Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill

– in the House of Commons am 11:17 am ar 17 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Third Reading

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Ceidwadwyr, Congleton 11:18, 17 Mai 2024

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It has been a long journey to get this Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill to this point. I am grateful for the cross-party and public efforts and acknowledge the international interest in it. At the outset, I particularly express my thanks to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton, for his personal and vocal support for the Bill, including in the other place.

It is pertinent that this is a private Member’s Bill because, while it implements recommendation 6 of the Truro review and is therefore implementing a manifesto commitment, its origins are on the Back Benches of the Commons and the Lords. In 2013, the inaugural report of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief recognised the challenge for attention and concern for the right to freedom of religion or belief—as in article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights—and described it as “an orphaned right”. This Bill will ensure that the office of the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief is secured as a permanent fixture in statute, and will embed the progress that the UK has made in promoting the fundamental and universal human right to freedom of religion or belief around the world.

Since the all-party parliamentary group first produced that report, it has grown in number to more than 180 parliamentarians. I believe it is the largest all-party group in this place. That reflects the increase in awareness and support for the right of freedom of religion or belief here in the UK, and I am very proud of that. Having worked internationally in this role as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for some three and a half years, I know that the parliamentary work on freedom of religion or belief stands out as a beacon across the world. It was with great delight that I heard one of my parliamentary colleagues from the Opposition Benches say, “In this work, there isn’t a piece of paper between us here in this House in what we believe in.”

However, the increase in awareness here for this work sadly reflects the reality that, across the world, the rights of religious minorities are under severe attack. Freedom of religion or belief has never been more important a cause to champion, for the simple reason that there have never been more people at risk—not just millions but hundreds of millions discriminated against and denied life’s chances, simply on account of what they believe.

Some may point out that having a special envoy in statute would be unprecedented, but if the objection to any change was simply that it was unprecedented, we would never make any progress. Indeed, that is why we are here in this place—to make legislative change. What is unprecedented is that people have never been more heinously and despicably denied their wish to live out their beliefs. They have never experienced, in the numbers they do today, more abuse, emotional or material hardship, incarceration, or even death, simply on account of what they believe. I hope to give some examples of that a little later in my speech.

In the time that I have been the UK’s Prime Minister’s special envoy—from late 2020—we have seen such an increase in instances of concern. There has not just been an increase in the number of authoritarian regimes; we have also seen new challenges to freedom of religion or belief through ever increasingly sophisticated technology used to oppress people, and the darkly sinister expansion of transnational repression.

Let me mention a few examples from countries around the world. We have seen, for example, the military coup in Myanmar exacerbating the persecution of religious minorities, not least the Rohingya Muslims. We have seen the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, with every religious group there, other than those willing to succumb to the Taliban’s ways, now oppressed and living in fear. In Russia, Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the elderly, are now being imprisoned as criminals simply for being pacifists and being unwilling to serve in the army, and Putin is weaponising Orthodox Christianity in the war against Ukraine, with places of worship deliberately destroyed and reports of pastors disappearing.

We have seen daily disturbances in Iran, for which some have paid with their lives. At the core of those is the cry for every Iranian to be free to live in accordance with their individual beliefs. In Nigeria, thousands of Christians and some moderate Muslims are being massacred by Islamic extremists every year. Just on Tuesday this week, we commemorated the 21st birthday of Leah Sharibu, who was abducted by Boko Haram seven years ago and not released—as were other Chibok schoolgirls —because she refused to renounce her Christian faith. In Nicaragua, the Catholic Church is being particularly targeted. Many people have been expelled, including those running religious schools or medical centres. Even Mother Teresa’s nuns, who have been working there for over 30 years, were required with no notice at all to leave the country.

