Baroness Barker questions the Government on protecting the rights of LGBT people & minorities in trade deals

Yesterday APPG Vice Chair Baroness Barker spoke in the House of Lords during a debate on human rights and future trade deals. She asked the Government whether future trade deals will include commitments to the rights of LGBT and other minority communities and whether the deals will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

Her full speech is below:

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, to her position. She and I have had many an interesting discussion on the subject of equal rights and I look forward to continuing that in the Chamber as well as outside. I thank the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for calling this debate, which draws attention to a part of the Brexit process that has received very little comment but is, for some of us, extremely important. I say that as a person who, as a citizen of this country, owes my equality—as a member of the LGBT community—to a string of court judgments that were fought tooth and nail by Governments of this country of different political persuasions. The European courts have been a source of great comfort to some of us from different minority groups and we are very fearful that we might have to live within a future where that protection is removed. I do not need to remind the noble Baroness that three times since 2016, the Conservative Party has announced that it will retain the Human Rights Act until 2020, at which point it will be replaced by what it refers to as “a British Bill of Rights”.

We are told that those rights will be equivalent but I have some fears, from where I stand, given the correlation between Members of another place who support Brexit and those who have been opponents of equality for people like me. There is a great deal of fear in our community that we will be in no position to tell the rest of the world how to maintain human rights, and that at a future point we may well diverge dramatically from a growing body of European law passed in the light of future judgments. I say that as somebody who has in recent years been able to see for myself the good effect that membership of the European Union has had in places such as the Balkans or in the Baltic countries, which, in order to meet accession terms, have had to put in place laws protecting the rights of minorities. I fear that leaving the European Union—if that were to happen—would undermine that quite considerably.

I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, in saying that I do not think any kind of theoretical commitment to human rights really matters; it is their practical effect. In our community, we are beginning to gather growing evidence to show that those countries with a good legal basis for equality—and have good practice of equality—actually benefit from it in economic terms. Conversely, it is possible to draw a direct correlation between those with human rights abuses. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said, there is considerable concern about leaving our largest market, in which the people with whom we trade are bound by common standards and laws in relation to equalities. I am sure we do business with some countries that have dreadful human rights. We do a great deal of business with countries with dreadful human rights records, but they are not now a sufficiently significant part of our trade to override our laws. We wonder whether they might be in future. We are talking, at the end of the day, about the capacity of people to start businesses and build jobs, here and abroad.

I want briefly to follow up the point of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, about future scrutiny. I have a very personal view. When human rights are under threat, we have to be as vigilant as a hawk. There is much that this House needs to do to scrutinise future trade deals. Having done some research, as it stands there is only one example of an international trade deal that recognises gender identity and sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination in its labour chapter, and contains measures to ensure that these grounds are enforceable. It is, would you believe, Article 23.9 of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which says:

The Parties recognize the goal of eliminating discrimination in employment and occupation, and support the goal of promoting equality of women in the workplace. Accordingly, each Party shall implement policies that it considers appropriate to protect workers against employment discrimination on the basis of sex (including with regard to sexual harassment), pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, and caregiving responsibilities; provide job-protected leave for birth or adoption of a child and care of family members; and protect against wage discrimination”.

My questions are as follows. Can we look forward—once we get beyond the platitudes we hear from some on the Government Benches that the level of rights and protections we have will, of course, in future be at least equivalent to what it is now—to a time when we have commitments of that kind in our trade agreements? Will we have a mechanism by which Members of both Houses of Parliament can scrutinise those agreements, not just when they are drawn up but when they are implemented? Or do we, as I fear, run the risk that the rights of people like me might just end up on the bonfire of some kind of ERG-DUP Brexit?

Lord Harries of Pentregarth (Crossbench), who proposed the debate, also mentioned LGBT+ rights, commenting that;

Then there is the denial of basic rights for LGBT people in so many Commonwealth countries. This too we must not forget but must work for changes in the laws of those countries. We cannot accept that there is freedom for LGBT people in one country but not in others. […]

With the continuing denial of human rights in so many countries, it may be that any British Government would get weary of raising these issues with the Governments concerned. We must not get weary or shrug our shoulders. If those suffering individuals do not have a voice through us, where will they have one? We must continue to press for the observance of human rights wherever they are denied, even when we are anxious to trade with the countries concerned. After Brexit, this House and the other place will have a particular responsibility to scrutinise trade agreements, to ensure that maximising trade is not done at the expense of ignoring human rights considerations.