I am conscious that it has been some time since I have provided an update on my work as Minister of State at the Foreign Office. Regrettably, the trials and tribulations of the Brexit process - and all which that entails - combined with my hectic Parliamentary and Ministerial diary, has meant I have not been able to sit down to put such an overview together. However, this short period ahead of Easter has allowed me the chance to do exactly that.
Let me start off by paying tribute to my friend and colleague, Alistair Burt MP (North East Bedfordshire) who resigned from his position as Minister for the Middle East and North Africa towards the end of March. Alistair was a well-liked, highly respected and very capable Minister whose work and sincerity was recognised across the party divide in the House. Following Alistair’s resignation, I have taken over his portfolio on a temporary basis until a permanent holder of the office is appointed.
This temporary dual-role has meant that I have appeared in the House of Commons and in Westminster Hall on numerous occasions, particularly from 8-10 April, where I appeared in the House on behalf of the Government five times in three days.
In my role as Minister, I appear either in the House of Commons or in Westminster Hall (a slightly smaller debating chamber on the Parliamentary Estate) giving statements, responding to Urgent Questions or responding to debates on behalf of the Government. You can find all of my recent appearances in Parliament by following the below links.
As always, my duties as Minister extend well beyond the House and, indeed, the UK. In the middle of March, I attended the annual Global Anti-Corruption and Integrity Forum at the OECD in Paris. The Forum was attended by more than 2,000 participants from over 120 countries. This year’s conference was focused on ‘Tech for Trust’ as we looked at how new technologies are not only changing government, business and wider society, but also opening up avenues for corrupt behaviour, whilst at the same time offering new ways in which we can address such behaviour.
In my speech to the Forum, I spoke about the UK’s commitment to tackle corruption and disinformation. Technology has become a breeding ground for new, insidious ways to deceive audiences and allow false or manipulated information to spread further and faster than ever before, often at low cost. More and more people rely on social media for their news and many of them are aware that the information they are reading could have been manipulated. This has led to a growing sense of suspicion and distrust – even towards reputable news outlets.
Of course, the problem goes beyond the undermining of public trust in news sources. When the information around us is deliberately confused, it can have serious, and much wider, consequences. Protecting media freedom, and our citizens’ freedom of expression, is absolutely fundamental because they are essential elements of any healthy democracy. Whatever we do to tackle disinformation, we will not put those fundamental freedoms at risk. As we all know, a robust, free, vibrant and varied media will itself help to challenge disinformation and raise awareness of it.
This year’s flagship campaign at the Foreign Office is about championing media freedom and the protection of journalists. As the centrepiece of the campaign, the UK and Canada will co-host a major international conference in London this July. We will bring together ministers, key industry figures, civil society, academia and the media to push for a greater appreciation of the value of an independent media, and a more co-ordinated approach to securing the safety of media professionals.
The UK has a long tradition of championing good governance and fundamental human rights, including a free media. We are a steadfast opponent of corruption, in all its forms, and a steadfast advocate for an online environment that is free, open, peaceful and secure.
The other topic I would like to touch on from the last month or so is that of Brunei and the introduction of sharia law, and the impact this will have on the LGBT+ community in that country, and with regard to British nationals. You can find my 4 April statement to Parliament on this most serious matter here.
I want to be absolutely clear about the UK’s position on this: this Government consider it appalling that, in the 21st century, people anywhere are still facing potential persecution and discrimination because of who they are and whom they love. We strongly support and defend the rights of the LGBT+ community here in the UK and all around the world.
The Government, our high commissioner in Brunei and I will continue to urge the Government of Brunei to take all necessary steps to reassure their own people, the United Kingdom and the wider international community that they are fully committed to allowing all citizens and residents of Brunei to live with dignity, and free from violence, discrimination or persecution. As an integral part of our foreign policy work around the world, we will continue to oppose the use of the death penalty in all circumstances and promote the rights of LGBT+ people. Nobody should face punishment for who they are or whom they love.
I hope this update is able to provide an outline of some of the work I have undertaken in the last couple of months in my Ministerial role.