Stonewall’s ten month battle for hate crimes legislation

Tony Grew May 8, 2008
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They may have managed to secure a new offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orienation, but gay equality organisation Stonewall’s public affairs team will not be resting anytime soon.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is back before the Commons next week.

The Prime Minister has already decided on a free vote on provisions to replace the “need for a father,” which have been used to discriminate against same-sex couples.

The rights of lesbians to equal access to NHS fertility and fertilisation treatments is under threat from Roman Catholic MPs, and Stonewall is engaged in furious lobbying on the issue.

Despite the hectic schedule, the gay rights group is jubilant that incitement to hatred of lesbian, gay and bisexual people is now specifically outlawed.

“It has been a long ten months and we are pleased there will soon be an offence that can deal with a very serious problem,” said chief executive Ben Summerskill.

However, an amendment by Tory peer Lord Waddington, a former Home Secretary under Margaret Thatcher, was added to the bill.

His amendment to the offence of using threatening language with intent to stir up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation said that urging someone to change their sexuality should not count “of itself” as threatening or as intended to stir up hatred.

While he claimed his amendment was about “free speech,” in effect it gives people leeway to claim they were just following their religious beliefs when inciting others to hate gay, lesbian or bisexual people.

If Christians can argue that their faith gives them a get-out clause, it could make a prosecution under the new law more difficult.

The minister responsible for shepherding the bill through Parliament was Maria Eagle.

“I am pleased that at least we will have an offence of inciting hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation on the statute book,” she told MPs last night.

“That is very positive, and everybody in the House should be pleased about, as I am. It is a necessary provision.

“The other place (the Lords) has insisted on its amendment, and I can advise the House that the Government will not resist it.

“We remain of the view that the amendment is undesirable and unnecessary; it does not add anything to the law as it would stand without its inclusion.”

In any case, the government was in no position to pick a fight. As another Justice minister, David Hanson, had explained to MPs earlier when discussing another aspect of the bill:

“Members know that we are addressing key issues in relation to the prison officers’ right-to-strike provisions, which expire under the joint industrial relations procedural arrangement tomorrow, 8th May.

“I have always had the intention of getting this Bill to Royal Assent by 8 May, and I feel that if we press this issue this evening we will severely complicate those matters.

“Therefore, I beg to move that we do not insist on the disagreement with the Lords.”

The new law against incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation is not likely to be used frequently.

Indeed, similar laws against inciting racial hatred have only been used around 20 times in the 30 years since they came into force.

What it does do is grant equality of treatment to LGB people and draw a line in the sand.

Even with the amendment, the vast majority of scenarios discussed when the bill was in committee, such as rap artists who call for gays to be executed, will fall under the new law.

The amendment, sadly, allows discrimination to be written into the bill.

Lord Waddington told the Lords:

“We on this side of the House are aware of the evils of homophobia,” an assertion that baffled and amused many Labour peers.

“Let us also be sure that, as a society that values free speech, we are not unwittingly licensing those who wish to suppress it.

“My amendment would not have the effect of weakening the offence. It is, however, a useful reminder not to infer intent from mere words, but to look for proof, for instance, from the surrounding circumstances.

“It is said that the amendment is not necessary, but such a plea always sounds pretty feeble. If it does no harm, why all the fuss?”

Put another way, it is like writing a race relations bill that explicitly states on the face of the bill “you may be nasty about black people, but not too nasty.”

If the bill still outlaws incitement on the grounds of race, then why all the fuss?

Des Turner, Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown, spoke in an earlier debate about why this new offence was created.

“It is only right that the protection that we already afford to potential victims of hatred because of their race should be extended to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals who are as unable to choose their sexual identity as they are to choose their race,” he said.

“If anyone still doubts the need for protective legislation, they need only look at what is happening around them.

“Look for instance at some of the allegedly Christian websites in the UK.

“Christian Voice speaks of “young people who are being drawn into a lifestyle characterised by disease, degradation, death and denial.”

“A site called Gay Conspiracy links homosexuality with paedophilia, which is a dreadful, ignorant libel on a significant section of our community.

“Some reggae groups have published lyrics urging the torture and murder of lesbians and gay men.

“Some record companies and artists have undertaken not to perform such material in future, but others have not and no legal action has yet been taken to prevent the sale of such material in Britain.

“The offence of incitement to hatred on the grounds of sexuality would rightly render such content liable to prosecution.”

For Stonewall, yesterday was an imperfect but very welcome victory. The fight for lesbian access to equal IVF and fertilisation services resumes on Monday.

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