Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has said he will travel to Qatar to attend the World Cup as he faced criticism for telling gay fans not to protest while visiting the country where homosexuality is illegal.
The Cabinet minister gave the first confirmation on Monday that he will attend the football tournament controversially being hosted by the Middle Eastern nation.
Labour MP Chris Bryant accused him of handing gay fans travelling to Qatar a “slap in the face” by telling them to comply with the local laws.
Anyone found participating in same-sex sexual activity in Qatar can be punished by up to seven years in prison, while there are also concerns about thousands of migrant workers having died in Qatar since it won the rights to host the World Cup.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and his frontbench are boycotting the tournament – which begins on Sunday – over concerns for LGBTQ rights, the rights of women and for the workers who have lost their lives.
But Mr Cleverly told the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee: “I will be going.”
He said he would be attending “for a number of reasons”, adding: “Because I’m a foreign secretary and it is my job to ensure British visitors stay safe.”
He added: “I’ve visited Qatar in the lead-up to the World Cup and when I go to the World Cup I will be speaking to the security authorities to ensure that English and Welsh and whatever other British fans who are going to the World Cup remain safe.”
Mr Bryant pressed the Foreign Secretary on whether he would advise gay fans to demonstrate while in Qatar during a heated exchange.
“No I wouldn’t,” Mr Cleverly said.
“When British nationals travel overseas they should respect the laws of their host country.”
Mr Bryant was adamant that no fans should be travelling to the tournament.
“I don’t think the World Cup should even have been given to Qatar because workers have been killed in building the buildings, migrants have been treated appallingly and gay men are regularly entrapped by police officers and then sent to prison – particularly if you’re a Muslim in Qatar you can face the death penalty,” he said.
“So I don’t think any of it should be happening but then you come out and say gay people should respect Qatar – it does feel a bit of a slap in the face.”
Mr Cleverly responded: “There will be LGBTQ+ football fans going to Qatar, I want them to be safe. Genuinely my question is, for those gay fans who want to go watch the football, what advice realistically should I give other than the advice I believe will keep them safe.”
He said he has told the Qatari authorities about “how important we feel that they should respect gay fans” and insisted “we’re very proud that we champion gay rights around the world”.
The World Cup kicks off on Sunday. England play Iran on Monday before Wales faces the USA.
Foreign Office advice notes “any intimacy between persons in public can be considered offensive, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or intent”.
On Monday, Sir Keir told broadcasters: “My position on Qatar is very clear, I’m not going to go and none of my frontbench will go.
“And that’s because of the record in relation to the workers that have lost their lives, in the construction of some of the facilities, with no trade unions there to represent them, the LGBT issues that arise and the oppression of women.”
But he said Welsh Labour leader Mark Drakeford is in a “different position”, as he attends as Wales’s First Minister.
Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said: “It’s an insult to LGBT+ fans that James Cleverly will travel to Qatar before even having apologised for his prehistoric suggestion that they should ‘compromise’ on their sexuality.
“Instead of doubling down, Cleverly should retract his remarks and secure concrete assurances from the highest levels in the Qatari government that fans will not face criminal sanction for loving who they love.
“Cleverly should be standing up for British values not defending the discriminatory laws of another country. Football is for everyone.”