International Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill

– in the House of Commons at 1:21 pm on 26 January 2024.

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Second Reading

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 1:25, 26 January 2024

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I declare an obvious interest: I am the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. However, the purpose of the Bill is for the sake of my successors, to ensure that the role and office is placed on a statutory footing. Why? One reason is that the landmark Truro review by the noble Lord Bishop of Winchester, previously the Bishop of Truro, recommended that it should happen. The Truro review was initiated by the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt, and I thank him for his support for my work and this Bill. I also thank the current Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, for his support for the Bill, and in particular the Minister of State present today, my right hon. Friend Mr Mitchell, for coming to respond to this debate and for his support for my role.

In 2019 the noble Lord Bishop, then of Truro, was asked to review what more the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office could do to address the persecution of Christians around the world. The Truro review made practical recommendations for an enhanced response to the plight of persecuted Christians. I emphasise that those recommendations also covered people persecuted for holding other religions or beliefs, or no religious beliefs at all, as does my envoy role.

In particular, recommendation 6 was to specifically establish

“permanently, and in perpetuity, the role of Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief with appropriate resources and authority to work across FCO departments”.

That recommendation, along with the other 21 recom-mendations, was fully accepted by the Government, not least because it was—and remains—this Government’s manifesto commitment to fully implement the Truro review. It was endorsed by the Prime Minister just last October, and I am pleased that it is supported on a cross-party basis by Members from every party in this House and across civil society. I am also very pleased to see Catherine West, who will be responding to the debate on behalf of the Opposition, because she too has supported the work of the role of special envoy on many occasions.

The independent review of the progress made in implementing the Truro review’s recommendations, which took place in 2022—three years into the implementation of the Truro review, which was published in 2019—stated that recommendation 6

“appears to contemplate a permanent Special Envoy position established by law rather than appointed by the Prime Minister… The establishment of such a permanent position has not occurred, and so ‘no substantial action has been taken, to date’ with respect to delivering this aspect of the Recommendation.”

I am honoured to be the special envoy, but I am very conscious that I hold that office at the discretion of the Prime Minister of the day. It has been my privilege to serve under three Prime Ministers, but there is no guarantee that such an appointment will be made under any future Prime Minister.

The Bill is an important measure to solidify the position and work of the special envoy. I am humbled to say that the role has acquired leading international standing, not just through my work but also that of my predecessors, my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti and Lord Ahmad—the first envoy, who has supported the Bill strongly and publicly. He made that clear at the launch two weeks ago of the latest Open Doors world watch list, a gathering of almost 100 Members of Parliament. By making the role statutory, the Bill would remove any risk of the envoy’s role being at the whim or interest of any future Prime Minister, whatever their political colour.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

The House should pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her sterling and dedicated work over many years. Although she is talking about the mechanics of why her job is necessary, I hope that she will say a few words about what is actually going on in the world and the appalling religiously motivated attacks. In Nigeria’s Benue state there were 119 attacks in 2023 alone, and 400 people were killed. In neighbouring Plateau state, 300 people were killed. The world seems to be ignoring these massacres. Black lives matter everywhere. They matter in Nigeria and everywhere, and we should talk much more about this, but that is not the fault of my hon. Friend, who has done so much in this field.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I might come on to discuss how important it is to challenge the perception that this is somehow a niche interest, perhaps for those who have strong religious beliefs. It cannot become a niche interest, because hundreds of millions of men, women and children around the world suffer persecution and discrimination, whether under the hard arm of authoritarian regimes or at the ruthless whim of militant mobs, and they need not just our voices but our partnership; not just our words, but our actions; and not just our good will, but our good deeds. The Bill will help in the long term to support those actions and good deeds, which we need to take in partnership with others across the world.

Today we have an opportunity to deliver the sixth recommendation of the Truro review, and the recom-mendation of the experts who provided an independent review three years later. The Bill will provide in law the authority and permanence that is consistent with the significance of the issue internationally—exactly the point my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh has just made. If there is insufficient time to speak at length about the many atrocities being perpetrated across the world as we speak, I urge those listening to the debate to read the Hansard report of yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on religious persecution and the Open Doors world watch list 2024. That is one of many debates that we have hosted in the House.

