Interview: David Heath on incitement to homophobic hatred

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As Lib Dem spokesperson on Justice, David Heath is a comforting contrast to the Cleggs and Huhnes of the party.

Big, bearded, thoughtful yet jocular, the 53-year-old is a substantial politician in more ways than one, and in his present role he shadows one of the remaining big beasts of the Labour party, Jack Straw.

Heath is very much of his constituency, Somerton and Frome.

He was born in the Mendip Hills of Somerset and was leader of the county’s council at the age of 31.

Elected in 1997 with a majority of just 130, he has worked to increase his share of the vote in 2001 and 2005, but at the next election a 0.56% swing to the Conservatives would unseat him.

Heath has held a range of frontbench roles in the Commons and at Justice he has been responsible for the Lib Dem policy on the proposed new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

He spoke to just before the recess about why the Tories should be embracing proportional representation at Westminster, why the new incitement to homophobic hatred law may not go far enough and what it is like to be the only optician at Westminster. Let us begin with the new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation. How do you answer the concerns of Christians that it will restrict their right to criticise gay “lifestyles”?

The government has answered those concerns in the way they framed the legislation and, as far as I’m concerned, they got the balance right.

The fact that there is a requirement for intent and that it must be threatening language or behaviour seems to me to exactly answer the point.

It means anyone who is expressing themselves in a reasonable way, even if what they’re saying is wholly abhorrent to most right thinking people, will not be get caught under this law, unless what they’re saying is an incitement to hatred against a whole class of people.

That’s what we were trying to achieve.

If you want to get legislation that works then you have to secure at least broad agreement about its content and so I was concerned that we did ensure as far as possible that people were happy with what emerge.

Last year Lib Dem peer Lord Lester successfully amended the religious hatred bill to protect freedom of speech. Will something similar happen here?

Well, Lord Lester’s amendments on the religious hatred bill were far from perfect but they got it through the House. It’s quite clear that there were real concerns about religious hatred, which I shared.

I think the way it was originally couched was far too vague. When you’re dealing with religious hatred you’re dealing with essentially thought processes.

It is very difficult to legislate on what people think, rather than who they are.

It seems to me that homophobic hate crime has much more in common with race hate crime than it does with religious hatred.

When he introduced the homophobic incitement proposals Justice Secretary Jack Straw said the legislation would be “sending a signal.”

This has led to some concern that it is a symbolic piece of legislation, a sop to the gay lobby, which will not actually lead to prosecutions. What is your view?

I think that’s a real concern.

I’ve repeatedly said to the government I’m not interested in sending signals, that’s not what legislation is for. If legislation is designed to send a signal then, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not good law.

It’s got to be effective in remedying whatever mischief it’s meant to address.

The slight concern that I have is that the legislation which is already in place in Northern Ireland hasn’t yet been used and there is an argument that is repeatedly raised by Stonewall and others about extreme homophobic lyrics. Why has that not been addressed in Northern Ireland?

It may be something to do with the particular political situation in Northern Ireland.

My worry is once it’s on the statue it just stays on the statue book rather than being used in the circumstances where it should properly be used.

Did Stonewall’s evidence to the bill committee convince you there is a need for the new law?

I think we’ve been convinced for some time that there is, first of all a reservoir of extreme prejudice against gay people.

Secondly, prejudice is one thing, having it manifest itself as attacks, in one form or another, is something that we should be very concerned about. I am convinced by the evidence that there is a real problem.

That’s why, as far as I’m concerned, the case is proven for having something of this kind.

I have the two provisos.

Firstly I think we need to give as much reassurance as possible that what this new legislation doesn’t do is to remove the European Convention on Human Rights article 10 (defence of free speech).

I want it to be as explicit as possible simply because I think it will provide reassurance to those who are still not persuaded that this homophobic incitement offence is not going to be used inappropriately. I don’t think it will be. If we can reassure people, that’s sensible.

The second big proviso is, I’m very concerned about what has been described to me by a lot of gay people as being a major problem, which is people using an equation which says “gay people equals paedophile.”

Especially in the climate that’s been engendered in the tabloid press, like in the News of the World and all the rest of it, that can’t amount to inciting violence against an individual.

I am not convinced it’s actually covered sufficiently within the legislation as it presently is.

