Monday 1 July 2019
[Mr Charles Walker in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 239444 relating to online homophobia.
I will begin by outlining the case put by Bobby Norris, who started this petition and is in the Public Gallery. It was an honour and a joy to meet him earlier this afternoon, and to get a real sense of his excitement that Parliament has responded by scheduling this debate to discuss Bobby’s Bill. Strictly speaking, we are some way off a Bill, but I am sure the Minister will be listening closely. The main thing I took from our conversation—apart from being slightly star-struck on meeting him—was how real, hurtful and profoundly unpleasant is the abuse that he and others receive. We should all be determined to stamp it out wherever it occurs.
Bobby’s petition, entitled “Make online homophobia a specific criminal offence”, reads:
“As a gay man I find it devastating how members of the LGBT community are still subjected to homophobic abuse online. Just because I am on TV I don’t think that makes it acceptable to be sent homophobic messages/comments on social media platforms. Nobody should have to receive these comments. I won’t go into detail as to the various names I have been called, but this should not be acceptable and can have an impact on people’s mental health and has certainly helped in making my anxiety and low self-esteem worse by receiving them.”
It has been signed by more than 152,000 people, so it has immense public support, arising from the fantastic publicity campaign by Bobby, “The Only Way is Essex” and my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who has worked with Bobby and spoke passionately, eloquently and powerfully on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights last week in a debate in the Chamber. We were all moved by her speech, and as a long-term admirer and friend, I am proud that she is here to contribute to our debate.
There is an extraordinary division between how we treat homophobic abuse online and in what we still call the real world. I am thankful that homophobic verbal or physical attacks that happen on the streets still make headlines, awful though they are. Online abuse does not attract the same outrage, but it contributes to an atmosphere of fear and has a divisive, hateful effect. There are too many examples of that. I will leave it to others to talk more about the injustices of homophobic abuse. There are people in the Chamber today with powerful personal experiences to share. We all agree that it has no place in our society and must be stamped out.
Online anti-LGBT+ hate crime is defined as any crime taking place online that is targeted at a person because of hostility or prejudice based on their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. That could include abuse or even outing someone without their consent. That injustice is not going away. Stonewall statistics tell us that the number of lesbian, gay and bisexual people who have experienced a hate crime or incident in the past year because of their sexual orientation has risen by 78%, from 9% in 2013 to 16% in 2017. One in 10 LGBT people—10%—have experienced homophobic, biphobic or transphobic abuse online directed towards them personally in the last month. People are understandably shocked by that appalling figure and by the fact that no specific offence is being committed, outside the very fragmented and complicated laws that are used in the offline world.
I warmly congratulate those who set up this petition and everyone who signed it. I do not know how I would have coped as a young man coming out and dealing with my sexuality in a world in which social media existed. It is much worse for people going through that now. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the main issues is that people can send online abuse anonymously? If we are to make this an offence—I think we should—do we not have to deal that first? People using social media platforms must be identifiable if we are to take action.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will come on to that point, but I absolutely agree with him.
When I was researching this speech, I thought it would be useful to seek some local advice. I spoke to Anglia Ruskin University’s LGBT+ society, which said:
“As a society, and an LGBT+ community at ARU, we were shocked to learn online homophobia isn’t considered a specific offence. British society often praises itself for its support of LGBT+ people which, while often fair, comes with the assumption that the fight for LGBT+ rights has been won. However, those congratulations are hollow if we aren’t being protected properly by the laws of this society. The LGBT+ society at ARU works hard to offer safe spaces for LGBT+ students across campus, but we feel powerless to help students when we know they can be subject to online homophobia, something we can’t necessarily help with. We need legislation to ensure LGBT+ people are protected in all walks of life, in all activities of life.”
The society put it very well.
Online homophobia and other kinds of online abuse are a relatively new phenomenon, with the rise of omnipresent tech and the fact that most of us communicate digitally—in some cases almost constantly. Social media allows us to speak to people we know and people we have never met at the click of a button. Regulation of the online space is a contentious issue, and we have not got to grips with it. Some tech giants are struggling to find ways of monitoring their users’ behaviour. The number of moderators working for some is both impressive and alarming. Can we ever really check everything that is said? Frankly, do we want to? That is the conundrum that we face.
The laws governing hate speech and online abuse are drawn from various pieces of legislation, much of which was written before the widespread internet use and online communications that we enjoy today. Hate speech, including homophobia, is outlawed under five or more Acts. The Malicious Communications Act 1988 dictates that it is an offence to send an electronic communication in any form that is indecent or grossly offensive, conveys a threat, or is false, with intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient. The Communications Act 2003 updates that slightly, confirming that it is an offence to use any public electronic communications network, such as Twitter or Facebook, to send messages that are grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997 contains a number of other offences such as harassment, and harassment when someone fears violence. However, the quantity of legislation means that it is sometimes unclear to victims where they stand. It is based on a communications environment that no longer exists, as some of it dates back some 30 years. Although it references online communication, it does not anticipate the all-encompassing nature of the digital world that we live in today, and thus the impact that online abuse can have as part of an online environment in which many people spend much of their lives, rather than simply the email inboxes of the 1990s.
Galop, the LGBT+ anti-violence charity, explained:
“Online life is so enmeshed in our day-to-day lives that increasingly the online and offline world are not separate. Sometimes online hate speech is a part of wider pattern of harassment and abuse that is happening in other areas of our life, for example a neighbour that is targeting you in your home and online”.
That is particularly damaging, because for some people—school students for example—it can all too easily feel that there is no escape from abuse if it is happening on the streets or in the playground, and online too.
The Government’s response to the petition highlighted their request to the Law Commission to review the current law on abusive and offensive online communications. The Law Commission produced its scoping report in November 2018, which concluded that abusive online communications are theoretically criminalised to the same or even a greater extent than equivalent offline offending. However, there is considerable scope for reform. It said that many of the applicable offences do not adequately reflect the nature of some of the offending behaviour in the online environment, and the degree of harm it can cause.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that the Law Commission itself pointed out that only 3% of malicious communication offences are ever prosecuted, so there is a lot of impunity and a weakness of enforcement that must also be taken into account when we are thinking about how we can counter this issue?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. She is of course absolutely right. Enforcement, which I will come on to, is a key issue.
The Law Commission also said that
“practical and cultural barriers mean that not all harmful online conduct is pursued in terms of criminal law enforcement to the same extent that it might be in an offline context.”
It said that, more generally, criminal offences could be improved so that they are clearer and target serious harm and criminality more effectively. It recognises that the large number of overlapping offences can cause confusion. It says that ambiguous terms such as “gross offensiveness”, “obscenity” and “indecency” do not provide the required clarity for prosecutors. The commission calls for reforms such as reform and consolidation of existing criminal laws dealing with offensive and abusive communications online; a specific review considering how the law can more effectively protect victims who are subject to a campaign of online harassment; and a review of how effectively the criminal law protects personal privacy online. Such reforms could serve to clarify victims’ rights and make prosecutions more likely to succeed.
