Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee debates involving the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office during the 2019 Parliament

South Africa

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Tuesday 21st May 2024

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Portrait Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton (Con)
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I will certainly look at my diary for 16 July. However, that might be the week of the EPC so I think we will be extremely busy welcoming about 50 Heads of State and Foreign Ministers to the UK. We work hard at this relationship. Obviously, where it went into reverse in some regards was during the period of President Zuma and the problems of state capture when, quite rightly, Britain sanctioned a series of individuals involved in that episode. President Ramaphosa has been trying to recover from that. That is why I said in my answer to the right reverend Prelate that we should try to help South Africa deal with some of the things that took it backwards under President Zuma.

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, the Foreign Secretary will no doubt have noted with concern the growing relationship between South Africa and Iran. What is his assessment of the potential threat from that axis?

Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Portrait Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton (Con)
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When we look in Iran’s region, it is obvious that it supports Hamas, the Houthis, Hezbollah and a whole series of malign actors that are responsible for terrorist attacks or attacks on navigation for destabilisation. While it is important that we try to have a dialogue with Iran and deliver some very tough messages to it, it is quite clear that its influence in the region is malign, and we make that clear at every opportunity.

Pakistan: UK Aid

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Thursday 25th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, first, I agree with that last sentiment concerning the Minister. From the short time I have been in this House, I know that he spends a lot of time dealing with these issues and has a passion for them, as we do, and I thank him for that. It is of course a huge pleasure and privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and to thank him for bringing this important Question for Short Debate, which concentrates our focus on how UK aid is used to support minorities better in Pakistan. At the outset, it is important to say how much I welcome the increase in overseas development aid. That provides our Government with an opportunity to do more to support minorities in a practical and meaningful way.

Looking at the aid profile for the year 2023-24, it has to be acknowledged that the Government did a lot with the budget they had. Priorities listed include climate vulnerability, gender inclusion and disability inclusion—all very laudable goals. There is much I can speak about this afternoon, but I want to spend the limited time I have looking at the issue of women and girls. There is, no doubt, a lot of work to be done in this area. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referenced the work that the APPG has been doing on the bonded labour issue and he outlined the issues surrounding women and girls on that.

I make the point, as I did in my Question for Short Debate on global Christian persecution, that women and girls from a minority faith, whether it is Christian, Ahmadi Muslim, Hindu or Sikh, face a double marginalisation or a double injustice. That could be through people trafficking, gender-based violence, kidnapping, forced marriage and/or forced conversion. It is still shocking to me that, in our world today, young girls are being groomed, trafficked into sham marriage and then forced into conversion. The international development White Paper commits the UK to develop policies that are inclusive of people marginalised for their religion and belief, and I very much welcome that, but we need to turn this commitment into positive actions.

We know that Pakistan is the third least tolerant country in the world in terms of social acceptance of religious diversity, and that cannot be ignored. In terms of the treatment of women from minority religions, a survey taken by the Punjab Bureau of Statistics on the social and economic well-being of women has shown that they have a higher than average illiteracy, and that has persisted among minority women in the province—64% as opposed to 34%. Minority community members get into a cycle of illiteracy, unemployment, poverty, and early and often forced marriages. This can be broken only by getting good education, academic or technical, for children and especially for girls. It is even more difficult for Christian students to get places to study in higher education, if they are lucky enough to have education at primary level, because the good marks which are needed are often obtained by bribes, and most Christians do not have the financial resources to deal with bribery.

Recently the Punjab Government allocated 2% of seats in universities for minority students—of course, that is to be welcomed—but that is only one province, and the other provinces have no plans to help students from minority communities in this way. There are, of course, good missionary schools and colleges which could offer quality education for minority girls, and UK aid could be used to get education for minority girls in those schools and, in doing so, lift their families out of poverty. It would be great to hear from the Minister whether there are any plans to ring-fence a percentage of aid for minorities in Pakistan and use it for education and practical training for girls. That is in line with the Government’s goals, and indeed the existing minority schools could be utilised for this purpose.