We are all aware of the situation in China, where over 1 million Uyghurs and, reportedly, increasingly more are egregiously incarcerated in 20th-century concentration camps. Many have disappeared forever, and many are reported as having died. The allegations of forced organ harvesting against Falun Gong practitioners would simply defy belief had those allegations not been persistently made by so many. In Tibet, according to recent UN reports, up to 1 million children as young as two are being sent away to boarding schools, alienated from their families, cultures and beliefs. The world should not stand silent about such things.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Ceidwadwyr, Chelmsford

Before my hon. Friend moves on, I would like to thank her specifically for her work as envoy. As she has just shown, she has used her voice endlessly to shine a light on some of the darkest corners of the world. I know that she will want me to mention Sudan, where we have seen systemic ethnic cleansing of non-Arabs, perhaps more on the grounds of race than religion, and that she will also want me to mention the fact that religious leaders can be a force for good in trying to stop violence. In particular, in South Sudan, we saw the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland work together to call for an end to violence. I would like to say a massive thank you to my hon. Friend for her work as envoy, which shows why this role is so important.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Ceidwadwyr, Congleton

I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention, and even more so for her work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Sudan and South Sudan, as well as for her acknowledgment of the importance of freedom of religion or belief when she was a Minister in the Foreign Office. She is absolutely right: the influence that religious leaders can have in bringing communities together and preventing the kinds of atrocities I have referred to cannot be overstated. This year, it has been my privilege to have collaborated with the Archbishop of Canterbury to highlight and focus on this issue, including at an event at the Foreign Office attended by over 100 of those engaged on the issue here in the UK and internationally, among them several parliamentarians —I remember that my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey was there.

The role I have gives the UK an additional privilege: that of holding out the importance of freedom of religion or belief across the world. However, the men, women and children around the world who suffer—whether under the hard arm of authoritarian regimes or at the ruthless whim of militant mobs—need not just our voices, but our partnership. They need not just our words, but our actions; not just our intentions, but our effective help. That is why the role of envoy, the office that I have the privilege of holding at present, needs securing and resourcing over the long term, beyond the term of any particular Government or party in power. Of course, this Bill intends to do just that.

As I say, the Bill fulfils the Government’s manifesto commitment to act on their words and fully implement the Truro review, which included a recommendation to make the special envoy role permanent, with the requisite authority and resources. There is only one other country in the world with a similar office. The US has had a permanent office promoting and protecting freedom of religion or belief for over 25 years. The stability of that office over time has ensured a build-up of resources, expertise and research capabilities that enable it to make a significant contribution towards combating FORB abuses across the world.

The UK may be smaller, but if we had such an office, and secured and resourced it as a continuation of the office that I have the privilege of holding at present, it would enable us to speak across the world with a powerful voice for good. We have seen the good influence that the current Foreign Secretary is having as he speaks out across the world. Having represented three Prime Ministers now, I have been so encouraged by the respect in which the UK is held as we speak out internationally. We sometimes underplay that here, to our detriment.

It was noted in Committee that although, of course, the Prime Minister will personally appoint their special envoy, the legislative description in the Bill is of a “Minister of the Crown.” The title of “Prime Minister’s special envoy” provides the vital authority internationally to advocate of behalf of the UK, as I have just touched on. Clause 1 reflects the current purposes of the envoy and the requirement to report directly to the Prime Minister. That direct accountability is so important, and I have found it so helpful under each of the Prime Ministers I have served. I thank them all for their active support for my role.

Clause 1(6) provides for the continued office of the special envoy and resources to fulfil the role. I say to my hon. Friends, across the House, that we are all on the same side when it comes to advocating for freedom of religion or belief. In fact, I do not know of a single Member in this House who opposes the Bill. Why? Because we recognise that it will provide an opportunity to do good—real good—and to change lives. We recognise that anyone who opposes the Bill, or seeks to prevent its passage in any way, is in effect opposing the opportunity to do good.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Ceidwadwyr, Cities of London and Westminster

I absolutely support the Bill. I am not a religious person—I do not follow any religion—but I support the Bill because I believe in freedom, which is so important. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill is about not only freedom of religion, but freedom of belief? At the heart of the Bill is freedom for people to feel what they feel, whatever their religion.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Ceidwadwyr, Congleton

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The clue is in the title: the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief. “Belief” indicates that there are some who do not hold a religious belief but who are equally entitled to our support, advocacy and protection on account of their beliefs, whatever they are.

