Statement: Brunei and Sharia Law

Mark, as the Government Minister for Asia and the Pacific, made the below statement on sharia law and homosexuality in Brunei.

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The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement about Brunei and sharia law.

I appreciate that this issue has been of widespread concern in the House and was the subject of two requests for an urgent question earlier in the week by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine). I apologise, too, that, given how late we sat last night, there are slightly fewer Members in the House today than there might have been, as many of them have an understandable desire to head off. I thought that it was worth making a full statement on this issue. There was no criticism of you, Mr Speaker, that you did not allow the urgent questions, not least because we were able to touch on this matter in the slightly unsatisfactory way that one does during Foreign and Commonwealth questions.

Brunei introduced sharia criminal law in 2014, to operate alongside the common law system in that country. Implementation of the final phases of the associated sharia penal code was delayed from 2014 until yesterday. These final phases now introduce the possibility of hudud corporal and capital punishments, which may include amputation for theft, and execution by stoning for witnessed adultery and anal sex.

The sharia penal code requires four witnesses or a confession from the offender for a conviction to be secured. It is a fairly tall ask, but that does not mean it is impossible to achieve. Under the common law in Brunei, homosexuality is already a criminal offence. Whippings are also quite frequently used as a punishment for a variety of offences, and the death penalty remains on the statute book—although it has not been enforced since 1992.

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.

We absolutely oppose the death penalty in all circumstances and in all forms, and we do not believe that amputation or stoning are legitimate or acceptable punishments. Indeed, we consider them to be illegal under international human rights laws relating to torture or cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.

We also note that, since the introduction of sharia criminal law in Brunei in 2014, the vast majority of crimes have continued to be brought to justice under the existing common law system, which runs in parallel in that country. However, if implemented, we believe that these extreme hudud punishments would contravene Brunei’s international commitments to respect human rights and individual freedoms. That is why we have expressed deep concerns to the Government of Brunei. I personally raised the matter with His Majesty the Sultan, the Minister of Religious Affairs and the Foreign Minister, Dato Erywan, when I visited the country in August 2018.

Last week, I wrote to Dato Erywan to re-emphasise our concern about the use of hudud punishments, which contravene the international standards and values that ​the UK and Brunei both uphold. Earlier this week, our outstanding high commissioner Richard Lindsay also raised our concerns with senior Bruneian Ministers, including the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs and Finance. He received assurances that common law would continue to be the primary means of administering justice and that the burden of proof under the sharia penal code has been set to be almost unattainably high, and, obviously, we welcome that. I understand that the Foreign Secretary will speak with the Bruneian Foreign Minister later today and urge the Government of Brunei to take further steps to ensure that those extreme punishments cannot be used, and to respect the rights and freedoms of all their citizens.

Colleagues may be concerned about the potential impact of sharia criminal law in Brunei on British nationals, for whom we have a specific consular responsibility. I assure the House that our travel advice has been updated to ensure that all British citizens are aware of the introduction of the new laws under the sharia penal code. Supporting British nationals remains our No. 1 priority, and we will continue to provide consular support for all British folk in Bruneishould it be required. As many Members will be aware, we have a specific responsibility towards British military personnel and their families who are stationed in Brunei, including as part of our long-standing garrison agreement that dates from the coming into existence of Brunei as an independent state in 1962. I assure the House that necessary protections are in place with the Government of Brunei.

For historical and ongoing reasons we have a close friendship with Brunei, and from my experience both in Brunei and with Bruneians in this country, I know that they regard themselves—with good cause—as a generous, friendly and tolerant people, and they are worried to see the tarnishing of that reputation, given recent press in the UK and across the world. We have an important bilateral security relationship with Brunei, of which the garrison agreement is one part, but that has never prevented us from raising difficult issues. Indeed, I believe that the strength and richness of that relationship permits us to share our views and express those concerns—sometimes openly, sometimes more in private, but always frankly—as we seek to work together to address these issues.

