With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 154, in page 19, line 18, leave out "religious".
Amendment No. 155, in page 19, line 19, leave out from "Part" to end of line 20 and insert—
'"hatred offences" means hatred against a group of persons or individuals defined by reference to their age, disability, gender, race, religion or sexuality.'
Amendment No. 19, in page 19, line 20, at end insert—
'but shall not include hatred of a belief or lack of belief where such hatred does not extend to the person or persons holding that belief'.
Amendment No. 20, in page 19, line 20, at end insert—
'17B Meaning of religious belief
In this part, "religious belief" means belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle and the acceptance of canons of conduct in order to give effect to that belief which are lawful'.
Amendment No. 106, in page 19, line 20, at end insert—
'(3A) In section 18, after subsection (2) insert—
"(5A) No prosecution may be brought under this section solely on the grounds that a person has used words which are expressions of the tenets of any religion or which form part of the rites of any religion.".'.
Amendment No. 156, in page 19, line 21, leave out "racial or religious hatred", and insert "hatred offences".
Amendment No. 157, in page 19, line 35, leave out "religious hatred" and insert "hatred".
Amendment No. 158, in page 19, line 38, leave out "racial or religious hatred" and insert "hatred offences".
Clause 38 stand part.
Clause 39 stand part.
Amendment No. 3, in clause 40, page 20, line 40, leave out "or religious".
Clauses 40 to 42 stand part.
New clause 1—Abolition of common law offence of blasphemy—
'1. The following common law offences are hereby abolished:
(a) blasphemy and blasphemous libel;
(b) any distinct offence of disturbing a religious service or religious devotions;
(c) any religious offence of striking a person in a church or churchyard.
2. The following provisions are hereby repealed:
(a) in section 1 of the Criminal Libel Act 1819, the words "and blasphemous libel, or";
(b) in sections 3 and 4 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888 the words "blasphemous or".
3. This provision shall not extend to Scotland or Northern Ireland.'.
New clause 4—Consultation—
'Part 5 of this Act shall not have effect until the Secretary of State has conducted a consultation exercise on its proposals with the following bodies, and placed a copy of their responses in the Library of the House of Commons—
(a) The Law Society
(b) The Bar Association
(c) The Justices' Clerks
(d) The Districts Judges (Magistrates' Courts)
(e) The Lay Magistracy, and
(f) The Crown Court Judges.'.
New clause 10—Consultation (No. 2.)—
'( ) Part 5 of this Act shall not come into force until the Secretary of State has undertaken a review including consultation with the following bodies and representatives, and other bodies which he judges will be affected by the provisions, and he has published the conclusions of that review—
(a) representatives of recognised faith groups;
(b) representatives of the police;
(c) representatives of lawyers, judges and the lay magistracy;
(d) the Commission for Racial Equality.'.
I shall speak to amendments Nos. 153 to 158, which are similar in purport. I shall then make specific reference to new clause 10. The crucial question, however, is whether clause 38 is to stand part of the Bill. My view and that of my colleagues is similar to that of Mr. Letwin and his colleagues. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will catch your eye shortly, Sir Alan.
This is the important part of the Bill, which effectively deals with religious hatred. It is entitled "Race and Religion", and it seeks to move the legal protection currently given to those affected by racial hatred into an additional area, that of religious hatred. After making a few general remarks I shall deal briefly with the specifics. I am conscious that the subject is important to the Committee and to the House, and that a wide remit is involved. We have relatively little time to deal with it, however, because we must finish the debate on this part of the Bill by 6.30 pm.
Has the hon. Gentleman seen reports that the Home Secretary might be minded to heed the strong feeling in the House that the Bill is not the right vehicle for legislation on this highly sensitive matter? Would it not assist us materially if the Home Secretary told us now that that is correct, so that we could devote more time to the other important aspects of the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman provides a timely prompt, as I have seen those reports. I suppose that I am thereby owning up to reading The Sunday Telegraph, as other hon. Members do, but I am glad to do so. This morning, I also heard the Under–Secretary of State for the Home Department, Beverley Hughes, on the radio. Although she said that the Government had not yet changed their mind, she seemed to suggest that they might be persuaded to do so. I would therefore be very happy to give way to the Home Secretary if he would like to tell us the Government's current position.
On that basis,
The provisions seem to deal with three important and clearly interdependent issues: how people worship, how people express their faith and their comments, and how people with no faith comment on faith and on people with faith. They also deal with three freedoms: the freedom of religion and the freedom of expression, both of which are protected in law, and the freedom from discrimination, which is substantially but not completely protected in law.
It is fair to say, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said, that the Bill's inclusion of provisions addressing those issues has been the subject of much comment and controversy and considerable concern. Authors and comedians have clearly said that they want to be able to write and speak critically about faith or faiths and about those who profess them. I should think that there is no dissension from that proposition on either side of the Committee. Moreover, adherents of faith want to be able to express and share their faith and seek to win people to it. Other amendments in this group, not least that tabled by
Many people of a recognised faith, of private faith and of no faith have expressed concern about the fact that the legislation deals with matters of faith and associates those matters with the concept of terrorism. Their concern is a particularly strong reason why the Government must overwhelmingly convince the Committee of the need to deal with those matters in the Bill. All hon. Members and all corners in British politics have made it clear that, logically, those matters should not be associated even by implication with a war, battle or campaign against terrorism, and that we must make it clear that the legislation is not directed against any particular faith or people of any particular faith.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Evangelical Alliance, among other groups, has written to hon. Members to say that although it wants legislation to address those issues, it does not believe that they are appropriately addressed in this Bill? The alliance wants wider debate and properly considered legislation.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I saw the Evangelical Alliance's very short and straightforward submission, which stated that although it understood the issue and supported the argument, it did not think that it was possible in the time available to do justice to the cause. Moreover, that view is shared by all the representatives of Britain's faith communities to whom I have spoken or whose submissions I have read since we learned that the Government were considering placing such a provision on their agenda.
In recent days, I have not read anything said by the Church or by the Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or Hindu communities that suggests that this Bill is the right place to deal with those matters. I have also had express conversations with those who know the mind of, for example, the General Synod of the Church of England and of the coalition of Muslim groups and they seem to hold precisely the same view. They also seem to have grown stronger in that view in recent days.
The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer. If he waives his fee for a second, could I ask him a question? If the legislation were in force and someone said, "I hate all religious fundamentalists and all right-minded people should hate them", would they be caught by this provision?
It is a difficult question, but I shall seek to answer it; there is certainly no question of a fee. Under the Bill as drafted, the person concerned must have had the intention to produce a consequence, the consequence being that people would suffer as a result of what had been said. There has to be the statement and the consequence. To be fair, the Bill clearly specifies that. The trouble is that it would be a matter for the courts, in each case, to define whether there was the intention as well as the statement. Clearly, that issue must be discussed and sorted out.
The provision cannot go into legislation if there is a doubt about whether certain words or language could be turned into something that would have imputed to them an intention, as opposed to no intention, of a consequence. That is exactly the sort of phrase that does not have an immediate answer, which is why we need to proceed carefully. I will come back to the other arguments that suggest that the wording of the Bill is not clear enough, and which may persuade the Committee about the new clause.
In order that the debate should proceed from the right position, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the way in which the Bill is drafted means that even if it were not the intention of the person speaking to produce the consequence of hatred, but it was likely in all the circumstances that hatred might follow, that person might be caught?
The hon. Gentleman prompts me to deal with a point that I was going to make later—that it is the second linked formulation of the offence that makes it even more far reaching. There is not just an intention to commit an offence, but a likelihood that an offence might be committed, that violence might follow or that there might be the consequence of hatred. That is much more difficult to get right.
I wish to refer to an example in the context of the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for North–West Cambridgeshire. Jews might say things—or Sikhs, Muslims or Christians—that they feel are matters of belief for them. They might say them with the conviction that they are justified in so speaking. They might not intend that their words should incite anybody else to any particular activity. However, it might be said in a way that does incite people to that particular activity. For example, if one went into a mixed-faith crowd and said that Islam was the only true faith and that anybody who did not follow the true faith would not have eternal life and would go to hell, that could be regarded, by definition, as going down the route towards incitement.
I am not seeking to exaggerate the import of the Bill. I am not seeking to say that the courts will take a wider interpretation as opposed to a narrow interpretation. But no definition of religion is proposed, and this is not something with which the courts are used to dealing. There are one or two other pieces of legislation where there has been a reference to religion, but that is another reason why we must be careful. We have not specified exactly the meaning of the offence.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it might go further and that in response to his example others may react violently, putting the blame on the statement and arguing "likely effect", and that it would be within the scope of the Bill to do so?
I understand that, and others might argue that that justified their reaction or response. To be fair, the commission of the offence could be judged objectively only in terms of what the person accused did. I have not taken six legal opinions, but the advice we have received suggests that judgment would have to be made on the normal interpretation and normal consequence of the words used. Therefore, if someone interpreted such a statement as inciting or provocative, that would not necessarily carry them over the threshold. However, that is not clear.
Some people, including the Evangelical Alliance, say that before we proceed there needs to be a code of guidance and rules about when it would be used. The protection in law—namely, that the Attorney-General would have to authorise prosecutions—is not sufficient at present because we still do not know the context of certain prosecutions. Of course the legislation will be used carefully, but that does not mean it will never be used in a way that people do not expect. For example, the use of the blasphemy law some 15 or 20 years ago, originally in a private prosecution, suddenly invoked legislation where it had not been expected or intended. We must be careful not to go down that road again.
The hon. Gentleman said that no religious group with which he had had contact wanted the clause but then said that there was no definition of religion. Is he aware that there are religious groups—or cults, as some people call them—which privately welcome the clause because it will give them protection while they go on harming other people, which none of us wants? Is not that another reason why clause 38 should be removed?
I do not argue with any representations that the hon. Gentleman may have had. I have not had such representations, but I understand the argument. However, the interpretation of "religion" must not cover simply the great world faiths; it must be much more narrowly defined. There is an argument that if there is to be a definition, it should refer to "religion or other belief", not just something that calls itself a religion. It should also cover a lack of religion or belief, because otherwise agnostics or atheists are not treated equally. [Interruption.] The Home Secretary asks what I think the clause does. It does not deal with the "or other belief" alternative. Previous legislation has widened the definition of religion to do that. Many people think that is right because some have a strong philosophical belief, although they may not call it a religion.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the blasphemy laws. The common law offence of blasphemy or blasphemous libel specifically tries to identify what religion is or, in fact, what is good as opposed to bad religion. Surely that is the problem with the blasphemy laws and the strength of this clause. It does not define what is good religion and bad religion, but deals simply with the problem of incitement to hatred of people on the basis of their religious belief.
