Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill
Lord Hunt of Wirral (Conservative)
My Lords, I believe that that applies to property not to people. At least, it does at the moment, although given this Government it may well apply to people too.
Other important points have been raised on the Scottish dimension by my noble friend the Duke of Montrose and the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. The noble Lord, Lord Pendry, raised some very interesting issues on the question of regulation and overregulation. I am always reminded that one should keep asking questions of the Security Industry Authority, for example, about who is regulating the regulators. It is a valid question to raise.
The issue of animal rights activists formed a key part of the debate, and we heard important speeches from the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, and the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, about the vital contribution of animal research. My noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior came up with some impressive facts demonstrating the crucial nature of that research, reinforced by the authoritative speech of my noble friend Lord Selbourne and the practical experiences of the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, as they demonstrated that it is just not possible to do without animal testing at this important time. It could be argued that the Bill does too little, too late, but it is none the less a welcome move in the right direction.
We now come to the part of the Bill that relates to religious hatred. This House is right to stand its ground on issues of fundamental importance to civil liberties in this country, and we do so again in respect of Schedule 10 to the Bill. The Government's stated objective of clamping down on religious hatred and those who propagate it admittedly has a meretricious appeal. I should tell the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, that we stand side by side with him in protecting all communities against extremists. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, made a very important speech, as did the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, in putting forward a strong case for Clause 124. Other noble Lords, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, wanted to send a clear and positive signal to the Muslim community.
I agree with noble Lords that incitement to hatred is indeed generally loathsome and particularly so when innate fears of other races or religions are being manipulated in trying to create a climate of insecurity, intimidation and violence. But as the right reverend Prelate reminded us, it is vitally important to keep a balance in this debate. I was struck by the fact that no one really answered the very persuasive speech made by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who echoed a statement that he made in his article in the Times today, that these provisions are more likely to stir up discord than resolve it. As evidence of the existing protection, he quoted the conviction of Mark Norwood.
The noble Viscount, Lord Colville, raised serious technical problems with the proposed offence and the almost impossible task that it would present for the jury, particularly looking at Articles 9, 10(1), 10(2) and 17 of the Human Rights Act. My noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking reminded us of all the problems of obscene publications. But no one answered my noble and learned friend's points about the existing case in which there was a conviction.
We had a very important contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Lester. I would have liked to hear him speak much longer, because I thought he was expounding a very important point. But I bow to the Whips all the time; having been one for so many years, I pay tribute to their handling of a very difficult task. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Lester, was seeking to find a way through the problems. We await his narrow and carefully tailored amendments in Committee that will, no doubt, avoid what he described as "unintended adverse consequences".
Having looked at the proposed offence, I think that it is disproportionate and fundamentally counterproductive. If anything, it is likely to create more resentment and hatred in people's hearts, not less. In saying that, I find myself in a remarkably broad coalition that includes writers, comedians, all the main Opposition parties, many religious bodies and, of course, many speakers in this debate. It is utter sophistry for Ministers to argue that this legislation, once enacted, would not adversely affect freedom of speech and, in particular, freedom of comment and humour. As the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said, of course it will.
As the noble Lord, Lord Chan, pointed out, there are no safeguards in the Bill. So, if it becomes law, then anyone will have committed an offence if they say, publish or proliferate anything that is,
"likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom it is likely to stir up racial or religious hatred".
The very term "stir up" troubles me, as it does my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern and the noble Lord, Lord Lester. Perhaps it is intended to be demotic—legalese supplanted by a more modern idiom that may be more readily understood. But it is dangerously vague. Does it imply the creation of hatred, the stimulation of latent hatred, merely the aggravation of existing hatred or all three? Such language, open as it is to interpretation and misinterpretation, is wholly inappropriate for an Act of Parliament. As the noble Baroness, Lady D'Souza, stressed, there is the danger of mischievous cases. With all her experience in fighting censorship in so many forms, she would know.
This clause also subtly shifts the burden of proof. There is no need to demonstrate intention on the part of the person accused. It seeks, as my noble friend Lord Baker put it, to criminalise a state of mind. All that has to be proved is that there was someone in the room, library, theatre or wherever, however unbalanced or irrational they may be, who might have these unpleasant sentiments stirred up in them. In effect, performers or orators would be blamed for the prejudices or moral deficiencies of their audiences. I regret to inform, in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay, that this is a lawyer's dream and a citizen's nightmare. If this measure becomes law—and my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway listed all the procedural problems—it is axiomatic that people will feel constrained to err on the side of curbing their free expression.
As the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland of Houndwood, pointed out, the offence has only to be perceived, and so the police would soon be busy preparing submissions to be considered by the Attorney-General.
Salman Rushdie needs no one to lecture him about the possible consequences of causing offence on religious grounds. As he so sagely put it, this law would be interpreted by faith groups as,
"championing their right to be offended".
Where there is offence—and can there be a more nebulous concept?—there is every chance of the law being triggered, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said about the effect of the Human Rights Act.
There is a better way. I found myself agreeing with almost every word said by my noble friend Lady Flather; in particular, with her vision of an inclusive Britain. I remember the early days of my political life when I was fighting for the right of Ugandan Asians to come and live in our communities: we have been grateful to them for the richness that they have supplied in our society. I have always believed in a multi-racial society, in an inclusive Britain. We have to speak to each other, understand each other and ensure that we can live together in harmony.
Before coming to the debate I attended the Commonwealth Day observance. We heard a number of religious leaders raise the question of education and understanding. I quote a young representative of the Hindu community, Bimal Patel:
"Conflict, physical or verbal, often starts when people of different beliefs do not listen to each other. They talk but there is no conversation".
I regret that if this offence in its present form becomes law, the proposal will inflict a body blow on our right as citizens to have such conversations. We have now to decide whether we wish to live in a free society. It is no exaggeration to say that in confronting this piece of legislation we are having, in the words of Salman Rushdie, to
"fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again".
This is a battle that we must win.