LGBT Rights: Brunei

– in Westminster Hall at 4:29 pm on 10th April 2019.

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Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:29 pm, 10th April 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered LGBT rights in Brunei.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I am glad that so many right hon. and hon. Members have been able to come today, because this is an important topic that is dear to our hearts and those of our constituents.

As Members will know, last week the Sultan of Brunei implemented the third phase of the sharia penal code—the SPC—which was first introduced in 2014. This phase of the code’s implementation licenses brutal executions and violent punishments of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, including death by stoning, effectively just for living their sexual identity. As a result, Brunei is now the eighth country that can punish consensual same-sex relationships with the death penalty. It also punishes women for abortion, which is a health matter, and anyone for sex outside of marriage, which is a private matter.

Last week in the House, the Minister gave a welcome statement about this situation. However, he said that the UK has a “close friendship” with Brunei as a result of our long-standing military and strategic partnerships, which I understand. He also mentioned Brunei’s membership of the Commonwealth. I believe that that relationship gives the UK special responsibility to act against this violation of human rights, which has implications for people both within and beyond Brunei. I will return to that point later.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this vital debate. When I clicked on the Commonwealth’s website this morning, the strapline that came up was “53 countries working together to…celebrate diversity” and to “protect human rights”. Given the situation in Brunei, which, as the hon. Lady says—is appalling, and the fact that same-sex consensual sex is criminalised in 35 of the 53 Commonwealth countries, does she agree that Britain must raise this issue at the forthcoming Commonwealth meeting?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I absolutely agree, and I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Later in my remarks, I will emphasise that Britain’s position in the Commonwealth gives us a position of leadership that we must act upon. Brunei is only one of the countries that is behaving in an egregious manner towards people because of their sexuality, and I would like us to use our influence.

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Last November, I was privileged to visit Rwanda with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, where there are also questions about LGBT legislative equality. Surely the role of the British Government, and the Foreign Office in particular, is to provide challenge within the Commonwealth and to promote the idea that if a country is a member of the Commonwealth, it must advocate the equality legislation that the UK Government and other members of the Commonwealth partake in. It is simply unacceptable in 2019 for these barbaric acts to be undertaken against people who are LGBT, purely on the basis of the way they were born.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely right, and I would like the Minister to urge his colleague, the Foreign Secretary, to use his position in the Commonwealth. I will return to that issue later.

I will set out the dangers that the penal code poses for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Brunei and outside, and also for other women. I will also identify how I believe Brunei benefits from its association with the UK through military, diplomatic and economic relationships. Finally, I will press the Minister on the ways in which this country can bring its influence to bear on Brunei. I have some specific suggestions for action that I would like him to consider.

First, I thank the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights—particularly Anna—the Brunei Project, the Kaleidoscope Trust, the Human Dignity Trust, Stonewall, ForcesWatch, the House of Commons Library, and others for having provided briefings for this debate. I also thank the parliamentary Digital Engagement Programme, which has brought members of the public into this discussion in a way that I never knew about. Because of that programme, the House of Commons’ Facebook post on this topic was seen by 35,435 accounts between 5 and 9 April. There were 6,061 post-clicks and 1,275 engagements, including reactions, comments and shares, and the post prompted 20 private messages to that Facebook page. I will refer to some of those comments and suggestions during my speech.

The Government of Brunei, as part of an increasing trend towards religious conservatism, introduced the SPC in 2014. It applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, although the latter group is exempt from certain sections, and operates in parallel with common law inherited from British rule, which the Bruneian Government have said continues to be the primary means of administering justice. Punishments that came into effect with the implementation of phase 3 of the SPC include death by stoning for adultery, sodomy or extramarital sexual relations by Muslims, public flogging as a punishment for abortion, sex between women or consumption of alcohol, and amputation of limbs for theft. The SPC also criminalises trans people through charges of “indecent” dressing.

Homosexuality was already illegal in Brunei, but the third phase of the SPC increases the sanctions, which are barbaric in themselves. They are punishments for love, for private matters and for health matters, not for anything that any country with a legal framework based on human rights should count as crimes. Last week, the Minister rightly noted that there is an evidential bar, such as requiring four witnesses for some acts, and said that that bar is high and could therefore mean low use, if any, of these punishments. However, there is an alternative, which is confessions, and I am worried that coercion may be used to push people into confessing. For my money, a high evidential bar does not make anything better; the punishment is still on the statute book.

The Brunei Project, a human rights campaign, has stressed the intersectional implications of the SPC, with its attacks on rights to freedom of expression, religion and belief, and noted that the SPC laws also codify discrimination against woman and girls. Human Rights Watch says that the SPC has further implications for women and will make it difficult for Muslim women in particular to escape violent marriages or seek employment opportunities. As I have mentioned, there are also the punishments for abortion and adultery.

Why should the legal system of a far-away country matter to any of us here? Well, both Bristol West and the UK are diverse and home to an international community, including a large student population. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people come to Bristol and the UK from all over the world, and there will be Bristolians who come from, live in or work in Brunei who will be affected by the SPC. They want to see us fight this assault on their rights. Local people with no direct connection to Brunei are also rightly concerned about this erosion of human rights. They, I, and all hon. Members here want a world in which human rights—including those of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people—are respected everywhere.

