I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
It is a great privilege to move Third Reading, and I thank all hon. Members who served on the Committee. There was much general agreement on many of the measures that the Bill is designed to address and I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for the constructive approach that they adopted both in Committee and today on Report.
For our part, I hope that many people will acknowledge that we have responded positively to many of the points raised by Opposition Members, and I trust that the House will agree that the Bill that we are now sending to the other place has been much improved by the scrutiny process. I welcome the broad measure of cross-party support for the provisions. Indeed, on Second Reading David Davis said that of the Bill's 220 pages, he could "broadly support" all but two, which has to be regarded as an achievement.
The Bill includes a cross-section of measures to tackle crime at all levels, from fighting organised criminal gangs at the top end of the spectrum to combating the scourge of antisocial behaviour at the other end. At the heart of the Bill is a raft of proposals designed to make the United Kingdom the least attractive country for organised criminals to operate in. Organised crime costs the country a minimum of £20 billion a year, but the social and economic cost cannot be measured in monetary terms alone, as the impact of this sordid business is felt in many communities. We all know from our constituents of lives ruined or tragically lost as a result of a drugs overdose, gun crime or sex slavery. Behind each of those tragedies is the network of criminals who supply the drugs, the guns and the migrants.
The National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service and the investigation arms of Customs and Excise and the immigration service have all achieved notable successes. I pay due respect to all the people in those organisations, but the reality is that the challenges posed by organised crime are such that we need to move up a gear. The Serious Organised Crime Agency will not just bring together those four constituent organisations, but it will adopt a wholly new approach by having as its core objective the reduction of harm caused by organised crime. That will involve traditional investigations and prosecutions, including use of the new compulsory investigative powers in part 2 of the Bill, but SOCA will also use all other methods at its disposal to disrupt, dissipate and destroy organised criminal gangs.
In establishing SOCA, we do not seek to disown what has gone before. I have already paid tribute to the four precursor organisations, but a new approach to meeting the challenges posed by organised crime requires a new organisation with its own culture and ways of working. If we are to mesh together successfully the police officers, customs officers and immigration officers transferring to the new agency, we cannot fashion it in the image of a police force. That is accepted and supported by the NCS, NCIS, Customs and Excise, the immigration service, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the director general designate, Bill Hughes, the chairman designate, Sir Stephen Lander, and many others. I invite Opposition Members to embrace that shared vision for the new agency and to work with us to make it a success.
This is not the occasion to run through the whole of the Bill, but I want to take this opportunity to touch on the issue of incitement, which has at times dominated the debate. A little over a week ago, the nation marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz at a ceremony in Westminster Hall. If the Holocaust teaches us anything, it should teach us to be acutely aware of where hatred of a religious or racial group can lead.
Hon. Members who oppose this provision have failed to address two fundamental points. First, how do they respond to their Christian, Muslim or Hindu constituents when they ask, "How can it be right that Jews and Sikhs are protected by the criminal law against those who would incite hatred against them, but we are not?"? The second point that hon. Members have failed to address is the fact that we know that far right groups, and others, use religion as a surrogate for race. Those who would seek to whip up hatred against minority ethnic communities are familiar with the provisions of the Public Order Act 1986 and are sufficiently astute to peddle their vitriol with carefully chosen words. As colleagues have rightly pointed out, religion and race are not always intermixed, and we want to protect those people for whom the issue is not their race but their beliefs. I put it to the House that it is equally right that there should be an equivalent offence of inciting hatred against religious groups, to provide protection for faith groups that do not have an association with a particular race. The targets are often—but not always—the same, and the effects are equally damaging to community cohesion.
The Government's view is shared by the broad swathe of faith groups. The new offence is supported by the Church of England, the Catholic Church, the Free Churches, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Hindu Council UK, the Network of Sikh Organisations, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Buddhist Society, the Network of Buddhist Organisations, Jain Samaj Europe, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United Kingdom, and the Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe. Support comes not just from faith groups but from the Association of Chief Police Officers, Justice, the Commission for Racial Equality, the Law Society and the Attorney-General.
If the right hon. Gentleman is referring to what I think he is referring to, I refute the allegation.
