New Clause 11 — Guidance on offences that involve hatred on grounds of sexual orientation

Part of Pension Credit and Personal Expense Allowance (Duty of Consultation and Review) – in the House of Commons at 5:15 pm on 24th March 2009.

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Photo of Bridget Prentice Bridget Prentice Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice 5:15 pm, 24th March 2009

Mr. Grieve and Dr. Harris are right: Stonewall's example in the briefing is wrong about what would be caught by this part of the law.

Amendment 1 deals with freedom of speech, but it is important that we remember that we are also talking about the freedom of gay people to live their lives free from hatred and bigotry. When we debated the offence of stirring up hatred on the basis of sexual orientation last year, we had a long discussion about freedom of expression and were rightly concerned about getting the balance right.

We need to protect groups that are the target of threatening behaviour intended to stir up hatred. We must also ensure that those who have concerns about some types of sexual behaviour are free to express their arguments and concerns in a reasonable way. They do not need to fear that they will be caught by the criminal law. Last year, we had a very lively debate and the Government took the view that no additional provision was needed to ensure freedom of expression. The offence that we are talking about has a very high threshold and a number of safeguards are built into the system to ensure that the offence cannot be used in any way that disrupts the balance between those two concerns.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, in its report published last week, reaffirmed its view that we have the balance right, as did the Equality and Human Rights Commission at about the same time. Last May, this House agreed, by a very large majority, that we had got the balance right. However, as David Howarth rather; I must get my university towns in the right order—pointed out, the other place inserted a measure for the avoidance of doubt. We all agreed with the principle that the offence should not be misused. As I say, those safeguards have already been built into the offence. The additional provision was and still is unnecessary. It serves only to make the offence less clear; it muddies the waters. This House rejected the amendment and I ask it to do so again today.

In last year's debates, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Maria Eagle, said that we would return to the issue, so it should come as no surprise to any hon. Member, including those who have put their names to amendment 1, that we are now seeking to repeal the so-called freedom of speech saving provision.

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