Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:14 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector) 4:14 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, I declare my interests as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Global LGBT Rights and a long-standing member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on HIV and AIDS. This week the Prime Minister said:

“As we look to create a truly global Britain, the deep partnerships that we share through a 21st century Commonwealth can help us strengthen the prosperity and security of our own citizens, and those of our many friends and allies across the world”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, in introducing the debate, talked of the cross-governmental work going into reframing a fresh approach to the Commonwealth. I want to talk today about how we might work similarly to deal with a long-standing problem.

As we know, the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, is meeting representatives from Commonwealth countries to promote free trade deals between Britain and African countries, an event organised by the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council. It is a plan that has been internally dubbed “Empire 2.0” by some Whitehall officials. I hope that that tag does not stay, because the word “empire” is one that does not resonate well around the world. But that leads me to the point that I want to talk about. If this is to work, we need to create a new relationship within the Commonwealth, and one that reflects the new business reality. We need to create new conditions in which modern business can thrive. In 2015, the Human Dignity Trust noted that the,

“criminalisation of homosexuality is undoubtedly a specific Commonwealth problem. The Commonwealth alone encompasses 2 billion of the 2.9 billion people worldwide who live in countries where it is a crime to be gay”.

The World Economic Forum produced a report in 2015 on the cost of discrimination, saying:

“On a range of social and economic indicators, LGBT people, especially lesbians and transgender people, tend to fare poorly compared with the general population. Studies in multiple countries have found rates of poverty, food insecurity and joblessness to be elevated in the LGBT community … These statistics represent untold personal tragedies for the individuals concerned; but they also reflect a senseless waste of human potential on a grand scale. Every trans youth thrown out of home or forced to miss out on an education is a loss for society. Every gay or lesbian worker driven to leave their job or even their country is a lost opportunity to build a more productive economy … At a macro level, the cost to a country’s economy can be counted in the billions. According to a pilot study conducted for the World Bank last year, discrimination against LGBT people in India could be costing that country’s economy up to $32 billion a year in lost economic output”.

The report goes on to say that part,

“of the solution lies with governments”,

who have the power to change laws. The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, set out some of the progress that has been made, but the rate of change is way too slow. If there is to be further progress, Governments need the active involvement and commitment of business, and in all likelihood, it will be the big, international businesses that are at the forefront of change. They need to be certain that they can send their employees into environments that are safe and inclusive of the LGBT communities. It cannot send them to places where their health is going to be compromised or cannot be sustained.

I pick up the point from the noble Lord, Lord Crisp, about HIV. The top 10 countries globally with the highest HIV prevalence are Commonwealth nations. Some nations, such as South Africa, are making great strides because of political change, but laws where criminalisation makes it harder for people to access services without fear of imprisonment or outing by local media also exist in Commonwealth countries. The Academy of Science of South Africa notes:

“The paradox of the laws that criminalise same-sex sexual conduct is while they are in part justified by their proponents as measures to improve public health, such laws have an immediate and destructive impact on health”.

Criminalisation and stigmatisation not only worsen physical health outcomes for those marginalised, unpopular parts of the population; they have an impact on crime, economic empowerment and the rule of law, all of which are essentials for business to thrive.

This issue needs political change. Many Commonwealth leaders deep down know that the change has to come but are fearful because of local politics, often—I say this to the right reverend Prelate—fanned by hateful religious rhetoric funded by Christian supremacists from the United States. In such a circumstance, politicians fear speaking out. We have had things like the Harare Declaration of 1991, the Kampala communiqué of 2007 or the 2013 Charter of the Commonwealth. They do not talk explicitly about LGBT communities, but talk about human rights and freedom without distinction of any kind.

We in this country have led the way on this issue, but we did it over 50 years and it was a fraught process—not least for Members on the Benches opposite, who started from a more conservative position. Because of some of our legacy contacts with the Commonwealth, we are uniquely placed to enable political leaders in those countries to go through a similarly difficult journey. It will not be easy, but we should do it. Will the Minister pick up the comments made by the Prime Minister? Will she say how the Government see the summit as helping the process of developing diversity and prosperity? Discrimination is a very expensive business. Wasting talent, losing skills, keeping people in jail—these are so expensive that we in this country cannot afford to do them, and Commonwealth countries certainly cannot.

We have numerous mechanisms by which we can help that process of leadership to happen. We have links at governmental level between Foreign Ministers, Finance Ministers, Health Ministers, Women’s Affairs Ministers and Education Ministers. We also have links with civil servants and across professions, such as in the courts and judiciary. Given the scale of that, and given that the Minister has started to indicate that this is a cross-governmental priority, can she explain how departments other than DfID and the FCO—for example, our business and trade division—will help in that key change, which has to happen?

I listened intently to what the right reverend Prelate said about the covenant. The role of religion in building that covenant in a manner respectful and inclusive of all is important. The Church is a key player in all this, and some of us will watch with interest the leadership role that it plays in ensuring that we are part of that covenant. I invite him to come and talk to the APPG when we start work on our next report, which is due to be on the role played by religion in LGBT equality.

The Head of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty, said that:

“The Commonwealth is not an organisation with a mission. It is rather an opportunity for its people to work together to achieve practical solutions to problems”.

It is time for us to change the terms of the debate away from cultural imperialism and exploitation by the north to one of mutual respect and the development of good business, for all Commonwealth citizens—especially women.