Schedule 26 — Hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation

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

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills 6:45 pm, 6th May 2008

I accept that, and that issue must be strictly controlled. If one acts as a public authority, or is in the commercial sector—we have debated this—that is a reasonable balance. I accept what the right hon. Lady says about controlling the right to object to behaviour. That might be the case; however, it is being controlled not by this measure, but by sections 4A and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

I am sure that my hon. Friend David Howarth would accept that none of his solutions would cover the problem of the ludicrous police investigations that have been mentioned. In my constituency, we had a case in which a student—who was, I think, the worse for drink—who asked a police officer if his horse was gay, was arrested under the Public Order Act. That is preposterous. I also found it preposterous that, in Trafalgar square, at a free speech rally—which had been cleared by the police—in support of the Danish cartoonists, someone who was wearing a T-shirt with the cartoon on should be arrested under the Public Order Act because there had been a complaint that someone had been caused distress and alarm. I do not think that the police were acting in the right way. I am grateful to the Minister for offering to meet to discuss the matter, because the guidance that she is promising will not cover that area, and there is an urgent need to ensure that free speech is covered much more widely than the issues that are dealt with by this measure are covered.

We are lucky to be having this debate. It was only because of the abysmal turnout by some peers on the Government side that this amendment got through in the Lords. I cannot understand why the Government are able to get lots of their Members to turn out to vote down reasonable measures but cannot persuade them to vote on this sort of thing. It was the Government's decision to go to 11.30 pm in the House of Lords, yet they were surprised when the amendment was passed.

I do not believe that the Lords amendment should exist; I agree with the Minister entirely on that. There should not be a free speech rider; it is unnecessary and it does not give the victims of incitement to sexual orientation hatred the status that they deserve. As has been pointed out, it is unnecessary because the threshold is high and the offence is narrow. The proposal will cause confusion, as I pointed out to Nick Herbert. Urging persons to refrain from certain conduct might, in itself, be threatening, yet the amendment states that

"for the avoidance of doubt" such behaviour

"shall not be taken of itself to be threatening".

That simply confuses the issue, and brings a lack of clarity. If someone were to say, "Gays had better stop doing that, or else", those words would of themselves be threatening, even without the context that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge thinks is so important.