I will give the House some examples of the good that this office, if secured permanently, could continue to do. About 18 months ago, my office—the office of the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief—initiated our monthly “religious prisoners of conscience” scheme. Every month we champion, and call for the release of, a prisoner across the world who is incarcerated—sometimes in inhumane conditions —simply on account of their beliefs. We have championed a Jehovah’s Witness in Tajikistan, Buddhists in Tibet, Montagnards in Vietnam, a Sufi Muslim in Nigeria, Christians and human rights leaders in Myanmar and Nicaragua, a pastor in Cuba, Baha’is in Iran and others. This monthly programme was quickly taken up by the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, now made up of 43 countries, which the UK chaired for two years, 2022 to 2023. That means it is not just the UK calling for the release of these prisoners, but the collective voice of countries around the world.

That advocacy, along with the advocacy of others internationally, has resulted in the release of four of those prisoners, all of whom were facing several years. They include an elderly prisoner who was extremely ill and needed medical attention, and who I believe would have died had he not been released; he has now had that treatment and is getting better. Two other prisoners were young girls in their 20s who faced several years in prison simply for having changed their faith; they are now free and starting new lives safe in another country.

Just this week, we heard good news about another of the prisoners of conscience we have championed—this will interest my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken. We championed the case of Mubarak Bala, a humanist in Nigeria, who was sentenced to some 25 years in prison simply for his belief; in fact, the deputy special envoy, David Burrowes, went to Nigeria and met Mubarak’s wife last year. I am pleased to say that this week we heard that his sentence has been reduced to five years. That is good news, but we are not giving up—we will carry on campaigning for his full release. That is the good this role can do, and does.

Apart from challenging autocratic regimes, as we do, working in this sphere and standing up for those whose basic human rights have been trampled over simply because of their beliefs can make all the difference in the world to people like those I have just mentioned. This has enabled the UK to show global leadership. I am proud to say that the special envoy team for freedom of religion or belief recently won an international award for Government leadership on FORB.

As the Bill hopefully passes its final stage here in the Commons today, I look forward to it going forward to the Lords. Again, I thank everyone who has been involved in its passage to date.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee 11:37, 17 Mai 2024

I rise to speak briefly in support of the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce. Putting the special envoy for freedom of religion or belief on a statutory footing is an extremely good measure that we should all support.

I want to very briefly talk about the way I have seen my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton carry out her role in my capacity as chair of the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. My hon. Friend regularly attends events that we hold here, where we host parliamentarians from around the world. She has the ability to connect with those parliamentarians to offer them the support they need. Very often, those politicians might be subject to persecution in their own country because of their religion, despite being elected politicians. My hon. Friend really does provide great support and offers them hope that the work they are doing can have a positive outcome.

My hon. Friend was also able to demonstrate the UK’s lead in this area at the first Inter-Parliamentary Union parliamentary conference on interfaith dialogue, which was held last year; it is so far the only such conference, but I hope there will be more. My hon. Friend was one of the star speakers at that event. She was able to come in and talk about the work we do here in the UK. This was an event that brought together faith leaders and politicians from around the world. There were some authoritarian regimes represented, to try to open up that dialogue and show that freedom of religion and belief is a very valuable matter, and that we as politicians need to communicate more with faith leaders than we probably do.

