Previous Section Index Home Page

implies doubt where there is none and, by its very existence, throws into doubt the rest of the section.

The second point is one that I return to without any regret. The Waddington amendment relies on a vague phrase—“of itself”—that 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 action—action 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 euphemism—a code—for behaviour that is inherently threatening in its context and intention.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s 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 people’s 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 words—they 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 guidance—a 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.

7 May 2008 : Column 810

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 Government’s 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. Friend’s 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
7 May 2008 : Column 811
Government’s 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 discussing—I was pleased to hear her say that she still intends to produce guidance on that offence—but 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.

Question put, That this House does not insist on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendment:—

The House divided: Ayes 324, Noes 46.
Division No. 174]
[8.44 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Alexander, rh Mr. Douglas
Allen, Mr. Graham
Amess, Mr. David
Ancram, rh Mr. Michael
Armstrong, rh Hilary
Atkins, Charlotte
Austin, John
Bacon, Mr. Richard
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Baird, Vera
Balls, rh Ed
Banks, Gordon
Baron, Mr. John
Barron, rh Mr. Kevin
Battle, rh John

Bayley, Hugh
Begg, Miss Anne
Bell, Sir Stuart
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Benton, Mr. Joe
Beresford, Sir Paul
Berry, Roger
Binley, Mr. Brian
Blears, rh Hazel
Bone, Mr. Peter
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Breed, Mr. Colin
Brennan, Kevin
Brokenshire, James
Brown, Lyn
Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Brown, Mr. Russell
Browne, rh Des
Burden, Richard
Burns, Mr. Simon
Burt, Alistair
Butler, Ms Dawn
Byers, rh Mr. Stephen
Byrne, Mr. Liam
Caborn, rh Mr. Richard
Cairns, David
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Caton, Mr. Martin
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Challen, Colin
Chapman, Ben
Chaytor, Mr. David
Chope, Mr. Christopher
Clapham, Mr. Michael
Clark, Ms Katy
Clark, Paul
Clarke, rh Mr. Tom
Clelland, Mr. David
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Clwyd, rh Ann
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Coffey, Ann
Cooper, Rosie
Crabb, Mr. Stephen
Crausby, Mr. David
Cruddas, Jon
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Cummings, John
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Cunningham, Tony
David, Mr. Wayne
Davies, Mr. Dai
Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth)
Davies, Philip
Dean, Mrs. Janet
Devine, Mr. Jim
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.
Doran, Mr. Frank
Dorrell, rh Mr. Stephen
Dowd, Jim
Drew, Mr. David
Duddridge, James
Eagle, Maria
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Ennis, Jeff
Etherington, Bill
Evans, Mr. Nigel
Evennett, Mr. David
Fallon, Mr. Michael
Fisher, Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flint, rh Caroline
Flynn, Paul
Follett, Barbara
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings and Rye)
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Francois, Mr. Mark
Fraser, Christopher
Gale, Mr. Roger
Gapes, Mike
Gardiner, Barry
Garnier, Mr. Edward
George, rh Mr. Bruce
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gilroy, Linda
Goodman, Helen
Goodman, Mr. Paul
Gray, Mr. James
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Griffith, Nia
Griffiths, Nigel
Grogan, Mr. John
Gwynne, Andrew
Hain, rh Mr. Peter
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hall, Patrick
Hamilton, Mr. David
Hammond, Mr. Philip
Hammond, Stephen
Hands, Mr. Greg
Hanson, rh Mr. David
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harper, Mr. Mark
Harris, Mr. Tom
Havard, Mr. Dai
Hayes, Mr. John
Healey, John
Heathcoat-Amory, rh Mr. David
Hendrick, Mr. Mark
Hendry, Charles
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen
Heppell, Mr. John
Hesford, Stephen
Heyes, David
Hill, rh Keith
Hillier, Meg
Hoban, Mr. Mark
Hodge, rh Margaret
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holloway, Mr. Adam
Hoon, rh Mr. Geoffrey
Hope, Phil
Hopkins, Kelvin
Horam, Mr. John
Howarth, rh Mr. George
Howells, Dr. Kim
Hoyle, Mr. Lindsay
Hughes, rh Beverley
Hunt, Mr. Jeremy
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Illsley, Mr. Eric
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Jack, rh Mr. Michael

