I was pleased to attend the Freedom of Religion or Belief: 40th Anniversary of UN Declaration Debate in Parliament. You can read my full contribution below:
I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate, which has been characterised by a number of very intelligent and very humanitarian speeches on today’s topic. I was particularly struck by the comments from the hon. Members for Airdrie and Shotts (Ms Qaisar) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker).
The previous subject before the House—the events yesterday in the English channel—is one that all of us with an interest in humanitarian issues around the globe will reflect on. Were we to create a Venn diagram of different types of oppression, we would find a high degree of commonality between those places where there is a lack of freedom of religion and religious expression, and those places where there is a lack of freedom to express political, gender and sexual values in the way that we—in what is for the most part a liberal and western democracy—take for granted. As we consider the work of the United Nations, it is enormously important that in this place we can focus on values that are not just those of the great religions of the world but ones that we tend to hold dear as British values, too, which we hold in common and which we can defend robustly.
I was particularly struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Glasgow North, who is no longer in his place. Glasgow is one of those places that has stepped forward as a city of sanctuary for people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. It stands out in Scotland for having done that. It is a place that has been known for many years for the compassion it has shown; compassion expressed not just as a sentiment but practically in ensuring that there is housing, education and care available for people going through the asylum process.
When it comes to challenging institutions, it is important to highlight the need for empathy, which the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts touched on in her comments. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe, I represent an extremely diverse constituency where there are people of faith—there are Muslims, Christians and Jews—who adhere to all the great world religions and many of the smaller ones, too. Navigating things like the planning system can seem enormously challenging. If you want to create a new Islamic education centre and a mosque, it can feel like the odds are against you in a way that would not be the case if you wished to open a new church, for example. We in this country need to recognise that, and when we talk about shared British values we need to ensure that we are genuinely inclusive and that everyone in the United Kingdom who adheres to those values, from whatever faith, has equality of access to our system.
Since becoming a parent, I have been struck by the usefulness of the British values programme in our schools in opening that opportunity up to as many people as we can across our constituencies. For my six-year-old son, pursuing British values has meant the opportunity to go to a church to look at the symbolism of Christianity and to talk about what that means. It has meant making Diya lamps for Diwali and having discussions about what that means for people: why the celebration is taking place and what the overcoming of the darkness by light means. It has meant having people coming in from different local religions to talk about the work they have been doing to support members of their community through the covid pandemic and how faith in the religious institution they are a part of has been so important in making a difference to people of all faiths and none in their area. In a constituency where there are more than 100 first languages spoken, that diversity is something that we recognise as an enormous strength. It is a strength that has been proven in the context of the pandemic and it is a strength that we can see developing in our educational institutions for the future.
I will finish with a request for the Minister to consider. This comes back to what we were discussing earlier and is an issue that many have mentioned: those who come to seek asylum in our country. We know that there is a recognised need to establish safe and legal routes for people to disrupt the business model used by people smugglers—those who were clearly and very directly responsible for the deaths of people in the English channel yesterday. We heard in the contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and many others, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), about people across the globe who find themselves in a position of enormous difficulty and sometimes direct peril to life and limb as a result of adhering to a particularly religion. As the cross-Government discussion develops about what those safe and legal routes look like and what they mean to people in Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and various countries in Africa, I encourage Ministers to ensure that we always recognise the changing perils that adherence to a particular faith and freedom of religion may bring in those places; and that, in putting together those safe and legal routes for those who will find sanctuary in the UK, we think about how that freedom of religion can be protected and how those we are not able to protect can come to find sanctuary in our country legally.