Nick introduces Commons debate marking International Day Against Homophobia

You can read the full debate in Hansard here.

Nick Herbert

I beg to move, that this House has considered the International day against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate at such an appropriate time, given that the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia is tomorrow, and was also marked by the House last year.

In previous debates, including last year, I spoke about how LGBT+ rights are now a tale of two worlds. A year on, it is worth recapping where the world has gone forward, and also where it has gone backwards. Seventy countries still criminalise homosexuality, or at least sexual acts between men, and 45 of those also criminalise sexual acts between women. Only 42 states actively protect against hate crimes based on sexual orientation, and 11 countries still carry the death penalty as a maximum punishment for LGBT conduct. Only three countries in the world—Brazil, Ecuador and Malta—have nationwide bans on conversion therapy, and we have seen alarming reverses of LGBT rights in countries such as Armenia, Brunei, Chechnya, Tanzania, and Turkey. I will come on to those issues shortly. First, however, I think it is worth acknowledging that in other countries things have been moving in the right direction.

In September last year in India, section 377 of the penal code, which prohibited same-sex intimacy as against the order of nature—doubtless a legacy of the UK’s laws—was struck down by the Supreme Court of India after a case was brought by a coalition of civil society groups. Homosexuality is now effectively decriminalised in this major country, although it is also true that there are no legal protections against discrimination. This is a momentous decision, because the Indian penal code was used as a template in other former colonies. There is a huge role for the UK to play in supporting legal cases against those colonial laws for which we have an historic responsibility elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

Chris Elmore

I am exceedingly grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this truly important debate. He mentions the Commonwealth. We are currently chairing the Commonwealth and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting was held here last year. It will be held in Kigali in Rwanda in 18 months’ time. I know it was on the agenda last time, but does he agree with me that it is extremely important that the Foreign Office—I know the Minister cares deeply about this issue—keeps challenging Commonwealth countries on the discrimination of LGBT communities in their own countries? We must preach and change our own laws of course, but it is right that we use our soft power to influence Commonwealth countries around the world.

Nick Herbert

I agree with every word the hon. Gentleman says. The UK can play an important role in that respect. The Prime Minister said the right things at CHOGM last year, but we must follow through with funding. The Minister will no doubt tell us about that and he supports action in this area. We must continue to encourage the Government to pursue this issue.

In Angola, a new penal code was adopted in January this year to replace the Portuguese legacy colonial penal code. It removed a “vices against nature” law that criminalised same-sex activity. New legislation adopts broad new legal protections, banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and employment, and offering services to LGBT people.

In March this year, the Kenyan Court of Appeal ruled that an LGBT non-governmental organisation could be registered, on the grounds that registration was constitutional and that forbidding its registration was unconstitutional because it contravened the freedom of association or assembly. That is a very important advance in a Commonwealth country. Similarly, a court ruling on decriminalisation is anticipated in Botswana next month.

In Trinidad and Tobago, the High Court ruled last month that the criminalisation of “buggery” was unconstitutional, as it contravened the law protecting human rights to privacy and expression. That could provide an important precedent for other Caribbean countries which share similar colonial laws.

In February this year, the Taiwanese Government introduced draft legislation to promote equal marriage. That followed the ruling by the constitutional court in 2017 that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. It gave that Government two years to introduce legislation. A referendum rejected amending the civil code, but significantly the Government have gone ahead and introduced a new law anyway. It will be the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage.

Chile, Portugal, Luxembourg, Pakistan and Uruguay have all made it easier for trans people to change their legal gender. Across the piece, these are encouraging advances but they make the reverses elsewhere seem even more stark.

Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and I congratulate him on securing this very important debate. As we celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia and show proudly that we stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, does he agree with me that it is horrifying and deplorable that hate crime against the community here in the UK has been on the rise? Between 2016 and 2018, police-recorded hate crime based on sexual orientation and gender equality increased by 27% and 32% respectively.

Nick Herbert

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the rise in hate crime in this country. While the UK does so much to promote LGBT+ rights abroad, we must remember that there is work still to do in our own country. I will come to that.

I want to talk about the reverses in LGBT+ rights seen elsewhere in the world, some of which are really serious. In Tanzania in November last year, LGBT activists were forced into hiding in Dar es Salaam after officials announced a taskforce to identify and punish gay people. In the same month, there were police arrests at a same-sex ceremony in Zanzibar. The national Government in Tanzania has refused to intervene in worrying provincial crackdowns, following a ban on NGOs that had been distributing contraception and outreach to control the spread of HIV/AIDS.

