Sexual Offences (Pardons etc) Bill

Nick's speech in the Second Reading debate

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)

I understand that an urgent question has been tabled for 11 o’clock so I will endeavour to be brief so my remarks do not become truncated.

First, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) on introducing this measure and on his excellent speech in support of his Bill. I welcome what he has sought to do.

There is general agreement in this House that great injustice was done to gay men in the past by laws that have since been repealed. There is a great deal of regret for that injustice and a recognition that there are people ho are still alive who have suffered as a consequence of it. Further to that, there is broad, although perhaps not unanimous, agreement that it is right that not only should that legislation have been repealed, in many cases some time ago, but that this House and the Government should go further and extend a pardon to those convicted of offences we now believe should not have been criminal offences, because of the enormous injustice done to them. It seems to me that there is no disagreement between the Government and Members on the Opposition and Government Benches who believe it is right in principle for such a pardon to be extended.

I recall being a Minister in the Ministry of Justice along with my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) at the time when we were discussing the initial proposal that a specific pardon should be granted to Alan Turing. We had those discussions with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who was then the Justice Secretary. One can hardly imagine a more humane or liberal Member of Parliament than my right hon. and learned Friend, but he had concerns about the possible implications of the further application of the principle we were embarking on. I think those were legitimate concerns, and I think there is a legitimate debate to be had about the extent to which it is possible to embark on a process of revisionism such that we find ourselves extending a general apology or pardon for all sorts of crimes that may have been committed a while ago and for legislation that was enacted before our time.

Members on both sides of the House have spoken with passion about why we should offer a signal or expression of regret. It is clearly important for the living that the state recognises the injustice that was done, but it is also important to a broader community. The hon. Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) spoke powerfully about that. That is important because, in spite of the near completion of the legislative agenda, in this country at least, to ensure full equality for gay people, there is still discrimination in our society, and particularly in our schools, where there are young people who face prejudice and are worried that they may not be accepted in our society. Therefore, the signals this House and the Government send are immensely important.

There is also the question of the signal we send more widely to the rest of the world. I am honoured to be the elected chairman of the all-party group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, and the hon. Member for Glasgow South is also an officer of that roup. We focus on the appalling breaches of human rights increasingly being perpetrated in other countries around the world where human rights are going backwards, not forwards; gay people are living and working in fear in, for instance, countries in sub-Saharan Africa and in Russia and other countries in eastern Europe. In those countries, progress needs to be made to secure equality and a respect for human rights. We are often told—as are those who are victimised in those countries—that their laws historically owe their origin to this place, to laws fashioned and promoted by this Parliament as part of our Empire.


Dr Philippa Whitford (Central Ayrshire) (SNP)

Is that not why it is so utterly important that this Bill goes through in its own right to send out that message, rather than have just a few lines of an amendment?


Nick Herbert

The hon. Lady anticipates what I am about to say. I was explaining that I believe it is important that this House sends the right signal with a general pardon because of the effect on the living, because of those to whom an injustice has been done, because of the way in which young people in particular may anticipate how they will be treated, and because of the signal we might therefore send globally about the importance of standing up for human rights.


Mr Gyimah

The amendment that will be tabled by Lord Sharkey is not just a few lines in a Bill. Lord Sharkey is one of the most prominent campaigners on this issue: he has been campaigning for a long time, and yesterday’s announcement has already garnered global headlines and will continue to do so when the amendment is passed.


Nick Herbert

I had said I hoped to complete my remarks by 11 o’clock, but I can now see that that is not going to be possible, because what I want to say about the position of the Government and my hon. Friend the Minister is important, and it is important that we get a resolution to this matter. Whatever the history of the last few days, it seems to me—this was the point I was trying to make at the beginning of my speech—that there is broad agreement on the necessity of this measure, the value of it and the importance of proceeding. Indeed, there is a Conservative manifesto commitment to do so. After I resume my speech—as I hope I will be able to, Mr Deputy Speaker—I would like to explain why I therefore believe the Bill should be allowed a Second Reading.

Proceedings interrupted for Urgent Question

As I was saying, it seems to me that there is no difference between the Government and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire with respect to the intention of the Bill: those who are living to whom an injustice has been done should be pardoned, but the intention is not to pardon those who committed offences that would still be criminal offences today. The only disagreement is about the actual effect of the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman has suggested a specific mechanism for ensuring that people do not make improper use of a pardon: the onus of proof would be on them to show that they had not committed what would now still be an offence. In those circumstances, it seems entirely right and proper, especially given that the Government encouraged the hon. Gentleman in the first place to introduce his Bill after his success in the private Members’ Bill ballot, that the Bill is given a Second Reading today and proceeds to Committee, where these differences in legal effect could be properly ironed out.

I accept that, in bringing forward their proposals a very short time ago, the Government intend to do broadly the same thing in fulfilment of their manifesto commitment as the Bill seeks to do. However, I also understand why the hon. Gentleman feels that his Bill should receive a Second Reading and that there should be further discussion about the effects that his Bill proposes.

The Government originally encouraged the Bill but a couple of days before its debate on Second Reading have introduced their own alternative measures: I do not think that is generally a good way to proceed. If there has been some misunderstanding or breakdown in communication, I urge both sides to restore communication. The best and most proper thing would be for the discussions to take place in Committee, so that legitimate debate about the arcane provisions can be had.


John Nicolson

I confirm that if the Government honour their original promise to me and support my Bill, I will be very happy to engage with any concerns they have in Committee.


Nick Herbert

I am sure that the Government will have heard that.

It would be a pity if hon. Members who do not share the majority view here today—that the Bill’s general provisions should proceed and that in general it is right that people should be pardoned—and who do not accept the Conservative party’s manifesto commitment to that effect were given an excuse to attempt not to allow the Bill to proceed, because of the disagreement over the Bill’s legal effect. There is, I repeat, no disagreement about the intention of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill; it is the same as the Government’s intention. There is, therefore, broad agreement that this is the right thing to do.

People will be listening to this debate. The signal that the House of Commons sends on these matters is immensely important. As I said before the urgent question, it is important in terms of the justice that should be done to those who are still living, when a great injustice was done before. It is important to many young people who are struggling and coming to terms with their sexuality and who want to ensure acceptance today. It is mportant that the message this country sends out to the rest of the world is that the legislation we passed and promoted in an age gone by was not only wrong then but is still capable of doing great injustice today. We should atone for that in a very clear manner, and we should not allow the message that we wish to send to all those groups of people to be distorted. The House of Commons should stand for justice and equality, and we should stand for the principle that, where an injustice was done in the past, we should recognise that clearly and unequivocally. That is why this Bill should be given a Second Reading.


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