Global LGBT Rights - Backbench debate

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered global LGBT rights.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate, which was proposed by members of the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, which I have the honour to chair.

This is a tale of two worlds. In one, as we saw in this House, we have seen the near completion of rights for LGBT people, full recognition in law—with some exceptions, of course, throughout the UK—culminating, four years ago, in the passing of same-sex marriage legislation by overwhelming majorities in this House and the other place. In a 16-year period, 25 countries around the world have passed same-sex marriage legislation, while others have passed legislation recognising civil partnerships. Taiwan became the latest to do so this year. We hope that Australia will follow suit soon, if that is the will of the people. It is noticeable that only Japan among the G7 countries does not have recognition of same-sex marriage. All the other G7 countries now do. Italy has recognition of civil unions.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this very important debate. He mentioned Australia—I add my support to those campaigning for same-sex marriage there—which is a key member of the Commonwealth. We will be holding the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in the UK. Indeed, this morning I received a card from the Commonwealth Parliamentarians’ Forum, but I was a bit disappointed not to see the specific mention of LGBT+ rights on the agenda for discussion. Does he agree that the meeting of CHOGM and the Commonwealth Parliamentarians’ Forum provides a great opportunity to raise these issues with our Commonwealth partners? 

Nick Herbert

I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is important not least because of the health and equality issues that are raised, which he will know in his capacity as chair of the all-party group on HIV/AIDS. I will come on to CHOGM shortly.

There is another world, too. I am talking about a world in which 75 countries criminalise same-sex activity between consenting adults. That covers 2.9 billion people. Some 40% of the world’s population live in these jurisdictions, which means that more than 400 million people live under laws that punish same-sex activity, and punish it with the death penalty. Our all-party group was keen to secure this debate now because of the events in a number of countries last month, during the conference recess. What happened was a matter of grave concern.

In Azerbaijan, during the last two weeks of September, organised police raids led to mass arrests of perceived gay and bi men as well as trans women in the capital, Baku. The authorities claim that the arrests were made as part of a crackdown on prostitution, but activists and the victims’ lawyers claim that LGBT people were specifically targeted. While in detention, victims report being subjected to beatings, electric shock torture, forced medical examinations and other degrading treatment and ill-treatment. The majority of the detainees were charged with disobeying police orders, which is an administrative offence, and sentenced to between five and 20 days in custody. The country’s own Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that 83 people were detained in total.

The ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan noted that we were calling this debate and wrote to me this week. Let me quote what he says:

“I can reassure you that this was not a concerted effort to crack down on the LGBT community, but rather a police action to stop solicitation of sexual services in downtown Baku following complaints from local residents. It may be that some within the local police force acted over-zealously and exceeded their mandate. As soon as the appropriate authorities were made aware of this the police operation was stopped and all those detained were released.

I would like to reiterate that the Azerbaijani constitution guarantees all forms of freedom of expression. Same-sex sexual activity for both men and women has been decriminalised in Azerbaijan since September 1st 2000.”

That does not deal properly with the situation. Local groups have reported that, since the initial raids, the authorities continue to intimidate and harass people whom they perceive to be LGBT. It is very important that this House, and I hope the Government, send a very clear message to the Azerbaijani Government that that kind of oppression is unacceptable in the eyes of the global community.

This House heard an urgent question earlier this year about the terrible situation in Chechnya, with arbitrary arrests and the illegal detention and torture of LGBT people. That continues to take place as part of a wider crackdown on human rights, despite the protests that have been made to the Russian authorities.

In Egypt, more than 50 people have been arrested in response to the flying of rainbow flags at a pop concert in Cairo on 22 September. That act alone resulted in arrests. The victims stand accused of debauchery, inciting debauchery, promoting sexual deviance and belonging to a banned group—charges that carry up to 15 years in prison. Many have already been sentenced. Victims report being subject to beatings, sexual harassment and forced anal examinations while in detention.

Although same-sex conduct is not explicitly prohibited in Egypt, the Egyptian Parliament is now debating criminalising homosexuality with a proposed punishment of up to 15 years in prison. What are Her Majesty’s Government saying to the Egyptian authorities and Government about this terrible abuse of gay people for committing what we in this country would regard as no crime at all, but simply the freedom of expression of flying a flag? I was struck by a message sent to me by a young gay man living in Egypt who attended that concert. He said:

“I can hear those consistent steps. Coming closer. Fear. Is it happening? Fear. Are they coming for me?...This has been the most common stream of thoughts during the past weeks in Cairo. The thought of being arrested would not leave my mind ever since the recent escalation of the state in its crackdown on the LGBTQs in Egypt. Fear that has, more or less, accompanied me for a life time as a gay man in Egypt. It is heartbreaking to wake up everyday to a new chapter of fighting for your right to exist, just to be.”