When I was Minister for modern slavery, it was the faith groups that were able to offer the most support to victims of modern slavery. Mr Deputy Speaker, you are one of the most amiable and approachable chaps I know, but I suspect that many of your constituents find it easier to speak to their local priest, rabbi or other religious leader than to you, because of the trust that people have in the religious and faith leaders they interact with. Therefore, it is incredibly important for you to have a dialogue with your faith leaders, as it is for all of us here, because it is how we find out about what is going on for our constituents and how we can get support to them. We cannot overstate the importance of faith and its interaction with politics, and how we must all be part of it.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Ceidwadwyr, Congleton

I thank my right hon. Friend for highlighting the importance of interfaith dialogue. I must not miss the opportunity to promote one of the projects being undertaken by the international alliance of 43 countries. We have a working group on interfaith dialogue, which was launched this year, and we are calling for contributions of good examples of such dialogue from around the world. I encourage anyone in this place, and anyone listening to the debate or reading about it afterwards, to contact our alliance—they can do so through me —in order to contribute.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee

I am so grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that. I know that we will all take note of it and look to promote it to our constituents.

I will conclude by saying the UK already has a leading role in this area, but putting the envoy on a statutory footing will reinforce that role, ensure continuity and emphasise the intent of Parliament to ensure that freedom of religion and belief is always observed.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Ceidwadwyr, Suffolk Coastal 11:41, 17 Mai 2024

I rise to support this important Bill. I will be the first to say that Parliament often rushes too quickly to create offices and commissioners for this, that and the other, when a lot of this work should be done by Ministers, who should be held to account by Parliament for their activities. But I am also very conscious that something that may seem quite narrow in its scope may be lower down in the day-to-day life of a Minister.

The challenge that people of faith face around the world is so acute that creating this special role permanently, as Parliament wishes, is a really important step in ensuring that one of people’s most fundamental freedoms—freedom of religion or belief—is protected. It is something that the United Kingdom cherishes so much that the Prime Minister will have somebody performing that role in their name, working with them and the Foreign Office to ensure, through interventions and by convening things like the international alliance, that it is not just an afterthought. It is something that Parliament has decided really matters to the outcomes that the post seeks to achieve.

I had the good fortune this week to visit the Vatican with three other Members of Parliament on the all-party parliamentary group on the Holy See. We met a variety of groups as well as being part of the general audience and meeting His Holiness Pope Francis. I was struck by the conversations that we had with sisters who are part of the International Union of Superiors General. Those nuns undertake really valuable, often dangerous work right around the world, not only in the traditional forms of education or helping with care, in hospitals or palliative care settings, but increasingly in trying to tackle things such as modern slavery.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee

I declare an interest as a trustee of the organisation Arise, which does exactly that: we train sisters around the world to identify potential victims of forced labour and exploitation. We give them training on how to make sure that workers—for example, on tea plantations in India—are properly regularised, know their rights and have the right documentation. It is the sisters who do that work, and they are utterly wonderful. My right hon. Friend gives me a great opportunity to pay tribute to them, and I thank her for that.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Ceidwadwyr, Suffolk Coastal

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I know how much this issue mattered to her when she was in the Home Office. Traditionally, the sisters will stay in places of conflict and real difficulty despite the threats that they receive. In the past, a religious such as a nun or a priest would have been given some sort of protection, but unfortunately that is no longer the case, and in fact such people are starting to become targets.

I am led to believe that 12% of the world’s nuns are in India. India is an amazing country, but many of us will have been horrified by the regular and active persecution of Christians in parts of that country. Of course the UK Government need their important relationships with our Commonwealth friend, which recently hosted a very successful G20 summit and is a very important part of the global economy, but they also need to challenge aspects of the way in which it deals with freedom of religion and belief. I believe that our Ministers do that successfully, but it is of additional benefit to have a special envoy of the Prime Minister’s who works with many countries, through the international alliance, on raising these issues. My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce mentioned a case that she had tackled in Nigeria.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Ceidwadwyr, Congleton

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. May I augment what she has just said about the international alliance? Just this week, three members of its council of experts produced a report on the continuing atrocities in Manipur, which have been going on for a year. I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary has spoken in such positive terms about our experts’ first report, which was produced a year ago, and I hope that Members, and those who are listening to the debate, will look at the further report led by the well-known and prestigious former BBC reporter David Campanale. Those atrocities in Manipur require much more attention.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Ceidwadwyr, Suffolk Coastal

My hon. Friend is right to make that point, and a permanent role will continue to bring that focus. As the Bill makes clear, staff and accommodation will be provided when they are considered to be necessary, which I think is important.

