The Big Questions: When does bigotry become defamation? Should marijuana be legal?

This week's questions are answered by barrister and Labour peer Baroness Kennedy


Under the new Defamation Act, claimants need to show “serious harm”. How do you view this change?

Claimants should have to show serious harm for a successful claim. Energetic debate is a vital part of our democracy. It cannot be enough for people to claim hurt feelings or insult, even when debates descend into the gutter. I was brought up in Glasgow where sectarianism was rife, but we learned that shrugging it off was the best defence. The law is rarely the answer to the ignorance of bigots, racists, homophobes and misogynists. There are better ways to take them on.

Colorado has followed Uruguay in legalising the sale of marijuana. Should the UK think again?

I think marijuana should be legalised. I would start with making it available on prescription for people with MS and other painful illnesses. The amount of police and court time wasted on low-level personal drug use is crazy and we should watch the US and learn.

The amount of time migrants have to wait before claiming benefits has been lengthened to three months. Does that seem right to you?

It is reasonable to expect people who have just arrived to wait before claiming benefits. But I think some provision should be made for exceptional cases, such as someone who suffers an accident, becomes unwell or is rendered unexpectedly destitute. Common humanity would make allowance for exceptional circumstances.

The Government is considering US-style 100-year sentences for some murderers. What is your view?

The suggestion is absurd. It is an irrational response to a perfectly reasonable judgment from the European Court of Human Rights which said people given whole-life sentences should have the right to a review after 25 years. Why would the court make such a decision? Because its judgments guide all 47 nations that belong to the Council of Europe – not just the UK – and in places like Russia people get “life” too readily and are sent to remote prisons and forgotten about. There is a hysteria being inflamed about the ECHR at the moment to satisfy the right wing of the Conservative party.

The Scottish independence referendum is this year. What future do you want for the country in which you were born?

I am not a nationalist and I hope Scotland remains within the UK. But many in Scotland are disillusioned with Westminster politics. I hope Labour makes some clear, bold statements about addressing inequality and excites people about a different kind of politics and a different future. Scotland should become properly devolved and its parliament given greater powers. My hope is that the referendum is lost but that there will be a UK-wide constitutional convention, in the aftermath, to rethink how the UK might be governed in a federal landscape.

You have campaigned against female genital mutilation, and now MPs on the Home Affairs Committee are looking into why there have been no UK convictions. Can it achieve what you would like?

FGM is child abuse, pure and simple. The fact that some women in the communities concerned accept, condone or even perform the mutilation does not alter the fundamental purpose of this violation – the subjugation of women to men and the denial of female sexuality. Getting evidence is hard. Speaking out usually only occurs once people are adults and brave enough to challenge their own communities. Like domestic violence, rape and other abuses in the private realm, the evidential problems are because witnesses are afraid or made to believe it is normal. I am just pleased that the taboo is being lifted and there is a serious effort at education on the subject. Prosecutions will follow that.

It is eight years since you chaired the Power inquiry into the state of UK democracy. Have we become any more democratic in that time?

Society has not become more democratic. Real power is increasingly in the hands of a few. Members of the general public feel the financial and corporate world dictate terms to the political class while their voices are not heard. It is why they see no point in voting and feel increasingly disengaged.

You are said to rebel against your party whip more frequently than any other Labour peer. Can you explain that? I rebelled often during the Blair years because so many terrible things were being done to civil liberties and to law. Labour ratcheted up prison numbers and screwed up the probation service. I am afraid it was my own party that started the business of destroying legal aid. They locked people up without trial and tried to detain suspects without charge for 90 days. They introduced secret trials. They wanted to remove benefits from people who missed a day of their community service. I could go on. I have absolutely no regrets about my refusal to support such disgraceful legislation.

Do the travails of Nigella Lawson suggest witnesses need more protection in court?

The legal system did not fail Nigella; her former husband did. His email allegation that she was addicted to cocaine opened up an inevitable area of cross-examination, which was unquestionably relevant to the case against her two former assistants. What the trial should tell everyone is that cameras in the courts would have made this even uglier. This is the stuff the television companies want. Their demands should be resisted.

Baroness Kennedy is a barrister and Labour peer

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Whoever and whatever Arthur was, he wasn’t Scottish

Guy Keleny
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea