Schedule 26 — Hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 5:45 pm on 6th May 2008.

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Photo of Nick Herbert Nick Herbert Shadow Secretary of State (Justice) 5:45 pm, 6th May 2008

The concern is to ensure that the police and prosecutors have a clear understanding of the intention of the House in framing this law. One of the problems has been that in our debates until now it has not always been clear exactly what kinds of words would be outlawed. It is important that we establish such clarity in this House and that we make sure that the proper guidance goes to the police and others, so that the law is properly enforced.

If the law is not properly enforced, and if we pass a law that is abused and even results in arrests—even if no charges are brought—that law will be brought into disrepute. That would not help anybody, least of all the gay community. We all agree that we need to strike the right balance and that the right guidance needs to go to police officers to ensure that temperate comment is not caught by the legislation. In that sense, there is not an enormous amount between my party and the Government. However, we have to discuss the right way to achieve that clarity.

We tabled two amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments. They set out an approach slightly different from that taken in the House of Lords. As the Minister said, the first is to require the Attorney-General, in consenting to a prosecution, to have particular regard to freedom of expression and other articles drawn from the European convention on human rights. The second, related requirement is that guidance must be issued to chiefs of police and Crown prosecutors, drawing their attention to that requirement.

Those are hardly onerous requirements; they are perfectly reasonable safeguards to ensure that those fundamental principles of freedom of expression are considered by the relevant authorities. I did not understand the precise objection to the inclusion of the wording of those articles in the amendment. I see no legal difficulty in repeating them and in requiring the Attorney-General, in considering prosecutions, to have particular regard to them. The advantage would be that the House made plain its intention to hold free speech highly and to stipulate that free speech be properly considered before any prosecution. The Minister herself talked about issuing guidance. Why, then, does she not accept our amendment, which would require such guidance? Our difficulty is that the Minister is now talking about tabling another amendment, which we have not seen. However, our amendment is perfectly reasonable and could be considered.

In the absence of Government support for our approach, we have the approach taken by the Lords in their amendment No. 285, which is similar to that taken in a cross-party amendment tabled in this House at an earlier stage. I should say that the amendment is in no sense a wrecking amendment. The protection for free speech that it seeks would not undermine the fundamental protections to be given to gay people.