John Howell (Henley) (Con)
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