There have been other crackdowns on private events, meetings and roundtables convened to ensure HIV advocacy. That development, seen in Tanzania, in other African countries and in Asian countries, is worrying because it interferes with the important global public health agenda to tackle HIV/AIDS. If some of our most discriminated-against and marginalised groups are oppressed in that way, we will make it harder to ensure that they have access to treatment. The concern is not just about human rights, important though that is. It is also about effective global healthcare programmes. That gives us a second and important reason to be concerned about the discriminatory policies and practices in these countries.

Notoriously, earlier this year Brunei announced that it would apply sharia law, which would impose the death sentence for homosexual conduct between men. There was an outcry, with action by civil society and business boycotts. It was discussed in this House, and I know the Government took action at a diplomatic level to persuade the Sultan of Brunei that enforcement of this sharia law was completely inappropriate for a modern country. It is therefore good that the Sultan announced that the death penalty moratorium will be extended for these offences, but it is important to say that that is not good enough. The status quo ante is restored for that specific offence, but that still leaves in place sharia law for other offences. Frankly, we should not welcome that as an advance when all that happened was, following an international outcry, the leadership in Brunei, buckling under pressure, were required to reverse a terrible announcement.

While that sharia law remains in place, despite what the Government have said about signing up to conventions on torture, it remains a huge concern that we see, in this country and others, increasing pressure on LGBT+ people with religion used as a pretext. We must stand up for the universality of human rights and say it is wrong to have such offences, which should not be on any kind of statute book. They certainly should not be enforced.

In Armenia, incredibly, Members of Parliament called for a trans activist to be burned alive after she addressed their Parliament’s human rights committee last month. In Turkey, Istanbul pride was cancelled and last week in Ankara 75 LGBT+ activists were arrested and are currently awaiting release.

In the debate last year, Members raised the brutal treatment of gay men in Chechnya. We expressed concern about the fact that the Russian Government had not done enough to crack down on that terrible treatment of gay people. There was meant to be an independent inquiry and there was meant to be a report, but nothing effective has happened.

Worse still, since our debate there has been a further crackdown. There have been reports that at least 40 people in Chechnya, presumed to be LGBT+, were detained in concentration camps and tortured, and that there were at least two deaths. Human Rights Watch has reported that it interviewed four men who were detained for between three and 20 days between December 2018 and February this year at the Grozny Internal Affairs Department compound. Police officials there kicked them with booted feet, beat them with sticks and polypropylene pipes, and tortured three of the four with electric shocks. One man was raped with a stick. There have even been murders of gay men by the authorities in Chechnya.

What have the Russian Government done to condemn that, and to assure the global community that such activities will not be permitted in future in the state for which they have responsibility? Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory to the European convention on human rights. It is absolutely intolerable that it should permit such brutal treatment of any section of the community—any minority—in a state for which it has responsibility. The message must go from this House to the Russian Government, loud and clear, that we will not accept these egregious breaches of human rights, that we and the global community will hold the Russian Government to account, and that we will not stop raising this issue until they do something about it.

Mr Dhesi

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. Excellent organisations such as Stonewall have highlighted what has been going on in Chechnya—just as he has done—for three years. Does he agree that, while it is good that our Government are condemning it, they must continue to put pressure on the Russian authorities in calling for an immediate end to these atrocities, and also join in the demand for an independent investigation?

Nick Herbert

Yes, I do agree. There needs to be an independent investigation of these terrible atrocities.

I will end my speech shortly because I know that many other Members on both sides of the House wish to speak.

Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con)

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Nick Herbert

I will make a fraction more progress, if my hon. Friend will allow me.

Let me raise two further key issues. The first relates to how we respond. I shall leave it to the Minister to set out the many ways in which the Government have used their resources of soft power and, indeed, funding to ensure that groups around the world can promote LGBT+ rights. We must commend them for that, but we must ensure that the funding is sustained. Few countries in the world are in a stronger position than the United Kingdom, because of our own record on human rights, because of what we have achieved in our own country, and because of the soft power that we are able to exercise globally and in organisations such as the Commonwealth, to promote LGBT+ rights on the world stage. I congratulate the Government on taking many initiatives in this respect, but those initiatives must be sustained.

The Government will shortly assume the co-chairmanship of the Equal Rights Coalition, a nascent intergovernmental organisation to promote LGBT+ rights, along with the Argentine Government. I urge the Minister and his ministerial colleagues in other Departments—including the Defence Secretary, who is responsible for equalities, the Foreign Secretary, and the new Secretary of State for International Development—to note the importance of that chairmanship and of the conference that we will hold next year, and to ensure that sufficient resources are committed to what will be a very important period. It is an opportunity for the UK to lead in this area, but that initiative requires greater co-ordination, greater organisation and dedicated resources.

