I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The offence had been agreed by the House twice previously: as part of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and, only a few months ago, as part of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. On both occasions, the relevant clauses had to be withdrawn because of timetable pressures to secure the passage of other important legislation.
Since those considerations, two significant changes have been made. First, we made a clear manifesto commitment to legislate to outlaw incitement to religious hatred and the electorate have endorsed that manifesto. We have moved quickly to fulfil the manifesto commitment. Secondly, the proposed offence is in a single-issue Bill and has not been tied to other measures. That caused some hon. Members genuine concern on the previous two occasions and we have listened to those anxieties by introducing the Bill in its current form, rather than including the provision in other legislation. Tackling the matter in a single-issue Bill will ensure that the proposals receive the detailed scrutiny that they deserve, and I hope that hon. Members of all parties will welcome that aspect of our consideration.
Some things have not changed, however. It is clear from the coverage in the media and elsewhere that misconceptions about the purpose and effect of the Bill remain and are still widespread in some areas. I therefore begin by emphasising that the Bill deals with hatred and incitement to hatred. It is about the nasty and extreme behaviour that drives people to hate others and sometimes, as the recent desecration of Jewish cemeteries shows, to turn that hatred against people and property. It is about behaviour that destroys individuals' lives and sets one community against another.
In evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on religious offences, the Association of Chief Police Officers said that hatred stirred up by extremist groups contributed to the Bradford and Burnley riots in 2001. The Bill is intended to help tackle that sort of hatred—I emphasise "hatred".
The Bill does not stop anybody telling jokes about religion, ridiculing religions or engaging in robust debate about religion. It will not stop people from proselytising and it will not curb artistic freedom. Neither the purpose nor the effect of the Bill is to limit freedom of expression, with all the robustness that one would expect and, I would say, desire in a democracy. There is no evidence to show that the Bill will have that effect. Indeed, the current offence of incitement to racial hatred already covers Jews and that has not stopped anyone telling jokes about Jews or criticising the Jewish faith.
In the past, I have voted against such a provision. Since the Government have granted an amendment to make it clear that the offence is incitement against people on the ground of religious hatred, I am happy to support the measure today. I do not believe that it prevents people from speaking out about their antipathy to specific religions. However, will the Government consider extending the provision to take into account hatred against people on the ground of their sexual orientation?
First, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that clear statement about her approach and the change of view that she described. If we can find a form of words during consideration of the Bill in Committee and elsewhere that provides further reassurance to my hon. Friend and others who are likeminded that freedom of expression is not inhibited, we are flexible about examining amendments to that effect.
Secondly, there are big issues to consider on sexual orientation, but I do not believe that it is appropriate to do that in the framework of the Bill. The reason that I gave earlier stands: narrow consideration of the issue is the best way in which to proceed. That does not deny the legitimacy of my hon. Friend's concern about the need to consider hatred on other bases. However, we should not draw the Bill widely.
The Home Secretary said that the Bill would have prevented the Bradford riots in 2001. That was reiterated by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Paul Goggins. That is not the view of people in Bradford. The hon. Members for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) and for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) have also made it clear that Bill would have made no difference. Does the Home Secretary accept that the measure would not have prevented the riots in Bradford?
May I give a little fatherly advice to the hon. Gentleman as he begins his parliamentary career? He should listen very carefully to what I actually say. I did not say—and I do not say—that the Bill would have prevented the Bradford and Burnley riots. What I did say—I shall read it out again and I urge the hon. Gentleman to listen—was that, in evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on religious offences, the Association of Chief Police Officers said that hatred stirred up by extremist groups contributed to the Bradford and Burnley riots in 2001. I then said that it is this type of hatred that the Bill will, in my opinion, help to tackle.
I do not think that anyone in the House could disagree with the laudable aims of the Bill, but will my right hon. Friend lay to rest once and for all the idea that it will stamp out proselytising, or street preaching, as it is known? Christian groups in my community applaud the ideas in the Bill, but they want an assurance that criticism and theological debate will not be stamped out. I want to be able to go back and say clearly to them, once and for all, that that is not the intention of the Bill.
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. A different response might come from the Conservatives in a moment, and we shall obviously listen to what they have to say, but the fact is that the Bill will not rule out preaching, making argument or debate, or putting forward points. It deals with incitement to hatred, and that is, in my opinion, entirely qualitatively different.
The Home Secretary will be aware that legislation similar to this has been passed in Australia. Will he give the House a cast iron guarantee that we shall not have a repeat of two incidents that have taken place there? The first involved a Christian pastor at a church conference being hauled before the courts. He is to be sentenced at 10 o'clock this evening. The second involves a case concerning the work of the Alpha Course in prisons in Australia; that case is also before the courts. Can we have a cast iron guarantee that such cases will not occur in the UK?
Yes, you can. I shall come to that part of my speech in a second, but I want to deal with the question of the law in the state of Victoria now, because other people have also raised the matter with me. I have said to many people, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to say to the House, that that legislation is not the same as what is proposed in the Bill. I have briefed myself carefully on this because I was aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.
Not only is the legal system in Victoria not the same as ours, but there are huge differences between section 8 of Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 and our proposals. Section 8 makes it an offence for a person to engage in conduct which incites not only hatred against, but also
"serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of" another person or class of persons on the ground of religious belief or activity. That definition of words is massively wider than what we are proposing in the Bill. Additionally, the Victorian law prohibits incitement to serious contempt, severe ridicule and so on, of a religion itself, whereas the offence that I am proposing in this speech prohibits incitement to hatred of those who belong to the religion. So the threshold for the incitement to religious hatred that we propose is substantially higher than the one in Victoria; a comparison simply cannot be made between the two.
The law that we pass in the House will not be in a steady state. It will be subject to review and to judicial interpretation. The question of racial hatred has been extended by case law—rightly, in my opinion—to Jewish and Sikh people. Will not case law also extend this legislation, perhaps resulting in very different consequences from those that the Home Secretary rightly wishes to see?
I shall again refer to something that I was going to say later in my speech, in order to address my hon. Friend's point. How will cases be prosecuted under the Bill? First, the House must be aware of the European convention on human rights, and of the protection of freedom of expression that it contains. Secondly, for a case successfully to be prosecuted, it would have to go through certain stages. I shall list them, as they pertain directly to the point raised by my hon. Friend.
First, a complaint must be made to and accepted by a police officer. Secondly, the police must investigate and acquire evidence. Thirdly, the case must be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, which will assess it by applying evidential and public-interest tests. Fourthly, the case must be considered by the Attorney-General, who must consent to its continuation. Fifthly, in most cases it will also be considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions. Sixthly, prosecuting counsel must decide whether or not to proceed with the case. That is independent of the other stages. Seventhly, the judge must consider the case on the basis of all the elements that I have just listed. Everyone, including the Attorney-General, must have agreed that there is a case to answer, and the judge can then decide to throw the case out if it does not meet the standards set for it to proceed. Then a jury must consider the case put before it in court. If after all those steps the defendant is convicted, he or she can appeal.
I gave that list because I do not agree with the "case creep" argument advanced—with integrity—by my hon. Friend Mr. Allen. This is a narrowly defined law including a great many protections to cover people's anxieties.
The Home Secretary is well aware that certain statements in the Bible and in the confessions of faith of all the Churches tell against various other beliefs. Is he telling us that those statements will be deemed to be not statements of hatred, but the personal confessions of those Churches?
The House begins its sittings with a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. Parts of the Book of Common Prayer, such as the 39 Articles, have strong statements to make. Would those statements be considered an incitement to hatred?
No, they would not. Although I did not know that the hon. Gentleman was going to raise that point, I think I can give him the assurance for which he asks. Statements in the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and other faith books—the Koran, for instance—are precisely that. They are not incitements to hatred.
Obviously there are legitimate concerns. I would not support any measure to prevent criticism of religion: like a number of other Members, I happen to be a non-believer. Is it not the case, however, that 40 years ago there was strenuous opposition—particularly, as I witnessed, from Conservative Members—to the proposed law, which came into effect, to stop incitement to racial hatred? Time and again we were warned that it would undermine democracy, free speech and so forth, yet today not a single Member of Parliament, to my knowledge, would want a change in the law on incitement to racial hatred. It is quite likely that in years to come, this law will be no more controversial than that law.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I draw strength from that. We have drafted this Bill tightly, as the earlier legislation was drafted tightly, in an attempt to outlaw incitement to hatred. That is precisely what we should do, because the hatred that some have sought to incite, on the basis of either race or religion, is deeply destructive of every value that society possesses. I believe that it is not just our right but our duty as a Parliament to do whatever we can to outlaw such incitement to hatred.
People are genuinely worried that we may cross the line into inhibiting freedom of speech or freedom of expression. A good example was given earlier, of legislation in the state of Victoria that had been drafted much more widely than this. I hold that it is our duty as parliamentarians to ensure that our legislation is drafted narrowly so that it has the effect that we want, and in my view it has been.
I do not follow the Home Secretary's argument that it is possible to dissociate criticism or intense dislike of a religion from intense dislike of the person who practices it. The word "hatred" simply means intense dislike. Where in the statute is the difference made clear? It seems to me that once someone intensely dislikes the religion itself and criticises it for that reason, it follows inevitably that that person intensely dislikes whoever is practising it. The only mechanism for which there will be no prosecution is the Attorney-General's discretion. We are passing very wide-ranging law, and then leaving it to the Attorney-General to restrict its scope.
What will be the crucial test of an offence? Will it be that the words uttered were intended to stir up racial hatred, or will it be that, as a result of the words being uttered, an act of religious hatred followed on the part of a third party?
No. I am going to make some progress and then give way, as I said.
The European convention on human rights makes it clear that the exercise of freedoms and the right to freedom of expression are protected. When the Joint Committee on Human Rights met to consider that and reported on
The considerations of that Joint Committee ought to be an important point of reference for this debate, and I hope that they will be.
I am going to give way in a few moments. I know a lot of hon. Members want to intervene. I will make a bit more progress and then give way.
The offence is not a new blasphemy law, despite what some critics of the Bill say. It is about protecting people, not faiths. It is there not to stop people criticising religions or the symbols of faith but to prosecute those who seek to set one community against another. It would not stop a play such as "Behtzi" or "Jerry Springer the Opera". The offence would not cover anything that denigrates a particular faith or causes offence because of ridicule. Robust debate about belief is central to the very being of this country. The Bill will not affect that in any way.
I will in a second.
I understand that the worries of hon. Members on both sides of the House and of people outside are genuine—I do not believe that anyone's worry is synthetic—but they are misplaced. I profoundly believe that it must be a central value of our society that no one should have to live in fear because of their beliefs. I make no apology for seeking to address that.
The Home Secretary said in response to an intervention that it was required that the individual being prosecuted intended to incite religious hatred. Nothing in the Bill insists on that. Indeed paragraph 5(3) simply refers to
"having regard to all the circumstances the words, behaviour or material are (or is) likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom they are (or it is) likely to stir up racial or religious hatred."
That does not require any intent whatsoever.
The Public Order Act 1986 makes the position clear. Section 18(5) provides that the prosecution must prove beyond reasonable doubt that the person either intended his words or behaviour to be threatening, abusive or insulting, or was aware that his words or behaviour might be threatening, abusive or insulting. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald asked me to choose between intent and unintended effect, if I may put it like that. That is why I answered her question as I did, but I have tried to answer more precisely in relation to the last intervention.
The problem with interventions by Conservative Members is they are totally unrepresentative of the population as a whole in that hardly any of them are open to the kind of humiliation that many members of our communities are open to. If they were, they would not be criticising this legislation. When my right hon. Friend refers to conduct, he arouses in my mind the case of Mrs. Shahzada, a constituent of mine who went to a shop in central Manchester soon after 9/11. She wears a veil over her face, and the shopkeeper refused to serve her because she was, to his perception, a Muslim. That was hatred against an individual, not a criticism of Islam. It is about time that we had an Opposition who understood the kind of country that we live in today.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the play "Behzti", which is often used as an example by opponents of this Bill. Would he remind the House that if that play attacks any community, it is the Sikh community, which is of course already covered by existing law, as is the Jewish community. That is yet another example of people using false arguments and not facing up to the very real prejudice—primarily against Muslims and Hindus—that currently cannot be caught by the law.
My hon. Friend is right and her description of the issues to which that play gave rise, particularly the Sikh religion, is correct. I should make one point in mitigation, however. Many people are genuinely worried about this issue, which is why they raise it in the way that they do, whereas others are trying to be misleading. I am keen to try to lay genuinely to rest in this debate as many of the existing myths and uncertainties as I can.
While I appreciate what my right hon. Friend says about the Bill's scope on sexuality, can he assure my constituents in the gay and lesbian community in particular that they will still be able vigorously to rebut views held by other members of the community who are protected by the law? Does he agree that it would be more sensible to create a general offence of incitement to hatred that encompasses all aspects of life, not just religion?
I agree with my hon. Friend's first comment and can indeed give her the assurance that she seeks, but I do not agree on her second question. The definition of law in these areas is so tight and so difficult that the creation of such an offence could prove too general and give rise to misunderstandings. That is why I defend the Bill's approach, which is to focus on a particular aspect of incitement to hatred. That is not to deny the existence of other hatreds, or even to deny the case for legislating against them in certain circumstances, but with respect, dealing with them in a generic way is not the best way to proceed.
I thank the Home Secretary for giving way. I commend the Government's motives—if they are genuine—in seeking to rid society of incitement to racial or religious hatred. However, it seems very odd that the Bill contains no definition of a religion. In seeking to lock people up for five to seven years, the Government must surely define what those people have offended against.
Any attempt to define a religion in statute would be doomed to failure. Clause 12 of the explanatory notes sets out a number of religions that are well understood to be religions, but at the end of the day, it must be for the courts, rather than this House, to decide exactly what the definition of a religion is.
I have heard many of these arguments before in the context of Northern Ireland legislation, and the Home Secretary will know that many of the issues have been discussed in the specific context of the troubles. What evidence does he have to suggest that legislating against such behaviour will necessarily lead to the improvements that he describes?
I cite the legislation on race hatred, which has existed for some time. Such legislation has changed conduct in certain respects and for the benefit of society. That does not mean that all the issues have been resolved, and I do not believe that this Bill will suddenly abolish hatred everywhere. What I do believe is that it is an important step towards where we need to go.
At the heart of these arguments is the question whether we can distinguish the beliefs from the believers. My right hon. Friend said, encouragingly, that he is prepared to look at amendments in a generous spirit. Does that mean that he is prepared to include a commitment in the Bill, stating that nothing in it will affect the ability of anyone to express intense dislike of bodies of belief?
Actually, I think that the Bill's compatibility with the European convention on human rights, which I have asserted, goes a long way to achieving what my hon. Friend requests. In response to his specific question whether we are prepared to look constructively at proposals such as those that he suggests in Committee, the answer is yes.
My right hon. Friend outlined the various stages and tests that a prosecution would have to go through, and it seemed to me that the central pillar was the consent and initiative of the Attorney-General. I put it to my right hon. Friend that, while I wish both him and the Attorney-General a long time in government, we may not always have a Labour or a liberal Government. We could have a Henry Brooke-type character in office, so we need safeguards to ensure that we do not introduce a new blasphemy law. What does the Home Secretary say to those who feel intensely about the failure of the Attorney-General to prosecute such things as the "Life of Brian" film or the Jerry Springer opera? It is important to reflect both on what might happen in respect of the future incumbency of the Attorney-General and on the frustrations of those who feel that there should be a prosecution when there is not one. How would the Home Secretary deal with those problems?
There are two answers. First, the Bill will, if agreed by the House, be enacted into law and it will then be open to Parliament to amend it in future if it so wishes. It is significant that that has not happened with respect to legislation on race hatred, which has largely been successful. Secondly, there is the decision of the Attorney-General. I agree that every one of his decisions, whether or not they lead to prosecution, could lead to controversy. I nevertheless take the view that the Attorney-General's role in the Bill as in other legislation is important to ensure that the public interest is properly protected. I obviously cannot answer for how an Attorney-General will behave 15 years down the line, except to say that he is likely to behave in accordance with the law of the land.
Will the Home Secretary deal with one serious difficulty? He will appreciate that many of us who are against this legislation would normally find themselves in the vanguard of those attempting to protect vulnerable minorities. The difficulty is that there is a profound difference between race and gender and religion. Our race and our gender are what we are and should be protected. Our religion is what we choose to believe. It is a system of beliefs, fundamentally and quite properly held. It seems to many here and out there that there is, in truth, very little distinction between one's religion and one's politics. People's politics are the same in being fundamentally held—
I do not believe that religion and politics slide together in the way that my hon. and learned Friend suggests. Secondly, there are many people for whom an easy distinction between religion and race is not accurate. Thirdly, I return to the previous point: we are talking about incitement to hatred, and I think that such incitement on the basis of race or religious belief should be driven out. I accept that, as my hon. and learned Friend said, there are genuine concerns that there is a risk of the legislation somehow tripping into other areas of freedom of expression. I am arguing, and I believe that my case is substantial and should be supported, that the Bill does not go over that line.
What is the distinction between a political view and a religious view? Intense dislike of the British National party and its adherents is often expressed in this House, and that is considered proper enough. Why then is it considered improper to express intense dislike of a person because of his or her religious views—if, for instance, that person were a satanist? The Home Secretary will agree that we should all speak with moderation, but will he explain why that distinction should be made in that fashion?