The hon. Gentleman may recall from our debates on Second Reading that my party has believed for a long time that the offence of blasphemy should come off the statute book. Therefore, we are sympathetic to the new clause tabled by Mr. Dobson. We do not, however, think that the Bill is the right place to do that—in that respect we share the view of the Home Secretary. In a few moments I shall explain our view that there are two main reasons why we should put aside such provisions today, concentrate on anti-terrorism measures, properly defined, and return in a careful and considered way to deal both with offences of religious hatred and discrimination on the one hand and, on the other, with hate offences generally, which do not stop at religion or race.
Although I agree in general with the gist of the hon. Gentleman's argument, he might be surprised to hear that, on the question of religion and what it means, British courts have found it easy to define and describe religion. It is defined as a belief in a supreme being or a God and a worship of that supreme being or God. Whether the platonic first cause comes into it may be something for the philosophers to discuss.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct. Indeed, Mr. Chope has tabled an amendment that would ensure that religion was thus clearly defined. All those facts add to the argument that we need to get the measure right. We need to establish what we think the law currently is and to think about whether it is sufficient; we need to decide whether that law will cover people who proclaim their own faith; and we need to ensure that we are clear about whether we want it to be related to belief in the supernatural. We must also decide whether the law should cover faith—or the lack of it—that has nothing to do with religion.
If people outside this place, or the Government, honestly believe that Parliament can come to a wise judgment on all those matters, and others, in a couple of hours, we are not honouring the many people of much greater intellect, theology or philosophy than us who have been wrestling with those problems for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Is it not a fact that when we talk about religion and knowing what religion is, it is like the famous mot about describing a camel? We may not be able easily to describe a camel, but we know what it is when we see one. Broad definitions are often the best thing in law. For example, until the Conservative Government got rid of the public interest defence in the Official Secrets Act 1911, that defence was an extraordinarily good one, due to the fact that it was not defined. If it had been defined, it is extremely unlikely that Clive Ponting would have been acquitted by a sensible jury after an onerous prosecution. The hon. Gentleman really ought to think a great deal more carefully about that before he proceeds.
I do not dissent from the right hon. Gentleman's argument. I do not think that Liberal Democrat or Conservative Members are arguing that one needs a long and complex definition of religion. No one in the debate—
Absolutely not. People are arguing, and we are clearly arguing, that legislation on terrorism is not the place to try to deal with certain matters to do with religion—namely, incitement to religious hatred—or to deal with blasphemy or the much wider issue of the equal treatment of all religions and people of faith. For years, people of minority faiths have been campaigning for a big item on the political agenda: legislation against religious discrimination. It would be much better to deal with all those matters in one go and in one measure, rather than introducing partial provisions in a Bill where they do not belong.
I shall try not to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again—partly because I hope to catch your eye, Sir Alan, and to speak in the debate. However, the hon. Gentleman is seriously mistaken in his belief that the Bill is not an appropriate vehicle. The package of legislation that the Home Secretary is introducing is a consequence of
Of course, the right hon. Gentleman may use that argument, and he may not be persuaded by me, but I refer him to the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which addressed this matter last week. That all-party Committee, which is chaired by one of his colleagues, was not persuaded that this was an appropriate time to legislate and warned us not to proceed down that road. The Chairman of the Committee is in his place and can correct me, but I can cite the paragraph of the Committee's advice to Parliament. With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, it is also wrong to say that this matter has been on the agenda only since
The hon. Gentleman may not be aware of this, but as I serve on the Home Affairs Committee, I asked the Under–Secretary of State for the Home Department, Beverley Hughes, whether the Government had considered the option of abolishing the blasphemy laws. Many hon. Members think that that would be the right way to level the playing field, and she specifically said that, along with the other necessary issues, that would be
"outside the scope of an anti-terrorism bill."
Is not that the point to make? We cannot consider the broad-based solution that many of us want because it is outside the scope of the Bill and, as a result, we should not consider this issue at all.
That is a very strong argument, and I want to tell the Committee about the remaining three arguments as to why we ought not to proceed now. First, incitement to racial hatred is already an offence and incitement to religious hatred will be made an offence under the Bill, but, as is made clear in an amendment that my hon. Friends and I have tabled, pressure has been put on Parliament for a long time to legislate and make incitement to other forms of hatred an offence, perhaps on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or other issues. Parliament may decide that it is far better to introduce legislation on incitement to hatred in which the categories are not defined or in which all the obvious categories are listed, rather than legislating in one decade against incitement to religious hatred, legislating in a second decade against incitement to racial hatred and in another decade against incitement to some other form of hatred. There is a strong argument for dealing with all those issues together and at the same time.
The second argument is that hon. Members may think that we will leave ourselves unable to respond to people who are concerned that the law does not protect them, but that is not true. A series of laws already exists on the statute book which forbids inciting people to do various things. Incitement to violence is already illegal, as is incitement to cause criminal damage. The authorities can prosecute people under a realm of offences.
The third reason is that our colleagues have recently set a good precedent. In considering how to respond to the Home Secretary's proposals, the Scottish Executive agreed a fortnight ago that, rather than including such provisions in a similar Bill, they would consult the faith groups in Scotland, the police, the Commission for Racial Equality and the political parties. Although they may wish to legislate and understand the need to legislate, they want to get it right. They want to legislate carefully, rather than legislating precipitately, and they want to take more time than we are being permitted.
The hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way throughout his speech, but I wonder whether he can help me. I listened carefully to the exchange between him and my right hon. Friend Mr. Kaufman. If a Muslim religious leader were to use religious arguments to persuade a young British Muslim to fight in Afghanistan against whatever troops were there, possibly including United Kingdom troops, on the grounds of religious conviction, would the hon. Gentleman regard that as acceptable?
That is a difficult question. It is not acceptable for a British citizen to fight against those fighting in the name of our country who are trying to bring order and democracy to another part of the world. However, we have to examine the language to determine whether someone was inciting someone else. If someone argued from a profound belief that the Koran justified a certain action, he would not be guilty unless he intended to bring about the violent activity that the hon. Gentleman described. However, if that person intended to cause another person to act violently, he would be guilty and he would be caught by an offence that already exists.
My point is that such offences are already on the statute book. First, we have the incitement offences that I have mentioned and we also have the extra offences that Parliament has put on the statute book in the last two years under the Terrorism Act 2000. Certain acts are now offences even if they relate to activities that take place abroad. Therefore, the law provides us with plenty of opportunities to prosecute without the need for this additional offence.
If the hon. Gentleman's argument is correct, why have none of the Muslim clerics to whom Mr. Howarth referred been prosecuted for openly encouraging what amounts to sedition? I suspect that the Government have not taken action because they feel that they do not have the powers to take it.
I do not know the factual answer to that question. However, I tabled a question a couple of months ago to ask how many offences of incitement to racial hatred had been prosecuted and taken to court under the Race Relations Act 1976. Before the election in my constituency, there were some marches by members of the extreme right who appeared to me to use language that was clearly an incitement to racial hatred. The answer I received was that, since the mid-1980s, an average of about half a dozen offences had been prosecuted across the whole of England and Wales each year.
That raises a question. Even though the offences are on the statute book, why are there so few prosecutions? Therefore, if we are to legislate for this offence, it has been suggested that we should amend the Bill so that an annual report is made to Parliament to list the decisions of the Attorney-General and explain why he has made them. We would then know whether the law was being enforced adequately.
This exchange has shown that the Committee must consider all sorts of issues. Liberal Democrats believe that the blasphemy law should go and that we should have an equality Act that guarantees all the faiths equality and does not protect only certain faiths from discrimination, as is the case under the current race relations legislation. For example, it protects Sikhs and Jews but not Muslims. Liberal Democrats also believe that, if we were to create an offence of incitement to hatred, it would be better to do so by creating a general incitement offence that covered all the issues, and did not pick off just one of them and legislate for that with the intention of returning to the others later.
The Scots have set us a very good example. They have said, "Proceed gently, don't legislate now, take the clause out of the Bill and return to the issue once the Bill is on the statute book." I hope that we will follow their advice
The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that we have come to a precipitate conclusion in introducing an offence of incitement to religious hatred. Is he aware that the Law Commission canvassed the possibility as long ago as 1985? Sixteen years is a long period for precipitate action.
The right hon. Gentleman made that point the other day. In reality, the Law Commission argued for that proposal in a way that suggests that there had been measured consideration. However, it has never argued that the offence should be introduced suddenly in the context of another Bill. It has never argued that the proposal should be linked to anti-terrorism legislation or that it should be dealt with by emergency legislation that is guillotined and timetabled. It has never argued that it should not be dealt with in the context of all the other considerations related to this issue.
That characteristic can be attributed, without discrimination, to people of every nationality. I note that in this case the approach appears to be based on the common advice of at least two parties in Scotland and, I think, is supported by the other two main parties. That does not mean that it is right, but it has united people there far more than it has here.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when we have previously discussed defining racial hatred as a crime, many said that it was unnecessary because we had enough laws to deal with that problem? Is it not the case that we are going through a period of uncertainty and possible terror in which religion has become an issue? Mosques have been attacked in many constituencies, and in Yorkshire places of Christian worship have also been attacked. It is right that we define that form of hatred in such important times.
I respect the hon. Lady's view, but I disagree with her. I have served on Committees and participated in other debates in which we have tried to get hate crimes—religious hate crimes, gay hate crimes and so on—on to the statute book, but the Government of the day have said that the time was not right or appropriate. The issue is not new. I accept the point raised by Mr. Howarth and supported by, I think, Mr. Malins, from his professional experience. It is not as if there are no laws on the statute book which we could be using.
My constituency has a large community that is made up of minority faiths as, no doubt, does the hon. Lady's constituency. Of course I want to ensure that those people are protected, but that is not what we are debating. I have talked in detail to people from those faiths and asked them what they want and need most to give them the maximum protection. The maximum protection will come from legislation that treats all faiths equally, that does not give protection to a denomination of one faith and that ensures that the law is clear and does not restrict the freedom of speech, as some people fear might happen. There is nothing between us on that, but should we rush through legislation that might be subject to row, division and wrong construction later?
I have asked many people about this problem, as I am bound to do, and few have said, "Let's put this on the statute book now. It's been around for a long time." Let us get it right if we are to legislate. I give the Home Secretary an undertaking that my colleagues in both Houses and I will facilitate time for legislation on such matters in this Session after the new year, provided that we have a proper inquiry first on how to draft legislation so that it receives the widest agreement in Parliament.