These are not isolated cases. Attacks on freedom of expression and association of LGBT people are widespread in other countries. State action, in turn, licenses discrimination at best, violence at worse and a climate of fear under which LGBT people have to live.

In June 2013, the Russia Duma unanimously adopted, and President Putin signed, a nationwide law banning the distribution of propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations—often the excuse for measures that discriminate against LGBT people. Since the introduction of that Russian law, 14 countries have considered similar legislation in eastern Europe, central Asia and Africa.

Nigeria’s Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act 2013 criminalises the formation, operation and support of gay clubs, societies and organisations, with sentences of up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Uganda’s Parliament passed a similar act—the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014—which would have prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by individuals and organisations, incurring penalties of up to seven years’ imprisonment. That has now been revoked, but Uganda’s Pride had to be cancelled this year as a consequence of the actions of the state and the police, who were absolutely determined that that expression should not take place.

It is sometimes suggested that the UK may be guilty of some kind of neo-colonialism by seeking to impose our views on countries in the same way as we did in the past. It is true that 40 of the 53 member states of the Commonwealth criminalised same-sex activity using legislation inherited from the British empire. I would argue that our history gives us a special responsibility to atone for the measures that we introduced, and to act. That view is shared by the Prime Minister, who—I am delighted to say—said last week at the PinkNews awards that, on the world stage, the Government are

“standing up for LGBT rights, and challenging at the highest level those governments which allow or inflict discrimination or abuse. The anti-LGBT laws which remain in some Commonwealth countries are a legacy of Britain’s Colonial past, so the UK government has a special responsibility to help change hearts and minds. We will ensure these important issues are discussed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which we are hosting in London next April.”

That is immensely welcome.

Only this week, the Commonwealth Equality Network of activists and non-governmental organisations is meeting in Malta to discuss how to reverse the oppression of gay people in too many Commonwealth countries. The stand that the Prime Minister has taken and the Government will take at CHOGM next year is very important. After all, what many of these countries are doing is in breach of the Commonwealth charter itself. Indeed, outside the Commonwealth, every country has signed up to the United Nations declaration of human rights—rights that guarantee liberty, freedom of expression and freedom from torture and oppression. That is why it is so important that we continue to support campaigns run by United Nations institutions, such as the Free & Equal campaign, as well as other multinational initiatives, such as the Equal Rights Coalition, which was launched last year with UK Government support. It now incorporates 29 Governments, who co-operate and share information, but it needs the continuing and active support of the UK Government.

I would argue that the UK Government, who have done a great deal in this area, can do much more, and I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to a high-level challenge. The all-party parliamentary group produced a report last year and made a number of specific recommendations on what the Government could do. First, they could adopt a cross-departmental strategy to ensure that all parts of the Government are co-ordinated and take the necessary steps, so that they can take a stance and promote the values that we in this country think are important. There are multiple actors—the Department for International Development, the Foreign Office, the Department of Health and the Home Office—and it is important that they are co-ordinated. I welcome the presence here of the Minister for Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb); he is a Minister in a domestic UK Department, but I nevertheless recognise his cross-cutting responsibility for these issues, and that co-ordination is important.

Secondly—this is perhaps one of the most important things of all—there is the funding that can be provided for LGBT activist groups on the ground. These are vulnerable, fragile groups, which are run by very brave activists in countries across sub-Saharan Africa, in Russia and in other countries that we have discussed and will discuss. They need support, and the support they can be given—yes, by private individuals and foundations, but also by the British Government—is immensely important. It is important that those funding streams that can be directed through British high commissions and embassies are maintained.

Thirdly, we should ensure that safe routes are given to people who flee persecution—particularly when they are applying for asylum—in the way that was done in countries such as Canada and other European countries in relation to the LGBT people who were so egregiously persecuted in Chechnya.

Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for bringing this important debate to the House. On the point about funding, does he agree that it is great to see so many corporate organisations supporting the Big Pride celebrations across the UK and globally, but they, too, need to think about how they can direct some of that funding and support to local groups across the UK and the world?

 Nick Herbert

I thank the hon. Lady. I was coming to that point, but she has made it very effectively for me.

I will draw my remarks to a conclusion because others wish to get in. My central point is that we see terrible abuses of LGBT people globally, but change can be effected, and we should not be despondent about that. In Uganda, partly because of the influence of the World Bank, which was considering granting an important loan to the country, the President was prevailed on not to implement the law the Parliament had passed, which would have oppressed gay people. In Belize, a legal challenge has resulted in protection for LGBT people. In Mozambique, legislation has effected the same thing. We can effect change.