There is, therefore, a wide body of support for the new offence that cannot be ignored. Furthermore, we have seen from a recent poll in The Guardian that there is also strong public support. I put it to the House that there is a compelling case for the provision, and I invite hon. Members who have expressed concerns about it to think again.
Under this Government, crime has fallen by 30 per cent. We all accept that we cannot be complacent, because there is much more to do to make our communities and neighbourhoods safe and secure. The other measures in the Bill, including those on antisocial behaviour, police powers and the seizure of cars that are uninsured and unlicensed will contribute significantly to making our communities safer and ensuring that those who do not abide by the law are brought to justice.
I do not know whether the Minister intends to refer to the debate we had only half an hour ago about the restrictions on people's right to demonstrate. I counsel her to recognise that although she has successfully marshalled the Bill through the House, she needs to give careful consideration to the dangers that we highlighted. She may be in government now, but that will not always be the case, and the restrictions on demonstrations may one day restrict her opportunity to protest against a future Government.
I believe that the measures concerning demonstrations in the area around Parliament would allow me to demonstrate in the future on any issue. The only constraint would be that I would need the foresight to seek authorisation and be willing to accept conditions. I do not have a problem with that. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner will not say whether people may or may not protest: people may protest, but conditions might be attached. We have outlined the conditions that may apply in the Bill, and they include hindering the operations of Parliament as well as the safety and security of the environment around Parliament.
The Bill will contribute significantly to the achievement of our goal of making our communities safer. I am proud to have played a part in the often exciting and constructive discussions of it in Committee. Many of the measures in the Bill will give us more tools with which to fight organised crime, as well as crime within our communities. I hope that we can all contribute to making our communities safer by ensuring that the Bill has a safe passage and becomes the legislation that we need, and I commend it to the House.
We have reached the end of at least the first stage of Parliament's proceedings on the Bill—its passage through this place. As the Minister rightly said, there are aspects of the Bill with which we strongly agree. However, one of the problems is that it has become something of a Christmas tree to which many things have been added, and as it goes down the Corridor to the other place, she may well have to trim the tree if the Bill is to become law before the general election.
The passage of the Bill falls into two parts. Committee stage was extremely constructive: we managed to raise and debate a large number of very important issues. Report stage, however, was subject to the outrageous guillotine that the Government imposed on the House of Commons. In my view, it is an insult to every Member of this House, on whatever side they sit, that the programme order has curtailed our discussion on Report as it has. In Committee, the usual channels did an excellent job—I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown and Mr. Heppell on the way in which our debates were ordered in the old-fashioned way, without any form of knife being necessary.
In Committee, my hon. Friend Mr. Grieve, the shadow Attorney-General, who is a distinguished lawyer, enlivened our debates and brought his tremendous legal training to bear. My hon. Friend Mr. Djanogly, who has great specialist knowledge not only as a constituency Member of Parliament but as a shadow Minister on the important subject of animal rights terrorism, genuinely managed to influence the Minister to make several changes and amendments, for which we are extremely grateful to her. My hon. Friend Mr. Clappison, who serves on the Home Affairs Committee, also helped our consideration a great deal. It has been a great pleasure to debate the Bill, both in Committee and on Report, with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Caroline Flint.
In Committee, we discussed community support officers and antisocial behaviour in a highly constructive way. There is now a large degree of agreement on the right way forward, although we continue to have reservations about the extra CSOs that are to be provided without a proper independent evaluation. We hope that the Minister will provide us with one in due course. Although, we recognise that, in terms of visibility, CSOs are a plus, not a minus, there should be no confusion about the fact that they are not proper coppers; they are not trained in the way that policemen and women are. We also discussed matters relating to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and disclosure notices, which were very much the Cinderella issues of the Bill. I am concerned that, under this legislation, everyone will be able to arrest everyone else. Such matters will be returned to when the Bill moves to the other place.
The key part of the Bill is the Serious Organised Crime Agency, which the Conservatives strongly support. None the less, we are anxious to ensure that its place in the hierarchy of the police family is understood. We are concerned about some aspects of its financing—a subject that we raised frequently in Committee—and about the powers of the Home Secretary, which must be proportionate. If the agency is to be the diamond in the crown of our anti-crime initiatives and to make a real contribution to crime fighting as all hon. Members want, it is extremely important that it is properly established and organised.
