Nick speaks in Commons debate on International Day Against Homophobia
On Thursday 17 May, Nick spoke in an important Commons debate (which he helped to secure) on LGBT rights on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.
Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) on securing this debate. I was pleased to support him in my capacity as chair of the all-party group on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, which now has more han 80 members from this House and the other place. It is timely that on International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia we are here talking about the importance of promoting LGBT rights.
We last had this debate—initiated again through the Backbench Business Committee, which I thank for allowing this one—on 26 October. I spoke then about the fact that we were living in two worlds: great progress was being made on LGBT rights in some countries, while in others we were, at best, standing still and, at worst, going backwards. It is important to understand the reason for that. In that debate, I pointed out that, in a short period—16 years—25 countries had passed same-sex marriage legislation. Since then, Australia has become the 26th, following—significantly—a referendum in which a large majority supported the legislation. In so many countries, then, there has been progress on same-sex marriage, yet in others there has been reversal. In Bermuda, where same-sex marriage was introduced under the auspices of its Supreme Court, it has now been reversed by democratic decision and populism in Bermuda. That is a warning to this place not to be complacent about LGBT rights or—for that matter—human rights; we must constantly guard against their reversal.
At the time, I raised the situation in Russia and urged the Government to press the Russian authorities to say what had happened to their investigation into the treatment of gay men in Chechnya, where there had been appalling brutality, torture, arbitrary detention and even killings. What has happened? Recently, the Russian Government flatly denied that their investigation had produced any results—they simply denied that what happened in Chechnya took place. There is a need, therefore, for scrutiny and continuing pressure on those countries to expose what is happening, and we have to be ready to raise these issues at the diplomatic level.
I have heard at first hand testimony about Chechnya from activists here in this Parliament. Does the right hon. Gentleman also agree, however, that we need to look at the situation in Northern Ireland? It is obviously not comparable to Chechnya, but does he welcome the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom?
Yes, I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am just coming to that point.
Still on the global front, there are other countries where the situation is going backwards. Under state auspices in Indonesia, there are calls for criminalisation and for cures for homosexuality, and raids on private spaces. This is all making public health outreach more difficult, which is interfering with HIV/AIDS programmes. That is of great concern to those campaigning for the relief of HIV infections. In fact, the infection rate in Indonesia has increased fivefold over the past decade. The authorities and parliamentarians in Jakarta are now considering a Bill to criminalise same-sex conduct. I could go on with my list. I could talk about what is happening in China or in Zambia. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt), should he be called to speak, will talk about what has been happening in Lebanon.
Let us try to look on the bright side. The Government should be commended for the stance that they have taken on these issues. Only recently, the Prime Minister took a very strong stance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. We still have a situation whereby too many Commonwealth countries—the majority—criminalise homosexual conduct, therefore covering a majority of the population of Commonwealth citizens. The apology that the Prime Minister offered, as well as the willingness to work towards decriminalisation, made a powerful statement.
The Government can do so much. They need to be cognisant of the importance of maintaining pressure. I therefore welcome what the Foreign Secretary said today, when he tweeted:
“Standing up for human rights, including LGBT rights, is an integral part of @foreignoffice work. Societies where people live freely attract world-class talent, business investment & are more stable and prosperous.”
I welcome the work of the Foreign Office in supporting LGBT groups through our diplomatic missions, and through our embassies and high commissions on the ground. Many of our ambassadors and high commissioners do strong work in this area. We need to see more consistency, with more embassies and high commissions offering the support that the best do. That is the message that we should carry to the Foreign Office.
The Government need to be aware that there are domestic issues still to resolve in this country. This is not all about what other countries should do. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) mentioned Northern Ireland. It is almost certainly the will of this House that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Northern Ireland) (No.2) Bill passes, and it should be allowed to do so. I understand that it is not the Government who are standing in its way. Hate crime is still a problem in this country, indeed it is increasing, and there are still issues for LGBT asylum seekers. Above all, there are issues for trans people; the consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004 should proceed. These are important issues. We have made enormous progress in this country, but there is still work to do.