Photo of Louise Haigh Louise Haigh Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on making an incredibly powerful speech. Given the problems that some LGBT asylum seekers have recently found in gaining asylum, will she join me in calling on the Minister to raise concerns with the Home Office to ensure that we in this country are granting sanctuary to those LGBT people who face persecution in their home countries?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on refugees, I am particularly concerned at this country’s record, at the fact that, unfortunately, it often fails to give asylum to people who come here because of persecution due to their sexuality, and at the high evidential bar that seems to be imposed on them. I gather that that is particularly true for women.

The implementation of the SPC has been condemned by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Gender Expression Caucus, so this is not just the west criticising south-east Asia; Brunei is not acting in step with its friends in other south-east Asian nations. I am also pleased to note that, despite things going backward in many parts of the world, India recently repealed section 377 of the Indian penal code, introduced by the British under colonisation, which criminalised sex between people of the same sex.

That is progress, but we need to keep progress and halt backward steps, because if we tolerate them, it signals to other countries that it is fine for them to go backward too. In too many countries, the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are being undermined and fragile gains lost to bigotry and authoritarian chauvinism. As I said, Brunei is now one of several countries where being gay is effectively punishable by death, but there are over 70 countries where it is criminalised.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I have had dealings with Brunei for a very long time, in so far as I know the people there. What I do not understand is how anyone as civilised and used to working in the west as the Sultan and the people around him would even contemplate being so barbaric. That is the big question: why are they doing this stupidity?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I am also baffled—why do this? I hope the Foreign Secretary will be able to use the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group later this month as a place to talk openly, frankly, but firmly to the Sultan’s representatives and ask that very question.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Labour, Barnsley East

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. It is outrageous what is going on. Does she agree that the Government should review the deployment of our troops to Brunei?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I would certainly like us to use the fact that we have troops in Brunei as a measure of leverage. I understand the strategic position that those troops hold, but it is important that we do not just give troops unconditionally when the nation of Brunei and the Sultan are benefiting from those troops.

Photo of Jo Stevens Jo Stevens Labour, Cardiff Central

Last September, a Defence Minister confirmed to me in a written answer that Brunei’s armed forces had had UK military training during the previous 12 months—2017-18. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should make the case for there being no further military training for Brunei until this issue is resolved?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

That is certainly a way of using our position of influence. I ask the Minister to consider that, and to talk to his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence about how we are deploying our military, to what purpose and whether that is appropriate given the Brunei state’s attitude towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I contend that it is not appropriate, and I really would like the Minister to consider talking to his colleagues about that.

Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I commend the hon. Lady for securing the debate. Is she aware of the petition started by my constituent Sarah Quinn, who is a brilliant counterpart of mine in the Scottish Youth Parliament? Her petition calls on the UK Government to do more to use their influence to stop human rights abuses against LGBT people in Brunei. The petition is just 16,000 signatures short of the 100,000 it needs to secure an even longer debate on this subject, so will the hon. Lady encourage others to sign it?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman’s constituent on taking that step. It is great to see such campaigning by young people, and I certainly encourage everyone who watches or hears about this debate to take that sort of action and to show the Government, who I believe agree that this is an egregious breach of human rights, that we want them to take firm action. This is not good enough. An abuse of human rights anywhere is an abuse of human rights for us all; it is an attack on all of us.

As was mentioned, Brunei is a strategic partner of the UK in the region, and we have close military, diplomatic and economic ties. I would like us to make use of those ties as a form of leverage. On military ties, as others mentioned—I will try not to repeat what they said—the British Army in Brunei comprises an infantry battalion of Gurkhas and an Army Air Corps flight of Bell 212 helicopters. That arrangement has been periodically renewed since 1962 by a series of agreements known today as the Brunei garrison agreement, the most recent of which was signed in 2015 and lasts until 2020. I understand that the Ministry of Defence has already begun discussions about the continuation of that agreement. Will the Minister communicate my hon. Friends’ suggestions to the Ministry of Defence for consideration in negotiations about the future of that agreement?

Since 1997, the garrison in Brunei has been the only remaining British military base in the far east. Obviously, we want to keep our strategic influence there. However, the continued presence of British armed forces in Brunei offers clear defence and security benefits for the Sultan—the Sultan wants us there too. According to the UK Defence Journal, Brunei

“sees Britain as its biggest European ally to count on if necessities arise”,

and

“the UK is expected to be prepared to support Brunei against an expansionist China;
not mentioning the British role as a political ‘stabiliser’
for the Sultan.”

What can be given can also be taken away, and we can use the possibility of its being taken away. I understand the need for us to have geopolitical influence in the region, but that influence is morally bankrupt if we do not use it for good.

On economic ties, the Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that there are around 6,400 British citizens in Brunei. Around 2,000 are military personnel or civil servants attached to the British Forces Brunei base, but 60% of Brunei’s GDP is derived from oil and natural gas, so many British citizens work for Brunei Shell Petroleum and in related industries and businesses. I am concerned about what is happening to UK citizens in Brunei.

There are also trade links. Neither the UK nor the EU currently has a free trade agreement with Brunei, but Brunei is a member of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, a trade agreement between 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. Brunei does not appear to have ratified that agreement yet, but the Department for International Trade is currently consulting on a possible future free trade agreement between the UK and the CPTPP. That is one of four consultations on possible future trade deals happening now, the others being with the US, Australia and New Zealand. The question is how we use our influence. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Department for International Trade about how human rights can and must be integrated into the conditions for trade?

