The House of Commons Public Bill Committee on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill heard from both sides of the debate surrounding government proposals to introduce a new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation last week.
Representatives of gay equality organisation Stonewall, the Police Federation, Liberty and the Evangelical Alliance gave evidence before MPs.
The alliance describe themselves on their website as “one of the most powerful groups of Christians in the UK.”
During his evidence last Tuesday Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill quoted extensively from the homophobic lyrics of dancehall star Beenie Man and others to demonstrate to MPs the nature of their comments about gay men and lesbians.
MPs were confronted with the words “motherfucker,” “pussy-sucker” and “batty-fucker” during his testimony, along with excerpts from BNP leaflets claiming the government were trying to “legalise child sex” by equalising the age of consent.
Tory MP David Burrowes asked if there were examples or evidence of rap lyrics leading to criminal offences by those who have heard them.
Mr Summerskill explained:
“That is, of course, the key issue in incitement. The level of offence that incitement to racial hatred captures is that in which incitement is directed against a community as a whole rather than an individual – in which I do not say that someone should attack you, but suggest that they should attack anyone who happens to be like you.
“As for the context in which these lyrics and leaflets are distributed, in this instance, the Crown Prosecution Service confirmed for us last Friday that in the past two years there has been a 167% rise in the number of convictions secured for offences with a homophobic element.
“That is not what is sometimes characterised as cranky complaints, or cases that might not have resulted in a conviction; that is 600 offences.”
He went on to say that the Home Office acknowledges that the vast majority of cases of homophobic violence in this country may not be reported and noted that the second anniversary of the homophobic murder of Jody Dobrowski on Clapham Common has recently passed.
He rejected concerns that a law banning incitement to religious hatred would be used to silence the voices of religious people who regard homosexuality as a sin.
“We are crystal clear that people are perfectly entitled to express their religious views. We are also crystal clear that the temperate expression of religious views should not be covered by the legislation.
“One might also want to look at the context in which any expression is made that people should be killed or put to death because they are homosexual. Members of the Committee will be mindful that that is from chapter 20, verse 13 of Leviticus.
“One might want to inquire whether that person was pursuing and articulating what is said in verse 10 or in verse 16 with quite so much enthusiasm; those versus make the same requirement that anyone who has committed adultery or who blasphemes is to be put to death.
“Clearly, in context it would be a very good defence to say, ‘Well, I have been going around telling every adulterer and homosexual that I meet that they should be put to death.’
“Quite often and quite by chance, we find people choosing to peddle their particular obsession with homosexuals out of that religious context as a whole.”
Earlier Jan Berry, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, gave evidence before the committee.
Challenged about her support for a new offence of homophobic incitement, she was asked to give specific examples from police members about the type of incident that are not presently covered by legislation that would justify new laws.
“I do not think that I can give you very many examples, other than to say that I think that this is another area where the law can be seen to support particular people,” she said.
“There are probably hundreds of pieces of legislation whereby, if a person is inciting hatred, there would be an offence somewhere that would cater for that.
“Somehow, however, when it is inciting hatred around race or around homophobia, it adds another dimension to that particular hatred and I think that the law has to recognise that.
“Particularly with many aspects of homophobia, it is not something that is easily seen by the eye and therefore it can have a greater effect on the person who is on the receiving end of it.
“I have been a police officer for too many years now and I can remember when homophobia was not outlawed in the way that it is today, and where sexual orientation was outlawed, and where police officers spent far too much time enforcing laws around sexual orientation.
“Today that does not happen, so there has been a sea change in how police deal with this particular area, and rightly so.
“A lot of my members are gay and the type of treatment that they are given, sometimes within the service and hopefully we are resolving that, but more importantly outside, where it is known that they are gay, is outrageous.
“They have to deal with enough difficulties without that being added on top. I think that those are some of the examples that we would give.”
Read the full transcript of evidence from Tuesday 16th October here.
On Thursday Don Horrocks, head of public affairs of the Evangelical Alliance, gave evidence.
He told MPs that they “oppose incitement to any kind of hatred” but that a new offence of incitement to homophobic hatred would curtail free speech.
He said that existing legislation is adequate and not being properly used.
“As far as rap is concerned, Evangelical Alliance member organisations have long campaigned against hate images and lyrics, so we know about that,” he told MPs.