I fear that the debate shows all the signs of developing into one of those cosy little discussions in the House of Commons that bear little relationship to the reality outside. What is more, Simon Hughes is using what Hugh Dalton used to call the doctrine of unripe time, in which all sorts of things need to be done and it is a good idea to do them, but not just yet. My argument is that this is the moment to act. With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, whose sincerity I do not question, when he uses the phrase "those in the minority faiths" he shows how unrealistic the debate is.
The House of Commons should take a look at itself. What does it consist of? It consists overwhelmingly of white Christians. Some people may think, "I am white, and if I were in the Army I would be described as C of E, but I am not a Christian." They may think of themselves as an agnostic, an atheist or a humanist. However, it is very easy indeed for white Christians to say that they are an agnostic, an atheist or a humanist, but although Jews, Muslims or Hindus can decide within their convictions that they are an agnostic, an atheist or a humanist, to everybody else they will still be a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu.
I happen to be an observant Jew, but if I were to declare myself an atheist, people who may wish to hate me, apart from any personal dislike of me—
Practically none, but one cannot rule out the possibility. Anybody who wished to hate me would still look at me as a Jew. I have experienced anti-semitism in this very Chamber. Alec Douglas-Home, when he was Foreign Secretary and there was a controversy about war in the middle east, said that I was more loyal to Israel than I was to England—something that I do not think could be said about me today. During a heated debate, a Conservative Member for Eastbourne, Sir Charles Taylor, told me to get back to Jerusalem. Whether or not I want to be a Jew, I am a Jew, and because of that, I can be hated as a Jew. My hon. Friends—and many more people outside the Chamber—who are Muslim or Hindu or of other minority faiths can have humanist views but they will be hated outside the House, by those who are inclined to hate them, as Muslims, Hindus or members of minority faiths.
Is not my right hon. Friend confusing ethnicity, in relation to which incitement to hatred is already forbidden in law, with a belief system or religion? It seems to me that it is possible to be a white European Muslim or an Asian Muslim. Jewishness is different, and many people are of Jewish faith and Jewish ethnicity.
That is the last thing I am doing. After the number of years that I have lived, I am pretty clear about my ethnicity and my religion. I am British; I was born in this country. Heaven only knows what blood goes into the final mix that makes me up. I am not talking about ethnicity. I talked about ethnicity in 1986, when I tried without success to persuade the then Conservative Government to introduce an offence of racial harassment, and in 1994, when I tried again and a later Conservative Government refused.
I know that my hon. Friend's intervention is well intentioned, but there is no confusion in my mind about ethnicity versus religion. I am talking about religion, not ethnicity. Over the years, when I was at school and at other times, I have been the object of anti-semitism, although happily it does not happen very much now. My ethnicity was never the reason for that anti-semitism because my ethnicity is British; my religion was the reason for it.
I ask the Home Secretary under no circumstances to be persuaded to withdraw the measure from the Bill, because it is well overdue. We should legislate against incitement to religious hatred in the same way as this Government, as soon as they came to office, legislated against racial harassment—very belatedly indeed.
I will certainly give way to both hon. Gentlemen, but I shall continue my argument for a moment.
When I intervened on the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and said that the provision was especially relevant to a package of legislation after
I shall do so in a minute.
Before I represented Manchester, Gorton, I was a candidate for the Ardwick constituency. The Conservative party distributed a leaflet among Muslim constituents saying that I was a Zionist—not to arouse ethnic or racial hatred against me, but to arouse religious hatred; they were trying to persuade Muslims that it was not a good idea to vote for a Jew. The Muslims had a much broader vision than the Conservative party in the Ardwick constituency.
There ought not to be religious hatred in this country, but the fact is that it exists, and we must acknowledge that. The aftermath of
"If there was no holocaust, where is my mother?"
We have had to deal not only with that but with Jewish cemeteries being desecrated—not because of Jewish ethnicity but because people wish to arouse hatred of Jews. In my constituency and those of a number of hon. Members, we have had to deal with attacks on mosques, which are religious buildings. The Eileen Grove mosque in my constituency was firebombed.
As a fellow Greater Manchester MP, my right hon. Friend will know that the British National party has been active in Burnley which, thankfully, we held at the election. The BNP is concentrating on dividing communities by playing on Islamophobia; it is arousing religious hatred among Sikhs and the indigenous white population against the Muslim population, thus using people's religion, not their culture. Will my right hon. Friend comment on that?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point on which I can elaborate. Such is the bigotry, evil and ignorance of people who arouse religious hatred that they have attacked Sikhs because they wear turbans. They think that they are Muslims; so lacking are they in their understanding of Muslims that they believe all Muslims wear turbans. As a result, Sikhs have been victims of religious hatred. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said that we needed a definition and a much clearer law. Heaven only knows—and the hon. Gentleman made the point inadvertently—our laws against racial hatred are far from oppressive. Indeed, they are rarely used, which is why I asked my right hon. Friend, when he made a statement foreshadowing the Bill, to make sure that the Attorney-General was in charge, because the Crown Prosecution Service cannot be relied on. We have got what I asked for from my right hon. Friend—and, heaven knows, the Attorney-General will not bring random, gratuitous, frivolous prosecutions; there is no doubt whatever about that.
I will give way to all those who want to intervene when I have finished this paragraph, as it were.
The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said that the provision would catch comedians. I do not want to get comedians, but I ask the House to consider the matter carefully. Although it would be doing Bernard Manning far too much credit to prosecute him, let us remember the sort of things that he has been saying and doing, including creating a situation in which black people listening to him have to laugh at his jokes for fear of not joining in the joke. Even comedians ought not to believe that they can incite religious and racial hatred and get away with it.
My right hon. Friend is right to limit the provision to the remit of the Attorney-General. Because of that, and because of the good sense of juries—shown, for example, in the Ponting case—we need not fear that militant atheists or humanists will be sent to jail for saying that they are not believers or for disagreeing with believers.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. May I return to the story that he told about the woman who was turned out of a shop? She was discriminated against on the basis of her religion, but is it not true that the Bill would not deal with that?
If my hon. Friend is suggesting that the legislation ought to be wider, perhaps he has a point. Let us get the Bill on the statute book; then we can look at the possibility of widening it. The fact that my hon. Friend believes that the Bill is inadequate, rather than too oppressive, is an argument for passing it and building on it.
As a non-religious, secular, ethnic Jew, I have been listening carefully to Mr. Kaufman. He said that my hon. Friend Simon Hughes had a mañana approach to the matter, but that is not the case. A plea for an equality Act with a general hate crime measure was in our manifesto. My hon. Friend has said that we want to consider that as soon as possible, outwith emergency legislation.
Homophobic hate crimes have been occurring for decades and have affected the majority of people who identify themselves as homosexual. There has been no protection. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman will find that he voted against a provision allowing for a homophobic hate crime during consideration of the Crime and Disorder Bill in 1998, and that he did so with his Government, who said that they would introduce such a measure soon. Such things do not happen unless the relevant measures are introduced all together, in a considered way. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to reflect on that approach.
The hon. Gentleman may call himself, and no doubt he sincerely is, a non-religious, secular Jew, but Hitler would still have put him in an oven.
In the same way, the hon. Gentleman may be a non-religious, secular Jew, but he could well be the object of incitement to religious hatred, because those who do not like Jews would consider him a Jew, whether he wants to be one or not.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has a fertile imagination. I therefore invite him to imagine being the Attorney- General in whose power it lay to bring actions of the kind envisaged by the Bill. Given the huge range of examples that the right hon. Gentleman has given, extending from clerics to Bernard Manning, does he not envisage courts sitting all day, every day, dealing with his catalogue of complaints about hatred? Can he identify where his priorities would lie were he Attorney-General?
If I were Attorney-General, it would be a great innovation, as I am not a lawyer. We are not dealing with my predilections, and I would not wish to bring a huge torrent of prosecutions. If we have the provision on the statute book, as I very much trust we will, it will be some protection—not an impermeable protection—to those who are subject to religious hatred. I recognise the hon. Gentleman's decency and sincerity, but I say to him, as I said when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made his original statement, that it is very easy to be theoretical if one has not been on the receiving end.
I want to be clear about where my right hon. Friend is coming from. Many Muslims in my constituency were outraged by the publication of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses". The book provoked disorder and many people saw it as inciting racial hatred. Am I right in thinking that my right hon. Friend would agree with the prosecution of Salman Rushdie on the grounds that his work produced that hatred?
To the great misfortune of the entire House, my hon. Friend was not a Member of Parliament when "The Satanic Verses" issue arose. I was an extremely strong opponent of any action against Salman Rushdie—except on literary grounds, as I think he is a very bad novelist; if I have a single achievement in life, it is that I prevented his inclusion on the Booker prize shortlist in the year when I was chairman of the Booker judges.
I do not believe that bigotry should prevent free speech. Salman Rushdie was stating a view of the life of the prophet Mohammed to which many Muslims took exception. I told Muslims who came to see me that free speech required that Salman Rushdie should be allowed to publish his novels without interruption. My good friend Roy Hattersley took the view that the paperback should not be issued—a sort of compromise on his part. The same applies to Martin Scorsese's not very good film, "The Last Temptation of Christ". I disagreed with the Catholic Church when it tried to get that film banned. I was also against the banning of a play about Jews that was shown at the Royal Court theatre. I am strongly in favour of freedom of speech, even though it may offend large numbers of people. That is very different from believing that there is a place on the statute book for a law that makes incitement to religious hatred an offence.
The right hon. Gentleman is civilised, urbane, witty and sensitive. As he is all those things, he has just given an extremely sensitive and witty answer to Mr. Prentice. However, if we introduce the Bill in its current form and in such precipitate haste, he is likely to be landed with a Dangerous Dogs-type Bill that has been rushed through the House without proper and thorough consideration: a dead letter and a pretty useless measure. I do not necessarily disagree with the right hon. Gentleman in his desire for an effective law. Indeed, I agree, of course, with all that he said about the persecution of the Jews. However, we need to consider a draft Bill in depth and to take our time—and that does not mean taking an eternity.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have a great deal of respect for him, but I must say that I simply disagree with his view, which, again, is based on doctrine of unripe time. If we can get the Bill on the statute book, all hon. Members' wisdom and drafting abilities can be employed in reconsidering it. We know that it will be renewable. It is not the last word, but as a firm interim word, there is a great deal to be said for it.