We must ask how we can use our influence not only directly with Brunei but with other nations. This morning, I met activists in UK civil society, who urged thoughtfulness and caution, and asked us to listen to the voices of Brunei civil society—particularly to the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Brunei. This is difficult, because the voice of civil society is not strong in Brunei, and neither is the voice of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. We will need to do some work to allow it to be heard.

There has also been a lot of press about boycotting the Dorchester—I am not in a position to boycott something I cannot afford.

Photo of Chris Matheson Chris Matheson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Is my hon. Friend aware that this afternoon the Police Federation has announced that it will boycott the Dorchester for its police bravery awards? Will she join me in congratulating the Police Federation and hoping that other organisations will follow suit?

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank my hon. Friend very much for that intervention, because it brings me to my next point. I might not be able to afford to stay at the Dorchester, but I can talk to organisations that use the services of other organisations about how we all make our own decisions about how we spend our money and where we bring our trade and business. I want companies with interests in Brunei to think about their influence, but also, crucially, about the safety of their staff there. I understand concerns about economic boycotts, and I also understand the need for us to have a relationship with Brunei. I do not want Brunei to feel cornered, because dialogue is essential, but I want it to feel encouraged to change its mind and do the right thing.

Friendship has limits. We need to show how we feel when our allies or associates treat their own citizens’ human rights, and potentially ours, as optional. I have various things that I want to ask the Minister. I will start with the members of the public who, via the parliamentary digital engagement team’s work on the Commons Facebook page, gave various views—this is not a statement of endorsement, but of representation. Their views included taking away the Sultan of Brunei’s honours; freezing his assets, boycotting his businesses; suspending Brunei from the commonwealth; guaranteeing assistance and/or asylum to all persecuted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Bruneians; withdrawing military support; and recalling the British ambassador to Brunei. It would be good for the members of the public who contributed those ideas to have them at least considered by the Minister. Many respondents rightly pointed out that several of Britain’s other allies have similarly egregious human rights records, and that Government policy should apply consistently to them, too. Some respondents said that the UK should not interfere with the laws of another country and should focus on its own issues—I represent this, even though I do not agree with such a view.

I would like the Minister to consider diplomatic pressure. What steps have the Government already taken to convince the Sultan of Brunei and his Government to repeal the SPC? What representations have the Minister or his colleagues made on the UK’s commitment to securing human rights internationally for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and for women? Have the Government considered the full range of diplomatic sanctions, and if so, can the Minister tell us more about that? What consideration has the Minister made of sanctions or actions against similar regimes with similarly abhorrent legal frameworks?

What contact has the Minister or his colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had with businesses that have employees or representation in Brunei? What support is being offered to UK citizens in Brunei? If state sanctions are being considered by this Government, what consultation is being carried out with civil society in Brunei on the impact of those sanctions and how to make them most effective?

I reiterate what I mentioned earlier. Will the Minister ask his colleague the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary—I emphasise the word Commonwealth—to ensure that equality briefings are provided to all attendees at the meeting of the Commonwealth Ministers Action Group in London this month, and to help to give civil society activists a voice at that meeting? Will he ask the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary to do everything he can to create a constructive atmosphere for dialogue with Ministers from Brunei, in which the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are heard?

Photo of Chris Elmore Chris Elmore Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend will obviously be aware that the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting will be held in Kigali in about 18 months’ time. Perhaps I could suggest to the Minister that an agenda item on equality and LGBT legislation could be developed for that Commonwealth summit, where Rwanda will take over the chair. While we in the United Kingdom have the chair, this issue should be very much at the top of all the agendas of Commonwealth Ministers.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. [Interruption.] I am hearing a colleague say from a sedentary position that LGBT rights was an agenda item last time, and my concern is that this influence is used as strongly as possible. It feels like we are in danger of going backwards, which is not okay. It is not good enough.

I would also like to refer the Minister to my question from last week, on which I hope he will show me a little patience—I kind of sprung it on him. It is a very techy question, but I hope he might be able to update us. Article 1 of the United Nations convention against torture and other cruel and unusual punishments prohibits the use of intentionally inflicted pain as a form of punishment inflicted by a state action. I think we both agree that that covers this situation. However, the UK has agreed to that convention, so we are also bound by article 3, on refoulement, which means that we should not return, expel or expedite anyone to another country if there are substantial grounds for believing that that person will be in danger of being subjected to such cruel and unusual punishment or torture. What discussions has the Minister had since I raised this matter with him last week with his counterparts in other Departments, such as Justice, about ensuring that we abide by the principle and practice of article 3?

In relation to asylum, as my hon. Friend Louise Haigh said, there is deep concern among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the UK that the Home Office does not understand the risks that people seeking asylum in the UK face if they are returned to their home countries where they are at risk of persecution because of their sexuality. As chair of the all-party group on refugees, I am concerned that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people report not having their sexuality believed and that officials do not recognise that, while a specific state might be generally safe for heterosexuals, there may be a well-founded fear of persecution for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group report published in 2018 found that LGBT people face insensitive questioning, that statements from partners and friends are dismissed and, further, that women asylum seekers face even more scrutiny than men. Home Office data show that, of the asylum claims made between 2015 and 2017 based on a fear of persecution because of sexual orientation, only a quarter were approved. What assurances can the Minister give those seeking asylum in the UK from Brunei—or any other country where this applies—for protection from any aspect of the SPC? What discussions has he had with his counterparts in the Home Office about that? Will he undertake to have such discussions?

