Thursday 30th June 2022

(1 month, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Mike Freer Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Trade (Mike Freer)
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I do not want to make this debate a political ding-dong, because these are usually very collegiate debates, but I am happy to have a private conversation with the shadow Minister about the actions of the Finchley Labour party and how it has used my sexuality against me in previous elections.

Moving on, I thank colleagues for their honest, wide-ranging and often very moving personal reflections as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first official UK Pride march. I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) for securing the debate. I pay tribute to those who have gone before me and the rest of us in this Chamber, whose campaigning over many years has allowed me to be an openly gay, married Minister. If I may indulge myself, Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank my husband for his unswerving support. None of us could do our jobs without the support of our partners and families.

Before putting some more official comments on the record, I will cover some points that were raised and specifically asked of me. On the issue of transphobia, particularly in the media: I will always call it out. I have called it out repeatedly; I often contact the media to say, “Why are you not coming to me for comment, because what you’re printing is simply factually incorrect?” Yet when I ask the Government Equalities Office whether a comment has been sought from the relevant Minister, the answer is no, it has not. That is shameful. I am all in favour of a free press, but I do expect a free press to be balanced and factual.

On Rwanda, I am very conscious of the concerns, and they are concerns that I share. However, I have had fruitful conversations with the relevant Ministers and officials, who assure me that they are equally conscious of the issue and that every individual case—whatever the case—is dealt with on its merits before a decision is made. I can only say that I am keeping a close eye on how the policy develops.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) for their work on the APPG on global LGBT+ rights. The ability of those two powerful individuals to co-operate and lead the APPG makes it a force for good in this place and beyond. The hon. Member for Wallasey pointed to the recent murders in Norway, but it was not that long ago that a bomb went off in the Admiral Duncan pub. Sometimes we think these events only happen overseas, but they happen here in the UK as well.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) and the shadow Minister paid tribute to Fighting With Pride. I joined it after it marched for the first time on Remembrance Sunday last year. Many ex-servicemen were in emotional tatters at that event, because for the first time they had been able to march with pride as service people. Their service had been recognised and they were able to wear their medals. Those of us who have not served have no idea: we cannot understand the power for service people of being able to march alongside their comrades.

The hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) was right to point out the pernicious rainbow-washing that goes on. In my other portfolio, I spend a lot of time talking to international companies, and I take some comfort from what many of them are doing, especially in countries that are way behind us—although we have our challenges too—on equalities. It is wrong to pick out one company, because there are so many of them, but Diageo sticks out. In many countries where homosexuality is not legal or where there are gender pay gaps and gender discrimination, Diageo has been at the forefront. What struck me was that it was, I think, the first global company to provide full medical healthcare—not just time off; it paid for trans treatment—for trans people who were transitioning. It was at the forefront. To be honest, in those countries, such companies will have far more influence than a visiting UK Government Minister having a polite conversation with their opposite number. Although rainbow-washing is disappointing, many companies do very good work.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point about companies. A lot of corporate firms do now seem to be offering their trans and non-binary staff surgery or financing for surgery, including in the UK. That does beg the question of how good the healthcare is here. I have spoken to a lot of practitioners who are scared, who have turned down jobs or who do not want to go into this area of healthcare because of the hostile environment in the media, the misinformation and the way that they are targeted. That is something we can all work together to challenge.

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I was going to touch in my more formal remarks on the work that Dr Hilary Cass is doing and on the wider work of the Department of Health and Social Care to reform trans healthcare. I think we can all agree that it is not fit for purpose currently.

To comment on the reflections of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), I wish I were going to be here in 50 years’ time to see how camp he becomes. If am still alive, perhaps I will tune in.

It is absolutely true that politics has a role to play. I probably embarrass Peter Tatchell on a regular basis by saying that he is one of my political heroes. He did things that I would not have had the courage to do. There are many people who have fought our battles in ways that we would not have had the guts to go about them. Unfortunately, bigotry does not rest in any one political party, and I remember the terrible election campaign that the Lib Dems ran against him, which was really quite shameful.

On the politics, I just led an LGBT trade delegation to Texas and San Francisco. While I was there, I did not pull my punches—I was half expecting a telling off when I got back. I said that I simply did not understand the Florida and Texas approach on LGBT rights of “Don’t Say Gay”. I was quite blunt that my party made that mistake 30 years ago and it did not work. The whole point of “Don’t Say Gay” did not work then and it will not work today. I deliberately called it out at every opportunity when I was in the States.

I want to get some particular points on the record. The idea that LGBT issues are a modern phenomenon that is being driven by social media is complete nonsense. LGBT people have existed since life began. If people take the trouble to do the research on trans issues, they will find that in native American society, the two-spirit movement recognises what we would call trans, and it has been there since those people walked the earth. In India, there is a 1,000, 2,000, 3,000-year history—if we can go that far back—of trans people, who were revered in the Hindu faith for achieving perfect balance, like the two spirits. The idea that LGBT rights are a sudden modern phenomenon, fad or phase that we will all grow out of is simply nonsense.

As we reflect on the last 50 years and the progress that we have made, I am conscious that we need to double down to protect those rights. Many hon. Members in the Chamber, including me, are in a privileged position. I am white, middle-class and a Government Minister—I am insulated from many of the issues that our community faces—yet I feel the forces that appear to be gathering to try to roll back our rights. That is why, although we can have debates about policies, one of my primary objectives while I have this portfolio is to make a positive change to the day-to-day lives of those in our LGBT community.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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The Minister is being generous with his time. Perhaps I can offer him some advice: not long after coming out, I went to an event and was told a story about the late, great Robin Cook. Were it not for his passing, I might not be here. He stood against the tide, I think in his party and other parties, to decriminalise homosexuality in Scotland, which did not happen until 1980, even though I am advised that he was told by many people around him, “Don’t do it. Don’t touch it. Don’t get involved.” Perhaps the Minister can channel the spirit of Robin Cook and try to push the issue forward. He is making an incredible speech and I am glad that he is on the Front Bench, but perhaps he can try to persuade some of his colleagues to do the things that we all want to see to make sure that particularly our trans and non-binary siblings have the rights they need.

