The FCO and Freedom of Religion or Belief – House of Lords question

Lord Suri asked “What director level staffing changes, if any, the Government intend to make in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to provide greater capacity for that department to co-ordinate, oversee and deliver policy to advance freedom of religion and belief?”

Watch the response and subsequent debate

Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Religion

Baroness Stedman-Scott (Con)
My Lords, the deputy director of the multilateral policy directorate at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office leads all FCO work at official level to promote freedom of religion or belief. Ambassadors and high commissioners lead work abroad in promoting and defending human rights including freedom of religion or belief, taking account of the situation in their host countries. In their day-to-day work, many desk officers in London and staff in the overseas network contribute to the promotion of freedom of religion or belief. I can confirm that we have no current plans to appoint new staff to work on freedom of religion or belief at director level.

Lord Suri (Con)
I thank the Minister for her response. I am also pleased to see that several FCO and DfID country posts have responded positively to the letters sent by the Minister, Mark Field, and my noble friends Lord Ahmad and Lord Bates asking that they outline the strategic steps that they are taking to support and advance freedom of religion or belief at country level. Will she explain what resources and efforts are being applied to ensure that the steps outlined are carried out effectively and that country-specific strategies to advance freedom of religion or belief are being co-ordinated, developed, shared between posts and implemented effectively?

Baroness Stedman-Scott
We have received updates from a variety of UK missions on how they are promoting freedom of religion or belief. Resources and efforts will vary across these posts as each country faces its own set of unique challenges, and our freedom of religion or belief work needs to be tailored to suit the local context. Our interventions range from diplomatic interventions, our work at the Human Rights Council, dialogue and project support. Officials from the human rights policy unit remain in contact with the relevant leads, follow the progress of activities and share best practice.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
My Lords, has the Minister seen, in advance of this week’s Commonwealth Heads of Government conference meeting in London, that 95% of citizens of the Commonwealth have religious beliefs but that in 70% of Commonwealth countries there is some degree of persecution on the basis of freedom of religion or belief? How is it commensurate with that challenge to have only two desk officers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office dealing with this issue? How is it commensurate with our obligations under Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which upholds the right of every citizen to believe, not to believe or to change their belief?

Baroness Stedman-Scott
I am delighted to hear that more than 90% of people in the Commonwealth have a religious belief; that is excellent. It is disturbing that 70% are unable to express it in the way that we would all want. On the noble Lord’s point about resources, I in no way wish to make light of this, but I cannot think that there is a government department that does not want more resources to do things. I cannot answer his question in as much detail as he would like, but I will go away, find out more information and let him have it. I just put in a plea that resources are tight in the current fiscal climate, but by 2019-20, the overall resource budget will be £1.24 billion.

The Lord Bishop of Coventry
My Lords, following on from that question, the Minister will be aware of the gathering at Lambeth Palace at the moment convened by my most reverend friend the Archbishop of Canterbury, which is bringing together parliamentarians and religious leaders from across the Commonwealth to help them work on good local practice. Would not the sort of director-level appointment mentioned in the Question to increase capacity help Her Majesty’s Government to partner with such initiatives to take them on to the next stage and provide co-ordination across the Commonwealth?

Baroness Stedman-Scott
I congratulate the Church on hosting today’s meeting with people from across the Commonwealth and I am sure that they will gain much from it. When I was the chief executive of a charity and people asked for resources, I used to say, “I get the message”, so I get the message on a director-level appointment. The only thing I can confirm to give any comfort at this point is that we are actively reviewing the need for such a post.

Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, has made this a political priority. He is the Minister for Human Rights. I return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton: to have two desk members covering this issue is simply not good enough. If it is a priority, the Government should ensure that they can deliver on it. The fact is that 80% of the world’s population live in countries where oppression of religious belief takes place. That oppression ends in other human rights abuses. We should be prioritising this because we need to create a tolerant world.

Baroness Stedman-Scott
I completely agree with the noble Lord that we want a tolerant world. I completely agree that we must do everything we can to ensure that people have freedom of religion. On the face of it—I do not doubt what the noble Lord says—two desk people appears remarkably light. I could get in big trouble afterwards for agreeing with him on that, but noble Lords are all very kind to me. The Leader is laughing; I am all right.

My noble friend Lord Ahmad is absolutely committed to this agenda. He believes in it and there can be nobody better to be fighting this corner. I absolutely confirm that it is important and I hope the noble Lord will leave it with me.

Baroness Brinton (LD)
My Lords, to spare the Minister’s blushes, there are not even two full-time FCO officers; there are two part-time members of staff. To keep my question very brief, you cannot have a priority unless it is properly funded. Things may be tight, but how will the Government demonstrate that this is a real priority and fund the necessary posts?

Baroness Stedman-Scott
It gets better. Let me say to the noble Baroness, it is a priority—I would not say that if it was not true. I do not want to repeat myself, but I will talk to people about the resources. It occurs to me, if I have got my facts correct, that we may have desk positions in London—part-time, as the noble Baroness points out—but we also have staff in other posts around the world, part of whose job is to promote and support freedom of religion. The resource-light situation that we are talking about may not be as bad as that, but I have got the message.