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Lib Dems back law on incitement to homophobic hatred

March 26, 2009 7:49 PM

In yesterday's Commons debate, the Liberal Democrats supported sections of the Coroners and Justice Bill, which will criminalise incitement to hatred over sexual orientation.

Leading for the party in the debate, Cambridge Lib Dem MP David Howarth said:

"The offence of using threatening words or behaviour with intent to stir up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation was created by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. Anyone who knows anything about the lives of gay people in this country knows why the provision was necessary and important.

Homophobic bullying and intimidation are distressingly common occurrences. Recent research shows that one in eight lesbian or gay people have experienced hate crime in the past three years. The problem is not only distressingly common but can have lasting deleterious effects on the lives and well-being of the victims. I hope that no one in this debate will question the need for the provision; if they do, I hope that they will be honest enough to say so openly.

"This debate focuses on a particular aspect of the 2008 Act. Some religious groups have said they are afraid that the new law will catch them because their religion strongly disapproves of homosexuality, and their representatives or preachers want to continue to say so publicly. It is important, however, to stress what the 2008 Act says and what the new crime is. The Act says:

"A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation."

That means that the words have to be both threatening and intended to stir up hatred. It is not enough for the words to be insulting or offensive; they have to threaten. Nor is it enough that the words may have the effect of stirring up hatred; they have to be specifically intended to do so.

The crime is difficult to prove at the best of times. If a charge was brought against a saintly religious leader whose intention was to save souls, I cannot see how anyone might think that that offence had been committed. … some people are anxious about the possibility that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service will not recognise the difference. I accept that that anxiety exists and that we should do something about it-the question is what.