Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord for initiating this debate; it certainly gives me an opportunity to reiterate some of the points that he has heard me make before. I agree with the sentiments of all the contributions that a strong relationship between the United Kingdom and all the Arab states of the Persian Gulf is in everyone’s interest. However, that relationship, important as it is, must be built on the values that we hold as a country. Qatar is a growing economy with considerable regional interests and influence, and although there are clear areas where co-operation is mutually beneficial, we must use that relationship to encourage modernisation, as the noble Lord said.
I agree with the noble Lord that the spotlight on Qatar, as the Qataris themselves say, in terms of that national challenge for change, will bring strong benefits. I agree that sport can be a force for good—although, as a keen Arsenal supporter, I point out that my neighbours back Spurs, and we sometimes do not get on that well. Whenever there is a derby game one fears for one’s own safety. Nevertheless, sport is a force for good.
I also agree that simply calling for boycotts is not necessarily the appropriate solution. The decision to bid for the World Cup was a big political decision of the Qatari Government, and it was politics that made them support that bid. We have done such things ourselves, as a country, because we know that hosting such events can be a force for good in all our communities. I agree with the noble Lord that calls for boycotts should not be made lightly, and that the circumstances of the South African boycott were absolutely right, in terms of the world community, because sport was not permitted to be played in the way that we would expect. But when it comes to the Winter Olympics, there needs to be some clear political statement about the genocide against the Uighurs. A political and diplomatic boycott shows that Governments do not want to be associated with the Games. But it is not for us to interfere with sport through a general boycott. I agree with the noble Lord about that.
As for the force for good and the power of change, there is still a lot more to be done. It is only a short time now until the World Cup, and a lot of the human rights concerns remain and will overshadow the competition. As I said in November, it is eight years since the International Trade Union Confederation first warned that Qatar was not recording the deaths and injuries of migrant workers during preparations for the tournament. According to the Guardian, more than 6,500 have died since the World Cup was awarded. I accept the noble Lord’s point that there is not necessarily a direct link, but this is about the number of migrant labourers who have gone to Qatar, and the impact of that.
Trade unions are, of course, practically outlawed in Qatar, and it is a scandal that Qatar continues to hide the true picture on migrant workers. The ILO’s report published last October, which I have referred to before, identified clear gaps in the collection of data on work-related deaths and injuries, and called for improvement. Importantly, it stressed the need to move with urgency, because behind each statistic there is a worker and their family. Last November I asked the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, what representations the Government of the United Kingdom had made to Qatar on the ILO report. I also asked him to come back to the House on the progress made on its implementation, so that further injuries and deaths could be prevented, and the families of those killed or injured could receive proper compensation. I have had no response from the noble Lord, so I hope that the Minister here this afternoon will be able to answer those questions, which remain outstanding.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that the ILO presence is important and represents progress. But I also think that the United Kingdom has a responsibility to support the ILO and to back it in every respect.
This is not just about migrant workers; the noble Lord referred in his introduction to general oppression of minorities, particularly LGBT people. As he said, homosexuality is still illegal. The head of Qatar’s World Cup bid team has said publicly—I read it in the papers—that gay men attending the World Cup must not publicly display affection. They will be welcome, but must not display affection. As a gay man, I know what real oppression can be—forcing you to be invisible and not the person you are, unable to acknowledge the people you love. You may spend a fortune on going to the World Cup to be constantly fearful—what does it mean not to display affection? We have had cases in the Middle East where a United Kingdom citizen was charged with putting a hand on someone’s knee, something we perhaps all have done. Even the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, has done it—he has certainly done it to me in the bar a couple of times.
The important thing is how we support and back people. If we are truly saying that gay people will be welcome at the World Cup—why should they not be?—they should be able to be visible. They should certainly be able to acknowledge their sexuality in a public way, through flags, badges and things. I am not suggesting we have a blatant attack on the laws in Qatar, but the Government have a duty to protect and defend those people who go to the World Cup so that they do not have to face oppressive circumstances. The Human Rights Watch reports that we have seen mentioned the increased surveillance that will be installed for the World Cup. This could be used to target LGBT activists. In any sort of guidance the Government give, I hope they make that clear.
As has been acknowledged in this debate, the United Kingdom continues to attract significant investment from Qatar, and ties between our two countries are deepening as universities and other institutions establish a base in the Gulf. I too pay tribute to the late David Amess and I certainly pay tribute to the work of the APPG. As attention turns to the World Cup, it is incumbent on Ministers to hold the Qatari Government to account and push them even further in how they keep to their word on modernisation. I hope the noble Earl will give us a clear indication about the progress that has been made so far and the progress to be made for the future.