This discussion almost resembles a teach-in, as we would have called it in the 1960s. Although there may be a case for the measures in respect of Muslims, as my right hon. Friend and others have suggested, did he not undermine his own case when he referred to Jews and anti-semitism? He said that Dr. Harris would have been murdered regardless of his not having a religion. That is a matter of race. It is race that is the subject of discrimination and other such actions, so one would have thought that the proper remedy was to strengthen laws on incitement to racial hatred.
My hon. Friend and I can have a philosophical discussion about the matter outside the Chamber. When I have been attacked by anti-semites, it has not been for what they regard as my race but because I am a Jew.
Surely that shows why the provisions that we are considering are so important. The law has determined that Jews are protected because they are an ethnic grouping or because their ethnicity and religion coincide significantly. However, the protection that my right hon. Friend and Dr. Harris might enjoy is not afforded to Muslims.
My hon. Friend is right, as I would expect. The law as it stands would protect Elizabeth Taylor, who is a Jew by conversion and a citizen of this country; she is now Dame Elizabeth Taylor. She would be protected under the current legal definition of Jewish, but not if she had been born a Jew and was religious. I have disagreed with one or two hon. Members, but agreed with more. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend Mr. Bryant and this therefore seems an appropriate moment at which to sit down.
I listened with the usual pleasure to Mr. Kaufman, although I did not agree with everything that he said. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not pursue his more general argument about the Bill.
Not least because of lack of time, I want to stick to a narrow point, which I raised with the Home Secretary on
As Hansard shows, the Home Secretary had taken many interventions before mine on detention generally. It was characteristic of his replies that he went to great lengths to try to explain the reasons for his disagreement with those who intervened on him. However, he gave me a short reply; his answer was "unequivocally no." The more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether he had understood my point. I believe that he would have given me a longer answer if he had understood.
"To be prosecuted, the power has to be used against the perpetration of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with—this is the crucial phrase—the intention and likelihood that racial hatred would be stirred up. "—[Hansard, 19 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 35.]
He referred to "insulting words or behaviour" and to "intention and likelihood".
When I was in Belfast at the weekend, my mind went to the announcement of what we all hope is the permanent resolution of the problems at Holy Cross primary school, where one group of people, plainly on the strength of their religious views, acted in a way that caused a predictable reaction from others of a different religious persuasion. In applying his test of intention and likelihood, would the Home Secretary have judged that the behaviour of one part of the community around Holy Cross school would have been likely to produce the reaction that it did? In other words, would there have been sufficient evidence available to him that he could, without too much doubt, have predicted what the reaction would have been in the circumstances?
The issue is not one of who was right and who was wrong. One of the characteristics of Northern Ireland not much drawn to the attention of the Committee or the House is that, over great swathes of the Province, those who attend Protestant churches and those who attend Catholic churches live together in peace, harmony and good community. There is also, however, plenty of evidence that others do not.
I put it to the Home Secretary that there are fundamental and irreconcilable differences at the heart of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God—that he was God and man. Jews do not believe that, and nor do Muslims. Both, particularly Muslims, would hold Jesus in high regard—they would refer to him as a prophet—but on the issue of deity, there is a deep divide. Flowing from that, there is a further deep divide about how men and women can enter into a right relationship with God.
It is no secret that I am a practising Christian, but for the avoidance of doubt I state it again. Equally, it is no secret that, in my constituency over the years, I have had excellent relations with all the many immigrant groups that form the community of Peterborough. I have been in mosques and temples, and I am welcome in all the communities.
I do not wish to make a narrow, bigoted point to the Committee. I wish to make a point about the declaration of the fundamentals of what people believe. I have framed my amendment very carefully. It refers to religious belief, but does not specify it. It provides that if someone declares the fundamentals of what they believe and what causes them to move into a mode of worship within that belief system, however that is reflected and defined, that of itself is not an offence.
I take a slightly less generous view of a minority in our society than does the Liberal Democrat spokesman, for I have experience of people who, for their own malign reasons, use statements as an excuse to create difficulty and trouble. We have seen that all over the country. Indeed, in the urban part of my constituency, a British National party march was banned by the Home Secretary on Saturday, because there was reason to believe that, in some sense, what concerns us today might be played out on the streets of that metropolis.
There is on Good Friday in Peterborough a march of witness of Christians from all denominations, and they have an open-air service in the Guildhall square. As the service takes place on Good Friday, it will not surprise the Committee to hear that the importance of Jesus Christ, who he was and his death are at its centre.
I regret to tell the Committee that I could be persuaded that, among the other groups that live in the city, there may be found enough irresponsible people who, at the edges of that service, might find occasion to behave in an unacceptable and illegal way and that they might blame their being offended on having heard insulting words. Therefore, the person declaring nothing but the central tenets of the Christian faith would be put under the spotlight as having spoken in an insulting way likely to cause offence, even though the consequences were not necessarily the result of what was said.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, because his remarks are of considerable interest. I have considered his amendment closely, but surely his example falls in any case within the definition of the aggravated offence. In other words, the individual committing the offence falls within the definition of "aggravated" on the ground that they would be considered to have acted in such a way on the back of an event that, as it happens, does not fall within the range of incitement. Is it not a fact that his party and, I believe, his Front Benchers favour the aggravated offence remaining?
I do not want to have a row with the Home Secretary—I am trying to be helpful to the Bill—but I think that he has misunderstood. As I read the Bill, the circumstance that I described would leave the speaker at the service open to the charge of being likely to cause offence by saying something that others, who disagree fundamentally with it, used as an excuse to behave inappropriately.
I think that my right hon. Friend's concern would be dealt with by the power given to the Attorney-General to withhold consent to prosecution. I cannot envisage a situation such as that described by my right hon. Friend in which the Attorney-General would permit a prosecution under the Bill. The problem with amendment No. 106 is that, if my right hon. Friend, as a convinced and practising Christian, were to go one Friday evening to Regent's park mosque and interrupt a Muslim service by reciting the creed in the middle of it, he would be outside the realms of prosecution. I am sure that that is not what he contemplates. Although I accept that interrupting a Good Friday service in Guildhall square in Peterborough is theoretically possible, it is unlikely to result in a prosecution. He has opened himself up to the problem of allowing people to interrupt other people's services by expressing their own religious faith.
I was careful at no point to talk about interrupting the service. I do not agree with my hon. and learned Friend. I want to be careful, not least for the benefit of the Home Secretary, not to make this a Christian point of view against others. I believe, again with regret, that a minority in my community and in communities all over the country may congregate outside mosques after Friday prayers and behave in a similar but reciprocal way, which would put the onus on the Muslim rather than on the Christian.
I am reminded of the fact that the Home Secretary said "no" unequivocally. He was kind enough to say that he thought that I was making a serious point. I can assure him that my concern about the ambiguity and the risk to which I am drawing attention is not unique to me. If he does not intend to accept my amendment, No. 106, I invite him to tell the Committee that he will introduce an amendment in the other place that does in his words what I am seeking to do in mine. I should like him to say that he will accept my amendment, but I do not pretend to have the drafting skills of the Home Office draftsmen available to him. I would settle, as I think would the Committee, for his assurance that the essence of my amendment will be enshrined in the legislation in the other place.
The essence of the amendment is that, if someone in good faith recites the fundamentals of his beliefs, no offence will have been committed, whatever may be the consequences of that recitation. I commend that view to the Committee.
Some of the arguments that have been put in the Chamber and on television and radio about the Government's sensible and timely—if not belated—proposals to make incitement to religious hatred a crime bear a marked resemblance to the arguments that were put in the 1960s when it was proposed that incitement to racial hatred should be made a crime. The same arguments have been peddled: history shows that they were spurious then, and they are spurious now.
In the society that we live in today there are victims of religious hatred and religious discrimination. Muslims in particular are victims of that. It is a safe bet that an hour or two ago some Muslim mother collecting her child from primary school was abused, or possibly assaulted, by some lout because she was wearing a veil that revealed, if that is the right word, that she was a Muslim. Such action is unacceptable, and Muslim people find it unacceptable that they are not protected by the legislation against racial discrimination, because that action constitutes religious discrimination. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Kaufman pointed out, it is different from what is suffered by people who are Jewish or Sikhs, where religion and ethnicity are combined.
The Muslim religion is being singled out at present, as anyone who knows anything about what the British National party's collection of racist thugs are doing will know. They are saying to other Asian groups, "You Hindus and Sikhs ought to gang up with us and beat up the Muslims." That is effectively the message that they are putting across. It is an effort based on the promotion of religious hatred, and it is time that we did something about it. Indeed, we should have done something about it before now.
The right hon. Gentleman's case is that a community is being singled out for what are clearly unacceptable practices. I have received serious representations from members of the Hindu community, who say that it is they who are being persecuted by the Muslims. His implication that only the Muslim community is under threat is simply untrue.
If what the hon. Gentleman says is true, or if the observations of those to whom he says that he has been listening are true, it is equally unacceptable. I believe in equality before the law. The problem is that we have no crime of incitement to religious hatred. I believe that such a provision would make some people safer, and they are entitled to that additional safety.
Some have asked whether it is appropriate to introduce such an offence at this time, and in association with this Bill. The fact is that the incidents that we are discussing have become worse. People are suffering domestic terror all over the country: they are threatened on the street and in their homes.
Simon Hughes seemed to suggest that because not many people had been prosecuted under the racial discrimination legislation, we need make no effort now to make incitement to religious hatred or religious discrimination an offence. I think that we need to get on with it, as I said on Second Reading. We should not downgrade the impact of what we do in this place: changes in the law affect public opinion.
I will not give way for the moment.
The introduction of the crime of incitement to racial hatred had an impact on what people said and did. Similarly, in an entirely different sphere, the introduction of tougher laws against drunken driving brought about a huge social change. Drunken driving, which used to be socially acceptable when I was a young man, is now socially unacceptable. We must not underestimate the declaratory effect of changes in the law, which is why I support this proposal.
I have tabled a new clause that is intended to bring about yet greater equality before the law. Its purpose is to end the common law offence of blasphemy, which protects only the Church of England. The law on blasphemy does not protect any other Christian sect from abuse, whereas such abuse could be considered blasphemy if it were directed against the Church of England. Nor does that law offer any protection to any other religious group. As long ago as 1949, Lord Denning described the law as a dead letter, and it is now 16 or 17 years since the Law Commission said that we should get rid of it.
If we establish an offence of incitement to religious hatred, and if the Government soon come into line with European legislation outlawing religious discrimination, as I understand that they will—that move is both welcome and overdue—no one will need the protection of the blasphemy law.
