International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day — [Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:02 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State 4:02 pm, 25th October 2018

I thank Fabian Hamilton for summing up for his party. One of the most important things about this issue is that it should be considered on a cross-party basis. That is not to say that there will not at times be disagreements about how we go about trying to promote freedom of religious belief, but I am pleased that he made such a strong case on behalf of the Opposition. We need to work together, and I make an open offer to him and to the SNP spokesman: if they want to come to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to learn more about the precise nature of the deep work that is done in this area, I would be only too happy for them to do so. That might be useful, given that we will have many more such debates.

I disagreed with one thing that Stewart Malcolm McDonald said. This really is not about the Minister; it is about everyone else. These are Back-Bench debates, and while I shall try to answer the matters raised—please forgive me if I fail to do so; I will take some things up in writing—I have spent long enough on the Back Benches, rather than in a ministerial office, to recognise that it is very important to ensure that everyone has their say, instead of spending too much ministerial time on these issues. The hon. Gentleman also touched on Saudi Arabia, which is slightly outside the main scope of today’s debate, and I do not want to put a foot wrong by giving him incorrect information, so if he will forgive me, I will write to him in detail afterwards.

I congratulate Jim Shannon on marking International Freedom of Religion or Belief Day once again. I am glad for my own good that it is a once-a-year occasion, but I know that, like many Members here, he takes this very seriously, 365 days a year. As ever, I pay great tribute to him and to all members of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief for their tireless and persistent advocacy on this issue around the world. This Saturday, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London and our posts across the globe will be marking the day in a variety of ways, all of which are designed to demonstrate the UK’s steadfast commitment to this fundamental human right.

That commitment is part of our broader policy of defending and promoting universal human rights and freedoms, which are a vital component of the rules-based international system. Freedom and equality must remain the bedrock of democracy, the form of government that we all recognise as delivering security, wellbeing and, hopefully, high levels of prosperity for all citizens. Promoting human rights also goes hand in hand with open markets and free trade, which nurture economic prosperity alongside genuine security and stability. Those are the conditions that ensure that all citizens can enjoy their political rights and freedoms. That is why we remain at the forefront of states that promote universally a culture of respect for human rights. I am very excited at the prospect of having both France and Germany on the Security Council over the next two years, as my hon. Friend Kevin Foster pointed out, which will mean having three large, western European nations with great reach across the globe, hopefully being able to make a real impact in this area.

We embrace the work that engages foreign Governments, both bilaterally and in multilateral forums such as the UN Human Rights Council. I reiterate all sentiments about the European Court of Human Rights as an important pillar for ensuring that we move forward correctly. It also invites work on ambitious campaigns on totemic issues: we work on eradicating modern slavery, preventing sexual violence in conflict, and promoting gender equality in all aspects of life, but notably in girls’ education—something that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is very committed to. On the back of our own Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in London, we are working with 52 other nations across the Commonwealth to ensure 12 years of education for all girls around the world.

Let me say a little bit about Lord Ahmad’s role—it was brought up, and I feel it is worth touching on. The UK Government remain active at the highest levels, not least within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in standing up for the rights of people of all faiths and of none. The Prime Minister’s appointment in July of my noble Friend the Minister for Human Rights as her special envoy on freedom of religion or belief signalled the UK’s determination to step up our action to address religious discrimination and to promote mutual understanding and respect. It is important to recognise that the title of Prime Minister’s special envoy makes a real difference. It opens a lot of doors for anyone in that role, and it is a respected title across the world.

Lord Ahmad will lead renewed and targeted international efforts on this issue, including by raising awareness of the benefits to society of religious diversity and respect for all faiths and for none, which many Members have mentioned. His first objective is to up the tempo of the UK’s response to violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief and to focus on certain countries in particular. As colleagues know, promoting human rights, and specifically advocating for freedom of religion or belief, has long been a focus of the work of our embassies, high commissions and consulates general overseas.