Campaign groups have also made recommendations. Stonewall recommends that online platforms should communicate clearly to all online users that anti-LGBT abuse is unacceptable, and advertise clear privacy, safety and reporting mechanisms; should deal with all incidents of anti-LGBT abuse seriously and swiftly and keep people informed about the progress and outcome in respect of reported incidents, including what actions have been taken and why; and should work with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to develop more effective responses to anti-LGBT hate online, in consultation with LGBT people and organisations.
The Government are currently consulting on their “Online Harms” White Paper, and I look forward to the roundtable hosted by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport this Wednesday, because this is an important issue that cannot be left while the Government prevaricate on our place in Europe. The White Paper confirms:
“For illegal harms, it is also important to make sure that criminal law applies online in the same way as it applies offline.”
These are big questions and they raise big challenges about how social media platforms in general should be regulated, about anonymity and about enforcement. The bullies should be unmasked, and the tech platforms should be doing that themselves, not waiting to be forced. Unmasking will also allow more effective enforcement. In my view, the White Paper does not look sufficiently at ways to tackle enforcement. That is a wider issue—it seems to me, from my brief time in Parliament, that it comes up so often. We spend hours legislating and considering policy but then do not provide the resources or systems for implementation and enforcement, so too often, laws are observed by the law-abiding but are largely ignored by those who are not—a pointless and frustrating situation.
There is an even bigger question as we begin to understand the age of surveillance capitalism. You do not have to read far through Shoshana Zuboff’s astonishing work on this subject to get a distinct feeling of unease. The White Paper fails to acknowledge that online abuse exists within a system that is run by capital-building algorithms, which push controversial or divisive content for increased clicks, and has a business model based on personal advertising but also maximum engagement regardless of content. That means that, too often, commercial online platforms are content to allow toxic environments, as the content that is pushed hardest is that which is divisive because it provokes extremely strong reactions.
In an excellent article in The Guardian last February entitled “Fiction is outperforming reality”, Paul Lewis exposed the way in which algorithms promote fake news on YouTube. The promotion of this kind of content contributes to an environment in which problematic language and ideas are completely normalised, meaning that there is a degree of desensitisation. We must row back from that and take online homophobia for what it is—hate speech that must not be accepted.
I have strayed a little from the specifics of this petition into the wider debate; I will conclude by returning to the narrower subject. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on data analytics, I meet many people who are rightly enthused by the potential of big data to be a power for good, but the sheer pace of change, often out of public sight, means that we have a responsibility also to ask serious questions about how the new technologies are being used and what effect, unintended or not, they may be having on individuals and on our society. We do not need to develop new ways for people to be unpleasant to one another—we have enough of that already.
I am not one who instinctively wants to ban or regulate; I would rather that people behaved well and decently to one another. There will always be differences of opinion, and that is a good thing. My plea, as we move towards Bobby’s law, is for people just to be nicer to one another. Is it really that hard? But for those who cannot do that, we need laws to protect ourselves from them, and my very simple message to the tech companies and the Minister is that we now need to move swiftly to make it clear that online homophobia, like all other hate, has no place in a civilised society. The one difference between the online and the offline worlds is that, offline, we do not terminate people’s accounts, but in the online world, we should. The message should be, “If you can’t behave, you’re out,” and in my view, we will be all the better for it.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker.
I may not be gay, but I have an intense feeling of sympathy with the human rights of individuals, and what this petition does is strike a blow for the human rights of individuals. We have heard the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) describe the enormous scale of this problem, and we have heard about some of the areas in which it occurs. I thank him for exposing the full extent of this activity.
The petition suggests that there should be a separate offence for homophobia, and I can see the logic of that and why people might want it, but this is part of a much bigger picture, and we need to see it in the context of that bigger picture to be able to decide what to do about it.
There have been references already to the work of the Law Commission in looking at this matter, and I think we are expecting a report from the Law Commission in 2020 on hate crime and how it has developed. I have a lot of time for the work of the Law Commission; it is generally very thorough and very detailed, and we should take account of exactly what it says. However, I think that the distinction that is being made between online and offline, when it comes to dealing with the sexual orientation of individuals, is in some ways a bit misleading. It is absolutely essential that we stamp out the rigidity in how people look at the sexual orientation of individuals, and we do that both offline and online.
There is something special, though, about online abuse—it is so utterly cowardly. It is so utterly cowardly that the people who perpetrate it do not need to disclose, half the time, who they are or what their views are. We can see the point that they want to make, and it is exactly the same point that we see in other areas where hate crime is endemic—examples include Islamophobia and antisemitism. I have spent quite a bit of my career looking at what is happening in those two areas.
I, for one, welcome the creation of the national online hate crime hub, because it has the potential to bring in specialist police officers who can be used to really root this problem out. The problem with online activities is that we need specialists in order to be able to get to the bottom of it. Bringing in specialist police officers and staff is a good way to take this forward.
The hon. Member for Cambridge mentioned the important aspect of the mental health effect of all of this on those who suffer from hate crimes. That is a very serious problem, and unless we focus on the experience of those who suffer these things, we will miss a great point about what we should aim to achieve.
I have said many times in this Chamber that, given my interest in human rights, I am proud to be a member of the Council of Europe. It will be no surprise to hon. Members that the Council is fully supportive of the actions we want to take. It stands up for the human rights of every individual. It is important to make that point this week, because, only last week, the Council made the fundamental mistake of readmitting Russia. If we look at the way that gay people have been treated in Chechnya, we see the hatred with which they have been singled out in that part of the country. At the Council, we tabled 230 amendments, which may have been a bit excessive, but it made our point forcefully. I was pleased that one of our amendments called for an apology for what has gone on in Chechnya and for a cessation to those activities.
The Council has also taken on board how to deal with this problem more generally. It has a questionnaire on existing measures and is highlighting examples of good practice—if anyone is interested, they can see it online. I suppose it is ironic that the internet can facilitate the good practice that exposes the bad practice, but that is the nature of things.
We are dealing with challenges to individual’s privacy, including whether they want to come out or not. That is a decision for them to make. The more we can do to promote a good check on online activities, to focus on this issue, to ensure that all of us understand what is happening and to take action against it, the healthier we will be.
I have taken the time that you allotted me at the start of the debate, Mr Walker. I am pleased to have done so, because this is an important subject, not only for gay people, but for all of us, and discussing it allows us to show our common humanity with others and our support for the protection of their human rights.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, which does not happen very often. I look forward to the rest of this timely debate. I pay tribute to Bobby Norris, whose petition to make online homophobia a specific criminal offence, we are debating today. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for the thoughtful, sensitive and effective way in which he introduced our deliberations. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. We have high hopes that the Government will listen and take rapid action to deal with these issues.
Bobby Norris came to see me to talk about the level of hate that he perceived LGBT+ people were receiving on social media. He felt rightly that this was detrimental to their health and wellbeing and that not enough was being done to stem the tide of homophobic hatred being generated online. He asked me what might be done to bring the Government’s attention to this growing problem and to take effective action to stop it. I suggested that he launch this petition as a first step towards highlighting this serious issue.
The petition has attracted over 152,000 signatures, which is why we are having this timely debate. That demonstrates that our petition system is working well. It is a relatively new part of our old Parliament, but it connects us to the modern world and demonstrates that Parliament can be responsive to the issues that people worry about outside of our Westminster debates.