Of course, education works only if the girls are free, and it is estimated that at least 1,000 girls belonging to Christian and Hindu faiths are abducted and forcibly married and converted each year. In some cases, such forced conversions are used as a smokescreen for other serious crimes such as human trafficking, forced prostitution and child abuse. As the mother of a daughter, whose birthday is today, I cannot imagine the pain that this causes to the child and the family of the child —yet it appears that very little help is available.

It would be a very positive sign of global leadership in this area if we could use the UK aid programmes as a tool to spread education among minority girls, so that they are aware of their rights and, importantly, to train police officers and judiciary members on the laws pertaining to this issue and how to treat such cases. The Minister will be aware that the Punjab police have set up Meesaq centres in police stations in areas with a large percentage of Christians, but it is important that these centres are staffed by trained individuals. Likewise, in education it would be important to train teachers in religious tolerance and to promote a positive image of coexistence.

In closing, I commend the tireless work of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the APPG for the Pakistani Minorities. The increase in aid is a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the minority communities in Pakistan and cement the UK’s leadership role in our strong belief and commitment to freedom of religion for all by taking practical steps with the aid budget such as I have laid out in relation to training and education.

India: Freedom of Religion or Belief

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Tuesday 16th April 2024

(3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Portrait Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton (Con)
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The noble Lord makes a very good point about the rumbustious nature of Indian democracy. India should be proud of being the biggest democracy in the world. As with all democracies, there are imperfections—as there are in our own country. We should celebrate the scale of India’s democracy.

The point the noble Lord makes about the BBC is important. My understanding is that India passed a law insisting that digital media companies had to be Indian-owned, and the BBC has had to restructure on that basis. That is not the British way—insisting that all media have to be domestically owned—although I know that some in this place and elsewhere have been tempted by those moves; I have sometimes fantasised about that when reading things that I have read. None the less, that is the reason why the BBC has restructured, together with some disagreements with India.

I will take away and look at the point that the noble Lord then made about the trade deal. My understanding of where we are with the trade deal is that good market access has been offered on both sides, but not quite enough yet to secure a deal. It is important with such trade deals, as you only really get one proper shot at it, to make sure that it is a good enough deal that will be welcomed by industry leaders here in the UK as offering real market access. On the point on media access, I will have to go away and look at that. Personally, I would say that we should open up media access on both sides to make sure we have a good plurality of media.

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, first, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his continuing focus on Christian persecution and his comprehensive Truro report. In that report, it is noted that Foreign Office staff are often not equipped to deal with these terrible issues. A recommendation was made for mandatory training for all FCDO staff on religious diversity and inclusivity. The current training is not mandatory—perhaps the Foreign Secretary could tell us why.

Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton Portrait Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for that question. I shall have to take that one away and look at it. There is a lot of diversity training in the FCDO, and there is a dedicated number of staff for dealing with freedom of religious belief questions, but I shall certainly ask the specific question about whether the training is included in this area.

Christians: Persecution

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Monday 25th March 2024

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Asked by
Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee
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To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to support persecuted Christians around the world.

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I thank all those who have put down their names to speak tonight on this important but unfortunately largely ignored issue of the global persecution of Christians. I also thank the Minister for being here to respond.

My thanks also go to all those who have contacted those listed to speak tonight for the various briefings which have been put together. The truth is that we probably have enough material on this issue to speak for a very long time this evening—the matter is an expansive one—but we are constrained by the time limits set and should endeavour to respect those. In an effort to comply, I will cite specific examples of Christian persecution to point out the trends I wish to cover rather than try and deal with every country on the watch-list; that would be impossible.

Whether through serendipity or divine intervention, I can think of no better time than Holy Week to bring this issue to the attention of the House. The Bible tells us that this was the time when Jesus suffered greatly, both physically and mentally, knowing the death he would face on Good Friday. It therefore seems appropriate to focus on the great suffering that continues for Christians across the world today.

In January, along with many other MPs and Peers, I attended the launch of the 2024 Open Doors World Watch List here in Parliament. The Minister was there as well. Every year, this organisation compiles a report which sets out the 50 countries where it is most dangerous to be a Christian. This year, the research found that more than 365 million Christians suffer high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith—around one in seven Christians worldwide.

