26 January 2024
International Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill

Andrew Mitchell, Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office responds to the Second Reading debate of the International Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill.

The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Mr Andrew Mitchell)

I start by thanking the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for introducing the International Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill.

I also take this moment to express my gratitude to my hon. Friend for her tireless devotion to promoting and protecting FORB for everybody. My thanks also go to her deputy, David Burrowes, for his commitment to this important work.

Freedom of religion or belief remains a human rights priority for the British Government. The work of the special envoy, especially through the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, and the efforts across the Foreign Office network are making a difference around the world. The Bill seeks further to cement Britain’s commitment to FORB by making statutory the role of the special envoy. The Bill states:

“The duties of the Special Envoy are to work to promote and protect international freedom of religion or belief…; raise awareness of cases of concern…and advocate for the rights of people…who are discriminated against or persecuted for their faith or belief; work with representatives of other governments, including other Special Envoys, to promote freedom of religion or belief around the world.”

That has very much been the sense of the excellent speeches we have heard today.

The Bill covers the reporting requirements for the special envoy and how the terms and conditions of the role should be determined. Additionally, the Bill will establish an office of the special envoy:

“The principal duty of the Office is to support the work of the Special Envoy.

In establishing the Office, the Prime Minister must provide the Special Envoy with such staff, and such accommodation, equipment and other facilities, as the Prime Minister considers necessary for the carrying out of the Special Envoy’s functions.”

The Government’s commitment to the role of special envoy is clear. Indeed, we have had three special envoys to date. I make it clear that the Bill does not establish a precedent for other similar roles. Uniquely, legislating for this post follows an independent report recommendation and a most important manifesto commitment. Today the Government deliver on that commitment, which is especially important given the internationally recognised leadership that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has provided.

The Bill underlines our commitment to FORB, and, importantly, supports the implementation of recommendation 6 of the Bishop of Truro’s 2019 review of the FCDO’s work on FORB, which recommended that the role of special envoy for FORB be established “permanently, and in perpetuity”. Implementation of the bishop’s recommendations was, as I have said, a manifesto commitment, and we thank him very much for his work. As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), there will be opportunities during the Bill’s passage to consider any possible amendments to improve it, and my officials and I will work with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton in that regard; but the Government will support the Bill today.

The current special envoy’s terms of reference state that she will

“work with the Minister for Human Rights”

—my noble Friend Lord Ahmad—and

“through the Foreign Secretary, to the Prime Minister. The Envoy is asked to report twice yearly to the Prime Minister on progress, in addition to providing ad hoc reports on important issues arising, or following overseas visits as Special Envoy”.

That is in line with what the Bill proposes.

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton on her work and accomplishments as chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, and on having been asked last year to continue her role for a second year. That was the first time such a request had been made in the organisation’s history. Most notable is the expansion of the IRFBA’s membership, with, now, 42 nations coming together to highlight violations and abuses of FORB and advocate for those who are being persecuted. The IRFBA-issued joint statements and campaigns that my hon. Friend has initiated underline the impact that we can have when we speak with one voice. The statements on countering antisemitism and the persecution of Christians were widely supported, with 16 countries supporting the statement of antisemitism and 22 countries supporting the statement on the persecution of Christians. The statements underline the ongoing concerns to the international community, and set out how to address and tackle those issues.

The monthly advocacy that the hon. Friend has initiated of highlighting individual cases of religious prisoners of conscience is another important and valuable piece of work that the IRFBA has initiated under her chairmanship. I was delighted to learn that of the people whose cases she publicly supported in 2022, two were released last year: Hannah Abdimalik, a Christian in Somaliland, and Shamil Khakimov, a Jehovah’s Witness in Tajikistan. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on her efforts on the planning and implementation of a virtual global youth summit last October. It was quite an achievement to bring together 510 participants from 77 countries to fulfil a key priority following the international ministerial conference on FORB, held in London in 2022, which set out the need to inspire a new generation of FORB advocates.

At that conference we brought together more than 800 faith and belief leaders, human rights actors, and 100 Government delegations to agree on action to promote and protect FORB. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad announced new UK funding to support FORB defenders, including those persecuted because of their activism, as well as funding and expertise for countries prepared to make legislative changes to protect FORB. As a result of the conference, 47 Governments, international organisations and other entities made pledges to take action in support of FORB, and since the conference we have built on the momentum in a number of ways.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has also continued to raise awareness of restrictions on the right to FORB across the world. She does that in many ways, including calling debates in the House, as she did yesterday in initiating a Westminster Hall debate on the Open Doors world watch list report. She has also brought civil society experts together with FCDO officials in a series of country-specific roundtables, including, but not limited to, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, Ukraine and Pakistan. Such debates and roundtables are vital to ensuring that these issues can be addressed and resolved. The British high commission in Islamabad, for example, is engaging with senior Government officials and civil society on the need to ensure the safety of the Christian community at this troubling time, and we want to see that work continued in every possible way.

All this demonstrates how committed the Government are to freedom of religion and belief, and how we continue to engage closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton in all the brilliant work that she does. Let me end by reiterating the Government’s support for the role of special envoy for FORB and our support for the Bill, and congratulate my hon. Friend on her commitment and perseverance in bringing forward the Bill.