Interview: Maria Eagle defends homophobic incitement law

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

The government’s proposal to create a new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation has not been met with approval by some leading gay commentators.

Well-respected opinion-formers such as Times columnist Matthew Parris and Independent journalist Johann Hari have questioned the need for new laws.

Parris said that the gay community does not need protection from ridicule.

Rowan Atkinson, the star of the inexplicably popular Mr Bean films, has publicly fretted about the implications of such a law on the freedom of comedians to mock gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

The minister piloting the relevant amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill is the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Maria Eagle.

The 46-year-old MP for Liverpool Garston has held various junior ministerial posts since 1998, and when we met in her spacious Whitehall office last week she was keen to highlight the work done on gay equality in the past ten years.

As the sister of the only out lesbian MP, Maria Eagle has a particular understanding of the experience of the gay community.

The proposed incitement to homophobic hatred law has been discussed for some time. The Liberal Democrats made its introduction a manifesto commitment in the 2005 elections.

The passage of the controversial Racial and Religious Hatred Act in 2005 and 2006 led gay rights campaigners to increase their campaign to have their community granted an equal level of protection.

I put the three main arguments put forward in opposition to the government’s homophobic hatred provisions to the minister.

The first is that as incitement is already an offence, the new law is unnecessary.

“There is existing legislation about violence against individuals, provisions within the current law that will enable the Criminal Justice System to take a dimmer view of those who get engaged in violence against an individual because of their sexuality,” she replies.

“If you go and attack someone because they are gay then that is an aggravating feature of the violence offence. That’s true.

“But I think that the evidence that Stonewall gave to the public bill committee got to the point on this.

“Because there is no incitement provision at the minute, there is a gap.

“If you go around inciting hatred against a group of people or an undefined group of people on the grounds of their sexuality, that isn’t against the law. We think it should be.”

Christian activist groups such as the Evangelical Alliance claim the new law will leave them “living in fear of prosecution” for expressing their Bible-inspired beliefs about homosexuality.

Muslim groups have also criticised the law for the same reason. Ms Eagle confirms that groups have made representations to her on the issue.

She insists that the new law will not have any such effect.

“It has not been our intention to outlaw people expressing their views, whether they be Christians or comedians, about the way other people live their lives.

“You can have protection against incitement to hatred and at the same time protect people’s right to express their free views. It’s a very important factor of our history and heritage, freedom of speech, and I hope we can do it right.”

Concerns about freedom of speech led to a rare Commons defeat for the government in January 2006 over the Racial and Religious Hatred legislation.

Lib Dem peer Lord Lester introduced a clause in the House of Lords which had the effect of seriously restricting the way in which the incitement law could be used.

The Blair government lost a vote on that amendment in the Commons.

Provisions referring to “abusive and insulting” language and behaviour were removed from the law, and prosecutors now have to prove intent to stir up religious hatred, rather than just the possibility of doing so.

Ms Eagle says the homophobic incitement proposal differs from both the race protections in the Public Order Act and the recent religious protections.

The homophobic amendments target threatening behaviour or words that are intended to stir up or incite hatred but not those that are judged as “likely to.”

“We are aiming at threatening words and behaviour that are intended to incite. It is very clear from that what we do not want.

“We are taking out abusive and insulting, but we are applying the offences to threatening words or behaviour.

“Partly because that way of expressing ourselves in (the Racial and Religious) legislation was never what we wanted as a government. We did not support it. It only ended up in there because we got defeated.

“I think that in respect of sexuality in particular it would be most inappropriate to have a caveat saying you are allowed to go and abuse and insult gay people.”

To bring some clarity to all of this, I presented two high-profile examples to the minister.

Stephen Green, the Christian activist, likes to hand out leaflets at Pride events carrying quotations from the Bible stating that homosexuality is wrong. He’s been arrested under public order offences before.

The BNP has in the past handed out leaflets in a council estate saying “All gay people are paedophiles.” Would both or either of those be covered by the proposed incitement law?

“I think it depends not only on the intention, which is a key part of the offence, and that will be a matter for the judgment of the individual investigating officer,” Ms Eagle explains.

“Police officers make those judgments all the time and CPS make those judgments.

“Obviously the context is going to be important. If you are a preacher and on Sunday morning you tell your sermon of your beliefs and the beliefs of your denomination about gay people then that’s different to going and standing outside a gay club and using threatening words and behaviour.

“The intent is the key. That is very clearly unacceptable and that’s where we are pitching the offence.”

The third objection to the law focuses on its practical purpose. When he announced the proposed amendments, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said of the proposed incitement legislation:

“It is a measure of how far we have come as a society in the last 10 years that we are all now appalled by hatred and invective directed against gay people, and it is now time for the law to recognise the feeling of the public. “

In other words, it is symbolic, a sign to the gay community that their concerns are listened to by the government, but just another new offence to add to the thousands already created by this Labour administration.

“The law lays down a line beyond which it’s not possible to go without being on the wrong side of the law and you are subject to being prosecuted,” the minister asserts.