Finally, the Minister has a crucial role in talking to colleagues across government on instilling ethics in defence and trade contracts. The maintenance of the defence presence in Brunei is obviously of regional importance, but in this context the British presence in Brunei is also a political statement. Will the Government commit to using their leverage to secure full human rights for LGBT people and women in Brunei as part of the negotiations over the renewal of the garrison agreement?

To conclude, I applied for this debate because, like many hon. Members and members of the public, I am outraged that Brunei has introduced a penal code that sanctions such appalling violence on its people—as well as ours—contrary to international law and a human rights-based framework. I am disappointed, as Bob Stewart said, that the Sultan has chosen to go down this route. It is not necessary. This is a test for the Commonwealth. Will the Minister ask the Foreign Secretary to ensure that every piece of Commonwealth pressure can be brought to bear on the situation?

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

One thing we cannot know about, but I bet happens, is the influence of our royal family, who I know feel very much as we do and will be outraged. I am quite sure that some of the younger members of the royal family will be having words about this subject.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

I do not think I can comment on the views of members of the royal family, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I want the UK Government to take a leadership role in the world on the human rights agenda. It is clear to me that the UK Government have a specific role in correcting injustice everywhere. Whether or not we exercise that responsibility will say a great deal about how we want to be seen in the world and by our own lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people here in the UK.

I do not want my lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans constituents, friends or colleagues, or anyone in the UK to live in fear anywhere. I do not want my country to be complicit in turning a blind eye to state-sanctioned persecution in a nation where we have a military presence and that we would consider to be friend.

Photo of Ged Killen Ged Killen Labour/Co-operative, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Clearly, this is brutality at the very extreme end of the spectrum. However, it should not have to get to that point before we take LGBT rights seriously. My hon. Friend is talking about the UK. The Government are turning a blind eye to LGBT rights here in the UK, by denying the extension of equal marriage rights to Northern Ireland. Surely we have to get our own house in order if we are to be an effective voice on the international stage.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I agree with, although obviously that is not in the Minister’s portfolio. If we are to have true moral authority, we need to make sure that we have equal rights for every one of our citizens, everywhere in the United Kingdom.

I have said what I do not want, but what I want is for my constituents, my friends, my colleagues, and everyone in the UK—every single person, whether they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans, or a different sexuality—to be able to travel and work freely and to enjoy the same rights and freedoms as everybody else. I want lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people to be able to visit countries and take up employment or study opportunities anywhere they want, without having to check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s website to see if it would be safe for them to do so. It does not feel okay that my friends, my staff or my constituents have to check whether it is safe to fall in love, travel with their partner, or live in a way that expresses their true gender identity or sexuality, wherever they choose to live, work or visit.

At this terrible moment for Brunei’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the UK Government have a responsibility to stand up and be counted. I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to take this opportunity to show the cross-party strength of feeling, which I hope he understands and absorbs, as I believe he does, and show the world that Britain will not tolerate attacks on anyone’s human rights—on the human rights of entire sections of the population—simply for being who they are and loving who they love.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

We have about 10 minutes of Back-Bench time before I call the Front-Bench spokespeople: Hannah Bardell for the SNP, Fabian Hamilton for Her Majesty’s Opposition, and the Minister. The SNP and the Opposition spokespeople will have five minutes each and the Minister will have 10 minutes, then we will return to Thangam Debbonaire to sum up. Three hon. Members are seeking to contribute, so the time limit will be three minutes each. First, I call Luke Pollard.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Fisheries, Flooding and Water) 4:57 pm, 10th April 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire on a passionate speech. It is not right that our LGBT friends across the world cannot enjoy the same freedoms as LGBT people in my constituency.

We need to send a strong message from this debate that love is love. We must use our power as a country to impress that on our friends. It is harder when our friends fail, and when we have to have difficult conversations with people with whom we share a common bond, but on this we must, because our values do not stop at our borders. I say that as a gay man who is proud to be out. We have an extra responsibility to make sure that people know that whether someone is L, G, B, T or straight, it does not matter—they deserve human rights wherever they are.

I have asked the Ministry of Defence in a written question about what advice has been given to UK forces stationed at British Forces Brunei, to make sure that there are no consequences for LGBT serving UK personnel in Brunei. I would be grateful if the Minister could reflect on that in his remarks.

We must be aware that the roll-back of LGBT rights can happen. There is sometimes a belief in the LGBT community that LGBT rights only go one way—that we will only ever get more equal and that our fight for equality is over. That is wrong. It is a false wrapper that we put round ourselves to pretend that we do not have to fight anymore.

It gave me great strength to see the first-time activists protesting outside the Dorchester and other hotels owned by the Sultan of Brunei, because they recognise that their human rights in the UK are affected if human rights for LGBT people around the world are affected. It does matter. Every time there is hate internationally, hate is brought on LGBT communities in our country. It does not take much to find people on social media saying,

“Perhaps Brunei has the right idea”,

or,

“The sultan of Brunei has the right idea of what to do with you Brighton bitches”,

or,

“Brunei has the right idea in dealing with such FILTH.”

