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Freedom of Religion and Belief — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:18 pm on 16th July 2015.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 6:18 pm, 16th July 2015

My Lords, the ability of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to secure debates in this House has long been one of the wonders of the world. It may well have something to do with the important and fascinating subjects he selects for his debates. The debate on Article 18 has almost become an annual event, and so it should be. However, I wonder whether, without the noble Lord’s energy and commitment, it would have been. Congratulations are due to him, and to all the other very distinguished Peers who have spoken so well and movingly.

In some ways I find myself in a position where I do not have much that is original to add. We have heard marvellous speeches that have made the important points that must be made, and made again, until the world takes notice. In this debate we have heard horrific examples of appalling intolerance and discrimination from all over our planet and affecting all religions. On behalf of the Opposition I will try to say something useful and pose some questions for the Minister, who is, if I may say so, exactly the right Minister to be answering this debate.

Before I do, I hope that the House will indulge me for a moment or two—perhaps rather longer than would normally be the case—if I say something about the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester, or Bishop Tim as he is universally known in Leicester and Leicestershire. I am proud to call myself a friend as well as a colleague. I live in the diocese he has led for the last 16 years, and I only wish that more noble Lords present today had been present at the service held last Saturday at Leicester Cathedral to celebrate his tenure. There was hardly a dry eye in the house. The respect and affection in which he is held by all—rich and poor, black and white, old and young—was shown not just by the packed cathedral, with people following the service from outside, but by the extraordinary feeling that a unique and very special person who had influenced Leicester so much, with all its diversity, was actually leaving.

The right reverend Prelate will be hugely missed in the city and in the county, just as he will be in this House. Above all, he seems to me as good an example as I have ever known of the priest in the public space—a phrase I do not like. In other words, he speaks to his community about issues that actually affect their daily lives. His passion for social justice, I know, has been heightened by his experience in Leicester. Frankly, I do not think that this House or our country can afford to lose him. On a slightly lighter note, how can one not admire a bishop who chooses for his desert island discs a song by the boy band, One Direction, and whose chosen luxury item was an infinite supply of golf balls?

Let us get back to this debate, not least the contribution of the right reverend Prelate himself. It has centred on the increasing violations of Article 18, as it affects Christianity and, equally importantly, all other religions and beliefs. The Human Rights and Democracy Report 2014,produced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is a deeply depressing document but it forces us to face up to the reality that in our world today there are shocking examples, both collective and individual, of how religion is used—or perhaps, more properly, abused—to discriminate and act against others.

One of the worst consequences of any general election is that Parliament loses outstanding men and women who either retire or are unsuccessful in the election itself. These people, who come from all parties, of course, are often experts in particular policy areas, and their knowledge and experience is very much missed. One such, I would argue, is the former shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander who enjoyed a deserved reputation as an expert in the field that we are debating today. Some noble Lords will remember his article in the Telegraph at Christmas 2014, when he said:

“Faith leaders beyond the Christian community have been forceful in their campaigns on anti-Christian persecution, including former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who described it as ‘one of the crimes against humanity of our time’ and stated he was ‘appalled at the lack of protest it has evoked’. Just like anti-Semitism or Islamaphobia, anti-Christian persecution must be named for the evil that it is, and challenged systematically by people of faith and of no faith. Government should be doing much more to try and harness the concern, expertise and understanding of faith leaders from across the UK and beyond”.

He went on to say:

“A multi-faith advisory council on religious freedom should be established within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office”

In the same article, Mr Alexander suggested that the role of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, as Minister of Faith in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which was then removed to the Department for Communities and Local Government, should be returned to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He hoped that Her Majesty’s Government would follow the lead of the United States and Canada in appointing an international ambassador for tackling religious persecution—in other words, a global envoy for religious freedom reporting directly to the Foreign Secretary of the day. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, that was in my party’s manifesto in the election in May. Have the Government any plans to appoint such an ambassador or envoy and, if not, what reason can there be for not doing so? I also want to ask about the Minister of Faith role and the setting up of a multi-faith advisory committee.

No one doubts Her Majesty’s Government’s good faith in this debate, least of all that of the Minister, who represents her department so well, both in this

House and outside it. No one is suggesting that there are any easy answers to the problem of the increased violation of Article 18. However, I suggest to the House that the steps Mr Alexander put forward might well be useful in showing the world that Britain is even more determined to fight religious intolerance wherever and whenever we see it. For far too long Article 18 has been justifiably called an orphaned right. It is well past time that this description no longer applied and that Article 18, at long last, becomes more of a reality.