Bobby has now found himself the target of turbo-charged online hate—a sign of the angry and hate-filled times that we live in—for daring to put his head above the parapet and take a public stand against this damaging growth in online homophobic abuse. He is strong enough to deal with it, but the point is that he should not have to, and nor should anyone else. The unwritten threat that someone who sticks their head above the parapet or who has an opinion about something will be dealt with online in the way Bobby Norris is being now does not cast a good light on the health of our democracy.
Those who argue that one should be able, in the interest of freedom of speech, to say anything online somehow miss the bad effect that this abuse, which is lurking and ready to be uncurled and thrown at somebody, has on our democracy. The fact that this is happening shows that, although the development of social media has many benefits, which we can all name, it has also brought significant downsides. Social media has unleashed a level of hatred and harassment that shames our society and threatens to undermine and dampen our democracy.
Hatred and abuse generated on social media are doing real damage to the mental health and wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of people who are targeted by trolls. Undoubtedly, hatred and abuse spill out from the virtual world into the real world. If we are to call ourselves a civilised and good society, these things must not be allowed to flourish online or offline with impunity. We need to change our laws to protect against these new harms much more effectively. I look forward to the Minister’s response. I am looking for urgent action from the Government to try to get a grip on this worrying situation. I am sure she will have sympathy aplenty, but we really need determined and rapid action.
This debate is timely, being held 51 years after homosexuality was first partially decriminalised in the UK, 50 years after the Stonewall riots in New York, which signalled the beginning of the fight for LGBT liberation worldwide, and in the aftermath of the WorldPride march in New York this weekend, which drew 3 million people—it looked like quite a party, and I was sorry to have missed it. However, our debate also comes in the week of the huge Pride march that will bring London to a joyful halt on Saturday, and I certainly have no intention of missing that party.
LGBT liberation and the fight for respect and equal treatment in law have undoubtedly come a very long way in the UK over the past 30 years, and we should not underestimate the progress we have made. As the first openly lesbian Government Minister, and only the second out lesbian ever elected to the House of Commons, I am proud to have played my part in the many gains made under the last Labour Government, including granting equal status in law to LGBT+ people and their relationships; repealing the odious section 28, which stigmatised LGBT+ people at school; and banning all discrimination in the provision of goods and services on grounds of sexual orientation.
Those progressive advances have undoubtedly made the lives of many LGBT+ people immeasurably better. However, although we have come a long way as a community in a relatively short time, these angry political times have created a backlash. There has been a spike in violence and hate crime against the LGBT+ community in recent years, and online abuse seems now to be spilling over into real-life violence. Homophobic and transphobic hate crimes have doubled in the past five years, yet according to the LGBT equal rights campaign group Stonewall, four in five hate crimes go unreported by the victims. Its comprehensive survey “LGBT in Britain” has revealed that one in 10 LGB people has had online abuse directed at them personally in the past month, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge pointed out, with that figure rising to one in four for trans people, who are especially at the frontline and vulnerable at the moment.
The figures are brought to life when we think of the actual victims of the increases in violence. In London a couple of weeks ago, two gay women were beaten and robbed on a bus by five teenagers for refusing to kiss each other on demand. In Southampton, two women kissing in the street were injured by an object thrown from a passing car. In Liverpool, two men were stabbed and seriously hurt in a homophobic knife attack; one of the people held for that attack is 12 years old. In Birmingham, there have been vocal anti-LGBT demonstrations outside two primary schools, mischaracterising and protesting the No Outsiders curriculum, which teaches respect for diverse families and seeks to end the stigmatising of LBGT people in school. Utterly false and outrageous claims have been made that its lessons are trying to turn children gay, and the Government have not reacted firmly enough to prevent such claims.
Our values of respect for diversity in society are now being tested, and we must not be found wanting in our defence of them. As my hon. Friend said, the current criminal law rightly offers legal protection to all who experience direct homophobic physical violence. In fact, both the Public Order Act 1986 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003 offer extra opportunities for the courts to increase sentences in such cases of assault if they believe that hatred of LGBT people was an aggravating feature of the crime. It is right that that is an aggravating offence in law, because it demonstrates our determination to prevent the kind of hate speech and activity that would cause our society to lose its civilisation.
The laws on online abuse are far less coherent and far less effective when it comes to being used successfully. My hon. Friend pointed out some of the practical difficulties and the fragmented nature of the law, which is inadequate and in urgent need of an update. Inadequate as it is, however, it would still benefit from being enforced more seriously by the police, who all too often tell victims to avoid going online. Such victim blaming is not an adequate response to the hate and trolling that many people experience online. Expecting people who are being bullied to exclude themselves from the digital world will simply isolate and punish them further.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend; although I am new to this place, I know that she has led the way for many years in fighting for the rights of LGBT people in our country. I stand with her every single step of the way.
Online homophobia is growing across the UK, even in my constituency. Given the ability of criminals to access and hack cyber-security measures, does my hon. Friend agree that resources such as specialist IT services must be increased and apportioned effectively to tackle this form of hate crime?
I thank my hon. Friend for her kind words. She is right that we need properly financed enforcement, as well as ensuring that we can make our laws more user-friendly and easier to understand and enforce for the authorities responsible for making decisions.
The two provisions most often used to protect against online abuse, hatred and threats are the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and section 127 of the Communications Act 2003; the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which was originally introduced to deal with stalking offences, is also available for use in more extreme cases. All those statutes were passed by Parliament before the emergence of social media, which has fundamentally reshaped the way in which we engage and communicate as a society. The world wide web—as you may remember, Mr Walker—was invented only in 1989, the iPhone did not exist until 2007, and Facebook was created only in 2004, and we have not yet reconsidered our laws in that context.
So much has been changed by the arrival of the world wide web and dominant tech giants such as Apple, Google and Facebook that the Government must now urgently update our laws to make them fit for purpose. I know that the Government are aware of that need, because their second response to the petition points out that they have asked the Law Commission to consider specific reform in this area. They admit that the current level of online abuse against vulnerable groups, especially women, is completely unacceptable, yet there seems to be little urgency, if I may say so, about the action that they are prepared to take to counter that abuse. A Law Commission review is welcome, but it has never been and can never be an active or effective way to take rapid action against a growing threat.
As a recent Law Commission report points out, the law has not kept pace with the rapidly changing environment online. Some 96% of 16 to 24-year-olds are now using social media, but only 3% of malicious communications offences, online or offline, are ever prosecuted, even though there is demonstrable harm to the victims, the seriousness of which we are only just beginning to understand. The report outlines the harms that online abuse can cause, including
“psychological effects, such as depression and anxiety; emotional harms, such as…shame, loneliness and distress; physiological harms, including self-harm”
and, tragically, suicide;
“exclusion from public online space”
and all the potential that it provides; and “economic harms”. The report also concludes, as we all should, that hate crime harms society.
I am afraid that the Government’s response to the Law Commission’s report typifies their response to the entire issue: they have asked for a further review. We expect that to happen in 2020, but I would have thought that if the Government were really determined, they could come up much earlier than that with more concrete ways of dealing with this ever-present problem. I certainly hope that the Minister can give us a bit more confidence that the issue is getting a higher priority than it appears to have at the moment, and that her reply will make us happy.