I am sure I speak for the entire House when I say that this Government, our high commissioner 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 commend this statement to the House.

Mr Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab)

I thank the Minister for advance sight of the statement, and for the concern and care that he has brought to this issue, just as he did for other issues including Kashmir ​and the Rohingya, as well as many other matters covered by his brief. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary spoke the other day about the former Minister, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), and said that we would miss both the substance and tone that he brought to our debates. As we have seen today, however, this Minister brings the same substance to our debates, and he knows how to set the tone for his Department.

What we have seen in Brunei in the past week with the proposed new laws has been shocking, shameful and deeply sad. Let me read the words of one staff member from our shadow Foreign Office team. She is a young English woman who grew up in Brunei, and when she heard the news she said:

“It breaks my heart that a country I would credit with opening my mind and my heart in my formative years, and deeply embedding in me a love of the world and the people in it, could now preach such utter hatred against people just because of who they love.”

That is absolutely right. Brunei is a beautiful country with a warm and welcoming people, and for a long time it has been home to a diversity of races and nationalities. For it to take such a backward step into the darkness, with these horrific proposals for people to be stoned and whipped to death just because of their sexuality, is truly heartbreaking and fundamentally evil. It is also a clear breach of Brunei’s obligations under the Commonwealth charter on human rights. If it presses ahead with the proposals, surely there must be immediate consequences for Brunei’s membership of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has stood for human rights when it comes to democratic abuses in countries such as Nigeria, Zimbabwe and the Gambia, but for far too long it has turned a blind eye to LGBT discrimination in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

It is time for the Commonwealth to draw a line in the sand on LGBT rights, and that line must be drawn now in relation to Brunei. We cannot be in a situation whereby a Commonwealth country announces plans to stone and whip LGBT people to death and the Commonwealth does nothing.

I thank the Minister of State for his words and I hope they will lead to action, whether that means suspending our support for Brunei’s armed forces or other measures. Above all, I hope it will include calling an immediate meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and agreeing that if Brunei does not drop its proposals it will, with great regret but as a matter of urgency, be suspended from the Commonwealth.

Mark Field

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words but also his tone. At a time when so many debates in this House have been very fractious—on matters that we dare not discuss now—it is very important that we are able to unite and work constructively on an issue that is close to the hearts of many of us. On the issue of the garrison, we take very seriously the importance of security in the region, and obviously we are negotiating a range of safeguards for British nationals.

The main thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution was to do with the Commonwealth, so I will touch on that. As he alluded to, the Commonwealth charter states specifically that members are “opposed to all forms of discrimination, whether rooted in gender, race, colour, creed, political belief or other grounds.”​

At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting here in London last April, the Prime Minister was absolutely clear:

“Nobody should face discrimination or persecution because of who they are or who they love and the UK stands ready to help any Commonwealth member wanting to reform outdated legislation that makes such discrimination possible.”

I think I should put the issue in context. This is not in any way to justify what is happening specifically in relation to Brunei, but it is worth recognising that 30 Commonwealth member states have the death penalty, four have imposed a full or partial moratorium and 19 have abolished it. Obviously, we are working on trying to increase that number. There are 35 member states that still criminalise consensual same-sex relations, primarily as a result of colonial-era legislation, which does not apply in relation to Brunei, obviously. Since CHOGM 2018, two Commonwealth member states have decriminalised same-sex relationships, namely India and Trinidad and Tobago, which together account for well over 1 billion people. Two member states are able, in principle at least, to impose the death penalty for same-sex relationships. Brunei and some 12 states in the north of Nigeria have adopted elements of sharia law through a component of their legal system. That does not mean, of course, that the death penalty will necessarily be enacted.

Clearly, this is an issue on which we and Commonwealth countries have been working and will continue to do so. We would like to think that progress is being made. I very much agree with the sentiment of the House that the imposition of a sharia penal code is a backward step as far as Brunei is concerned, but progress is being made elsewhere and we will continue to work within the broad international community and the Commonwealth to ensure that countries come on board.