This role has been occupied by Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon and by my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti—whom my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary commended when I was speaking to him the other day in the Vatican —and now we have my hon. Friend, whose approach has been exemplary. The report commissioned by my right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt when he was Foreign Secretary led to the Truro review, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton referred at length, but it is important to note that this role has evolved, and is now not simply about Christianity. Events targeting Christianity were the initial trigger, and gave rise to the Foreign Office working on this, but my hon. Friend has spoken eloquently about the need to expand the role further, and has undertaken to do that. She mentioned that the United States also has a permanent office. I believe that that will trigger the potential for posts elsewhere in the world, and that has to be a force for good.

We need people who can focus solely on these matters. The Bill does not require them to be politicians. For what it is worth, I think that a sensible balance can be struck, but that will be for the Prime Minister to decide in the future. Nor is the Bill trying to create a platform for someone who is disgruntled. I believe that a Prime Minister, regardless of which political party runs this country, will have the wisdom to appoint someone who is seeking headlines not for their own purposes, but on behalf of those who have been deprived of the freedom to practise a religion or hold a belief.

I am conscious that the Front Benchers are yet to speak and that progress needs to be made on various pieces of legislation today, and I know that my hon. Friend Dr Cameron also wishes to speak, so I will abbreviate my comments. This issue really matters to me, and I believe it matters to my constituents. It matters that we have a world where these sorts of freedoms are treasured and protected, and having a special envoy on freedom of religion or belief in the name of the UK Prime Minister will help to make sure that happens.

Photo of Lisa Cameron Lisa Cameron Ceidwadwyr, East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow 11:50, 17 Mai 2024

I congratulate my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce on all her work on the Bill and in this area. I was privileged to be involved in Committee, and I fully support the work that she has undertaken and wishes to be taken forward under the Bill.

The Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief plays a role that is so important to many people internationally, as we have heard, and the post firmly places the UK in a leadership role in this area. I was privileged to see what happened in my constituency of East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow when my hon. Friend visited St Bride’s parish church in East Kilbride, on the Scottish leg of her United Kingdom tour. So many members of my local community, from different faiths, came to hear her speak about the importance of the role, and about how she was reaching out internationally and making a difference for the most vulnerable people in the world. All of those who attended were united in seeing the value of the role and her work, and how vital it is that it should continue.

It is testament to my hon. Friend’s selflessness that she does not wish at all to champion the work that she is doing; rather, she wants to champion the plight of the most vulnerable, and wishes from the bottom of her heart to make sure that this work continues for decades and Parliaments to come, under the auspices of this important role. I have seen that at first hand, and I know that my constituency is reflective of those across the UK. My constituents who value the role—so many came to the meeting; the church was packed—are no different from those across the UK. They too very much value the role and the UK’s leadership, and see the good work that is being done and its tangible outcomes, which help the most persecuted across the world. I thank my hon. Friend once again for that work, for her selflessness and for making sure that it continues for posterity.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 11:53, 17 Mai 2024

I congratulate Fiona Bruce on bringing forward her Bill for its remaining stages. I have been in many debates with her over the years, and her commitment to the cause of freedom of religion or belief is second to none. As speakers have outlined this morning, the concept initially focused on Christians being persecuted abroad, but I have been so impressed by the way that the role has developed into something much broader, with so much international resonance.