In the White Paper on online harms that was published in April, the Government rightly characterised the new online environment as resembling the wild west. After all, it is the world of alternative facts and casual fascism, which has been allowed to fester, and it is high time that there were tough rules and regulations enforceable in law. Completely spurious anti-vaccination propaganda spreads, doing real damage to real lives offline, and mad conspiracy theories also spread, unchecked by truth and reality. For example, large numbers of people believe the world is run by lizards. It is hard to believe that we went through the Enlightenment if that kind of approach to truth and facts is going to be allowed to fester online. We ought to be worried about the effect that this is having on people’s ability to judge facts and truth, without which we will not have a democracy deserving of the name.
Terrorist propaganda and the online exploitation of children are also proliferating. After the Christchurch terrorist attack, 300,000 of the 1.5 million copies of the live streaming of murder that were uploaded to the internet went undetected by the automated systems that were attempting to take them down, making that horrendous event available to all who wanted to view it.
Can the Minister therefore assure us that we can expect more determined and urgent action to enforce decency and standards online? Is she prepared to increase the punishments for abuse, so that the harm caused is better represented in the sanctions available to the courts? What action can we expect, including on the financing of adequate enforcement, to ensure that enforcement is much more effective? Currently, it is laughably inadequate. When can we expect to move from endless press releases and the commissioning of more reviews to concrete action that minimises online harms rather than tolerating them and expecting victims to put up with them? Will the Minister support moves such as those we have seen in Austria to end online anonymity and remove the digital mask behind which so many perpetrators of abuse hide? It is time to get serious about the trail of damage that this behaviour causes, and it is also time to introduce updated, effective and streamlined laws to counter this menace.
It is a pleasure, Mr Walker, to serve under your chairmanship.
I am happy to contribute today and to represent the 159 constituents from Bath who signed this petition, but I also want to pay tribute to those who initiated the petition and the many thousands who have signed it.
It is shameful that a debate about online homophobic abuse is necessary in 2019. Intolerance anywhere is unacceptable, but it is especially despicable when it is directed at people we should support and protect. Insulting those who already face so much discrimination is vile and we should do our utmost to stamp it out.
We have made real progress in tackling homophobia and I am proud to be a representative of the party that championed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013. However, there is so much more that we need to do. Homophobic abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment, assault and bullying are hate crimes, both in the physical world and online. Social media is full of such content, which has gone unpoliced.
Legislation changes slowly, while abuse and bullying are very adaptable and move quickly. While I was working on the Voyeurism (Offences) Act 2019 last year, this became painfully obvious; our law is designed to govern real world spaces, and our security forces struggle to enforce it online.
Banning upskirting was a positive step, bringing an abusive online practice into both the public and parliamentary spotlight. In the case of upskirting, there was a specific gap in the law that needed to be filled. Homophobic abuse is more complex. Creating new legislation is not always the best way to protect people. My party calls for an extension of the definition of “aggravated offences” to cover hate crimes motivated not only by racial or religious hatred but by hostility based on gender, sexual orientation and disability. This change would protect victims, sending a clear message that homophobic abuse is a hate crime.
The online aspect of this abuse is harder to solve, and I am not sure that creating a new offence is what is needed; on this issue, we might have a debate and possibly disagree. We must make our existing law fit for 2019 and ensure that our security forces can handle online crimes.
This is a question of capacity, training, and education. Police forces and prosecutors are under increasing pressure from central Government to do more with less resources. That simply is not good enough. If we want our security forces to be responsive and to protect people across the spectrum, we cannot handcuff them to ever-shrinking budgets. We need an online crime agency, an organisation with the training and resources to investigate online abuse and harassment. The Government must also invest in understanding internet safety, and locate the gaps between enforcement and regulation.
Upholding the right to freedom of expression does not mean a laissez-faire approach. Bullying, abuse and harassment that prevents people from expressing themselves freely cannot be tolerated. As many of my colleagues here are already aware, and have agreed in this debate, online harassment often falls into the grey area between expressing a view and inciting harm. We must educate everyone about where the boundaries lie, and users must be empowered to report comments or content that they are concerned about.
We have fallen behind when it comes to protecting our LGBTQ+ community from online harassment. That is a symptom of the Government’s failure to understand and resource cyber security adequately, to engage with the new problems of the digital age, and to educate in a way that protects tolerance and progressive values. And, yes, absolutely—why cannot we all be a little bit nicer to, and more tolerant of, each other?
The days of normalising homophobia are behind us, but we must work collaboratively across the House to ensure that they do not return. We must do everything, in the House and indeed everywhere in our society, to stamp out homophobic abuse online.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker.
It was a real privilege to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) introduce this debate with such clarity and passion. At risk of “fanboying” on both sides of my place, it is good to see Bobby Norris here today—the leadership he has given on this issue has been incredible—and to see my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle); to witness the leadership she has shown in this debate was also a privilege. So I am between two incredible people here.
Hate is on the rise; we all know that in our communities and it is no different in Plymouth, which I represent. We need to recognise that hate is on the rise and we also need to properly identify the reasons and causes, and deal with them. However, we also need to reflect that the vast majority of people in our society are not in control of laws; they do not get to write the legislation they will be governed by. However, we can do so here, and that is the real opportunity presented by this petition, because it speaks to lived experience, not only of the 150,000 people who signed it but of countless others who are victims of abuse all the time.
I have said this in a number of different debates and every time I get emails from people saying, “Oh! I didn’t know.” I would like to think that it is because I am so epically fabulous that I do not need to out myself all the time, but frequently I do. I am very proud to be gay, and I say that because I am Plymouth’s first ever out MP, which means something in a community in which we have not always been out and proud; instead, we have often been hidden at the periphery of society and written out of the very history that we have contributed to. LGBT people have not always been at the forefront of our public life, especially in a naval city such as Plymouth, but that is changing, which is a good thing. That is why I feel very passionately about this issue.
It is also important that we talk about people not as one homogenous blob of LGBT people but as individuals who all have different experiences: in their family lives; in their working lives; in their societies; and even at different times of the day. When people talk about LGBT+ equality—I know there are lots of them here today—we often just say LGBT. However, if we break down what “LGBT” means, we can see different lived experiences for all those different communities online. By and large the debate around LGBT is so much driven by people such as me—the “G”s in “LGBT”—that we do not frequently pick up the “Ls” in public debate, which is not only a recognition of the hatred towards gay people and lesbians that exists, but a reminder that in many cases women are marginalised in these debates anyway, so they get narrower and narrower. In gay culture, it is fashionable sometimes to diminish the Bs, to say that bisexuals have not made their proper decision yet, and that is something within our own community—and sometimes within our community online—that we must challenge. We also know there is an awful lot of hate towards those folks who are trans. We need to look at the lived experience of all those people.
As I frequently do before these debates, I posted on my Facebook page inviting the good folks of Plymouth to send me their views about online homophobia, and I was pleasantly surprised. It might be because those who like a Labour MP’s page are not some of the biggest bigots in the world, but the stories that came back were really interesting. I was expecting some abuse myself, a repetition of some of that which came when I spoke in a debate in the main Chamber about LGBT-inclusive children’s books, including the fantastic “And Tango Makes Three”, about two gay penguins that adopt a baby penguin. For those who have not read it, it is well worth a trip to the local library. I was speaking about age-appropriate sex and relationships education and the abuse that came back was direct. I will not mention all the words I was called, but they included faggot, queer, fag and bitch. I will not drop the C-bomb but that was used as well.
