New Clause 3 — Racial and religious hatred

Orders of the Day — Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill — [1st Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 4:31 pm on 7 February 2005.

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Votes in this debate

'For section 17 of the Public Order Act 1986 (c. 64) (meaning of "racial hatred") substitute—

"(1) In this Part 'racial hatred' means hatred against a racial group, of persons defined by reference (whether directly or indirectly) to colour, race, nationality, (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins ("a racial group").

(2) In this section—

(a) 'an indirect reference' means a reference to religion or religious belief or to a person's membership or presumed membership of a religious group as a pretext for stirring up racial hatred against a racial group;

(b) 'religious group' means a group of persons defined by reference to religion or religious belief.".'.— [Mr. Heath.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

With this we may take the following Amendment No. 11, in page 89, line 6, leave out clause 122.

Amendment No. 12, in page 187, line 34, leave out schedule 10.

Government amendment No. 106

Amendment No. 182, in schedule 10, page 189, line 20, at end insert—

'11A After section 26 insert—

"26A Savings for freedom of speech

Nothing in this Part applies to activity which consists of—

(a) criticising beliefs, teachings or practices of a religion or its followers, for example, by claiming that they are false or harmful;

(b) proselytising one's own religion or urging followers of a different religion to cease practising theirs;

(c) expressing irreverent comedic comments about religion or belief, its worship, teaching, practice or observance; or

(d) expressing antipathy towards, or dislike of, particular religions or their adherents.".'.

New clause 4—Blasphemy—

'The offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel are abolished.'.

Amendment No. 7, in title, line 8, after 'orders;', insert

'to abolish the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel;'.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

This is an extraordinarily important debate for many of our constituents. I say that knowing that it will be examined carefully by people of all faiths and of none because they are keen for us to get this right. To an extent, the issue has overshadowed the rest of what is a complex and important Bill.

The Bill contains a great number of provisions, but at times it has seemed as though it were the incitement to religious hatred Bill. I am going to suggest what I hope will be a positive direction for the debate that has engaged us both in Committee and outside the House. I want to underline what I believe is a strong consensus in the House. That consensus is in two parts. First, I do not believe that any Member does not deplore and abhor incitement to religious hatred, especially when it is used so often as a proxy or cipher for incitement to racial hatred as a way of subverting the present laws.

Along with my party and, I know, all other Members, I want our law to be as comprehensive as possible in bearing down on crimes of either racial or religious hatred and I want to find ways of expressing our law in an appropriate way. It is not because we do not deplore incitement to religious hatred that we seek to amend the Government's proposals. Quite the reverse: many of us have argued, in the context of the plethora of Home Office Bills with which we have dealt over the years, that there is already a crying need for the recognition of crimes with a religious connection. Obviously that applies particularly to the Muslim and Hindu faiths, but it applies to many others as well. We argued—successfully, as it turns out—for the introduction of an aggravating factor in such crimes. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to see that the sector in which aggravating offences are committed has been increasing in recent years as, it would seem, we have become a more intolerant society.

There is an argument that the current racial hatred provisions cover, by almost an accident of interpretation, those who are Sikhs and those who are Jews. That is true. We should not be content with the fact that some sections of the community are covered by law and others are not. I recognise why we need to address the issue and why people—especially, but not exclusively, in the Muslim community—feel strongly that they do not have the protection that is afforded to others.

I hope that there is another, secondary consensus, in the House and shared outside it, though perhaps not universally. That consensus is based on another principle of a liberal democracy: that we believe people should have no bar to either believing in or pronouncing on their own faith. There should be no bar to them proselytising their faith without fear of intimidation or persecution. There should be the capacity within our laws to engage in discourse—sometimes vigorous discourse—about the merits not only of one's faith but of other faiths. It is necessarily the case that, if one believes in one faith, one does not hold to another and one believes that criticisms are inherent in the faith held by another. Therefore, criticisms of belief systems and of the usage of other faiths should not be matters in which the law intervenes.

We believe in the House in the right of free speech, which enables us to criticise, sometimes to deplore and even to hate the beliefs that some people hold. There is a difference between hating the belief and hating the believer, which I shall return to in a moment. Furthermore, there is in a liberal democracy a right to lampoon, to ridicule, to tell jokes that will touch on sensitivities—a lot of humour is based on touching on the sensitivities of one person or another—and to depict the practices of a religious faith in books, plays and other works of fiction. Again, it is important to preserve that right. Lastly, I believe that it is right that one should be allowed to say words that will have the effect of forming an adverse opinion in the minds of others on occasions, not to the point where one is inciting hatred, but to the point where one can simply say, "I believe that this person is wrong and that their activities are hateful", without running the risk of prosecution.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Before my hon. Friend comes to the issue of the offence, does he accept that there is one other consensus: those of us in all parties who have a strong faith—we are of many different faiths—believe that our faith is strong enough to resist and to be able to defend itself? It does not need the law to defend it. It stands by its own merit. That is the nature of faith. Therefore, the law should not be required to give it that extra protection. It manages that by itself intrinsically without legal support.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I agree. The point that my hon. Friend makes is relevant to the debate that we may have on the amendment on the present blasphemy law. I personally believe that the Christian faith is capable of standing up for itself without the protection of the law. That law is not extended to others, so there is a further anomaly.

There is a critical difference between race and religion because a person cannot choose the race to which they belong but they can choose their religion. Belief systems are mutable. Beliefs are mutable. Therefore, in the case of religion, there is not the clear definition that is affordable in the field of race. That has the potential to give difficulties in definition—no more than that, but there is that potential.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

The hon. Gentleman referred to the right to criticise religion. Of course, I would not in any way disagree with that, but is he aware that some of his arguments, which touch on free speech and the right of free expression, which we are all in favour of, were used in the 1960s against provisions on the incitement of race hatred? I remember the debates in the House of Commons. Those who argued against any such provisions said that they totally opposed and deplored racism but did not believe that infringement of free speech should be allowed in law. I hope that the Gentleman will bear it in mind that some of his arguments border on what I have just said.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 4:45, 7 February 2005

I will treat the hon. Gentleman's intervention in the most benign way. I hope that he is not suggesting that I would argue in that way, but I accept that there is a balance to be struck. I accept that free speech has its limitations, and we have accepted that in the context of what already exists. The question is whether the law that the Government propose puts the balance in the right place and that is the only matter under debate—how best we achieve the objectives that we share in providing protection for those religious groups that may be the subject of incitement to hatred on the basis of their religion, which, as I said earlier, is used as a cipher or a proxy for their race.