No, I shall not; other hon. Members wish to speak.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it clear outside this place that he entirely shares my view and believes that the blasphemy law should be abolished. I therefore urge him to get on with it—he now has the chance. I understand that the Archbishop of Canterbury is against such a move. However, he has a voice and a vote in the House of Lords. Our constitution has never granted the Archbishop of Canterbury a veto on legislation passed by this place. He should do his stuff in the House of Lords if he wants to do something.
I was asked to ring Lambeth palace, and I thought that I would be given full information on its position. As I understand it, the Archbishop's current position is not that we should repeal the blasphemy law, but that, to achieve equality, we should extend it to all other religions. Those who have reservations about the problems caused by introducing a law on incitement to religious hatred and the relevant definitions may think that this legislation is complicated, but they should try to imagine the problems that would be caused by a blasphemy law that tried to protect all religions equally without substantially reducing freedom of speech.
The Government did not intend to use the Bill to repeal the blasphemy law, but, as new clause 1 is very short, I cannot see any reason why we should not get on with it. Let us repeal it. The Home Secretary wants us to do it. Today, we could easily give him the opportunity to do what he wants.
The debate so far has brought out a range of arguments on all sides of this difficult issue. I do not want to bore the Committee by recapitulating the points that Simon Hughes well made on the unsatisfactory character of trying to legislate on this difficult matter in this context and at this speed, but I do want to dwell on the substance of the issue, and in particular on the words of clause 38.
Notwithstanding the well-intentioned remarks by some Labour Members, we are not dealing with an intention. The Home Secretary's intention is noble and justified: to protect vulnerable religious communities. We are also not dealing with outrages, some of which have been described by both Labour and Opposition Members. The House is united in believing that an effort by a shopkeeper to turn away a Muslim—I speak as a Jew, not as a Muslim—is an outrage. We are at one in believing that that is an outrage and should be outlawed. However, clause 38 does not do that. We are also at one in finding despicable the attacks on mosques and churches. They are not only despicable but dangerous to the persistence of a liberal society in Britain. The clause has no effect on those outrages.
As has been made abundantly clear, we support clause 39, which makes it an aggravated offence if an offence has been committed for a religious purpose. We support that, even in the Bill, because it is relatively uncontroversial in its effect. We are dealing with offences that already exist—as the application by judges has made clear—and we are merely making prison the norm for those offences. That is right where violence, or another offence, has been committed for a religious purpose. What threatens our society is sectarianism, which is worse than the violence or other offence would be otherwise.
Let there be no misunderstanding—there is no serious, legitimate debate in the Committee this afternoon about whether vulnerable faith communities should be protected. They should. There is no debate about whether vulnerable faith communities are insufficiently protected at present. They are. There is no debate about whether we need to take deliberate steps as a Parliament to remedy those deficits. We do. The problem we face—a problem that it is right to face in Committee, if not at this pace—concerns a set of words that, if the Home Secretary has his way, will be a statute; the law of the land. That will be interpreted by judges in ways that none of us can wholly predict and about which the Home Secretary has been almost wholly silent.
There is a problem with those words, on which I and Ms Abbott—who, unlike me, is not a Jew, but is black, and with whom I have not always agreed politically—are in agreement. The Committee ought to attend to the fact that some of us, of many different persuasions and backgrounds, have spotted the problem, and the Committee needs to concentrate on that.
The kind of arguments that the hon. Gentleman is making are almost word for word—certainly sentiment for sentiment—the arguments that were made by Conservative Home Secretaries in 1986 and 1994 when Labour proposed that there should be an offence of racial harassment. On those occasions, the Conservative Government rejected our proposals for the very reasons, and with the same measured phraseology, that the hon. Gentleman is advancing this afternoon. Nevertheless, this Government enacted such an offence in 1998, but all the dreadful, immeasurable consequences about which we were warned by the Conservatives did not come about. If anything, the offence has been sufficiently enforced. As and when the new offence goes on the statute book and is enforced, people such as me will be getting up to say that it is not being used enough, not that it is being used too much or too oppressively.
It is odd that the right hon. Gentleman thinks he knows the argument that I am using, as I had not yet got to my argument against the precise words. However, I can reassure him in advance that it is not the same argument. I happen to be a supporter of the legislation on racial harassment and the measures to aggravate the offence if its cause is religion. The general character of my argument against the words is one that the right hon. Gentleman's speech wholly missed, which is that there is a difference in kind between arguments about religion and statements about race. Until the Committee recognises that difference, it will not make good law.
As someone who marched in 1984 and 1986 in support of changing the law on racial hatred, can I say that it is a testimony to the weakness of the drafting of the Bill that hon. Friends who have sought to defend it have wilfully confused racial discrimination with religious discrimination and are obliged to talk about acts of discrimination, whereas the Bill deals with acts of incitement to hatred?
I am afraid that the hon. Lady is entirely right. I wish that I could say otherwise, given the differences that divide us on so many issues.
Let me try to describe what is wrong with the words in the clause. In general, they make a direct analogy between the disreputable attempt to castigate or to incite hatred against people because of something they cannot alter—their race—and the perfectly legitimate interplay of passionate religious debate in this country. Many of us in the House, myself included, deprecate the use of intemperate language in religious debate. In fact, I deprecate the use of intemperate language in debate, full stop.
That is exactly my point. I deprecate the efforts of people on both sides of the political divide to encourage people to hate those on the other side. I do not join in, but it is legitimate political argument. It is part of what Mr. Kaufman rightly described as free speech in this country. If Labour Members wish to encourage hatred of me as a Conservative, they are at liberty to do so. Indeed, in the case of my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Thatcher, many of them have done so. I do not think that that is the right way to conduct politics, but I reassure them that I do not wish to put them in jail for doing so.
Religion, like politics, is a matter of argument, and people are intemperate in their expression. Nobody in the Committee is capable of telling us—indeed, the Home Secretary repeatedly fails to tell us—whether the judges will, for example, put in prison a Presbyterian preacher who calls the Pope an anti-Christ, a point raised by my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer. There is a general problem with legislation that could lead to the impairment of impassioned religious debate.
Intemperate discussion in theology is probably no better than in politics. The annual Good Friday march through the soke of Peterborough was mentioned earlier, when Christians from many denominations gather together. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it should be an offence if it was decided to photograph everyone on the march, find out their names and addresses and then circulate them so that people could visit their houses with violent intent? That is parallel to what is done by the British National party.
Not only should that be an offence, but I am advised that it is one.
The problem that we face with these words is not merely general, it is practical. Several Labour Members have rightly said that we should not conduct this debate in abstraction but should attend to what is going on in the country, and I wholeheartedly agree. These words could unintentionally be counterproductive in inflaming sentiments at a time when the country can ill afford it. The Home Secretary intended, perfectly honourably, that the clause should mainly protect Muslims. However, he has rightly acknowledged that it is the tradition of our law that it applies indifferently and equally to all our citizens. Therefore, the first use of these provisions may not be against someone who is acting illegitimately against Muslims, but may be applied to a Muslim. I beg the Committee to ask itself, will that further the cause of dampening the serious fires that are raging in our country, or will it inflame them? That is part of the problem both of enacting legislation at a time when the country is in some turmoil and of enacting legislation that is ill considered.
If the editor of The Muslim News or one of his writers makes intemperate statements, they may be caught by the measure. In such circumstances, not only will we have an example of the improper curtailment of free speech, but of an action by the state that unintentionally produces the result of further inflaming passions. No one in the Committee can want that result but we have yet to hear the slightest shred of evidence from the Home Secretary that such a result would not follow.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the general drift of his comments—that it may be reasonable to attack or oppose a religion intemperately—is in conflict with his earlier statement that the Committee should take action, which he has not yet defined, to protect vulnerable faith communities?
The hon. Lady and I may simply disagree on the point, but she fails to make the distinction that I make. I do not think that it is reasonable, right or proper for one person to say highly intemperate things about another person's religion, but I make a distinction—the hon. Lady may not—between what I think is reasonable or unreasonable, and what I think ought to lead to people going to jail. The future of free speech in this country rests on that distinction.
If my argument and that of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey is right, what are we to do about the situation? I accept that sensitivities are involved and it is important that both Houses respect them. I accept that merely to remove the provisions from the Bill will cause some of those sensitivities to be damaged, so we do not need merely to remove them—we need collectively, across the parties, to commit ourselves to the early introduction of proposals which can gain consensus, will deal with the whole issue of religious discrimination and religious tolerance, will firmly outlaw some of the outrages that have been described and that are not caught by current legislation, and will do so on a basis that we can be confident will not curtail free speech in this country.
There is a willingness across the parties to engage in that debate. It could be done on a timetable that would permit genuine reflection, and we might get it right. It would of course be an advance—albeit minimal—if the proposition put by my right hon. Friend
The hon. Gentleman's argument is predicated on the view that some cases would get as far as the Attorney-General, and that some would then get past him and into the courts that should properly never do so. Does he have so little confidence in the office of the Attorney-General and in the courts as to be certain that they would not act as a barrier? Will not the tests that would be applied weed out the cases that he describes?
We have contemplated those questions in some detail. It is perfectly true that applying the brake of the Attorney-General much helps the clause, but the Attorney-General has to make his decisions on a reasonable basis. He has to look at the words of the clause and consider whether they apply. If there is great public pressure from people who want to use the clause to restrain other religious groups from making the statements that they are prone to make, the Attorney-General may find it very difficult reasonably to resist those calls. If the hon. Gentleman tries to place sufficient weight on the Attorney-General's shoulders to achieve the constraint that he seeks, he may put more weight on those shoulders than they can bear.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way to me gain. Far from supporting the argument used by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that the clause fails to define what we mean by the word "religion", would not it be better, as the hon. Gentleman is arguing, to define that word simply and allow the courts and the Attorney-General to work on the assumption of the normal understanding of that word, rather than to define it more tightly, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey argued earlier on behalf of the Liberal Democrats?
I have not made any argument about definition; I am making an argument about what is likely to be the practical effect of the clause and whether that practical effect has a general consequence that the Committee should be willing to tolerate. That is not to do with definitions; it has to do with the fact that it is extraordinarily difficult to disentangle legitimate, though intemperate, religious debate from actions or words that the Committee would genuinely wish to become the subject of imprisonment. If the issue were not so difficult, as with race, we would not have this problem; but it is so difficult that neither the Attorney-General nor the courts can possibly be expected constantly to observe the distinction in a way that will preserve free speech in this country.
In the hon. Gentleman's response to my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth, he seemed to be entirely unaware of the way in which prosecutions are brought. The police bring cases to the Crown Prosecution Service, but the CPS does not necessarily agree to prosecute because it will bring a prosecution only if it believes that there is a reasonable possibility of conviction. The Attorney-General will deal with that issue even more cautiously than the CPS, so that is my response to what the hon. Gentleman says to my hon. Friend.