One reason LGBT people take on insults and make them our own is the frequency with which we hear them. That, and the hurt the insults cause both off and online is one reason why we sometimes make the words our own, to take the strength away from the people who use them. But we should not have to absorb the insults and suck them up.
We must also recognise that the language that is frequently used in our political debate can be equally disappointing. The use of “bum boys” for instance, by one of the contenders to be Prime Minister merits, I think, extra reflection in trying to get something better at the end of this.
We must strive for better, and that is why, when I woke up this morning and checked my Twitter, I was overjoyed to see Olly Alexander’s speech yesterday at Glastonbury. He is a fantastic LGBT icon, and he used a moment in his set to talk about the importance of equality. Today we are talking about online homophobia, and it is really important to do that because it is a specific type of hate that we see online, but Olly Alexander spoke about the importance of the LGBT community not just standing with other people who are LGBT but against racism, sexism and ableism. He spoke about us embracing it all, and that matters, because when you break down LGBT into the different bits someone is not just gay in isolation; they can have many other characteristics and that is where the research from Stonewall that a number of colleagues briefly mentioned really highlights what is going on.
When asked by Stonewall whether they had been victims or targets of homophobic, biphobic or transphobic abuse online in the last month, 8% of women and 10% of men said they had been, but the figure for non-binary people—those who identify as being neither a man nor a woman—was 26%. One in four 18 to 24-year-olds had been personally targeted in the last month, which shows that the problem is perhaps more acute in younger age groups than in older ones. A third of young people had been targeted online in that way, as had one in five black, Asian and minority ethnic LGBT people, compared with only one in 10 white LGBT people. I use those statistics not to say that one group is worth more than the other, but to show how prevalent online hate can be and how someone can be abused for being black and gay or for being disabled and gay. Hate begets more hate begets more hate in the online pile-ons we frequently see.
How algorithms work has been mentioned, and directing more and more traffic to those posts that generate the most controversy and interest directly contributes to the perpetuation of hate because it drives an economic value for hate. We are talking about the criminalisation of online hate but we should also talk about its economics. Although I am hopeful that the Minister will listen to the petition and the speeches today, we need the Government to get tougher with online social media. At the moment, it seems appropriate to roll out Nick Clegg every now and then to apologise for Facebook, but we need to recognise that online hate drives traffic, traffic is the basis of advertising and advertising is the basis of the economic model of our social media companies. The more traffic that can be driven, the more money that can be made, and that is where hate drives money, and profit. We need to not be blind to that in this debate, because the online social media companies have a role in this as well. They cannot just leave the reports for algorithms to deal with; they must take responsibility and, importantly, take the reports seriously. All too frequently, when people report online abuse it is not actioned by the people at the other end. I do not know where my report goes when I press “report”, whether it goes to an algorithm, or to someone in Dublin or San Francisco, or just up the road in Old Street. Where I want it to go is to a person who looks at the piece of abuse and at what its impact could be on the individual. All that matters.
Last week, something gave me cause to hope: my fantastic friend and the co-chair of Labour’s LGBT group, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), organised a fantastic showing in Portcullis House of trans photographs—young trans kids with their parents—from the British Film Institute’s Flare exhibition, and I had the opportunity to meet many of the young trans people. We meet a lot of inspiring people in this place, but I have been more uplifted by their experience than by anything else. I spoke to some of them afterwards and asked, in relation to this upcoming debate, whether they had been the victim of online abuse. One trans kid looked at me and said, “Yes, of course. Every day. Every single day. I carry around an ‘insult machine’”—his phone—“and I get a notification when someone wants to hate me”. That was really worrying, because it was true. I spoke to another person, who said, “Why would my friends do that?” That showed that in some cases people live free from abuse, but that is not everyone’s lived experience. It really lifted my heart and showed where we could be if we took the right steps.
What Britain does matters, what we do in this place matters and what the Minister says matters; whether we agree with the introduction of homophobia and abuse against other protected characteristics as a discrete criminal offence, the language around this debate also matters. I was really pleased to hear the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) speak about his support for human rights, because that is effectively what we are talking about. We can categorise and sub-categorise ourselves all we want, but we are talking about the protection of individuals so that they can live their lives and fulfil their potential, based on who they are. That is very, very powerful and we need to do it.
The distinction between online and offline that has been mentioned by a number of Members is important. One of the tests I give to people, especially those folks who sometimes accidentally fall foul of online abuse is: “Would you say it in a pub? Would you just rock up to someone else’s conversation in a pub and shout ‘faggot’?” It is a good test, and well worth trying. If someone did that, they would probably be aware that there would be a consequence, but that consequence is not always there in the online world. “Would you interrupt a conversation or introduce yourself? Would you listen to other people?” In pubs we do one thing, but we know there is a regulatory system there that polices our bad behaviour—we will get kicked out, barred or arrested, and we could get prosecuted. But online, things are much less certain and it is easier to hide behind the mask that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge spoke about. That is really important.
I want to pay tribute to some people who have not been mentioned so far. We have spoken about the importance of police and enforcement and about social media companies upping their game, but I want to say thank you to all those who work in third-party reporting centres, the organisations, charity groups and community groups across the country that do so much to support, nurture, encourage and protect those who are victims of abuse, both on and offline, but frequently go without a mention. I have used an online reporting centre myself to report homophobic abuse, and it was a good experience that made me want to encourage others to do it.
This is the gayest Parliament in the world. We have more LGBT representatives than any other Parliament on the entire planet, so let us use that and those lived experiences to help drive the legislative change that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey spoke so clearly about. I say to the Minister, although 150,000 people signed the petition, we should not think of it as 150,000 people but as 150,000 episodes of lived experience, of people who have been bullied and have felt the impact. Bullying is a bit like an economic driver—if it did not work people would not do it. Bullying does work: by bullying someone, a person can create an effect on the person they are bullying. That is why bullies do it.
In some cases, people fall into it accidentally. The vast majority of people are good, law-abiding citizens who do not want to hurt their neighbours or people online, but sometimes their words are inappropriately or clumsily chosen or typed quickly. However, we are not talking about those people in this debate. It is really important to make a distinction between those who might accidentally fall foul of using language that is not appropriate or timely anymore, and those who are persistent bullies: people who abuse, make death threats or rape threats online, and talk about outing people inappropriately or revenge porn. That is the type of stuff that we are talking about. Those people are not normal, law-abiding citizens; they are the people who my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge spoke about, and who we must do something about.
We have come so far in terms of LGBT equality in the past 25 years. We now need the law to catch up with some of those welcome, positive advances and changes in our society, because Britain is not yet a place where LGBT people can feel safe, included and free to be themselves. I am hopeful that the Minister will give us positive news, as a step towards making Britain the safer place that we want to see.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Walker, and to follow so many eloquent speeches. I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for introducing the debate and for the way in which they placed it. I hope Bobby will understand—he is no longer in the Public Gallery, I think—that, as an honorary Essex boy, having studied at the University of Essex for three years, I commend him for all the work he has done.