The hon. Gentleman's argument is relevant in another way, because if we are to extend this to religion, why not other systems of belief? What is the difference between incitement to religious hatred intrinsically and incitement to hatred on the basis of political belief, for instance? I am against hatred. I believe that he is against hatred and incitement to hatred against any group of individuals on an arbitrary basis. But there is clearly a spectrum that we have to consider when we are dealing with such offences.

Photo of Mrs Barbara Roche Mrs Barbara Roche Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green

If the new clause is put to a vote and the vote is lost, will the hon. Gentleman then seek to reverse the case law that protects the Jewish and the Sikh communities?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Certainly not. I make it clear that I am trying to achieve a satisfactory law that deals with the problem that the Government have identified. Let no one be under any illusions about that. We are all, I hope, trying to provide satisfactory law that does not have some of the potential pitfalls of this legislation.

Let me deal with what the Government propose, because it is important and, although it may seem odd in the context, I want to defend what they are doing. I know exactly their intention. We have discussed it away from the Chamber and we know where they are coming from and they know, if they are honest with us and with the House, where we are coming from as well.

First, the Government say that the law is framed in incitement to hatred and that hatred in itself is a high threshold, and I agree. It is a difficult thing to define, but it is not a light consideration for the courts. Incitement to hatred is a relatively high threshold. The second and much more important point is that the Government have framed their proposition in the context of hatred against a group of people defined by religion, rather than the religion itself, or any of the practices of that religion. That is an important point that people have failed to understand in some of the debate on the matter. I was brought up as a west country Liberal nonconformist and was always taught to love the sinner and hate the sin. That is the distinction that the Government have rightly identified in the framing of their proposal—that it is the hatred against the "sinner" that is deprecated, not their belief system. The third part of the Government's contention is that the Attorney-General, as a lock on proceedings, prevents the inappropriate suit from being put.

Let me put, I hope soberly and sensibly, the alternative view about why the measure will not work as the Government intend at the moment. First, there are difficulties of definition. They are not, I say straight away, completely avoided by the alternative formulation that I and my hon. Friend Dr. Harris propose today. There is a particular issue in the fact that the Government's present proposition goes with either intention, which we all understand, or likelihood, rather than recklessness or anything of that kind. Likelihood, on an objective test, is difficult to assess, as it can only be taken in the context in which the remarks are made. That is potentially difficult. We must recognise that we already have laws against incitement to crimes—that poses no difficulty. The difficulty is posed only when the subject of incitement is hatred without a crime.

Secondly, there is a question of trust. It is not a strong point, but it is one that I need to put, as it is held by many people outside the House. They understand that the Attorney-General will make the decision about whether a prosecution should be mounted, but they say, "Who is the Attorney-General? The Attorney-General is a Minister of the Crown, a politician, and irrespective of his legal merits, somebody who can be tested by public opinion." That is a matter of concern to them.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

On the agreement of the Attorney-General being a lock on the legislation, those of us who remember the furore over "The Satanic Verses" recall that persons who were upset because a criminal case was not taken against Salman Rushdie went to court to try to overturn the Attorney-General's ruling. The idea of the Attorney-General's lock will not avoid vexatious litigation.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that observation. I will come to that in a moment, because the expectation of what the law will provide is the most difficult part of what we are considering.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the fears that some people had put to him about the nature of the Attorney-General as a Member of Parliament and a politician. I dare say that he will have explained to them that, in that role, the Attorney-General forswears all political allegiance and does not allow himself to be influenced either by Government policy or public opinion of a political nature. He is concerned about ensuring that the law is properly applied.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Not only am I fully aware of that, but I have made that point. It does not alter the perception of those outside.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a valid point from a sedentary position.

Thirdly, on the human rights position, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has produced a report that is critical of this part of the Bill and raises reservations about it. I know that the Government have answered that, and I will not therefore rehearse the Government's answer but simply say in passing that there are genuine concerns about the compatibility of what is proposed with human rights legislation.

My biggest concern is the huge burden of expectation put on this clause. Many people in this country have argued cogently and coherently that all faith groups, particularly their own, should be protected from what is, in any normal sense of the term, incitement to racial hatred expressed through religious means. They have been led to believe that not only will this proposition from the Government deal with that mischief, but that it will effectively provide them with a blasphemy law of their own—[Hon. Members: "No."] Hon. Gentlemen can say no, but that is what people believe is being proposed in the House today—not only do they believe it but they expect it from the House.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The point made to me again and again has been the expectation that prosecutions would be brought in such circumstances. As we have plainly seen, for instance, in the case of the gurdwara in Birmingham, there was never any prospect of a prosecution being brought against that theatrical performance, even though, under the current state of the law, it could have happened.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman is right about the incident in Birmingham.

Part of the confusion has arisen as a direct result of what the Home Office has said. At one stage, the previous Home Secretary found it difficult to identify exactly what the new law would catch, but the statement that he eventually produced included this suggestion:

"an extreme racist organisation widely distributing materials setting out a range of insulting and highly inflammatory reasons for hating Islam".

Note the use of, "Islam", as a faith, rather than "people who are Muslim", which is the sort of thing that creates confusion in the minds of those who are listening.

I would not suggest that the highly respected chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain, Iqbal Sacranie, is confused. On the Radio 4 programme, "The Moral Maze" on 14 July 2004, however, he said that, under the new law, any "insult" or "outrageous comments" about Islam or the Muslim community would be illegal, as would any

"defamation in the character of the Prophet Mohammed".

The Minister has said that that is not what the proposal will do, but that is what people believe that it will do.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The hon. Gentleman is right that there is confusion, and new clause 4, which would abolish the law of blasphemy so far as Christianity is concerned, is one way in which to dispel it, because it would mean that people could not urge a counterpart offence.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman may have an opportunity to discuss the proposal to remove the outdated law of blasphemy and blasphemous libel later.

My great concern is how the law will operate in practice. The Attorney-General will not bring people to court, other than in a few cases in which prosecutions should clearly be brought. However, there will be a huge number of complaints that people have, in exercising their proper right to criticise or to speak freely, contravened the law in some way. Every one of those complaints will require investigation by the police and consideration by the Crown Prosecution Service of whether to pass it to the Attorney-General for a decision on prosecution.

We will find ourselves in a dangerous situation in which people expect court action to proceed, but it will not, which will have two effects. First, large sections of the community who believe that they have been given protection will be greatly disappointed. Secondly, many organisations' activities will be impeded. Some of those organisations will consist of evangelical Christians, who are concerned about the new law, and some of them will consist of those who take an interest in arguing the relative merits of different faiths. For example, I have received valuable briefing material from the Barnabas Trust.

