Online Homophobia Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Home Office

Online Homophobia
Ruth Jones Excerpts
Monday 1st July 2019

(1 year ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate
Home Office
Ms Angela Eagle Portrait Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab) - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 4:53 p.m.

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.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab) - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 5:05 p.m.

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?

Ms Angela Eagle Portrait Ms Eagle - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 5:09 p.m.

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.

Break in Debate

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 5:59 p.m.

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.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 5:59 p.m.

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?

Victoria Atkins Portrait Victoria Atkins - Hansard
1 Jul 2019, 5:59 p.m.

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.