As has been mentioned, the intrinsic nature of homophobia—whether in the real world or the unreal world—is bullying. It is a bully that does not show its face, and is often ignorant of the reality and the impact of that type of discourse. Plenty of people engage in this type of discourse, which is based on a falsehood, evidenced by hate, which allows them a veneer of respectability; there are those of us who believe we see it even in this place on a regular basis.
Therefore, why should the digital age be less full of hate than the previous age? Since the dawn of time, the LGBT community has faced unfounded and pernicious discrimination. As an openly gay man, I am very much aware of it; I was born into a world in which homosexuality was illegal. I hope the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) will forgive me if I mention that the legal systems of the United Kingdom meant that, in Scotland, homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1980—when I was nine years old—and that in Northern Ireland, it was not decriminalised until 1982.
Notions of who we should be, and the dictation of what we are meant to conform to, are so often what underlines hate. The transfer of hate from the real world to the unreal world should come as no surprise. This debate is taking place on 1 July, so we have come to the end of Pride celebrations in June specifically—I know a Pride march is coming up in London at the end of the week. That should remind us, especially those of us in the LGBT community, about the real nature of Pride, which is activism and solidarity. We must now seek to transfer that traditional method of activism and solidarity to the unreal world, where we really need to challenge these things.
This is a situation in which neither politics, religion nor society is free. As I mentioned during a debate on the Floor of the House last week, I am especially grateful that the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland has signed up to the Time for Inclusive Education campaign. It has stated that no child in state-funded Catholic schools in Scotland should leave school having been bullied because they are gay, whether in the real world or—as I have said—the unreal world. I use the terminology “unreal world” because online is not real; the words are real, and the hate is real, but it is a world that is controlled in a very different way.
We need to be clear that online homophobia crosses over to the political sphere—a place in which it has always found fertile ground, whether on the far right or the extreme far left. Earlier, we heard mention of the LGBTQ community in Russia, which suffers more from the onslaught of online hate transferring into physical hate. We also heard about Chechnya, and we can only imagine the trauma caused to the LGBT community there. However, let us not assume that social or liberal democracy is free from homophobia; how many political debates in this place have been infused by it, across both the right and the left? No political party, including my own, can claim a clear conscience about the history of homophobia. As of today, I am sure I will start to get a hell of a lot more of it; I actually do not get that much, but I believe that is about to change. I have actually told my team who deal with online communications for my office to expect it, because it is something they have never really had to deal with.
I am especially grateful to my 256 constituents in West Dunbartonshire who signed the petition. I also note the actions—I have to say this, because a lot of the elements mentioned today are devolved—of the Scottish Government and Members of the Scottish Parliament in light of the Lord Bracadale review of hate crime legislation in Scotland, which reported in May 2018. It has been noted that crimes against LGBTQ people in Scotland have risen, and, in an ever-changing world, there is no place for complacency. The Scottish Government’s consultation on hate crime aims to ensure that the legislation is fit for the 21st century and that Scotland, like the rest of the UK, has laws that remain focused on protecting its citizens from all hate crime, in either the real or the unreal world and across myriad platforms.
We have heard mention of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on, but what we have not heard about is mass data storage. Large conglomerates own the physical data, strewn across the globe; some would think of Google and so on, but, more importantly, there are organisations such as Amazon, which owns that data through Amazon Web Services, commonly known as AWS. It is hate data, and there can be no doubt that such private companies are aware of the online hate that they physically own. They must be challenged about their custodianship of such hate-filled data. To exclude them from this debate is to ignore the word “online” in the title of the petition, and to ignore how hate-filled data dominates our lives today.
Before I conclude, I will pay tribute to some of my colleagues who cannot join us today, who come from what is proportionately the largest LGBT group of parliamentarians in the House of Commons. In this very room, my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) has articulated, boldly and publicly, the vile and pernicious abuse that she receives on a regular basis, both for being lesbian and for being a woman. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) receives pernicious, continuous online abuse because he happens to be a gay man. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) receives abuse because she is a lesbian, a woman and of Irish Catholic background.
In conclusion, we must continue to challenge at every opportunity the normalisation of hate, whether in the real world or the non-real world. We must ensure that there is a call to arms for my constituents and for anyone who may be watching in Scotland to participate in the Scottish Government’s consultation, which is now in Holyrood. We must combat the monopoly of data ownership—I hope the Minister can say something about this—by stating that the conglomerates must come to the table, talk to Governments and be held to account for the data they physically own. Finally, I congratulate those who have campaigned for this petition.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker, and to respond to this debate on behalf of the Opposition. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for his thoughtful introduction to the debate, and I also thank the petitioner, Bobby Norris, for the petition. I first met Bobby on the dance floor in a club, over a glass of wine, and we had quite a good time. I remember somebody saying to me, “Do you know who he is?” I said, “No, but he’s a good dancer.” In a way, it is quite sad that an individual feels that online abuse has affected him so badly that he needs to share it with the world, but it is great that Bobby has organised this petition to stop that happening to anybody else and to bring this issue into the limelight.
How do we stop the rising hate crime against LGBTQI+ people? My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) clearly highlighted the increase in LGBT+ crime, which has more than doubled, going up 144% in some areas. Transphobic attacks have trebled from 550 to 1,650. The biggest increase in attacks has been in West Yorkshire, which has seen an increase of 376%. It is an astonishing amount of hate, and a lot of it is not only words, but physical and violent abuse. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) highlighted, when race is added into the equation, the numbers go up further.
It is interesting that social media can be so antisocial. What is good about social media is also what is bad about social media. A lot of things have fuelled this hostile environment for the LGBT+ community. Many in the community have said to me, “It feels like we are going back to section 28 days, with all the stuff around the schools and the protests.” Brexit has fuelled hate in all areas, but particularly for LGBT+ people. The Government should take responsibility for the delay on the gender recognition Bill, which has left a huge void. That delay was fuelled by misconceptions, misinterpretations, lies and hate, and it has created a hostile environment that has meant that hate crime has gone up by almost 400% in some areas.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey made some excellent points, and I hope the Minister will address them almost as if they were a tick-list, because we will go through them and hold the Government to account. We need more than warm words from the Government. Too often we have a lot of warm words, but not a lot of action. I plead for the Minister not to announce any new consultations. I am up to my eyeballs in Government consultations. We have had 29,952 consultations since 2010. We need to start changing the law and changing legislation. We know that hate crime exists and that it is happening, so we need to change things.
The Home Affairs Committee report states:
“Most legal provisions in this field predate the era of mass social media use and some predate the internet itself. The Government should review the entire legislative framework governing online hate speech, harassment and extremism and ensure that the law is up to date.”
That is the Government’s responsibility, and it will make a huge difference to people’s lives.
There is a common understanding now that the old mantra, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”, is not very helpful and is wrong, because words do hurt. That mantra is no longer valid. We should no longer accept bad language and bad words, because they do hurt and they are powerful. Wars are started by words. Words can be used for good and they can be used for evil.
Gandhi had a quote. He said:
“Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits”.
All throughout the excellent speeches today, we have heard that people are forming habits of being hateful and aggressive online when they would not do that face to face with someone. We have to ensure we say legislatively that that is wrong.