I want to pay tribute to parliamentarians across the parties, because my work internationally shows that we are unique in this country in having such strong cross-party collaboration on this issue. There is no other Parliament in the world with so many parliamentarians who regards this as a critical issue, and who actively engage. The fact that there are about 170 members of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief—the biggest APPG in Parliament, I believe—is testament to that.

Enacting this Bill would, as I have said, provide in law the authority that is consistent with the importance of this issue and the leading global role that the UK plays, including through its Ministers—I know that the Minister of State who is present today is passionate about this issue—in championing that foundational human right. As we have recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights, drawn up after the atrocities of the holocaust, and as we approach Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow, what more fitting way could there be to demonstrate our commitment to article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights than to pass this Bill? Article 18 states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Passing the Bill would show that we are serious about advocating that fundamental human right for the long term.

Regrettably, too many Governments view FORB merely as a topic of niche interest, to be engaged in by a few of us with a particularly religious perspective on life. But FORB is not a niche topic and that perception has to change. We live in an increasingly unstable world in which there are increasingly authoritarian regimes. Religious belief is anathema to any authoritarian regime, as they demand undivided loyalty. We can promote change today by supporting the Bill. Indeed, FORB concerns should be core concerns at every international summit, because they are at the core of so many violations of human rights across the world today.

FORB is a foundational human right, and I give the example of women in Iran who bravely lead the charge against that brutal regime. Journalists and politicians alike have not fully grasped the fact that, at heart, their protests are about FORB violations. The imposition of religious dress codes is a FORB issue. It is FORB that the Iranian regime fears most, because FORB represents an existential threat for it. With angry crowds shouting, “Woman, Life, Freedom”, it is the full realisation and actualisation of freedom of religion or belief that will ensure not just respect for women, but for all of society. On that issue hangs the future of Iran.

We have become accustomed to countries paying lip service to FORB rights and obligations, and signing up to international agreements such as article 18 without honouring the obligations within them. It is simply not acceptable for a young girl to be kidnapped from her home and forcibly so-called married by being raped multiple times, and then when she goes to a police station or tries to get justice through the courts, to be turned away in a country that has signed up to article 18, with all of that happening simply because of her religious beliefs.

Without the freedom to believe or not to believe, it is hard to see how other human rights can make sense. Freedom of speech, assembly, movement and expression, and the right to equality before the law, to education, to privacy, to family life and to marriage—all those things and more are predicated and contingent on the right to thought, conscience and religion. Citizens cannot be truly free if they are not able to live according to their beliefs. Without the existence and expression of what has long been considered a sacred inner liberty, those other external rights lack grounding and legitimacy. Political social and economic freedoms cannot co-exist alongside major limitations on freedom of religion or belief. Freedom of religion or belief can exist without democracy, but it is hard to see how democracy can exist without freedom of religion or belief. That is why this work and this Bill are so important.

So why not support the Bill? The independent Truro review pointed out that the creation of the envoy role in statute

“would be unprecedented, as no special envoy position in the UK has thus far been established by law.”

Yet the argument about precedent is that it always takes a precedent being made the first time for good reason to create a long-standing precedent. There is good reason to do so here, as I hope I am stating. In reality, the unprecedented level of persecution across the world on account of what people believe, which is affecting hundreds of millions across swathes of religions and beliefs, makes the Bill so important. That was at the heart of the Truro review.

After he embarked on the review four years ago, the Bishop of Winchester stated that he was “shocked” by the scale, scope and severity of the abuse of FORB globally. The Pew Research Centre estimates that 83% of the world’s population lives in countries where there are some restrictions on religion or belief. A Christian is killed every two hours somewhere in the world, simply on account of their belief. The Open Doors world watch list 2024 sets out an increase again in the number of Christians persecuted—up to 365 million, which is one in seven across the world. As I have said, the issue does not just affect Christians but people of all faiths and beliefs.