I think that the answer is self-evident, and I am sorry that it does not appear so to the hon. Gentleman. I believe that there is a clear difference between the set of political beliefs and values that a person holds and the religion to which he or she belongs. They are different things, and it is our duty to try and drive out incitement to hatred in those areas.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that many people have grave concerns about the Bill. I am a Christian, and I know that many people in the Christian lobby are very concerned about how far we are able to describe hatred. I support the Bill, and I am disappointed that many Christian organisations have stirred up so much misunderstanding. Will my right hon. Friend make sure that the element of hatred is clearly defined when the Bill is considered in Committee? That will reassure people with genuine concerns, as the Bill must be tightly drawn to ensure that people retain total freedom of speech in respect of these matters. In addition, I assure him that I do not want to have anything to do with people who are trying to defend the right to incite hatred.
I am happy to give the commitment that my hon. Friend seeks. In Committee, we will look at any proposal aimed at providing a tighter definition of hatred in the Bill, so that we can avoid the concern that some may have. Finding the appropriate wording for that purpose will be difficult, but I am entirely open to trying, for the reasons that my hon. Friend set out.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way yet again on this very important matter. Does he consider that the Bill makes sufficiently clear the difference between an individual and a group? For example, the members of a religious group may take offence when a member of a different religious group begins to proselytise fiercely in an area. They may react by attacking the second group's religious beliefs and its members. That will be an attempt to defend their boundaries, but how can we ensure that that is not interpreted as an attempt to stir up hatred against the second religious group? Is not it the problem that intent becomes impossible to define?
As I set out earlier, a series of decisions about how that question is answered in relation to any particular case will have to be taken before a prosecution is put in hand. Secondly, I do not want to be boring but I must return to the key to this matter—the incitement of hatred. Many people proselytise in a variety of ways. That is legitimate, and it is an aspect of our society that we should welcome. However, proselytising can turn into incitement to hatred, and that is a different thing, which we are entitled to try and prevent.
It is very flattering to have so many people wanting to get in. I shall not give way now but, as I did earlier, I give a commitment to allow several people to intervene before I sit down. I have noted Dr. Harris, and he will be glad to know that I intend to refer to him in my speech. I am sure that he will be thrilled to hear that I am due to say:
"As I made clear in response to a question from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon . . . "
I shall try and deal with that properly when the time comes, but for now I intend to make a little progress.
The Bill seeks to address the anomaly that means that Jews and Sikhs are protected under the existing law, but that other faith groups, and people of no faith, are not protected. I think that that is simply not right and that the problem needs to be addressed.
The Bill seeks to fill a gap in the law that means that people can stir up hatred against others because of their religious beliefs. Such people may be extremists using religion as a proxy for race or nationality, but they may also be people of faith stirring up hatred of people who do not share their beliefs. That behaviour is not caught by the current set of religiously aggravated offences or by existing incitement offences. It is not only right but essential that the law should provide protection in that area.
As I have said before, legislation is not a panacea. It will not solve all the problems in our communities. We have to do a great deal of work to address those problems, using measures other than the law, but all those other things that we might do do not remove the need for this Bill.
I will in a moment, as I said.
The Bill consists of just two clauses and a schedule. Clause 1 will give effect to the schedule. The schedule will amend part 3 of the Public Order Act 1986, to create offences that involve the stirring up of hatred against groups of persons on the grounds of religious belief or lack of religious belief. The Bill will therefore introduce the new offences by extending the existing law on incitement to racial hatred rather than by creating a new self-standing set of offences.
In amending the 1986 Act, the schedule deliberately does not define what amounts to a religious belief. It will be for the courts to decide what constitutes a religious belief for the purposes of the legislation. However, for the purposes of article 9 of the European convention on human rights, any religion must have a clear structure and belief system, and case law suggests that any religious belief will need to attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance. The beliefs must also be worthy of respect in a democratic society and not incompatible with human dignity.
The schedule will make a clarifying amendment to the existing offence of stirring up hatred against persons on racial grounds, to make it clear that material must be likely to be seen by someone in whom hatred was likely to be stirred up.
Finally, clause 2 makes it clear that the proposed legislation applies to England and Wales only.
I have said that I will give way later. I will—I am ready to deal with points on these issues—but I think that it will be for the convenience of the House if I make a bit more progress before doing so.
Section 27(1) of the Public Order Act 1986 provides that the amended racial and religious hatred offences will require the consent of the Attorney-General before prosecutions can be instituted. As I have already said, that provision, together with the high threshold of hatred, means that spurious and vexatious cases will not come to court.
That is the detail of the Bill. It is clear from previous debates and from the exchanges that we have already had today that the debate is not so much about the principle of what the Government are trying to achieve as about concerns that relate to the detailed wording of the legislation, and I am sure that that there will be considerable discussion about that.
As I have said before, I want to emphasise that, although dealing with incitement to religious hatred was a clear manifesto commitment, it is the job of Parliament to legislate, and I respect that role. We are therefore approaching this issue in an open-minded way, and I hope that the Opposition and others will also do so. We will carefully consider any suggestion for how the wording of the Bill might be improved—in particular, to address concerns about freedom of speech.
We may be able to do other things in relation to the legislation that might ease people's concerns. Such proposals might involve not the wording of the legislation itself, but practical ways in which we can ensure that it operates in the way intended. For example, that might include guidance, drawn up in consultation with all interested parties, to the police, faith groups and community leaders. It might involve looking at how the effectiveness of the offence can be monitored. I am sure that we can return to those issues in subsequent debates.
The final aspect that I want to mention is the question of blasphemy. As I made clear in response to a question from the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon during the debate on the Queen's Speech on
I hope that we will have a chance later in the debate to return to blasphemy. Does the Home Secretary accept that the Bill will have a chilling effect and that the stop point of the Attorney-General is no consolation to those who have been arrested or questioned by the police? Let me give an example for argument's sake. If a group of fundamentalist Christians are spreading vilification and humiliation against gay people—I notice that they do not have the protection that the Home Secretary is extending to those who follow a religion—and I were to say outside the House that those Christian bigots should be despised and, indeed, hated for their views, can he guarantee that I would not be visited by the police and questioned, let alone reach the stage where the Attorney-General decides, for the convenience of the Government, to let me off?
First, no Attorney-General would consider the matter from the point of view of Government convenience at any time. Secondly, the assurances that I have already given meet the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. [Hon. Members: "No, they don't."] Yes, they do. Thirdly, what the hon. Gentleman must take very seriously indeed when he uses the word "chilling" are the comments made a moment or two ago by my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman. The chilling nature of what happens is experienced by people who are subject to the incitement to hatred, and we must deal with removing that chill.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people who are horrified by the rise in anti-Muslim abuse, violence and harassment since 9/11, described by my hon. Friend Mr. Khan in his article in the Evening Standard today, and who have themselves been victims of racism, are none the less troubled by the Bill? One reason why some of us are troubled is that we remember when the clamour first arose for the protection of Islam as a religion, in the wake of publication of "The Satanic Verses" when there were marches, book-burnings and demands for protection. The demand then was for a blasphemy law for Islam, and the demand now is for a blasphemy law for Islam. How can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the measure will not, by case law and other mutations, turn into just that: a blasphemy law for Islam?
I accept that there are concerns and my hon. Friend is right to say that they have been reflected in debate but I repeat that I do not believe that those concerns are justified, for the reasons that I have tried to set out. I specifically do not propose either a change to the blasphemy law or a new blasphemy law. The issues relating to "The Satanic Verses" were about blasphemy, not incitement to hatred. There are substantial protections in the Bill and in the conduct of any future Government which mean that the kind of change about which my hon. Friend is concerned could not happen.
Can the Home Secretary clear up a fundamental point and give the House an unambiguous assurance that a simple statement of religious exclusivity—that one religion has the key to salvation and that another or others do not—will not in any circumstances be regarded as incitement to racial hatred and thus a criminal offence?
May I take the Home Secretary back to the point about who defines what a religion is? When Lafayette Ron Hubbard set up scientology, he found it convenient to call it the Church of Scientology, but it is actually a dangerous organisation that preys on people with mental illness, and most of us would want to make that clear. However, it would be difficult to do so without indicating that one was very unhappy about those who promulgate scientology and make money from it. Self-certification of religion could be a means for outrageous and sometimes criminal organisations to protect themselves, which must be of considerable concern.
The right hon. Gentleman and I have never discussed scientology, but on the basis of what he has just said I suspect we hold a similar view of the nature of that organisation. I must return to a point I have made already: the fact is that the Bill is about incitement to hatred, so for the right hon. Gentleman, or indeed me as Home Secretary, to set out our views and approaches about scientology is perfectly legitimate and will continue to be so.
I should like to be helpful to the Government, so can the Home Secretary give the House an example of a case of incitement to religious hatred that could have been brought under the proposals?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman wants to be helpful but I shall not get involved in judging individual cases. That is not my role; it is a question for legislation and the courts.
I have been listening carefully to my right hon. Friend and have no doubts about his good intentions, but does he acknowledge that many people are concerned not about the intentions or the content of the Bill, but that once it is enacted it could create a climate of over-cautious opinion whereby some people would avoid democratic scrutiny, debate or criticism of religion, or indeed of the absence of religious belief? Will my right hon. Friend do what he can, both in his remarks today and in the Bill, to alleviate those legitimate concerns?
As I have already said, I am prepared to consider amendments and other proposals to do just that, but I emphasise yet again that robust argument about such issues is an essential part of our society and should be promoted. Indeed, when I was Secretary of State for Education and Skills I was involved in the development of the non-statutory framework for religious education in schools, which is predicated precisely on children at school being able to discuss frankly the strengths and weaknesses of particular religions. By the way, all the main religions in the country signed up to that as the right approach. We want more debate about those things, not less, and the Bill will make that more rather than less likely.
We are all trying to grapple with what the Bill will ban and why. Will the Home Secretary clear up some doubt in my mind about whether it is intended to outlaw the public or private recitation of the many passages of the Koran that evidently incite hatred and the extreme dislike of Jews, Christians and other people on the basis of their religious beliefs? Will such recitation be captured by the Bill?
Absolutely not, so I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he is looking for. I know that he normally sorts himself out when trying to get clarity, but the private and public recitation of bits of the Koran is not incitement to hatred.
The Home Secretary said earlier that today is not the day for dealing with the question of reforming the blasphemy laws. However, I urge him to move forward on that issue because one of the obscenities of those laws is that they protect only the tenets of the Church of England. I have tried over the years to understand what those tenets are, but it is sometimes rather like knowing where the beginning and end of mist is. Will he indicate when and how he intends to move forward towards the reform of the blasphemy laws?
The Home Secretary is being very generous in giving way. The problem that many of us see with the Bill is not the expectation of a large number of prosecutions—I accept from the Home Secretary that the locks are there to prevent that from happening. We think, however, that there is a high likelihood of vexatious or other complaints to the police that will result in investigation and which will thus effectively lead to the harassment of people who are legitimately proselytising their faith or behaving properly, which will have an effect on free speech. The Home Secretary said that he was open to suggestions about giving guidance to the police and others on how to interpret the Bill. It might be useful to produce draft guidelines before the Committee stage so that everyone will know his exact intentions and the limitations of how the legislation will be used.
The hon. Gentleman has answered his own question in part because the guidance will be an important element of the process. The protections that I set out earlier to deal with the possibility of vexatious complaints are legitimate. I cannot give an absolute assurance to publish the draft guidance before the Bill is considered in Committee, but I assure him that we will produce it as soon as possible in the best way that we can.
May I press the Home Secretary on the question of intent, which is a reason why many of us have severe reservations about the Bill? In reply to a question asked by my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe, the Home Secretary seemed to imply that intent would be required, but even given his remarks about the Public Order Act 1986, the explanatory notes seem to suggest that the accused would be responsible for the unintended and unforeseen reactions to his comments. Does he accept that that would take the law into dangerous territory and, if so, will he tell us how he will ensure that the Bill does not catch those who do not have the intent of inciting religious hatred?
I do not think that I have anything to add to my earlier reply to a similar question, except to say, as I have been trying to say throughout the debate, that we will be open to amendments if they deal with such points. However, what I said earlier was very clear.
Of course we all want to build a tolerant society in which there is respect for each other's religious beliefs, but I am worried about unintended consequences of the Bill that might increase racial and religious tensions. What is the specific activity currently going on out there that the Home Secretary wishes to arrest and which is not caught by legislation already on the statute book? Will he give examples of what is going on now that he is trying to stop so that we know why we are legislating?
Incitement to hatred takes place in relation to certain racial and religious groups and individuals. There is currently the power in legislation to deal with that in relation to certain of those groups and not others. I believe and I argue—I think that this is substantiated—that we can deal with the matter effectively by ensuring that all groups are protected and covered.
We all share the intents and the motives that lie behind the Bill. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that, in his opinion, there is not a risk that the effect of the Bill will be to dilute the incitement of racial hatred, a matter that all of us accept must be dealt with? The Bill has clarity but there is still difficulty in bringing cases before the courts. By adding religion and all the problems of interpretation, is there not a danger that we will throw the baby out with the bath water?
I do not think that the risk to which my hon. Friend refers is there. We are adding to the existing legal framework rather than diluting or watering down in any respect the existing framework. It is an addition to try to ensure that we get to a state of affairs where every group is protected in a similar way.
Not only is intent not required for this offence, but the Home Secretary is widening the scope of the offence where intent is not required. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that many people in this country are, unfortunately, likely to be stirred up to religious hatred on a nothing. The way in which subsection (3)(b) is worded means that somebody making a comment from a biblical text or from a text in the Koran to an audience of learned people, which is then repeated to an audience of extremists, would be responsible for inciting hatred. The same comments, quoted from the same holy book, might well be taken by those extremists in a completely different sense, and their hatred would therefore be incited.
That is a point that we have addressed on many occasions before and already in our discussion today. I do not accept the definition that the hon. Gentleman comes to.
We have had a full and lively debate, and I am confident that the Bill will undergo detailed scrutiny in Committee. That is right because of the interest that the Bill has generated inside and outside Parliament. I understand the genuine concern that some hon. Members on both sides of the House have about the impact that the Bill may have on freedom of expression, although I say again that the Joint Committee on Human Rights of this Parliament came to the view that the measures contained in it are unlikely to give rise to any violation of the right to freedom of expression. Nevertheless, I accept that the issue needs to be fully and properly debated. I note that there is near universal agreement that stirring up hatred against people because of their religious beliefs, or lack of belief, is wrong and that it is right that we should seek to deal with the problem. The disagreement is not about why or if we should deal with that behaviour, but how. Given that, I hope that the debate will be positive and constructive. I commend the Bill to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out from "That" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill because, while the Bill recognises the problems caused by extremists seeking to stir up hatred against others on the grounds of their ethnic identity, by creating a new offence of inciting religious hatred, it will disproportionately curtail freedom of expression, worsen community relations as different religious and belief groups call for the prosecution of their opponents, create uncertainty as to what words or behaviour are lawful and lead to the selective application of the law in a manner likely to bring it into disrepute."
I pick up immediately on the Home Secretary's final words. He pointed out that, effectively, this is the third time that this proposed legislation has been presented to the House. Therefore, it is important that we get it right and that we deal with it coolly and clinically. In view of the comments of Sir Gerald Kaufman and Mr. Winnick, I shall read an extract that was put into the record by Lord Alli in supporting the Government. He read out a verse from one of Hitler's most ardent opponents, Pastor Martin Neimoeller, which everyone will recognise. It reads:
"First, they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me".
That is a famous verse and I suspect that everyone in the Chamber understands and agrees entirely with the sentiments that are expressed within it. I hope that the Home Secretary and the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, when they read Hansard, will accept that.
We all abhor discrimination and attempts to stir up hatred on whatever grounds. I am glad that the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety is in the Chamber, as I should like to respond to a striking contribution that she made to a previous debate. She claimed:
"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".—[Hansard, 7 February 2005; Vol. 430, c. 1224.]
That argument is clearly absurd. Before Ministers throw around any more silly accusations, they should remember that the Bill's opponents include Liberty, the writers' organisation PEN, and many seasoned campaigners against discrimination—not least Lord Lester, who has 40 years experience of campaigning on race relations.
As the Home Secretary suggested at the end of his speech, we are not debating whether discrimination is right or wrong, but how we balance a belief in freedom and tolerance with the rights and interests of minorities. That balance is important and we do not believe that the Bill achieves it. The Bill is wrong in principle, it would be barely workable in practice and, arguably, it is unnecessary in any event. It has also raised expectations among minority communities, who are likely to be seriously disappointed if the law were brought into effect. Above all, a basic principle is at stake. We believe that the best way to target someone who hates others because of what they believe is through the force of argument, rather than the law. Criminal law should be used to punish people who do injury to the person, the property or the liberty of the individual, not simply offend their beliefs or feelings. That is the crucial difference between the proposals in the Bill and the original piece of legislation that it seeks to amend.
In 1986, the Conservative Government rightly sought to criminalise people who attempted to stir up hatred on the ground of race, because race is not something that someone chooses, as Mr. Marshall-Andrews pointed out. It is who they are—it is their very person. An attack on race is an attack on the individual. Religious belief is quite different—it is something that someone chooses or, indeed, chooses to opt out of. There are many different religions with competing claims and competing ways of life. It is entirely appropriate to debate the merits of each, to question the basis on which a religion is founded and, by implication, to challenge the way in which someone lives his life.
I do accept that and, unlike the Home Secretary, I shall illustrate the point with an individual case later. If I do not do so, I am happy to accept another intervention from the hon. Gentleman.