The best way to do that, rather than threatening to kick countries out of the Commonwealth, is to try to hold them close and recognise the strong connections. I would refer, at the individual level, to what the hon. Gentleman said about a close member of his Foreign and Commonwealth team staff, whose heart bleeds to see what is happening in Brunei, as it gives a misleading impression of what is a friendly and generous place. Indeed, the Sultan of Brunei has been a great friend of this country over many years. He has, I think, become a little more devout as he has got older, which is one reason why the sharia code—based, of course, on the Saudi Arabian sharia code—has been put in place. However, I am hopeful that we can continue to have a positive and constructive dialogue on this issue, with Brunei and with a number of countries that we would like to see making changes in future.

Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con)

Looking around the Chamber, I am reminded of some of the transformations that we have seen over generations, which have now become so normal and were so obviously the right decision. I think in particular of the freedom of women to have a say in our public life and in our private life.

One of the things that we have not yet seen is the normalisation of the equality of love. We do not see it totally in the United Kingdom, in cultural senses, and ​we do not see it around the world, in areas where we should. We are talking about this today because a friend of the United Kingdom has decided to turn in the wrong direction. I have heard what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, and I strongly support the words that he has been using. However, I urge him not just to press harder directly, but to use the regional approach, which he has deployed so successfully in many other circumstances, and talk to our partners and friends in other countries in the area.

Brunei is a country that we feel very warmly towards and that, as he knows more than anyone, has a battalion of Gurkhas who do an enormous amount of work in defending the monarchy and the people there. This is a moment when Brunei could step forward, change its mind and become again a bastion for peace and, in this case, an expression of equality and tolerance, as it has been in so many other areas.

Mark Field

I thank my hon. Friend, who knows that area of the world well, for his wise words, to which there is little that I can add. For those who have not visited, Brunei is a beautiful country, and it is a matter of regret for us all that this penal code has come on to the statute book. Because of the high bar for proof and the fact that Brunei has a common law stream in its legal system, I am fairly confident that little will happen in this regard. That is one reason why there has been such surprise in Brunei at the international abhorrence that has been expressed. However, we will do our level best, remembering that Brunei has been a strong friend. We want to encourage it to protect and promote values that I hope will become universal.

Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)

I thank the Minister for early sight of the statement. I also thank him and the shadow Minister for their robust denunciation of the tactics now being taken up by the Sultan—and also, I suppose, in some ways by the Government of Brunei—on sharia law and its implementation on a range of issues, not just LGBT issues. I admit that, as a gay man, it comes as no surprise to me that we live in a world in which people of my identity are still stoned, hanged and murdered because of their having sex with someone of the same gender, along with lesbian women, who are to be whipped.

But this is not just about LGBT issues; there are also the amputation laws, which are directed at children, who could face amputation. We need to be very much aware of that, so I wonder whether the Minister can say something about that. There are also a range of issues around religious freedom in Brunei, or the reduction of it, so I could not stand here and not call for more robust action, in particular through the Commonwealth. The shadow Minister mentioned the Commonwealth, and the fact that we are now at a moment when Commonwealth 2.0 rhetoric is being deployed by many in this place should not be missed either.

We also need to be clear that Brunei is one of 35 states in the Commonwealth where being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is illegal. Indeed, the states that do not criminalise their LGBT citizens are in the profound minority. Given that the Scottish National party’s Westminster group has the largest number of LGBT Members in this place, I am sure that it will come as no surprise that we will be unbending in our support for ​the fundamental human rights that are enshrined in European institutions—and this country is, at present, a member of the European Union.

Let me make it clear that while many Members may see a return to the days of laissez-faire economics and mercantilism as some sort of liberation, SNP Members will be looking very carefully at the way in which the Government deal with this issue through the institutions of the Commonwealth, with which they claim to have great influence.

