Previous Section Index Home Page

24 Mar 2009 : Column 187

The low level of the personal expenses allowance compromises the quality of life and dignity of older people by restricting their ability to meet their essential physical and social well-being needs. An amount of £21.15 is simply not enough.

My Bill would place a duty on the Secretary of State for Health to undertake an annual review of the level of the personal expenses allowance, including public consultation, so that it can be increased to a level that guarantees a decent, minimum standard of living. Thrifty and frail pensioners in this country deserve a better deal than they are getting on such matters from this Government. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr. Paul Burstow, Steve Webb, Sandra Gidley, Tom Brake, Susan Kramer and Greg Mulholland present the Bill.

Mr. Paul Burstow accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 June, and to be printed (Bill 80).

24 Mar 2009 : Column 188

Coroners and Justice Bill

[2nd Allocated Day]

[Relevant Documents: The Second Report from the Justice Committee, Session 2008-09, The Coroners and Justice Bill, HC 185, and the Government’s response, HC 322, and the Eighth Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2008-09, Legislative Scrutiny: Coroners and Justice Bill, HC 362.]

Further consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee.

New Clause 11

Guidance on offences that involve hatred on grounds of sexual orientation

‘(1) The Director of Public Prosecutions, in consultation with the Attorney General, must issue guidance to prosecutors explaining the operation of the offences under Part 3A of the Public Order Act 1986 (c. 64) that involve hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

(2) Chief constables must ensure that the contents of the guidance to prosecutors issued under subsection (1) are made known, in an appropriate form, to officers in their force.

(3) When considering whether to consent to a prosecution for an offence falling within subsection (1), the Attorney General must have particular regard to—

(a) guidance issued under subsection (1), and

(b) the importance of the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, respect for private and family life and freedom of assembly and association provided by the European Convention on Human Rights.’.— (David Howarth.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.41 pm

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

New clause 37— Incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation: association with child sex offences

‘(1) The Public Order Act 1986 is amended as follows.

(2) After subsection 29B (1) insert—

“(1A) “Threatening” in subsection (1) extends to words, behaviour or written material which asserts or implies an association between sexual orientation and a propensity to commit child sex offences under Part 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 (c. 42).”’.

Amendment 1, in page 34, line 5, leave out Clause 58.

David Howarth: We now come to a short debate about the aspects of the Bill involving homophobic hatred. The offence of using threatening words or behaviour with intent to stir up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation was created by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. Anyone who knows anything about the lives of gay people in this country knows why the provision was necessary and important.

Homophobic bullying and intimidation are distressingly common occurrences. Recent research shows that one in eight lesbian or gay people have experienced hate crime in the past three years. The problem is not only distressingly common but can have lasting deleterious effects on the lives and well-being of the victims. I hope
24 Mar 2009 : Column 189
that no one in this debate will question the need for the provision; if they do, I hope that they will be honest enough to say so openly.

This debate focuses on a particular aspect of the 2008 Act. Some religious groups have said they are afraid that the new law will catch them because their religion strongly disapproves of homosexuality, and their representatives or preachers want to continue to say so publicly. It is important, however, to stress what the 2008 Act says and what the new crime is. The Act says:

That means that the words have to be both threatening and intended to stir up hatred. It is not enough for the words to be insulting or offensive; they have to threaten. Nor is it enough that the words may have the effect of stirring up hatred; they have to be specifically intended to do so.

The crime is difficult to prove at the best of times. If a charge was brought against a saintly religious leader whose intention was to save souls, I cannot see how anyone might think that that offence had been committed.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

David Howarth: This is a very short debate. Usually I give way freely but, if hon. Members will forgive me, I will not be able to do so with the same freedom in this debate.

The problem is not what the law says, but the fact that some rather odd investigations have been started—not under the provisions that I have mentioned, which are not yet in force, but under different ones. That has given rise to a great deal of anxiety and I am sure that we will hear about the cases in the course of the debate. However, it is important to realise that those cases are brought under entirely different provisions. It is right to say that people should not have to suffer unreasonable and unfounded investigation.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): Cases in which people have been exposed to this sort of intrusive investigation, even though no prosecutions have been brought, have been those where the existing laws have been stretched even further to warrant the police coming and knocking on their doors. Should not the hon. Gentleman bear that in mind when considering whether this legislation, which is very specific, may be a mistaken encouragement to others in authority to do likewise?