My right hon. Friend talked about the balance between freedom and the need to protect people against discrimination. However, if we wish to restrict freedom, we must come to the House with specific cases that require extremely serious legislation. Has he noticed that the Home Secretary has not at any time produced a single case that would necessitate the introduction of legislation? All that he has done—and I understand why—is suggest that if people stir up hatred for religious reasons it is a very unpleasant thing. I agree that it is, but he has not adduced a case for the law.
My right hon. Friend, as always, predicts my argument. He is entirely right, as a notable feature of our debate is the fact that the law is so vague that even the Home Secretary cannot get it right. When he said that intent was required, he was wrong. The law does not say that—he missed out the word "or" in the relevant provision.
As my right hon. Friend said, the Government propose to limit the debate. They say that that is not the case and that the Attorney-General will decide if someone has gone too far and broken the law. That is their lock, as they call it. Before it reaches that stage, however, an individual can be investigated and have his character called into question. It is not clear why anyone should face that prospect, or why anyone should continue to pursue activities, whether writing, comedy or science, that put them at such risk. Inevitably, we will end up with a situation where serious debate and freedom of speech are limited. Our society and our tradition of tolerance will be poorer as a result.
There are a number of problems with the Bill. First, it is not clear what the real intention is. When we first debated these proposals in the original Bill, the previous Home Secretary said:
"It will not criminalise material just because it stirs up ridicule, prejudice, dislike, contempt, anger or similar causes. It is about inciting people in a way that will damage those individuals because of their religion, not because of their beliefs."—[Official Report,
That is a confusing definition, to say the least, and it is not made clear in the current draft of the Bill.
Let me give a first case example, to meet the suggestion of my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer. The remarks that I shall quote came from the Prime Minister when he was justifying his decision to undertake the war in Iraq. He said:
"But what galvanised me was that it was a declaration of war by religious fanatics who were prepared to wage that war without limit. They killed 3,000. But if they could have killed 30,000 or 300,000 they would have rejoiced in it. The purpose was to cause such hatred between Moslems and the West that a religious jihad became a reality"— the words of the Prime Minister, justifying his decision to start the war in Iraq. It is entirely possible that those words could have been caught under the definitions in the new law—so much so that a former Lord Chancellor, debating the Bill in the other place earlier, said that he would find it difficult to mount a defence of the Prime Minister under the proposed law.
Of course, if the debate is about tolerance it is about intolerance as well. I am arguing that we are confronting a major change in the balance between freedom of speech and the right to say what one likes about—[Interruption.] I see the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton is back. I am sorry that he did not hear the beginning of my speech. We are confronting a major change in the balance of freedom of speech. The Bill is insufficiently precise. There are ways in which we can deal with the issue before the House, and I shall come to that later, but the Bill is not it. It is too general, too wide, too vague and too dangerous.
I, too, am glad that Sir Gerald Kaufman is back in his place. Was it not the case that the illustration that he gave in support of the Home Secretary's proposals had absolutely nothing to do with the Bill? It could not have been affected in any way by the new offences that will be put on the statute book. It underlines the need for a proper anti-discrimination act, which we still await.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I shall come back to that individual case in a moment.
The second problem with the Bill is that it is questionable whether it would, if enacted, protect minority groups in the way that they hope. For example, many Muslims believe that the Bill would stop the defamation of the character of the Prophet Mohammed. Many believe the new law would be a substitute blasphemy law that would protect their religion from criticism. However, the Government have confirmed that that is not the intention, so the situation is confused. Would, for example, the author Salman Rushdie have been prosecuted for "The Satanic Verses", which undermined the Koran and suggested that the foundations of the Muslim faith were bogus? If the answer is yes, we are in dangerous territory, but if the Home Secretary again says no, we are in danger of bringing the legislation into disrepute and of upsetting groups of people whom the Bill is intended to protect.
Not only will many sections of the community be disappointed by the Bill, but they may also find that things are made considerably worse. We risk creating a tit-for-tat situation which encourages suspicion and mistrust between religions, rather than the harmony that we seek. That has been the experience in Australia. The Home Secretary says the law is different there. I shall be interested to see how the courts judge between vilification and incitement to hatred. It is an interesting distinction. Amir Butler, the executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee and a former supporter of religious hatred laws, has explained how the practice of those laws made him change his mind.
The difference is substantial. Section 8 of Victoria's Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 makes it an offence for a person to engage in conduct that incites not only hatred against, but also serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of, another person or class of people. The difference in definition is massive; it is not a minor difference of interpretation.
The overlap between that legislation and this Bill is enormous.
Amir Butler found that after Muslims brought a case against a Christian organisation, Muslim festivals and meetings were regularly attended by Christian evangelist groups attempting to find breaches of the law—this sort of legislation will encourage that sort of thing. The outcome in Australia was an unintended consequence of the legislation and it has forced Amir Butler, who was a major proponent of those laws, to oppose them. As he now says:
"The real key to social cohesion is honest dialogue. A dialogue, unfettered by political correctness, that is based on recognition that we have different ideas."
The Bill undermines the religious freedoms that it is intended to protect.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that Justice, an independent, all-party human rights and law reform organisation, supports his proposition that the Bill may make the situation worse? It fears that provisions that are intended to increase tolerance may in fact increase intolerance.
It is entirely unsurprising that Justice supports that proposition. When other countries have introduced this sort of draconian law to restrict freedom of speech, support has increased for the sort of far-right parties that the Bill is intended if not to suppress, then to limit. After such laws were implemented in France, Jean-Marie Le Pen experienced increased support. Far-right parties have also thrived in Canada, Denmark and Holland as result of such laws.
For us to allow such a change to the law here, the Government must prove categorically that the change is necessary and that the existing laws are not up to the job. To date, they have failed to prove that case—indeed, the Home Secretary has failed to prove it today. Lord Colville, the Chairman of the Lords Select Committee that wrote the definitive report on the subject, said:
"There is a very substantial amount of criminal law relating to incitement . . . I do not believe it has all yet been tried out before we invent something else."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 22 April 2004; Vol. 660, c. 446–47.]
We do not have to rely on Lord Colville's opinion—let us look also at the facts. A man called Norwood was recently successfully prosecuted by the police for putting a notice in the window of his house suggesting that Islam should be banished from the UK and associating Islam with the outrage of 9/11. In another recent case, a street preacher who held up a banner attacking homosexuality while proclaiming, "Jesus is Lord" was prosecuted under existing public order legislation. I understand that the Crown Prosecution Service is currently monitoring 70 to 80 religiously aggravated offences, so more examples may be on the way.
Has my right hon. Friend noticed that whenever we adduce a specific example of what might be called hatred, the Home Secretary says, "Oh no, this law will not cover that."? He has not given us a single example. I am beginning to think that this is not a dangerous Bill, but mere posturing, because ample legislation already exists to deal with the issues. If that is not the case, will the Home Secretary give a single example of an offence that would not be caught by existing legislation?
I am not sure about the rules governing such an exchange between myself and the Home Secretary, but my hon. Friend may be right. The simple truth is that the Bill is dangerous because it is so vague, so wide and so ill-defined.
My hon. Friend is also right on the question of other legislation. Aside from the Public Order Act 1986, the Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated the concept of religious freedom into British law, incitement is already a recognised criminal offence, judges already have the power to increase sentences if they find that religion is an aggravating factor in a crime, and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 gave people extra protection against hate crimes, whatever their motivation.
On the subject of specifics, my right hon. Friend will be aware that virulently homophobic lyrics in some reggae songs urge the murder of lesbians and gay men. Given that the best-selling artist Beenie Man sings, "Hang lesbians with a long piece of rope", and that Elephant Man sings, "Queers must be killed", and that no legal action whatsoever has been taken to prevent the sale or distribution of such material, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Home Secretary, even if he does not think that this is an appropriate Bill to tackle such matters, has a responsibility to explain how he intends to ensure that that incitement of hatred is not permitted and that the interests and safety of lesbians and gay men are protected?
I do not know the individual cases to which my hon. Friend refers, and it would not be right for me to comment on them, but it is certainly the case that incitement to violence and hatred of that nature ought to be prosecuted with the full force of the law—I have no doubt about that.
Does my right hon. Friend believe that a likelihood—"likely" is the word used in the Bill—on the part of one person to invoke thoughts and feelings that could be construed as religious hatred can ever be quantified safely or consistently in the courts?
No, I do not. My hon. Friend strikes at a very serious weakness at the heart of the Bill, and I shall return to that in a moment.
We do not need to pass a Bill dealing specifically and narrowly with religious hatred. Indeed, if the Government really want to act on this issue—if it is not just a posture, as my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh suggests—it would be simpler and preferable to introduce the notion of religious hatred being a pretext for racial hatred. That course of action was supported by the Conservative and Liberal parties in both Houses and by important groups such as Liberty. It would be simpler, more precise and more effective; it would do the job that is needed if this problem exists; and it would achieve what the Government want without the need for a political clash and the elaborate gesture of a new law on the statute book.
I want to turn briefly to some of the specific drafting issues that concern us. As we have heard, there is no definition of the word "religion" in the Bill; instead, it will be for the courts to decide what is or is not a religion. In short, we are being asked to pass a contentious and illiberal piece of legislation without really knowing what we are voting for. Equally, by failing to define clearly what is meant by the word "religion", we are leaving the way clear for anybody—be they racists, far-right groups or whatever—to set themselves up as a religion and thereby give themselves protection, which is the very opposite of what we are trying to do. Would that stop mainstream politicians or anyone else from attacking their views, which most right-thinking people would find distasteful at least? Are we not also in danger of causing harm while seeking to do good? Members will be familiar, I am sure, with organisations such as Catalyst, a group that exists to help people escape from cults that have entrapped or enslaved them. If cults are to be accepted as religions, the good work that groups such as Catalyst do may become impossible.
The second problem is that of intent. The Bill states that the offence will be caused when "words, behaviour or material" are
"likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom . . . they are likely to stir up . . . hatred."
That is a completely subjective judgment. How on earth can one see into the mind of someone else to judge how they will react to something that one might say? Once again, this holds important implications for the standards of debate and tolerance in our society.
I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman did not listen to the first half of my speech. The point about the Public Order Act 1986 is that it covers race, which is not a matter of choice. The 1986 Act is clear cut; the Bill is not. What constitutes an act to incite hatred of a race is obvious. However, it is not at all clear whether, for example, reading from the Verse of the Sword in the Koran would be covered by the measure, but it could be.
The point is not about race, to which we shall doubtless revert in the debate. The right hon. Gentleman's criticism of the drafting of the Bill was that it asked people to look inside others' heads to work out the effect of an action. Precisely the same test applies in the 1986 Act. If he thinks that it cannot be done, does he believe that the 1986 Act is flawed?
The right hon. Gentleman misses the point. If one is discussing a perfectly reasonable point of debate, such as the nature of a religion or the consequences of choosing a specific religion, that has implications that a court could interpret, under the Bill, as inciting hatred. The sort of thing that one would say to incite hatred against a race is clear cut.
The right hon. Gentleman hangs his argument on the basis that there is a substantial difference between a faith and a race because one chooses one's faith but not one's race. I contest the argument that everyone chooses his faith. As the House of Lords report on religious offences made clear, many people in this country live in communities where they have little choice about the faith to which they adhere and are always believed by other people, because of the clothes that they wear, to belong to a particular faith. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to soften the edges of his argument about choice and faith.
I am afraid that I shall not do so because I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's perspective. One is born with and cannot escape one's race. One may be born with religion, but one can decide to opt in, opt out or change. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's argument.
It is no defence for the Government to say that the final decision lies with the Attorney-General. As we have experienced in recent years, the Attorney-General holds an increasingly political position in public life. He or she may hold particular religious views and there will be public pressure on both sides of the argument so that even when the Attorney-General refuses to consent to prosecutions, it will be a recipe not for more tolerance and harmony, but the opposite. We therefore have serious concerns about the Attorney-General's role in policing the proposed new law. It is a measure of the Bill's weakness that the Government believe that they need the so-called lock.
All human beings are equal before the law. That is precisely why the previous Conservative Government introduced the legislation on race. However, beliefs are subjective. They are chosen and can be picked up or put down on the basis of their merits, which are discovered only through reasoned argument and debate. The ability to hold those debates reasonably and sensibly has sustained Britain's culture of tolerance over the years.
I remind the Home Secretary that tolerance is displayed by putting up not with what one agrees with, but with what one disagrees with. As Voltaire said: "I disagree with what you say but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it." It is a well-known phrase, but Voltaire fled to Britain to escape persecution because of our culture of tolerance and free speech.
Doubtless, many contributors to the debate will be from the legal profession. They can highlight better than me the intricate failings of the Bill and the way in which it will be translated into law. However, for Conservative Members the principle is clear. The basis of our society is a belief in free speech. Britain learned long ago that more freedom of speech leads to more vigorous debate, which leads to more tolerance. Evil ideas should be met with challenge, not silence. Any attempt to limit free speech must be made only when the need to do so is proven overwhelmingly. On this occasion, it has not been.
I shall finish by quoting Mr. Soli Sorabjee, the eminent Attorney-General of India, who is possibly the greatest expert in the world on these issues. In his evidence on incitement to religious hatred to the Colville committee, he said that
"experience shows that criminal laws prohibiting hate speech and expression will encourage intolerance . . . we need not more repressive laws but more free speech to combat bigotry and promote tolerance".
It is in the understanding of this point that the real difference between the Government and the Opposition lies. That is why we shall vote against the Bill.
I shall start by making a declaration that I am a person of no religious belief, and that I have in the past sought to get rid of the blasphemy law. I do not believe that anyone should be harassed or assaulted, or live in fear, because of their religious beliefs, but they are and they do, in our country today. This happens to Muslim mothers collecting their children from school, and to Muslim men going to and from their place of worship. Muslim homes are stoned and fire-bombed. Yet our laws offer no special protection to Muslims against the incitement to hatred of them because of their religion, although they do protect Jews, Sikhs and members of the Church of England. I believe in equality before the law, and I therefore support the Government's proposals to make incitement to hatred of people on the ground of their religion unlawful. If Opposition Members want an example, we want to stop the hatemongers targeting their spleen against women who cover their heads and faces, which will happen somewhere in England today.
Not at the moment.
Most of the objections to the Bill seem to be based on the belief that it will be an extension of the blasphemy law, or that others will expect the blasphemy law to be extended. If the Government were proposing to extend the blasphemy law, I would oppose them to the last. I am not a believer and, as I have said, I have worked for the abolition of that law. I should remind Opposition Members that it covers only the Church of England, and that it does so only on the basis of a decision made at York summer assizes in 1838. If the Bill were widely drawn, it might extend that ludicrous law, but it is not.
There is no parallel with the situation in the Australian state of Victoria. To commit an offence under the Bill, someone will, through their expression or behaviour, have to intend to stir up hatred or, in all circumstances, be likely to do so.
No, I will not.
The Bill would not stop "The Satanic Verses". It would not be useful against Gary Springer—[Hon. Members: "Jerry Springer!"] Jerry Springer: he has changed his name to protect the innocent—[Hon. Members: "Gary Streeter!] And if the Tories cannot even decide who Gary Streeter is, I must be allowed a slip of the tongue.
The existing protection of Sikhs did not make it possible to prosecute anyone for the performance of "Behzti" in Birmingham. Another objection that I have heard on television and the radio and seen in newspapers is that the Government are doing this only to regain Muslim votes that were lost as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Anyone who thinks that must be an innumerate half-wit. It cannot be true: the Government first proposed the law to the House in November 2001, following a massive increase in the number of attacks on Muslim people after the evil events of
No, I will not.
What the Government did is what should happen in a democracy. If people are being oppressed, if people are being assaulted, if people are being assailed, we should try to offer them protection.
There is a fear that the Bill may offer special privileges to religious groups. I am glad to say that it also covers people who do not have any religious beliefs, partly, I hope, as a result of representations by me and by other Labour Members. Lawyers have said—as have some Conservative Members—that there may be problems with the interpretation of "incitement". The courts have always had problems with interpreting "incitement": there are all sorts of laws involving it. Then there is the question of how to define "religion". We deliberately did not define "race", which is quite difficult to define. We left the definition to the courts in the case of incitement to racial hatred.
Some objections to the proposals may be valid. No law is perfect. As has already been said, there is a danger of tit-for-tat activity on the part of one religious group against another; but, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has pointed out, there is a fair degree of protection from that, culminating in the requirement for the Attorney-General's consent. I think that we can expect the Attorney-General to try and keep the lid on tit-for-tat activity. There is the possibility of the Attorney-General's being accused of religious bias, but that did not happen much in the case of race, and I see no reason why it is likely to happen in the case of religion.
Another argument is that while it is appropriate to cover race in legislation because people cannot change their race, it is inappropriate to provide similar protection in regard to religion because people can change their religion. Let us think about it. The logic of the argument is that if people do not like being subject to assault and hatred because of their religion, they can always change their religion. That is a sickening invitation to intimidation. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend Chris Bryant, most people are born into their religion just as much as they are born into their race.
I believe that the laws against incitement to racial hatred have worked—imperfectly, like all laws. Not many cases have been brought, but the test is not the number of cases that have been brought, or at least that is not the only test. The law that the Tories introduced—they deserve credit for that—backed up the moral and ethical position that incitement to racial hatred was wrong. As a result of that declaratory effect, the stirring up of hatred on grounds of race has declined. Some people have been a bit more careful about what they say.
