Letter from the Home Secretary in Reply to OutRage! Letter to Tony Blair

Annotated reply from Jack Straw to OutRage!’s letter to the Prime Minister of 21st July on Government Action following the Soho Bomb.

Home Secretary,
Queen Anne’s Gate,
London SW1H 9AT.

Our Ref: SEN/99 35/70/34
P0 17278/99

22nd November, 1999.

Thank you for your letter of 21 July to the Prime Minister which raises a number of issues affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. I am sorry you have had to wait so long for a reply, but you have asked for a co-ordinated Whitehall response, and that, of course takes time.

This is the fleeting sole reference to point 5: “Why is there no effective coordination between Government Departments at Ministerial level?”. This reply has taken four months: and there is not even the merest hint of any future coordination, let alone sustained.

Let me start by outlining some of the positive action this Government has taken in this area since coming to power in 1997. We are already taking action to overturn discriminatory law. We are upholding a long-standing commitment to give Parliament a free vote on lowering the homosexual age of consent, and will reintroduce age of consent legislation in the coming session to ensure that Parliament is able to take a conclusive view on this issue. This will be a free vote so that members of parliament can vote according to their conscience, but I am in no doubt as to the outcome.

Second, we are undertaking a review of sexual offences and penalties. The terms of reference of the review make it explicit that our aim is to recommend changes which make the sex offences laws coherent, fair and non-discriminatory in accordance with the ECHR and Human Rights Act; to provide protection from abuse and exploitation, especially to children and other vulnerable people; and to enable abusers to be appropriately punished.

Many other Governments are actively involved in the review, and are free to comment on potential areas of impact. You say Government does not consult on proposed legislation widely in the gay and lesbian community. This review is open and inclusive. Organisations representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual interests have been invited to take part in the consultation process. Some are represented on the Steering Group, others have taken part in the conferences and seminars which have been organised, or sent submissions in evidence. Your own organisation has taken the opportunity to make an active contribution to the review by sending in a submission.

The full recommendations of the review will be published next year, and we will welcome any further contributions from Outrage! on the impact of the proposed changes in the law might make to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community.

This is a reference to point 7: “Could we please have your agreement that a broad cross-section of the L/G/B/T community will in future be included in all Government consultations on issues relating to sexuality and sexual equality?”. However, the reply refers only to the Home Office Review of Sex Offences, and makes no mention of consultation on any other draft or proposed legislation.

Third, the Government recognises that Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which prohibits local authorities from promoting homosexuality by teaching or publishing material, has been widely perceived as discriminatory and takes the view that it serves no useful purpose. We have received many representations about the possibility of including the repeal in the draft Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill. We recognise the force of those arguments and will take them into account as we consider what changes to make to the draft Bill. However, we are also committed to a substantial legislative programme, and there are limits to the volume of legislation with which Parliament can deal at any one time.

Nevertheless, please rest assured that we committed to repealing Section 28 as soon as parliamentary time permits.

This is a partial response to point 2: “By what legislative mechanism and in what timescale does the Government expect to honour its pledge to repeal Section 28?”. Note the caveat in the reply: “as soon as parliamentary time permits”.

The opening paragraphs constitute a reply to point 1: “What legislative reforms on gay issues is the Government currently prepared to support?”. In summary, this appears to be:

  • Age of Consent — a “free vote”, (indicative of no strong commitment), twice passed by the Commons, and twice rejected by the Lords;
  • Home Office Sex Offences Review — recommendations due to be published in the year 2000, with no timescale yet indicated for enacted legislation;
  • Section 28 — the Government remains committed to repealing this, (but only when the heavy Parliamentary timetable permits).

Turning now to violence motivated by homophobia, we are determined to deal with the problems of homophobic crime, and we have been working with the Association of Chief Police Officers to develop guidelines for police forces in dealing with incidents involving the lesbian and gay community in order to ensure that they are policed in a fair and equitable way.