For those of us living in the United Kingdom, it can often feel as if our faith is not respected and indeed is often belittled, even though we have an established Church here in England and Wales. As Christians in the UK, we may feel marginalised, but to hear that our brothers and sisters in Christ are persecuted for their faith in the manner that was outlined was frankly shocking. Yet very little of this persecution is spoken about, never mind acted on, and that needs to change.

Back at Christmas in 2018, the then Bishop of Truro, now the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, was asked by the then Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP, to carry out a review into the global persecution of Christians; to map the extent and the nature of the persecution; to assess the quality of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office response; and finally to recommend changes in policy and practice to deal with the issue.

The comprehensive final report, which was published in June 2019, noted that the problem was indeed a global phenomenon. It said that the western response to the problem, however, was no doubt

“tinged by a certain post-Christian bewilderment, if not embarrassment, about matters of faith, and a consequent failure to grasp how for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants faith is not only a primary marker of identity, but also a primary motivation for action (both for good or ill)”.

Religious persecution occurs to a third of the world’s population in some form, with Christians being the most persecuted group, even though freedom of religion and belief is a fundamental human right. To make things worse, global persecution of Christians is underreported and therefore is not highlighted and responded to in an adequate way. The geographical spread of anti-Christian persecution, and its increasing severity, was noted by the Truro report. Indeed, in some regions, the level and nature of the persecution arguably came close to meeting the UN’s international definition of genocide.

The main impact of the persecution, apart from the individual suffering, is the internal displacement and exodus from various parts of the world. As we come to celebrate Easter in the Christian calendar and all the events that took place in Jerusalem in that Holy Week, we should pay more attention and do something about the fact that Christianity now faces being wiped out in parts of the Middle East, where its roots go back the furthest. In the birthplace of Christ, Christian numbers are at 1.5% of the population. Understandably we have heard much about the plight of our Jewish friends in the region, and indeed the plight of all those living in the region, but rarely do we hear about the tiny Christian minority who are struggling to be heard, let alone helped. In Iraq, the population of Christians has plummeted from 1.5 million to now just over 100,000.

Christianity, which has provided much-needed plurality in the region, is disappearing, and apart from the tragedy which that is for those Christian communities, it has a destabilising impact on the Middle East. I wonder if the Minister, who has great expertise and experience in this area, could comment on that aspect in particular when he makes his remarks.

The Truro report said that Government need to give

“priority and specific targeted support”

to Christian communities—this was

“not only necessary but increasingly urgent”.

Given that recommendation, perhaps the Minister could update us on any specific action that has been taken of the back of that report, given that it is nearly five years since its publication.

This issue of stability and security was a theme explored by the Open Doors launch this year. The title of this year’s report was The Cost of Collapse and the Cost of Control, and it indicated that under the cover of state fragility and failure, violence against Christians has intensified in many parts of the world while, elsewhere, autocratic countries increase their control.

By way of example of state fragility, as sub-Saharan Africa becomes more unstable, religiously motivated violence is intensifying. In 18 of the 26 sub-Saharan countries, 4,606 Christians were killed because of their faith during the 2024 reporting period. The growing violence is causing a displacement crisis as more and more Christians are forced to flee their homes. It is of great concern to me that this displacement of Christians is also happening in India. More than 62,000 Indian Christians were forced to flee their homes during the 2024 reporting period—a huge jump from 380 in 2022 and 834 in 2023. I am sure that His Majesty’s Government are very concerned about this and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s observations on this region, about which we both care deeply.

A subsection, if I may describe it as such, of the persecution of Christians is the treatment of Christian women. Put simply, they are more likely to be the victims of discrimination and persecution than their male counterparts. That could be through people trafficking, gender-based violence, kidnapping, forced marriage—the list continues. This double marginalisation of being a woman and a Christian is underreported as women are often invisible in such societies and poorly represented. For example, there is evidence from Pakistan of Christian girls being groomed, trafficked into sham marriages and forced to convert to become Muslims.