That’s why I put forward an amendment which may have had it’s imperfections, I’m sure it did, which was basically saying, let’s spell out a particular aspect and here is an example of incitement to hatred by saying “all gays are paedophiles” and he’s gay ” then you’re effectively inviting people to commit that.

So you think this is not covered sufficiently?

Yes, I am worried that it might not. It will very much depend at the moment on the interpretation by the courts. Now, that’s all right and proper, that’s the way English law works.

But, and it’s a big ‘but’, I think if we can give guidance as we pass the legislation to suggest that if you put out a leaflet around a council estate saying that “so and so lives in such and such a place, and is gay and gays are all paedophiles and we’ve got to stop them,” that falls within the limits of the offence.

And, as I say, if we have to make that explicit in the law it doesn’t make for very elegant law but at least it means it’s going to do the job we want.

Are you surprised that there weren’t more objections from Conservative MPs?

The Conservatives are having an internal battle on this and it was very obvious that the frontbench were very keen to be seen to be supportive and backbenchers were not so keen.

Although they were couching their objections in a very moderate language I think there are unfortunately some within the Conservative party who were not persuaded that this was either necessary or even something that they would want to encourage. I think that’s a problem for them.

What about for protection for trans people?

The government says that they are not interested in pursuing that at the moment.

Their view is that the evidence isn’t there that transsexual people are the subject of the same sort of material that comes out against gays.

I’m in some difficulty because the evidence can only come from the government and the government say there isn’t any evidence.

Whatever my subjective view might be from what I pick up, I have to accept that on face value.

I think it may be something we need to return to.

As I say, I’m really quite keen on not tacking further groups on.

I would be happier had the government said “look, there’s evidence and there’s a problem for transsexuals and we will put this into the same offence.”

It remains to be seen that what happens in the Lords.

You have been involved in party politics for 30 years. What is your assessment of how things are going for the Prime Minister?

It’s going terribly for Gordon Brown at the moment, he has had as bad a few months that I can remember since the days of John Major.

There is a big question mark over whether they will turn it round in time for even a delayed general election, assuming that this Parliament runs its full course.

If the Labour party is doing as badly as you say and the Tories under David Cameron are resurgent, that should be of particular concern to Liberal Democrats.

There are some interesting premises there. I’m not so sure just how resurgent the Conservative party actually is. It is certainly doing better than it did a few years ago.

If you’d asked the question a few months ago, just before the Labour’s last debacle, I would have said “yes, the government is unpopular but actually so are the Conservative party.”

Even the so-called ‘Cameron effect’ doesn’t stretch very far west or very far north.

The old guard of the Conservative party don’t see him as reflecting their points of view or prejudices.

So you aren’t hearing about Cameron on the doorstep just yet?

Not yet. I think there is a challenge for us, obviously. It’s always a struggle, because the media like the simple story of a two-party system but, having said that, that’s not the reality in most of the country.

The Lib Dems got lots of publicity of late, but most of it is bad, what with Sir Ming Campbell resigning as party leader. Are you not concerned you are starting to look like the nasty party now?

No, I don’t think that is the case. I was very upset at Ming leaving because of the reasons that he left, not because his colleagues were determined to get rid of him but because the press and the media spent just over a year asking the same question, which was “are you too old to lead a political party?”

At 66, that is discrimination of the most appalling kind. If all we’re interested in in politics is “are you young and pretty?” then it seems to me to be the wrong way of doing politics.

There is a case for experience, which Ming had enormously. So I felt very upset at the way the press and the media dealt with him in their prejudiced way and for all their protestations now that nothing was further from their mind, I know perfectly well that they would have continued up until the day of the election.

He did come across as coming from a much older generation.

I didn’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. When you look at some of the issues that we have been dealing with, he was right on all the key issues.

Frankly, if we’re going to send people to go and fight and die in places like Iraq, then I actually want someone with a bit of experience to make a decision rather than someone who is going to be swayed by the latest press headlines.

The Prime Minister has said political parties must come to an agreement over party funding.

The Tories say that they want to get rid of block funding from the unions and they will agree to a cap on individual donations. Do you agree with that?

Frankly, it’s entirely bogus what they’re saying about trade union funding. Some of the abuses that undoubtedly are there were dealt with and the Labour party had to move a long way on it.

It was interesting that their attitude changed on this subject markedly over the summer at about the same time that a certain Lord Ashcroft moved into Central Office.