I know that a number of colleagues wish to speak, but I turn briefly to pressing concerns about the violation of FORB. If we wanted to look at an example of why the precedent of a special envoy for freedom of religion or belief in this country is so important, we need only look over the Atlantic to be inspired by the United States’ International Religious Freedom Act, which permanently established the equivalent role of an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom and an office to support the role some 25 years ago.

In my role, I have had the privilege over the last three years to work closely, weekly and in some cases daily, with the US State Department. From 2022 to 2023, I was chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, which is a growing alliance that now has 43 counties committed to working together, and following the end of my term, I am honoured to have been elected as vice chair. Having worked with the US State Department, I have seen its capacity, experience and knowledge, which has come only as a result of having an established office over many years, and its effective work to support international collaboration on the issue of freedom of religion or belief.

I will not speak for much longer, as I sense a number of colleagues wish to contribute. Marc Sidwell, the director of the Henry Jackson Society, wrote recently:

“To build on all that has been achieved, the Government should act decisively, follow the recommendation of the Truro Report and make championing international religious freedom an official duty of Whitehall, embedded in legislation. The law which brought similar reforms to the US Government, the International Religious Freedom Act, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and shows the enduring value of such a commitment…

As America learned during the Cold War, the defence of religious freedom abroad is not just a humanitarian priority but a key component of standing up for the values of the free and democratic world. An increasing body of research shows that the price of religious repression is measured not just in human suffering, vast and appalling as that toll remains, but in the growth of intolerant, dangerous ideologies, as well as economic immiseration.

The global decline in religious freedom is both a humanitarian and a strategic crisis. By taking religious freedom seriously, we can see emerging threats more clearly, and understand better how to act against them.”

Professor Malcolm Evans was one of the independent reviewers of the Truro review, and he is a member of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office advisory group on human rights. I urge the Minister to look at convening a meeting of that advisory group soon. He attended a parliamentary event in this place last October on the publication of the report I just quoted from. He is an expert in this field—a professor who has worked for decades on the subject. He said:

“In particular, the establishment of the Office of the Special Envoy has been a real driver of, and catalyst, for change. What is needed is for that Office to have legislative grounding to ensure that this continues, that it has a more clearly defined position and that its impact continues to grow. This will also mean that the lens of freedom of religion or belief is used when engaging with foreign policy more generally: after all, a duty is a duty—and something that Government understands. Making it so will help support the development of detailed, focussed and clearly articulated policies and strategies which will complement, take up and lend further substance to what is already now in place.”

We need to secure the groundwork already in place here in the UK to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief. We need to build on the firm foundation that many here have laid. We must not risk slipping back. I ask colleagues to support the Bill.

Photo of Gavin Robinson Gavin Robinson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Defence) 1:47, 26 January 2024

In the Book of St Matthew 7:16, it says,

“By their fruits you shall know them.”

Across this House, every one of us represents constituents, but some of us represent much more than just our constituents. It is a pleasure to follow Fiona Bruce, who embodies that piece of scripture. In all the years I have been here and in all the engagements we have had, she embodies that so fundamentally. The fact that, in December 2020, she was appointed as the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief was of no surprise to me, knowing her commitment personally and her passion for these issues, but the fact that she brings forward this Bill not about her, but about the continuation of the quest, the campaign or, in this context, the mission field, is very important indeed. I am delighted to rise in support of the Bill and the hon. Lady’s bringing it forward. She is small and quiet, but she is mighty, and she always has been mighty in her endeavours. She brings an assured and engaging zeal to these issues in the good times and the bad.

The hon. Lady rightfully mentioned the watch list launched last week in Parliament. That watch list captivates Members of Parliament each and every year. Some Members of Parliament go because they are concerned; all Members of Parliament who go leave concerned. Some turn up just because they get scores of cards encouraging them to do so. But if they take the time to go and hear the plight of 371 million Christians throughout the world—and the issue is not just about Christians—they leave emboldened to ensure that we do what we can, with our relative luxury, to assist those around the world who do not have such fortunate circumstances.