Mark Menzies

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his work in leading today’s debate and for shining a spotlight on many other occasions on corners of the world where LGBT people have been facing genuine hardship. May we, and in particular the Minister, use this opportunity to urge on countries that have been quite progressive on this but where we have seen some slippage—I reflect particularly on Cuba, where organisations such as Cenesex, which was led by Mariela Castro, drove LGBT rights but where only last weekend the LGBT march in Havana was outlawed and disrupted and people face arrest, and on Paraguay and Brazil, where we are hearing similar mood music, with LGBT rights slipping back? It is important that we support our friends to do the right thing.

Nick Herbert

I agree.

Sandy Martin (Ipswich) (Lab)

The right hon. Gentleman is talking about this country showing leadership. Last year the World Health Organisation removed the classification of gender dysphoria as a mental illness, which was an important step forward and no doubt happened in part thanks to pressure from the UK. But the application process for gender recognition certificates in this country is still largely based on the conception that gender dysphoria is an illness. I have written to the Minister for Women and Equalities, who I believe also happens at present to be Foreign Secretary—

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)

Defence Secretary.

Sandy Martin

Defence Secretary. I apologise; I lose track of who is who—as I am sure Ministers do as well. Will we see movement on this to ensure that we really are doing the right thing here, as well as following WHO rules?

Nick Herbert

Through the hon. Gentleman’s intervention he has made his point to the Government and I am sure the Government will reply. But the broader point is right: in order to lead on the world stage we must ensure that our domestic agenda is fully complete. There are still outstanding issues in relation to trans equality, to ensuring education is genuinely LGBT-inclusive and to asylum for LGBT+ people. There are intersex issues where a response to a consultation is awaited. Most obviously there is still Northern Ireland’s failure to introduce equal marriage despite strong public support for that in Northern Ireland. All those things need completing as well.

None of this is for Governments alone, although the UK Government’s role is vital: it is also for business, civil society and NGOs to play their part. I congratulate all the NGOs that are engaged in promoting LGBT rights both in the UK and globally on their work. The all-party group on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, which I have the honour to chair, will continue to work with them.

We have a common objective. It was very well expressed by the Prime Minister in her foreword to the “LGBT Action Plan” that the UK Government published last year. She said she wanted to make the UK

“a country where no one feels the need to hide who they are or who they love”.

That should be our ambition for the world as well.

Minister’s response:

The Minister for Europe and the Americas (Sir Alan Duncan)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) for securing this debate and I pay tribute to his work on the APPG on global LGBT rights. I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate. It is important for the world to hear the British Parliament speak out against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia and in support of this year’s theme, “Justice and protection for all”.

It is important not to forget that, behind the labels that trip off the tongue so easily, we are talking about real people and those who are often subject to discrimination, abuse and, sadly, in so many countries across the world, much worse. I am very proud, so many years on from the event, to be speaking here as the first openly gay Conservative MP and the shadow Minister who helped to steer through the Civil Partnership Bill for the Conservative party.

This country has a very proud record of promoting equality for those who define themselves as LGBT. Indeed, we are recognised as one of the top 10 most progressive countries in Europe for such rights. We have one of the strongest legislative frameworks in the world to prevent and tackle discrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender reassignment.

We have heard powerful and moving speeches today but, as always, we recognise that there is more to do. In July last year, we launched the LGBT action plan, which set out 75 commitments and is supported by a £4.5 million fund to improve the lives of LGBT people in healthcare, education, the workplace and elsewhere. In the health sector, our £1 million LGBT health grant fund will back innovative proposals to tackle LGBT-related health inequality. Our new national LGBT health adviser, Dr Michael Brady, is working to improve LGBT people’s experiences throughout the healthcare sector.

We are also exploring options, including through existing legislation, to deliver on our commitment to end the abhorrent and prehistoric conversion therapy practices that some people disgustingly advocate. Such practices have no place in 21st-century Britain. Someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is not something to be cured; it is something we should all celebrate.

In schools and universities, we are supporting LGBT work by students and teachers to improve tolerance and diversity in leadership, and we have made a further £1 million available to expand and extend an existing project to fight homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in schools—a phenomenon we should all condemn and that is totally unacceptable. In the workplace, we have launched a new £600,000 scheme to help to develop skills and capacity in the LGBT sector and we are working with the police to improve the response to LGBT hate crime incidents.

Ms Angela Eagle

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there is a real problem of homophobic bullying in the workplace and that often those best placed to deal with it are the trade unions? Will he say something about how his Government could assist trade unions in fighting the kind of discrimination that LGBT people face in the workplace every day?