Labour has already committed to bringing the law on LGBT+ hate crimes in line with hate crimes based on race or faith, making them an aggravated offence. That is really important. If a person’s sexuality has been a factor in how they have been treated or in their being attacked, what has happened needs to be classified as an aggravated offence and have harsher sentencing. We need to ensure that we change discrimination laws so that things can be done on multiple grounds. Labour has already committed to that. We do not need an Olympics of oppression; we just have to understand the intersectionalities of hate and to ensure that equality is equality and applies to everyone, so that we all fight for each other’s equality.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge mentioned unmasking the bullies. It is important that we hold social media providers to account in unmasking the bullies, because it can be done—we can trace them back. Not only should they be unmasked, but we should be closing down all their social media platforms, whether that is Twitter, Facebook or Instagram—I am sure there are more I do not know of, because the platforms increase in number every day. Once someone is hateful or vindictive in any way online, that is it: the platform should be taken away from them. We could save someone’s mental health and save people’s lives. That is the difference we should be making in this House.
The list of social media platforms that my hon. Friend gave should also include online dating apps. The abuse that is sometimes given on apps such as Grindr, especially to those with disabilities, can be painful. In many cases, people have opened their hearts up to look for someone special, so the abuse can sting even more.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I absolutely agree. Sometimes people deliberately go on those platforms and pretend to be something else. I think they call it catfishing.
I have to keep up. People deliberately go on those apps just to get people to open up, and then they bring them down and abuse them. Who wants to live in a world with that kind of cruelty, and where we are not actively doing something to close it down?
Many people in this arena have paved the way over the past 25 or 50 years to ensure that we are living in an inclusive society. I hate the terminology “tolerant”; I do not want to be “tolerated” as a black woman—I want to be accepted for who I am. I do not want us to “tolerate” people for their sexuality; I want us just to accept them. Many organisations are involved, including Stonewall, DIVA and LGBT+ Labour, as well as lots of people, including Lady Phyll. New York Pride was just this weekend. Ruth Hunt has just stepped down from Stonewall and has done amazing work, as have Linda Riley, Sarah Garrett, Pride and UK Black Pride. The Albert Kennedy Trust looks after people who have been kicked out of their homes and removed from their families just because of who they love. The trust gives them a safe place to be and live.
I will end on this point. If anyone is looking for something to do this weekend and they want an environment where they can surround themselves with happiness, love, diversity, smiles, a lot of dancing and a lot of drinking, if I can say that—there is a lot of drinking—they should join me, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey and all the others who will be on the Pride march in London. If anyone ever needs to understand why we should just let people be, Pride is one of those places where people can just live and understand what that means.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I start by thanking Bobby Norris for raising the important issue of online homophobia. I thank the more than 152,000 people who have signed the petition so far. I understand that it is still open.
I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for opening the debate in such a thoughtful way and I thank all colleagues who have contributed this afternoon. They have given different accounts, some very personal, of their own experience or that of their constituents of online homophobia. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) spoke movingly about Bobby and others putting their heads above the parapet. I feel honour-bound to reflect on the fact that she herself has done the same. I thank her sincerely for all that she has done in the pioneering fashion that she has described.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) rightly talked about the diversity within the phrase “LGBT+” to describe a wealth of experiences, a richness of life experiences, some happy, some not, but I thank him for making that very important point. As has been mentioned, this debate is timely because we are on the cusp of one of the world’s largest Pride events this weekend in London, and last week we remembered that it is 50 years since the Stonewall riots, an event that sparked a global advancement of LGBT+ rights around the world. We have come a long way in those 50 years, but these debates and discussions today show how much further we must go.
To be clear—I do not think it is necessary, but I want it on the record—homophobia, online or offline, is wrong. It is a prejudice all too often accompanied by behaviour that has no place in a modern, vibrant and inclusive Britain. Unfortunately, homophobia rears its ugly head, including, as we have heard today, online, where it can be particularly pernicious and pervasive. The hon. Members for Cambridge and for Wallasey set out some stark statistics, including the terrible one highlighted in the Stonewall research that showed one in 10 people surveyed had experienced online homophobic, biphobic or transphobic abuse or behaviour in the past month. I have seen and been appalled by such abuse. Indeed, Mr Norris shared on his Instagram account on 15 June a particularly disgusting message that he received. I will not dignify either the messenger or the message by reading it into the record of our democracy, but if Mr Norris and others face such hateful language, with all the terrible repercussions that it can have for someone, particularly if they are in a vulnerable place at that point in their life or perhaps do not have the network of support that we would all wish for loved ones, it can have, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Wallasey, very serious consequences.
The internet, as in life off the internet, should be a place where all people feel free to socialise, share information, do business, share photos, and enjoy the massive benefits of the online space. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) brought an international perspective to the debate with his work for the Council of Europe. He talked about the treatment of people within our community, our neighbourhoods and our society, who may love someone of the same sex or gender and about other manifestations of LGBT inclusivity, and rightly pointed out the dire experiences that people overseas, particularly in places such as Russia, can share. I am sure we are all with him in agreeing that we would like other countries such as Russia to follow our lead.
For the purposes of the debate I shall set out the current legislation, given that the petition asks us to make online homophobia a specific criminal offence. There are already criminal offences to cover some of the horrific forms of abuse that we have heard about. For example, there are harassment offences in the Public Order Act 1986 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. There are offences covering “grossly offensive” material in the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003. There is also an offence of “stirring up” hatred based on sexual orientation in the Public Order Act 1986. Where such crimes are motivated by, or demonstrate, hostility towards a victim based on sexual orientation, or perceived sexual orientation, they are hate crimes. The hate crime legislation, which also covers race, religion, disability, and transgender identity, allows for increased sentences for those convicted of such an offence.
However, I absolutely understand the concerns that have been raised today, not least the fair observation that all of the legislation that I have cited was passed before the internet, as we know it today, came into being. I suspect that were we to have this debate in 10 years’ time, the internet would be very different from today. That is precisely why the Government asked the Law Commission to take forward two important reviews. The first review looks at the current legislation on abusive and offensive online communications to ensure that laws are up to date with technology. The Government announced the commencement of phase two of the Law Commission’s work last week. It will build on the analysis in its scoping report, including considering the potential for improving existing communications offences, and whether the law might more effectively address co-ordinated harassment by groups of people.
The Law Commission does important work in trying to bring together sometimes fragmented laws and updating them, but the review is not due to be published until 2020. There is a tradition of Law Commission reports sitting gathering dust on shelves and never being acted on, so will the Minister say something about the Government’s determination, if such there is, to act on the Law Commission’s report? Will she consider bringing forward its work so that we can be in a position to legislate faster than the current timetable allows?
I absolutely understand the hon. Lady’s impatience with the timetable. I think I am correct in saying that she was in government herself when some of the legislation we are looking at came into force. I remember the 1997 Act coming into force when I was a practitioner trying to make sure that that law was applied in the criminal courts. I appreciate that my answer will not satisfy the people who have contributed to the petition, but we have to get this matter right. We have asked the Law Commission to look at the issue because it is a very complicated area of law. The hon. Lady will know—this draws me on to the second review—about the debate on whether misogyny should be listed as a hate crime. In this Chamber almost a year ago I was open to the concept or the idea that that form of hatred, particularly, as has been said, the intersectionality with homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, should be looked at carefully to ensure there are no unintended consequences of any legislation that we bring to this House in future. We must get it right. As has been noted in the debate, the ways in which people of ill intent target the people to whom they wish to be hateful shows that we need to be considered, thoughtful and careful in the way in which we approach it.