Having a love of Jesus should not impact on people’s ability to live freely, to work within their community or to talk about their feelings or faith, but that is what happens to many around the world. As I said, it is not just about Jesus; many in this world have a faith that is different from mine, but they suffer similarly. I say similarly because the same thing always occurs to me when I get the chance to attend the Open Doors events, which leave me annoyed but determined. I always think about how many people living among us in this country over-use and abuse the word “persecution” and never reflect on what is going on around the world. They have not a clue or an understanding about the key issues—and neither do I, but I open my heart and my ears to see them and hear them. I genuinely think those are important annual events that give us the opportunity not only to engage with like-minded people but to leave with a sense that, in whatever field we work or in whatever faith field we live, we have a contribution to make in this space.

The fact that the Prime Minister was able to lift the recommendation from the Bishop of Truro and appoint a special envoy is great. It has been impacted by a worldwide pandemic and probably has not achieved all that we wished to achieve, but the Prime Minister’s current incumbent, the hon. Member for Congleton, trusts that the role can be put to good purpose for many years to come. There is a valid, valiant and purposeful role for the Prime Minister’s special envoy for our nation to speak on these issues. Internationally, we are credited for our role, as she mentioned.

My hon. Friend Jim Shannon, who has chaired the APPG for many years and who raises issues from around the world every Thursday in questions to the Leader of the House, recognises the importance of these issues and of our continually encouraging the Government to speak and act powerfully in this space. It is no surprise that that interest leads to our aid contributions and humanitarianism across the world being as powerful as they are.

We cannot overstate the issue, and neither should we underplay the importance of seeking to lift the proposal to place the role of a special envoy on a statutory footing. It has my full support, and I commend the hon. Member for Congleton for the steps that she takes in her role and for the Bill that she puts before us today.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 1:53, 26 January 2024

It is a pleasure to follow Gavin Robinson. I commend my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce for introducing this excellent Bill and for her fantastic opening speech. I can think of no one better in Parliament to bring forward this important Bill, given the outstanding work that she has been doing as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. I particularly commend my hon. Friend for the work she did in July 2022, with the UK hosting the international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief, and for her work in chairing the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance.

Freedom of religion or belief should be a fundamental human right, but all too often, and increasingly so around the world today, we see people’s freedoms challenged and worrying increases in the persecution of minority groups due to their faith. As my hon. Friend said, the Open Doors world watch list notes that 365 million Christians were subjected to high levels of persecution and discrimination last year—a rise of 25 million people since 2021. The Pew Research Centre has found that of 198 countries surveyed, Government or societal harassment was present in 155 against Christians, in 145 against Muslims and in 94 against Jews. In recent months, here in the UK we have seen a worrying number of incidents of antisemitic and Islamophobic hate.

I know that the Government, with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, have been making huge efforts at home and abroad to tackle these worrying increases in suppression of religious freedoms. The conference held in London two years ago resulted in 35 countries signing statements on freedom of religion or belief, which I think is a testament to the interest and support around the world for these issues and the work that the UK and my hon. Friend have led. I know also from the Westminster Hall debate in September led by my hon. Friend of the significant interest across the House, and the significant work under way in which the UK is taking a leadership role internationally. We are bringing together some of our key partners and allies right around the world to highlight the injustices and persecution of minority groups, and with them to take action to address some of these concerns.

Although the focus is increasing on the issues of freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend is right to bring forward this important Bill. Making her role as special envoy for freedom of religion or belief a permanent one in statute is of major significance. As she said, it follows recommendation 6 of the Bishop of Truro’s review, which was to establish the position of special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, which I believe was intended to mean “establish in law”. Recommendation 6 states specifically that the Foreign Secretary should

“Establish suitable instruments / roles to monitor and implement such an approach, taking into consideration other international approaches, and specifically establishing permanently, and in perpetuity, the role of Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief with appropriate resources and authority to work across FCO departments supported by a Director General-level champion for FoRB.”