Let me ask the Minister some direct questions. Will the Government ensure that they register their strongest objections through the Secretary General of the Commonwealth? Will they consider asking for Brunei’s suspension from the Commonwealth in line with the suspension of Zimbabwe, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) —not expulsion but suspension, until it gets its act together? Finally, will they protect the rights of members of the armed forces, who, if they are also members of the LGBT community, should not have to go to a place like Brunei and put themselves in direct danger?

Mark Field

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his words. Obviously, we will take this matter up with the Secretary General of the Commonwealth. Let me say a little about the broader Commonwealth position on LGBT rights, given the context that we have both discussed: more than half the members of the Commonwealth have on their statute books, at least, what we regard as discriminatory legislation.

Using UK funding, the Equality & Justice Alliance is working to create a fairer, more equal and more inclusive Commonwealth for the LGBT community and, more widely, for women and girls. The project involves creating a cross-Commonwealth network and high-level champions, and the alliance is offering technical assistance with the reform of laws that discriminate against, or fail to protect, women and girls and LGBT individuals. We will also take action through the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group. It is currently chaired by Kenya but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we are members by virtue of our having been the Commonwealth Chair-in-Office since last April. That, I think, will provide a space for some very sensitive discussions, which—I hope—will in turn allow discreet engagement through, for instance, the good offices of the Secretary General.

Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con)

As the Minister will recall, I raised this issue during Foreign Office questions on Tuesday. What struck me about his reply to my topical question then, and what strikes me now, is the utter paucity of any proposed Government action. I wonder whether the Minister can give us an explanation.

First, when were we aware that this proposal was coming down the track? It is not just about LGBT citizens. A third of the Bruneian population are not Muslim, and plainly the problem of death for apostasy presents a significant threat to anyone who professes a new belief, in a society in which many different belief systems are present. We have heard about the barbaric practices of amputation and the imposition of the death penalty for adultery. I take no comfort from my right hon. Friend’s reference to the requirement for a certain number of witnesses of those crimes, as confessions are obtained rather more easily in such circumstances.​

This is an utter affront. We knew that it was coming, so why did we not divert it? What exactly are we going to do to ensure that Brunei at least pays a price that can be paid? It will not be paid through loss of its membership of the Commonwealth, given that two thirds of Commonwealth states still have anti-LGBT laws on their statute books.

Mark Field

The sharia criminal law came into being in 2014, and at that point—and certainly when I was in the country last summer—we were well aware that we were heading down a path towards the sharia penal code. We have tried to warn the Bruneian authorities throughout my time as a Minister, and possibly for some time before that.

I reiterate that the new sharia penal code does not supplant the existing common law, which will apply in most cases, and obviously to non-Muslims in Brunei. The burden of proof for conviction under sharia is incredibly high, and there will be no new intrusive efforts at enforcement. However, I understand the frustrations that my hon. Friend has expressed. I can only say that we have tried to give warnings through the diplomatic network, and that the international outcry caused by the imposition of a penal code has probably come as a surprise to many in Brunei. We will continue to make those diplomatic representations. As I have said, I personally take the view that it would be better to try to keep the country within the Commonwealth, and to make the necessary changes through some of the initiatives that we have in play, than to issue threats of expulsion.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend—who takes a robust view on these and, indeed, many other matters—feels that we have been light and lily-livered. I can only reassure him that, certainly during my time as a Minister, we have been aware of the concerns that were coming down the track, and have done our level best to advise Brunei accordingly.

Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West) (Lab)

It is important to note that as well as punishing the other so-called crimes that have been mentioned—obviously they are not crimes—the sharia law prohibits women from having abortions, for which they are subjected to violent punishments, even though that is surely a health matter, and adultery, which is surely a private matter.

Article 1 of the United Nations convention against torture prohibits the use of intentionally inflicted pain as a form of punishment inflicted by a state actor. Brunei is a signatory to the convention, but has not implemented it. We have done so, and we are bound by article 3, which prohibits refoulement. That means that we should not return, expel or extradite anyone to another country if there are substantial grounds for believing that that person will be in danger of being subjected to torture or cruel punishment. What discussions is the Minister having with his counterparts in other Departments about ensuring that we are abiding by the principle of article 3?