I think that all of the issues that we have discussed today were debated, at least briefly, in Committee. Religious hatred has dominated our debate today, and I am not satisfied that the Government have got the provisions right, which is why I voted against them. I have no doubt that it will prove to be one of the most contentious issues in the other place.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when the House of Lords looks at the provision, it will consider whether we have had an adequate discussion? The fact that the provision was subject to such an unreasonable timetable will give the Lords the impression that we did not get to the bottom of the issues, and make it much more likely that they will ask us, quite rightly, to think again.
Although the hon. Gentleman is a Liberal Democrat, he is quite right. It was a disgracefully tight timetable and it had precisely the impact that he described. Even worse, I am sure he would agree, was the fact that intercepts, which are not part of the Bill, were not properly discussed today. We had only half an hour on the issue, which meant that I alone could made a speech when moving new clause 7. It is an extremely important issue, and it should have received far more discussion. I acquit the Minister of any blame—it rests exclusively with the Government Whips Office, as it did not give us enough time to discuss the matter.
As for protection against animal rights extremists, the Government and the Minister have listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon and without doubt the Bill has been improved as a result. Together with Mr. Heath, with whom I have been in almost complete agreement throughout proceedings on the Bill—that is a little worrying, but it is true nevertheless—I raised the issue of police powers. The Government must think carefully about whether they have dealt with the issue satisfactorily.
Finally, my party had a free vote on the issue of demonstrations in Parliament square. I did not decide how to vote until I listened to the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. The Minister was extremely persuasive, which is why I joined her in the Lobby at the end of the debate. I am concerned, however, that Parliament is abrogating its responsibility for making those decisions to the police, given the operational process to which we agreed tonight. Despite that reservation, however, I found the Minister's argument persuasive on the whole. I very much hope that the key parts of the Bill will become law.
I have listened to my hon. Friend with rapt attention and a certain amount of awe at the way in which he has put Demosthenes to shame. Before he concludes an oration of the most remarkable quality, I hope that he will see fit to expatiate on the quantity of the Bill's provisions and their rather worrying implications for secondary legislation. His speech so far, although fine, has been very short—I am sure that he will want to lengthen it.
Even at my hon. Friend's behest, I hesitate to expatiate at the Dispatch Box on secondary legislation at this late hour. However, the extremely important matters that he raised will be dealt with in the other place, where they will occupy the Government a great deal.
As I was saying before my hon. Friend intervened to compare me with Demosthenes, I wish the Bill well. I very much hope that its key provisions will become law before the general election. However, we do not agree with some parts of it, and there are some provisions that the Government have fully to explore before they are passed into law. On that basis, I am content not to vote against the Bill on Third Reading.
It is a great privilege to speak in favour of the Bill. Nearly 20,000 of my constituents belong to the Muslim faith, and there are many more from Christian denominations. I am therefore happy to back a law that, for the first time, provides parity for Christians and Muslims, so that they can join Jewish, Sikh and other faiths, and will not fall prey to the most pernicious form of hatred because of their belief. We should not underestimate the years of quiet, unnoticed suffering endured with noble fortitude by many thousands of the people whom we represent, because they did not have one of the most basic rights that most of us take for granted in this country and in this place—the right to practise their chosen faith quietly and individually with their family, friends and community.
In the 18th century, Rochdale was the town where the greatest number of religions were practised. Fewer religions are probably practised now in Rochdale, but it is of great importance to my constituents that we passed a law today that gives them parity to practise their chosen faith freely, without fear of hatred. They know, as does nearly every law-abiding citizen of any faith or no faith, that nearly every good book says, "Do as you would be done by". They do not expect favours or protection for inciting another person to hate somebody because of their faith or belief. All they want is for the hatred that has been directed against them to be made illegal once and for all.
I have heard many arguments in this place and in my constituency that worry me greatly. There are few perfect laws—that is why there are so many rich lawyers. Parliamentarians have claimed that the new law will create unrealistic expectations, but which law has not done that? Each of us has had in our surgeries people who believed that a law stated something specific, and then realised that it was a matter of what one could prove, the evidence that a court needed, the difficulties presented by the Crown Prosecution Service, and many other factors. It is incumbent on us to realise that we need parity written into the law. What we are doing today is therefore very important.
