Half a Loaf – Or Only a Nibble

Offered at the House of Commons

04-197208XX 03Speaking of anomalies and loopholes in legislation at a meeting called to consider the implications of the recent House of Lords’ decision in the International Times case, Bernard Levin said: “The only thing worth doing is to pass a small simple act… to improve the situation for some people… not to talk of ideal and perfect societies. Half a loaf is better than none”. Will Hamlyn, MP set up the meeting to discuss how parliamentary means could be used to improve the situation, but a GLF member commented: “All Mr. Levin is really offering us is a small nibble”.

Many of those present seemed to feel that traditional democratic processes could achieve very little, particularly, as Raymond Fletcher pointed out: “…it now seems to be the judges who make the law, not Parliament”. “I voted, as I thought, in the interests of a minority when I supported the 1967 act,” said Joan Lestor, MP, “and now I find that, under that act, such things as contact through advertisements can be made illegal.” The heart of the matter is section 8 of the 1967 Act, under which the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions is not required if the charge is incitement – incitement, in the case of contact ads, to commit acts which are not in themselves illegal if both parties are over 21. Leo Abse, MP, said at the time that he “was not happy” on this point: “Police use of incitement charges may well be open to criticism”. They were certainly criticised at the meeting, as was police activity in other areas, including harassment and spying in connection with cottaging, and selective prosecution under the obscenity laws.

The conspiracy laws were also criticised for their many loopholes – there have been contradictory decisions, some seeming to indicate that if a jury can be convinced by the prosecution that something is ‘immoral’, or a ‘conspiracy to corrupt public morals’, other relevant cases and precedents can be ignored. Bernard Levin said that it was a problem of singling out some actions and excluding them from the conspiracy laws, and that legislation should be attempted which would prevent such decisions as that in the IT case, and also define ‘conspiracy’ much more closely.

Does the present state of the law mean, for instance that a social worker who runs a group, or a counsellor who puts a homosexual client in touch with a gay organisation, is ‘inciting’ people to commit immoral acts? “Phew”, said Michael Butler of the Samaritans, when asked to comment later, “that would make the job of counselling gay people almost impossible. A psychiatrist told me that he could interview and analyse his patients, but if they had no social contacts with their own kind, his job was totally lop-sided and inadequate. The Samaritans’ general policy is that if someone wants social contacts and the counsellor feels it would be useful, the branch should have addresses of groups to which the client can be referred, and he would be given them.”

Other points raised during the meeting itself included the problem of judges who are “out of touch”, particularly with young people, and the general need for “public education”, considered in the long term, to produce a climate of opinion in which legislative improvements could be introduced by sympathetic members of parliament. The need for more control over police activity was stressed, particularly by Bernard Greaves, who quoted evidence of malpractices by Cambridge police, and by the editor of ‘Janus’, who was concerned about police victimisation of some publishers, while others were untouched

Some speakers were unsure that parliamentary action could really achieve anything of value, and felt that “the gay world is moving towards a violent stand, like that now happening in N. Ireland”, and that there was an increasing tendency for homosexuals to come together and not to rely on others to speak for them. “Gay people should live their lives openly, and that will help to change society at the grassroots”.

While some people present apparently endorsed this view, it was felt by others that in trying to improve the present situation, less ideal methods were essential, such as contact ads. and Denis Lemon of Gay News confirmed the paper’s intention to continue running ads. Antony Gray of NFHO said that in his view, advertisements were a comparatively ‘trivial’ issue, and that he felt that increased activity in parliament could really lead to improvements – By the law of averages, he calculated, there must be 30 gay MPs, so “Where are they?” Will Hamlyn, closing the meeting, felt that this might be an under-estimate, but that legislative improvements would, at best, be slow to come, and that there was a lot more to be achieved by individuals coming together and taking action at all levels.

Perhaps one comment on the meeting is “Never mind your half-a-loaf, Mr. Levin – we are going to make our own bread”.