MPs debate freedom of thought, conscience and religion

“The ability to pray and worship as one wishes is a fundamental human right, and one that we, as elected democrats, should always seek to defend.” – Rt Hon Sir Tony Baldry MP, 1/5/14

14.01 CCQ Baldry

On 1st May 2014 a debate was held in the House of Commons on ‘Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion’. The debate was led by the Alliance MP for Belfast East, Naomi Long. Rt Hon Sir Tony Baldry MP, who is the Second Church Estates Commissioner, took part in the debate and his speech is below. The full debate can be read on the UK Hansard website here.

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): For those of us older Members who find it difficult to count to eight, and because the clock is not working, could you give us a one-minute warning, Mr Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] Oh, it is working; it has only just started. [Laughter.]

Those of us who were born immediately after the war—I was born in the early 1950s—grew up with an innate optimism that each year would bring further progress. After all, the Nazis had been defeated in the second world war and the forces of tolerance had prevailed. We were growing up at time of huge improvements in medicine and the introduction of mass vaccination programmes. We were conscious of countries receiving their independence in the 1960s and the freedom that that brought. We were conscious of improvements in television and radio broadcasting and of people’s ability to access education in ways that had never previously been possible. Man was reaching the moon, and there were great scientific and technological advances. There was an innate belief that each year would bring greater progress, greater freedoms and a greater improvement in standards of living for people around the world. I suppose the only thing that remained outstanding was the iron curtain and the Soviet empire, which eventually disintegrated.

It is sad, however, that as we look around the globe today—the hon. Member for Belfast East (Naomi Long) expounded on this so well—we see a world that is in many ways going back to intolerance and barbarism. I recently went to Somalia, and the Foreign Office would only allow me to spend a single day there because of the threat posed by al-Shabaab, which has almost completely destroyed that country’s security. The day after I left Mogadishu, a huge car bomb killed seven people outside the palace that is the official residence of the President of Somalia. Prior to visiting Mogadishu, I had been in Juba, South Sudan, where it was almost impossible to get out of the city because of ethnic tensions between Dinka and Nuer. The country has almost completely disintegrated as a consequence of intolerance and conflict between tribes.

Christians have been almost completely driven out of the middle east. Countries that had hitherto been tolerant of religious minorities are becoming increasingly intolerant. We have seen large numbers of Christians tragically murdered in Peshawar and Pakistani blasphemy laws applied with greater rigour.

Mark Pritchard: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir Tony Baldry: I will not give way, because many colleagues want to speak, and I am about to come to the point my hon. Friend made earlier.

The question for me is this: how do we start to return the world to some semblance of tolerance? My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) mentioned the United Nations. I think that this work has to be done at the highest international level, in the United Nations General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights. A number of countries promote tolerance, and we have partners among Muslim states that are keen to promote tolerance, such as Jordan and Morocco.

There are many international indices of corruption. I suggest to colleagues on the Treasury Bench that we ought to start thinking about international indices of tolerance, because that would allow us to make a judgment on how tolerant some countries are and to encourage them to follow the example of more tolerant countries. I remember being set an essay at school: “To what extent should the tolerant tolerate the intolerant?” I do not think that we should tolerate the intolerance whereby people are not allowed to practise their faith as they wish or to change their faith. Those are fundamental human rights.

Much concern is expressed in this House about climate change and future resources, because we are concerned about the sort of world our children and grandchildren will inherit. I suggest that a world in which people can exchange ideas, pray without fear of being murdered and have a sense of identity is equally important for our children and grandchildren. These are not transitory concerns about what might be happening in one particular country at one particular time, for example what is happening today in Nigeria, Egypt, Iran or Iraq; they are fundamental concerns about the values of the world as a whole as we go forward through the 21st century.

The Foreign Office, and particularly my noble Friend Baroness Warsi, has been doing a lot of excellent work on this, but we need to do more. The United Kingdom has a long history of religious tolerance, because we learnt from the Reformation and the counter-Reformation, when many people were burnt at the stake and some really horrific things happened. On Sunday I was proud to attend Roman Catholic mass in my constituency, where the community was saying goodbye to their priest, who has been the priest for Banbury for the past 10 years. Five continents were represented in that one congregation worshipping together harmoniously. I think that in all our communities in this country we have a great degree of tolerance.

Therefore, I think that we should take a lead on this issue in the United Nations, both in the General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights. It will need to be persistent work. It is just as important as climate change and many of the other issues that grip the United Nations and the major councils of the world. The ability to pray and worship as one wishes is a fundamental human right, and one that we, as elected democrats, should always seek to defend.