I suspect that the major group who will be disadvantaged by the legislation includes the people who think that they will obtain the greatest benefit from it, namely the Muslim community. Some hon. Members may be aware of the Victorian state law, and the experience in Australia allows us to know what will happen. Amir Butler, the executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee, was one of the main advocates of an analogous law in the Victorian state legislature, but he is now against it because he says:

"At every major Islamic lecture I have attended since litigation began there have been small groups of evangelical Christians, with notepads and pens, jotting down any comment that might later be used as evidence in the present case or presumably future cases."

I fear that this will have an enormously divisive effect unless we are extremely careful.

Photo of Ms Lorna Fitzsimons Ms Lorna Fitzsimons Labour, Rochdale 5:00, 7 February 2005

Surely we all agree that, if somebody is preaching hatred of an individual, whether from a pulpit of any religion or no religion, they should rightfully be brought to justice, for preaching hatred.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I hope that the hon. Lady can make that distinction—I believe that she can and that the Government can—between hatred of the individual and hatred of the faith. However, I fear that there are many people who will not make that distinction and see any criticism of their faith system as criticism of themselves, and any incitement in others to consider as less valuable the belief system of another to be incitement to hatred of themselves. That is the difficulty in which the Government find themselves with this proposal.

Photo of Paul Goodman Paul Goodman Shadow Minister (Disabled People), Economic Affairs

Is this not the problem that the hon. Gentleman is trying to get at: under the terms of what the Government are proposing, an imam in my constituency could open himself to prosecution merely by quoting verses from a religious text? That is possible, whereas under the terms of the hon. Gentleman's excellent amendment, it would not.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the whole House is seriously engaged, including those Government Members who have been kind enough to support the amendment, in trying to find a satisfactory conclusion to a difficult problem that we want solved. We want to ensure that evil racist people are prevented from spreading their hatred. At the same time, we want to be absolutely clear that professing one's faith, even if that faith involves, as many faiths do, criticism of other faiths—it is inherent in a faith system that it excludes as well as includes—is not an incitement to hatred but exercising the rights to religious freedoms that we have long held dear.

I know that other Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude. I believe that our formulation satisfies the needs of the communities that feel under threat without creating new difficulties for both themselves and others and raising expectations. If the Government are not prepared to accept that, they should seriously consider something alone the lines of amendment No. 182, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend Dr. Harris, and which provides clear exceptions. It reads:

"Nothing in this Part applies to activity which consists of—

(a) criticising beliefs, teachings or practices of a religion or its followers . . . that . . . are false or harmful . . . proselytising one's . . . religion . . . expressing irreverent comedic comments . . . or expressing antipathy towards."

Again, that would put the proposal clearly in context.

I wish that we had the opportunity—it is not open to us because of the construction of the Bill—to debate the other new clauses that we have tabled, which would have introduced proper legislation for discrimination on religious grounds. That would have an enormously greater effect on the day-to-day activities of people in the faith communities. I would have liked to debate the prospect of an harassment clause. Again, that would have had a much greater effect on the day-to-day activities of those in the faith communities.

We do not have the opportunity to do that. Instead, we have a Government proposal that I believe is flawed but not of bad intent. I want to support what the Government are doing but I want also to find a way of expressing that which, I believe, will achieve their intent and not the opposite.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Labour, Holborn and St Pancras

I believe that all of us are entitled to the quiet enjoyment of our homes and to feel safe, and be safe, on the streets where we live and work and find our pleasure, and so are all our children. The general law tries to protect us all. However, some of our fellow citizens are subject to additional hazards, and in those instances we must take special measures to protect them against those hazards. In the past, and even now, some people have been attacked because of their race and colour. In the 1980s, to help protect people against that additional hazard, this Parliament decided to make incitement to racial hatred an offence. These days some of our fellow citizens—women, children and men, particularly Muslims—are subject to abuse and assault because of their religion. That is why I have been pressing for some years for us to legislate to outlaw inciting hatred on religious grounds. I therefore welcome what the Government are doing, because such incitement is a cause not of all, but of some, of the assaults and abuse suffered by our Muslim fellow citizens, and by others from other religious groups.

I emphasise that the Government are simply trying to outlaw incitement to such hatred, and their amendment No. 106, which does not outlaw criticism, offensive remarks or jokes, brings that about. Who needs the freedom of speech to incite hatred of anyone for any reason? I should also emphasise that the amendment is not an extension of the outdated and ridiculous blasphemy law—which, contrary to popular belief, protects only the Church of England and not any other Christian grouping. I have long advocated the abolition of that law, and it logically follows that if we are to outlaw incitement to hatred on the ground of religion, we should get rid of it. I hope that the Government will agree to doing so, even if they will not so agree today.

I recognise that there are concerns about possible limitations on freedom of speech. There is also a possibility—when the law first comes into operation, at least—of tit-for-tat complaints by various religious groups against others, or of accusations that the Attorney-General, in deciding to proceed or not to proceed with a particular case, is subject to religious prejudice. Even those in favour of this change in the law must recognise that there are reservations and disadvantages, but none of those outweighs our duty to provide special protection for our especially vulnerable fellow citizens. This proposal does that, so I hope that it will be adopted.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

New clause 3, to which my name and those of some of my colleagues have been added, follows closely an amendment that I tabled in Committee that sought to achieve the same ends. I therefore have no hesitation in welcoming the intention behind the proposal that Mr. Heath has put to the House.

This is a very difficult issue, and I am the first to accept the good intention behind the Government's proposals. It is of course important that we all seek to express ourselves moderately in society. Those who seek to do so immoderately, and certainly those who seek to inspire hatred of other people, should do so with great caution. In many cases, of course, they will transgress existing criminal law.

However, we must face the fact that there are occasions when we do express, and try to inspire, intense dislike of others. Members of this House do so regularly—and in my view not improperly—when, for instance, dealing with and expressing hatred of members of the British National party. Indeed, we take steps at all manner of levels to discriminate against them—for example, by barring them from holding meetings in public rooms. To say that there is never a time when it is legitimate to express intense dislike of others appears to me to miss the point.

This law will not apply, as the Government propose, just to mainstream religions but to every religious sect that worships a deity, be it God or the devil. I am bound to say that if the provision goes through, and if I were a member of the British National party, I would be thinking rapidly about worshipping Wotan as a devotee, thereby gaining the protection of the Bill. The House has to face up to the fact that if we pass such legislation, that could happen all too readily, however far-fetched it sounds. The law does not discriminate in any way between what constitutes a good or a bad religion.

