Commonwealth - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:23 pm on 16th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Conservative 4:23 pm, 16th March 2017

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, I would like to address LGBT rights. In doing so, I inevitably reiterate some of the points made so effectively not just by her but by the noble Lords, Lord Scriven and Lord Cashman, in powerful speeches earlier. All three are to me noble friends engaged in a common enterprise. Indeed, one recurring feature of our welcome and valuable debates on the Commonwealth in recent years has been the demonstration of strong, cross-party support for action to remove the suffering and discrimination endured by millions of homosexuals in its member countries who become criminals if they give expression to the love with which they have been imbued. Some 90% of Commonwealth citizens live in jurisdictions where same-sex intimacy is a criminal offence. It must be right that on all sides of the House we should stress again today the need to put a complete end to this grave violation of human rights, which so flagrantly breaches international law and is incompatible with the Commonwealth’s own charter. When human rights are set aside, human misery inevitably follows.

That view, I believe, is widely supported on these Benches. It has been championed by my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood in many debates. Unfortunately, he cannot be here today to renew personally his call for the removal of the terrible injustice that gay people endure in 36 of the 52 countries of the Commonwealth. Many of our colleagues share these sentiments—they were expressed with trenchancy, as many noble Lords will remember, on a number of occasions from these Benches by our Lord Speaker, before he took up his office. Of course, as has been pointed out, we must be careful not to adopt an unduly strident or insensitive tone in seeking to encourage those 36 Commonwealth countries to abolish oppressive discriminatory laws—they got them from us in the days of empire, as the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, reminded us. As a Commonwealth country that has rid itself of these laws, is it not natural for us to want to extend the same legal rights and protections as we now enjoy to gay people in other Commonwealth countries, united to us by ties of kinship, affection and history? We would be untrue to ourselves if we repressed the desire to liberate others as we ourselves have been liberated. Many in the Commonwealth agree. It is now over five years since the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group unanimously recommended that Heads of Government should take steps to encourage the repeal of discriminatory laws against homosexuals.

How welcome were the words of one Head of Government—the Prime Minister of Malta—this week, in drawing attention to the blot on the Commonwealth’s reputation created by widespread disregard of the rights of LGBT people, as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, mentioned earlier. It was in Malta itself, two years ago, that the effects of the denial of those rights were brought closer than ever before to the centre of Commonwealth discussion and debate. The Kaleidoscope Trust—whose wonderful work has quite rightly been commended here today—working in partnership with the Commonwealth Equality Network, succeeded in raising LGBT issues in a number of forums during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that Malta hosted. It was an important breakthrough. The Commonwealth summit in London and Windsor next year must follow this up in a decisive manner. In Malta, the Commonwealth Equality Network’s LGBT activists from countries where gay people are criminalised were able to give first-hand accounts of the perils and dangers to which they are daily subject. Both the network and the Kaleidoscope Trust are convinced that, in their words, an approach involving those directly affected is essential for stimulating progress on LGBT rights.

My noble friend Lady Anelay will know all about this; she has shown great receptiveness to the views of LGBT organisations, whose respect she has won. They stand ready to work with the Government in creating a firm place for LGBT issues on the summit’s agenda. The Commonwealth Equality Network has proposed the inclusion of presentations by countries in the global South which have decriminalised, enabling others to learn from their experience. What is the Government’s view of that suggestion? Countries that want to decriminalise homosexuality should be able to look to the Commonwealth Secretariat for advice and guidance. For that, the secretariat will need adequate resources. That too deserves a prominent place on the summit’s agenda. This summit could provide a turning point for LGBT issues in the history of the Commonwealth. We must not let the opportunity slip.

I touch briefly on one other wholly unrelated matter. Our Commonwealth debates often include references, always couched in the warmest terms, to the Republic of Ireland. My noble friend Lord Howell made brief reference to it today. Many of us would rejoice if our close neighbour and partner in so many enterprises could be persuaded to consider coming back into the Commonwealth family. It would find an organisation utterly different from the one it left nearly 70 years ago, and 52 wholly independent states working together on terms of equality would have their collaborative endeavours enriched if the Irish Republic was also involved in them. As regards Northern Ireland, it is now accepted on all sides that there can be no change in its constitutional position without the democratic consent of its people. With its own links to many different parts of the world going back centuries, the Irish Republic would find a natural home as part of the Commonwealth’s great global partnership. This is not an issue which has so far stirred widespread interest in political circles in the Irish Republic itself. But with the Commonwealth at an important crossroads in its history, those at the helm of its affairs should surely be encouraged to reach out to all parts of these islands, for the Commonwealth is a unique family of nations. The Republic of Ireland belongs within our family.