That brings me to the objections expressed by comedians and clerics. The comedians apparently think that they would be breaking the law if they made jokes about religion; but they would be breaking the law only if they used threats, abuse and insults with the intention of stirring up hatred, or if in all the circumstances they were likely to do so. If a comedian needs the right to do that, we have the right to stop him or her, and I believe that that is what we should do. I do not believe that any comedians, or clerics, need the right to set out to stir up hatred against any of their fellow citizens. They would be in a sad state if they did.
The police and others tell us that it is almost inevitable that there will be some terrible terrorist incident, no matter how hard we try to prevent it. I think that we need to enact the law in advance, and try to ensure that if there is a terrible incident we do not see the irrational but, again, almost inevitable attacks on, say, a particular religious group if members of that group are accused of being the cause of it. We need to be leading the way, not dragging along behind.
The object of laws is to persuade people not to do things, partly by threatening them and partly by declaring that some things are right and some are wrong. If we do not take this opportunity to declare that incitement to hatred of people on the grounds of their religion is wrong, we will declare that we tolerate its continued existence. We should not do that.
May I start, some may say uncharacteristically, by trying to accentuate a few of the positives about the Bill? As regards the analysis of the problem, I share a great deal of common ground with Frank Dobson, as do all Liberal Democrats. We think it is right that the Government have recognised a major issue, that there should be no complacency about the growth in Islamophobia and that there should be no equivocation in any quarter in the criticism of groups such as the British National party, and others that seek to promote Islamophobia and prosper on the back of it. The difficulty I have with the position outlined by the Home Secretary and the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras relates to the Government's apparent insistence that their way of proceeding is the only way. They seek to present the choice as being between doing nothing—continuing to tolerate the growth of Islamophobia, hatred attacks and the rest of it—and doing what they wish to do.
This is the third time we have been round this particular course. Both this House and the other place have already had the benefit of considering the amendment tabled by my noble and learned Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill, so we know there is another way of proceeding. That is the basis on which my right hon. and hon. Friends and I and Conservative Members have tabled the reasoned amendment.
I can see why the Bill is attractive to many groups, especially to many Muslim groups, but this is not a debate about who is supporting and who is opposing Muslim groups in ethnically diverse communities. I bring to the House's attention the comments of Dr. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui of the Muslim Parliament of Britain on
"The moslem concern for protection, equality and social inclusion is real and genuine . . . This law will be cosmetic and fail to prevent the abuses hurled at Muslims."
I hope that, in seeking to protect the vulnerable groups in their communities, those who come from ethnically diverse communities—not a label that one would normally attach to my constituency—will listen closely to such comments.
I think Dr. Siddiqui supports what has been called the Lester amendment. I invite my hon. Friend to comment on the points made by Frank Dobson. Under that amendment, offences not already covered by the public order offence of incitement to violence would be dealt with by extending race hate to cover the use of religious words as a proxy for race hate. It would also deal with the problem of discrimination between religions, as Sikhs and Jews would be covered under race hate by the fact that theirs are mono-ethnic religions. Does not the Lester amendment deal with all the points that the right hon. Gentleman raised?
It will come as no great surprise to anyone in the House to hear me say that I agree with my hon. Friend on this occasion, as I do on most. I listened with great care to the litany that the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras produced. I could not identify anything within that list that would not in theory at least be caught by the current law—particularly incitement to violence, incitement to harassment and the multiplicity of common law offences that are at the prosecuting authorities' disposal.
The benefit of the Lester amendment is that it takes a belt and braces approach. In the event of a scenario arising that we—and even the right hon. Gentleman—have not yet envisaged, the Lester amendment would cover it. That is the sensible approach. That is why I say that the choice is not between following the Government and supporting the Bill, and doing nothing. The mischief at which the Government seek to strike is the pernicious use of religion as a proxy for race. The BNP and others know what will happen to them if they incite hatred on the basis of ethnicity. It is less clear what will happen to them if they do so on the basis of religion, so that is the basis on which they proceed.
It is worth remembering that Lord Lester's amendment came in two parts. My hon. Friend Dr. Harris has referred to the first part, so I will not read it into the record. The second part related to freedom of expression:
"Nothing in Part 3 of the Public Order Act 1986 shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy or dislike of particular religions or their adherents, or of any other belief system or its adherents, or proselytizing one's own religion or belief system or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising theirs."
Whatever view one takes of the first part of the amendment, I cannot for the life of me see what the Government's objection would be to that express protection for freedom of religious expression being included in the Bill. I do not understand why the Government shy away from giving some comfort to evangelical Christians and others who see the Bill as a threat to their freedom of expression. Lord Lester's amendment leaves no hiding place for the BNP, but it still provides some protection for the rights of freedom of expression, especially the rights of artistic and religious freedom, which could otherwise be threatened.
It is worth considering how those threats may arise. My primary concern is about the misuse of the powers by the prosecuting authorities. Others have given examples of the "chilling of expression" that could arise as a result of interview, arrest or detention by the police. That is worth considering.
We also have to look at the manner in which the 1986 Act is being amended. The Home Secretary is right to say that hatred is set at a high threshold. The Government have set the bar fairly high, but I come back to the point about likelihood, which arises in relation to subsection (1)(b). The amendment to section 19 entitled "Publishing or distributing written material" covers fairly clearly those who intend to stir up racial or religious hatred. But then substituted for subsection (1)(b) are the words:
"having regard to all the circumstances the words, behaviour or material are (or is) likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom they are (or it is) likely to stir up racial or religious hatred."
That is a significant lowering of the bar that has been set by the provision dealing with hatred. In addition, it makes it very difficult for a person to regulate their conduct according to the offence. It is surely one of the principles of natural justice that law has to be clear to allow the citizen to regulate their conduct. In this case, one can be guilty of an offence not just on the basis of what one has said, done or published but on the basis of what someone else has done, because the provision relates to the likelihood of a person having access to it. That is profoundly worrying.
As I said earlier, the wording of the provision on incitement, concerning the effect that particular words or actions have on a person, is precisely the same as the wording used in the Public Order Act 1986. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Liberal Democrats oppose the provisions on racial incitement in that Act because of that drafting?
I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman has enabled me to return to this point, which he raised earlier. He must have regard to the terms of the Bill that he supports. The terms of the 1986 Act and of the Bill are not exactly the same—the latter substantially amend the former. The 1986 Act uses the phrase,
"having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby."
Once amended, the Act would use the phrase,
"having regard to all the circumstances the words, behaviour or material are (or is) likely to be heard or seen by any person in whom they are (or it is) likely to stir up racial or religious hatred."
That is a very different test. I should also point out that it is right that we apply different tests to racial and religious hatred, because the distinction is an important one.
The hon. Gentleman is right on this issue; indeed, Frank Dobson talked repeatedly about the 1986 Act, rather than the amended version that is being presented to the House. One consequence of this provision is that it will be possible for somebody to address, using terms that may be insulting to a religion, an audience whom he knows will not feel insulted, have those words reproduced to another audience, who are insulted, and be guilty of the offence. That is what the Government are setting out to do in their proposed new paragraph (b).
The hon. Gentleman makes the point elegantly. I have spent some time on this issue already and I do not intend to reiterate his points.
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves this subject, does he not agree that the example of the sword verse from the Koran is entirely relevant? If it were read by a group of people capable of understanding it, they might well not feel that it constituted incitement. But were it used in certain circles that we know of, it would be very difficult to claim, in the light of its wording, that it did not constitute incitement to hatred. The situation is exactly as the hon. Gentleman describes. This is a dangerous broadening of the meaning of the words, and as a result, the courts will be able to act in a manner that is unacceptable to this House.
I am with the right hon. Gentleman on this point completely. This is another reason why the Government's refusal to accept if not the first then at least the second part of Lord Lester's amendment, which would cure exactly the defect that the right hon. Gentleman correctly identifies, is all the more puzzling. I hope that when the Minister replies, he will shed some light on this issue, but given that we are going round this course for the third time, I shall not be holding my breath.
We should also consider the role of the Attorney-General, on which the Home Secretary laid particular stress. Here, we are talking about a potentially important protection. I do not underestimate that protection, and I am pleased that at the very least it will be retained. But that is not the end of the story. There are three distinct problems, the first of which is the changing nature of the functions performed by the Law Officers themselves. We saw that in the run-up to the war in Iraq, when the Attorney-General's advice was sought. Speaking as someone who worked as a civil servant with Law Officers in Scotland early in my career, it is clear to me that their job is changing dramatically. In fact, their role as an independent legal voice within the Government has been substantially diminished—a change that is devoutly to be regretted.
The second and more fundamental problem is that it is not the job of a Law Officer to establish boundaries of public policy in areas such as this. The question of what constitutes legitimate religious comment or incitement to religious hatred is surely one for which this place should be responsible; a Law Officer should not be required to adjudicate on it.
Surely such uncertainty is not just a matter for the courts. Most people want to stay out of court, and people in the creative industries will have to second-guess what the law may or may not make of their efforts. Is that not an additional problem, which cannot be dealt with by expert legal advice?
Indeed it is, and I shall return to that point. My hon. Friend is right: this is another example of the misuse of the Attorney-General's position, and the question of the self-censorship in which the Bill will result is not being addressed.
The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely right in the first place: he must have missed the point, because that was certainly not what I said. If he has the chance to consider the Official Report tomorrow, he will see that I said that questions of public policy and the boundaries that determine where such decisions should be made should be decided by this House. That is very different from saying that individual cases should be adjudicated in the way that the right hon. Gentleman was prompted to suggest.
My concern is that where complaint is made, the Attorney-General risks being brought into the political question whether proceedings should begin. These will be highly emotive and contentious questions that will further politicise and change the office of the Attorney-General in an unhelpful way.
Can the hon. Gentleman picture himself in the shoes of the Attorney-General? Let us say that in the run-up to a general election, there is a particular prosecution sitting on the desk of the Attorney-General—who attends Cabinet meetings—and a particular faith community, constituting some 10 per cent. or more of the vote, is clamouring for action. The political pressure on him to do the right thing would be substantial. Would he like to be in the Attorney-General's shoes in that situation? Actually, he probably would.
If an offer has been made. We already have the precedent in Scotland of the Solicitor-General being a solicitor, rather than a member of the Faculty of Advocates. I have no doubt that a solicitor could easily perform the functions of the Attorney-General and of course, if the opportunity arose, I would give it appropriate consideration.
To return to the serious point, the hon. Gentleman highlights the very political pressure that can be brought to bear on someone who is supposed to be a Law Officer. As I said earlier, we have already seen that political considerations are weighing much more heavily on Law Officers. As the Hutton and Butler reports have shown, the Attorney-General and other Law Officers are being asked for their advice in a manner that is much more political and much less objective. In fact, they are being asked to answer questions that lead in a particular direction, rather than being asked to give a definitive statement on the law, which was the traditional way in which such matters were proceeded with.
The cutting out of the Attorney-General in relation to racial hatred has been effective, but the House would be wrong to conclude that the same would necessarily be true if the principle were applied to religious hatred on the same basis. If we are not to deal with this issue before we consider the Bill in Committee, and given that we are likely to deal with the Report stage after the recess, we need to see the terms of the draft guidance that will be given by the Attorney-General on the operation of this provision. It seems to me that since the Government's case rests on saying that we should not worry about the theoretical position because they will make it work in practice, the ultimate judgment can be made only when we see the guidance that they intend to produce. I accept that it will not be available in Committee, which is regrettable. It makes me wonder why we are dealing with the Bill so early stage in the Session when it would have been possible to leave it for a few months to facilitate a more mature consultation with those affected and revisit the issues again in the autumn if necessary.
Is the hon. Gentleman's point not even more important given that this is the third time the legislation has been considered? I assume, perhaps naively, that the Government have had some thoughts about what sort of guidance they would instruct the Attorney-General to produce.
I would like to make that assumption, too, but I wonder if the hon. and learned Gentleman and I are both slightly naive in proceeding on that basis. The Minister can tell us whether the guidance exists in draft form. If so, perhaps he will be able to furnish members of the Committee with it before we start next week. It would certainly illuminate our proceedings if that happened.
I turn briefly to those who fear for artistic, as opposed to religious, expression—the comedians rather than the clerics. The Home Secretary has said that they will not be prosecuted. I do not have a problem with that; the right hon. Gentleman is probably right that such prosecutions are unlikely. Nevertheless, I remain concerned about the degree of self-censorship, and fear that the Bill will have some impact. If we are mainly about sending signals, prosecutions are unnecessary, and one signal that has clearly been picked up by the artistic community is that its freedom will be curtailed. The Home Secretary will have to give more serious thought to that problem than he has hitherto.
It is incumbent on us as parliamentarians, in passing any piece of legislation, to consider the worst-case scenario. I am looking forward—in time, rather than in the sense of wanting something to happen—to circumstances in which we do not have a liberal Government and in which the Law Officers are substantially less liberal than at present. At that stage, the opportunity for abuse becomes immense. At some future stage, the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General might have a particular agenda or a beef with some religious group and in those circumstances the legislation would be open to abuse.
Chris Bryant refers from a sedentary position to Lord Mackay of Clashfern. Of course he was the Lord Chancellor, not the Attorney-General, but he may not be the worst example. The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that Lord Mackay of Clashfern was expelled from the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland because he attended the funeral of a Catholic colleague. If that had happened in England and after the Bill had been enacted, I wonder whether the Free Presbyterian Church would have been prosecuted for inciting religious hatred by expelling the noble Lord and treating him in that way.
At the heart of the Bill lies the distinction between things that are immutable, such as race, which should be protected, and those that are not because they are a matter of choice. [Interruption.] Once again, the hon. Member for Rhondda shouts from a sedentary position that faith is immutable, but I do not accept that. I am surprised at the idea that the Church of England is going down the path of predestination, which even the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland gave up about 150 or 200 years ago.
Another aspect of immutability that the hon. Member for Rhondda and I have debated in the past is sexual orientation. I believe that people are born with their sexual orientation, but if the Government have their way—to develop a point that was made earlier—it will be open for a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim to condemn homosexuals as perverted, damned and people to be hated. Many in the more fundamentalist sects of all three faiths might well do so.
As my hon. Friend says, under the Bill, we would not be able to call them bigots. If the Government's assurances are taken at face value, there would be no prosecutions of people making such assertions because their doing so would be covered by their freedom of religious expression. On the basis of religion, which is a matter of choice, it seems that it is all right to incite hatred of someone else for something over which they have no choice. That problem has not been adequately dealt with.
I am rather confused by your argument. Are you advocating that the law should be extended so that certain religious groups cannot say such things about homosexuals and lesbians, or are you advocating that they should be able to say them?
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, I must tell the hon. Lady that if she is referring to another hon. Member, she must use the third person; otherwise, she appears to be addressing the Chair.
I nevertheless take the hon. Lady's point, Sir Alan. In fact, the inconsistency lies at the heart of the Government's arguments. We are seeking to restrict the scope of the Bill generally, and in this particular example I am highlighting the inconsistency in the Government's approach.
I do not want to be unhelpful to my hon. Friend, but we should lay aside the issue of whether a religion or a faith position is a matter of choice. If, for example, after going through all the arguments someone was obliged to take an atheistic position and could not think otherwise, could that person choose to have a different faith position? I would say that they were more or less obliged, on the basis of the evidence before them, to stay where they were.
I fear that we may be joining the angels on the head of a pin. No, I disagree with my hon. Friend and I very much appreciate it when he says that he does not intend to be unhelpful. My hon. Friend cannot get away from the fact that certain things cannot be changed, no matter how much we want to change them. I am reminded of the comments of Chief Albert Luthuli, one of the earliest campaigners against apartheid. He referred to apartheid as being the only absolute tyranny because it discriminated against people on the basis of the one thing that they could not change—the colour of their skin. The distinction between absolute and relative tyranny is important as it is the reason why we distinguish between racial and religious hatred. There is nothing rational about racial hatred, but there is something rational about religious hatred. The distinction stands.
I view the Bill not in isolation, but as part of package from the Government that I find distinctly and profoundly worrying. With no particular coherent or strategic approach, the Government are seeking to redefine the nature of the relationship between the citizen and the state. It seems to me that they are playing fast and loose with the freedom of religion and freedom of expression, which, once lost, can never easily be regained. That is why my hon. Friends and I will enter the Lobby tonight in support of the reasoned amendment.
I start by paying tribute to my predecessor. Ann Taylor was the first woman to serve as Leader of the House, and the first to be Chief Whip. In both roles, she was renowned for her no-nonsense approach and her sound political judgment—although her judgment has been known to falter on occasion. What else could possibly explain her obsession with Bolton Wanderers?
Ann was not originally from Dewsbury. Like me, she crossed the Pennines to do missionary work in Yorkshire. I must admit that I wondered how a Lancastrian would go down in Yorkshire. I think that it probably helped when I reminded people that, in the wars of the roses, Dewsbury was part of the house of Lancaster, and that I had arrived merely to reclaim it. On a serious note, though, there is no greater privilege for a Lancastrian than to be granted adopted Yorkshireman status. It is a status of which I am extremely proud.
Ann and I follow in heroic but tragic footsteps. Wallace Hartley was born just down the road from my childhood home in Burnley. He too moved to Dewsbury before being offered the job of his dreams—as bandleader on the Titanic. I can only hope that my dream job representing the people of Dewsbury in Parliament does not end in quite so tragic a fashion.
Dewsbury has produced men who have changed the course of human history. They include Sir Owen Richardson, who won the Nobel prize for physics, Sir Clifford Allbutt, who invented the thermometer, and Tom Kilburn, who built the world's first computer. Then there is broadcaster Eddie Wareing, the voice of rugby league for millions. Obviously, Eddie did not quite change the course of human history, but few of us will forget his legendary performances on "It's a Knockout". There is also Patrick Stewart, who went on to boldly go where no man had been before.