The London nail bombings were truly horrific, and I have made public my views on this terrible outrage. The law must protect everyone in society from violence, whatever the motivation for that violence. The criminal law already contains a wide range of powers to deal with violent behaviour and harassment. In addition, the perpetrator of any attack that results in death can be charged with murder or manslaughter, both of which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

When passing sentence for a violent offence, the court must take into account all the circumstances of the offence before passing sentence. This includes any aggravating factors such as the motivation of the perpetrator in committing it. In other words, the court can pass a higher sentence against a defendant where the attack is motivated by the sexual orientation of the victim, whether real or perceived.

This is a partial response to point 4: “Why is the Government promoting antigay violence by avoiding equal action against it?”. We welcome the above concept of “guidelines for police forces” for dealing with homophobic incidents: but would like some assurance that they will be actively implemented by all police forces.

Numerous cases in recent years demonstrate that existing sentencing practice, while it may allow tougher sentencing in homophobic incidents, is not applied consistently and does not send the right message to actual and would-be thugs.

Sex education is rarely taught in isolation, and is normally part of a broader programme of Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE). The Government is committed to raising the status and profile of PSHE. A report from the Advisory Group on PSHE was published in May of this year, and the recommendations from the report were fed into the review of the National Curriculum. The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, has now announced his final decisions on the National Curriculum and these include a non-statutory framework for PSHE in both primary and secondary schools. The framework for secondary school pupils includes understanding the effects of stereotyping, prejudice, bullying and discrimination arising from whatever source; and how to challenge them assertively. It also includes understanding some of the cultural norms in society including the range of lifestyles and relationships.

Following consultation, the DfEE has recently issued its guidance in pupil attendance, behaviour, exclusion and reintegration. In that guidance, the Department restates its position about the unacceptability of all forms of bullying, including on the grounds of sexual orientation. I understand that DfEE are arranging to send you a copy of that guidance now that it has been published.

This is a partial response to point 3: “What is the Government’s intention with regard to placing a legal obligation on schools to provide honest, nonjudgemental information about gay issues (including but not limited to gay sexuality and gay ‘safer sex’), rather than leaving these to the arbitrary whim of individual schools?”.

Finally, you raise the issue of homophobia in the police. The Police service as a visible and influential public service relies on the support of and active participation of the community. I believe that fair and non-discriminatory treatment of all staff and members of the public is vital if the service is to retain the trust and confidence of the public in its professionalism and integrity. The police service, supported by the Government, is actively pursuing equal opportunity policies within the service and seeks to encourage applications from the service from all under represented groups.

The Home Office is also reviewing the whole selection process with a view to removing all discriminatory practices from the selection procedures.

We have introduced new regulations through The Police (Conduct) Regulations 1999, which tightened up procedures for dealing with police misconduct and introduced a new code of conduct. The code stipulates among other matters that officers should treat members of the public and colleagues with courtesy and respect, avoiding abusive or deriding attitudes or behaviour. In particular, officers must avoid all forms of harassment, victimisation or unreasonable discrimination. This provision applies to all forms of unreasonable discrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation.

There is a range of sanctions which are available to deal with breaches of the code, including dismissal or the requirement to resign. Decisions about which sanction to apply will depend upon the merits of the case.

This is a partial response to point 8: “Will you now bring forward legally obligatory regulations to root out homophobia in the police and other services, with the same vigour that racism is now to be eradicated?”. OutRage! will be seeking details of this “code of conduct”, including to what extent it may be practicably enforceable. — Cf. the European Court of Human Rights ruling in February 1998 that the South West Trains were under no legal obligation to enforce their own policy of nondiscrimination.

The same week as this letter arrived we also received reports of a case where one or more maverick police officers are believed to have taken unofficial action against a minor offender which has resulted in his eviction, assault, and a break-in where his partner was attacked, bound, robbed, and threatened with murder.

Yours sincerely,

Jack Straw.

No response was included to point 9, which requested information about three specific instances of police homophobia:

  • against fellow officers at Soho’s West End Central police station;
  • the seemingly malicious arrest of Ian Farmer at London’s Pride March, July 1998;
  • the lack of any warning in April 1999 through the national media that bombs might target L/G/B/T communities.