Theresa May has refused to condemn Downing Street staff who allegedly outed a whistleblower as gay – putting his Pakistani family in danger.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s special adviser Stephen Parkinson came under fire over the weekend after he put out a statement via Downing Street revealing the sexuality of former Brexit campaigner Shahmir Sanni, who had come forward to expose alleged irregularities in the Vote Leave campaign.
Mr Sanni, who volunteered for the supposedly-independent BeLeave group, named Mr Parkinson as one of the Vote Leave officials who secretly guided their campaign in violation of electoral rules.
In his official statement released via Downing Street’s press office, Mr Parkinson hit back by revealing that he had been in a relationship with Mr Sanni at the time, claiming he had only provided advice to him as his boyfriend.
Mr Sanni says the public revelation has forced him to come out to his family in Pakistan, where homosexuality is illegal and strongly taboo – and has left his relatives living in fear of their safety.
Pressed over the issue in Parliament today, Theresa May failed to condemn Mr Parkinson’s actions, and claimed the message circulated by Downing Street was actually a “personal statement” from the adviser – drawing cries of “disgrace” from Labour MPs.
Responding to a question from Labour’s Ben Bradshaw, she said: “Any statements issued were personal statements… they were personal statements… they were personal statements that were issued.
“I of course recognise the importance of ensuring that we do recognise that for some, being outed as gay is difficult because of their family and circumstances. What I want to see is a world where everyone is able to be confident in their sexuality and doesn’t have to worry about such things.”
MPs heckled the PM repeatedly as she claimed the message was “personal”, pointing out that it had been sent via email by Kirsty Buchanan, Downing Street’s Head of Broadcast media, from an official Downing Street email address.
There was no suggestion on the email that it was not an official communication from Downing Street’s press office.
Mr Bradshaw said: “How is it remotely acceptable that when a young whistleblower exposes compelling evidence of lawbreaking by the Leave campaign, implicating staff at Number 10, one of those named issued an officially-sanctioned statement outing the whistleblower as gay and putting his family in Pakistan in danger?
“It’s a disgrace, Prime Minister, you need to do something about it.”
LGBT rights organisation Stonewall has branded the breach of privacy “inexcusable” and dangerous.
It said: “This public disclosure of Sanni’s sexuality was made without his consent. The severity of this breach of confidence cannot be underestimated.
“Telling someone about your sexuality or gender identity must always be a personal decision. No person has the right to take that decision away.
“Publicly outing someone robs that person of the chance to define who they are in their own terms if they even want to. In extreme cases – as in this one – it can also put the lives of that person and their loved ones in danger.
“Outing someone ignores the many valid reasons a person may have for not choosing to be open about their sexuality to every person in their life. Concerns about personal safety to fears about discrimination at work or in their place of worship all play a part in someone’s decision to come out.
“Some LGBT people are not out because of a real need to protect themselves. We do not live in a world that is accepting of everyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Not only does the world still have a long way to go, so does Britain, as this irresponsible indiscretion shows.”
It added: “What has happened to Shahmir Sanni is inexcusable. Outing someone can put lives at risk. We will always stand with and support all LGBT people, whether they are out or not.
“No LGBT person should ever have to live in fear that someone might tell the world about their sexuality or gender identity before they are ready. Only that person will know if they are comfortable and ready to come out.
“That choice and decision must always be respected.”
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Mr Sanni’s fellow whistleblower Chris Wylie called for Parkinson, who is Political Secretary to the Prime Minister, to resign.
Mr Wylie said: “Absolutely he should resign. He should resign for his actions in outing someone and endangering his family, and also for the fact he worked on a programme that resulted in cheating in the referendum.”
He added: “The Prime Minister’s office outed my friend. Number 10 Downing Street labelled ‘official statement’ to journalists around the world outing Shahmir Sanni, whose family in Pakistan had to take security measures for their own safety.
“He was forced to come out to his mum in the middle of the night because Downing Street decided it was appropriate for the government to out someone.”
In his statement, Mr Parkinson had said: “Shahmir became an occasional volunteer for Vote Leave and other Leave campaigns, and we began a personal relationship.
“We subsequently dated for 18 months, splitting up — I thought amicably — in September 2017.
“That is the capacity in which I gave Shahmir advice and encouragement, and I can understand if the lines became blurred for him, but I am clear that I did not direct the activities of any separate campaign groups.”
Mr Sanni responded via an outraged statement through his solicitors.
He said: “It’s sad that Stephen feels he can’t tell the truth about cheating in the Referendum.
“I think he understands why I had to do the right thing and let people know what really happened.
“But I never imagined that he, with the help of Number 10, would choose to tell the world I am gay, in a last desperate attempt to scare me.”
He added: “This is something I’ve never told most of my friends or family, here or in Pakistan, some of whom are having to take measures to ensure their safety.
“He knew the danger it would cause, and that’s why he did it.
“My coming out should have happened at a moment of my choosing – not his or the Government’s.
“Some things are more important than politics and I hope that one day he agrees.”
In a subsequent statement, Mr Parkinson said: “I have seen the statements issued by Shahmir and his lawyers, and am saddened by them.
“They are factually incorrect and misleading.
“My statement to Channel 4 News and The Observer was issued in my personal capacity and was solely a response to the serious and untrue allegations made against me by Shahmir, Chris Wylie, and others.
“It would be surprising if Shahmir, Mr Wylie, or those advising them thought I would be able to defend myself against those allegations without revealing my relationship with Shahmir. Sadly, the allegations they have chosen to make are so serious that I have been compelled to do so.
“I cannot see how our relationship, which was ongoing at the time of the referendum and which is a material fact in the allegations being made, could have remained private once Shahmir decided to publicise his false claims in this way.”
Despite Mr Parkinson claiming his statement was issued in a “personal capacity”, several journalists have come forward with proof that the statement ‘outing’ Mr Sanni was directly released via the Downing Street press office.
Guardian writer Carole Cadwalladr shared a screenshot which shows the statement was sent via email by Kirsty Buchanan, Downing Street’s Head of Broadcast media, from an official Downing Street email address.
She wrote: “This is absolutely indefensible. Number 10’s press office outed a 24-year-old man against his will. Think about it. This was sanctioned and approved by Theresa May’s government.”