Humanists UK has expressed alarm and disappointment at the appointment of Fiona Bruce MP as the new Prime Minister’s global envoy on the human right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). Fiona has been a committed opponent of FoRB for the non-religious at home – for many years, the most committed and active opponent in Parliament – as well as a strong opponent of the human rights of women and the human rights of LGBT people.
Her behaviour on the human rights of the non-religious includes:
- Ms Bruce has taken action to block the teaching of non-religious worldviews in English schools, which courts have said is required by the human right to FoRB and which treaty bodies such as the OSCE, of which the UK is a member, have made clear is part and parcel of FoRB. In 2016, Fiona Bruce was elected Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on RE – an election she orchestrated without informing the then-secretariat, the RE Council, the subject association for RE. She then removed the REC as the secretariat, and held a meeting of the Group solely to amend its purpose statement from being to ‘advocate rigorous education for every young person in religious and non-religious world views’ to remove ‘and non-religious’. The vote passed – something that was then condemned by the RE Council and the National Association of Teachers of RE at the time.
- Prior to that, in 2013, she lobbied DfE ministers against the REC’s curriculum framework for RE at key stage 1-3, opposing its equal inclusion of non-religious worldviews as it is of the major religions. And in 2014 she similarly lobbied ministers in opposition to the inclusion of non-religious worldviews in GCSE and A level RS.
- In 2016 Fiona hosted the parliamentary launch of a report advocating that the then-mooted new Bill of Rights for the UK must be ‘based on Christianity’.
- In 2018 she signed an early day motion calling for conscience clauses that allow medical professionals to opt out of performing abortions, on the grounds of religion, to be expanded to other procedures. This could well prevent people from accessing medical care, which could be a violation of their right to life.
- Also in 2018, she signed an early day motion calling on the House of Commons to encourage people to pray more, so that they ‘[could] be closer to God’ – which, if it did, would be a violation of citizens’ right to freedom of religion or belief.
- And in 2015 she signed an early day motion in favour of compulsory worship in schools, calling on the House of Commons to ‘reaffirm the position that currently exists which teaches children the importance of acknowledging God.’ This is a violation of young people’s freedom of religion or belief.
On women’s rights, Ms Bruce is, of all MPs, the most prominent and active opponent of abortion – something the UK accepts is a human right for women. She is the Chair of the ‘Pro-Life’ APPG, and has tabled several bills aimed at curtailing Britain’s abortion provisions. This is very much at odds with the UK Government’s own policy on global women’s rights, in particular as relates to sexual and reproductive health, including where it spends its development aid around the world. In 2019 Ms Bruce voted against decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland.
On LGBT rights, in 2016 she was on the advisory panel for and spoke at the launch of another report that called for the law to be amended to require employers to accommodate the religious beliefs of employees, even if that results in discrimination against others. For example, it argued against the judgment in the case of the Christian B&B owners who weren’t allowed to refuse accommodation to a same-sex couple, and that of the Christian registrar who wasn’t allowed to refuse to perform civil partnership ceremonies. The statutory primacy that this would give to the prejudices of religious people is incompatible with the human rights framework of which FoRB is a part. Ms Bruce also voted numerous times in Parliament in 2013, 2014, and 2019 against extending the civil right to marriage to same-sex couples, both in England and Wales, and in Northern Ireland.
Ms Bruce has, on at least two occasions, spoken in Parliament about the persecution of atheists in Islamic countries. But that doesn’t offset her wider record of seeking to increase discrimination against the non-religious, particularly at home, nor her operating completely outside of the universal human rights framework in a number of policy areas that intersect with freedom of belief and conscience.
Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:
‘We are not alarmed by Fiona Bruce’s appointment because we hold any personal animus against her, but because her record both shows her to be an opponent of freedom of belief for the non-religious, and as someone who does not treat freedom of religion or belief as one of a family of human rights that are universal, indivisible, and interrelated. Her actions and convictions are perfectly legitimate in a free country but they are incompatible with the UK’s stated commitments on FoRB.
‘We have written to the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to convey our concerns and the harm that this appointment will do to FoRB both at home and abroad.’
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.