When I intervened on the hon. Gentleman earlier, he said that I had done so too soon and that I might not have said what I said then if I had listened to his whole argument. The arguments that he adduces against the proposed new offence continue to be pretty well identical to those used on the Conservative Front Bench against the creation of the offence of racial harassment that we proposed, with the exception that he now proposes a compromise and a consensus with the Government. The Opposition did not do that when in government because they would never have proposed a consensus with those then in opposition. It is very easy for an Opposition to propose a consensus when the Government—
Thank you, Mrs. Heal.
The right hon. Gentleman was present then, but perhaps I have the advantage over him of having re-read over the weekend what my right hon. and hon. Friends said. If he has done so as well, he will have observed that they did not argue that it was legitimate to make intemperate attacks on people because of their race. I am arguing that although I deprecate those people, it is a legitimate part of free speech for someone to seek to incite hatred against the Moonies because of what they have done to children. I am not saying that people should seek to do so, or that it would be reasonable or morally right for people to seek to incite others in such circumstances; I am saying that they should not be put in jail for so doing. If the clause was correctly interpreted by the authorities, it would tend to have the effect of putting those people in jail because the Moonies would count as a religion. If the right hon. Gentleman refuses to come to terms with that signal difference, he is not doing a service to the Committee.
Does the matter not depend on who the Attorney-General is? Attorneys-General are human, and some of us would like Attorneys-General to be in the House of Commons rather than in the House of Lords. However, that is another issue. Does the hon. Gentleman think that, for example, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller would have given the same answer as Sir Michael Havers or Sir Elwyn Jones? The answer is probably not.
As so often, the hon. Gentleman has a long enough historical memory to realise the falsity of the suggestion that Attorneys-General are an undifferentiated species. Of course he is right to say that there would be different judgments. However, beyond that, the Committee surely does not want to bring about a situation in which an officer of the Crown would be called upon to judge what is compatible with free speech in this country. That is so fundamental a judgment that it surely falls to Parliament to construct law that is not so ambiguous that it requires that kind of administrative discretion.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Moonies. Do not such groups have aggressive lawyers at their disposal? If the Bill is passed in its current form, such groups are very likely to use their lawyers to try to prevent their activities from being legitimately criticised.
That is a fear; my hon. Friend is right. Furthermore, under the current circumstances of the nation, I fear that others with evil intent may seek to foster prosecutions of, for example, Muslims. It would be a tragic irony if the Committee and the Government were to create the circumstances that allowed the least reputable elements in our society—those who want to foster disharmony—to be able to do so by means of this clause.
My hon. Friend cited the case of the Moonies. Does he agree that a religious group that advocates sexual intercourse between adults and young children needs to be hounded by us all rather than protected by this Bill?
I beg the Home Secretary to consider a distinction. No one is suggesting—least of all me—that it is his intention to prevent sensible people from taking sensible action and making sensible statements about certain sects. Of course that is not his intention. However, I am trying to call his attention to the fact that the clause, as drafted, may have that untoward effect. I do not believe that the House has had anything like the sufficient time to consider whether what I am saying is right or wrong—and the country has certainly not had anything like sufficient time. Rather than rushing into legislation, we need to consider whether these risks exist in practice. I earnestly believe that they do.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the role of the Attorney-General. Does he accept that the Attorney-General may be subject to considerable political pressures on such issues, especially as the Bill, as drafted, means that it will be possible to be prosecuted for saying things about people anywhere in the world? That is the effect of clauses 36 and 37.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not suggest that the current Attorney-General would allow himself to be persuaded by such pressures, but the construction of the clause could, over time, have that effect. That would be wrong.
I have said enough, and perhaps too much. It is essential that the Committee divide on these clauses. The Government will try to command their forces to push these clauses through and that is their right as the elected Government. However, I hope that the provisions will be checked in another place and that the Government will genuinely listen to the arguments. Notwithstanding the remarks of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, I hope that we will have the opportunity to establish a consensus on something that should not be a matter of dispute between the political parties. The harmony of our society depends so completely on achieving consensus on such issues.
The debate has addressed the issues directly and sensitively, and I hope it will continue to do so, while exploring the possible difficulties in applying the law. The Sunday Telegraph was not correct, and I want to make it clear that I have no intention of withdrawing the clauses. As I said last Monday and Wednesday, I am intent on listening and responding to positive suggestions on how to improve the legislation.
If a review of the clauses over the next two years would assist and if the two main Opposition parties were genuine in their claims to take that seriously, we would be in business, but we will get nowhere if we are concerned only with referring to the most enormous public kerfuffle, with which I shall deal in a moment, on inserting in legislation something that was intended to be a simple addition to incorporate religion in the incitement to race hate. It is our aim to ensure that the addition is simple and straightforward so that we incorporate a particular aspect that has been debated for a long time—the Law Commission, for instance, has been mentioned in that regard. We are trying to protect those who find themselves less protected under existing legislation than those for whom jurisprudence has determined that their race and religion are covered by the law. It is particular groups, under the Public Order Act 1986 and within public order in general, that we are dealing with today.
Over the past few weeks, and in particular the past few days, I have heard and read enough nonsense about the Bill and its implications to last a lifetime. It seems to go like this: think of an absurd allegation and extend it; add a little bile, print it at great length, watch it expand until people are really worried, and sit back and watch the implications grow; then move on to something else. We saw it last week with clause 17 and we see it in relation to the incitement of religious hatred.
There was tremendous support for including religion in the legislation, which can be checked in the cuttings, until Rowan Atkinson—God bless him—wrote to The Times—[Hon. Members: "Oh no."] I suggest that hon. Members go to the Library and take a look at what was said. There was an immediate reaction to the suggestion that the inclusion of religion would preclude those who go about their normal business amusing people from cracking jokes and taking the mickey out of religion. The "Life of Brian", which was used as an analogy at the time, was a good satire on the political left in the 1960s and 1970s and, tragically, on the Spanish civil war to boot. If anyone does not think that to be the case I suggest they take another look at it, and very amusing it was.
Jokes and amusing behaviour, the criticism of people's religion and the way in which people express their religion will not—this is not our intention—fall foul of the measures.
I can inform my hon. Friend, who has now entered the Chamber to make my life more miserable, that I am saying that. I am advised by Home Office lawyers that the courts, in their interpretation, will take notice of what has been said, which is why Home Secretaries have to be more careful than sometimes I would wish to be.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way with his customary courtesy. He must remember that when he made his statement to the House, which was before Rowan Atkinson's letter, some Members, including me, raised legitimate doubts. He must have heard, from all quarters of the Chamber, Members who are serious in intent and genuinely anxious to reach the right solution express their belief that it is a mistake to legislate in this context and at this speed. We are asking him to provide the House with a proper opportunity to consider a draft Bill and to move at a measured pace, so that we can try to put into statute a law that makes sense and is not open to the sort of abuse to which this Bill, enacted in this way, will be.
I accept that the hon. Gentleman raised those concerns. That was not the point I was making. I was making a point about the general atmosphere surrounding the proposal to insert religion, alongside race, in measures on incitement. The racial aspects of existing laws, including the Race Relations Act 1965, the Public Order Act 1986 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, were intended to apply to threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour that is intended to stir up hatred and lead people to take actions against others which, under the Public Order Act, everyone in the Committee would find unacceptable.
We can therefore assure those from the Evangelical Alliance and small religious denominations such as the Plymouth Brethren, who are present this evening, that their proselytising will not be caught by a clause that inserts religion, alongside race, in measures on incitement. Incitement to what? Not only to hate, but to activities that, as defined by the Public Order Act, threaten others.
My right hon. Friend will know that the word "incitement" does not appear in any of the legislation. Does he accept that one problem is that section 18(1) of the Public Order Act has two separate limbs? The first refers to intention, but the second refers merely to likelihood. If my right hon. Friend seeks amelioration, and possibly a compromise, would he consider dropping the second limb, so that a prosecution would have to prove intention, which courts can usually do in criminal cases? It would not then be necessary to refer to the second limb, whose scope is much wider.
We are, of course, talking about an amendment to part III of the 1986 Act. I understand my right hon. Friend's point. It would be easy to drop the second part, but the difficulty is that in such cases we are not dealing with people of good will. We are dealing with, for instance, the British National party. That takes us back to the point made by
I am sure that the Home Secretary will remember from his years in local government, when he sought to apply race relations legislation to eliminate discrimination and harassment, that real progress was made on legislation that specifically addressed the activities of discrimination, harassment and now aggravated offences. From the legal advice that the Department has given him, I assume he will know that there have been little more than three prosecutions a year on incitement since the 1986 Act was passed. One reason for that is the impossibility of making a sustained case that does not end up discrediting the action itself. Does my right hon. Friend realise that the great strength of what he is doing today is to be found in clause 39, which addresses the gap on aggravated offences? However, he should not extend the nonsense and trap that has caught many of us over the years with clauses 36 to 38.
I do not honestly believe that many of us have been caught in it. I agree—thank goodness the Committee as a whole appears to agree—that the aggravated offence is correct and should be extended to religion. At least that is progress. I accept that the aggravated offence has been used extensively. Incitement to race hate has not, although eight cases have been agreed by the Attorney-General this year. An important aspect of what we are doing on incitement, not just on race hatred but on religious hatred, was eloquently described by my right hon. Friend Mr. Kaufman as discouraging people from certain behaviour. The difficulty with the aggravated offence is that we can punish people more severely for having done something with an aggravated element built into it, but by itself that does not discourage people from behaving in a certain way.
It is precisely because we wish to change that behaviour, as has been said in our debate, that we are seeking to extend the relevant provisions. Two factors affected my thinking on whether to include religion—I shall deal in a moment with those who advocated that we do so and still do—the first of which was internal reassurance. Since
The second factor was international provision. In the past 11 weeks, considerable attention has been focused on the United Kingdom by other countries, particularly Arab countries. In satellite broadcasts and interviews, it became patently clear that the commitment on religion made on
Both those factors convinced me that it was worth making a simple addition. Future interpretation would not be simple, but it would be open to the Attorney-General to deal with it.
That is why I am resisting the amendments that would complicate the situation—for example, by using terms such as "supernatural". To amuse myself over a difficult weekend, I thought how ironic it was for Mr. Chope to table an amendment dealing with "a supernatural being".
When the Home Secretary next comes down to Bournemouth, perhaps he will visit the priory in Christchurch, which is more than 900 years old, and hear about the miracle of the miraculous beam and other great things that went on in Christchurch. He will know that it is a centre of religion.