In that light, I have to tell the Minister that, while I fully understand the sentiments that have inspired the Government and those who back the Bill, particularly within the Muslim community—they may understandably have wanted to quieten the tone of the discourse—we will be making a grave and serious error if we proceed with the Bill in its current form. It will raise expectations at every level, which will, in fact, never be fulfilled. I have no doubt that although the number of prosecutions per annum will be minute, the number of times that prosecution is demanded will be massive, as each group seeks to use the legislation as a weapon with which to get at another group.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some individuals will court prosecution because they want their arguments advanced in open court in order to give maximum publicity to their vile claims?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I do agree, and that example suggests another real risk. That is why I ask the Government to listen carefully to what is said on both sides of the House this afternoon.

The problem remains that as we become an increasingly pluralistic society, that requires greater degrees of tolerance from us. The House should be sending out a message that tolerance of the expression of others' views, so long as it does not offend the criminal law, is something that we all have to put up with. Let me provide another example, in the form of a recent book called "The Da Vinci Code". I have not had the chance to read the whole book, but I have looked at parts of it and I have to say that it is a blasphemous work. There cannot be the slightest doubt about that in respect of the theological principles on which it is based. I have not wasted one second in sleepless nights over this work, but I suspect that if similar theological mumbo-jumbo were written about other faiths, the demands for the prosecution of the author and the banning of the work would be considerable.

It is for that sort of reason that I cannot support the Government, and I urge them to accept the amending provisions that have been suggested. I fully acknowledge that new clause 3 may not be perfect, but it is designed to provide a balance that offers a degree of extra statutory protection, by building on existing case law, for those affected when people seek to use religion to incite hatred against racial groups.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Many members of the Muslim community passionately support the Bill because they believe that it will protect Islam from insult. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that in a free society it is not possible to protect any religion from insult, and that the Bill will raise expectations in the community that cannot be satisfied?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I agree. That is my concern, and it should be the Government's concern.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I am aware that many hon. Members want to participate. I shall give way briefly.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

What would the hon. Gentleman say to my Muslim constituents who tell me that in the present climate, someone who is Jewish or Sikh is protected, but a Muslim is not?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I believe that Muslims are protected—but because they are identified as part of a particular racial group, rather than on the basis of their religious faith. The merit of new clause 3 is that it would extend exactly the same degree of protection to racial groups who are being attacked through their religion. I have already acknowledged that new clause 3 may not be perfect, but it is as close to perfection as possible. That is why I commend it to the hon. Gentleman—but failing that, he should reject the Government's provision.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 5:15, 7 February 2005

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that—contrary to the initial arguments from Labour Members—new clause 3 would deal with the inequality of the present position, in which Sikhs and Jews are protected but other faiths are not? It would also protect people against the consequence of hatred—attack—and would do so gradually, which should deal with the problem without unintended extra consequences.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, which is why I put my name to the new clause.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Shadow Secretary of State for Deregulation

Is my hon. Friend, like me, swayed by the number of people with sincere religious beliefs of various sorts who have written to their Members of Parliament, including me, to say that this measure is not helpful, and that they hope that it will be amended along the lines that he suggests?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

My right hon. Friend is right. The broad expression of views, including those of secularists, people in the theatrical world and those with strong religious beliefs, suggests that the Government's proposals are seriously flawed. The Government should take that into account, and I hope that they will change their mind.

The Conservative position is that any vote on the blasphemy laws would be a free vote. My view as a lawyer has always been that the blasphemy laws are, if not obsolete, certainly obsolescent, and most unlikely ever to be used to bring a prosecution. Hon. Members can make up their own minds whether they wish those laws to be preserved.

On the main point, I encourage all hon. Members on both sides of the House to give new clause 3 serious consideration, because it is the best way forward. Despite their good intentions, the Government have made a great mistake in this aspect of the Bill.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

This matter has caused a good deal of concern, and the dilemma is whether it is right to go ahead with it. My right hon. Friend Mr. Dobson made a strong case, with which I largely concur. I understand the concern that expectations will be raised, and the feeling that religions are being protected, which in many respects is undesirable.

On the radio today I heard Rowan Atkinson, who, like Mr. Heath, made a reasoned case. I listened carefully to Mr. Atkinson and he accepted that in practice there are unlikely to be many prosecutions, but he went on to say that the pressure on the Attorney-General would be very great indeed. We must wait and see—if the provision is introduced.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

A further point that Rowan Atkinson makes is that while the Attorney-General may rule out prosecution of comedians, he would do so after a complaint, after questioning, perhaps after an arrest and perhaps even after a charge. Why should people have to go through all those stages, in the climate they are likely to produce, before the Attorney-General's protection is invoked?

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I hope that that is unlikely to occur in practice, but because I have reservations, I accept the possibility.

As I said during an earlier intervention, we may compare the objections that are now being made with the objections that were made to the provision that outlawed incitement to race hatred, which is now accepted. Hardly anyone would say that that law should be changed, but nearly 35 years ago, almost to the week, Lord Deedes—he obviously was not in the House of Lords at the time—argued that that section of the Race Relations Act 1965 should be repealed. He said that he was totally opposed to racism, but that the provision was an infringement of free speech.

Those of us who took a different view put our case, and because there was a Labour majority in February 1970, we won the day—but it is interesting to look at the Division list for Lord Deedes' ten-minute Bill: almost every Conservative Back Bencher voted for the repeal of that section, which is now accepted.

It is also now fully accepted that Jews and Sikhs should be protected in law. Despite my reservations and the fears that have been expressed, I must ask myself this question: if Jews and Sikhs are protected in law, why not Muslims? If Muslims are not protected, as they clearly are not under present law, and if they are subject to a great deal of abuse—the sort of abuse that every Member of this House opposes—as we know they are, the question inevitably arises: are the Government right in doing as they are? I believe that they are right—despite all the drawbacks, the reservations and the possibility that things will go wrong.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome quoted a Muslim spokesman in Australia. It is interesting to see that in the letter sent to us by the Muslim Council of Britain, which argues in favour of the Government's proposal, under the heading "Could the proposed new law raise unrealistic expectations?", the secretary-general says:

"It is sometimes argued that certain people, for example people in Muslim communities, believe that the proposed amendment to the Public Order Act will protect them against being offended. But since the prevention of offence is not the purpose of the amendment, such people will be disappointed."

