Schedule 26 — Hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 6th May 2008.

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 5:30 pm, 6th May 2008

I agree about the need to strike an appropriate balance. I began my remarks by saying that there was general agreement across the House about the need to get the balance between these difficult issues right. The hon. Gentleman refers to incidents involving public order offences with a threshold much lower than what we are considering today. I shall deal with the differences between those thresholds later in my remarks, so I hope that he will bear with me. I shall keep his comments in mind, and I want to reassure Members of this and the other place that the Government want to get the balance right.

I believe that we are more or less there. I shall deal specifically with the question of thresholds, as the threshold for the offence proposed in the Bill is higher than the thresholds for the public order offences that have been examined by investigating officers. It is important to note that the thresholds for the latter are much lower, but I shall set out the Government's position in a bid to be as helpful as possible in reassuring those who have concerns.

The Government have said repeatedly that we believe that no additional wording is necessary to safeguard free speech. We have listened to other opinions, and I have consulted. We have tried to take all that into account in the drafting of the provision. We do not want to include in the offence anything that is unnecessary, as that would not make the offence any clearer. Instead, the proposed wording would introduce confusion, which we should avoid in respect of an offence of this sort.

Amendments (a) to (c) are likely to generate confusion. As a public authority, the Attorney-General is already bound by the Human Rights Act 1998 to have regard to the convention on human rights when considering whether to give her consent to a prosecution, so to put on the face of the Bill another requirement that she should do so would be to repeat something that she has to do already. It could also give rise to difficulties with statutory interpretation: when the courts or others look at the legislation, they will ask why Parliament inserted a provision that was already implicit in it. For those reasons, I have concerns about accepting amendments (a) to (c); they do not add anything substantive to the Bill.

I know, however, that those who tabled the amendments are looking to reassure people. My hope is that we can do the same in a slightly different way that does not cause the legal issues or problems with statutory interpretation that the formulations chosen for amendments (a) to (c) do.