“We know that many groups have been campaigning against them, too, against record companies and so on. There is a law against video and film porn – in fact, this Bill is supposed to be tightening up in that area – so why not extend it to music lyrics?
“The problem with creating criminal law in this area is that you want to enforce a law against incitement to violence and murder, which is what those rap lyrics are doing.
“Incidentally, it is not only gay people who are targeted by rap music.
“For example, rap lyrics gratuitously attack women, race and religion, encourage early sexual behaviour and the taking of drugs and celebrate the carrying of guns and knives. How far do we want to go on this?
“It is not only gay people who are targeted.”
Mr Horrocks claimed that a new incitement to homophobic hatred law would cause Christians to “live in fear” of prosecution.
“I am a Christian, but we are talking about religion and belief, not just about Christianity. Most of the major religions take the same approach here. We are not talking about inciting people to hatred.
“I have never come across incitement to violence and murder, which is where we believe the law should really be reaching.
“Even Peter Tatchell made it clear that he did not like this legislation and that the existing legislation should be strengthened – or actually used, because it is there – to tackle incitement to violence and murder, whereas expressing views, however offensive they may be, should not be the subject of legislation.
“I heard Ben Summerskill say that some people would take exception to the statement that certain people with a certain sexuality will burn in hell.
“That was seen to be offensive and certainly intemperate. I am not commenting on whether that is intemperate or not, but it is in the Bible.
“Are we going to ban the Bible for intemperate language? There is some pretty intemperate stuff in there. My fear is about where we are going to draw the line on this.”
Dr Louise Brown, policy research consultant at the Evangelical Alliance, expressed concern about freedom of speech.
“It appears that we are already living in a country in which there is an atmosphere of unease and a real fear that any criticism, even if it were justified criticism, of homosexuals may lead to a person being labelled ‘homophobic,'” she told the committee.
“The proposed criminal law would make that type of fear even greater, with the even more severe label of “homophobic hate crime.” The consequent serious effect on free speech and the potential disastrous consequences for child abuse and similar matters in the future is something that has to be considered in great depth.”
Dr Brown also claimed that homophobic crime is in fact in decline.
“Current levels of crime in this area do not justify changing the law,” she said.
“The Metropolitan police performance briefing shows that homophobic hate crime is down by 8.5% and talks about figures of 1,294 incidents in 2005-06 and 1,184 in 2006-07.
“A comment was made referring to the Crown Prosecution Service saying that there has been a 167% rise in the number of convictions, but according to the figures for the period between April 2006 and March 2007, the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted 822 cases identified as having a homophobic element, compared with 600 cases in 2005-06.
“Those are the actual figures. They are divided into 42 Crown prosecution areas, and these are the figures for the equivalent in the 43 police forces for the whole of England and Wales.
“They illustrate the low level in the whole of England and Wales of crimes with a homophobic element.
“Then we come to what the Metropolitan police say. They reported 11,799 incidents of racist and religious hate crime and 1,359 incidents of homophobic hate crime in the 12 months to January 2006.
“However, the police estimate that most racist and religious hate crime, and as much as 90% of homophobic crime goes unreported.
“I would say that if you look at the figures from sources such as the Home Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, they illustrate that the law appears to be justified in the current areas of racially or religiously motivated hate crime, but not to crime motivated by sexual orientation, which the new law proposes to address.
“Even if 90% is unreported, we are talking about 800 cases in the whole of England and Wales.”
Gareth Crossman from human rights group Liberty said that he was “likely” to object to a law that criminalises incitement to hatred.
“I do not think anyone would dispute that it is appropriate that the law places limitations on free speech,” he told MPs.
“That is clearly the proportionality model that is incorporated in the Human Rights Act and it has been recognised through interpretation of the common law as well.
“But before you can place a restriction, you have to be satisfied of various things.
“First, you have to be satisfied that it is for a legitimate purpose, which it may be – it might be a legitimate purpose because it is going to prevent crime or is for the public good – but you also have to establish that it is proportionate and not excessive.
“I would have to say that, just as it is not a crime for me to hate anybody, if I go around inciting people to hate others and I am committing a crime, I would be very pushed to say that that would be a proportionate act from the perspective of criminal law.”
Justice minister Maria Eagle told the committee that the government will be sharing proposed drafts of the amendment to create an offence of homophobic hatred with interested parties in due course.
Read the full transcript of evidence from Thursday 18th October here.