As this is a short debate, I shall try to keep my remarks as short as possible. David Howarth has raised an important issue, and I think that there is common ground between us that the right to freedom of speech and expression must be protected. It must be protected in terms of how a statute would be interpreted in court, but it also has to be interpreted, to use an expression often used in the past by Dr. Harris, against the chilling effect that a statute can have if it is mistakenly applied by those in authority. As David Taylor rightly highlighted, there are, unfortunately, quite a number of examples in which laws—not this law, but others that in many ways stretch even further—have been applied in an oppressive way against perfectly respectable people. We have to keep that in mind when we come to legislate.
The hon. Member for Cambridge says that he considers that the law drafted last year—without Lord Waddington's saving clause—would be sufficient and all right if we simply had guidelines. I have to say to him that I have some anxiety about using guidelines in that way. I accept that guidelines may be of some utility, but the fact of the matter is that if guidelines are disregarded and a legal process against an individual starts to get ratcheted up, there is nothing to stop it until the matter gets into the courts; and by then, as we know, a great deal of damage has been done in many cases to the individuals concerned in terms of stress, their reputation and the anxiety they are placed under—all quite needlessly. It thus seems to me that it would be sensible for the House to consider whether having a saving clause would help.
Now, Lord Waddington, as well as having been a past Home Secretary, and, I believe, a man of moderate views— [Interruption.] Yes, a man of moderate views, I suggest to my hon. Friend John Bercow. Lord Waddington has also been a lawyer. When I listened to the comments of the hon. Member for Cambridge, it prompted me to look again at the saving clause to see whether it contained the mischief of being a deeming provision along the lines that he identified. He has clearly raised a serious issue for the House to consider. I have to say, however, that having looked at the provision and read it over and over again, I do not see that it can have the possible effect that he has suggested. The reason for that is the appearance of the two words "of itself" in its penultimate line which refers to something that
"shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred".
It seems to me that those words make it absolutely plain that if a person carries out a discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices that is accompanied by threatening language, those words "of itself" would immediately take that person outside the scope of the saving clause. I have to say that I just do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's analysis that the saving clause could be used to justify people coming forward and using hateful terminology, language and threats.
The more I listen to that argument, the more I take the view that a saving clause is required, so let me explain briefly to the House why I think this is so important. First, it will provide comfort and reassurance to people that they can continue to express their views. One of the things we are experiencing at the moment in this country is that people of moderate views on any side of an argument are increasingly deterred from expressing their views at all, but those who are full of extreme opinion, whether they be at one end of the spectrum or the other, are not deterred in any way by the law and, in fact, have a free field for themselves. That is not good for the health of our democracy or our civic life. We also need to consider that when Parliament enacts legislation in this way, groups and individuals will undoubtedly attribute to it meanings that Parliament may not have intended.
I thought it worth looking at Stonewall's briefing, because I have a high regard for Stonewall and its campaign for gay rights. To support its analysis of why the new offence was needed and why it opposed the saving clause, it presented a number of examples. One involved rap lyrics expressing great hatred, such as "Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope". Quite apart from the fact that I would expect that to be caught by existing law, I feel completely comfortable with the idea of enacting legislation of the kind that we passed last summer, which will criminalise it.
Stonewall says that another example of the sort of thing that it would like halted is a website which describes, in referring to homosexuality generally,
"young people who are being drawn into a lifestyle characterised by disease, degradation, death and denial."
When I was talking recently to my hon. Friend Alan Duncan, who is a very old friend of mine—we have known each other since university—I said to him that I did not think that his life had been characterised by any of those phenomena. Most people reading the website would consider it to be utterly wacky. I have to say, however, that if it is Stonewall's opinion that such material should be criminalised, the House needs to approach the matter with some caution.
I am afraid that, just as with incitement to religious hatred, messages are sent out from this place that are latched on to by pressure groups wishing to prevent other people from expressing legitimate views, even if those legitimate views are in fact nonsensical. We cannot have a working democracy without the underpinning of freedom of speech, which also requires tolerance of opinions that we may consider to be bonkers or which we may dislike. As long as hatred is not stirred up, which is the mischief that we have been trying to address—as long as the civil order of society is not being undermined—we must tolerate such opinions. Indeed, as politicians, we tolerate them all the time.
For those reasons, let me simply say that I am unpersuaded that Lord Waddington's amendment is in any way mischievous. I believe that it is sensible. As we need some saving clause in an extremely difficult piece of legislation in which the balance that we strike will always pose a problem, I can think of no good reason for us to get rid of it on the basis of the arguments that I have heard this afternoon. I therefore intend to support the retention of Lord Waddington's amendment, and encourage my hon. Friends to do so as well.
Copy and paste this code on your website