If they revert to a sort of tribal interest then we shall oppose them but if they keep to the sort of things that we hammered out previously then I think we can have a broad consensus with or without the Conservative party.

And state funding?

State funding is very difficult. I want to have a look and see if the spending controls and the donation controls actually work.

If we really have worn down on both spending and donations and brought that under control and then there’s a short fall for the democratic process then I think that’s something we have to look at.

I don’t think the public see it as something that they are particularly enamoured with.

Of course, we’ve already had substantial state funding, particularly to the Conservative party through the Short money. (Public money given to the opposition parties at Westminster to cover costs).

So again there’s a little bit of disingenuousness to say we’re all against state funding except for what’s given to us.

But in general terms, the general public would be very puzzled if we were to suggest that the tax payer had to fund activities which they considered to be completely wasteful and useless in political terms, things like the billboard campaigns. I have never been convinced that they persuaded a single voter, but they cost an awful lot of money.

Your party uses them as well.

I don’t excuse my own party from any of these criticisms. We haven’t had the large donors and we haven’t had the large expenditure.

If we come out with a workable proposal it’s got to apply to everybody and it’s got to be fair, it’s got to be transparent, it’s got to be sustainable.

And all the parties have to abide not just by the letter of law but also by the spirit of the law as well.

Proportional representation at Westminster remains a key objective for the Lib Dems.

If that occurs it will completely change our political system. We could end up with BNP and UKIP MPs at Westminster. Do you think the vested interest of the two-party system will stop that from ever happening?

I hope not. We are, as you say, absolutely convinced that unless you have a parliament that actually reflects the way the people of this country think then you have an undemocratic system.

Fair votes are absolutely key to that. That’s been our long-held view.

Occasionally that will throw up representation of people whose views you don’t agree with, but if they are held by a sufficiently large number of the population then I’m afraid that’s the way it is.

And I would rather defeat that by debate, rather than by a rigged political system.

In terms of the other two parties, the Labour party have dallied with this on occasions but not actually done anything.

The Conservative party, if they only knew it, their interests are strongly in favour of a proportion system now and they benefited from it enormously in Scotland and Wales.

It cannot be right in this country that the major conurbations don’t have any Conservative representation for the Conservatives who live in those cities.

I just don’t believe that there are no Conservatives in Newcastle, Sheffield or Liverpool. It cannot be right that there is no representation of those people.

Are you the only optician in the House of Commons or are there others I have not come across?

Not only am I the only one, I think I’m the only one that there has ever been!

There was a thought that there may have been one back in the 1930’s and (former Tory MP) Dame Jill Knight, who is now in the Lords, is married to one, but I think I probably am the only one.

Let’s turn finally to the West Lothian question. I find it odd that there are 530-odd English MPs at Westminster out of 646.

Now that Scotland has its own parliament, what sort of arrangement needs to be reached to ensure fair representation for all UK citizens?

We’ve argued that we need to go back to the drawing board on the whole constitutional issue and we need the sort of thing we had in Scotland, a constitutional convention.

We need to look at how we modernise our constitutional arrangements to make them work more effectively.

And that would include issues like a written constitution, like the way we deal with the question of each representation.

The one thing I would rule out and our party rules out is an English parliament.

As a West Country MP, actually that would be worse for me than a UK parliament because at least under the present system the rural interests of the West Country are much closer to a lot of Scottish and Welsh colleagues than they are to an English parliament that will be dominated by the South East and the big conurbations.

I don’t think an English parliament is the right answer. Should we be doing something with the way in which we run the House of Commons in order to make it easier to raise English issues and to let people consider things that affect them? Yes we should.

A grand committee is one suggestion. What I don’t think we can do is to have this idea of certifying that certain bills are English-only bills, because I think England is such a dominant political entity within the UK. What happens in England actually does affect Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I’m very concerned that we don’t do anything that actually underlines the union. Even if there is a bit of untidiness, I think the UK parliament has to stay.

I’m a West Country man and I would like more say on what happens in the South West. And, at the moment people who live in the South West have no say at all, whereas people who live in Wales have their own assembly. That’s an anomaly.

I think the regional issues haven’t died because we still have the government structures for the regions and at the moment they are unaccountable. But what is clear is that we are not about to embark on the setting up of regional English assemblies, so I think we will find other ways reflecting that within the existing House of Commons.

David Heath retained his post as Lib Dem spokesperson on Justice in the frontbench team appointed by new leader Nick Clegg.