The Government support that. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have expressed support for the Bill’s intent, and the Conservative party manifesto committed to full implementation of the Truro review.

Most important, given that abuse of these vital freedoms is increasing around the world, the Bill sends a clear and strong message to countries where serious abuses are taking place—especially the 13 countries mentioned previously that are of particular concern—that we in the UK stand with all those minority groups and individual members of minority religions who are being persecuted. It demonstrates to the world the UK’s full support and commitment to stand by those who are being oppressed and whose religious freedom is being restricted, right around the world. The Bill is crucial to promoting and protecting freedom of religion or belief, and the UK Government have stated that that is high priority for them.

Freedom of religion or belief is a key element of the UN declaration, article 18 of which sets out as an important pillar not only freedom of religion or belief, but freedom of thought, which I think is particularly important. It is vital that the UK, with its leading role in the UN Security Council, also takes a leading role both at home and abroad in promoting freedom of religion and belief right around the world. We need to bring to task those countries that oppress minority groups and have a total disregard for some of those freedoms, and make it clear that we will always highlight where we think wrongs need to be addressed. By putting that role into statute, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said, shows that we are in this for the long term. We will not cease raising these concerns and highlighting them internationally. We will continue to stand by those religious minorities and oppressed groups right around the world, and continue to support them. I fully support the Bill and wish my hon. Friend well with its passage through this House and the other place.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 2:00, 26 January 2024

I thank Fiona Bruce for bringing forward this Bill today. Having been in many debates with her, I can say that her dedication and commitment to the cause of freedom of religion or belief is second to none. It is definitely a cause that is dear to her heart and to the hearts of many of us in the Chamber.

As the hon. Lady said, some might consider this to be a niche or perhaps even a Conservative-only issue, and I could not disagree more. Freedom of religion or belief is a core tenet of fundamental human rights and will always be at the heart of Labour’s outlook on the world, and at the centre of the shaping of our foreign policy. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary has previously made that clear and has met representatives and organisations campaigning on this topic on many occasions. In his role and during these meetings, he has made it clear that Labour will ensure that the UK stands against persecution and oppression in any form, and will promote freedom of religion or belief as a key component of our foreign policy.

We know that article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has historically not received the same precedence as other human rights, is reflected in recommendation 6 of the review that the Bishop of Truro carried out in 2019. We know that this is something that we need to be aware of, perhaps elevating some rights above others. The recommendation says:

Freedom of Religion or Belief is perhaps the most fundamental human right because so many others depend upon it... in the West we tend to set one right against another. But in much of the world this right is not in opposition to others but rather is the linchpin upon which others depend. And we in the West need to be awake to such dependencies and not dismiss FoRB as irrelevant to other rights. If freedom of religion or belief is removed so many other rights are put in jeopardy too.”

The work that the hon. Lady and others in the House have done has been very relevant to this reminder from the then Bishop of Truro. Labour would like to put on record its thanks to him for his assiduous work in this regard, and for that seminal report on which so much of the work in Parliament in the years following has been based.

Although it is undeniable that, in many countries including the UK, religious freedom is something that we take for granted, and people can worship or choose not to worship—here, I would mention the Humanist Society, which does excellent work at an educational level to encourage the recognition of people who have no faith, as their right not to have a faith is also very important—we know that, in vast swathes of the world, there is not that level of tolerance. There is a growing trend in recent years of religious minorities being persecuted simply because of the beliefs that they hold and cherish so dearly.

I know that Members have often pointed out specific examples. I have been in debates where the hon. Member for Congleton has raised, for example, the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region of the People’s Republic of China. I know that, in my brief on the Asia and Pacific area, there are many clear examples which need to be addressed. None the less, we know that the persecution of religious minorities happens in many parts of the world. I also wish to put on record the work of Lord Ahmad on particular issues in the Ahmadiyya community, which we know suffers disproportionately compared with other minorities.

