Baroness Liz Barker was made a life peer representing the Liberal Democrats in 1999.
She is the party’s Lords Spokesperson for LGBT+ issues and the Voluntary Sector.
Baroness Barker is also a Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Global LGBT+ Rights and is involved with a number of LGBT+ charities.
For many years she worked for Age Concern.
Earlier this week, to mark today’s International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHoBiT), I conducted a socially distanced interview with Liz, who I’ve known for many years and worked with on various issues around LGBT+ equality.
We talked COVID-19, LGBT+ equality, being an ‘Out’ Parliamentarian, and more!
MH: Thanks for doing this interview. I’d like to begin with the present crisis. How has it affected you, both on a personal level and in terms of your work as a member of the upper house?
LZ: Thank you, Much to my surprise I coped better with lockdown than I expected. I had to isolate for the first two weeks, and I set up my office on the kitchen table. I love reading and had expected to get through tons of books, but I have struggled to get through two. I was doing a fair bit of exercise, and I need to get back to that. Last week the government and the House authorities unilaterally proposed huge cuts to Lords expenses. Crucially they’re only paying us for days on which we speak. They don’t pay us for days in which we do preparation or research, or meet government ministers or lobby groups. So for those of us who are working peers our income has gone down by about 95% and that limits our capacity to hold the government to account. Peers have worked hard to learn new tech platforms, and are doing their best in a virtual parliament to hold the government to account, but it is not satisfactory. Yesterday I asked the Health Minister why he said that COVID 19 deaths in care homes have always been included in official figures, when the government advice in March was that people in care homes would be unlikely to be infected, and day after day the nation watched ministers and officials cited the number of deaths in hospitals. The Minister didn’t answer and there was no chance to go back at him. Today when Keir Starmer did the same to the Prime Minister the whole country saw another barefaced Johnson lie. So it is frustrating that when the government has taken sweeping powers and limited civil liberties, which was necessary, they should be open to greater scrutiny, but that is being stymied.
MH: When I recently interviewed Baroness Natalie Bennett she suggested that the necessity of having to find remote ways of working during this crisis will lead, when things return to some kind of normality, to fundamental changes to how Parliament works. Do you agree with that? It sounds like there can be significant restrictions in regards to holding government to account when not physically in the chamber.
LB: I agree that there will be changes, and some of them will be better, greener I hope, and could make Parliament more inclusive. But at the moment, rather like the Downing Street press conference, it is frustrating to see Ministers spouting scripted answers which don’t answer the questions and serious points which peers are making. In the physical proceedings, and in a hybrid to a certain extent you do. If we are not careful we could be paving the way for authoritarian governments to go largely unchallenged and that would be wrong.
MH: I know there’s been surveys looking at how the crisis might have particularly affected LGBT+ communities, some of whom can already feel marginalised in their families/communities. Do you feel, as with poorer and BAME communities, that LGBT+ people are affected in a particular way?
LB: Yes I do. Recently I was honoured to join the board of GiveOut the charity which raises funds for LGBT campaigners and human rights defenders around the world. We launched a COVID 19 emergency response fund and the first grant was made to an LGBT+ organisation in Asia which is busy making sure that people have access to HIV meds, support to people locked up with unsympathetic families or abusive partners. We are a community which is perhaps more reliant than others on the support of chosen families, and in many places, unlike Leicester with its great LGBT centre, we have traditionally relied upon commercial bars and clubs to meet. I do fear that many of those businesses will be under severe pressure for some time. That said, it is always the case that visible minorities are the ones who suffer most, so now is the time for us to show solidarity with those for whom life is tougher than others.
MH: It does appear that some authoritarian regimes in parts of the world are using this crisis as an excuse to crackdown on LGBT+ communities in various ways. Is this something the APPG on Global LGBT+ Rights, which I know you are very involved in as a Vice Chair, is/will be looking at? Do you know how aware of these attacks on LGBT+ communities the Foreign Office is?