The hate engendered in the laws that my hon. Friend spoke so passionately about empowers people who want to divide others and peddle hate in our country. That is why our determination to fight such cruel punishment for simply being LGBT with our friends and allies abroad must be matched by our commitment to do so at home as well. We must be clear that there is no place for this type of hate, either in the UK or around the world. As we decide what type of country we want to be after Brexit, we must ensure that human rights—LGBT rights—are at the heart of our diplomacy.

Photo of Gerald Jones Gerald Jones Shadow Minister (Defence) 5:00 pm, 10th April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire on securing the debate and on the passionate case that she made.

It is clear that the situation in Brunei is totally unacceptable in 2019. Fundamental human rights are the business of everyone—all right-thinking people the world over. It is right that this House and the British Government should give a clear view to the Brunei authorities. We have heard that Brunei sees the United Kingdom as its biggest European ally. It is therefore essential that we use that relationship to make it absolutely clear to the sultan and to the authorities that the introduction of this latest strict sharia penal code does not fit with the 21st century, and with anyone who believes that basic human rights across the world are rights for all humanity.

The UK and many other countries have made real progress on LGBT rights and equalities in recent decades. It is essential that we send a clear message to any country looking to regress on LGBT or human rights issues that that is unacceptable. We will not go backwards. The decision to impose the death penalty on gay people living in Brunei is utterly barbaric and a violation of basic human rights. The UK Government must show global leadership, and consider Brunei’s suspension from the Commonwealth if it does not reconsider the decision.

We have heard that the British Army has a presence in Brunei—its only presence in the far east—comprising of an infantry battalion of Gurkhas and an Army Air Corps flight. As we know, the current agreement will last until 2020. Of the 6,400 British citizens in Brunei, around 2,000 are members of the armed forces or the civil service at the British forces base. It is understood that the sultan, understandably, values that British Army presence.

In the light of our important defence and security partnership with Brunei, it is vital that the Defence Secretary demonstrates his commitment to human rights by urging the Brunei authorities to drop this appalling law without delay. We must also ensure that no British troops are affected by the law. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out what specific action the Government have taken in that regard, and whether he will raise the matter with the Defence Secretary.

Furthermore, the Government should commit to stripping the Sultan of Brunei of his honorary appointments as Air Chief Marshal of the Royal Air Force and Admiral of the Royal Navy. It is simply unacceptable for those honours to be held by someone who wishes to abuse fundamental rights in that way. This shameful and regressive move simply cannot be tolerated, and that message needs to go out loud and clear. At the very least, we need assurances from the Government that protections are in place for British military personnel, other British persons living and working in Brunei, and tourists.

Over and above that, such treatment is simply unacceptable for any human being. From a human rights perspective, that is the message that this country and Her Majesty’s Government need to say loud and clear. I hope that the Minister can give some assurances on this issue today.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Finance Committee (Commons) 5:03 pm, 10th April 2019

Of course all right-thinking people will condemn what has been introduced in Brunei in recent weeks. We would condemn the stoning of anybody, whether they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or whatever. It is a positively inhumane way of undertaking what they pretend is a form of justice.

However, we in the United Kingdom have a share of the blame for what has happened in the Commonwealth and around the world. The countries with some of the worst records on LGBT rights once owed their allegiance to the Crown here. Sometimes we exported the most draconian laws that any country has ever had on male homosexuality, in particular between 1922 and 1967.

Some people point the finger at religion. Sometimes that is right, but sometimes it is wrong. Interestingly, when the House of Commons tried to legislate to ban lesbianism in 1922 the best speech given in Parliament to strike the law down was from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that it was a pile of nonsense. He was quite right. When it came to the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in this country in 1967, Michael Ramsey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was one of the best proponents for a humane and sensible approach to those matters.

My hon. Friend Luke Pollard is right that it often feels as if we are taking steps backwards. We have taken so many strides forwards in this country in recent years, with civil partnerships, gay marriage and all the rest, that it is all too easy to forget that the most liberal city in the world in the last 150 years was probably Berlin in 1930. In 1934, Hitler killed all the gay Nazis, and went on to put thousands of people in concentration camps and kill them.

As my hon. Friend Ged Killen said earlier, we have to put our own house in order in Northern Ireland and the British Overseas Territories, as do so many countries with which we do business. It is ironic that the Sultan of Brunei owns the Dorchester, because that was where Victor Cazalet—a gay man who was a Member of this House in the 1930s, and director of the Dorchester—used to interview everybody for his almost entirely gay, queer or nearly queer searchlight battery in the second world war. I have also been to many dinners at the Dorchester that were hosted by Stonewall.

I am absolutely delighted that people—particularly young people—are taking action, because they want to see that the campaigns of yesteryear are not forgotten and because human rights are a seamless garment that have to be fought for by every single generation. In truth, the laws in Brunei will not stop anyone from being homosexual. They will not stop anybody from loving another person of the same gender. All that they will do is condemn them to a life of loneliness, sadness, lying and hypocrisy.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Order. We can squeeze in one more short contribution of 90 seconds from Richard Graham.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester 5:06 pm, 10th April 2019

Thank you very much, Mr Hollobone. This is a good debate that follows both Foreign Office Questions and the statement by the Minister last week. I congratulate Thangam Debbonaire on raising the issue, about which many around the House and around the country will feel the same way.