Members of the Muslim community in my constituency are prey to people in their own community who prey on their fears. The vast majority of law-abiding Muslims want nothing to do with such people, but there is no law to make it clear to those people that what they are saying and doing in the name of the community is wrong, and that when the same thing is done to their own community, they think it is wrong, so they should not do it unto others.
The issue goes wider than that. In this country we have a strong tradition of freedom of speech, and it is wrong for politicians to go around saying that if passed, the law would curtail freedom of speech. That is dangerous and needs to be clarified in the Chamber. I challenge those on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench to do that. I have had the opportunity to share a platform with several leading Liberal Democrats in my constituency—Members of the European Parliament—who try to portray the Bill as dangerous to the Muslim community, saying that it would be used to witch-hunt people with strong voices who want to stand out, oppose various parts of the law and practise their own freedom of speech. I hope Liberal Democrats will join me in nailing that lie.
The Bill is designed to protect individuals, not religions, institutions, deities or theologies. Over 50 years in my constituency, there has not been protection in law for my law-abiding citizens when they have been prey to the most pernicious hatred because of their religion. I hope Mr. Heath, whom I know to be an honourable Gentleman, will distance himself from people seeking to sow seeds of fear and confusion. After 50 years of campaigning, we have reached the milestone—under my Government, I am proud to say—of protecting in law 20,000 of my constituents, and many more of the Christian faith. I am afraid that there are not many Hindus in my constituency, but those I have will be protected. Some people come along and say, "This law is to get you." I hope that the hon. Gentleman will nail that lie.
This measure is about protecting everybody in law, which is why I am proud to stand here as a person who does not practise any faith, apart from my political beliefs, which are my faith. When I was a lot younger, I was taught a lesson. I railed against people who believed in Catholicism and what the Pope and the Vatican had done. A very wise person listened to me for a very long time as I hanged myself with a long piece of rope and said, "My, Lorna, that sounds pretty much like a belief to me." I learned the hard way that if I expect people to tolerate my beliefs, there needs to be a tolerance in the other direction.
There is a difference between enjoying something like "Life of Brian" and saying that a person has the right to incite somebody to hate another individual because of their belief. Therefore, I am very proud to support the Third Reading of a Bill that has been a long time coming.
On the whole, this is a good Bill. It contains an awful lot of things that—we agree with the Government—needed doing. I found consideration in Committee, and even today's debate, despite the inadequacies of the timetable, usually a good experience of dialogue rather than simple confrontation. For that, I pay tribute to the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Caroline Flint, both of whom are sitting on the Treasury Bench, and to Mr. Mitchell and my hon. Friend Dr. Harris, as well as those who served on the Committee.
Having been involved with umpteen Home Office and Department for Constitutional Affairs Bills, I do not always feel that my arguments have been listened to, but in this instance there have been several changes to the Bill as a result of suggestions made from the Liberal Democrat Benches. We are grateful, because that indicates that we were having a constructive argument rather than a simple confrontation.
I have made it plain all along the line that we strongly support the Serious Organised Crime Agency. We want it to succeed and we think that there is a desperate need to confront organised crime effectively. We believe that such an agency is a step forward in providing the country with the mechanisms it needs to fight crime effectively, although we may quibble about some details, as we have today and no doubt will as the Bill proceeds in another place.
We have considered the issues of investigatory powers, financial reporting and witness protection. I am enormously grateful that the Under-Secretary recognised the deficiency in the provisions for witness protection for those who are connected but not in a familial relationship. I thank her for changing the Bill, apparently.
We have not yet reached agreement on the subject of custody sergeants; we did not have a chance to debate that today. I have no doubt whatever that it will be explored at length in another place.
We have made significant progress on animal rights extremism and the measures to be put in place, although I do not think that the clauses we have agreed today are the last word on the subject. There is still a case for further revision, but we are, nevertheless, finally setting up the legislative framework necessary to combat a particularly unpleasant form of bullying that can have vile or tragic results.
