Commons debates homophobic hatred and blasphemy

A protester holds a rainbow flag outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on June 3, 2013, as protesters gather in support of same-sex marriage

Yesterday MPs discussed the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.

As expected, a cross-party group of Christian MPs attempted to amend the proposed new offence of incitement to homophobia on the grounds of sexual orientation.

They were overwhelmingly defeated.

An amendment introduced by Labour MP Jim Dobbin would have allowed criticism of and expression of antipathy towards conduct relating to a particular sexual orientation, or urging persons of a particular sexual orientation to refrain from or modify conduct according to that orientation.

The government had previously reiterated assurances that “temperate” expression of religious belief would not be penalised by the homophobic incitement law. The Labour MP who introduced the amendment was unconvinced.

“I am aware that the Government do not think that there is any need for this provision, but I shall develop the case that I think is necessary,” said Mr Dobbin.

“It is my pleasure to speak to this cross-party ecumenical amendment, which basically aims to protect free speech, and I am delighted that many hon. Members have added their names to it. It is not a party political issue, as the list of names illustrates.

“The amendment is ecumenical because it was drafted with the help of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

“What excited their concern was a Government amendment to make it a criminal offence to incite hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.

“I am aware that some hon. Members disagree strongly with some of the teachings of England’s two largest denominations, but I hope that no one would accuse either of them of wanting to protect the right to incite hatred against anyone.

“Sexual activity and lifestyle, as distinct from sexual orientation, are matters of choice and impinge on the public sphere. As such, they are subject to evaluation and criticism and the freedom to discuss them should be preserved.

“The Churches’ submission goes on to refer to accepted Christian teaching about human sexuality, marriage and family, and asserts that it would be impossible for Christianity to be practised and taught without those convictions being widely and freely discussed within the Churches and wider society.

“They are also concerned that clause 107 (incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation) may impinge on their basic freedom to practise their religion. We cannot ignore such a serious concern from two important national religious institutions.”

Lib Dem Justice spokesman David Heath pointed out that “non-threatening profession of faith falls outside the scope of the Bill.”

Labour MP Chris Byrant accused Mr Dobbin of arguing that religious people should be allowed to use threatening words because of their beliefs.

Jim Dobbin disagreed and claimed he is merely seeking “reassurance” through this amendment and said that Christians continue to have concerns:

“Indeed, it is not just religious people who are worried that clause 107 could restrict free speech.

“Peter Tatchell, the homosexual rights activist, has argued that existing laws are adequate to protect homosexual people, and he opposes the proposed new offence. Journalists Matthew Parris and Iain Dale, themselves gay men, also oppose the new offence on free speech grounds.

“I could list the many occasions on which leading Church people have been visited, telephoned or placed under scrutiny by the police for sermons that they have given in their churches. That is what people are worried about.”

Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary Nick Herbert emphasised to MPs that his party had a free vote on this issue.

He later joined more than 140 of his colleagues in favour of the amendment. Five Tory MPs voted against it.

“I do not take the libertarian view of the role of such legislation,” Mr Herbert said.

“The criminal law has a proper role to play in protecting people from harm.

“Just as we accepted that laws protecting a minority from hatred on grounds of their race were right 30 years ago, so there is a case for similar, if not directly comparable, protection for gay people, who do not choose their sexuality any more than people choose their ethnic origin.

“Enormous strides have been made in this country towards tolerance for homosexual people, but it remains the case that gay people can live in fear and can be subject to violent attacks, and that hateful websites and lyrics promote hate against them.

“I pay tribute to the work of Stonewall in drawing attention to that.

“We would all agree that such incitement to violence is wrong, and I believe that there is a role for the criminal law in outlawing it.

“However, such legislation needs very careful drafting, especially when it comes to scope.

“While clause 107 is more tightly drafted than some feared – it is limited to intentional acts and threatening words, not merely abusive or insulting words – it remains unclear what words and behaviour would be caught by the offence. I believe that Church groups are right to seek clarity on that point.

“(The amendment) does not seek to exempt expressions of dislike, insult or abuse of gay people. It relates only to conduct.

“The question before us is whether criticism of such conduct should be a matter for the criminal law. In my view, it should not.

“None of Stonewall’s examples of hateful words against gay people would fall within the scope of that defence.

“The examples that it gives criticise not conduct, but people. We have to beware of clumsy police investigations and the chilling effect of the law.

“There is an important balance to be achieved between free speech, including what Stonewall rightly calls “temperate comment”, which it agrees should not be outlawed, and the protection of a minority from harm.”