Mark Field

I know that the hon. Lady will be leading a debate on this matter in Westminster Hall. Perhaps I will have a second bite of the cherry if, in discussing some of the technical issues, I do not get it right this time round.​

This matter is currently being dealt with through the Foreign Office network rather than through other Departments. Clearly, however, in the light of the UK’s international obligations, it will need to be discussed more widely—with the Ministry of Defence in particular, given the number of UK citizens and Gurkhas who are in the garrison.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)

ISIS pushes gay people off buildings, and now Brunei is threatening to stone gay people to death. Will the United Kingdom take the lead in the Commonwealth in making clear that such punishments are simply incompatible with Commonwealth membership?

Mark Field

As I have said, at the Heads of Government meeting in London last April the Prime Minister could not have made clearer where we stood on these issues. As I have also said, we have tried to work constructively to ensure that changes are made to out-of-date legislation, some which dates from the colonial era. Progress has clearly been made, although perhaps not as rapidly as some Members would like. I believe that trying to utilise the carrot rather than the stick may be the right approach at this stage.

Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)

I thank the Minister for giving me prior sight of his statement, and I welcome the tone that he has taken in recognising the inhumanity of these laws. However, I am disappointed by his willingness to accept that the bar may be set high for convictions, and that that might be acceptable. The fact of the law, and the threat of the law to people who are LGBT or young people who might be coping with recognising their own sexuality, are surely unacceptable.

Further to the comments that have already been made, may I plead with the Minister to try to take action through the Commonwealth? We should never forget that it was not an international outcry but action that defeated apartheid, and perhaps action is what we need here now.

Mark Field

I am not sure that the hon. Lady was in the Chamber at the very second when I was praising her. I knew that she had tried twice to secure an urgent question, and I thought that rather than her being disappointed by the Speaker on a third occasion, there should be a statement. I thank her for her kind words, but I too accept that action is needed. I am not trying to belittle the seriousness of the situation, but I am trying to put in context the likelihood of any of these punishments actually being carried out. It is a sharia penal code that has been introduced. But the hon. Lady makes a strong point, and we will try to work closely with the Commonwealth. She drew a comparison with apartheid; I am not saying we should do anything other than have a sense of urgency, but equally sometimes in international affairs there has to be patience. One need only look at the transformation in this country: we are not all the way there, but there has been a transformation in LGBT rights in this country even in my adulthood over the past 30 years. While I understand the frustrations many have in wanting to see all these things achieved immediately, equally sometimes we have to be patient and move in the right direction. I believe we are in a position to do ​that, but I will make sure the Commonwealth secretary-general is made well aware of the concerns raised in the House today.

Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)

The reason, I suggest, why this House cares so much about the introduction of the sharia penal code in Brunei is partly that the kingdom of Brunei is a long-standing ally and Commonwealth partner, and therefore this is a great disappointment to us all, but partly too because Brunei becomes the first country in east or south-east Asia to introduce the sharia penal code. While the trend in the Commonwealth and the world in general is to liberalise—indeed, that is what the Commonwealth charter counts on all members to do—this is a step in the opposite direction. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether he has any concerns that the introduction of this penal code in Brunei could have an effect on other countries with majority Muslim populations in the region?

Mark Field

My hon. Friend makes a good and wise point. There are obviously other countries in that region with majority Muslim populations, but there is possibly also a sense that there is an exception in the case of the Sultanate of Brunei: as my hon. Friend will be well aware, the connections between it and Saudi Arabian and Qatari doctrine are quite profound. But he makes a good point: whereas on related issues we have made significant progress, we should all be very wary of the fact that there could be a backward movement.