I want to make two points, if I may. The Commonwealth charter itself is very clear about the requirements on Commonwealth members to oppose all forms of discrimination. In 2018 at CHOGM, the Prime Minister was clear about the importance that nobody faces discrimination or persecution because of whom they love. I suspect that the amount of strong opposition to the sharia penal code that has been implemented in Brunei will come as a surprise to the population of that country—an ally and friend of ours—because they will not have anticipated the stream of condemnation that has come their way.

I ask the Minister whether we can, in a sense, help to guide the Kingdom of Brunei through what is a very difficult situation for our relationship with it. Can we encourage it to look carefully at means of reassuring its own citizens, as well as others around the world, that this is not a change in the fundamentally tolerant approach that is characteristic of that country for all of us who have been? Can we encourage Brunei to do whatever possible to mitigate against the introduction of the last part of the sharia penal code?

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

We now come to the Front Benches. I call Hannah Bardell for the SNP.

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 5:08 pm, 10th April 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Thangam Debbonaire on securing this debate and on her excellent speech.

It is a sad fact—and not one that is in the infamous guide to coming out—that when someone comes out, they look at the world map in a very different way. That is largely to find out whether the country that they are visiting on business or on holiday is going to arrest, torture or murder them just because of who they love or who they are. As we have heard, Brunei’s strict legal code mandates for death for adultery and sex between men, lashes for lesbian sex and amputation for crimes such as theft. It discriminates not just against LGBT people, but against women particularly

That has sparked a tide of condemnation. We in the SNP have unequivocally condemned Brunei’s actions. My hon. Friend Neil Gray spoke about the grassroots response, his constituent Sarah Quinn—a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament—and the number of signatures that her petition has gathered. At the weekend, we saw people outside some of the hotels owned by the sultan.

To my mind that is not enough, because until this shameful announcement, 70 countries criminalised same-sex activity between consenting adults. That accounts for almost 3 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population, living in countries that have anti-LGBT laws. Although, unfortunately, the shambles of Brexit is diminishing the UK’s soft power, it still has significant power and I know that the Minister has made strong statements of condemnation. However, he and the Government have also recently visited Brunei.

In August 2018 Paul Scully visited as trade envoy to Brunei, Thailand and Burma. He talked about what a successful visit it was, and about the great insight that it gave him into the significant opportunities that already exist within Brunei’s economy. I hope that the Minister can give us some comfort and a sense that he will use his power to make sure a strong message is sent. Whatever happens with Brexit the UK will be flailing around potentially looking for trade deals, and they cannot come at the cost of our values.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

It is interesting that since the CHOGM of last year two countries in the Commonwealth have changed their legal position on decriminalising homosexuality, including India, which means that in that great country of more than 1 billion people it is now perfectly legal. Does the hon. Lady agree that some progress is being made?

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I absolutely do agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is hugely important. We must be in no doubt that we have the opportunity to bring about change and exert influence. The hon. Member for Bristol West spoke of specific things that we could do: freezing assets, recovering honours, recalling ambassadors and suspending Brunei from the Commonwealth. I endorse that. When I heard the news I felt sick to my stomach, and I am sure that we all did. I visited Malawi recently, where the Government turn a blind eye to homosexuality, but where if someone is trans they literally do not exist. There must be changes in those countries and we must do everything we can.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend mentions the Commonwealth and the possible remedy of suspension. Of course no country has ever been expelled but countries have been suspended for violation of democracy and the rule of law. Does she agree that what has happened in Brunei is every bit as serious as that and that we must keep suspension or expulsion from the Commonwealth up our sleeve as the ultimate sanction?

Photo of Hannah Bardell Hannah Bardell Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I absolutely agree. In the brief time I have left I want to refer to countries such as Qatar, which, in my view, have illegally been awarded major sporting championships. Qatar will host the World cup. Scotland will not be in the men’s World cup. England will. What kind of message would it send if England decided to take a stand and say “We are not going to that country and that competition”? It is a difficult decision to take and there is a balance of judgment, but until we stop allowing countries such as Qatar, Brunei and Russia to hold major sporting competitions they will continue to abuse their people and their human rights, and it is time we took a stronger stand.

Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence) 5:13 pm, 10th April 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire on bringing this debate to us today, and I thank my colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and Richard Graham for their excellent contributions.

Brunei is a country with a population of 420,000 people and is by some estimates the fourth richest country per capita in the world. It has been fully independent of the United Kingdom only since 1984. Its ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, is an absolute monarch and rules absolutely; he is also the country’s Prime Minister. This year Brunei became the first east Asian country to adopt strict sharia law. As we have heard today, those laws violate international human rights including the right to life and freedom from torture. They violate certain conventions to which Brunei is a party, including the conventions on the rights of the child. Under international human rights law, corporal punishment in all its forms, such as stoning, amputation or whipping, constitutes torture or other

“cruel, inhuman or degrading…punishment”,

which is prohibited in all circumstances. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, stated recently:

“Any religion-based legislation must not violate human rights, including the rights of those belonging to the majority religion, as well as of religious minorities and non-believers”.

