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for the avoidance of doubt
The second point is one that I return to without any regret. The Waddington amendment relies on a vague phraseof itselfthat is without clear meaning. It assumes that words can be spoken outside their context. We were told yesterday that the problem was that the police believe that words by themselves can be threats. That is nonsense. It is a bad argument that because someone else believes in nonsense, it should be put into a statutory section. If ever a problem would better be dealt with by guidance than by statute, this is it.
I stick to the third point that I made yesterday, which is my most serious point. The part of the Waddington amendment about urging people to change their sexual behaviour is inherently dangerous, because it is about not only words but actionaction in a context that means it might well amount to threats. The exemption might be interpreted as creating a loophole, and not only that: in the longer term, people of ill will will be tempted to use the phrase as a euphemisma codefor behaviour that is inherently threatening in its context and intention.
John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I entirely agree with the hon. Gentlemans assertion that the Waddington amendment is both superfluous and undesirable. The Government are conceding this point for entirely understandable, tactical reasons, but that does not affect the issue of principle. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is some significance in the fact that the most vociferous supporters of the Waddington amendment are people who have consistently opposed the creation of the offence of homophobic hate crime?
David Howarth: I fully agree. Anyone who was standing at the Bar in the Lords today, as I was, will fully accept that point and agree with the hon. Gentleman. If there was ever a circumstance in which peoples words were different from their meaning, it was in the other place this afternoon.
I accept that there is a problem that has to be dealt with. It is the problem of the misinterpretation by the police of existing law, which has led to some ludicrous investigations. It should be said that those investigations took place under the Public Order Acts, which use completely different wordsthey talk about threatening, abusive or insulting language rather than threats alone, which are the words of the proposed offence.
Nevertheless, there might be a problem. The question is about the right way to deal with that problem. The Government offered a way to do that today through the use of statutory guidancea proposal, as I said yesterday, with a good deal of merit. It was rejected by the House of Lords when they accepted the Waddington amendment. It is a sensible way of approaching the question.
In addition, a proposal was put forward yesterday by the Liberal Democrats and, in a different way, by the Conservatives, to add some procedural protection under which the Attorney-General or the prosecution authorities, whoever they might be in the future, would have to have special regard to freedom of expression or, in the case of the Conservative proposal, to quite a few other human rights, too, before deciding to bring a prosecution. As I said yesterday, that is an important protection. It is not merely meaningless words, and it provides at least some hope of judicial review in some circumstances.
Our view is that the right way to deal with the problem of the absurd investigations would be a combination of the Governments proposals on guidance and one of the procedural protections proposed by my party and the Conservative party. I deeply regret the fact that the Government have not chosen to go down that route. They had the opportunity to accept that route tonight, at this late stage. They chose not to, because of the lateness of the hour and the political circumstances in which they find themselves. I should remind the Government that they decided to add to the Bill the provisions about industrial relations in the prison system. They could have chosen a different way to do things. The Bill is full of far too many clauses on different issues that have been in the process of being dealt with for far too long. In terms of good legislative practice, it is near to being a disaster. On the offence that we are discussing, my party believes that tonight the Government have caved in to forces to which they should never contemplate caving in.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I should like to support my hon. Friends amendment (a), which he wishes to pursue, and to identify and discuss the three reasons the Government find themselves in an unsatisfactory position. Two of their problems are self-inflicted, but one is a genuine problem that we discussed yesterday.
The first self-inflicted problem relates to the timetable that they set themselves with regard to the prison officers issue, which has already been discussed. There were alternative ways of going about the matter. It is unfortunate that the Government are accepting a good offence being made worse because of the timetable. The second problem concerns their failure to win the vote in the House of Lords. If Members read the Hansard of both occasions, they will see that the argument was won, but the vote was not.
The first time that the amendment tabled by Lord Waddington and his colleagues saw the light of day, the Government insisted on the House of Lords sitting late into the night, but regrettably they could muster only 57 people when the vote came. They lost by 81 votes to 57. The turnout was better tonight; I understand that the vote was 178 to 168, and that a significant number of Government Members were there. That is laudable, but as the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) said, 13 Government Members still voted for the amendment. I am pleased to say that the Liberal Democrats in the other place were far more cohesive. I understand that none of them voted for the amendment. Given the numbers, the matter was in the
Governments hands; they could have prevented us from being in this position, and it is regrettable that they failed.
The issue of significance is the widespread concern, which I and other colleagues yesterday accepted exists, about the misapplication by the police of existing offences that threaten freedom of expression. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) kindly offered to meet us to discuss whether guidance could be provided, not just on the new offence that we are discussingI was pleased to hear her say that she still intends to produce guidance on that offencebut on sections 4A and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which have caused widespread concern.