Sandy Martin (Ipswich) (Lab)

I do not in any way doubt the sincerity of the right hon. Gentleman or indeed of Her Majesty’s Government; as he says, nobody should face punishment for who they are or whom they love. However, this situation does set up real difficulties for this country and our relationship with such a country, because of course it is entirely possible that we will have an LGBT member of HMG visiting Brunei on official business; how will we cope with that?

I remember the movement against apartheid, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman remembers it as well from his childhood; it started when the South African regime refused to allow Basil D’Oliveira to play cricket in South Africa. What is our attitude going to be if the Brunei regime starts to make concerns felt about having LGBT members of our armed forces serving in Brunei? We cannot have a sensible relationship with a country that refuses to accept that some people are the way they are, and I feel strongly that the Government need to do more.

May I also add that I believe the right hon. Gentleman misunderstood my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) when she was talking about people seeking asylum in this country? I believe the right hon. Gentleman needs to have a serious conversation with the Home Office—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)

Order. We still have a lot of business to get through this afternoon, including a heavily subscribed debate coming next, so I urge Members to ask short questions, and hopefully they will receive short answers as well.

Mark Field

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.​

I very much respect the hon. Gentleman’s heartfelt concerns. I hope I did not misunderstand what was said earlier; it was on a Home Office matter, and we have not been able to discuss it at length with that Department. He makes a valid point, however, but anyone who goes to Brunei will recognise what a welcoming and open place it appears to be, and that seems so at odds with the idea of having a sharia penal code with all of the potential punishments in place. However, please be assured that we will not be complacent about this matter and will try to ensure that we get some progress along the lines suggested by Members.

Will Quince (Colchester) (Con)

I welcome the Minister’s statement and thank him for repeatedly raising concerns regarding these laws with the Government of Brunei. The penal code introduced in Brunei is nothing less than barbaric. What more can the British Government do to put pressure on the Government of Brunei and ensure the strength of opposition from across the world to the introduction of this punishment is felt?

Mark Field

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The sheer strength of expression here, both in the press and in Parliament, will I think make a strong impression in itself. We will make sure our counterparts, and in particular our high commissioner Richard Lindsay, are made well aware of the universal strength of opinion on this matter and the desire to ensure that we regularise our relations with Brunei partly by seeing genuine progress amidst the concerns raised here today.

Angela Crawley (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP)

I echo the sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), and wish to express my own grave concerns about these changes to the penal code in respect of both stoning and amputation. As hon. Members have rightly outlined, this affects not only the LGBT community but potentially also many young vulnerable children and women in particular. Will the Government continue to exercise their diplomatic and foreign policy efforts in condemning these practices, and at every opportunity call on Brunei to ensure its human rights obligations are upheld? It is shocking and barbaric that in 2019 people can be stoned to death for who they love, so I call on the Minister to simply make every effort possible to bring Brunei into compliance.

Mark Field

I thank the hon. Lady for her words, and I agree. It is important to stress that these threats against what seem like minorities are actually threats to us all—threats to the liberty of all of us. That is the single most important message we will endeavour to get across.

Ross Thomson (Aberdeen South) (Con)

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and fully endorse the actions he says he will take. Can he advise the House on what he will do to proactively engage with international allies, partners and organisations beyond the Commonwealth to lobby Brunei to reverse this abhorrent decision?

Mark Field

I thank my hon. Friend. In part we will try to work with a number of the countries that have already expressed grave concerns. Brunei has a number ​of other trading partners in the EU and elsewhere, and we will try to work together with them and within international organisations such as the United Nations. I will leave it at that, but we are trying to put together some sort of plan and may well say a little more at the Westminster Hall debate next Wednesday.

Sir Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)

I thank the Minister for his unqualified condemnation of these actions by the Brunei Government—these appalling new punishments that are an attack on the LBGT+ community and indeed on vulnerable men, women and children—but can we go further than words? We need to put our money where our mouth is. The Minister was on a trade visit to Brunei in August last year, and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), the British trade envoy to Brunei, was on a trade trip to Brunei at the end of last year. We have open trade talks with the Brunei Government; can we not just bring those to an end as a very clear signal that we will put our support for human rights and our opposition to human rights abuses above trade links, Brexit or no Brexit?