Dewsbury can also lay claim to the first published work by the Brontë family—"Winter Evening Thoughts" by Patrick Brontë, father of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, and curate at Dewsbury parish church in 1810. However, such artistic achievements are dwarfed by those of Bert Lee, organist at Ravensthorpe Wesleyan chapel. Although he had never been in earshot of the bells of Bow church, he composed the Cockney classic "Knees Up Mother Brown." I am half tempted to ask my hon. Friend Stephen Pound for a rendition, but I fear that he will take me up on the offer, so I shall not do so.
Dewsbury has also produced some exceptional women, including Betty Lockwood, a miner's daughter who became the first chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, and Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords. Another is, of course, Betty Boothroyd, who spent 20 years searching for a parliamentary seat. It did not take me quite so long, although there were times when I wondered. Betty went on to become the first woman to hold the most noble, prestigious and elevated office in the land when she became Speaker of the House of Commons in 1992.
Sadly, Dewsbury hit the headlines earlier this month for all the wrong reasons. The story of an horrific assault on a five-year-old boy abducted and nearly hanged by a gang of schoolchildren in a wooded area known as Devil's ditch shocked the nation. Of course, Devil's ditch was a figment of the tabloids' imagination. Far from a gang of children being involved, the police charged only one child and said that they were not looking for anyone else.
I want to pay tribute to the sensitive way in which chief inspector Keith Hallas and his team handled their inquiries. If only the national press could have followed suit: the feeding frenzy that followed, the hounding of families and the demonising of children—and especially of those wrongly incriminated—was appalling. As a governor of Earlsheaton school, I want to place on record how proud I am of the pupils, parents and staff there. I am proud, too, of the way in which the community in Earlsheaton and Chickenley has pulled together and got through this difficult period.
I now turn to the subject of today's debate. There are three things that perhaps qualify me to speak with some authority on this subject. The first is that I stand here today, the first British-born Muslim MP, but representing a seat with the highest BNP vote in the country. The second is that, as a former member of the Commission for Racial Equality and as the only commissioner from Great Britain on the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, I have spent a lot of time and much of my working life fighting sectarianism, bigotry and hatred. My own life experiences are the third reason why I consider myself qualified to speak in the debate.
When I was beaten to a pulp by a gang of skinheads on my first day at high school, it was not because of my religion. They did not know or care whether I was a Christian, Hindu or Muslim—or, for that matter, whether my family was Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or from Burnley. In those days we were all seen as "Pakis" and we were all fair game.
The world has changed, however, and Parliament must be receptive and reflect the new reality. Now, when I receive anonymous hate mail or the family car is firebombed in the middle of the night, or when abuse is hurled from cars that whisk by, or I am surrounded by a gang of 20 thugs from Combat 18 telling me that I am going to die, it is because I am a Muslim.
Whether I choose it or not, I am defined by others in terms of my religion, and by my perceived culture. All I ask for is equal protection under the law—no favours, just fairness. I am not asking for the right to censor, stifle, or muzzle those who want to criticise, mock or even offend. "The Satanic Verses", "Perdition", "Jerry Springer the Opera" and "Behzti" may have offended thousands and perhaps millions of people across the world, but this Bill will not infringe the right of artists to perform, writers to criticise or comedians to satirise. Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning are still free to make their crass and offensives jokes under the current incitement to racial hatred laws, and Rowan Atkinson can still dress up as a vicar—or anything else that takes his fancy—under the new laws.
Fundamentally, this Bill is not about abstract notions of freedom of expression, but about very real notions of freedom from oppression. Of course, the new law must apply equally to all those who inflame discord and incite hatred. As I have challenged the poison of Nick Griffin and the BNP, so too have I challenged the poison of Sheikh Omar Bakhri and al-Muhajiroun, and I will continue to do so. A modern Britain has no place for extremism of any order.
We often talk of our pride in the British tradition of tolerance, but I advise hon. Members to throw tolerance in the bin. When one is cut, one tolerates the pain, and when one misses a train, one tolerates the wait, but those are hardly positive experiences. Tolerance is fickle and, in this context, meaningless. I do not want to be tolerated, and neither do women or people with disabilities. We need to move to a society that goes beyond tolerance, and which moves towards acceptance.
In constituencies such as mine, people live parallel lives. There is severe segregation. It is ignorance of other cultures and other faiths that breeds fear: it is fear that breeds hatred, and hatred that breeds ignorance. It is our job, as politicians, to break that cycle and push for even greater integration.
At this point, I feel that I would be failing in my duty if I did not mention how abhorrent I found the Conservatives' general election campaign, which ruthlessly exploited voters' insecurity about issues of immigration. It was profoundly depressing and served only to give the far-right fascists the credibility that they crave so desperately.
On a positive note, we have never before had such a diverse Parliament, yet the commonality we share by far outweighs the diversity that exists. While it is right that we celebrate our diversity, we miss a trick by not celebrating our commonality too. Britain is proud to be a diverse society, but we must fight to prevent it becoming a divided society.
The Bill that we are debating today is a step on the way towards achieving that objective. It may be a small step, and perhaps it will be used only in extremely rare cases, but it still sends out a very powerful signal of what is, and what is not, acceptable in our modern-day society. It still sets out the parameters of decency that we expect from citizens in a cohesive, forward-looking Britain.
I fully accept that legislation alone is not enough to change people's hearts and minds, but as Martin Luther King once said:
"It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that's pretty important."
Well, I think that it is pretty important, too.
Sometimes, the person who follows a maiden speech has to search hard to find something to be polite about, but on this occasion the House heard a staggeringly good first speech. I am sure that Mr. Malik will be listened to with pleasure and interest whenever he speaks. I have heard that said before, when it was not true, but I am certain that it is true this time. He recounted his personal experiences and the history of his constituency before making a profound and important contribution to the debate in a way that will make all of us believe that we have a worthy new MP for Dewsbury.
My concern about the Bill relates to unintended effect. I agree with all that the hon. Member for Dewsbury has said about the need for a tolerant society to become a society of acceptance. We should all learn much more about one another and from one another, and we should be prepared to understand more about the world through other people's experiences and deep understandings. I do not think that anyone could accuse me of having anything other than a belief in and a concern for religion, but I do not like Bills that, first, can define neither hatred nor religion satisfactorily.
I am very worried particularly about the fact that religion itself is not defined. I used in an intervention the example of Scientology, which is not a religion in my view. It is a means of making money for a group of people. It was invented for that purpose, and Lafayette Ron Hubbard called it the Church of Scientology to get away with things that he could not have got away with if his organisation had been open in the way that other such organisations were. Under the Bill, it seems almost impossible, by such definitions as exist, for one to be able to say publicly what one needs to say about Scientology, without being in severe danger of being found to have stirred up hatred and contempt.
I hate those people—no, of course, I do not hate them, which shows the problem with the word "hate". Decent people do not hate, but people who judge whether or not people hate may say that what is stirred up in them is hatred. That is the problem with the definition of hatred. None of us would like to be accused of either hating or stirring others to hate, but I find it very difficult not to feel very strongly about Jehovah's Witnesses who—believing the words of a crook, Charles Taze Russell—kill babies by not giving them blood transfusions. If I were to say that outside the House, it would be considered as stirring hatred. I am not doing that, but it is not me who decides whether I am stirring hatred; someone else decides that I might be stirring hatred in someone else by using those words.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with the definition is shown by the fact that what he is proclaiming is hatred of the act, not of the person who performs the act? Indeed, that is one of the most crucial distinctions that Christians make. Yet in proclaiming hatred of the act, under these provisions, he could be very easily accused of hating the people who perform the act.
I agree with my right hon. Friend, and the question that she asked, which the Home Secretary failed to answer correctly, was exactly to the point. If what the Home Secretary said was what the legislation said, there might be a different argument, but what he said the legislation said it does not say—or, at least, it says more than that.
The same must be true of Satanists or witchcraft. There was a great deal of discussion about witchcraft organisations doing a whole range of things in certain churches. There is a certain religion in which it appears that babies stolen from their mothers have been passed off as a kind of miracle children. I am not suggesting that many people adhere to those beliefs, but I am suggesting that pretty tough words may need to be used about them, and the result of those words could well be that some of the people to whom they were addressed would consider that their use stirred up hatred against them. I merely say that that is a strong possibility.
Those are examples of what might happen, whereas the Home Secretary has provided not a single example of what the Bill would stop. Labour Members must accept the fact that this is the first Bill of such seriousness on which the Home Secretary has come to the House without explaining the examples that led him to make this decision. I therefore go on to why people should be worried about the Bill.
It is all right for some of the hon. Gentlemen who have now left the Chamber to say that they want reassurance from various groups of Christians. During the past few months, in the town neighbouring my constituency—Ipswich—a group of Christians who have proclaimed their views in the streets for many years were ordered to go to the police station to explain why they should not be arrested for stirring up hatred. They had a very difficult time. They happen not to be a Christian group with whom I have much in common. They are a narrow group of rather old-fashioned believers of a Brethren type, but I will defend them for ever; they should have the right to proclaim their faith in Britain and not to be stopped and taken to the police station by the police. If that can be done under the present law, how much more likely that it could be done under the Bill? After all, if the Home Secretary is saying nothing else, he is saying that the Bill will make the law tougher. If it will not make the law tougher, why is he introducing it at all?
I can confirm that, in my constituency, street preachers have been told that they may preach, but that they may not say that those who do not share their views are destined for hell, because that is insulting, apparently. I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend that that happens under the present law under which the Bill is proposed by the Government, and the consequence is that such things must fall foul of the more draconian penalties that would be visited under the law, as amended.
My hon. Friend is right. Of course, one of the problems is that we are dealing with an atmosphere in which quite a lot of people do not really believe that there is much to choose between various religions, that one should not therefore get too hot under the collar and that the only thing that really matters is that people should be extremely nice and tolerant to other people. That is their problem, and it is why, when I stated the truth about the history of the Jehovah's Witnesses, a number of Labour Members thought that I was being scandalous in telling the truth. That is, of course, hurtful, but it happens to be true. That is the difficulty that we are dealing with in the Bill.
I am one of those people who did not change religion, but who changed denomination, and I must tell the House that prejudices by no means disappeared—my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe will agree—but 100 years ago, much of what could be said about Muslims and the like would have been said about Catholics in this country. We solve these problems not by protecting people, but by arguing the case and making people understand the truth. That is the nature of these matters.
I have never agreed with Rev. Ian Paisley. I believe that his teachings and attitudes are so far from the Christian religion that I find it hard even to put them in that context, but I would defend his right to attack Catholics in the tough way he has done, because that is the only way in which people feel free in a free society to show why such things matter to them. In a sense, I prefer those things to matter to him enough for him to insult my faith, my belief and what is most important to me to stopping him; because in stopping him, I would dehumanise him and reduce his ability to be himself in our society. That is a crucial part of freedom. Freedom allows him and his friends to shout at me when I march through Walsingham, and to shout at me the things that hurt most. When we choose a religion, we choose something that may well be more important to us than anything else on earth. Therefore, I have to put up with him, but I do so because that is what freedom is about; it is not putting up with people who argue with us about things that do not really matter to us or anyone else.
I really cannot give way.
So I come to that verse from the Koran. If we read that verse or many others from the Koran in a secular circumstance, with people who are not at all particularly supportive of religion, we find that it is very difficult to interpret in any way whatsoever but as one that stirs up hatred. It is perfectly possible to find another interpretation in the circle of Koranic experts or among those for whom such things are revealed, but once we move outside those categories, it is very difficult to argue that its use anywhere else would not stir up religious hatred against the people who believe those things. In that case, those people are being encouraged to behave in a way that we would find entirely intolerant. Therefore, if I want the Koran to have the respect that it should have, even though I have the doubts about its origin and the nature of its founder that have been expressed elsewhere, I believe in the integrity of those individuals. If I want to protect them, I beg them not to give the protection to themselves that could so easily rebound against them. That is the question that gives us most concern.
I end with the point about unintended effects with which I began. The trouble with the Bill is that it has not worked out what it will do; it does not even define the two key words on which it is based. It does not give us a single example of an occasion on which it would provide a protection that does not already exist, nor is there an obvious example of someone or some group who, because the Bill has not been the law, were severely disadvantaged. What the Bill does, however, is to stir up great fear among people as different as the Brethren, the Catholics, some Muslims and some Hindus—among people who are secularist or deeply religious.
The Home Secretary cannot but accept that the Bill has caused some of the most serious thinkers on the subject of freedom considerable concern. He cannot dismiss Justice's concerns or the concerns of many major Christian denominations and of many major leaders of the Muslim community. Even at this late stage, is not this an occasion when he should remove the Bill and turn to the Lester amendments, which seem to get the balance right? After all, freedom is the means by which all religion is protected; the lack of freedom destroys us all. Pastor Niemoller was right: unless we are prepared to protect the freedom—
I was pleased to be in the Chamber to hear the excellent maiden speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Malik. He and I first met in the months following the disturbances in Burnley when, as a Home Office Minister, I was responsible for co-ordinating part of the Government's response. Burnley is my hon. Friend's home town, and he shared some of his experiences. What he said tonight reminds us that the debate we should be having is not an abstract one about this or that possible consequence of a piece of legislation in some other world. We need legislation for the society in which we exist—one of conflicts and division, where, as members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs heard in our most recent inquiry, the daily experience of the Muslim community in particular is of systematic abuse and discrimination.
I differ from David Davis, the Conservative spokesman, who advocated their fundamental view that such issues are best dealt with by debate and not by legislation. In the past, that argument has been used to resist race discrimination and equality legislation. When we look across Europe we find two things. First, the UK has a much more extensive system of legislation against racial discrimination, racial inequality and prejudice. Secondly, despite our manifest problems, we have a somewhat better record on dealing with the problems and challenges of a diverse society than those European societies that choose not to address them but to rely on the tradition of debate and tolerance. Over 30 years or so, the UK has with some success updated and adjusted its framework of anti-discrimination and hatred legislation to respond to emerging problems and issues.
That is what I believe the House is being invited to do, for the third occasion, on religious hatred. We are addressing not an abstract issue but the reality that unless we change the law, incitement to hatred and violence against major communities in our society will not be dealt with fairly and consistently in comparison with other religious and ethnic groups. The legislation will bring a degree of consistency to the treatment of different groups.
Can the right hon. Gentleman do better than Ministers on the Treasury Bench and give us a concrete example of a course of action or a speech or writing that the Bill would outlaw?
There is of course incitement legislation already. If one were to publish a leaflet saying, "We don't want Jews living round here, let's drive them out", it would be caught under a section of our existing legislation that would not catch the same Act if the word "Jews" were replaced by the word "Muslims". As has already been correctly pointed out, there is a range of legislation to deal with the incitement and harassment that can often apply in individual cases.
In the past, however, the House has decided three things: first, in relation to race, that action against a group of people, as opposed to particular individuals, is so pernicious and corrupting that it should be outlawed; secondly, that the corrupting effect of racial violence or harassment is such that it should be an aggravated offence—we treat it differently from the same action against other groups; and, thirdly, only two years ago, that an act against someone on religious grounds should be explicitly an aggravated offence. The one thing that we have not yet done is to extend protection to a religious group. We have an entirely anomalous situation: because of case law, some groups, especially Jews and Sikhs, are protected by the law, but Muslims and Christians are not. My argument is that we should extend that protection to those groups.
I am very grateful. I should like my right hon. Friend to address an issue that causes me great concern. In Europe, in his lifetime and mine, there have been times when hatred has been stirred up against socialists and communists that has resulted in persecution and death. People who believed passionately in their politics or their faith were persecuted. Would my right hon. Friend be in favour of extending the law to protect those beliefs and value systems if the same situation occurred in the United Kingdom?
There is a perfectly legitimate argument, which has been raised by some groups in the debate on the proposals, about the extension of the principle of incitement against all sorts of groups and beliefs. However, the fact that such a debate takes place should not prevent us from addressing the problem in our existing law.
No, I need to make progress and many Members want to speak.
I want to deal briefly with some of the major objections to bringing the law on incitement to religious hatred into line with our existing legislation. The House has already addressed some of the problems of definition. Two or three years ago, when we decided to make religion an aggravating factor, we implicitly accepted that the courts would be able to decide what a religion was; otherwise the changes to the law in 2001 would not have been workable. The House had no objection to making a religiously motivated offence an aggravated offence. That has already been accepted. We accepted that it would be a workable principle when we incorporated in law the European convention on human rights.
There is an argument that people cannot choose their race but can choose their religion. I do not believe that that argument holds water in any practical way. For the purposes of this debate, it is like saying to a Muslim who is fed up with facing aggravation and harassment, "You really brought it on yourself. Why don't you become a Jew?" That is a ludicrous argument.
To take the point further, a person cannot choose their parents and their ethnic background. So, if they happen to have Semitic parents and are Jewish, there is protection under the law, but if they happen to have Semitic parents and are Muslim, which is true of some Palestinians, although by no means all, there is no protection under the law. We have an anomalous situation. Race, religion and culture are in truth intimately intertwined, which was actually the very basis on which the courts chose to define Jews and Sikhs as ethnic groups under race relations legislation.
The hon. Gentleman knows that time is limited, even if one takes interventions. Many hon. Members wish to speak, so I want to make some progress.
