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My Lords, I strongly agree with everything that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester has said and applaud the lead that he has just given. It was an exceptionally strong speech and one that deserves to be well heard around the country.
The trouble with this House is that you wait for weeks for a debate that you want to take part in and two come along on the same day. My noble friend spoke with great force and I congratulate him on two counts: first, on the debate itself, which is of crucial importance around the world; and, secondly, on choosing a subject that I and the noble Lord, Lord Black of Brentwood, can agree on after our slight difference of emphasis on the media.
The extent of discrimination against homosexual men and women is not really remotely in dispute. The figures speak for themselves, and many of them have been given already: 175 million people are living under conditions where they are at the risk of persecution on account of their sexual orientation, and 76 countries criminalise consensual, adult, same-sex relations, among them 42 of the 54 countries of the Commonwealth.
I want to concentrate for one moment on some of the consequences that that discrimination can have. As perhaps one or two Members of the House know, I seek to work and help in the HIV/AIDS area and will just remind the House of the position there. Some politicians talk, optimistically, about a cure, but the fact is that almost 2 million people a year die from AIDS. For every person put on treatment, two new people are infected. Hundreds of thousands of people do not get the treatment they need, or come to it too late for it to be fully effective
Consider what effect discrimination can have in that context. If there is the threat of criminal sanction, people do not come forward for testing, let alone for treatment. The result is that HIV spreads. Health providers are obviously less likely to offer their services if they can be accused of aiding a crime. The laws are often used by the police to prohibit HIV prevention activity. That is a disastrous position. I must add that it is by no means restricted to developing countries. The Culture Select Committee in the other place said that it thought that homophobia in football was a bigger problem than racism.
The worst problem in Europe is in Russia, where the treatment of gay and lesbian people can be discriminatory and severe, and where Madonna, no less, is being prosecuted. Her offence is calling for tolerance towards sexual minorities. I remember being in another country and talking to the organiser of a group who was hoping for better treatment. I said, "You must be on radio and television a lot". "Oh no", he said, "I am not that brave". He feared the ostracism that he would encounter.
I give just one further example. Earlier this year, I spent a week in Ukraine, considering the HIV situation. At a meeting with groups representing men who had sex with men, sex workers and drug users, I heard a long list of complaints about police harassment and corruption, backed up by the courts, which would invariably accept the police story. I must have looked a bit sceptical until a worker with the excellent international HIV/AIDS Alliance intervened to say, "I can confirm it all; I worked for the police for 12 years". That is the nub of the position. In Ukraine, there is now the prospect of a new law which would prevent essential health education and information aimed explicitly at the homosexual community.
In brief, five o'clock on a Thursday evening in a short debate may not be exactly the best time to start this debate, but the public should be in no doubt of the importance of the subject that my noble friend has raised. They should be in no doubt that discrimination against gay and lesbian people around the world is not just a major problem, it is an affront to everything that most of us feel is decent. We should also recognise that, in some countries, far from advancing, the position is getting worse. We need to take action against that.