4.45 pm

David Howarth: That is why it is very important that we have specific legislation to give guidance to the authorities about how they implement the new laws. The offence that is usually referred to, as in the cases of Miguel Hayworth and Stephen Green, concerns section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, whereby it is a crime to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby. In my view, that provision is in itself a violation of freedom of speech. It seems to allow prosecution merely for insults, and for insults that are merely likely to cause distress but have not necessarily done so.

24 Mar 2009 : Column 190

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): And were not intentional.

David Howarth: And without intention, as my hon. Friend says. That is why yesterday I would have supported his amendment, which we never reached, to remove the word “insulting” from that provision. That answers the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).

The provisions regarding hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation are not the same—insult is not enough; likelihood of distress is not enough—but some people are anxious about the possibility that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service will not recognise the difference. I accept that that anxiety exists and that we should do something about it—the question is what. There are two proposals on the table.

The first is to do what the 1986 Act already says following the so-called Waddington amendment, which went through after extensive ping-pong between this House and the other place last year, when the Government eventually gave way. I thought they were wrong to do so, and divided the House right at the end of that process. They did it because they were up against a deadline on another provision in the Bill about industrial action in prisons. However, they made it clear that they were with me in spirit, if not in the Lobby.

The Waddington amendment is sometimes called the free speech amendment, but it completely fails to mention freedom of expression. It says:

There are many problems with the Waddington amendment. First, it is not aimed at the problem that it is supposed to solve. The problem lies not in the content of the law—a point that it seems to admit itself by using the phrase,

but in a possible mistaken interpretation of the law by the police and the CPS. If the police pay no attention to the wording of the offence itself, why should we believe that they will pay attention to the wording of the Waddington amendment? Secondly—this is the most important criticism—it either achieves nothing at all or is attempting to do something that we should oppose. If it really is

it adds nothing to the law at all, but if it is read in a different way, as a “deeming” provision, it is entirely unacceptable.

A “deeming” provision is a statutory section that tells courts to ignore reality but to treat one thing as another. Last year, we passed about 85 “deeming” provisions. In the Energy Act 2008, for example, we deemed a place where uranium was enriched to be premises owned or used for the purposes of the Crown, so that the Official Secrets Act would apply even when the place was owned by someone else. It is very common for us to do this. The difficulty with the Waddington amendment is that it can be read as deeming discussion of sexual conduct and so on not to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred even when the words actually were threatening and were intended to stir up hatred. That is particularly
24 Mar 2009 : Column 191
worrying in the case of urging persons to modify such conduct, which is what the amendment refers to. Such urging could certainly be done in a threatening way and with the necessary intent. There is a danger that the Waddington amendment could be read in a deeming manner so that a person doing such urging in a threatening way, with intent, would not count as having done so.

Proponents of the Waddington amendment put a lot of weight on the phrase “of itself”, but that phrase has at least two possible meanings. It could mean—this is the hopeful interpretation—something like, “But if the way this was done indicates threats or intentions, the provision does not apply.” “Taken of itself” might mean that, but it could mean something rather different, such as, “Ask only whether the acts complained of are within this provision, and ignore the context.” That would mean that “of itself” was an excluding phrase, rather than an including one. The latter interpretation would fit closely with the interpretation of the Waddington amendment as a deeming provision, which is a grave danger. That is why the Government are absolutely right to propose removing the Waddington amendment from the legislation. It is either useless or dangerous. I do not, however, think that the Government are right to offer nothing in its place, which is where new clause 11 comes in.