Therefore, although expectations will be raised and demands will be made of the Attorney-General, whether by Muslims or by Sikhs—the latter are protected by existing law to some extent, but some demonstrated in Birmingham—it does not follow that those who take the view that their religion will be protected will ultimately find that it is. We are dealing with a wholly different issue. We are dealing with abuse—the sort of abuse that we acted against in the racial sphere 40 years ago.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

Does the hon. Gentleman accept my assurance, as one who has a strong commitment to one faith but who does not think that it should have particular protection, that I would not support the new clause if I did not think it would give my Muslim constituents the same protection as my Sikh constituents and my Jewish constituents have and deserve? I want them to have equality, which is why the new clause is the best way forward.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

I accept entirely the hon. Gentleman's sincerity. Not wishing to be patronising, I accept that he wants to protect his Muslim constituents, as he does others. I do not question that, but I believe that Government amendment No. 106 makes a substantial improvement on the wording by replacing "racial and religious hatred" with "hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds". I cannot see why that should be unacceptable.

I realise that the Government's proposal might face difficulties in the other place and might not come into law before the general election. None the less, despite my reservations and my desire to protect free speech—which I hope that we succeeded in protecting when my Labour colleagues and I supported the law on incitement to racial violence; I am not aware that our country is less free as a result of what we did 35 or 40 years ago—I believe that, on balance, the Government are right to try to protect those who are not currently protected by the Race Relations Act 1976, and I shall vote accordingly.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

We are discussing a delicate but crucial difference. I hope that the whole House recognises that we are trying to achieve the same end and that the argument is about how to achieve it effectively.

The new clause is designed not to remove the protection that Jews and Sikhs have, but to extend as far as is proper that protection to other religions without getting into the position in which, in trying to close a manifest gap, we create serious problems—first, of over-expectation, and then of people using the law for nefarious reasons such as their own aggrandisement or for the harassment of others, and without the disadvantage of recognising that religious views are held with considerable strength, that in stating belief it is difficult not to cast doubt on the claims of others, and that some religions, by their nature, are more sensitive about such things than others.

As someone who has experienced a different point of view as a convert, even within the Christian Church, I know that people can be extremely offensive. Rev. Ian Paisley is certainly robust in his opposition to the Catholic Church. Sometimes he crosses the line, and has been found to go beyond what can reasonably be done under the present law. I have witnessed occasions on which he has caused considerable pain, and has sought to heap ridicule, contempt and, frankly, hatred on the faith that I hold. However painful and hurtful, we have to accept such behaviour in a free society. We may have to seek to ask people to be more reticent in a tolerant society, and it is perfectly reasonable to argue that it would be better not to show "Popetown". However—this is an important difference—we are saying that it should not be banned.

Some religions have more difficulty with that than others, especially when challenged by people within as well as outside their faith. I shall choose my words carefully, because I do not wish to cause any offence. One of the advantages of the free society in which we live is that some faiths can open themselves up. That is more difficult in countries where a faith is entrenched, and many of us have seen various instances of that. With reference not only to the Muslim faith but to the recent argument over a theatrical performance written by someone of the Sikh faith, I believe that some faiths will benefit enormously from a lively and virile discussion within those faiths.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Is not the right hon. Gentleman reassured, as I am, by Government amendment No. 106, which makes it clear that the proposals on religious incitement are designed not to protect religions from criticism, but to protect people from the activities of extremist organisations that wish to stir up hatred against them? He cited the Sikh play "Behzti". The law already prevents incitement of hatred against Sikhs, but it did not result in any prosecution involving that play.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am reassured that it is better this way than it was before. As the Government have found it difficult to get the balance right, I urge the House to go a stage further and introduce a better formulation that meets the need more effectively. Expectations are crucial.

I have heard programmes in which Members of Parliament have explained what they hope that this change will mean. In their minds it means, for example, the opportunity to prosecute the author of "The Satanic Verses". They may now recognise that the Government are not prepared to go that far, but that shows the nature of the demand.

Many others wish to speak, so I shall say only one more thing. For those of us whose faith is the most important thing in our lives—that is true of members of a range of faiths in the House—there is little more painful than hearing the founder of one's religion, whom one believes to be divine, blasphemed. But I do not believe that in a secular society people should be prevented from doing that. Similarly, if I feel, as I do, that the claims of Islam are based upon facts that I dispute, I hope that I would say so in a polite and proper way—but I must not feel in any way inhibited from expressing that, because it is too important for its expression to be restrained.

That is why this matter is so crucial. I do not treat my faith, or other faiths, lightly—precisely the opposite. Because faith is the most important thing in life, it should be able to stand on its own feet and be looked at properly, and be able to live in an increasingly, and properly, much more various world.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 5:30, 7 February 2005

Surely what my right hon. Friend is describing is the importance of tolerance. Does he recall saying on 28 November 1997, in a different context but very validly, that tolerance is not about putting up with things about which one does not greatly care one way or another, but about putting up with and allowing to continue statements and activities of which one personally profoundly disapproves?

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am immensely flattered by my hon. Friend's memory of such a thing. I hope the fact that that was said about something wholly different will underline the strength of my feeling on the present issue. No man is tolerant if he is not prepared to tolerate the deepest, toughest criticism of that which he believes most strongly. That criticism cannot easily be distinguished from incitement to hatred in the terms of the Government's clause and amendment. That is why I commend the alternative reading to the House.

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Perry Barr

Mr. Heath tried to make provision for all religions and all communities, but fell at the first hurdle when my hon. Friend Mrs. Roche questioned him on the protection afforded to the Jewish and the Sikh communities. The hon. Gentleman must realise that the Muslim community, like the Buddhist, Hindu and other religious communities, are not formed from the base of a single race. People must understand that. The Sikh community was brought under the Race Relations Act 1996, following the case of a Mr. Mandla. The ruling by Lord Scarman included the Jewish community because they were a race.

We are not discussing the Blasphemy Act, through which hon. Members have tried to attack the Government's proposal on incitement to racial hatred. The debate is not about people being unable to defend their religion or expose what they believe to be the faults in other religions. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred to the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, and my hon. Friend David Winnick cited a document that we all received, which argues the contrary. Iqbal Sacranie made that clear.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I understand the point about Sikhs and Jews, but that provision would not be removed by our new clause. The letter from the Muslim Council of Britain quoted by Mr. Winnick was extremely helpful. I was trying to explain that the earlier confusion will be shared by many people who have not had the benefit of reading that advice.