Mark Field

In fairness, my visit last year was more to do with the broader diplomatic relationship, which is extremely strong. It will sadden many people who know Brunei or have Bruneian blood, and who recognise how strong that relationship is, that this outrage has come forth over the last couple of days over this issue. We do not import hydrocarbons from Brunei, although obviously it is a big oil nation, but we believe having open and honest discussions—rather than going down the route of boycotts, for example—is the best way to encourage Brunei to uphold its international human rights obligations and respect individual freedoms. The people-to-people connection is also important. I am very proud of the fact that we have had a good track record of achieving scholarships—getting young Bruneians to come to the UK. Perhaps that is one of the best ways of them understanding the different, but none the less positive, values we have in this country and returning to perhaps a play a role in public life in that country.

Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con)

I am very concerned about the implications for the safety of British nationals who are either in Brunei or planning to visit Brunei, following the shocking introduction of these barbaric and retrograde laws. The Minister has said a little bit about the travel advice that has been provided, but may I press him on that? What is the advice now, and how can he be satisfied that British nationals will indeed be protected?

Mark Field

The travel advice obviously changed when it became evident that the penal code was likely to come into play. It simply explains that there is a penal code and that, under that code, certain behaviours could lead to a variety of punishments. We have raised, and will continue to raise, our specific concerns with the Government of Brunei. Hitherto, we have received reassurances that the common law, rather than sharia law, will continue to be the primary means of administering justice in Brunei. We shall continue to provide consular support to any British nationals, as needed. Some British nationals are working there, some are in the garrison, and others are visiting the country.

Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)

When the right to choose who you love and to be who you are is taken away, other rights, including the right to believe in and follow your own God, quickly follow in being taken away. I welcome the Minister’s statement today. Will he make it clear to the Brunei Government that this is not about being devout, but that it is about being completely misguided?

Mark Field

I think we will try to find slightly more diplomatic language than that. We understand that a sharia code is in play, and that some in Brunei hold that close to their hearts, but my hon. Friend makes a fair point. We obviously want to see the universality of our values, and that is what we in the international community will continue to press for.

Luke Graham (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Con)

Will my right hon. Friend tell us what can be done to champion the virtues of giving people equal rights? When these rights are denied, it is not just a loss for the individual; it is a loss for society as a whole. We have only to look at our own history to see the denial of the rights of individuals such as Alan Turing, and to see the impact that that had not only on our local communities but on our entire nation. Imagine how much further forward computing would be if we had not sterilised him and pushed him towards the destiny that he ended up fulfilling. How do we champion these rights internationally and pull people towards our vision of a more liberal society, so that individuals and society as a whole can benefit?

Mark Field

Amid all the frenzy of what is going on at the moment in British political life, it is worth remembering that just over 100 years ago, the big issue was the right of women to vote. It now seems absurd to us that there even needed to be a debate about that. ​Many women are now legislators, and we have had two women Prime Ministers in the past 100 years. Hopefully there will be a few more to come. Equality has to be recognised, whether it is gender equality or equality in many other fields, not just for a country to fulfil its potential economically but for the fulfilment of the potential of all individuals. To be fair, we and many of our partners try to get that message across, and we will continue to do so.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry that this has taken a little bit longer than we might all have hoped. I thank everyone for their contribution; it has been wonderful to see such unity across the House. I can see that my next-door neighbour, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), is in the Chamber, and it is his birthday today. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] He must have better things to do than being in the House of Commons on his birthday.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to the Minister, my next-door neighbour, for his best wishes, but it is very unkind of him to tell the whole world that it is my birthday—but at 67, I am still here.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)

Thank you for that point of order.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I should like to tell my fellow West Ham supporting friend that there is nothing wrong with being 67, but I am glad that he has got there a bit before me.

Madam Deputy Speaker

It is nice to see an outbreak of good humour in the Chamber.