James, Mrs. Siân C.
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Jones, Mr. David
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Jowell, rh Tessa
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald
Keeble, Ms Sally
Keen, Alan
Kelly, rh Ruth
Kennedy, rh Jane
Key, Robert
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Kidney, Mr. David
Knight, rh Mr. Greg
Knight, Jim
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Lansley, Mr. Andrew
Laxton, Mr. Bob
Lazarowicz, Mark
Leigh, Mr. Edward
Letwin, rh Mr. Oliver
Levitt, Tom
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Lewis, Dr. Julian
Liddell-Grainger, Mr. Ian
Lidington, Mr. David
Lloyd, Tony
Loughton, Tim
Love, Mr. Andrew
Lucas, Ian
Mackinlay, Andrew
Mahmood, Mr. Khalid
Main, Anne
Malik, Mr. Shahid
Malins, Mr. Humfrey
Marris, Rob
Martlew, Mr. Eric
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCafferty, Chris
McCarthy, Kerry
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
McCrea, Dr. William
McDonagh, Siobhain
McDonnell, John
McFadden, Mr. Pat
McFall, rh John
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McIntosh, Miss Anne
McIsaac, Shona
McKechin, Ann
McKenna, Rosemary
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
Meale, Mr. Alan
Miliband, rh Edward
Miller, Andrew
Miller, Mrs. Maria
Moffatt, Laura
Mole, Chris
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Morden, Jessica
Morgan, Julie
Morley, rh Mr. Elliot
Mountford, Kali
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Murphy, rh Mr. Paul
Norris, Dan
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
Olner, Mr. Bill
Osborne, Sandra
Owen, Albert
Paice, Mr. James
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Penning, Mike
Penrose, John
Pound, Stephen
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Prescott, rh Mr. John
Primarolo, rh Dawn
Pritchard, Mark
Prosser, Gwyn
Purnell, rh James
Rammell, Bill
Randall, Mr. John
Raynsford, rh Mr. Nick
Reed, Mr. Andy
Reed, Mr. Jamie
Reid, rh John
Robathan, Mr. Andrew
Robertson, Hugh
Robertson, John
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Rooney, Mr. Terry
Rosindell, Andrew
Roy, Mr. Frank
Ruane, Chris
Ruddock, Joan
Ruffley, Mr. David
Russell, Christine
Ryan, rh Joan
Salter, Martin
Seabeck, Alison
Sharma, Mr. Virendra
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Shepherd, Mr. Richard
Sheridan, Jim
Simmonds, Mark
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Slaughter, Mr. Andy
Smith, rh Mr. Andrew
Smith, Ms Angela C. (Sheffield, Hillsborough)
Smith, Geraldine
Smith, rh Jacqui
Snelgrove, Anne
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Southworth, Helen
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Stanley, rh Sir John
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Stewart, Ian
Stoate, Dr. Howard
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Straw, rh Mr. Jack
Streeter, Mr. Gary
Stringer, Graham
Stuart, Ms Gisela
Stuart, Mr. Graham
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Taylor, David
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Thornberry, Emily
Timms, rh Mr. Stephen
Touhig, rh Mr. Don
Tredinnick, David
Trickett, Jon
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Turner, Mr. Neil
Vara, Mr. Shailesh
Villiers, Mrs. Theresa

Vis, Dr. Rudi
Walley, Joan
Waltho, Lynda
Waterson, Mr. Nigel
Watkinson, Angela
Watts, Mr. Dave
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Whittingdale, Mr. John
Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Wiggin, Bill
Williams, rh Mr. Alan
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Wills, Mr. Michael
Wilshire, Mr. David
Wilson, Phil
Winterton, Ann
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Woolas, Mr. Phil
Wright, David
Wright, Mr. Iain
Wright, Jeremy
Wright, Dr. Tony
Yeo, Mr. Tim
Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Bob Blizzard and
Liz Blackman

Bercow, John
Betts, Mr. Clive
Brooke, Annette
Bruce, rh Malcolm
Burstow, Mr. Paul
Burt, Lorely
Cable, Dr. Vincent
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair
Corbyn, Jeremy
Featherstone, Lynne
Foster, Mr. Don
Hancock, Mr. Mike
Harris, Dr. Evan
Heath, Mr. David
Hemming, John
Holmes, Paul
Horwood, Martin
Hosie, Stewart
Howarth, David
Hughes, Simon
Huhne, Chris
Hunter, Mark
Kramer, Susan
Lamb, Norman
Leech, Mr. John
McDonnell, John
Price, Adam
Reid, Mr. Alan
Rennie, Willie
Rogerson, Dan
Russell, Bob
Sanders, Mr. Adrian
Smith, Sir Robert
Stunell, Andrew
Swinson, Jo
Taylor, Dr. Richard
Teather, Sarah
Thurso, John
Weir, Mr. Mike
Williams, Mark
Williams, Mr. Roger
Williams, Stephen
Willis, Mr. Phil
Wishart, Pete
Younger-Ross, Richard
Tellers for the Noes:

Jenny Willott and
Paul Rowen
Question accordingly agreed to.
7 May 2008 : Column 812

7 May 2008 : Column 813

7 May 2008 : Column 814

Road Safety (Hertfordshire)

8.57 pm

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 states:

because during the day pedestrians cannot see inside the bridge at all and are completely blind—


7 May 2008 : Column 816

South West Regional Spatial Strategy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Watts.]

8.58 pm

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 debate—the implications for Tewkesbury of the south west regional spatial strategy—is 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 reason—the 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 supplies—some for up to three weeks—and 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 occasion—and on many other occasions—I 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.

Next Section Index Home Page