The Opposition will not stand in the way of this Bill today. That said, there are a few considerations that we would like to put before the Public Bill Committee. How would we balance the other rights that may occasionally collide with this question of a special envoy for freedom of religion or belief? For example, there are sincere concerns about backsliding in any area relating to women and girls in any part of the world, with particular reference to their reproductive rights. Similarly, there are concerns about the message it may send to the global LGBT+ community. It will be important for the Committee to balance all those elements in any future consideration of the Bill. Although freedom of religion or belief does not necessarily conflict with either of these issues, concerns will be raised and it would be wrong to give the impression that we are putting rights in a hierarchy.

On a technical level, I also have reservations about appointing a special envoy on a statutory basis, as it might weaken the Government’s flexibility and responsiveness in appointing special envoys, as and when required, to deal with the ever-changing global situation. We have seen that demonstrated in recent weeks with the Minister’s appointment of a representative for humanitarian affairs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a move called for and subsequently welcomed by the Labour party. These are the sorts of flexibilities that the Prime Minister of the day has at their disposal.

It is very fitting that we are having this debate on the Friday before Holocaust Memorial Day, which will be celebrated in my constituency on Sunday. The Community Security Trust, which Jack Brereton mentioned, as well as Tell MAMA and other organisations dealing with Islamophobia, do important work. It is important that we do not allow any of these matters to divide our communities here at home.

The House will continue to debate and scrutinise the situation facing freedom of religion or belief, and I would welcome the comments of both the Minister and the hon. Member for Congleton on the issues raised.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa) 2:06, 26 January 2024

I start by thanking the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, for introducing the International Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill.

I also take this moment to express my gratitude to my hon. Friend for her tireless devotion to promoting and protecting FORB for everybody. My thanks also go to her deputy, David Burrowes, for his commitment to this important work.

Freedom of religion or belief remains a human rights priority for the British Government. The work of the special envoy, especially through the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, and the efforts across the Foreign Office network are making a difference around the world. The Bill seeks further to cement Britain’s commitment to FORB by making statutory the role of the special envoy. The Bill states:

“The duties of the Special Envoy are to work to promote and protect international freedom of religion or belief…;
raise awareness of cases of concern…and advocate for the rights of people…who are discriminated against or persecuted for their faith or belief;
work with representatives of other governments, including other Special Envoys, to promote freedom of religion or belief around the world.”

That has very much been the sense of the excellent speeches we have heard today.

The Bill covers the reporting requirements for the special envoy and how the terms and conditions of the role should be determined. Additionally, the Bill will establish an office of the special envoy:

“The principal duty of the Office is to support the work of the Special Envoy.

In establishing the Office, the Prime Minister must provide the Special Envoy with such staff, and such accommodation, equipment and other facilities, as the Prime Minister considers necessary for the carrying out of the Special Envoy’s functions.”

The Government’s commitment to the role of special envoy is clear. Indeed, we have had three special envoys to date. I make it clear that the Bill does not establish a precedent for other similar roles. Uniquely, legislating for this post follows an independent report recommendation and a most important manifesto commitment. Today the Government deliver on that commitment, which is especially important given the internationally recognised leadership that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has provided.

The Bill underlines our commitment to FORB, and, importantly, supports the implementation of recommendation 6 of the Bishop of Truro’s 2019 review of the FCDO’s work on FORB, which recommended that the role of special envoy for FORB be established “permanently, and in perpetuity”. Implementation of the bishop’s recommendations was, as I have said, a manifesto commitment, and we thank him very much for his work. As was mentioned by Catherine West, there will be opportunities during the Bill’s passage to consider any possible amendments to improve it, and my officials and I will work with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton in that regard; but the Government will support the Bill today.

The current special envoy’s terms of reference state that she will

“work with the Minister for Human Rights”

—my noble Friend Lord Ahmad—and

“through the Foreign Secretary, to the Prime Minister. The Envoy is asked to report twice yearly to the Prime Minister on progress, in addition to providing ad hoc reports on important issues arising, or following overseas visits as Special Envoy”.

That is in line with what the Bill proposes.

