Schedule 26 — Hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 6th May 2008.

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 7:00 pm, 6th May 2008

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I never said any such thing—that any particular group deserves more defence from attack than any other particular group. What I was trying to say is that during the passage of this Bill the House has dealt seriously with these issues. There are, and always will be, rights that clash. We have never had total freedom of speech with absolutely no restraint on it. That has never been true.

I hear what Miss Widdecombe said and I am grateful to her for not arguing with me about the high threshold. She made some points about context. Similarly, Nick Herbert talked about reassurance. He argued—Sir Patrick Cormack made the same point—that those who express their views and beliefs in a temperate way should not be constrained from so doing by legislation, and I agree. It would not be possible to make out this offence with the very high threshold it has if temperate language were being used to express a view. The offence quite clearly requires words or behaviour that are "threatening or intended to stir up hatred".

Many examples of some of the ludicrous investigations referred to around the Chamber have not been brought under Bill, as it is not on the statute book yet. They were brought under various parts of public order legislation, which has much lower thresholds, such as words or behaviour "threatening, abusive or insulting", which are "intended" or "likely" to stir up hatred. All around, that threshold is much lower.

I understand the concern of many Conservative Members. I do not denigrate it. I am not as concerned about it as they are, but I nevertheless understand it because we all believe that freedom of speech is important in this country. I believe that focusing on ensuring that those who investigate crime—the police and those responsible for deciding whether charges should be brought in individual cases, namely the Crown Prosecution Service prosecutors—are those who need to be clear about what this Bill means. That also applies to the other raft of legislation that, rather than thresholds, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said provided the context of her concerns and motivated her support for the Lords amendment.

The CPS published its refreshed policy in "Guidance on prosecuting cases of homophobic and transphobic crime" on 27 November last year, which post-dated some of the issues and cases cited by Opposition Members. It is a cautious policy that rightly encourages the police to take very early advice from the CPS in considering individual cases. Some of the examples cited were when individual police officers over-interpreted current legislation, partly perhaps because the thresholds are lower, but also perhaps because the police do not come across these cases every day. They are trying to do their job in good faith, but they have gone a bit too far.

I think it will help if the CPS tells the police that they should ask it about such matters at an early stage, and that the revising and updating of the ACPO hate crime manual will make it easier to make it clear to investigating officers at a lower level what kind of behaviour should be caught by the Public Order Act and what kind should not. However, the threshold for this offence under the Bill is very high, and in those circumstances I am not persuaded that we need the caveat sent down to us from another place.