Brunei has not executed anyone since 1957, but it has now become one of only seven countries in the world that punish consensual homosexual acts with the death penalty. We know that these new laws target some of the most vulnerable people in Brunei society. They also place restrictions on Muslim women who want to escape violent marriages.

The UK and Brunei have historically long ties; in 1888 Brunei became a British protected state and it was the only Malay state that chose to remain so in 1963, only gaining independence in 1984. The British Army has maintained a Gurkha battalion—currently about 2,000 personnel—in Brunei since 1962, and as we know, Brunei is a member of the Commonwealth. Commonwealth Secretary-General Baroness Patricia Scotland stated recently that the new laws

“will potentially bring into effect cruel and inhuman punishments which contravene international human rights law and standards”.

The Government have stated that they have a good relationship with Brunei, which allows them to have “frank conversations”—a term often used in circumstances such as this—but has not called for Brunei to be suspended from the Commonwealth. The Government have said that

“threatening to kick countries out of the Commonwealth” is not the “best way” to encourage Brunei to uphold its human rights obligations. I ask the Minister: why not? The scale and brutality of this attack on universal human rights by a friend and close ally of this country should not be without consequence. What action do the Government intend to take to persuade the Sultan of Brunei to rescind these laws, which are an attack on those who only wish to express their love for another human being? What can the Government do to ensure that half the population of that country, its women, do not have to put up with further suffering under the law simply because of their gender—especially those women who are trying to escape violent marriages?

Human rights are universal; Labour Members and, I am sure, every Member of the House of Commons and House of Lords believes that human rights are indivisible. We must ensure that, as a nation with an important and influential place in the world, we uphold those rights wherever they are challenged in today’s world. I hope the Minister can answer some of these questions.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State 5:17 pm, 10th April 2019

It is a pleasure to be here. I congratulate Thangam Debbonaire on securing this important debate. She is always a passionate advocate for equal rights, and I pay tribute to her commitment on the issue. I am also grateful for the widespread interest and the insights of other hon. Members.

To begin, I think it is worth reiterating what I said in my statement only six days ago. The Government

“oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and in all forms, and we do not believe that amputation or stoning are legitimate or acceptable punishments. Indeed, we consider them to be illegal under international human rights laws relating to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.”

We also

“consider it appalling that, in the 21st century, people anywhere are still facing potential persecution and discrimination because of who they are and whom they love.”—[Official Report, 4 April 2019;
Vol. 657, c. 1274.]

As a number of hon. Members have pointed out, human rights are universal and should apply equally to everyone.

LGBT people are not asking for special rights; they simply expect to be accorded the same dignity, respect and rights as all other citizens. That is why the UK strongly supports, defends and champions the rights of LGBT people here in the UK and all around the world, and opposes the criminalisation of homosexual relationships worldwide, whether in Brunei or elsewhere. As has been pointed out, there are still some 70 countries worldwide that discriminate against any person based on their sexuality, and we continue to encourage all those countries to repeal their laws. There has been some progress since 2015, with five countries decriminalising homosexual relationships, but we all accept that there is more still to do.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because I want to try to answer as many of the points as I can.

The introduction of the sharia penal code and hudud punishments in Brunei will have an even more discriminatory and intimidating impact on those who are LGBT there. That is something that we cannot accept and that we believe is in contravention of Brunei’s international commitments to respect human rights and individual freedoms. We have expressed our concerns to the Government of Brunei. I personally raised the matter when I was there last summer, because we saw this car crash coming. To be fair, as my hon. Friend Richard Graham and others have pointed out, the pure weight of international opinion that has come out over the past week has surprised many within Brunei, and particularly within the court of the Sultan.

The day after the measures came into force on 3 April, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary called Brunei’s Foreign Minister, Dato Erywan, to reiterate our very deep concern. The Foreign Secretary, our high commissioner, Richard Lindsay, and I have heard explanations, first, that common law will continue to be the primary means of administering justice and, secondly, that the burden of proof under the sharia penal code is almost unattainably high—although I take on board the comments by the hon. Member for Bristol West about confessions.

Although those explanations provide a very small degree of reassurance, none of us, of course, accepts that they go anything like far enough. The fact remains that homosexual relationships will be illegal in Brunei, whether under common law or under the sharia penal code. We remain clear that homosexuality should not be illegal anywhere in the world, and that any form of punishment—particularly the abhorrent hudud punishments—is unacceptable.

The UK will remain committed to the principle of non-discrimination on any grounds, including sexual orientation, gender and identity. We are a party to the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and a signatory to the UN convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. To answer the hon. Lady, I understand that Brunei plans to expedite its ratification of UNCAT. That is welcome, but what has happened with this code is, of course, directly in opposition to it. I will come to that towards the end of my speech.

As has rightly been said, these are universal issues, but it is worth pointing out the position of British nationals, who are obviously impacted to a large extent. As I assured the House last week, we have taken positive action to inform and support British nationals in Brunei, whether they are visitors, residents or among the garrison. We have updated our travel advice to ensure that British nationals are aware of both the introduction of the sharia penal code and all its potential, albeit unlikely, implications.