The United Kingdom has a really important role. We are still the fifth largest economy in the world. We have a global reach. We have important historic ties across the world, not least through the Commonwealth. We have one of the largest aid budgets in the world and the massive opportunity to exercise soft power and influence. In Cairo, the crackdown on gay people began when they flew the rainbow flag, and the flying of the rainbow flag over our own Parliament and our own Government buildings sends an important signal about an attachment to freedom and a belief in liberty and equality. We should not underestimate the fact that taking such a stance is not trite and not trivial. It matters. It matters in the eyes of the communities and activists who are looking for our support in other countries. People will be watching this debate, and they want to know that this House supports these communities on a cross-party basis and that the British Government supports them. We are talking about thousands of activists and millions of people. Let freedom ring for them!


The Minister for Equalities (Nick Gibb)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on securing this important debate and on a powerful opening speech. As the chair of the all-party group on global LGBT rights, he knows just how important it is that we tackle widespread violence and discrimination against LGBT people around the world. I pay tribute to him for the commitment and energy that he gives to this cause. This has been an excellent debate, with many powerful and moving speeches, including by my hon. Friends the Members for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) and for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) and the hon. Members for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and for Hove (Peter Kyle).

This year we are marking 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. Over the past 50 years, this country has made considerable progress, including by introducing same-sex marriage in 2013, equalising the age of consent and introducing the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The effect of successive Governments’ efforts in recent decades means that the UK has one of the strongest legislative frameworks in the world for LGBT people. Yet we also know that LGBT people still experience discrimination in their day-to-day lives. The Government are committed to eliminating all prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people in this country, wherever its last vestiges remain.

As the hon. Member for Livingston pointed out, achieving that begins at school. It is important that all schools are truly inclusive for LGBT pupils. The Government want to tackle the bullying of LGBT pupils that, sadly, happens all too often. That is why we are currently running a £3 million anti-bullying programme to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. Young people should feel safe and able to be open at school so that they can focus on their studies.

 Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (Lib Dem)

I seek some clarity on the issue of sex education, which the Government are making compulsory. I welcome that, but what does the Minister think should be done on LGBT rights within that, including in faith schools, which take a different approach to the issue?

 Nick Gibb

We will consult on the content of relationships and sex education shortly, but we want to ensure that it is LGBT-inclusive.

We announced in July that the Government also want to consult on reforming the Gender Recognition Act to ensure that we are providing the best possible support for transgender people. We know that many trans people now find the focus on medical checks in the gender recognition process very intrusive and stigmatising. In July, the Government launched a national LGBT survey, to help us to understand the experiences of all LGBT people in the UK. The survey closed earlier this month and the response we received was unprecedented, with well over 100,000 responses. That makes it one of the largest surveys of its kind in the world. The survey will be hugely important in policy development on LGBT issues.

One area of focus for the all-party group was LGBT asylum seekers, an issue also raised by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). We are focusing on building an inclusive society. An important element of that is ensuring that Britain is a safe haven for those who may be experiencing persecution and abuse because they are LGBT. We must ensure that LGBT people seeking to escape extreme discrimination are safe in this country while their claims are processed. In September last year, the Government introduced the “adult at risk” concept into decision making on immigration. This concept acts on the assumption that vulnerable people who may be at risk of particular harm in detention should not be detained. That builds on the existing legal framework already in place. We have worked closely with organisations such as Stonewall, the UK Lesbian & Gay Immigration Group and the UN High Commission for Refugees to develop guidance and training for staff in detention centres. We continue to liaise with these groups to consider what further improvements can be made.

As a world leader on LGBT equality, this country has a moral duty to work to improve the lives of LGBT people living in other countries. It is sadly the case that homosexuality is still illegal in 72 countries and punishable by death in eight. The Government remain committed to working with like-minded countries and with the Equal Rights Coalition, of which the UK is a founding member, to stand up for LGBT rights internationally. At the very highest levels of government, we are challenging those who inflict or allow discrimination against LGBT people. We urge those countries that continue to criminalise same-sex relations to take steps towards decriminalisation, and we urge all countries to ensure that they have legislation that protects LGBT people from all forms of discrimination.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs raised the issue of funding of local LGBT groups internationally. We have committed over £1.6 million from the Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy to projects working to promote and protect LGBT rights. That includes about £350,000 for the UN Free & Equal campaign. Last year, the UK supported the establishment of the UN’s first ever independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, and we vigorously defended his mandate when it was challenged by other states. We truly regret the resignation of the independent expert due to ill health and commend Professor Muntarbhorn for his work. It is vital that a successor be found quickly to continue this important work. We will continue to support that mandate.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) and for Eastleigh (Mims Davies) raised the issue of rainbow flags. We are proud to fly the rainbow flag on our buildings both at home and abroad for key events in the LGBT calendar, such as Pride. We work closely with our heads of mission around the world to ensure that flags are flown. We will continue to do so. I hope the flag will be flown in as many countries as possible.