One of the concerns expressed to me by my constituents is that if they wish to criticise and, indeed, hate those overseas who are persecuting Christians, they will fall foul of the law in this country. I asked the Home Secretary in a parliamentary question whether the law on religious belief would include protection for Moonies, Muslim fundamentalists and those who believe in the teachings of bin Laden. The right hon. Gentleman refused to give a straight answer to that question. Can he clear that up now?
Let me clear up a number of things. The allegation was made earlier that somehow the clever lawyers of the Moonies would be able to get the Moonies off charges of taking children away from their families and other such activities. That has nothing to do with the Bill or the clause.
I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving way. With great respect, that is not what was said. It was not said that the Moonies would somehow get themselves off; it was suggested that they could use the legislation to blunt criticism of their activities and to silence those who criticised them.
The Bill does not work that way round. We are dealing with Public Order Acts and incitement to undertake particular actions. The debate is not about prosecuting those who do so, or arguing against or opposing them. There seems to be a considerable misunderstanding about the intention and how the measure will work in practice. Calling the Pope the Anti-Christ does not fall within the definitions that we are discussing.
We are discussing a particular set of actions intended to evoke a particular reaction which, within the law, would lead others to engage in practices which all of us believe are unacceptable. That is the way round it works. I stress that the debate is about the Public Order Acts, not about religion or what people think or say about particular sects or faiths. That is not at stake this evening. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Christchurch, we believe that the subject of amendment No. 19, which, I think, he tabled, is covered by the existing law. If it is not, I am prepared for the matter to be taken up in the Lords.
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman the same question as I asked my hon. Friend Mr. Letwin? If I could demonstrate, as I could, that certain people who are members of the Children of God advocate and take part in sexual activity between themselves—adults—and young children, it is likely that my so doing would cause a breach of the peace because some members of the public could well take the law into their own hands. Why does the Home Secretary seek to protect those people?
Let us cool it a little. The hon. Gentleman would be suggesting that a group of people were acting not only illegally, but obscenely and unacceptably. By doing so, he would be advocating that the law enforcement agencies start to enforce the law and take action against them. He would provide proof and they would act. If they do not act and he has proof, I invite him to come and see me. I will get our lawyers, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney-General to ensure that we take action. I give the hon. Gentleman that absolute assurance.
The Home Secretary said earlier that one of the Government's intentions was to reassure vulnerable faith groups such as the Muslim community that are currently under-protected by the law. I am sure that he has seen the submission made to the Select Committee on Home Affairs by a number of Muslim organisations, including the Muslim College, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Association of Muslim Schools, the Muslim Parliament and the Union of Muslim Organisations, all of which say:
"The extension of incitement legislation at this particular time is unlikely to protect Muslims. We have grave reservations about the introduction of legislation at this particular time."
If the measure is supposed to provide reassurance, it is not working.
That is very good, except that the groups that the hon. Gentleman quotes had not seen the Bill at that time; they have been debating it since. Today, the Muslim Council of Britain issued a statement saying that it "supports the present proposals"—[Interruption.] Hang on, I have not even finished quoting the statement. The council supports the
"proposals to extend the incitement to racial hatred in the Public Order Act to religious hatred and to introduce the religiously aggravated offence."
I very much welcome that statement, which is extremely helpful. I hope that other smaller and less representative groups will also express their support.
I hope that the Committee will also take notice of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, especially as many hon. Members are, perfectly reasonably, always asking those on the Front Bench to take notice of the United Nations in one form or another. It said:
"The Committee is concerned by reports that, since recent terrorist attacks, persons have been the subject of attack and harassment on the basis of religious beliefs and that religion has been utilised to incite the commission of criminal acts."
It went on to express its hope that government—it uses the term "state parties"—will
"extend its criminal legislation to cover offences motivated by religious hatred."
If we want to bandy about the names of those who are or are not in favour of the Bill, let us bandy about the website of the British National party, which states:
"Blunkett's proposed new Heresy Law will . . . 'criminalise' efforts to warn the public about the dire threat posed by Britain's Islam."
The BNP's website is not, however, anywhere near as bad as the pamphlet that it has been putting through people's doors. In expressing its view of Muslims, it states that
"they stand for slaughter, arson, looting, rape of women and the establishment of a Muslim dictatorship."
Those are the sort of views that we are currently having to put up with from organisations such as the BNP. If the Bill would help in any way to ensure that we could take on and defeat such hatred and the sort of disgusting activity that seeks to incite people against each other, I stand guilty of supporting it.
In the end, Parliament can make up its mind. It can determine whether it feels that adding religion to laws on incitement would make a difference and provide just that little extra element in our armoury, first, to discourage people from taking those steps or inciting that hatred, and secondly, to enable us to do something about it. I put it to the Committee that, although it is open to people to proselytise, put down, debate and criticise other people's faith or religious beliefs, incitement to hatred of any sort is unacceptable. We can see from the amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats that they, too, hold that view. Taking a small step—something to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton referred—may not satisfy everyone in achieving what they want, but it is a substantial move towards ensuring that we stop the sort of disgusting hatred that exists around us and that was demonstrated by the words that I read out a moment ago.
My right hon. Friend has made it clear that objections to the legislation are incompatible. On the one hand, they say that it is inoperable, while on the other they say that it is oppressive. Is not it a fact that the race legislation introduced by Labour Governments has now made it impossible for a politician to make the "rivers of blood" speech made by Enoch Powell? Has not legislation on sexual preference introduced by Labour Governments now made it impossible for the sort of homophobic elements that were so prevalent years ago to exist? Apart from practical application, will not the Bill have an important effect in creating a certain climate?
I agree with my right hon. Friend, who may not know what my hon. Friends on the Front Bench know: Mr. Howarth has tucked into the Bench in front of him, behind Mr. Letwin, a document whose title is "What Enoch was really saying". It is ironic, therefore, that my right hon. Friend mentioned the "rivers of blood" speech.
I am delighted that Simon Heffer's excellent article in The Spectator has been noted by those on the Government Front Bench. In view of what Mr. Kaufman has suggested, would he have supported action by the Attorney-General against Enoch Powell if he had today made the speech he made on
Even in Committee, I am not in a position to act as a sort of transmission belt between the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton. One thing is sure: the Attorney- General will take steps only if he believes that it is the public interest to do so—this is the point of the failsafe in the Bill—and that the offences about which people are worried are not covered.
The Home Secretary was right to say that one of the things that we must seek to do is reassure our communities. That must be done at home and abroad. Does he accept that, on the basis of what he has heard, those communities would be most reassured by the following: first, an offence that ensures protection in legislation against all sorts of hate crime; and secondly, the guarantee that discrimination against any faith will be outlawed? In the meantime, we have incitement laws that enable prosecution in relation to many of the offences that he and I would want to pursue, and we could quickly introduce legislation on the wider range of matters, to give greater reassurance, if the Government agreed with the Opposition parties that there should be time for that to happen.
I should like to make three points. First, I agree that we have laws that can be applied in the generality. Secondly, I do not agree that we could act swiftly on the range of measures that the hon. Gentleman enunciates. They would be deeply complicated and difficult to introduce, which is why they cannot be brought before us quickly. Thirdly, I entirely accept his offer, which was also made by the shadow Home Secretary, to co-operate on a much broader swathe of measures in relation to discrimination, which is extremely helpful.
So that history is not rewritten, does my right hon. Friend realise that, to the lasting credit of Quintin Hogg who was shadow Home Secretary in 1968, he criticised Enoch Powell's disgraceful, deplorable, racist speech from the Opposition Front Bench? The then Leader of the Opposition, Edward Heath, sacked Enoch Powell almost immediately. His refusal to tolerate racist, poisonous nonsense did him credit.
My hon. Friend is right.
I want to consider new clause 1, which my right hon. Friend Mr. Dobson tabled. As usual, he put the case well. Let me make the Government's position clear. There is a good case for revising and, indeed, removing existing blasphemy law. However, the Church of England is worried about the way that would fit in with wider changes. I am sure that the Church of England wants to hold a debate through the Board for Social Responsibility and elsewhere about assisting us to achieve a measure that is less anachronistic and more appropriate to the 21st century.
I want to make it clear that there is no question of extending the blasphemy law to all other denominations and faiths. We do not want to do that; we want to find an accommodation and a sensitive way forward when few people believe that the current position can continue. However, many people would worry if change were effected hurriedly. As I have already said, I can justify the changes that we are making tonight on the basis of their impact on specific religions, individuals and groups, and wider perceptions inside and outside this country. I cannot justify removing the blasphemy law on that basis.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has said that there is no question of extending the blasphemy law to cover other Christian denominations or other religions. We want to get rid of it. I am at a loss to understand what other measures the Church of England proposes between abolition of its special protection and its extension to every other religion. The simplest solution is to get rid of it.
My right hon. Friend has done much work on that, and he knows about the previous working group and the result of the debate in the House of Lords, which took place in, I believe, 1995. We are trying to find consensus and provide reassurance for the Church of England. However, my right hon. Friend has done us a service by putting the subject firmly on the agenda and ensuring that it will not simply go away. I assure him that it will not, although I appreciate that he needs no such assurance because he will ensure that it does not. We will find a way forward with the Church authorities that does not cause the Church too much aggravation.
I wish to conclude.
I am grateful for that intervention. If I was trying to deceive the House, I would say that I had been about to deal with the right hon. Gentleman's point. However, that would be untruthful as the matter had simply slipped my mind.
I went through the amendment earlier today in the Home Office. I am mindful of the issues that the right hon. Gentleman raises. However, we are worried that the amendment would lead people to find ways around his intention, for example by claiming to be religious or by distributing material that purported to be of a religious nature. I am happy to invite my officials to meet him and if we can find a way of expressing what he seeks to achieve, I shall ask Lord Rooker to consider the matter in the House of Lords. The objective is well intentioned and our response is made in the spirit of ensuring that we do not allow loopholes. I am prepared to move forward on that basis.
I am grateful. Mr. Howarth was pleased that my hon. Friends had noticed The Spectator. I noted the generous article about the hon. Member for West Dorset in that magazine, and I thought that it was well deserved. That is my piece of patronage for tonight.
There are genuine differences about whether we are taking the correct step. I believe that we are, and that the simple inclusion of religion in a measure advocated so many years ago, debated through the years, and agonised over by so many Home Secretaries is a fair and reasonable step. It will discourage those whom we are trying to discourage. It is fair to monitor the provision's operation and to put it on record that the Government are big enough to try to find out whether the clause works. In that spirit, I ask hon. Members to support the inclusion of religion and to ensure that we make the clause work in the best interests of those whom we serve, and that it is not abused by those who always try to undermine the good intentions of legislation. I ask hon. Members to give the clause a fair wind and their vote.