Freedom of religion or belief is a core tenet of fundamental human rights, and human rights will always be at the heart of Labour’s outlook on the world and the centre of the shaping of our foreign policy. My right hon. Friend Mr Lammy, the shadow Foreign Secretary, has made that clear, and has, in meetings, considered many of the suggestions that the hon. Member for Congleton has made to him. I put on record her commitment to cross-party working to address international concerns. She has been party-blind in her work across both Houses. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary has made it clear that Labour will ensure that the UK stands against persecution and oppression in any form, and will promote freedom of religion or belief as a key component of our foreign policy, if perchance we are entrusted with the responsibility of government by the British people at the next election.

In her assiduous campaigning, the hon. Member for Congleton, and indeed Members across the House, have raised issues with the treatment of religious minorities across the globe. As I look around the Chamber, I am rather surprised not to see Jim Shannon. If he were here, he would now be intervening to say how much he supports the Bill.

In many countries, including the UK, religious freedom is taken for granted, and people can worship or choose not to worship, whatever their belief, but that is sadly not the case in vast swathes of the world. There has been a growing trend in recent years for religious minorities to be persecuted simply for the beliefs that they cherish so dearly. We sadly see an increase in all sorts of persecution, including of those in the LGBTQ community.

Hon. Members often point out examples of religious persecution during debates in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned the Chinese treatment of the Uyghur Muslim, and we heard in a speech about the treatment of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. I know that those two causes mean so much to the hon. Member.

It is clear to all of us that the persecution of religious minorities happens in many parts of the world, and it is in that spirit that the hon. Member has brought the Bill forward for its remaining stages today. The Opposition will not stand in the way of the Bill moving forward, but I repeat—I said this last time—that we should bear in mind that there has been backsliding on the situation for women and girls in many parts of the world, and particularly their reproductive rights. That is often tied into religious expression. I am keen to put that on record as a concern that needs to be borne in mind when the post is established.

While freedom of religion or belief does not necessarily conflict with either LGBTQ+ issues or the rights of women and girls to reproductive health, it would be wrong to give the impression of putting rights in a hierarchy. I am pleased that in the Bill Committee, the technical issues around how the statutory basis would work and the flexibility and responsiveness of the Government to appoint the special envoy were addressed and ironed out, cross party.

In recent weeks, a representative for humanitarian affairs was appointed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories; that demonstrates how important these roles are. I am sure that the House will continue debating and scrutinising freedom of religion or belief on many occasions. I welcome comments from the hon. Member and the Minister on any of the issues as we conclude the debate. We will not divide the House on the Bill.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 11:58, 17 Mai 2024

I am really grateful to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce for promoting the Bill, which the Government are pleased to support. It is a pleasure to set out today why the Bill is so important in cementing and supporting our long-standing commitment to freedom of religion or belief—FORB, as it is known for short. I thank hon. Members who have contributed to this debate, and indeed to so many before.

The shadow Minister, Catherine West, mentioned Jim Shannon; he found me yesterday to give me his apologies for not being here today. She is right that we all miss his voice in this important debate.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton set out, the Bill will make the role of the special envoy for freedom of religion or belief statutory. Establishing the role permanently and in perpetuity was a recommendation in the Bishop of Truro’s 2019 independent review of the work of the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office on freedom of religion or belief, and the implementation of that recommendation was a manifesto commitment for the Conservatives in 2019.

This Bill will ensure that the special envoy has clearly defined duties, that they will report to the Prime Minister on their work and that a Minister of the Crown must provide resources for the special envoy to carry out their functions. It reinforces the Government’s long-standing commitment to FORB for all, which will support us in continuing to embed freedom of religion or belief within the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Perhaps most significantly, it will ensure that the positive work being undertaken by today’s special envoy in this human rights priority area will be continued by future role holders.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, the current special envoy, for all the work she does to promote and protect FORB globally. She recently concluded her second term as chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance. This was the first time in the organisation’s history that a chair was requested to serve a second term, which is testament to her dedication to the role.

As chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, our special envoy established a scheme to raise awareness of a different prisoner of conscience every month. The scheme has championed the cases of individuals belonging to a range of religious and belief communities, and in three cases individuals were subsequently released.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Ceidwadwyr, Congleton

I hesitate to correct the Minister but, just for the record, an additional prisoner of conscience was released very recently, which is why I referred to four, not three.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My hon. Friend continues to demonstrate both why her role is important and why her indomitable presence in the role is of such value to all those who need to be championed.

Photo of Jonathan Lord Jonathan Lord Ceidwadwyr, Woking

May I put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce? I am co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Egypt, and she has been such a help on the issues of freedom of religion or belief.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank my hon. Friend.

Another achievement of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, with my noble Friend the Minister for human rights, Lord Ahmad, was hosting the fourth international ministerial conference in 2022. This event brought together Government delegations, faith and belief group leaders, human rights actors and civil society from over 100 countries to address the challenges to the right to freedom of religion or belief. This is just a small example of the work so diligently undertaken by our special envoy. Last month, in the other place, I was pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary restate his support for this Bill and acknowledge the excellent work being done on freedom of religion or belief.

On a more sobering note, the scale of abuses and violations of the right to FORB across the world remain deeply concerning, which data, including from the Pew forum and the Open Doors world watchlist, continue to reinforce. And history has shown us that, too often, where freedom of religion or belief is under threat, other human rights are at risk too.

We are firm in our position that no one should be persecuted, abused or intimidated because of their religion or belief, or lack thereof. Protecting and promoting the right to FORB has been a long-standing commitment of this Government, and the FCDO is working on this in a number of ways, including through our multilateral and bilateral work, to embed FORB across our programmes.

I now turn to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and agreed in Committee on 24 April. Legislation imposing duties on the Prime Minister is very rare and limited, and the amendments thus remove the statutory duties placed on the Prime Minister, instead placing them on a Minister of the Crown, which is more appropriate in this instance. However, the special envoy will continue to be known as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for FORB. Retaining this title will ensure that the role continues to have the appropriate authority and recognition internationally, enabling future role holders to continue advocating for FORB globally, as my hon. Friend does with such dedication.

The duties of the special envoy have been clarified, setting the same high expectations of delivery for future incumbents as have been achieved by my hon. Friend. The Bill’s title was also amended to Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill so that it refers specifically to the special envoy. This adjustment more accurately reflects the Bill’s scope and content. The amended Bill furthermore removes the requirement to establish a separate office of the special envoy, ensuring that existing resourcing arrangements are maintained.

To conclude, His Majesty’s Government are committed to protecting and promoting freedom of religion or belief for all. The Bill cements our commitment to the role of special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, and delivers on our manifesto commitment to implement the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s review. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Ceidwadwyr, Congleton 12:04, 17 Mai 2024

I thank my right hon. Friends the Members for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) and for Staffordshire Moorlands (Dame Karen Bradley), and my hon. Friend Dr Cameron for their speeches today. In particular, I thank the shadow Minister, Catherine West for her support. I know that her personal commitment to this issue, from the very many debates we have shared and the all-party parliamentary groups we have worked on together, is genuine and profound. I thank, too, my right hon. Friend the Minister. May I also ask her to convey my thanks to all the Ministers in the FCDO, who have strongly supported the Bill to ensure its passage through this place?

Finally, I would like to thank all the members of the Public Bill Committee for their wonderful support, and the Clerk, Anne-Marie Griffiths, for her unflappable counsel and patience. Thanks, too, to the Comptroller of His Majesty’s Household, my hon. Friend Rebecca Harris for her terrific and efficient support, and to my private secretary, to Sue Breeze in the FCDO, and, finally, to the Prime Minister’s deputy special envoy, David Burrowes, for his unfailingly wise and calm counsel.

This short Bill embeds our collective commitment and solidarity with individuals across the world who courageously stand for their faith or belief, and do so suffering discrimination, harassment, persecution or worse.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

Another person who I know would have been here, and who it is right to remember, is Sir David Amess. He was a huge supporter of the mover of this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.