From Tuesday 23 March 2010, important new legal protections come into force to outlaw threatening behaviour or materials intended to stir up hatred against people on grounds of their sexual orientation.
Stonewall has campaigned for a number of years for a specific law to extend existing criminal offences against incitement of racial and religious hatred to protect lesbian, gay and bisexual people too. We warmly welcome these much-needed measures.
Read our media release on the new offence here
In May 2008, Parliament passed new legal protections against incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation in Section 74 and Schedule 16 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. Stonewall believes that the newly-extended criminal offence of incitement to hatred will go some way towards addressing the hatred and violence directed towards lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in Britain at a time when homophobic attacks are on the increase. It sends a strong signal that such behaviour is unacceptable in a civilised society. Like race, a person's sexual orientation is an intrinsic characteristic for which no citizen should ever feel under threat of verbal or physical violence.
The House of Lords introduced an amendment to the incitement offence, tabled by Lord Waddington. Stonewall believes that Lord Waddington’s clause - now Section 29JA of the Public Order Act 1986 - is unnecessary and risks allowing some people of extreme views to seek to avoid prosecution by exploiting this loophole. The threshold of the new homophobic incitement offence is set very high. The Waddington amendment seeks to protect something that was never under threat.
The Government attempted to remove Lord Waddington’s amendment through the Coroners and Justice Bill. After several votes on this issue, the Government accepted the Lords position on Wednesday 12 November 2009 owing to the pressures of the parliamentary timetable. In the final vote in the House of Commons, on Monday 9 November 2009, elected Members of Parliament had disagreed with the Lords by a very significant majority of 200 votes.
The Ministry of Justice has made very clear that Section 29JA has little impact on the threshold of the offence. Their circular for the police, prosecution service and the judiciary on the new offence says that ‘it has no substantive effect’.
MPs approved amendments to add a proposed new offence of incitement to homophobic hatred to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill on 29 November 2007, following an announcement by Justice Secretary Jack Straw that the Government intended to legislate in this area. Stonewall had campaigned on this issue for many months, seeking to persuade Ministers to extend existing legal protections against inciting racial and religious hatred to protect lesbian and gay people.
Many people in Britain are subject to hatred and verbal and physical violence or live in fear because of their sexual orientation - the new offence is much needed and will help mitigate that violence. Stonewall believes that the new offence of incitement to hatred on grounds of sexual orientation will help to tackle extremists who currently stir up hatred and violence against lesbians and gay men. The effects of this activity are demonstrated in the increasing number of homophobic attacks taking place across Britain.
Now it’s been implemented, the new offence will tackle threatening conduct or materials intended to stir up hatred directed towards lesbian and gay people. During our campaign to secure the offence Stonewall uncovered a range of violently homophobic publications and websites, available to the general public. Such materials create great fear and promote inflammatory myths and misconceptions as fact, undermining community cohesion.
There have been some alarmist claims about what the new offence will cover. The new protections will categorically not impede genuine freedom of speech or the telling of jokes by comedians, as some have suggested. The offence will not outlaw jokes involving gay people, or any jokes that a gay person might deem offensive. Neither will it cover playground insults.
Instead, the new offence will aim to prevent and tackle acts of serious hatred against individuals defined by reference to their sexual orientation, with a high threshold for prosecutions which must be approved by the Attorney General and heard before a jury.