Although this will not be expressed in the Chamber tonight, let us face up to the reality that this issue is controversial in our society because the main group of people who have expressed the concerns addressed by the Bill is Muslim. People in our society ask why we should extend such protection to Muslims. Although we do not hear this in the Chamber, people say, "Well, if they want to come here, why do they need this protection?" Of course, that rather sublimely ignores the fact that the vast majority of Muslims in this country are British, were born here, have nowhere else to go and have every right to be here.
There is a pernicious argument that the Bill will protect a rather unpleasant faith. I have no faith and such criticisms of Islam seem to me to be as misplaced as characterising Christians as people who routinely abuse children for the purpose of casting out devils. Appalling practices can be found in pretty much every religion throughout the world but it would be absolutely wrong to characterise them all by those things that we do not like.
It would be right for the House to extend the protection of the law to religious groups, but there are concerns with which we must deal during the Bill's passage. I welcomed the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State implicitly accepted that the current problem with the Bill was not so much what it said as what most people believed it said. If most people believe that the Bill will make it impossible to have a reasonable discussion about religious belief, that is an objective problem.
The trouble is that those people are correct. If one looks at the ordinary meaning of the Bill and removes the discretion of the Attorney-General, people are absolutely correct that it would be a major fetter on freedom of speech. Mr. Mahmood said that "The Satanic Verses" would be open to prosecution under the Bill, and I must say that I think he was right. That might never happen, but under the exact terms of what the Bill says, it would be the result of putting it on the statute book.
Precisely the same objections were made about the Public Order Act 1986, but they have not proved to be the case in practice. The problem is not primarily the Bill as it stands—I shall address its contents in a moment—but the way in which it is perceived outside. Some people believe that the Bill will protect their religious belief from any type of criticism or insult, but it will not. The Government have the major challenge of explaining the Bill to people outside the House.
Although I had a bit of harmless fun with the hon. Gentleman about the relationship between the Bill and the 1986 Act, it is not clear whether the Bill's wording would inadvertently lower the threshold of the test for the impact of what people say. I have read the measure on many occasions and have changed my view several times about whether it would lower the threshold. I do not believe that the Government intended to lower the threshold, so I welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to examine such matters in Committee. There is a case for changing the wording to make it clear that people are the focus of the Bill, and it is important that we do not inadvertently introduce a much lower test.
I add my congratulations to those of other Members to Mr. Malik. His maiden speech was indeed a delight to listen to. It was full of humour and not altogether uncontroversial, but neither was mine. I hope that he enjoys his time in this place as much as I have enjoyed mine—and that is as friendly as I am going to get tonight.
The Bill is the latest in the long line of oppressive measures that has come out of this Government. However, this one is especially dangerous. At the end of the last Parliament, we passed a Bill that managed to prohibit us even from smacking a naughty child without some busybody turning up with a magnifying glass to see whether that had left a mark. This Bill will curtail not action, but the free expression of thought, which has always been the underlying tenet of our democracy. It did not matter whether one was a fascist or a communist, whether one was a militant evangelical street preacher or a militant atheist, or whether one was a carefully spoken professor of philosophy at Oxford or Alf Garnett, because whoever one was and whatever one thought, one was able to express those thoughts freely. One did not have to work out what someone else might think of those thoughts and decide what to do about them several stages down the line.
I am worried about the definition of intention. The Bill will not be restricted to covering the intended stirring up of religious hatred because, as it says, it will apply if an action is "likely" to stir up religious hatred. A person might not think that his or her actions are likely to result in the stirring up of religious hatred, but if an act of religious hatred follows and someone wants to contend that the person should have thought that that would be likely, what matters is not the intention, but what another party has done.
I shall draw an analogy away from the subject of religion to explain why I am worried. I frequently make speeches about the pro-life issue. Let us suppose that I address an audience with an impassioned speech about what goes on in abortion clinics, as I frequently do, and make the judgment that the audience will be sympathetic to what I say, as they usually are. I could say, "If we could see the unborn children going into those clinics, we would rise up against it." I have used the expression "rise up against it" many times and I mean it metaphorically. It might be that the audience was made up of 100 people and that 99 went away and all they did was to hand out pro-life leaflets. However, one person might take what I said so much to heart that he committed an act of violence against a clinic or, worse still, against someone going to work in a clinic.
That is an analogy, but if I were a vicar, which I will never be because that is something else that I disapprove of, I could be addressing my congregation after making the judgment that it was the usual Sunday morning congregation, so they knew me and I knew them. I might use a metaphor, but someone in the congregation could take the metaphor literally and go out and do something of which manifestly none of us would approve. Under the Bill, I could then be charged with the offence of saying something that was likely to stir up religious hatred. The vague definitions in the Bill seriously undermine it. I would be more reassured if the Bill was about intent, but the definition goes way beyond that.
Then there is the definition of what is a religion. If I say that I think that devil worship should be outlawed, is that stirring up religious hatred? If I say that I do not think that Satanism should be encouraged in Her Majesty's prisons—by the way, I do not—is that stirring up religious hatred? Some of the best conversations that I have ever had have been with Rev. Ian Paisley. We have had fantastic conversations in the Lobbies. What we have said would probably not bear much scrutiny under the proposed legislation. However, the hon. Gentleman and I have enjoyed our conversations, and I want to ensure that people can continue enjoying the freedom of religious debate, which I think will be severely curtailed under the Bill.
I do not believe in inciting hatred that results in violent acts, or hatred that results in serious discrimination. However, I believe in the right freely to criticise, and to do so in the strongest possible terms. If one of the hon. Gentleman's band of followers wants to stand in the street, point his finger to me and say, "Ann Widdecombe, you are bound for hell", I do not want to go whimpering to a policeman. I want to turn back and say to him, "Now let us discuss that because I have got absolute proof, mate, not you." That is how I want to react. That is democracy. That is a free society. That is human beings having the basic confidence in their own convictions to accommodate other people's convictions regardless of how offensive they might be to them.
There was a time when that was an ordinary way of British life. We do not need to sacrifice it in the name of yet another load of oppression from the Government, another load of political correctness and another serious removal of freedom from our country.
I crave the indulgence of the House in interrupting such an important and enjoyable debate to deliver my maiden speech. Furthermore, as the first Jedi Member of this place, I look forward to the protection under the law that will be provided to me by the Bill. I pay tribute to Mr. Malik for his convincing and searing testimony in support of the proposed legislation. It will be a privilege to serve alongside him.
First and foremost, I pay tribute to my predecessor, the recently ennobled Dr. Jack Cunningham. For 35 years, Dr. Cunningham served Copeland with dedication, diligence, foresight and no small amount of flair. His example is that of what can be achieved by ordinary working-class children with the right opportunities, encouragement and ambition. Dr. Cunningham has left me with a solid legacy upon which I hope to build—record levels of employment in Copeland, huge investments in schools with accompanying increases in standards, improving public services and, in Whitehaven, a town that has been transformed.
As a constituent, I, like many others, will miss Dr. Cunningham. However, as a friend and successor I know that he is, literally, not too far away from this place and that he will be on hand to give advice, both solicited and unsolicited, in the coming years. I hope sincerely that I can emulate his achievements.
I wish to thank Thompson and Frances May Reed, without whose support, advice and example I would not be standing in the House today. It is a sincere privilege and pleasure to be a Member of the House. However, I am cautious of becoming that which many people refer to as a parliamentarian. I am well aware of how this environment can captivate those who work within it. It has the power to cajole Members into its privileged embrace and, in some instances, to encourage those very same Members to forget why it was that they fought to enter the House in the first place.
I stand before the House as someone who has the sincere honour of representing the constituency of my birth, mindful that I am here to ensure that Parliament serves the needs of my constituents and not simply the needs of itself. I am genuinely proud to represent the people who I grew up with and the communities within which I grew up. They have placed an enormous amount of trust in me and I will do everything within my power to repay their faith.
Without doubt, Copeland is the most beautiful constituency within the whole of England. My constituency—my home—can be found on the west Cumbrian coast. Wastwater, England's deepest lake and Scafell Pike, England's tallest mountain, reside within it. This extraordinary environment produces extraordinary people who in turn are capable of extraordinary achievements.
From the village of Distington in the north to the town of Millom in the south, and through the mining villages of Pica, Lowca, Parton and Moresby, we can see the sort of community spirit that is all too rare in modern Britain—a community spirit that is based upon mutual support, shared experiences and a commitment to compassion and solidarity in times of need. Those villages represent that sorts of communities upon which our great nation was founded and the untapped potential that we still possess.
Just south of those villages is the town of Whitehaven, once one of Britain's most prosperous and important ports, and today one of our hidden national treasures. The harbour dates back to 1664 and was for many years a major trading post with the new world. Those links to and with the United States continue to this day and are perhaps best illustrated by my informing the House that the grandmother of George Washington is buried in the grounds of Whitehaven's St. Nicholas church alongside her servant, an African slave.
As a staging post for the young Jonathan Swift, the view of the town from the surrounding high ground is reputed to have provided the inspiration for Lilliput, the fictional land of "Gulliver's Travels". Further, the town's pre-eminent maritime reputation was recorded in the middle of the 19th century by the great American novelist Herman Melville in his epic book "Israel Potter", in which he chronicled the famous invasion of the town by the American continental navy during the opening years of the war of independence. As 2005 is the international year of the sea, there can be no better place within the UK to celebrate it than in Whitehaven. This weekend, in excess of 250,000 people will do just that as they flock from throughout the country to take part in this town's biennial maritime festival. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends, if they have the chance, to do the same.
Leaving Whitehaven, we travel through the towns of Cleator Moor—home to Keir Hardie, Robert Owen and William Morris avenues, which perhaps gives a clue as to the politics of the town—and the medieval town of Egremont, which is now world famous for its crab fair and annual gurning championship. South of that lies Seascale, Calder Bridge, Ennerdale, Wasdale and Ravenglass, before we encounter the outstanding natural beauty of south Copeland and the villages of Waberthwaite, Bootle and Haverigg. The south of Copeland is known for its remarkable meats and delicacies and its superb locally produced beers, all of which are on a par with, or better than, anything that is produced on the continent. Until now, I have deliberately omitted to mention Santon Bridge, the venue for the internationally renowned biggest liar in the world competition. I have never been an entrant in that competition and my speech is not an application to take part in this year's event.
It is only right that I now pay tribute to all of those exceptional men and women from my constituency who have served so honourably in our armed forces. This proud tradition continues to this day and I send my respect, gratitude and thanks to all those—and their families—who are in service on our behalf.
I do not pretend to be the authentic voice of my generation, but as we prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war I must, on behalf of my generation, offer a long-overdue gesture of thanks to that generation who fought against the tyranny of fascism. My generation owes all that it has to that golden generation of men and women. Our thanks may perhaps be best expressed by working to ensure that those who gave everything they had to ensure the survival and prosperity of my generation are now looked after properly by us and allowed to live their lives with the dignity and respect that they deserve in the embrace of a grateful nation.
I have taken care to mention many, but by no means all, of the communities within my constituency, as those communities have selflessly served this country for centuries. In 1778, the townsfolk of Whitehaven repelled the invading forces of the American continental navy, led by a one-time son of the town and founder of the American fleet, John Paul Jones. That attack sent a tremor throughout the empire, proving that our island was not impenetrable and that the colonial rebels were serious about their intentions. That service for our country by the people of my town established an esprit de corps which has since been replicated throughout all the communities of my constituency, and remains so until this day.
When the nation's appetite for coal and iron ore was at its peak, the men, women and children of Copeland gave their good health and often their lives to feed that hunger. My great grandfather, whose body still remains entombed alongside those of his friends and fellow workers in the ruins of Whitehaven's Haig pit, is one such example. The need for coal to fuel the development of the nation and the empire led to an undersea pit being sunk at Saltom, a feat of engineering akin to the construction of the channel tunnel. Work began in 1729 and by 1731 the pit had reached a depth of 456 ft. It represented the first attempt at undersea mining in England and was the deepest undersea mine ever at that time. It was described at the time by its architect and driving force, Carlisle Spedding as
"perhaps the boldest thing that was ever undertaken."
That was done in the service of our nation.
During the second world war, a small west Cumbrian village produced munitions for the war effort. Following the end of the war and the actions of the US Congress in withdrawing from co-operation on an Anglo-American nuclear research programme, this area, known as Sellafield, was chosen as the site at which our country should produce materials for our nuclear deterrent. It was done in the service of our nation. Soon thereafter Sellafield became home to the world's first commercial-scale nuclear power station. That, too, was done in the service of our nation. The passage of time in no way lessens the value of that service or the relevance of those feats. Far from being a distant folk memory, the legacy of those achievements can still be seen from Copeland.
The House will be aware that the UK's nuclear liabilities, from both civil and nuclear military programmes, in the service of this nation remain within my constituency, and that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority was rightly established by the Government to deal with those liabilities. More than 60 per cent. of all the jobs in my constituency stem directly and indirectly from Sellafield. Consequently, the future of the site and the economic future of my constituency are inextricably linked. Copeland is home to what is probably the single largest concentration of nuclear engineering, operational and technical skills anywhere in the world. That unique skills base represents a priceless national asset and it must be utilised and built upon for the well-being of Britain as a whole, not just my constituency.
Debates in the House about the nuclear industry, particularly the parts based in my constituency, have too often been characterised by wilful ignorance and knowing distortion of the facts. I will never stand idly by while hon. Members play politics with the livelihood of my constituents. For as long as I remain in the House, I hope to be able to contribute a factual voice of reason, not only in this but in many other debates in the years ahead. There will soon come a time when my constituency will ask for its service to the nation to be recognised and rewarded. When that time arrives, I will work to secure the support of the House to ensure that that voice is heard and the debt honoured.
Earlier, I made reference to Whitehaven's regrettable involvement in the slave trade—a practice unquestionably built upon racial hatred. Like many constituencies, Copeland is now an increasingly multiracial, multicultural area and it is the better for it. Legislation such as this Bill is required to ensure that Britain not only safeguards but improves its record on protecting civil rights and liberties. It will also further cultural understanding and social integration. Against a backdrop of rising race-related crime in some areas—Northern Ireland in particular, if the figures published yesterday are to be believed—and the growth of far-right parties in the UK, it is difficult to present a coherent objection to the Bill. I am satisfied that, provided it is undertaken in a sensible, sensitive and effective manner, the implementation of the law envisaged by the Bill would not result in critics' fears being realised. Instead, it would complement existing legislation while assisting in the development of a culture of mutual respect and acceptance among all our many faiths and cultures. The—
I congratulate Mr. Reed on his maiden speech. I knew his predecessor for many years, as he served as Minister of Agriculture, and I have had many agricultural interests in my day as a chairman in the Stormont Administration. I always found the hon. Gentleman's predecessor friendly, interested in the matters that I brought to him and a good constituency worker. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will follow that path. I congratulate him on making his maiden speech from the Government Benches. I, too, made my maiden speech from those Benches. It was a unique affair, because I spoke so loudly that I stopped proceedings in the House of Lords. I thought that that was to my credit, but evidently it was not. However, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his speech, and I am glad that he looks forward to his time in the House. I have been here 35 years, and if he is here as long he will deserve his pension.
This has been an interesting and timely debate, and the House has grasped what we are up against. I do not agree with Miss Widdecombe about everything, but I certainly agreed with her today. If we cannot defend what we believe to be the right faith, we are not worthy of it, whatever faith it is. We have a right to defend it with the gifts that God has given us. We have a right to quote our historical background, and what has emerged from it. I do not need to put up a sign saying that I am a Protestant, as everyone knows that. I believe that everyone who has a faith should be allowed to preach it, declare it, defend it, and stand up for it. There should not be any curtailment of such activities.
Perhaps I will do so in a minute or two. I have only 10 minutes, and it is a sad day when I can preach for only 10 minutes.
The Christian faith and various surrounding denominations have a background, which must be respected. I welcome the Home Secretary's assurance that if a preacher defends what he has believed to be the doctrine of his own Church for many a long year it would be wrong to tell him, "We don't like that language, and we accuse you of inciting people to violence." I hope that before proceedings on the Bill are completed it will include a provision saying that quotations from the Bible, which I believe to be the word of God, and the great religious documents cannot be taken and used against someone because they adhere to them. I do not adhere to the Council of Trent's decree that a person who believes in justification by faith should be anathemised. I have escaped the fires of hell so far, and I intend to do so in another world.
I have faith in Jesus Christ, the saviour of sinners, and I recommend it to the sinner who is trying to heckle me.
Our debate has a history, because many police in this country—I have experienced this myself—have recently decided that certain religious statements are not acceptable. Street preachers have been harassed, as have people who adhere to theologies with which I do not agree. They are entitled, however, to express their beliefs. Voltaire said that he might not agree with someone, but he would fight for his right to express himself. If an atheist can say that, so can I. We have a right to declare what we believe to be right. The Bill will send a sad signal to our nation if it is not made perfectly clear to the people that it cannot be used for those purposes.
The proof of the Bill's success will be in the way in which it is put into effect. The Attorney-General will be in the position of being Pope, and he will make an infallible decision about whether religious intimidation or religious agitation has been perpetrated. I do not know the present Attorney-General, and I do not know who will be the next Attorney-General. I do not know what will happen in our land, but I would not like to put my faith in any Attorney-General to protect the freedom that ought to be mine. There are many misconceptions about the Bill. I missed part of our debate today, because I had an appointment with the Home Secretary to discuss this very matter. I told him that many people think that the Bill has been introduced in the House as a sop to Muslims. That is a general opinion around the country. There is a general belief that the freedom to preach in the streets and so on will be curtailed. The issue must be settled by the House, and our debate has been more than useful, as Members who are poles apart religiously believe in the right of every Member to express himself, stand up for what he believes, take what comes to him, and give as good as he gets. That is good for democracy and good for the country. It reflects the true spirit of this nation and can do nothing but good. But I hope that before the Bill comes to the end of its passage, it will be changed in such a way that there will be no doubt about what it is really about, as the Home Secretary said.