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Perry Barr

The hon. Gentleman makes an issue of the confusion. That was before the proposals were printed, put to the House and explained to people. The Muslim Council of Britain and other organisations, such as the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism, which looks at issues of Islamophobia—

Photo of Mohammad Sarwar Mohammad Sarwar Labour, Glasgow Govan

Does my hon. Friend accept that all Muslim organisations in the United Kingdom, including the Muslim Council of Britain, support the Government's proposals, which also have the support of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Commission for Racial Equality?

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Perry Barr

I agree with my hon. Friend and thank him for making that point.

I was trying to make the point that organisations such as FAIR that deal with Islamophobia consider not people's ability to tell jokes about a religion, or criticise it, but the day-to-day effect on Muslim people living in this country. In the light of the recent events that we have all experienced, there is an effect on particular communities. There is also an effect on a small number of people in the Muslim community who actually incite religious hatred against other people, which is also recognised. It is a question of protecting not just the Muslim community, but people of all religions who need to be protected.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Parliamentary Private Secretaries To Leader of the Opposition

Let us say that a Christian preacher pursues explicitly the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ and the necessary implications that has for the claims made by the Prophet Mohammed. He adds to that explosive criticisms of elements of sharia law: death for apostasy, stoning for various crimes, amputation and so on. My understanding is that none of that would result in a prosecution in accordance with the provisions.

Can the hon. Gentleman assure me that there is not a large number of people in the Muslim community who do not precisely expect that that would give rise to prosecutions? That is the point. We are raising—

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. That is a very lengthy intervention.

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Perry Barr

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not know where the hon. Gentleman's point was going, but, as far as the Muslim community is concerned, if a preacher from the Christian faith, or any other, wants to make valid criticism as they see it, they are entitled to do that. We are talking about inciting hatred and abuse against people. That is the point we are making; it is a serious issue that has to be dealt with. People of other religions, other than the Sikh community and the Jewish community, feel that there is no protection in this area.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

My hon. Friend says that nobody in the Muslim community denies that people should be able to make valid criticisms of the religion, but I was a Member of Parliament at the time of "The Satanic Verses", and there were thousands and thousands of Muslims who believed emphatically that people were not entitled to criticise their religion.

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Perry Barr

I am sorry, but I take issue with that. It was not a question of making a valid criticism of the religion. In the context of Salman Rushdie, the issue was the abusive words that he deliberately used, which were written in phonetic Urdu, criticising—[Interruption.] Actual swear words were used within that text.

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Perry Barr

The decision is taken in the courts, if it comes to that. As my right hon. Friend Mr. Dobson said, there will be an opportunity for some of those cases and issues to be tested. In a sense, that is what the judicial system is about and what this democracy is about: giving people that opportunity.

Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Labour/Co-operative, West Bromwich West

I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend's argument. Does he agree that in addition to giving the Muslim community a degree of protection, the provisions will help the great majority of moderate Muslims, who want to live in a tolerant society at peace with other religions, to take action against that tiny minority in their midst who may incite hatred against other religions?

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Perry Barr

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

Other hon. Members want to contribute, so I shall quickly bring my remarks to a close. I conclude by saying that the Bill is not about the curtailment of freedom of speech, but protection for people from abuse and incitement to it.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

I am grateful to Ms Abbott for her intervention on Mr. Mahmood, because his response was consistent with one that he gave in an interview that he and I took part in for a BBC political programme shortly after he became a Member of this House. When we discussed these provisions previously, I was worried that the effect of his words, whether he meant it or not, was that he wanted the suppression of free speech.

Whether one agrees that nasty things should be said about other people's religion is not the point. It is no good pretending that the Government's provisions will do anything other than repress free speech. As a general rule, and I shall no doubt be told if there are exceptions to this, criminal law should be there to inhibit and to punish those who do injury to the person—the body—and to property. It should not be there to inhibit or repress the exchange of views, however disagreeable you, Madam Deputy Speaker, or I may find them.

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

Did my hon. Friend notice that Mr. Mahmood, who put forward his case so moderately and reasonably, was willing to accept that the words of a preacher from some other religion would not be affected in this way, but much less willing to say that it would be unreasonable to use this law against someone of his own religion who spoke in what he felt was too extreme a manner? That is a serious distinction.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend.

I pointed out the service that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington did in opening up a line of consistency in the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr, but it puzzled me that later parts of his speech tended to get a little confused. It may well be that a closer study of Hansard tomorrow will enable us to give a more charitable view of what he said.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

The hon. and learned Gentleman seems to be making the case that there is some kind of absolute free speech. Does he accept that we already have laws in this country that constrain free speech? People can be prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, and there are libel laws, so there is no such thing as total, absolute free speech.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right, and I never said such a thing. I happen to know a little bit about the law of defamation, but I was not going to bore him or other hon. Members with that. However, since he provokes me, the civil law of defamation provides liberal scope for free speech, and for the expression of deeply disagreeable opinions. I am sure that he, just as much as I, would deprecate any attempt to prevent the free expression of opinion. He is right that there are already laws that inhibit free speech, because incitement to racial hatred is a criminal offence.

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon Labour, Halifax

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

May I just finish this point? I do not want to take too long, because I know that other important subjects need to be discussed.

The short point is that incitement to racial hatred tends to lead to the physical injury of victims of the racial hatred. If the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr and those who support the Government's proposals can demonstrate that incitement to religious hatred would lead to injury to the victims, not just inconvenience through bad behaviour, he might be getting somewhere, but Government amendment No. 106 does not deal with that point.

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon Labour, Halifax 5:45, 7 February 2005

I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman knows that Nick Griffin was arrested in Halifax and is being charged under race relations legislation.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

I do not want to comment on that specific case, but if he has done something that offends against current criminal law, I am pleased that he is to be acted against. There is no room for that sort of behaviour; the BNP and those who think like it want to cause physical harm to those from racial minorities. We all deprecate that.

We are conducting a short debate in a crowded timetable and I hope that others can catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, before it is concluded.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Labour/Co-operative, Ilford South

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

I shall not give way because the hon. Gentleman has had one go already and he may wish to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I want to endorse the opening remarks of Mr. Heath, those of my hon. Friend the shadow Attorney-General and those of my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer. Those three speeches encapsulate our anxiety that nothing should be done to encourage the inhibition of free speech. I also include the remarks of Simon Hughes. The Bill should do nothing to inhibit free speech and robust criticism of other people's thoughts and religious views. The place for religion to answer is on the page and in the pulpit. The law should allow that to happen.