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton on her work and accomplishments as chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, and on having been asked last year to continue her role for a second year. That was the first time such a request had been made in the organisation’s history. Most notable is the expansion of the IRFBA’s membership, with, now, 42 nations coming together to highlight violations and abuses of FORB and advocate for those who are being persecuted. The IRFBA-issued joint statements and campaigns that my hon. Friend has initiated underline the impact that we can have when we speak with one voice. The statements on countering antisemitism and the persecution of Christians were widely supported, with 16 countries supporting the statement of antisemitism and 22 countries supporting the statement on the persecution of Christians. The statements underline the ongoing concerns to the international community, and set out how to address and tackle those issues.

The monthly advocacy that the hon. Friend has initiated of highlighting individual cases of religious prisoners of conscience is another important and valuable piece of work that the IRFBA has initiated under her chairmanship. I was delighted to learn that of the people whose cases she publicly supported in 2022, two were released last year: Hannah Abdimalik, a Christian in Somaliland, and Shamil Khakimov, a Jehovah’s Witness in Tajikistan. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on her efforts on the planning and implementation of a virtual global youth summit last October. It was quite an achievement to bring together 510 participants from 77 countries to fulfil a key priority following the international ministerial conference on FORB, held in London in 2022, which set out the need to inspire a new generation of FORB advocates.

At that conference we brought together more than 800 faith and belief leaders, human rights actors, and 100 Government delegations to agree on action to promote and protect FORB. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad announced new UK funding to support FORB defenders, including those persecuted because of their activism, as well as funding and expertise for countries prepared to make legislative changes to protect FORB. As a result of the conference, 47 Governments, international organisations and other entities made pledges to take action in support of FORB, and since the conference we have built on the momentum in a number of ways.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has also continued to raise awareness of restrictions on the right to FORB across the world. She does that in many ways, including calling debates in the House, as she did yesterday in initiating a Westminster Hall debate on the Open Doors world watch list report. She has also brought civil society experts together with FCDO officials in a series of country-specific roundtables, including, but not limited to, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ukraine and Pakistan. Such debates and roundtables are vital to ensuring that these issues can be addressed and resolved. The British high commission in Islamabad, for example, is engaging with senior Government officials and civil society on the need to ensure the safety of the Christian community at this troubling time, and we want to see that work continued in every possible way.

All this demonstrates how committed the Government are to freedom of religion and belief, and how we continue to engage closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton in all the brilliant work that she does. Let me end by reiterating the Government’s support for the role of special envoy for FORB and our support for the Bill, and congratulate my hon. Friend on her commitment and perseverance in bringing forward the Bill.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 2:15, 26 January 2024

Thank you; I will be very brief. I thank all colleagues across the House for their support for this Bill and their kind remarks and, in particular, the Minister of State for giving up his time to come to the House to confirm the Government’s support. I thank the Prime Minister for his personal and active support for my role. I will also repeat the thanks that the Minister of State has relayed to David Burrowes, the Prime Minister’s deputy special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, who works alongside me daily in this role and without whom I could not do it. In fact, I said that to him when I was approached to take up the role and he said, “You take it up and I will help you,” and he has. The Bill would not be being brought forward today but for David’s sterling work in this field.

I also thank Lord Alton of Liverpool for his work over many years on this issue. It was Lord Alton who first took me to a meeting of Aid to the Church in Need, where I heard at first hand of the atrocities that were being perpetrated against people around the world simply on account of their beliefs.

Finally, I thank Mervyn Thomas, the founder president of CSW. He started CSW 43 years ago and has worked on this issue ever since. He approached me within a few days of my entering this House as a Member of Parliament and asked whether he could discuss the issue with me. I pay tribute to him for all that he has done over the years. It is so encouraging to hear him say that there has never been a time at which those around the world concerned about abuses of freedom of religion or belief have been working more collaboratively. That is much needed, because there has never been a time when those abuses have been so great. This Bill and its safe passage will be an important step in strengthening the UK’s work, in collaboration with others, towards a future in which freedom of religion or belief is honoured and stronger.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).