New clause 11 would meet head-on the problem of mistaken interpretations that lead to fruitless and distressing investigations. It would do so by requiring the Director of Public Prosecutions to issue guidance to prosecutors on the meaning of the offence, and crucially, it would require chief constables to make the content—or for those Members who were here yesterday, the gist—of that guidance known to police officers. New clause 11 would also introduce a real free speech element by requiring the Attorney-General, whose consent is necessary for any prosecutions to go ahead, to have regard to all the relevant rights and freedoms in the Human Rights Act before giving that permission.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is placing enormous reliance on guidance to be issued by the authorities—the Crown Prosecution Service or the police. I have an extract from the guidance on prosecuting cases of homophobic and transphobic crime, issued by the Crown Prosecution Service in November 2007. It describes homophobia and transphobia as

Surely that is hugely wide-ranging. Parliament has no say in this matter, and we could be faced with a situation where such an interpretation means that anyone who expresses a dislike of this kind of behaviour would be caught by the CPS under its interpretation of the law.

David Howarth: But that guidance has nothing to do with this aspect of the Bill because it has not yet been brought into force. I am proposing guidance specifically
24 Mar 2009 : Column 192
about that aspect; the word “homophobia” does not exist in the provisions we are talking about. Furthermore, the guidance would have to be issued after consultation with the Attorney-General. That means that there will be accountability to this House over what that guidance says, through the Attorney-General or the Solicitor-General.

The effect of the second part of the new clause would be that the Attorney-General would also have to have regard to all rights of freedom of expression before a prosecution was brought. That would feed back through the system and create at least some hope of a judicial review of a decision to go ahead with a prosecution, which there would not normally be. New clause 11 is far more focused on the real problem than the Government’s provisions and would help in a much less dangerous way, but it is capable of meeting genuine anxieties that have arisen in religious communities. It is necessary to do something of this nature rather than, as the Government suggest, do nothing at all.

Dr. Evan Harris: May I bring my hon. Friend back to the fact that there are complaints, which I recognise as genuine, about misguided police investigations and the questioning of individuals who express an honest view? Although I disagree with that view, I absolutely accept their right to express it. Would not a combination of the production of guidance and reform of section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 to remove the word “insulting” not only deal with worries about clause 58 but solve those problems?

David Howarth: I am very glad that my hon. Friend has brought me back to his proposal to remove the word “insulting” from section 5 of the 1986 Act, because that would be a very important reform and I hope that the Government will take it up at some point.

Finally, I wish to speak to new clause 37, which is in my name and that of my hon. Friend. It is an attempt to ensure that a particularly despicable form of homophobic intimidation comes within the meaning of “threatening” in the Act. That is the disgusting technique employed by certain political groups including the British National party, alleging that gay people have a propensity to be paedophiles and commit offences against children. That particular form of intimidation is not just unpleasant but literally life-threatening. I therefore hope that the Government will accept new clause 37 as well as new clause 11.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I hope later formally to press amendment 1 and to have the opportunity to vote on it. It has been signed by 14 other hon. Members of all parties.

We have heard from the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) about new clause 11, and it is gratifying that Liberal Democrat Front Benchers recognise that there is a need for some reassurance about free speech on the statute book. Sadly, I do not feel that the new clause would work, and I shall say why later if I have time. Having heard the hon. Gentleman’s explanation, I still do not understand why they oppose so vehemently the inclusion of a simple free speech clause, which is much more likely to be read and followed by police and prosecutors than page after page of guidance. Either the Liberal Democrats are serious about protecting free speech or they are not, and I cannot understand why
24 Mar 2009 : Column 193
they played such an important role in securing a free speech clause in the case of the religious hatred offence, but oppose a much narrower free speech clause in the case of the homophobic offence.

The so-called Waddington free speech clause has now been law for 10 months, although by a quirk of how this place works the incitement law itself has not yet come into effect. If the offence had been in operation, and there was evidence that the free speech clause was being abused in the unacceptable way that the Government and the Liberal Democrats claim it could be, their case would be significantly stronger. However, I do not think that anybody really believes that such abuses are possible.

The wording of the free speech clause simply does not lend itself to the drastic and repugnant misuse that is alleged. Even Stonewall, which the Liberal Democrats often cite in evidence, does not appear to think that it does. Its briefing note, which came to all of us, stated that clause 58

Next Section Index Home Page