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. I reassure her that I am having constant conversations with colleagues across Government to ensure that we get to a place where we can find consensus. Interestingly, I started off by coming out in Scotland, and it was only when I looked back that I realised that I had broken the law, because the decriminalisation in Scotland happened after I had started my gay life as a student there—perhaps I should not be admitting to breaking the law as a young gay man in Scotland.

I will turn to some more formal points before I get myself into even more trouble. We have talked about healthcare, but we are also looking across Government at education, policing, public services and the armed forces to try to ensure that the day-to-day lives of LGBT people are improved. This is about reviewing LGBT issues, including the HIV action plan, which seeks to eradicate all new infections. The ability to have PEP and PrEP on the NHS are major breakthroughs. Equally, my colleagues in Health are aware of the need to look at the efficacy of sexual health clinics to ensure that getting access to testing is as rapid as possible to minimise the opportunity for someone to reinfect someone else if they have an infection. Equally, working with Professor Fenton, we are looking at the practicalities of how to make that happen, not just have a policy statement.

On homelessness, I am talking to my colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to look at how we can address LGBT homelessness, which can sometimes lead to sex work in all its forms, and that is not being resisted. Across Government, all of my colleagues are on board to try to make practical improvements.

Again, I am speaking to colleagues in the Home Office about ensuring not just that we get hate crime accurately reported, but, working with our partner Galop, that we understand the nuances of hate crime. It is not quite as black and white as some people believe. This is about understanding what is really happening to see what more we can do either to amend the law or, possibly more importantly, to ensure that police forces react positively.

If I may, I will now turn to the conversion practices ban. I am very conscious that, with colleagues in the Chamber, we have had this conversation several times now. There is work on the Bill, and I hope to see the Bill come in in the autumn—September or October, I hope. It is currently not yet trans-inclusive, and we are doing a piece of work on the complex issues people have. I do not think it is right that we should always shout down people who have different views if those views are based, as they sometimes are, on a lack of knowledge. I think an open and engaging conversation with colleagues who have different views is the right thing to do. As I said in Westminster Hall, if we take some more time on that particular thorny issue, which is causing perhaps more heat than light, to build some consensus, that would not in itself be a bad thing and I am hoping that we can get to a better place.

Angela Eagle Portrait Dame Angela Eagle
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I thank the Minister for giving way on that point and for his contribution to this debate in general. Given that trans-inclusivity is likely to be carried either in this House or in the House of Lords when the Bill comes in, would the Government consider drafting such a clause so that, if such a decision is made, we can make certain that parliamentary draftspeople have done the appropriate job in what is a difficult drafting area? That would be a very positive thing that the Minister might be able to commit to today.

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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The hon. Lady is tempting me down a path that I cannot go down. I am sure colleagues are well aware of how amendments get drafted, but the Minister for Women and Equalities and I have made recommendations on how we believe we can get to a more inclusive conversion practices ban, while addressing the concerns that have been raised elsewhere.

On hate crime and policing, we are also working with the Minister for Crime and Policing to ensure that police services are fully aware of all the complexities of addressing the issues of drug and alcohol abuse, and how that may present itself in crime, so that our police forces are entirely sensitive to all the factors that might lead to certain behaviour. We have talked about the issues of survival sex, and I would again link that to the work we will be doing on LGBT homelessness.

The shadow Minister was a little bit harsh about the action plan—that is the name of the game—but I am not going to be bothered about whether I have this document or that box ticked. I am focusing on practical steps to make genuine changes to people’s lives.

On education, £4 million has gone into boosting the anti-bullying campaign, whether that is homophobic bullying, biphobic bullying or transphobic bullying. The whole bullying piece has been funded to a better degree to ensure that schools are well equipped to deal with all the issues that our teachers may have to deal with. We will also ensure that our sex education programme is fully inclusive, and that guidance has been issued.

One problem we face when dealing with these issues is a lack of data. We have made a call for evidence, and we are encouraging partners and the private sector to do more work to get accurate data about the make-up of their workforces, client banks and customers, so that we can base our decisions on real data, rather than assumptions. That is the right thing to do.

We spoke about the armed forces. Many years ago it is true that the Ministry of Defence did not cover itself in glory—that is being polite—but the MOD of today is transformed in terms of the work it is doing to address those historical injustices, by restoring medals, expunging dismissals, and with the work currently being done to consider the wider implications of such treatment. That is a welcome step, and I pay tribute to my colleagues in the MOD. We must also mention the work on looking at historical convictions in civil society. The disregards and pardon schemes are still there, but we must do more to ensure people are aware of that. Too few people are coming forward to look at their previous convictions and see whether we can get them expunged.

I know we were disappointed that we had to cancel the conference, Mr Deputy Speaker, but that does not mean that the work we are doing on the international stage is abated. We continue to spend money, and funds are available to help NGOs to challenge legal discrimination in many countries, especially in the Commonwealth. That is often a powerful way of changing the law. Lord Herbert is leading that work overseas with the full backing of the Foreign Secretary, and both domestically and internationally the Government are working on practical steps to improve the lives of LGBT+ people.