Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:39 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hussein-Ece Baroness Hussein-Ece Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Equalities) 2:39 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for initiating and introducing this important debate. But do we not all wish that there was no need to debate such a depressing topic? In the past few years, debate and public discourse have descended into fake news—or lies, as I prefer to call them—and it has become commonplace if you disagree with someone, particularly if they are in public life, to threaten them with abuse. The situation has become toxic. As the noble Lord said, with the advent of social media this behaviour is now far more widespread.

Just today, Danny Baker—a veteran BBC broadcaster, we are told—was, rightly, sacked for portraying the new royal baby as a chimpanzee. He published a photograph on his Twitter page yesterday of a couple with a chimpanzee leaving hospital, and then claimed it was all a big joke and a mistake. This week we heard that police are investigating comments by Carl Benjamin, a UKIP candidate in the European elections, speculating about whether he would rape the Labour MP Jess Phillips. That is just this week—and it is only Thursday. There are many examples of this kind of intolerable behaviour. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, has said that there is an “unprecedented” number of threats against MPs as misogyny, racism and divisive issues such as Brexit fuel online trolls.

It is apparent that the first victims of hate-filled bigots are women and those from minorities. The mainstreaming of extreme views and the politics of hate often mean rage against women, migrants, black people, Muslims, Jews and LGBT people. Racism, Islamophobia and misogyny are multiplied and spread by social media, often with impunity. This reflects in part a political discourse that has become coarser and more vicious.

So how did we get here? I know that many do not like Brexit, which has already been mentioned, but it has surely become a factor in the country becoming more divided and polarised. The advent of Trump and Farage, with their intolerance and sweeping statements about migrants, women and Muslims, blaming “the other” for all society’s ills, is another major factor. They seek to exploit people’s fears about the so-called elites while seeking to take power themselves.

When Lord Nolan devised his seven principles, I cannot imagine that he considered that someone selected for an election in this country by a registered political party would publicly behave in the way that we have seen this week. Those principles—selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership—should apply also to those seeking public office, those selected as candidates. I ask the Minister what action will be taken to ensure that those seeking public office cannot threaten violent and criminal behaviour. This should come with immediate disqualification.

Men threaten rape for one reason: to intimidate and silence women. I have had Muslim women tell me that they are frightened when they go out. One woman said to me that she removed her headscarf to protect her children when she goes out with them. We know that attacks on Muslim communities have spiked. What steps are being taken to address this issue? Many of us may have experienced nasty threats; I personally have. I do not react particularly well to threats and never have, but they are nevertheless intimidating and unsettling, particularly when they are to your family. Our politics has changed. So too must our response. We must be firm, and we must not be naive about the effect that this is having on our public life and our democracy.

Last year the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life warned that a wave of intimidation and abuse directed at parliamentary candidates had taken British politics to a “tipping point” and risked driving politicians out of public life in future, following the enormous amount of racist abuse suffered by Diane Abbott. That was last year and the situation has now escalated. How many of us here have spent many years, as I and others have done, encouraging women and underrepresented BAME groups to come forward and seek public office? How can we do that now, when people feel so unsafe that it is preventing people from those underrepresented groups coming forward?

Those who seek to hide behind freedom of speech must understand that free speech is not an unqualified right. If free speech intimidates, threatens or silences others, their rights have been denied altogether. Free speech cannot and is not to tolerate racist, misogynistic threats, and certainly not threats of violence and criminality.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, touched on the media and I want to touch on that issue too because I feel quite strongly about it. The BBC and other media must take more responsibility and show leadership on this. They frequently provide a public platform for these abusive, toxic views, often in the name of balance or, as they say, “populism”. Last week I heard on the “Today” programme—I could have wept—the leader of UKIP saying that Muslims in this country are seeking to take over and change the legal system because they want sharia law. That was not challenged; it was just left hanging there as if it were a fact.

We must show leadership and commitment to stop tolerating this appalling slide into a society where women and minorities no longer feel safe. We hear talk about “British values” but common ground, decency and kindness are the sorts of values that I think we must fight for, and to promote them we must all work together to combat extremism.