Justice minister Maria Eagle said there was no need for the Dobbin clause.

“We are not talking about insulting words or behaviour. We are talking about threatening words or behaviour intended to incite hatred against a group of people on the basis of their sexuality.

“That is very narrow and very clear.

“Clarity is what we need in the law, and clause 107, as it is drafted, is clear. It does not need clarifying further.”

The amendment was defeated 338 to 169.

The five Tory MPs who voted against the amendment were: Crispin Blunt, John Bercow, Michael Fabricant, Robert Key and Ed Vaizey.

Twelve Labour MPs defied their party’s whip and voted for the amendment.

An amendment seeking to abolish blasphemy laws was withdrawn after the government said it had “every sympathy for the case for formal abolition” and promised to bring forward clauses in the Lords after consultation with the Church of England.

Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris proposed the abolition of the “ancient discriminatory, unnecessary, illiberal and non-human rights compliant offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.”

He paid tribute to MPs from all sides who supported him.

“They were all were extremely helpful in ensuring that the House has this opportunity to debate the matter, and that broad support for the abolition of these offences was expressed.

“The degree of support across the rest of society is also noteworthy. A letter in the Daily Telegraph yesterday had a remarkable list of co-signatories calling for the abolition of those offences.

“They included the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, who has spoken publicly about the need to abolish them; the author, and my constituent, Philip Pullman;

“my former constituent and former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries; Ricky Gervais, the comedian; Nick Hytner, the director of the National theatre;

“Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty; Professor Richard Dawkins, who is well known and admired by many of us; Michael Cashman; novelists Hari Kunzru and Hanif Kureishi;

“Sir Jonathan Miller; Baroness Frances D’Souza, who was a long-standing executive director of Article 19; and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.

“First, enough laws dealing with outraging public decency and public order offences are already on the statute book to ensure that the removal of these two offences will not lead to widespread outrageous behaviour in public.

“We are talking about people being able to see theatre productions, watch television programmes, attend readings, and publish books and documents for specific audiences, without the threat of prosecution under the blasphemy laws.

“Secondly, as has been pointed out by a number of people more qualified than me to say it, the Almighty does not need the protection of these ridiculous laws, which is why many people with a religious perspective share the view that those offences should be abolished.

“In my opinion, and in that of the human rights lawyers whom I have consulted, it is unlikely that under the Human Rights Act the blasphemy offence would pass muster in United Kingdom courts, where there is no margin of appreciation on national grounds because they are our courts.

“It is extremely unlikely that the English blasphemy offence would survive Strasbourg nowadays, and I think it right and proper that it would be struck down, but I do not think we need wait for that.”

Nick Herbert backed the proposal:

“I agree that the existence of the blasphemy laws in this country is an impediment to the stand that we would like to take against repressive blasphemy laws elsewhere, whose effect was illustrated recently by the teddy bear case in Sudan,” he told MPs.

“Christianity is integral to the constitution. Every day, we have Prayers before Mr. Speaker takes his place in this Chamber.

“If it comes to a vote, I shall personally vote for an abolition of the blasphemy laws, but the matter needs far more careful consideration.

“In particular, the Church of England is entitled to be consulted properly about the proposal.”

Speaking for the government Justice minister Maria Eagle said that the issue of abolition had been under consideration for some time.

“As long ago as 1985 the Law Commission recommended that the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel be abolished,” she said.

“The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has given quotations from eminent lawyers and others that go even further back, which shows that the issue was around even before then. We can therefore agree that the issue has been debated at great length.

“We accept that the offences have largely fallen into desuetude.

“The last prosecution for blasphemy was in 1977, in the case of Whitehouse and Gay News Ltd, as Members will recall.

“It follows that there have been no cases since the Human Rights Act 1998.

“The idea that the offences appear to be moribund was reinforced by the High Court’s decision on 5 December 2007 that the Theatres Act 1968 and the Broadcasting Act 1990 prevent the prosecution of a theatre, the BBC or another broadcaster for blasphemous libel.

“That was the result of a case brought by Christian Voice in response to the play Jerry Springer: The Opera.

“I understand that it is seeking leave to appeal.

“Against that background, I can say that we have every sympathy for the case for formal abolition.

“However, we believe it necessary to consult the Anglican Church before bringing forward a provision that particularly affects it.

“That is what we are now doing urgently. Subject to that consultation, which I can assure hon. Members will be short and sharp, the Government intend to bring forward amendments in another place to achieve the aims of new clause 1.”

Dr. Harris welcomed the Minister’s comments and withdrew the clause.