New law against gay hatred

Homophobia could soon be punishable with up to seven years in prison, MPs were told last night.

The government has announced plans to make it a crime to incite hatred against people on the basis of their sexuality.

Jack Straw told MPs the law could be inserted at the committee stage of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which received its second reading in the Commons last night.

The clause would be modelled on the existing legislation against inciting hatred on the basis of religion, which was passed by the government amid much criticism from freedom of speech campaigners.

Introducing the clause, the justice secretary said: “It is a measure of how far we have come as a society in the past ten years that we are now appalled by hatred and invective directed at people on the basis of their sexuality.

“It is time for the law to recognise this.”

Mr Straw explained the law would in theory protect heterosexuals, as well as homosexuals and bisexuals. It could also be extended to protect transgender people.

It will apply to people using threatening words or circulating written material, images or sounds that are judged to be inciting hatred against a sexual orientation.

All prosecutions would be brought with the agreement of the attorney-general and people found guilty would be subject to a maximum prison sentence of seven years.

The Christian Institute warns the law will curtail freedom of speech but gay rights group Stonewall said it was “delighted” at the proposal.

Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill said: “We’ve worked tirelessly over the last six months, seeking to persuade ministers to match existing race incitement laws with identical protections for sexual orientation.

“A new offence will help deter extremists who stir up hatred against lesbian and gay people.”

He argued the law would not prevent people expressing religious views in a “temperate way”.

Mr Straw is also considering making it easier for parents to find out about registered sex offenders. The Ministry of Justice could impose a legal duty on multi-agency public protection panels to disclose information if an offender poses a danger to the public.