northover (LD)
My Lords, has the Minister noted the 40% increase in religious hate crimes in the United Kingdom between 2017 and 2018? In that context, does he feel it appropriate that Tommy Robinson was entertained in the Lords by a Member of this House?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
On the second point, I do not think that it is right. We need to take a long hard look at ourselves as a House, and I am sure that the House authorities have been alerted to the presence of the said individual. The views he expresses are not just appalling for the community he targets—we are all, rightly, appalled. It is important that we review our procedures to ensure that individuals such as Tommy Robinson do not enter the heart of democracy. I am minded, however, to defer that to the House authorities.

On the important issue of rising religious hatred and hate crime, I think we all stand united against it. We have seen an increase in anti-Semitism. I have spoken out very strongly on that, and I think that I represent many in this House in speaking out, whether it is against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Muslim hatred or any form of religious hate crime. Regrettably and tragically, there are people in our society who target us—those who have spoken out—for that very reason. It is important that we unite against this and ​that a clear and unequivocal statement comes from this House, from the Houses of Parliament and from the country as a whole, to those who seek to divide us: “We are united against you, and we will defeat you”.

Baroness Bryan of Partick (Lab)
Does the Minister agree that each and every one of us in this House shares the responsibility to ensure good racial and interfaith relationships, and that this House has a specific responsibility to ensure that its own estates are not used in that way?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
I am sure, as I said earlier to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, that the House authorities have taken note. I also agree, however, with the premise of the noble Baroness that each of us has a responsibility. We need to raise the bar: no longer should it be about tolerance; it is about respect and understanding, and that is what we should be promoting.

Lord Singh of Wimbledon (CB)
My Lords, does the Minister agree that freedom of religion and belief is an absolute right, and that it would become more of a reality if we, and other leading countries, put aside considerations of trade and so-called strategic interests in its pursuit?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
The strategic relationships that we have around the world are important—indeed, the Statement I made yesterday reflected that—but I assure the noble Lord, and your Lordships’ House, that human rights in the broad sense are an important consideration and priority in the relationships we build across the world.

Baroness Eaton (Con)
Will my noble friend the Minister work with FCO and DfID country heads to produce a country-specific strategy for promoting freedom of religion and belief?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
My noble friend makes a very practical and useful suggestion, and I am looking at my new role to see whether we can provide that kind of country detail.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
My Lords, I strongly associate myself and the rest of these Benches with the remarks of the Minister in respect of the person who attended this place last night. We strongly support his attempts to stop that kind of behaviour. We do all have a responsibility. One of the things that happened at CHOGM was a conference at Lambeth Palace, involving religious leaders and politicians. Can the Minister tell us a bit more about what progress has been made since CHOGM? It is not simply a matter of Governments; it is about all community leaders and faith leaders taking the initiative.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
The noble Lord raises an important point, and we of course welcomed the progress at CHOGM. I have continued to work closely with Lambeth Palace and other faith leaders as well. ​I am working closely with the Vatican, through Archbishop Gallagher, and I recently met His Highness the Aga Khan. We are looking across the piece with leaders from different faith communities, and from humanist societies as well, to ensure that we can work together as one on this important priority.