Sir Alan Duncan

It is the duty of all people, be they managers or colleagues in the workplace, to stand up for anyone who may be discriminated against, and if a collective organisation of any sort in a company can assist an individual, I would wish it to be supported. We have nothing against trade unions doing things on that agenda in the workplace—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady gestures, but we would support any trade union endeavours to help to win the battle against discrimination and to protect individuals from bullying and inappropriate behaviour. I am proud that the UK Government are taking action in all those areas, as that shows our recognition of the extent to which the lives of LGBT people can still be improved, in order for them to be accorded the same dignity, respect and rights as all other citizens.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) referred to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, as did the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), who made an excellent, powerful and very personal speech. Last year we held a public consultation on the reform of that Act, which allows transgender people legally to change their gender. We are analysing more than 100,000 responses and we will publish the outcome later this year. A lot of those responses were extraordinarily personal and contained individual stories and experiences which, if we are to take the consultation seriously, we must understand and properly digest. It would be wrong to say, “We’ve had the consultation and here is what we will do”, because we must use that body of work powerfully to inform the provisions that we need to convert into public policy. That will be followed by a call for evidence on non-binary gender identity that will inform policy in that field in due course.

More broadly, and crucially for the delivery of our action plan, we have created an LGBT advisory panel, with experts from the LGBT sector, academia and the legal world, to ensure that we can engage with the latest research and hear from people working directly with those affected by these issues. As in so many areas of policy, change cannot be affected by Government alone. These partnerships with civil society are absolutely vital.

Wes Streeting

Will the Minister give way on that point?

Sir Alan Duncan

I am going to run out of time, so if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me I want to move on to the international dimension, which is more my field as a Foreign Office Minister and which I do not want to neglect in my response to the House.

In terms of our international approach, hon. Members will be aware that promoting and defending human rights is an integral part of our foreign policy. That includes speaking up for gender equality and LGBT rights and seeking an end to discrimination wherever it occurs, as I did this year following yet more disturbing reports of persecution in Chechnya. We are clear that every country must fulfil its international human rights obligations. LGBT rights are not special or additional rights. They are not optional rights. They are human rights. They are the very same rights and fundamental freedoms that are enshrined in the UN charter and the universal declaration of human rights and which should be enjoyed by everyone. We are talking about the rights of families, friends, colleagues and neighbours. These are rights for all ages, all races and all faiths. We must be resolute in our campaigning and stand firm by our values. We cannot stand by and allow atrocities to happen.

In such cases, it is often our quiet diplomacy that reaps the most rewards. Where that does not work, we have no qualms about making our case in public. When Brunei implemented the Sharia penal code, we addressed our concerns in both public and private, particularly about the potential impact on LGBT people. Consequently, we warmly welcome the assurances provided by His Majesty the Sultan on 5 May. I hope that those who have been leading bans and boycotts of Brunei-owed equities fairly acknowledge those improvements and changes. We will continue to encourage Brunei to take further steps to protect LGBT people from all forms of discrimination.

We welcome the fact that India and Trinidad and Tobago decriminalised same-sex relations last year but, as we heard earlier today, it still remains a criminal offence in 70 countries, half of which are members of the Commonwealth. That statistic alone is a matter of great concern and regret. That is why it was vital to address the issue at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last year. I am delighted to report that it was the most progressive ever on LGBT rights.

I am going to skip over some things that I would like to say, as I am running out of time, but I want to refer quickly to the Equal Rights Coalition, which was mentioned earlier. I am delighted to announce that next month we will take on the co-chairmanship of the Equal Rights Coalition. It is a group of 40 countries that work together and share expertise to advance equality. It aims to co-ordinate international efforts to tackle violence and discrimination against LGBT people. It is a great pleasure that our partner will be Argentina. We have already worked closely and successfully with Argentina on a number of important issues and I look forward to this being another area of close collaboration. I hope that together we can re-energise the coalition.

I am confident that I speak for the whole House when I say that everyone, no matter where they live, should have the right to be who they are and to love whoever they love without judgment or fear. I hope this debate today will have made sure that the voice of this Parliament can be heard widely and that we can keep pressure on those whose ways need to be amended for the better.

Nick Herbert

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response and for saying that the Government’s intention is to re-energise the Equal Rights Coalition. This is a really important moment for the UK Government to show continuing leadership in this area.

I thank all my right hon. and hon. Friends and Opposition Members for their contributions. I think we show the House of Commons at its best when we are able to debate these issues on an entirely bipartisan, cross-party basis, and demonstrate that our concern to promote equality is universal in this House of Commons and that we are not divided on the issue. In many speeches, we have recognised that there is still work to do.

A couple of issues raised related to the influence of religion on LGBT+ people. Next week, the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights will announce and call for evidence on a major new inquiry on the relationship between religion and LGBT rights. I think that we have to start to look at that relationship as an important driver of some of the concerns expressed today.