I celebrate the fact that Britain is one of the most secular societies in the world. After years of political effort and centuries of burning or banning those who disagreed with the prevailing religion, we have reached a position in this country where those who believe in gods do so almost entirely within a liberal tradition—the British culture of respect and tolerance.
It is no longer illegal for us to have a Roman Catholic Speaker or a Jewish Prime Minister, if we so choose. Centuries of aggressive zealotry have taught us by painful experience that practising beliefs and rituals in private, providing others are not harmed, is preferable to public confrontation, social exclusion, truth tests and sometimes death. It is precious and, in a democracy, a priceless state to have attained. Those who wish to disturb it, even for the best motives, should think carefully, above all about the unintended consequences.
Instead of separation and legislation, we need education and integration, not eliminating diversity, but guaranteeing it for all those who are prepared to guarantee it for others. The Bill is bad law. It is not malicious. It is a well-meaning measure, I am sure, honestly offered on the sofa or anywhere else as reassurance from No. 10 Downing street, but good intentions are not enough to bring a Bill before the House.
We are told that the Bill will help equality of treatment. If equalising religions were the real aim, far greater progress could have been made by seizing this perfect moment to abolish the blasphemy laws, whose repeal was suggested by the Law Commission over 20 years ago. When is the right time, I ask the Home Secretary, for those laws to be repealed? Many of us might have been able to support the Bill's provisions if they applied equally to all religions.
Similarly, if equalisation was the aim, No. 10 could have guaranteed the teaching of all religions and all non-religious value systems in all our schools, which is not the case at present. Instead of reducing the current religious privilege of Christianity in order not to offend some Christians perhaps close to home and to appease some UK Muslims, No. 10 is choosing instead to extend religious privilege. Many of us in the House, content to tolerate existing faith schools, were deeply annoyed at No. 10's successful attempt to extend their number even further by Executive action, without even bothering to consult the House. It beggars belief also that a Labour Government have sponsored an academy that spouts creationism to our young children. When it comes to pushing ever more religion into politics, my view is that not only should we stop digging, but we should have a serious programme of filling in the holes.
The biggest problem with the Bill is false expectations. It is designed to ensure that people who take religion seriously will feel protected. Sadly, exactly the opposite of what No. 10 intends will happen. If passed, the Bill will be a charter for zealots and self-appointed religious vigilantes. They will be on an each-way winner. Either they will be able to obtain the prosecution of their opponents, or, more likely, they will be refused, giving them the maximum opportunity for self-publicising martyrdom and for challenging the authority of moderate members of their faith.
Ministers tell us that those who look to the Bill to protect them from challenge, criticism and debate, let alone ridicule and contempt, will be disappointed. Those who want to ban a play, stop the criticism of the systematic subjugation of women by some religions or force children to wear particular forms of dress will feel aggrieved by this law if, as the Minister promises, it does not give them redress. The finesse between a law and a signal may well be appreciated by moderate religious and political leaders, but it may not be appreciated by their communities.
That will play into the hands of the Protestant bigots, the Catholic zealots and the Muslim fundamentalists alike, for this law will not defend them or their icons from insult or offence. Indeed, cases are likely to concentrate on those who specialise in inflammatory language to prove how devout they are. Rather than mainstream religious communities being defended by the Bill, it is religious extremists who will be queuing up, keen to generate press attention and followers by provoking judicial martyrdom, made all the sweeter if it is at the hands of other faiths.
Ministers may claim that the Bill will not allow religious extremists to protect themselves from criticism or challenge, or to suppress their opponents. Unfortunately, Ministers have no ability to predict how the Bill will be received or used by any particular sect within any religion. Throughout our country, there are members of faith groups and sects who seek to dictate how other people live, particularly if the other people are young, gay or women. Those people treat themselves as the custodians of their religion. They interpret any challenge to themselves as an attack on their religion. They will be the first to seek to use the law, and perhaps the citizen's arrest powers that probably go with it. They will publicly demand prosecution of their opponents and the seven-year maximum penalty.
It will be up to the Attorney-General to accept or refuse such requests, often against a backdrop of controversy or perhaps even in the run-up to a general election. That is a job that no one in his office should have to perform. It will force him to make judgments on matters of faith. It will turn Ministers of the Crown into ministers of religion. It makes the Government judge of what constitutes a religion, who belongs to it, who represents it and when it is permissible to attack it. No. 10 cannot have it both ways. Either the Bill does the business protecting religious minorities, or it does not. Either way, there are consequences to be faced.
There are protections already in law. The law already protects everyone from abuse and harassment. As was pointed out earlier, it is only four years since we added religious aggravation in order to justify additional sentencing under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.
Just as there is great confusion in the House, as we have heard in the debate, as to what the provisions will actually deliver, one can imagine the impact of all sorts of judicial interpretation, which I raised earlier with the Home Secretary. He called it "case creep". Already case law has extended racial hatred offences to Jews and Sikhs. That was not in the original legislation. One may argue that that is welcome—I certainly would—but one cannot argue that it was specifically in the Public Order Act 1986. An extension of the Bill might also take place. Those who will be absent from the courtroom will be the vast majority of British people from all ethnic backgrounds who care nothing for the esoteric debates of religious fundamentalists. They will be chilled and silenced by the courts' decisions.
One does not need to be prosecuted for religious hatred. Fearing that they may be prosecuted will be sufficient to inhibit people, whether they are commentators, comedians, the man down the pub, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or Members of the House. Open, honest, vigorous debate around ideas should not give way initially to silent acquiescence, sullen grievance and the festering, repressed anger in which racism breeds. Yes, there are those who say, "My religion, my way, allows me to indoctrinate children, to allow no debate, to permit no disagreement, to disallow all alternatives." They are entitled in our culture to think that, but I must be allowed to challenge those views without fear.
My culture comes from the Enlightenment, from rational thought, from scepticism and from several centuries of learning and progress of which there is more to come. It revels in diversity, not exclusivity; it exults humanity and ethical values above superstition and man-made churches; it is worth fighting for; it values tolerance above all things; and it is finished if we, its representatives, refuse to draw lines and defend them. I will not support the Bill tonight.
I agree with much of what Mr. Allen has said. I did not agree with everything that he said about religion and Churches, but I agree with the main thrust of his argument on the unintended consequences that will flow from the Bill. I want to make five points about the Bill, all of which are, I hope, reasonable, and explain why, apart from the fact that we are on a three-line Whip, I shall oppose it this evening
I strongly support the Government's intention to build a more tolerant society. Most hon. Members know that I come from a committed Christian background and that I am involved with the Church in this country, but I recognise the value that the Muslim faith and other faiths bring to this country. We live in a modern, pluralist society, and we must find space for each other and get along together. We must exchange ideas, but at the same time we must co-exist. I have much more in common with a strong Muslim than I do with an atheist, which is why many of my friends are Muslims—we have great debates and a great deal in common. We must build a pluralist society in Britain, or we are all doomed.
First, the Government do not know what is in their own Bill. During his recent appearance on the "Sunday" programme, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Paul Goggins was asked whether the question, "Was the Prophet Mohammed a paedophile?", which I would not ask of my own initiative, would fall foul of this Bill. His answer was "yes", if the person asking the question intended to incite religious hatred. However, that is not the right answer, because the matter concerns not only intent, but whether the act is likely to stir up religious hatred, which is an entirely different test. The difference between those two offences is huge, and it is deeply worrying that the Minister does not appear to know the test in his own legislation, and I hope that that matter will be clarified.
Secondly, the Bill is unnecessary. Several of us have asked the Home Secretary and other Labour Members to give us examples of activities, speeches and events that take place in our country today that this Bill will catch and that existing legislation does not already catch. We have not heard a single example that would not be covered by public order offences or other religious or racial legislation currently on the statute book.
I shall give the hon. Gentleman an example. A young lady on her way to the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school is on the bus with her head covered. A man starts shouting at her and abusing her because she is a Muslim. That abuse results in an assault on her by a gang of boys, who know not only that she is a Muslim, but that she is white and has converted, which makes the situation worse. In normal circumstances, that man would get off scot-free. Such religious abuse is an insult to people who live in London.
I agree with the hon. Lady that such behaviour is utterly unacceptable. The people responsible should be arrested by the police and charged under existing legislation, which they most certainly could be. I am sad to say that in some parts of the country the police do not provide the service that we used to experience, which is another matter. However, I am convinced that the law already exists to deal with that situation and that we do not need this Bill.
When we discussed this matter in December, I asked the former Home Secretary what we are trying to prevent, and this was his answer:
"We are trying to stop groups of people who are prepared verbally, communicating through writing or the internet, to incite others to hate because of someone's faith."—[Hansard, 7 December 2004; Vol. 428, c.1056.]
He was pressed to provide specific examples, but, like the Home Secretary today, he could not do so. If we are legislating to restrict, or possibly restrict, freedom of speech, we should certainly know why we are doing so and the mischief that we are trying to prevent.
Thirdly, like the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, I am concerned about unintended consequences. He cited a couple of possible unintended consequences of the Bill, and I shall provide another. Extremists exist on the fringes of a number of different religions in this country. They do not come from particular faith groups, and I am sad to say that Christian fundamentalist extremists are present in this country today. Many of my constituents were offended by the BBC programme, "Jerry Springer the Opera"—it offended me, too, but that is my personal problem—but some of the activity by Christian extremists against that programme was reprehensible. It was outrageous to give out the home telephone number of the programme's producer and encourage people to ring it at all hours of day and night, which was not a Christian response to the issue.
If we are not careful, one faith group will see another faith group becoming militant, and it will up the ante. If we are not careful, arguments that are currently confined to our pulpits, our streets and our debating chambers will be taken on to the barricades and into the courtrooms, which will ratchet up the whole process. If one faith group uses the Bill to put pressure on the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney-General to prosecute in a certain case, we know that retaliation will follow. Before we know it, we will have holy wars in this country's courtrooms, which will be unedifying. The Bill will not reduce racial and religious tension or increase tolerance—it will do the opposite. If an organisation such as Justice can see that point, the Government should, too.
My constituency is in Birmingham, which is a city with a large number of faiths. In Birmingham, we have a faith leaders group, which discussed the matter earlier today. The faith leaders group includes bishops of various faiths, leading imams and others. It represents the Anglicans, the Catholics, the Muslims, the Sikhs, the Buddhists, the Hindus and the Jews, and it feels that something must be done to address the issue. Will the hon. Gentleman accept the need for change in principle, while accepting that the drafting is a mess?
Legislation is sometimes important, because it can send a signal and drive a stake in the ground, and I am glad that we have legislated on some of the racial issues that we have faced in this country in the past 30 years. However, this is a matter for dialogue, education and relationships, and we must all be much more responsible and active in pursuing those objectives. Even if the Bill is amended, it will not do the job.
I will not give way because I have used my two interventions.
Fourthly, another unintended consequence will be disappointment in some faith communities, which the hon. Member for Nottingham, North mentioned. I have had many meetings with Iqbal Sacranie, the former chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain, whom I deeply respect and who is a man of the utmost integrity. On the BBC Radio 4 programme, "The Moral Maze", on
"a direct insult and abuse on the Muslim community."
That is simply not the case. If a man of such standing in the Muslim community so misunderstood what the Bill is about only nine months ago, when the Government had already brought it to the House on two occasions, I fear that this law will disappoint people. That will lead to further outrage, protest and reaction, and not to more tolerance but to greater intolerance, protest, and racial, religious and inner-city tensions—the last thing that we need.
For 12 very enjoyable months in my first Parliament, I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Attorney-General, Sir Nicholas Lyell. I saw that he was a man of the utmost integrity, as were the Law Officers, who are men and women who perform a sterling service to the Government. However, even in those days—Members have asked whether there have been changes, but I will not comment on that now—I saw that Law Officers could come under political pressure. I am deeply concerned if our last resort—the greatest safety check in the Bill—is that the Attorney-General will ultimately decide whether to prosecute. Intolerable political pressure could be applied to that office, particularly in the run-up to a general election. That might have two results: first, the integrity and reputation of that office could be damaged further, which we do not want to happen, as we have had enough of that in the past 12 months, and Law Officers are very important people who perform a great service to the Government and to the country; and secondly, poor decisions might be taken for political reasons.
I do not believe that the Bill is the safety valve that the Government claim it to be. It is a very bad Bill that puts Law Officers under intolerable pressure. I hope that the Government will listen carefully to the many points that have been made by Members on both sides of the Chamber tonight and that they will withdraw it.
My constituency is one of the most ethnically diverse of any represented in this House outside London. In the last census in 2001, more than 40 per cent. of its population described themselves as other than white British, and the proportion is probably somewhat higher today. In giving that description, they used many different criteria, the two most notable being race and religion.
It is not only in the census that the two criteria of race and religion are used as indicators of how people identify themselves. For them, when it comes to race it is not a matter of choice, and, contrary to what has been said several times during this debate, neither is it a matter of choice when they identify themselves by religion. For many of those in that 40 per cent. in my constituency, their religion is as fundamental a part of their culture, family and tradition as their race—in many cases, more fundamental. Of course, it is also on the basis of race and religion that many of those who seek to promote division, discord and hate categorise people in my constituency and in others.
Today, Leicester is very fortunate. Relations between the various ethnic and religious groups tend to be very good, and are very different from how they were in Leicester and in many other places some 30 years ago, and still are today in many places. That is partly because the people of the city have been very sensible in the way they have worked together to understand and get to know each other. It is also because of the general legislative framework whereby promotion of racial hatred is against the law and clearly unacceptable. The legislation forbidding the promotion of racial hatred has not required many prosecutions, but it has provided a legal framework and enabled a culture in which the promotion of racial hatred is totally unacceptable. Of course, it is not only on the basis of matters of race that those who seek to promote hatred categorise others—it is also, sadly, by religion.
The four in 10 in my constituency may have some degree of protection if they are threatened by racial hatred, but it is different if that hatred is promoted purely on the basis of their religion. As other hon. Members have said, particularly my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson, there are two exceptions. If hatred is stirred against the one in 20 of my constituents who are Sikh, they will protected, because Sikhism is covered by racial hatred legislation. Similarly, if the one in 100 of my constituents who are Jewish find that hatred is being promoted against them, they too will find some protection because they happen to have an identification that is beyond racial and includes a religious identification. As my hon. Friend Mr. Allen said, the extension of the law preventing racial hatred has enabled them to get some degree of additional protection. Unlike my hon. Friend, however, I do not feel that that should be regretted as an extension of the existing legislation—rather, that it should be extended to include other religious minorities.
What I actually said was that I was pleased about the extension to cover Jewish and Sikh people but that it had not been in the original legislation, and therefore as we pass legislation tonight there may be other unintended consequences as a result of case law being built on it.
I entirely accept that that was my hon. Friend's point and that he was welcoming the extension; my argument is that it should be extended to other religious minorities, which is the purpose of the Bill.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that case law in cases regarding Sikhs and Jews recognises that the existing laws on incitement to racial hatred protected those groups because they are races as well as religions? Is he not making a good argument for extending the race hate laws to cover religions when the motive is racial hatred, which is what the so-called Lester amendment does?
No; my point was that a significant proportion of my constituents and others identify themselves primarily by their religion, and that that identification that they have of themselves and that others have of them should be protected.
The fact is that the law preventing the promotion of hatred on the grounds of race deserves to be extended to those who suffer from the promotion of hatred on the grounds of their religion. Members of certain religions are not protected when, as they increasingly perceive to be the case, extremists promote hatred of them and of their friends, families and communities on the grounds of their religion. The Bill is not about giving special treatment to particular religions—it clearly applies to all, and has indeed been extended to apply to those who have no religion. Nor is it about stifling criticism of other faiths, or, indeed, mocking them or making judgments about them. It is about giving the same protection to those who have hatred stirred up against them because of their religion as is already given to those who have hatred stirred them because of their race.
In recent years, especially since the events of September 2001 but also before that, ordinary, law-abiding, peaceful and productive citizens, who happened to be Muslim, have, with their families, felt themselves targeted and demonised. Of course, we are considering Muslims, but it could be members of other religions, for example, Hindus, in future.
That was precisely my point about the way in which the law has been extended, is capable of being extended to prevent attacks on Jews and Sikhs and should be extended to prevent such attacks on Muslims and members of other religions in future.
The Bill will not prevent anybody from being criticised or joked about. However, it makes a clear statement. It will provide a legal framework and help ensure that incitement to religious hatred is as unacceptable in Britain as is incitement to racial hatred.
Earlier, I spoke to someone from the Christian Institute. Hon. Members will not be surprised by that, but I also spoke to a representative of the National Secular Society. I had an interesting conversation with them and the sincerity of both was transparent. Although they disagreed about everything else, those two gentlemen were profoundly worried about the Bill. Their professions are based on vigorous debate, yet they were worried because the measure is different from legislation on race.
It is comparatively easy to define race hatred. As has been said, there have been few prosecutions under that measure. That is not surprising—it has served its purpose. However, religions grow over hundreds of years on layer upon layer of prescription, faith and often strong statements. Therefore when we deal with a possible prosecution on the ground of an allegation of religious hatred, it is far more difficult to define and prove. The scope of the Bill is potentially far wider than legislation on race hatred.