I welcome the fact that the international development White Paper commits the UK to development policies that are inclusive of people marginalised for their religion and belief. As I said earlier, freedom of religion and belief is a key human right but it is sadly ignored in many parts of the world, especially in areas of conflict. We have a proud history of promoting religious freedom in the United Kingdom, so we should be doing more to promote it across the world. Freedom of religion is almost a passport to securing other human rights, such as freedom from fear, the right to family life and the right to privacy. If freedom of religion is not protected, other rights will be overlooked and ignored as well. We talk a lot in this House about creating foreign policies to aid stabilisation, conflict resolution and, importantly, reconciliation. Surely, such aspects of our foreign policy must recognise the needs of religious minorities in formulating conflict and stabilisation policies.

I urge the Minister to implement the recommendations of the Truro report that remain outstanding. In particular, I look forward to the Government establishing the role of the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief in statute to add to and underline the excellent work carried out by Fiona Bruce MP. There is also a real and urgent need to include mandatory religious literacy in the training of all FCDO staff. This is particularly important given that, I am sad to say, we cannot take for granted that our civil servants have a working understanding of Christianity any more. In doing so, we need to recognise that there is, according to the Truro report, a reluctance from some diplomats to raise the issue of Christian persecution for fear of upsetting local Administrations. There does not appear to be that reluctance when it comes to other issues that may cause offence locally. Can the Minister comment on how diplomats and staff in the Foreign Office in general can be better equipped to deal with these complex but urgent issues?

I once again thank all noble Lords who will contribute. I hope that the UK can, as recommended in the Truro report, take on the role of a global leader in articulating freedom of religious belief.

Gender Equality

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Wednesday 24th January 2024

(5 months, 3 weeks ago)

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Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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Many of these areas will be taken into such programmes by our drive to achieve the 80% figure by 2030. A child whose mother can read is 50% more likely to live beyond the age of five —that is an extraordinary statistic—and girls living in conflict area states are almost 2.5 times more likely to be out of primary school and 90% more likely to miss secondary schooling, compared to those who live in more stable countries. We have to make sure that we are taking action now that means that future generations in these countries will have more of a chance. We know that that chance will be improved to a massive degree by education.

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, one of the most important ways to ensure that we move to equality internationally is to enable more females to become involved in public life. Will the Minister outline how we in the UK can use soft power, particularly in places such as west Africa, to ensure that more females are coming into public life, particularly peacemaking, because that is really important.

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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I am throwing statistics around today, but it is interesting to see that peace agreements are 35% more likely to last if women are involved in the process. We are doing a great deal in this area. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s programme, sponsored by the FCDO, helped to embed gender analysis throughout all aspects of parliamentary business, support women’s political leadership and end violence against women in politics. We are giving substantial sums to a variety of organisations to ensure that we are supporting women in public life and that their contribution can feed through to a lasting peace in areas where there is instability, providing a more stable community around the world.

Council of Europe: Reykjavik Summit

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Tuesday 18th April 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I agree with my noble friend but I add, as someone who served —it seems a long time ago—as a member of the team assembled from across this House and the other place at the Council of Europe, that I have always found that every member, irrespective of party affiliation, has acquit themselves in the finest traditions of our democracy. On a lighter note, when it comes to diplomacy, I always say that one thing many notice on the international stage is that we travel well irrespective of our party affiliations.

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware of the determination of a Russian court just yesterday in relation to Vladimir Kara-Murza, who has been put into a penal colony in Siberia for 25 years. We have heard, rightly, noble Lords raising the issues of Russian citizens, but this man is a dual passport holder—he is also a British citizen—and I wonder what the Minister has to tell the House about his current position.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My noble friend raises a very important point. In one of my earlier responses, I alluded to an Urgent Question which will be repeated in your Lordships’ House later this week, but she is right to raise the issue. We summoned the Russian ambassador yesterday, and our own ambassador attended the court proceedings and issued a joint statement with a number of key partners. We want to ensure that we have access. Vladimir Kara-Murza is, as my noble friend says, a dual citizen. Equally, we want Russia to abide by the conventions it signed up to, including the Vienna conventions and their accords that allow for consular access.