Schedule 26 — Hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation

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

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Photo of Ann Widdecombe Ann Widdecombe Conservative, Maidstone and The Weald 6:30 pm, 6th May 2008

In addressing the issue, we need to consider the context in which provisions in the Bill for the avoidance of doubt are now perceived as necessary. If the Bill, with its high threshold, to which the Minister rightly referred, had been the only similar piece of legislation in the past five years, the concern would have been nothing like as great. However, the Bill is another measure in a raft of legislation that either has already been used or has the potential to be used to curb freedom of speech.

That is why there is concern about the additional measure and why, despite whatever the threshold in the Bill may be, we believe it necessary to include something specific. That is why I support the amendment that Lord Waddington moved in the other place, and which has been sent to us, and why I co-sponsored a similar amendment in an earlier stage of the Bill in this House.

I should like to refer briefly—you will not allow me to refer to it in any depth, Madam Deputy Speaker—to some of that previous legislation. That includes the interpretation of the Public Order Act 1986 that led to a series of incidents, which my hon. Friend Andrew Selous enumerated, that have given rise to considerable concerns about the value that we in Britain now put on free speech.

In the case of the Lancashire couple who had asked to distribute Christian literature in registry offices alongside the registry office's own literature on civil partnerships, the police visited their home and spent an hour and 20 minutes questioning them. That is the first time in this country—or at least the first such incident that has been publicised—that the police have knocked on someone's door not for something that they have done, but for an opinion that they have expressed.

The same thing happened to the children's author Lynette Burrows, who in the course of a radio interview expressed the view—in response to questioning, not gratuitously—that she did not believe that homosexual couples should be allowed to adopt. She had the police on the phone within a short time of arriving home, for an opinion that she had expressed. I shall not go into all the others, such as Iqbal Sacranie, who have also been scrutinised. However, although we are not talking about the KGB knocking on the door at dawn or people being shanghaied off to the Lubyanka, it is now an established fact that, under public order legislation, people have been visited by the police for expressing an opinion. That has raised a lot of concern in the country.

That legislation was followed in fairly short order by the sexual orientation regulations, in which, for the first time, people have been obliged to participate in activity that they do not agree with. For example, a Christian printer was obliged to print homosexual literature—he was not obliged to print abortion, hunting or any other sort of literature, but he was obliged to print that.

The concern has grown. Now that we have the current Bill, it has crescendoed. I accept what the Minister said about the threshold. If the Bill had appeared in isolation, we would not be so worried, but we cannot take it in isolation from how other legislation has been interpreted and implemented. There is now a serious concern—principally, but by no means exclusively, on the part of religious faiths—that our ability to express what we believe and to refuse to participate in activity in which we do not believe is being severely curtailed.

My hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack referred to his upbringing, in which Voltaire apparently played a significant part. I grew up in a less philosophical household. Nevertheless, it was in the immediate post-war period, when people had lost life and limb, and shed blood—husbands had not come back; sons had not come back—to fight the Nazis. Yet in that very same society, Colin Jordan and Oswald Mosley were allowed to hold their rallies, because we believed in free speech.

At the height of the cold war, when we had a whole raft of weapons pointing straight at us from the Warsaw pact countries—we tend to forget that now—people were allowed to stand for Parliament as communists. They would not be elected, but they were allowed to stand. People were allowed to distribute communist literature on street corners. [ Interruption. ] For all I know, the Justice Secretary may have done so in his youth. I certainly did not do that, but we were allowed to do so if we wanted to. There was no restriction on such activity, despite the huge level of social disapproval, because of free speech.

In the days when homosexuality and abortion were unlawful, there were campaigners who wanted to change those laws, in the face of huge social disapproval. Nobody prevented them from exercising their right of free speech. Our society was different then and had a completely different set of values, but nobody prevented those people from exercising their right to campaign for a change to those laws. However, now that the laws have changed, the rights of people to object to some of those changes are being curtailed.

That is, if I may put it this way, a libertarian dictatorship. That is our concern on the Conservative Benches. We are not trying to undo the legislation or say that people should be able to be cruel or discriminatory towards somebody on the grounds of sexual orientation. We are merely saying that, in the context of recent legislation and the social way in which free speech is now being curtailed, we want the Bill to make it explicit that if someone disapproves of something or believes something to be wrong, that should not, of itself, be an offence.

David Howarth poured scorn on the term "of itself".