I do not agree with the Government about Parliament square, although I am glad that they have removed the two absurd proposals in the Bill. We simply disagree with other aspects of the legislation, but these were two bits of nonsense: the original proposals for Parliament square and the unlimited power of arrest for the citizen—citizen's arrest for any offence so that Mr. Jobsworth could arrest his next door neighbour and hold him until a police officer arrived, simply for having a defective brake light. That cannot be right, but the provision has been removed and I am pleased about that. I am particularly pleased that the Minister accepted my proposal for the power of seizure of vehicles without licence or insurance, which will be incorporated in the Bill.
The one difficult area is that to which Mrs. Fitzsimons referred—incitement to religious hatred. Let me be absolutely clear—I said it at the beginning of my remarks and I shall say it again—that there is no difference between us and Labour Members in terms of the result that we wish for. We want a new offence that deals effectively with the pernicious acts of hatred that the hon. Lady described. Our argument concerns how that can be framed in the most effective way. We had that debate today, and it was entered into by Members on both sides of the Chamber. Indeed, many Labour Members joined us in the Lobby to say that there is at least one better way—probably many better ways—of framing the provisions so as to provide the effective protection against wicked and evil incitement to hatred that the hon. Lady and I want for the minority communities in our constituencies and around the country. We also want to ensure that the provisions work most effectively for all communities in achieving the parity to which the hon. Lady referred.
That is the argument that we take to the other place. I remain hopeful that we will resolve those issues and, as a result, secure a piece of legislation that we can wholeheartedly support throughout. We are not quite there yet, but I have not the slightest intention of voting against the Bill, which achieves much that is desirable.
Outlawing incitement to religious hatred is long overdue. It is imperative that we extend protection to prevent hatred being stirred up against people on the basis of their religious beliefs, or lack of religious beliefs, as well as their race. An extension of the law is needed to tackle the activities of extremists who have targeted people because of their religious beliefs.
The Bill will close the unacceptable loophole whereby mono-ethnic faith groups such as Jews or Sikhs have legal redress against those who stir up religious hatred against them, but multi-ethnic faith groups such as Muslims, Christians and Hindus do not. That loophole has been exploited by far-right groups, who use religious terms to target victims whom they previously targeted using racial terms. The new provision allows the authorities to take action against such racist extremists, who have distributed material listing a range of insulting and highly inflammatory reasons for hating Muslims. For example, it was suggested that Muslims are a threat to the British people and liable to molest women, and should therefore be made to leave the UK. If those statements are not an incitement to hate Muslims, then what is?
I am pleased that the new law will allow the authorities to pursue extremists in faith groups who make repeated threatening statements stirring followers to look for ways to make trouble for unbelievers. Extremist British Muslim groups who incite religious hatred against other groups will face justice, as they should. Extremists are few in number and completely unrepresentative of the communities whom they claim to represent. The majority of the British people, including British Muslims, are peaceful and law abiding, and would not stir up hatred against others because they do not share their religious beliefs.
Critics of the provision argue that it seeks to protect people's beliefs and to restrict freedom of speech. That is simply not the case. It does not limit the freedom to criticise religious beliefs and practices or to engage in robust argument about those or to tell jokes. The new law is consistent with, and will operate in the light of, the guarantees afforded by the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. The convention clearly establishes the need to balance the right to freedom of speech with respect for the rights and freedoms of others. The protection of free speech afforded by the convention is an adequate safeguard over and above the tests that any action under the new law will have to fulfil.
There is a further safeguard, in that the Attorney-General's consent will be required for all prosecutions to protect against frivolous or vexatious actions. Furthermore, the proposed and existing offences carry a high threshold to protect freedom of speech. Words, behaviour or material must be threatening, abusive or insulting and intended or likely to stir up hatred. The hatred has to be targeted at a group, not at beliefs or ideologies. Hatred goes beyond ridicule, prejudice, dislike, contempt, anger or offence.
The proposal has the support of eminent equality and human rights lawyers such as Geoffrey Bindman and Robin Alien QC. It is also supported by the Law Society, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Association of Chief Police Officers.
One of the most fundamental freedoms for all of us must be—
It being six and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.