The government’s chief law officer does not support a new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation, according to a report in The Times.
Baroness Scotland, the Attorney General, has privately clashed with Justice Secretary Jack Straw over the proposals, which form part of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill which is before Parliament.
The Times reports that Baroness Scotland is concerned the homophobic incitement proposals will be blocked or watered down by the House of Lords, and she believes that existing legislation is sufficient to deal with the problem.
In an interview with PinkNews.co.uk published today, Justice minister Maria Eagle defended the proposed new law.
“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 said.
“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.”
Gay equality organisation Stonewall has been lobbying for a new offence of homophobic incitement.
In evidence to a committee of MPs last month Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill quoted extensively from the homophobic lyrics of dancehall star Beenie Man and others to demonstrate 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.
Some prominent gay people have objected to the law.
The Times journalist Mathew Parris asked if homophobic insults were to become unlawful, “why should we remain free to sneer, in ways inciting hatred, at a person’s being Welsh, or Irish?
“Lines of absolute principle are hard to draw,” he added, “but some groups may be so weak and fragile as to need the law’s protection from hateful speech. I’d like to think we gays are no longer among them.”
In The Independent, Johann Hari commented that while the views of Richard Littlejohn and Sir Iqbal Sacranie are the kind that might “encourage thugs who are likely to bottle somebody on a Saturday night,” it is better to meet their views in open debate.
“Gay people need to be confident enough to know that our arguments are so strong that they will win in any free, open exchange of views,” he said.
Peter Tatchell, writing on The Guardian website, said:
“Introducing legislation prohibiting the incitement of homophobic hatred seems a bit amiss when already-existing laws are not being enforced.
“All incitements to hatred should be treated with the same zero tolerance. But not, in my opinion, by means of criminal sanctions.”
Baroness Scotland is scheduled to attend an event this evening in support of LGBT History Month.