LB: Yes indeed. In Hungary Viktor Orban’s use of powers he took because of COVID 19 to end gender recognition was an abuse of human rights. Abuse of police powers to harass LGBT people in Uganda was another. At a time when the lack of world leadership from the USA, Russia and China is woeful, it is very important that sympathetic governments keep their focus on justice (and) equality for all, including our community. Officials in the FCO, and DfID are aware of the vulnerabilities of LGBT communities. In recent years the UK Government has helped to defend people, for example in Commonwealth countries, but given the recent statement by the Minister Liz Truss to the Women and Equalities Committee, I don’t think this Conservative government can be relied on to do the right thing. I fear that the nasty party is back.
MH: Turning to the position re LGBT+ Rights more generally, it seems there is increasing hostility towards some members of our communities; especially Trans, non binary and gender fluid individuals. This interview will be published on IDAHoBiT day. How important is having a day focused on us standing against those who peddle hatred towards LGBT+ people? The theme this year is ‘breaking the silence.’ Many LGBT+ people still do live their lives having to keep their sexuality/gender identity secret in certain situations, don’t they?
LB: Yes, I work closely with trans groups, intersex groups and non-binary people. When the government’s LGBT Action plan was published there was some optimism that long overdue legal reform would happen. Sadly for the last three years there has been a vicious campaign against trans women. It is orchestrated by extreme right wingers from the US, but it is perpetrated by people, many of them women, who are traditionally on the left. Despite a stark lack of evidence, the constant assertions that trans women pose a threat to other women are fanned by journalists. We are not talking about the usual suspects like the Mail and the Murdoch sheets, media such as the Guardian and the BBC have endlessly and relentlessly given credence to views which on any other subject would be subject to journalistic scrutiny and dismissed. Worst of all, lesbians and gay men, many of whom know what it is like to be subject to discrimination and misrepresentation, are now subjecting trans women to that same unfair treatment. That is utterly disgraceful.
MH: You’re one of the most high-profile LGBT+ Parliamentarians and do a huge amount for our communities. What is life like as an Out Parliamentarian? Are there still those who are negative about it?
LB: That is the case at the moment, and I hope it can remain so. I wasn’t able to come out for many years for personal reasons. To work every day under the threat of being outed took a toll on me, but also friends and colleagues who worried for me. When I could come out I did and I decided to use my position and influence to make life better for others, especially those who still face discrimination in their communities. There are now more LGB parliamentarians, sadly no trans MPs or peers yet, but I do hope that the brilliant campaigner Helen Belcher can break that barrier. I co-founded the APPG on Global LGBT Rights and, despite current restraints on the Lords imposed by government, I hope to continue that work. And I have worked a lot on building LGBT issues into discussions about equalities, especially with parliamentarians from abroad. I try to help activists from other countries too. I consider it my duty to help as many groups and activists from our communities to engage effectively with parliament and government. I hope that I can continue to do this work, because in this COVID world I think it is more necessary than ever, because since Brexit there has been a rise in intolerance of minorities and that is unhealthy, for everyone.
MH: And, finally, I appreciate party politics isn’t the top priority for anyone at the moment or, at least, shouldn’t be, but how do you think the Lib Dems are faring at present? We feel a little bit direction-less at the moment, in my opinion. How do we regain the success of the local and European elections a year ago?
LB: I am writing this just before the publication of the view of the 2019 General Election, which I have not seen. I contributed to that via an article which I wrote for Liberator in which I was forthright about the failures our campaign, who should take responsibility. In the current political situation we are doing what a responsible opposition party should do. We support the Government when it does the right thing to fight the virus e.g. giving resources to the NHS and being critical when it doesn’t e.g. not giving resources to local government to get PPE and staff to care homes. I also think that Ed has rightly identified the failure to support small business, and the need to build environmental concerns into every stage of the recovery. Liberal Democrats have always been the champions of liberty and empowerment of local communities and those two things will be of huge importance as society works out what is the new normal. Moreover we are the party which sees the importance of working locally, nationally and internationally to build security and resilience. The challenge for all of us is to communicate a vision of a future in which there is security and hope for everyone. I am confident that if we keep listening to people in our communities and devising solutions to the economic and social problems which this pandemic has exacerbated, we will win through.
MH: Thanks again, Liz, and best wishes for IDAHoBiT (when this will be published.)
LB: Thank you. You too.
My next interviewee will be former Labour MP, Andy Reed.