Ministers determined to crush free speech guard

Tue, 27 Jan 2009

The Government will plough ahead with plans to remove a free speech law which highlights the right of people to express their views on homosexual practice, ministers said yesterday.

But other MPs, including one from the Labour benches, urged the Government to keep the safeguard which clarifies that disagreement is not the same thing as hatred.

MPs were debating the Coroners and Justice Bill. The Bill includes plans to remove the free speech clarification from the offence of ‘inciting hatred’ on grounds of sexual orientation.

The free speech protection makes it clear that criticising homosexual practice or urging people to refrain from such conduct will not, in itself, be a crime.

During the debate, Justice Secretary Jack Straw dismissed warnings that Christians and others are being persecuted for expressing their religious views on sexual ethics.

The Government was reminded of cases like that of Joe and Helen Roberts, Christian pensioners who were interrogated by police because they expressed their religious beliefs about homosexual conduct to their local council.

The shadow justice spokesman, Dominic Grieve, said the case made him “ashamed of the system that we seem to be creating in this country”.

But Mr Straw denied that such cases could be repeated if the free speech protection was removed.

He said the law only catches threatening behaviour intended to stir up hatred, and saw no need for clarification beyond that.

He accused supporters of the protection of more sinister motives. He said: “The movers of that amendment were very clear that the words meant something; they were intended to make a conviction very difficult indeed. That was the purpose.”

But Mr Grieve argued that the law should recognise the difference between inciting hatred and expressing legitimate views.

He said: “No case has yet been made – I wait to hear it – to show why the words that were included in the other place do anything to undermine the ability to prosecute the offence that has been created.”

Neither Mr Straw nor Miss Eagle came forward with a response.

MPs also pointed out that the move was lopsided, with a more wide-ranging free speech protection left untouched in parallel religious hatred laws.

Labour MP David Taylor asked: “Is that not a rather asymmetrical approach, and is it likely to survive challenges in the other place?”

Mr Straw said he would take account of Mr Taylor’s question, but said “there are differences and I think that that has been accepted by the House when the matter has been debated”.

Conservative MP and vocal spokesman for secularism John Bercow called the protection “at best superfluous, and at worst deeply objectionable”.

He added: “Some – although not all – of its supporters would not even know how to spell the word equality, let alone sign up to it.”

But Mr Grieve argued that a safeguard is necessary because laws made by Parliament are often misapplied “lower down the chain”.

Without such protection, he said, “the law of unintended consequences will lead to people who express views that are perfectly legitimate – even if they are views with which we disagree – feeling as if they are being persecuted.”

He added: “I want to see a right for people to express their views, including views that other people might not like.

“That is what a free society is about, and the House must ensure that that can still happen, even when we have ensured that expressions of rabid hatred and incitement to hatred can be curbed.”

Mike Judge, Head of Communications at The Christian Institute, said: “In theory, if the protection was removed Christians would remain free to express their beliefs about homosexual practice.

“The law ought only to catch the use of threatening words or behaviour which have the intention of stirring up hatred. No genuine Christian should find themselves falling foul of that.

“But we believe a free speech protection should nevertheless remain attached to the offence to clarify an area of the law which could easily be used as a pretext for silencing Christian views on sexual behaviour.

“Given the level of intimidation faced by Christians on the issue of homosexual practice, an explicit free speech protection is a reasonable approach.”