It is acceptable and understandable for Members of this House to express concern about whether freedom of speech is unreasonably threatened by legislation, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) set out, the offence of hatred on the ground of sexual orientation is very narrow. There is no doubt about the offence; the only doubt is introduced by Lords amendment No. 285. It will create more problems than it seeks to solve. The lesson is that although we must be vigilant about free speech, we must go about things in a more deliberative way.
I ask the Government to consider thinking more deeply about freedom of expression and whether there could be a review of where we are now, so that we can ensure that the police, the prosecutors and the public know what they can do, and so that concerns are not expressed, as they were yesterday, about whether strongly held views that are offensive will be subject to the criminal law. I hope that the Government will recognise that the problem may come back again, unless there is clarity on that point; this is the second time that they have found themselves in difficulty on the issue.
I make one final point. We Liberal Democrats are keen to preserve freedom of expression, as can be seen in our amendment (a). I recognise that there is support among Conservative Members for freedom of expression. However, I note that more than 50 Conservative Members voted last night to maintain our blasphemy laws. That is inconsistent of them. I regret the fact that we are in this position, and I will certainly vote in protest at the fact that we have not had the opportunity to register that regret.
Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): It is a great pleasure to present to the House a petition on behalf of my constituents in Nash Mills parish, as well as the constituents of St. Albans, into where Lower Road bridge runs from my constituency. The petition is signed by 550 residents. That does not sound a particularly large number, but they represent nearly all the families who are having their lives blighted by the dangers of Lower Road bridge in Nash Mills. The Victorian bridge and tunnel has no footpath and was designed for the horse and carriage, not the 40-tonne lorries, buses, cars and motorcycles that go through the tunnel today. Some 2,217 movements were recorded in three hours through this tunnel, with no public footpath whatsoever.
The Petition of those concerned about the safety of Lower Road bridge in Nash Mills,
Declares that a safety crossing and traffic calming system is urgently needed for the Lower Road bridge in Nash Mills; that the Victorian bridge and tunnel has no footpath or alternative safe route being designed for horse and carriages rather than
40 tonne lorries; that a local traffic survey found that on 24th October 2007 between 2pm and 5pm there were 2,217 movements through the bridge including HGV lorries, buses, vans, cars, motorbikes and pedestrians; that a large proportion of the pedestrians crossing the bridge are children; that 50 children live in the 150 dwellings in what is known as no mans land (Lower Road, Hyde Lane and Woodlands Road) and have to cross the bridge to access the local park; that further planned developments nearby (residential and business) are likely to exacerbate the problem on this bridge which has three junctions on its south side; and that if the Government is encouraging children to walk to school it should ensure the environment for them to do so is a safe one.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to instruct the local authority to look into solutions to the problem which should include the introduction of pedestrian lights; reducing the height restriction on the bridge to 11 ft 4 in; adding a footpath and sensor light; painting the inside of the bridge white and lighting it 24 hours a day;
putting a speed camera in the Lower Road on the bend; providing islands to assist pedestrians in crossing the road and to consult further with the local community to ensure everybodys safety.
And the Petitioners remain, etc.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I am pleased to have secured this debate. I am very grateful to the Minister for staying behind to reply, particularly as we did not know what time it would be when we got to this stage.
The subject of this debatethe implications for Tewkesbury of the south west regional spatial strategyis especially important. Not only do we have green belt, green fields and beautiful areas in my constituency that we wish to protect, but, as the world knows, we have a problem with flooding. I say as the world knows because it is true. On recent trips to three countries in the far east and four countries in the Caribbean, my constituency of Tewkesbury was known about for the wrong reasonthe terrible floods of July 2007. It is worth remembering that as a result of those floods, three people lost their lives and thousands had their homes and businesses flooded. Hundreds of thousands lost mains water suppliessome for up to three weeksand power supplies were affected. The effects of the July 2007 floods remain with us. Even now, almost 10 months on, approximately 385 households in my constituency are still displaced from their homes, and some are probably still months from returning to them. Business in certain parts of my constituency remains depressed.
I have held two Adjournment debates on flooding and on each occasionand on many other occasionsI have said the following. People in my constituency accept that living at the confluence of two rivers means that the area will flood every so often. Fields in the area flood a number of times each year. Although we all accept that the rainfall of 20 July 2007 was exceptional, we believe that certain factors made the flooding worse than it needed to be. One factor was the poor maintenance of the culverts, sewers, drains, ditches and waterways, but the other factor was that too many houses have been built in flood risk areas. People accept that the area will flood, but the one overriding message that people give to me, which they want me to pass on to the Minister, is that we should not be making the situation any worse than it needs to be. We should mitigate, rather than escalate, the problem. Imagine, then, the disappointment and anger at the contents of the regional spatial strategy, which proposes the building of thousands of houses in my constituency, in areas that have to be classed as at risk of flooding.
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