The Government has got a lot on its plate at the moment. Several Bills look perilously close to running out of time before prorogation, including this one. Yet here we are wasting precious time debating whether to crush a safeguard for free speech. I would have thought the answer was obvious. Our default position should always be in favour of free speech.
Free speech is a foundation stone of our democracy. A lot of people are worried it is going out of fashion. If they knew we were about to vote on whether to delete a free speech clause from a controversial new homophobia offence that even many homosexual people don’t want, they might be more worried still.
As I understand it, the new offence criminalizes threatening words or behaviour combined with an intention to stir up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Any good Christian can tell you it is quite wrong to stir up hatred against anyone, on any grounds whatsoever. But it is also wrong to send the police in to harass people in their homes for expressing an opinion about sexual ethics which does not accord with Islington wine-bar orthodoxy. But that is what is happening. New cases crop up in the newspapers with alarming regularity.
People are entitled to say they believe that something is wrong and that they disagree with it and that they disapprove of it. That is free speech. They can say they think Roman Catholicism is wrong and wicked and damaging to your health. Militant atheists say exactly these things. But we accept that they are not trying to stir up hatred. They are merely expressing a point of view.
I can say that I think Labour MPs are wrong but that is not remotely the same thing as urging people to go out and beat them up.
People are saying some pretty strong things about MPs of all parties at the moment. That too is not the same thing as saying you should bash them or be horrible to them in the street. No-one is suggesting a law against inciting hatred of MPs. People have a right to criticize anyone they like.
Now, I realize we are not debating whether or not to introduce the new homophobia offence – of which the Waddington free speech clause is currently a part. The principle of introducing the offence has already been decided in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act. However, it is worth pointing out that Matthew Parris and Peter Tatchell have both argued against the new offence.
Matthew Parris has called the incitement offence, “a particularly silly idea”.
Peter Tatchell said “I’d like to see all the incitement to hatred laws repealed. They are unnecessary.”
Both of these men have also written in support of the Waddington free speech clause.
I’ve been trying to find out, actually, whether there are any homosexual people who actively oppose the Waddington clause.
Stonewall, of course, have previously lobbied against it, although even they seem to have gone a bit quiet on it. There’s nothing on their web site. I haven’t been sent a briefing by them but perhaps that is not a surprise.
But it was quite fun to discover that they originally told a Committee of this House that they supported the idea of a free speech clause. And when we discussed this in March, the worst thing they could think of to say about the free speech clause was that some bad people might “attempt” to take advantage of it. They didn’t seem convinced that these bad people would succeed in their attempt, or else I’m sure they would have said so.
I hardly think there is any great threat of people getting away with saying truly hateful and potentially violent things about homosexual people by citing the free speech clause. It simply says:
“for the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.”
Compare that to the free speech clause in the religious hatred offence which says:
“Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.”
Now that really is a free speech clause! And people have taken it to heart, judging from Libby Purves piece in this morning’s Times eliding Roman Catholics with Islamist extremists.
But we take these verbal attacks on the chin because we believe in free speech. A majority of Members in this House voted for the free speech clause in the religious hatred offence precisely to ensure that people can go on saying these sorts of things about religious people. Because the alternative is oppression, and if the law oppresses freedom of speech in one area, it will soon oppress freedom of speech in other areas. In part, we defend other people’s freedom of speech in order to defend our own.
Just to be clear, in the same way that Mr Tatchell and Mr Parris demonstrated a genuine liberalism by opposing the introduction of a law which they could use to protect their own beliefs and lifestyle, I also opposed the introduction of a religious hatred law, even though I could cite it to protect my own beliefs and lifestyle.
When Liberty briefed in support of this clause they also said they wanted to see a moratorium on hate speech legislation to examine the need for it. Perhaps the next Conservative government can look into repealing some of the new laws introduced in the last few years which infringe on freedom of speech. I’m sure Liberty will be able to advise us on where to start.
However, today we cannot vote to abolish either the religious hatred offence or the homophobic hatred offence but we can vote to maintain a sliver of common sense, a modicum of protection for the expression of other people’s opinions, regardless of whether or not we agree with them.
I urge the House to accept the Lords’ amendment.