The second review that we are conducting is a full review of hate crime legislation. As I have said, we are looking at the coverage and approach of the current hate crime laws, including whether misogyny should form part of it, to ensure that the legislation continues to protect the existing characteristics covered, but also whether we need to update the law in this really important area, given all the factors that have been raised in the debate, to ensure that the law reflects the lived experience of our fellow residents.
The petition raises questions not only about our criminal laws, but about how we stay safe and are kept safe online, which is one of the biggest debates of our time. The challenges presented by the internet—the wild west, as it has been described—along with the freedoms that it brings about have to be carefully balanced.
We are clear that we want the United Kingdom to be the safest place in the world for everybody to be online. That is why the Government published the “Online Harms” White Paper in April. Through it, we plan to make technology companies more responsible for their users’ safety, including through a new statutory duty of care, which will be overseen by an independent regulator. The White Paper sets out plans to hold companies to account for tackling a comprehensive set of online harms, from which we will expect technology companies to take reasonable steps to protect their users.
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
We have said that technology companies must do more, and they need not wait for the legislation following the White Paper to do so. The platforms must have clear and accessible terms and conditions about what is and is not acceptable behaviour, and they need to enforce them in a fair and consistent manner.
Other than the platforms, what about those who own the data and own the servers?
That is a very interesting point. The hon. Gentleman will recall that we recently introduced the Data Protection Act 2018, bringing into force the GDPR rules of Europe. Worldwide, Governments are now much more mindful about data. However, this is a fast developing area, and one which I will ask the Security Minister and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to look into, as part of their consideration of the consultation as a whole.
Reports to the police, which I will come on to in a little while, were rightly mentioned, but I am mindful that not everyone wants to involve the police. If someone receives a hateful tweet or Instagram message, they may not want to involve the police for a host of reasons. That is why it is critical that tech companies have proper measures in place to clear up their own backyard. Many platforms have been making progress across a whole range of harms for which the Home Office has responsibility, but frankly it is not enough. That is why we introduced the White Paper.
Colleagues have understandably raised anonymity, which is something that we considered carefully as the White Paper was being drafted. If people feel strongly about the anonymity of users, I ask them to contribute, if they have not already, to the consultation on the White Paper. It closes at midnight tonight, and it will be interesting to see the results.
Can the Minister take a view? I certainly believe that we should get rid of anonymity online. Rather than have me respond to a consultation, surely she can take such a declaration on the Floor of the Chamber, and add it to the total that will be counted at one minute past twelve tonight.
I do not pretend to know how the consultation responses are counted; it may well be a dreaded algorithm. I know that officials will look carefully at the Hansard report of the debate. If the hon. Lady cannot contribute online, certainly Members’ views can be added to the result of the consultation. [Interruption.] A number of arms are going up in the Chamber, for the benefit of Hansard.
I understand the points that have been made about the need for action now, as well as in future. That is why we have set out, under the hate crime action plan, a number of commitments that the Government are taking forward that will support a robust criminal justice response for those who feel able to seek the help of the police, or who find themselves in a situation where others call the police on their behalf. I am very struck by the recent horrific attacks in London, Merseyside and Southampton that others have mentioned. The police are doing all that they can to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Of course, I always encourage anyone who feels able to report their experiences to the police to do so, partly to ensure that they get the right support. There are many excellent support and advice centres for victims of homophobic incidents, particularly the charity Galop, with which the Government work closely. However, I take the point about the reaction of the police when someone is able to report an incident to them. That is why we are funding a police online hate crime hub to improve the police response to victims of online hate crime. We are raising awareness of hate crime through a public awareness campaign, which people may have seen last autumn and again this spring.
I understand that the Government employ experts, but may I specifically request that the Minister looks at the IT side of things? Cyber-security is really important to us in tackling such crimes. Will the Minister give a specific pledge about IT specialists as well?
Yes, I am very happy to do so. We are funding the police online hate crime hub, which is an expert police team that helps forces across the country to respond to hate crime cases effectively. We are also working with the police to ensure that that support reaches the areas that need it, because I appreciate that some forces may need to improve their performance. Indeed, the police inspectorate recently inspected some police forces. Some already do bespoke training and upskill experts in their own forces. Gwent has been held up as a strong example of that.
We need to ensure in our awareness campaign that members of the public understand, first of all, what hate crime is, the forms it can take and, as has been mentioned, that the use of certain words and language may well be incredibly offensive and abusive to people. It is about having that understanding of one’s own conduct as well. We are pleased to support a number of community projects focused on tackling LGBT+ hate crimes, including working with Barnardo’s, Stop Hate UK and the football initiative Kick It Out. We continue to take that and other work forward, working closely with the Government Equalities Office and a range of stakeholders, including Galop and Stonewall.
I conclude by reiterating the Government’s unwavering support in the fight against homophobia in all its forms. No one should have to face abuse, discrimination or harassment based on who they love. The Government are committed to eradicating bigotry and abuse, and I think that the House agrees with the plea of the hon. Member for Cambridge for us to be civilised in our debates. The sketch writers may have a field day tomorrow with us all agreeing that we should be nicer to one another, but I think—[Interruption.] There seems to be disagreement across the Chamber.
Obviously we should all be nicer to one another, but the plain fact is that a lot of people are having their mental health badly affected because there are some very nasty people out there. That can be solved only by taking it much more seriously and much more urgently than I am afraid the Minister seems to be indicating that the Government are going to.
I simply do not accept that. I was trying to end on a collegiate note, precisely because of the experiences that have been reiterated and addressed in the debate. I simply do not accept that I am not taking the matter seriously. I was simply agreeing with the hon. Member for Cambridge on how we should use our language, and that trying to be decent and civilised in our interactions will go some way towards making it clear to those who do not use decent and civilised language and behaviour that that is simply unacceptable. I hope that that is a point on which we can all agree.
I thank all hon. Members who spoke in the debate. It has been constructive, and we have had positive contributions from all the major parties in the Chamber.
There are reasons to be optimistic. As I was preparing my speech this afternoon, I looked out of my office window and saw the rainbow flag flying above the Treasury. A few weeks ago, we had a marvellous Pride event in Cambridge. I was heartened by a number of speakers’ comments about the action that is being taken around the world at the moment—the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) talked about the Council of Europe.
In conclusion, I echo the frustrations that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) expressed. I recollect the fine words from the Government in the discussions on the Data Protection Act 2018. Opposition Members are, however, frustrated that the Government do not seem able to move as quickly as the tech industry does, and the technology keeps changing. It is hard—no one disputes that—but the real harm being done out there at the moment cannot be underestimated. I am afraid we cannot continue to move at this measured pace; we need stronger action, and to move more quickly. To return to the petitioners and to Bobby, who raised the issue of online homophobia in the first place, we need Bobby’s Bill sooner rather than later.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 239444 relating to online homophobia.