“The law as a side effect can send signals, yes, and I think that can be important in areas like this about equality.

“But I am trained as a lawyer and I am not myself inclined to see the law as something that is just sending signals.

“It’s putting down a line in the sand, on this side of the line what you do is lawful; on the other side it’s unlawful. That’s what the law does.

“If it sends signals as a result then that’s also important. It’s not a cosmetic exercise. I don’t think it’s right to change the law as a cosmetic exercise.”

The leading contender for the Lib Dem leadership supports the proposed new law, while the Tory Shadow Justice Secretary Nick Herbert has stressed “the right balance between freedom of speech, ensuring that the offence must be intentional, and covering threatening language only.”

The minister says she expects amendments to be brought forward, and concedes that the Lords are unpredictable, but expects “widespread support” from MPs for the incitement law.

There are proposals to include trans people and the disabled in the proposal, but the government requires an evidence base to make the case for their inclusion.

“One of the things you need to do if you are impinging upon free speech is be able to show for human rights reasons that there is a good reason for that to balance against the free speech rights,” Ms Eagle explains.

“I’ve had some representations as you might imagine as a result of this. Anyone who wants to talk to us about this please do. We do, in order to impinge on free speech in this way, need to show that there is a reason.”

The new Justice department, of which Ms Eagle is one of six ministers, takes responsibility for the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

She concedes that parts of the system have been slower than others to tackle homophobia and homophobic attacks, but claims that the specific needs of gay, lesbian and bisexual people are being taken seriously.

“Since the 2003 legislation that made an aggravating factor of homophobic motivation in attacks, the criminal justice agencies, be they police, the judges or the CPS have to take that on board.

“It’s partly training, partly cultural change in society. I think we have seen a lot of that, but which is the chicken and which is the egg I’m not quite sure.

“One of the reasons why we have seen such cultural change is a general increased level from younger age groups of tolerance, but in order to promote that you have to have a way of tackling intolerance, and this is part of that.”

Ms Eagle knows more than most about intolerance. She has been a Labour member since her teenage years, and her sister Angela made the headlines and gained the respect of many by coming out as the only gay woman in Parliament soon after the 1997 election.

The sisters first attended party conference in 1980 – “you never had to queue in the ladies, put it that way, as there weren’t very many women there,” she recalls with a smile – and they are the only pair of female twins ever to be elected to the Commons.

The minister embraces the change in British attitudes since the days of Old Labour, not least the fact that the Tories are now keen to stress their gay-friendly credentials.

“You wouldn’t have thought that ten years ago, or five years ago, and I think that’s good. Tolerance, diversity and equality have always been at the heart of the Labour party and its politics.

“Far more gay and lesbian people are happy to come out now, they are able to do it without having to live their lives hiding away, and that’s got to be good for the health of individuals and society generally.”

Many MPs and others in politics are yet to step out of the closet.

When I mention that her sister is the only lesbian MP the minister corrects me by saying she is the only one “out,” indicating there are others who have thus far not been so brave.

Given the attention Angela Eagle’s announcement received, it is understandable why other women have not followed.

“It was a tough thing for her to do,” recalls Maria.

“I supported her very much. The previous female MP who had done that, or rather had that done to her, was Maureen Colquhoun, who had a terrible time.

“She was deselected by her own party, the national party had to say hang on, you can’t do that to her, reinstated her, and she lost.

“So obviously we were worried about it, but to be honest she prepared it so very, very well, she picked the time perfectly and it came off as well as you could have expected.

“That isn’t to say that my father wasn’t door stepped, that I wasn’t door stepped, our neighbours weren’t door stepped, our old head teacher from when we were five wasn’t door stepped because, they all were.

“I saw it from being a supportive sister with Angela, how much guts and preparation and everything it takes. It’s the same for everybody who decides to come out in their lives. Alright it’s not always going to be on the front of all the newspapers but for every person who does that it feels like to them.

“There are gay and lesbian people at every level of every organisation, and I think whether or not they are out is a very personal choice.

“Some people do and do so at an early stage, but I have never talked to a gay or lesbian friend who has not found it to be one of the hardest things they have ever done, and I don’t think its right to force people to declare themselves. It’s the same with disability.

“When I was a minister for disabled people we had all these arguments and discussions. I just don’t think that when you have discrimination, which we still do, that it’s right to force people to declare a disability, or their sexuality.

“I am the only person who got forced to declare my sexuality that I know of because of course when Angela came out everybody had to report that I was heterosexual.

“It’s quite amusing , when you look at a lot of the information sheets you get about MPs, you get a lot of “Maria Eagle, the heterosexual member for Liverpool Garston.”

“Why don’t you say everyone else is heterosexual as well, but its just one of the consequences of being a twin.”

Despite all that information identifying Maria Eagle as the straight one, she reveals that even the Speaker has mixed them up.

“People just think of us as “the Eagles.” Sometimes I wish I had a pound for every time I get mixed up with my sister, because I’d be very rich.”