Photo of Mr Brian Sedgemore Mr Brian Sedgemore Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

I declare an interest as the vice-president of the National Secular Society. For those of us who believe that religion is the backward march of history and the enemy of rational discourse, the greater is the need to support the free speech of those who wish to expose the metaphysical nonsense in which the adherents of religion indulge.

Even before I became a cantankerous and cynical politician, I could not stand the actions of religious bigots and fanatics on the prowl, looking for converts and trying to proselytise even though that meant ending up with murderous crusades and aeroplanes being flown into occupied buildings. It is unbelievable that we meet here today at the invitation of a Home Secretary who asks us to respond with repressive legislation, which is calculated if not designed to protect those same people and their faiths from being subjected to hatred, ridicule and contempt. That may not be the Home Secretary's intention, but it will surely be a consequence of following that tortuous, contradictory and oxymoronic road.

I want to be nice to the Home Secretary because I read in the paper today that he has upset the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and we all want to do that. However, I cannot help seeing the Home Secretary as a big baby. Why cannot he grow tall like the great figures of history? Let us take Byron. When on his deathbed, he was asked to return to God and he replied, "Let's not be silly at this late stage." When Voltaire was asked the similar question, "Will you renounce the devil and all his works?", he replied "This is surely no time to be making powerful enemies." Why cannot the Home Secretary say no in a similar fashion to those mullahs and priests about the proposed changes in the law?

Let us consider the problem in another way and eschew satire and ridicule for enlightenment, reason and fact. What would happen under the Bill? Let us suppose that the Vicar of Christ, the Pope, died, and amid the orations, oratorios and requiem masses, someone went on television and said, "Come on, let's admit that the Pope was a bad man. He knowingly let the bodies in the killing fields of Africa multiply because of his insistence that condoms should not be used to protect against AIDS. He recently beatified Charles I, Emperor of Austria from 1914–18, saying that he was 'a model for us all', passing lightly over the fact that he presided over mass killings through the use of poison gas by his troops. Let us admit that he cared more for the souls of the cells of an embryo in a Petri dish than he did for the souls of the afflicted, the poor and the dispossessed among the living."

Hon. Members might not agree with that, but if I or anyone else were to say such a thing on the day on which the Pope died—remember, context is everything—they could be sure that the massed ranks of Opus Dei would rise up as one and demand that every piece of punitive legislation be used against the person who had said it. That is always assuming that they had not stoned him to death straight away. The people of Opus Dei would claim that that person had stirred up hatred against the Catholic people and against a whole class of religious people. They would argue in the courts—as happened in a case in Australia—that neither the person's intentions, nor the truth of what he said, was relevant. What would matter would be the effect of the words on such dear, sensitive souls as themselves.

Then along would come the Home Secretary with the reply that the Attorney-General would not allow the prosecution to go ahead. However, the Attorney-General is a political figure who may decide for emotive or political reasons that a trial would be no bad thing, and that it might cool the anger of Opus Dei. Certainly, an Attorney-General who could authorise Christian soldiers to fight and kill in an unlawful war in Iraq might do that. In short, we should live to regret this legislation.

I have spent a lot of my lifetime trying to be charged with blasphemy. However, even when we invited the police along and blasphemed, blasphemed and blasphemed again, no charges were ever brought. All that the police have ever done on these occasions is to protect us—the blasphemers, the law-breakers—from being attacked by crazy Christians foaming at the mouth who were seemingly, and I hope temporarily, possessed of devils. The Home Secretary wants to keep this law. It is pathetic. I support new clauses 3 and 4.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I understand that we have very little time left in this debate. I want to speak to new clause 4, which has been tabled in my name and those of other distinguished hon. Members on both sides not only of the House but of the argument on the main question of incitement to religious hatred. I see Mr. Dobson nodding at that. I note that the Conservatives have a free vote on this question, and I commend them for that. They will obviously note that their admirable defence of freedom of expression on new clause 3 might not be entirely consistent with voting against new clause 4, but that is a matter for each individual.

There are all sorts of reasons for seeking to repeal the blasphemy law, not least that it is practically obsolete and that it has not been used since 1972. It is also wrong in principle, and it has had very few friends since the Law Commission argued strongly back in 1985 that it should be repealed. Secular people, of whom I am one, do not feel that they should be constrained by the criminal law, because they believe that it is acceptable, on occasion, to say vicious things about other's religious beliefs. Indeed, sometimes, in today's world, it is necessary to do so.

As Mr. Gummer so eloquently said, religious people also believe that such a law is unnecessary. It is patronising to their God, their almighty, to suggest that he needs an obsolete and dubious piece of criminal law to protect his position.

Photo of David Wilshire David Wilshire Assistant Chief Whip, Whips

If we were to get rid of the blasphemy law, Mr. Sedgemore would not be able to carry on trying to get arrested for it. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but there are those of us who, because of a deep faith, do not want protection for what we believe. That is why some of us, unlike the hon. Gentleman will probably vote with Dr. Harris, which might surprise him.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon

I know that my hon. Friend Simon Hughes shares that view entirely. It has been clearly established that the blasphemy law is not compliant with the European convention on human rights. In so far as it is not obsolete, it is restrictive and lacks the certainty in criminal law that people need so that they know when they are going to offend. It is discriminatory, as was argued very clearly by the House of Lords Religious Offences Committee, which otherwise recommended very little that was specific following its deliberations.

The main point, however, is that the blasphemy law is confusing. The fact that we have such a law leads people to believe that their beliefs will be protected under the new law, and, for that reason, it has to go. What are the Government up to, in not taking this opportunity to send a message in support of their own measure by repealing it? In answer to a parliamentary question they said that they

"have no immediate plans to amend the laws on blasphemy. We acknowledge that there was a wide variety of views on whether the blasphemy laws should be retained, repealed or . . . "—[Hansard, 31 January 2005; Vol. 430, c. 685W]

even "extended".

I question whether that is really what is behind the Government's move. I intend to test the opinion of the House on this matter. The blasphemy law is obsolete, friendless, discriminatory, censoring, non-human-rights-compliant, and confusing. There is not much in its favour and it should be put out of its misery this evening.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

In the few minutes available, I want to try to deal with the issues that hon. Members have raised. Mr. Heath was right to say that this is an important debate. We had a very good and lengthy debate in Committee on these issues, and many of the same points have been raised today by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a degree of consensus between us on what we are trying to achieve, but there are also significant differences, which we explored in Committee. It is clear from new clause 3, and from the fact that the Conservatives support it, that there is a desire that, where religion is used as a pretext or a cipher for racial hatred, such a situation should be covered. It is a matter of common agreement between us that there is mischief going on in this country, and that people are being attacked. Sometimes, those attacks are expressed in religious terms, but they are often connected to racial discrimination, and we all agree that that should not happen.

