Labour puts pressure on Government to be firmer about Russia's gay rights abuses

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Labour is urging the Government to take a much tougher line against Russia’s stance on gay rights during the Winter Olympics in Sochi starting a week tomorrow.

The Opposition is worried that ministers attending the Games will adopt a “softly, softly” approach for fear of jeopardising David Cameron’s attempts to rebuild relations with President Vladimir Putin after a frosty period in recent years.

In a letter to Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary and Equalities Minister, Labour said: “The whole country will be behind our fantastic athletes as they prepare to compete for Britain at the Winter Olympics. However, while the Games will rightly be a time for celebration, they must also be a moment of awareness.”

Gloria De Piero, the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, and Kerry McCarthy, a Labour foreign affairs spokeswoman, expressed concern about a law passed in Russia last year restricting the freedoms of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and reports of horrific violence and abuse against them.

The two Labour frontbenchers urged Mrs Miller to meet LGBT activists during her visit to Sochi; raise LGBT rights in her meetings with Russian officials and work with gay and human rights organisations to develop stronger links between UK and Russian campaigners.

Labour has also pressed for Britain to follow the lead of the United States by including gay sportsmen and women in its official delegation, but that is unlikely to happen.

Mrs Miller, who will be accompanied in Sochi by Helen Grant, the Sports Minister, insists that they are not playing down the gay rights issue. The Government has promised more money to the gay rights group Stonewall for its work in Russia, but the amount has not yet been decided.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Culture Media and Sport said: “There are some well-documented concerns about recent changes in Russian law which affect the LGBT community. The Government is absolutely clear that freedom of speech and human rights are universal and should apply equally to all people. That is why the Government is backing Stonewall’s work with Russian human rights agencies to support LGBT people in Russia. We believe that the best way to effect change is to engage in open dialogue.”

In a letter to gay rights organisations in the UK and Russia, Mrs Miller said: “We believe that keeping the channels of conversation open is the best way to affect change and that it is more fruitful to engage and challenge prejudices than stay away from the Games.

“Throughout last year, we engaged frequently with the Russian government. I visited Russia last December. During the trip I met with both Russian Government ministers and NGO groups ahead of Sochi where the promotion and protection of human rights was discussed.  We regularly make clear to Russia that human rights are universal and should apply equally to all people.” 

Mr Cameron will not attend the Winter Olympics but Downing Street sources say that should not be interpreted as a snub.