On 21st November 2013, the Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, and the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, took part in a debate on human rights, led by Lord Alton of Liverpool. The Bishop of Derby spoke about the role of women within society and religious institutions. He particularly focused on the objectification of women in magazines and the treatment of women in India. The Bishop of Wakefield spoke of the need for a greater engagement on the subject of the right to the freedom of religion, calling on the Government to develop a more positive approach towards religious freedom.
Many of the pictures painted are dramatic and challenging, and I invite the House to think a little about the context that we are in and how we might approach some of these huge issues. The Government have identified six key priority areas, including women and freedom of religion, and those are the two things that I will look at in particular. We are in a world where we have ideals and fall short of them, and need to negotiate between the two.
In my own language, I start by inviting us all to look at the motes in our own eyes. I am embarrassed that my church has legislation in place to discriminate against women, as much religion still does. We are moving towards tackling these things, and the prime movers have been women themselves. One point that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, made is that the victims need to be listened to so that they can help us understand what changes are required. It is not legislation but the stories of the victims that need to come first.
We as a church have been criticised, rightly, for the long and tortuous path of giving women full access to leadership in our institution. It is very easy for society to think that we have already done that: we have sex equality legislation and human rights legislation. Noble Lords will know that next Monday is White Ribbon Day, when in this country we remember the increasing levels of violence against women in our society. That is part of the context.
Just yesterday I was involved in a debate for Parliament Week—where the theme, as we know, is “Women in Democracy: Women in Society”—about lads’ mags and the fact that companies such as Tesco sell these magazines along with cheese and cornflakes. They objectify women and normalise the offensive attitude of making women commodities. We give large companies such as Tesco the freedom to degrade the women in our midst. That is the context in which we come to this debate: the motes in our own eyes.
I will suggest a way in which we might move forward. I think that the Government already have some line on this: the Foreign Secretary talks about engaging with complexity and the Minister talks about being pragmatic. We need to be pragmatic in negotiating between ideals and reality. As a trustee of Christian Aid, I know that women are key to development, with new voices and new perspectives, but I also know through my work with Christian Aid that the human trafficking of women and girls is increasing exponentially. Therefore, the ideals and the practice are in enormous tension.
I turn briefly to my specific point. The 2012 list of countries about which we have particular concern does not include India. My diocese works with churches in north India and is especially involved with Christian Dalit peoples—the lowest caste. In the past week, I have been in touch with a colleague in Delhi who worked with Christian Dalit women. She told me about Lakshmi, who works on a construction site from six in the morning till six at night and has to sign a register saying that she is getting the minimum daily wage, although in fact she is paid less than half of it. She also told me about a girl called Anjum, who was put into a brothel at the age of 15 and, last week, was rescued by the churches. She had found herself in that position because she was a Dalit woman in that culture.
The Prime Minister has just visited India and is talking about a special business relationship with that country. We need that: it will be good. However, what can we put into that relationship that will lead these issues to be taken seriously? In your Lordships’ House earlier this year, we made a decisive intervention during the passage of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill about Dalits in our own country. First, how can we take that learning and that experience into our work with business in India to help people aim for a similar result?
Secondly, how can we maintain concern for women and girls caught up in the ever-expanding criminal work of human trafficking? Thirdly, how can we look at the motes in our own eyes and challenge the right of large companies such as Tesco to degrade women in the midst of selling cheese and cornflakes and make it normative? As has already been asked, how can we better play a role in the UN? Finally, I guess that I and my colleagues on these Benches need to go back to our own institution and ask how women can play a more constructive and creative role among us so that we have more integrity in contributing to this debate.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi): …I commend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby for referring to the White Ribbon project, to which I was able to lend support only yesterday; it is an incredibly important initiative for men to speak out against violence directed at women…
The Lord Bishop of Wakefield: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this debate. It follows on very helpfully from a short debate that I secured two weeks ago on the situation with regard to religious freedom following the events of the Arab spring.
The all-party parliamentary group’s recent report on international religious freedom, Article 18: An Orphaned Right, to which a number of us in this Chamber contributed, accurately shows that over the past decade every region in the world has seen marked declines with regard to religious freedom. Christians in Egypt and Syria, Baha’is in Iran, Shi’ite Muslims in Indonesia, and Sunni Muslims in Thailand and Burma face serious threats to their viability and even survival. We have heard other examples today, including comments by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, on the situation in Turkey.
If freedom of religion and belief is a primary barometer of the social health of a nation, the palpable decline in recent years in respect of this most fundamental right suggests a worrying state of affairs regarding the health of the global common good. Despite this trend, Governments the world over—ours included, I fear—still assign it too low a priority than the scale of the crisis at present requires.
Part of this reluctance, I imagine, is that Governments and opinion-makers are hesitant, perhaps even reluctant, to acknowledge the connection between levels of religious freedom and the basic health and well-being of societies. This is not about protecting the rights of one religious community over another but about providing for the human flourishing of all, irrespective of whether they have a religious belief—as was hinted at by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. It is about being confident of one’s core values in our society, so that a variety of different communities may prosper.
Like other noble Lords, I applaud the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for the careful attention she has devoted to this issue. I noted in an earlier debate that she is a near neighbour to me in Wakefield; there is solidarity in West Yorkshire. Her speech last week to the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington DC was but the latest example of the forthright engagement that we have come to expect from her.
It is of course true that a great deal of work is being done in relation to freedom of religion and belief. However, this work is not necessarily focused on ensuring that everyone is able to exercise that right in peace and security. So the question, it seems to me, is how we move on from the essentially negative strategies that have been rooted in combating discrimination, intolerance, hate speech and incitement. Of course these things are important, but they work only once there is a clear commitment to the underlying value of the freedom of religion or belief. Core values need to be supported by proactive policies. Other noble Lords have hinted at such policies; indeed, the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, talked about the independent human rights commission. Is it not now time for the Government to shift their attention to a more positive approach to religious freedom and to recognise the wider societal benefits that it brings?
How might this be achieved? Some suggestions have already been put forward during this debate. Certainly the appointment of an ambassador at large or a special representative for religious freedom would help enhance the voice of the UK as the champion of an inclusive approach to freedom of religion or belief. A number of us have been pressing for this recently.
The head of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s human rights and democracy department is indeed an impressive figure. However, the incumbent of that post on her own is unable to give this matter the attention it rightly deserves because of competing priorities and pressures on her department’s time. We need to look again at strengthening the machinery of government in this area. It is to be hoped that when the Foreign Affairs Select Committee looks at its work programme for the next year, it will take upon itself the task of examining this issue with its usual forensic attention. I have been assured in a letter by the committee’s chair that this will be taken into account.
In concluding, I note only that unless we are prepared to give this issue the urgent attention it requires, we cannot be surprised if respect for religious freedom continues to decline markedly. The existing strategy across our world is not working, and it is time to think again.
Baroness Warsi: …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield and others suggested the appointment of an ambassador for religious freedom. We keep this constantly under review, but we have also been looking at the experiences of other countries that have done this and we have seen that, disturbingly, these ambassadors are sometimes not given access to the countries, or indeed to individuals at the highest level in those countries, to raise these challenges. Therefore, it is important that we make sure that we work in the most effective way in this area…