Many of the provisions in new clause 3 are, however, already covered by the existing law. If hon. Members look carefully at the law, they will see that the words used in insulting, threatening or abusive behaviour do not have to be racist words; they can also be religious words. Because Jews and Sikhs are protected as racial groups, they are protected from religious discrimination and hatred, as well as from racial hatred. The new clause would create a bigger gap, because people who were not part of a specific racial group would not have the protection of the law. We believe that there should be a level playing field for people in this country. Even under new clause 3, there would continue to be a gap. For example, Muslims, who do not form part of a specific racial group, would not have the protection of the law. They would not be protected from having hatred stirred up against them on the ground of their religion.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

If the purpose of the measure is to protect Muslims, why has it been universalised so that it also applies to a whole host of other groups in society?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The measure is not there simply to protect Muslims; I used them as an illustration. The measure is also to protect Christians and people from a wide range of other religions, as well as people of no religious belief at all. Dr. Harris advanced the case that people of no religious belief should also have protection, and we think that that is a perfectly proper position.

Photo of Mohammad Sarwar Mohammad Sarwar Labour, Glasgow Govan

Does the Minister agree that the vast majority of the people in this country are peaceful and law-abiding, including British Muslims? This extension of the law is to protect all the communities of the United Kingdom, not just the Muslims.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am delighted to be able to confirm that. Indeed, my hon. Friend Mr. Mahmood made the point that the provisions will also cover a situation in which some people in the Muslim community who hold extreme views used language that could well be an incitement to hatred of other people on religious grounds. This is an even-handed piece of legislation that seeks to provide a level playing field for the people of this country, and to protect them.

Photo of Ms Lorna Fitzsimons Ms Lorna Fitzsimons Labour, Rochdale

Does my hon. Friend agree that we are united in the pursuit of that level playing field for more than 20,000 of my constituents, if not nearly all of them, and that the excuse that there would be an over-expectation in that regard could be used against every law that the House has ever passed?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 6:00, 7 February 2005

My hon. Friend makes an important point.

My hon. Friend Mr. Sedgemore described himself as a cynical and cantankerous politician. He also said that he had tried to get himself arrested for blasphemy. However, the police took a good, pragmatic approach in those circumstances. I think that that is evidence that the police will take a similarly pragmatic view, as will the Attorney-General, in relation to expectations that may have been raised here.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I am dealing with a substantive point: the difference between Labour and the Liberal Democrat Opposition. In Committee, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon said:

"We decided that if the law went any wider than dealing with the problem as attacks on Muslims as a proxy for racial attacks it would pose too great a problem for freedom of speech to make it worthwhile."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 20 January 2005, c. 430.]

That is an important division between the two sides of the House.

Mr. Garnier said that the right to free speech would be infringed. It is a matter of judgment for Members whether such an infringement would be appropriate. It was my hon. Friend David Winnick who said, 35 years ago,

"I deeply regret any restriction of freedom of speech, but any legislation passed by this House is an infringement on some people's freedom. Any law we pass restricts the freedom of action of some people. I believe that we are justified in taking action against those who want to abuse freedom of speech."—[Hansard, 17 February 1970; Vol. 796, c. 221–2.]

That is a difficult balance to strike, but I think we have struck it in the right place and the Opposition have struck it in the wrong place.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Will my hon. Friend assure those of us who want to support the Government that the "incitement to religious hatred" clause would not, as Mr. Mahmood implied, give carte blanche to anyone who wanted to prosecute Salman Rushdie?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Let me say to my hon. Friend, who welcomed amendment No 106, that we have sought to make clear that this is about protecting groups of people against whom hatred is incited, not the beliefs themselves. Many Members have said that religion should be strong enough to defend itself, and does not need the protection of the law. Indeed, that is the purpose of new clause 4, tabled by the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. This is about protecting people. It is not about the ability to criticise, ridicule or lampoon, or to have fundamental disagreements about the beliefs themselves. It is absolutely right, in a modern democracy, for people to be able to engage in robust and vigorous debate. The Government do not seek to outlaw that.

Photo of Tony Wright Tony Wright Labour, Cannock Chase

I know that this is late in the day, but why is it not perfectly proper for me or anyone else to say "I hate religious bigots"?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

I think that that is very different from inciting hatred against people and all that flows from that—the extremist material that we have seen that is capable of inciting such hatred. I think it perfectly permissible to express those views, although I would not necessarily want to do it myself, but I do not think that it is right for us to be able to incite hatred against individuals.

People have talked about unrealistic expectations. They have said that we shall see a huge range of vexatious and litigious activity. Safeguards already exist. I do not just mean the reference to the Attorney-General, although he will have to consider the public interest. Guidance will be issued by the Crown Prosecution Service, which will be followed by guidance from the Home Office itself. I want to make absolutely sure that there is no misunderstanding in any group about how the legislation might be used.

Let me say this to the Liberal Democrats. It is important for people not to misunderstand what this law is about. I am sure that the Liberal Democrats would acknowledge that Iqbal Sacranie, in particular, has now clarified comments made before the Bill was published in July last year. He is now perfectly clear about the fact that this is about protecting people, not beliefs. It is vital for that to be understood.

I think that amendment No. 106 makes the position much clearer. I oppose amendments Nos. 11 and 12. I also oppose new clause 3, because it takes us no further than the law as it stands, and new clause 4, because I do not think that this is the right time for us to repeal the blasphemy laws. We have said that we will keep the matter under review. There is no consensus in the country on the issue. I believe that 48 per cent. of people polled thought that the blasphemy laws should be repealed, while 38 per cent. thought they should remain or be extended. I do not think that a condition of passing this legislation should be the repeal of the blasphemy laws, although it is right for us to examine the issue regularly.

There is a difference between us and the Opposition. We feel that it is wrong to stir up hatred against people on the grounds of their religion. Clearly Opposition Members do not feel that that is wrong, and simply want to limit it to racial hatred. We do not think that that goes far enough. I ask the House to resist the new clause and amendments, and to support amendment No. 106.

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, Mr Deputy Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [3 February].

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 191, Noes 291.

Division number 69 Orders of the Day — Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill — [1st Allotted Day] — New Clause 3 — Racial and religious hatred

Aye: 191 MPs

No: 291 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Question accordingly negatived.

Mr Deputy Speaker then proceeded to put the Questions necessary to dispose of the business to be concluded at that hour.