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MPs call for urgent action over homophobia hate crime after TOWIE star’s petition

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MPs have called for “urgent action” from the government to fight the rise in online homophobia.

The Commons debate followed a petition calling for a new law – organised by reality TV star Bobby Norris.

The Only Way Is Essex cast member said he had been spurred into action by unacceptable abuse directed at him on social media.

The Home Office has said a range of offences already exist to prosecute hate crimes.

But it added that it had asked the Law Commission – an independent body that reviews the law in England and Wales – to review whether current hate crime legislation was effective in tackling online and offline abuse.

Speaking during the debate, Labour’s Angela Eagle – who spoke passionately about her own sexuality in Parliament last week – said ministers needed to take steps to tackle the “growing threat” and “increase in violence” against LGBT people both online and in the real world.

She said: “In London, a couple of weeks ago, two gay women were beaten and robbed 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 at them from a passing car.

“In Liverpool, two men were stabbed and seriously hurt in a homophobic knife attack and one of those held for the attack was 12 years old.

“In my view, the government have not reacted firmly enough to prevent this happening. I think our values of respect for diversity in society are now being tested and we must not be found wanting in our defence of them.”

Hateful posts

The Labour Party’s Daniel Zeichner MP, who began the debate, said that laws governing the matter were “fragmented” and that politicians had failed to “get to grips” with regulation of the social media companies involved.

“The promotion of this kind of content contributes to an environment where problematic language and ideas are completely normalised, meaning there’s a degree of desensitisation,” he added.

“We must row back from this and take online homophobia for what its is: hate speech that must not be accepted.”

Earlier on Monday, Mr Norris said the comments he had received had included, “I hope you get cancer” and “go hang yourself”.

“I don’t think you can ever fully prepare yourself,” he told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme.

“I hear from some people who don’t want to leave their houses because it’s got so bad. I’ve heard of people hurting themselves, unfortunately some people even taking their own lives, it gets that severe.”

He added that he thought creating a new law would send out a signal that online abuse linked to a victim’s sexual orientation was unacceptable.

“People feel that little bit more brave when they’re sat behind a computer screen or sat on their phone sending messages to people.

“Some people have specific trolling accounts – sometimes they don’t even put a photo on.

“If we look at how easy it is to set up a social media account, I think people just need to be a little bit more accountable and a little bit more aware of what they are sending.”

‘Utterly cowardly’

More than 152,000 people signed Mr Norris’s e-petition. That surpassed the 100,000 figure required to have such an appeal considered for debate.

Jeremy Howell, a Conservative MP, also took part. He described such abuse as being “utterly cowardly”, since the perpetrators often hid their own identities.

But he added that it needed to be seen in the context of wider hate crimes, and that MPs should take account of the Law Commission’s report due in 2020.

“The more that we can do to try to keep a check on online [abuse]… and that we take action against it, the healthier we will be,” he said.

“This is a very important subject, not just for gay people but for all of us to show our common humanity in this area… and the protection of human rights.”

‘Hate drives profit’

Labour’s Luke Pollard MP, who is gay, added that more needed to be done to hold the social media companies responsible too.

“We need to recognise that online hate drives traffic,” he said.

“Traffic is the basis of advertising. And advertising is the basis of the economic model for social media companies.

“So, hate drives profit and we need not to be blind to that.

“When reporting has been made [the tech firms] need to take that seriously because all too frequently when people report online abuse, it’s not actioned by those people at the other end.”

The SNP’s Martin Docherty-Hughes, who is also a gay MP, added that no political party – including his own – could “claim a clear conscience on the history of homophobia”.

He highlighted that the matter was a devolved issue, but that Holyrood was looking at whether it needed to reform its own laws.

“Crimes against LGBT people in Scotland have risen,” he remarked.

“There is no place for complacency and the Scottish government’s consultation on hate crime is looking to ensure the legislation is fit for the 21st Century.”

According to a 2017 study commissioned by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights charity Stonewall, one in 10 LGBT people had experienced homophobic, biphobic or transphobic abuse against them personally via the internet in the month prior to being questioned.

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