I agree with the Home Secretary that we need to do all that we can to eliminate hatred—and the sooner, the better. However, I regret that I do not believe that the clause is the right method of achieving that. It will help religious groups which do a great deal of harm rather than protecting those which do not and which therefore need our help.
When I worked for Members of the European Parliament some 20 years ago, I spent two years researching controversial religious groups. It was challenging and deeply disturbing work. The conclusions that I reached then have not subsequently been undermined. Some are relevant to today's debate.
First, however hard we try, I feel that we must acknowledge that legislation dealing with personal religious beliefs cannot avoid being an attack on somebody's freedom of thought, belief and expression.
The second conclusion that I reached all those years ago, which continues to hold true, is that it is impossible to devise a distinction between what some would call a mainstream and acceptable religion and what others would describe as a weird and dangerous cult. It is interesting that the explanatory notes duck the issue by not even attempting a definition.
Thirdly, most of the public anxiety that we hear about religious groups relates to the impact on others of members acting out their beliefs, rather than of the beliefs themselves. Amendment No. 20, which my hon. Friend Mr. Chope tabled, tries to deal with that matter.
Fourthly, the only realistic way in which to move forward when dealing with religious issues is to target unacceptable action and ignore religious justifications. That is the exact opposite of the aim of clause 38. It therefore follows that the wrong that the Bill seeks to set right should not be tackled by religious legislation. We should rely on existing legislation, tightened up if necessary, because it provides ample opportunities to act.
I oppose clause 38 for two reasons. First, as my hon. Friend Mr. Letwin said, it has almost nothing to do with the main purpose of the Bill, which is to protect us from terrorism. I accept that the Home Secretary is seeking to address a genuine social problem that needs addressing, but it is a separate issue from terrorism, and we need more than three hours to consider it properly.
Secondly, the clause plays straight into the hands of the perverted and the downright dangerous who justify their actions as part of their religious belief in and worship of a supreme being. Such people and groups will welcome the protection offered by clause 38. Such antisocial groups crave acceptance and respectability, which clause 38 would give them for their religious beliefs, and protection from scrutiny, exposure and criticism, which the clause would also provide.
The Bill will be an invitation to every religious group or cult to claim that it is a mainstream religion entitled to the protection of the law. It would be impossible, however hard the Home Secretary tried, to draw a distinction. The Bill will enable such groups to demand the prosecution—the silencing—of people such as me for denouncing them in the way that they so richly deserve. In case hon. Members think that I am exaggerating, I shall give them an example of what I have in mind.
There is a religious group that calls itself "The Family". It used to call itself "The Children of God". Its origins lie in the American Jesus movement of the 1960s. At the outset, its founder, David Berg, preached a doctrine of rebellion, communal life, rigid discipline and intensive Bible study. So far, probably in most people's book, so good. But, as time went by, Berg developed a doctrine of no action being wrong if done "in the spirit." The result was what I and anyone else who has studied this movement consider to be totally unacceptable sexual, anti-semitic and world revolutionary activity and behaviour. For example, Berg requires his women followers to become prostitutes. Instruction pamphlets that he has written, entitled "God wants me to be a stripper" and "God's whores", make that point, and I have copies, if anyone doubts that they exist. Do we want to protect organisations that produce this sort of material and act out the instructions?
It gets worse. Berg interpreted the New Testament's
"I will make you fishers of men" as a requirement for women to have sexual intercourse with potential recruits. He called this "flirty fishing", or "FF" for short, and published a range of pamphlets—pamphlets that I have here—explaining exactly what his followers had to do. I shall spare the House the lurid details—[Hon. Members: "Aah!"]. Hon. Members can read them afterwards if they wish, but I warn them that they might be prosecuted for having them in their possession.
Well, the Home Secretary asked me whether I would like to bring some of this material in. I have had this collection of material for a number of years, and various police forces have consulted it with a view to using it to take action against members of the organisation. I should be happy to discuss the matter with the Home Secretary.
Worse even than his encouragement of women members to have sexual intercourse to recruit people, Berg developed dreadful attitudes to children. He encouraged child sex, with experimenting from the age of two or three to full intercourse at the age of 12. He published some quite disgusting pamphlets, such as "My little fish". If any hon. Member is determined enough to see that pamphlet, I can help them out. These pamphlets contain explicit photographs of naked children and naked adults. The Home Secretary will be tempted to say that this has nothing to do with the Bill but, with the greatest respect, it has. I know what the right hon. Gentleman is seeking to achieve, but he will not succeed. He will succeed only in providing protection for people such as members of "The Children of God".
In my 27 years in politics, I have never before said that I would defy the law, but if the Bill becomes law, I have no intention of ceasing to denounce those who harm others in the name of their god. If a religious group of the sort that I have described—there are others—is denounced by me or others in the way that I have just done, it is hard to see how that would not generate religious hatred against its members and lead some people to take the law into their own hands. Because the justification for those groups' actions is that their religious beliefs require them to behave as they do, they will seek the protection of clause 38 to try to shut me up. As I read it, clause 38 will make me a criminal, but I have to tell the Home Secretary that it will not make me shut up.
A number of hon. Members have referred to the report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I should make it clear that the Committee did not say that it was against including the clause in the Bill; it said that it was not persuaded. I cannot speak for my colleagues, but, having sat through this debate and listened in particular to the speeches of my right hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I am now persuaded that the clause should remain in the Bill. The fact that we shall rely on the Attorney-General to provide a safeguard is the answer to those who say that the measure will lead to a lot of spurious prosecutions. It is probably also the answer to the problem outlined by Mr. Wilshire.
I do not think that the inclusion of the clause will make an enormous difference. As the Home Secretary said, it is a small step, but it will send a signal that we take seriously the kind of abuses to which some of our constituents are being subjected. Not to include the clause would send a negative signal, and I shall therefore support it.
On blasphemy, I am afraid that the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras seems to have fallen victim to the doctrine of unripe time. Were he to press that amendment to a Division, I would vote for it.
I listened with great interest to the Home Secretary, and I have great admiration for him, but I am afraid that, on this occasion, he is wrong, and I beg him to think again. He said two things in his speech that made me extremely concerned. He said—I paraphrase and I hope that I do not distort too much in the process—that, because of the reaction in Muslim countries to the dreadful events of
The Home Secretary is assenting to that proposition as I speak. It is a pity that he was persuaded to act so precipitately in an area of great delicacy. Admittedly, he has heard speeches giving him strong support, but he has also heard dissenting speeches by hon. Members in all parts of the House who are united in viewing with total revulsion any incitement to religious or racial hatred. Of course I share entirely the abhorrence of such attitudes, which were graphically described by Mr. Kaufman, but the fact that I abhor them as much as he does not mean that I want legislation—in this measure against terrorism of all measures—to be rushed on to the statute book. That in itself would send out rather unfortunate signals.
The Home Secretary responded generously to my right hon. Friend
The Home Secretary made another remark that does not entirely tie in with his determination to press on. He said that he does not want to hurry the reconsideration of the blasphemy laws. I applaud that, but in that case why hurry the Bill through with such speed? It is not central to his understandable and wholly laudable desire to deal with the terrorism in our midst.
I am one of those who strongly support the general thrust of the legislation and I am one of those prepared to support internment without trial, because on this occasion the greater good of the greater number transcends that fundamental belief, which I have always held, that it is better for a guilty person to go free than for an innocent one to be punished.
I do not want a potential terrorist to go free, so I am prepared to give the Home Secretary the benefit of the doubt and support what he says, even though many Members in all parts of the House do not go along with him on that issue. On this provision, however, I beg him to think again. I speak not only as a Member of the House but as the only Member who is an elected member of the General Synod of the Church of England. I know that many, not only in the Church of England but in what are now loosely called the faith communities, share my sense of unease.
In seven minutes' time, we shall have had three hours of debate on this exceptionally important subject.
In spite of what the Home Secretary read out from the Muslim Council of Britain, many thoughtful Muslims have said that they have grave misgivings on that score for a number of reasons. One is that they will be brought under a Bill specifically to do with terrorism.
I return to the point I was making to the Home Secretary, and ask him to reflect for a moment. Three hours' debate in Committee is not enough. Yes, there will be debate in the other place and, yes, the measure may come back to us, but again we shall debate it under a guillotine. I understand the right hon. Gentleman's desire to get the whole measure on to the statute book. I support him in that, in spite of certain misgivings that I hold and which others hold in greater measure, but these measures are not central to the fight against terrorism.
Why does the Home Secretary not accept that this of all issues lends itself to a draft Bill, which could be considered by a special Committee of the House and, yes, crawled over? I say to Mr. Bryant that witnesses could be summoned from the Muslim community as well as from Christian and other faith communities. Let us try to get the Bill right. If we push it through in this form, we shall not do so.
The Home Secretary should think back to one of his predecessors in that high office of state who, appalled by dreadful incidents of savagery by certain dogs, rushed legislation through the House. That Home Secretary sat on my side of the House, but the Bill was one I could not support. It was not a good measure and it did not produce good law. The danger is that we shall produce bad law if we proceed as the Home Secretary would have us proceed. To produce bad law is far, far worse than leaving the law as it is for the time being.
I urge the Home Secretary once more to be prepared to be the big man I know he is and say at the very least that he will not only monitor and reflect on but if necessary withdraw these measures. The Bill will be the better for that.
We have had a thoughtful debate and the arguments were well put by
There is nothing between us in wanting to deal with hostility towards faith communities; there is nothing between us in wanting to end discrimination; and there is nothing between us in wanting to deal with revulsion and hate crimes in our communities.
I am afraid that I do not have time.
There are other ways to proceed, however, and those would allow hate crimes generally to be dealt with. Parliament could take time to get the legislation right and Members, if we are to deal with religious matters, could deal with them all together.
The hon. Member for West Dorset is right: there is a huge difference between definition by race, which is unalterable, and arguments about faith, which can be adopted and which is entirely alterable. I hope that the Committee agrees with Members on the Opposition and Labour Benches who believe that we are not ready to legislate. I also hope that the Committee—if not today, then soon—will see the clause removed from the Bill. Then we can all discuss a reasonable compromise between the positions, which is what the Home Secretary wants.
There is a dialogue to be had. We have listened to the Home Secretary's arguments; I hope he listens to ours. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Clause 38 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
It being after half-past Six o'clock The Chairman, pursuant to Order [19 and
Clauses 39 to 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.