Hannah Bardell

Will the Minister give way?

 Nick Gibb

I am sorry, but I am running out of time.

Turning to the Commonwealth, it is currently the case that 36 out of 52 Commonwealth countries still criminalise homosexuality. The UK Government have a special duty and responsibility to help change hearts and minds in our fellow Commonwealth countries. Next April, we are hosting the Commonwealth summit in London and Windsor. We will be using this opportunity to make sure that we discuss the important issue of LGBT equality in the Commonwealth.

Many hon. Members raised concerns about particular countries and the tragic difficulties faced by LGBT people in countries around the world. This year, there have been numerous reports regarding the horrific situation in Chechnya for LGBT people. The UK was among the first countries that expressed concern about the persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya. We continue to lobby the Russian Government to investigate properly and to hold perpetrators to account. On 13 April, the Foreign Secretary co-signed a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov calling on the Russian Government to investigate and ensure the safety of journalists and activists investigating those abuses. Officials at our embassy in Moscow have also raised concerns at a senior level with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

We are also concerned about the recent crackdown on LGBT rights in Egypt. The Egyptian Government are well aware of our position on LGBT rights and we have called on the Government of Egypt to uphold and protect the rights of all minorities in the country. We are concerned about reports which suggest that some LGBT people detained in Egypt have been tortured, and we are continuing to monitor human rights there. We also continue to urge the Egyptian Government to implement the human rights provisions in their own constitution, and to investigate all reports of abuse against detainees.

We are also deeply concerned about reports that some members of the LGBT community in Azerbaijan have been arrested and detained by the authorities. We are monitoring the human rights situation in that country closely, and we regularly press its Government to meet their international obligations to protect the rights of all its citizens, including those who are LGBT. Officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have raised those specific reports with the Government of Azerbaijan, and we have received assurances that those who were arrested have now been released.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) expressed his concerns about Tanzania. We are, again, very concerned by the increased anti-homosexual rhetoric and the deteriorating environment for LGBT people there. Our high commission, along with partners and international LGBT organisations in Dar es Salaam, are monitoring the situation closely. As a close friend and partner of Tanzania, we have conversations about this and many other human rights issues with its Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) raised the issue of pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. In December last year, NHS England and Public Health England announced that up to £10 million would be made available for a three-year trial of PrEP to answer outstanding questions about future access and implementation. The trial is intended to establish the most effective way in which to distribute the drug in order to have the greatest possible impact on reducing the spread of HIV.

The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) referred to the action plan on business and human rights. Last year the Government published guidance for businesses to implement the United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights, and that update reaffirms the UK’s commitment to the implementation of those principles.

This has been a hugely important debate. It has sent a united message from this Parliament to all the countries that criminalise being LGBT to take steps towards the decriminalisation of something that is simply a part of an individual’s nature.

Nick Herbert

During the debate, I learnt that 13 lawyers and activists in Tanzania had just been released on bail. They had been arrested last week and charged with the so-called crime of promoting homosexuality, which crime does not exist under Tanzania’s penal code. They were released on bail, and then rearrested. Their so-called crime was simply to challenge the country’s arbitrary ban on HIV care centres. During their detention in Dar es Salaam, the police applied to the courts in Tanzania to carry out forced medical examinations to establish whether or not those individuals were homosexual. Fortunately, the courts denied the application. There could not be a more sobering reminder of what is happening around the world in countries that, as my right hon. Friend the Minister just said, are friends of our own country, are members of the Commonwealth and have signed up to UN and Commonwealth charter commitments.

It is right that across the House, on an entirely non-partisan basis, Members of all parties have spoken out against these terrible abuses of LGBT rights, which are abuses of human rights. We have sent a signal today—and I am grateful that both Her Majesty’s Opposition and the Government have reinforced that signal—that abuses of LGBT rights cannot be tolerated, and that we expect and look to the authorities in the countries concerned to uphold the universal commitments to which every country has signed up.

We should not be fearful of taking a stance on these issues, because activists in those countries are looking to us—their friends and allies—to take such a stance. I am grateful to Members in all parts of the House for doing so today.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered global LGBT rights.

To read the full report of this debate in Hansard, please see here.

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