On military personnel, I will obviously ensure that this speech is passed on to the Defence Secretary.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, as I always do.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is, as always, very courteous. He will know that British Forces Brunei was agreed on the premise that Brunei was seen as a moderate front against extremist ideology. Is that still the case?

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

Yes, it is, obviously, in counter-terrorism and other areas. The most disappointing thing for me and, I know, for my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester, who is also a regular in Brunei, is the contrast between what we see on the ground—a peaceful, peace-loving people and a state that runs in a very patrician way, as we might imagine given that only 350,000 people live there—and the idea of hudud punishments and the enactment of a sharia penal code. Those things seem entirely at odds with each other, but we are working with Brunei on the grounds the hon. Gentleman points out.

The garrison is the UK’s only permanent military presence in the Asia-Pacific. I should point out that a vast amount of the expense of the garrison is met by the Sultan of Brunei, who has always been eternally grateful for our intervention in Borneo in 1962. The garrison provides unique influence and insight—not just for us but for Brunei—in a region of growing strategic importance, and enables vital training for UK forces, supporting our deployments and allies. We have ensured that the necessary protections are in place for personnel based in Brunei, but we would look for that to apply more generally.

A number of hon. Members and others outside this place have asked whether the Commonwealth should take action and whether there should be economic or trade boycotts. The FCO’s approach to both is the same: we believe that our concerns are best addressed not through blacklisting or boycotts but through persistent dialogue, as Fabian Hamilton will recognise, and through diplomacy.

Brunei is one of several Commonwealth member states that criminalise homosexual relationships and retain corporal or capital punishments. We will continue relentlessly to try to encourage each of those countries to amend and suspend those forms of punishment. There has been progress, but I accept that many would like to see much quicker progress. In many ways, what is disappointing about this issue in Brunei is that the implementation of such a code is a backward rather than a forward step.

My noble Friend the Minister for the Commonwealth has spoken in detail about this issue to the secretary-general of the Commonwealth, who I understand is presently in contact with the Government of Brunei, expressing the deep concerns raised by the international community over the past 10 days. We stand ready to support any Commonwealth member wanting to reform legislation that discriminates against the LGBT community, women and other parts of society. Significant work is ongoing in a number of states where we hope that there will be progress.

The hon. Member for Bristol West asked me to do my homework from six days ago in relation to article 3 of UNCAT. Under UK law, extradition cannot take place where the death penalty is a possibility, unless a satisfactory assurance has been received that the death penalty will not be imposed or carried out.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Minister of State

No, I really am running out of time.

The UK Government remain committed to delivering an asylum system that is sensitive and responsive to all forms of persecution, including those based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and that supports claimants in providing all information relevant to their claim in order to facilitate fair and sustainable asylum decisions. We ensure that claimants are given every opportunity to disclose information relevant to their claim before a decision is taken, including where that information may be sensitive or difficult to disclose. Those who need international protection should always, of course, claim asylum in the first safe country that they reach.

The introduction of extreme hudud punishments in Brunei has understandably caused genuine concern, alarm and consternation in this country and elsewhere. It has also caused concern and uncertainty in Brunei, particularly among residents who are from the UK or are other non-Bruneian nationals. We are a friend of Brunei—I am proud to say that even at this time. Many Members will understand that it is easy to criticise Ministers for talking in such terms, but we have to work closely with our friends. We have expressed, and should continue to express, deep concerns candidly and openly.

We remain deeply troubled by the potential impact of the sharia penal code. Therefore, the Government, our high commissioner and I will continue to guide, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said, the Government of Brunei to take all necessary steps to reassure its own people, the United Kingdom and the wider international community that it is fully committed to allowing all citizens and residents to live with dignity and free from discrimination or persecution.

The Foreign Secretary and I will reiterate that point when we meet the Bruneian Foreign and Finance Ministers, who are in London tomorrow. We will emphasise that this issue will not just blow over, and we will stress our ongoing concerns and the need for Brunei to provide public assurances. I shall also pass on the very heartfelt views that we have expressed in the House today.

I thank you, Mr Hollobone, for your indulgence in allowing me these additional few seconds.

Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 5:27 pm, 10th April 2019

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate verbally or by being present in support. I also thank the Front-Bench spokespeople and the Minister, who responded to some of my points, for which I am grateful, although he should expect a strongly worded letter from me. I would like to know more about what happens when he and his colleague meet ministerial colleagues from Brunei tomorrow. I will also write to him with a list of everything that was raised in the debate to ask if he could respond, because I understand that that is not always possible in so short a debate.

The Minister mentioned friendship. If a friend of mine suddenly decided that it was okay to torture gay people, I would have to talk to them about the nature of friendship, whether they valued my friendship and what price that friendship had for them. I would like the Minister to take that sentiment away. I understand friendship, but we have to be more than just a critical friend who expresses concern; we need to move beyond expressions of concern and outrage to actual action. I want him to understand the strong feeling in the Chamber and beyond the House, and that I speak for an awful lot of people when I say that we do not just want expressions of concern or warm words, welcome though they may be. We want action.

I urge the Minister to take that metaphor of friendship away with him and to think about what he would do if a friend of his was threatening to stone gay people. He would want to know that his friendship mattered more, and he would want to use that friendship as a position of influence. I thank all hon. Members for participating.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered LGBT rights in Brunei.

Sitting adjourned.