All hon. Members are united in the view that we should bear down heavily on people who try to incite racial hatred. However, there is a strong division of opinion about the way in which we deal with people who have extremely strong religious views. In a moment, I shall refer to strong and violent statements in the Christian Holy Book. Before I sit down, I shall quote them. Some might take the view that those statements, however honest their proclamation, could lead, whatever the intention of the person making them, to an act of religious hatred. We are therefore in a difficult position.
I am trying to understand the Government's position. The trouble with such debates is that one often gets the impression that neither side is listening to the other. However, the intervention of Ms Thornberry, who has unfortunately left, was interesting. She cited the case of a young girl who was wearing a veil and was insulted on the bus. She said that the case could not be prosecuted under existing legislation because the girl was white and the person insulting her was doing so not because of the colour of her skin but because she was wearing a veil. I am grateful for a private conversation with my close friend Dr. Harris on that. He pointed out that that person would have been caught under public order legislation. Thus many examples of harassment, violence and abuse, which those who support the Bill cite, are covered by existing legislation, which is widely drawn.
My hon. Friend Ms Thornberry was not making the point that the girl was insulted because she was wearing a veil. She was insulted because she was a Muslim and the veil identified her as a Muslim. In addition, the Public Order Acts, unlike the Bill, would not treat the matter as aggravated behaviour. [Interruption.]
Other hon. Members say that they would. We could have a legal argument about the matter. The vital, central point has been made that, when a Government introduce a Bill of such importance, the Home Secretary, Government Back Benchers and the person who makes the winding-up speech cite a series of statutes that do not deal with the problem, yet not a single example has been given.
The hon. Gentleman should know about the extensive evidence that the Association of Chief Police Officers provided to the House of Lords Select Committee on religious offences. It gave shocking individual examples. He may not know that, in my constituency, a letter was circulated that suggested that a specific religion chose to abuse sexually young women to recruit them. It was clearly designed to stir up religious hatred between two religiously separated gangs. It succeeded to such an extent that one young man had his arm cut off.
The Public Order Act 1986 was amended in 1998 so that a person commits an offence
"if he displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening or abusive or insulting within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused embarrassment, alarm or distress".
The offence is called religious aggravation. That covers the case that the Under-Secretary cites.
It would have been helpful if the Home Secretary, instead of taking refuge in saying that he was not prepared to discuss actual cases, had given generic examples. We have had only one example, for which I am grateful. We got the Under-Secretary to give an example, to which we immediately received a response, showing that it was caught by public order legislation. We must do better. The case to which the Under-Secretary alluded was so extreme that I cannot believe that existing legislation would not cover it.
The police were aware of the legislation. The case was not covered by it because it was claimed that the practice was associated with the religion. People claimed that a specific religion recruited through sexual activity. The other three examples that I cited were considered by the House of Lords Select Committee. Any hon. Member can read them.
I am grateful. The Under-Secretary will have the opportunity to wind up the debate. We want clear examples of why existing legislation is not adequate.
Perceptions are important. Our society, which is uniquely liberal, has been built up over 400 or 500 years of vigorous religious disputation. That disputation, which is healthy and often couched in strong language, defends liberty and democracy. If we repress that, we will build up resentment and perhaps make matters much worse. The Australian case of Pastor Scot has been mentioned. I was interested by the Home Secretary's defence. He said that it would not happen here because the Bill is more tightly drafted. However, the pastor in Australia was prosecuted under the religious hatred provisions in Australian law, which are similar to the Bill's. If Pastor Scot were to engage in those activities in this country once the Bill had become law, there is a real chance that a complaint would be made to the Attorney-General, at the very least.
The Home Secretary used the great defence that the Attorney-General will have to make the final decision. However, enormous pressure will be put on the Attorney-General, particularly in the heightened political atmosphere leading up to a general election. That point was made in the excellent speech by Mr. Allen, who is a convinced atheist—perhaps a member of the National Secular Society; I do not know. He made a powerful point.
We should listen to the argument that the Bill could make things a lot worse, rather than better. Perceptions are important. Do we want to live in a society in which people feel frightened to express strong views? I understand that there are evil people of bad intent who will use religious disputation to cover an act of racial hatred. Surely, however, the answer to that is that they will be caught by the Lester amendment, so why cannot we in this House unite around that amendment? After all, we all abhor people who behave in that way, and we all say that we do not want to limit strong religious discussion, so what is the harm in the Lester amendment?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I have found the reference in the evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on religious offences to which the Under-Secretary referred. A letter on page 43 of volume 2 from Detective Chief Inspector David Tucker lists documents including National Front leaflets calling for "No Mosques, No Muslims". Such leaflets, even if they were not already caught by the public order legislation that was used in that case, would be caught by the extension of the law on racial hatred to cover race hate going under the proxy of religious words. That is why even the examples that the Minister cited would be covered by the Lester amendment, as they rightly should be.
I am very grateful to my friend for his intervention, and I hope that it will attract a comment from the Minister later. It is important that we get this right, because we are dealing with such a precious commodity. This is not some little Bill dealing with planning issues in the south-east—[Interruption]—important though they are, of course. The Bill deals with a matter that is fundamental to what this House is supposed to be about, yet we are still surrounded by a fog of ignorance as to how many prosecutions there might be, the effect that they might have on society, and whether they would limit the kind of debate that we all welcome. I cannot believe that those who are promoting the Bill—particularly the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Paul Goggins, who is a very fine man—would intentionally do anything to limit vigorous discussion. We need answers to these points when the Minister winds up the debate.
I promised that I would read the following extract, which is very strong. If I went out and spoke in such terms and someone in the audience then committed some act against another religion, would I be caught by the Bill?
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean.
In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?"
As Chris Bryant will know, that is from the gospel according to St. Matthew, chapter 23, verses 27, 28 and 33. Would Christ have been prosecuted under this Bill in the first century AD for stirring up religious hatred?
Indeed he was. Can we take that risk? We should reject this Bill and vote it down at 10 o'clock tonight, because it is altogether too risky.
Mr. Leigh may live to regret his earlier remark about trivial planning matters in the south-east. It reminded me of Mrs. Thatcher's alleged remark about the environment being a rather boring issue.
This has been an extremely good, genuine debate in which Members have not simply been reading from a script. However, it has been striking that, while different views have been expressed on this side of the House—I shall express some more in a moment—there has been a uniformity of view on the Opposition Benches. I should have liked to hear a greater variety of views from over there. That uniformity might in part reflect the fact that the Conservative party, in its attenuated condition, has come to speak only for comfortable England. It should not be smug about this, because we have also heard some powerful voices today who speak for uncomfortable England. Those voices also need to be attended to; if they are not, there will be consequences with which we shall not feel happy.
I speak as someone who has reservations about these proposals. At the heart of the problem is the question—to which we keep returning from a number of angles—of how we can protect believers who may be under attack without damaging the ability to attack belief itself. How do we protect believers while maintaining the right to attack belief? That is the liberal dilemma with which we are wrestling. What we are debating is important; this is a genuine dilemma. I suspect that many of us here want to remedy a wrong, and to extend protection to those who say that they need it because of how things are now. Part of the liberal tradition wants always to protect minorities that need protection. Another part, however, says that we want always to guarantee the maximum ability of people to say what they want to say about anything. Indeed, our history over several centuries has been about establishing the integrity of that tradition. However, some of the exchanges that have taken place today might lead us to believe that the past 300 years never took place.
I understand what people say about asserting the fact that religious belief is integral to identity, and that it is the same as belonging to a racial group, but that is precisely what we have emancipated ourselves from. It was precisely the belief that religious identity was the definition of identity that enabled us to slaughter each other quite merrily for a long time. We have now managed to liberate ourselves from that view of the human condition, and it is important that we hang on to the knowledge of what the liberal tradition is all about in this respect—namely, that belief systems of all kinds have fundamentally to be matters of choice. Some people might come to regard them as matters of identity, but the point is that, in our tradition and society, with our history, we have made them matters of choice. That is what our liberal society is about. If we are now saying that we want to depart from that, I suggest that we shall cross a line that, on reflection, we would not want knowingly to cross.
I hate bigotry. I hate religious bigotry. All decent people should hate bigotry. I would like to incite people to hate bigotry, and I am worried about provisions that say that I cannot go round inciting people in that way. That incitement—which, as we have heard, involves loathing and intense dislike—is integral to our tradition.
We constantly return to a central dilemma. The beliefs and the believers are rolled together. I want to do all that I can to protect believers who feel that they are inadequately protected at present, but I need to be shown how I can do that without encroaching on the tradition that enables me to attack beliefs, and to attack them in the most vigorous and robust way possible.
I do not think that the Bill in its current form does that. I think that it is inattentive to the distinction that I have described. I think that the Government must do more work. I did not manage to vote for the Bill on its earlier outings. I would love to be able to vote for the half that represents the liberal tradition, but I can do so only if the Government ensure that the other part of that tradition is included as well. It could be done quite simply, perhaps by means of the Lester amendment. What I want is an absolute commitment that nothing in the Bill will prevent people from attacking bodies of belief in the most robust way possible. Without it, I shall not be able to support the Bill, because it will appear that we have not got the balance right.
I was greatly encouraged by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's assurance that he would consider amendments to get the balance right. My experience of him suggests that that is his general approach to legislation, and if he does what he has said he will do, it is in our power to produce a Bill that would secure assent throughout the House. That would be a considerable prize, and would go a long way towards achieving what we want to achieve.
Our present difficulty is that when the Government are asked what effect the Bill will have, we hear more in the way of symbolic reassurance than we hear about its practical consequences. That is not usually a good basis for law. It is the "something must be done" syndrome. Something must be done because people feel oppressed, but what we must do is something sensible. I do not think that saying repeatedly, when pressed, that the law will never respond to certain situations is sensible.
I want to vote for a law that will apply to situations of the kind that we may discuss—a law that will provide protections that do not currently exist, but will not damage the liberal tradition in the process. That is the challenge for the Government, but it is the challenge for all of us as the Bill proceeds through its stages. The prize will be the securing of legislation that will command the support that would genuinely reassure the people whom we want to protect.
I oppose the Bill because I think it could amount to an almost mediaeval repression of free speech. I speak as a politician and a journalist who is accustomed to saying things that some people find inflammatory and offensive. I have been accused of offending whole cities in this country. I hope that that will prove to have been a chastening experience. I also hope that if I say anything inflammatory this evening, I will secure some protection from the fact that I am the first Member of Parliament for Henley whose paternal grandfather was a Muslim, or at least born a Muslim. How about that? I bet hon. Members did not know that.
It is hard to know where to begin my condemnation of the Bill, but I will begin with the motives behind it. We have heard that it is intended to combat the scourge of Islamophobia and the attacks on Muslims mentioned by Labour Members, which are said to have increased since
"there were very few serious attacks, and Islamophobia manifested itself in quite basic and low level ways" in the United Kingdom.
I do not want to minimise the problem, but I want the House to accept that we have come a long way since 1978, when violence against Asians was so alarming that 10,000 Bengalis marched from Whitechapel to Whitehall to protest about the murder of Altab Ali near Brick lane. There were 49 more such murders during the decade that followed. I believe that the problem of Islamophobia is in danger of being exaggerated, and that insofar as there is a real problem there is already plenty on the statute book to combat it.
Throughout the debate, Members in all parts of the House have asked Ministers to produce a single example of something that would be banned under the Bill. Not a single example has been given, apart from one very feeble one. I hope that I was able to deal with that by pointing out that the amendment of the Public Order Act 1986 already prevents the commission of an offence of religious aggravation. There is already plenty of draconian stuff on the statute book.
My hon. Friend may wish to consider a specific case. During the recent election campaign, a parliamentary candidate was attacked by a radical Islamic group, was decried for being a false prophet and was jostled and assaulted. That candidate is now Mr. Galloway. Under the Bill, would the hon. Gentleman—whom I do not understand to be of the Islamic faith, but who is very litigious—be deemed to be a victim of incited religious hatred? Clearly that incident included hatred, religion and incitement. Would the hon. Gentleman be defended by the new law?
It is obvious that Mr. Galloway already had plenty of protection under common law, if indeed he was jostled and attacked. The existing provisions are already draconian; why on earth are we producing a new Bill to outlaw incitement to religious hatred, thus eliding two notoriously foggy concepts, religion and hate, into a great cloud of muddle and misunderstanding? It has nothing to do with the needs of criminal justice and everything to do with politics, as Members throughout the House have already said. The Bill is the price that the country is paying in civil liberties for going to war in Iraq. It is of a piece with control orders and identity cards and is intended partly as a sop to communities that feel particularly oppressed by measures such as those. As the Solicitor-General recently wrote in The Muslim News, Muslims feel "betrayed" by the Iraq war. In the run-up to the last election, Labour decided that it needed to do something to appease those feelings. He went on:
"Iqbal Sacranie, general secretary of the Muslim council, asked Tony Blair to declare that the government would introduce a new law banning religious discrimination. Two weeks later, in his speech to the Labour party conference, Tony Blair promised that the next Labour government would ban religious discrimination. It was a . . . victory for the Muslim Community in Britain."
It was not a victory for common sense or free speech. It is not good enough to pretend, as Ministers do, that this is somehow the logical extension of laws against incitement to racial hatred. We have thrashed this out exhaustively in the Chamber today. It is obvious that there is a category difference between one's race, which is a question of nature, and one's religion, which is a matter of choice, conscience and belief.
If a religion is worth believing in, it ought to be strong enough to withstand the most scurrilous and monstrous attacks. If a religion is worth believing in, those assaults should diminish the critics and not the religion itself. Whether or not a religion is worth believing in, it is the sovereign right of every human being to say what exactly he or she thinks of it. No Labour Member has even begun properly to define a religion. One hon. Member stood up for the Jedi and said that he was a Jedi knight. No one was sure whether to take him seriously. There were embarrassed grins on the faces of Labour Members. How do they know that he is not in earnest when he says that he is a Jedi knight and that his faith deserves respect? If religion is a nebulous idea, so too is hatred.
I go back to the comments by Frank Dobson. Suppose I were to say in the security of the Chamber that I believe that some interpretations of Islam have a barbaric penal code and that the treatment of women in many parts of the Muslim world is shameful? Am I thereby inciting hatred of that religion, or extreme dislike? As my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe said, it depends entirely on the perception of the listener. This is the key point: in the post-Macpherson world, we all know that, in determining whether or not an offence has been committed, the police and the courts are bound to place ever more weight on the perceptions of those who take offence.
Let me put this as tactfully as I can. Despite the best efforts of the ecumenists, we live in a world of mutually antagonistic faiths. We have heard representatives of various faiths in the Chamber this evening. They do not merely advertise the exclusive benefits of their own paths to salvation. They also indulge in a great deal of negative campaigning, in the manner of soap brands, or indeed political parties, against their main rivals.
This Bill explicitly interdicts the incitement of religious hatred, where that means hatred of a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief. Since the Bill is intended primarily, according to Labour Members, to offer protection to Muslims, let me now read certain excerpts from the Koran. I invite the Minister to intervene, to help me out and to guide my faltering footsteps in this matter. I invite him to imagine that I am an imam or a mullah. I must apologise to any Muslims who may be listening or watching. I hope that it will be obvious that the quotations I am about to give are intended not in any way to be disrespectful to the holy Koran but to make a point about the logic, or absence of logic, of the Bill. Here is the Koran on those with a lack of correct religious belief:
"As for the unbelievers, for them garments of fire shall be cut and there shall be poured over their heads boiling water whereby whatever is in their bowels and skins shall be dissolved and they will be punished with hooked iron rods."
On Christians, it says:
"They surely are infidels who say god is the third of three; for there is but one god; and if they do not refrain from what they say, a severe punishment shall light on those who are unbelievers."
On Jews, it says—[Interruption.] Does Shona McIsaac agree that this amounts to incitement to hatred against certain people on the grounds of their religious belief? I take it from her silence that she does. On the subject of the Jews, the Koran says:
"Because of the wickedness of certain Jews, and because they turn many from the way of god we have forbidden them good and wholesome foods which were formerly allowed them; and because they have taken to usury, though they were forbidden it; and have cheated others of their possessions, we have prepared a grievous punishment for the infidels amongst them."
On the subject of Jews and Christians, it says:
"Why don't their rabbis and doctors of law forbid them from uttering sinful words and eating unlawful food? Evil indeed are their works. The hand of god is chained up cry the Jews. Their own hands shall be chained up and they shall be cursed for saying such a thing.
"Believers do not take Jews or Christians as friends. They are but one another's friends. If anyone of you takes them for his friends then he is surely one of them. God will not guide evil doers."
I think that you will agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that is pretty strong stuff. I see the Minister scratching his head. I do not see him leaping to his feet to elucidate whether he believes that that is inflammatory and inspirational of hatred against the believers of those religions. I would like him to explain to us all here and now why and how he thinks the repetition of those words in a public or private place does not amount to incitement to religious hatred of exactly the kind that the Bill is supposed to ban. If this Bill is to make any sense at all, it must mean the banning of the reading of such things in public or in private, which is absurd and paradoxical, given that it is intended to be a protection against xenophobia. If it does not mean the banning of the repetition of such phrases, it is nonsensical and should be scrapped.
Let us be clear about the implications. If the Bill is to have any force at all against such blatant incitements, if we will be able to continue to insult other people's religions, and if the Attorney-General will never be able to use this law in the way that some in this House have continually suggested, that in itself will be counter-productive, because this law's very existence on the statute book will provoke disorder and unrest. In other words, this Bill would encourage censorship—
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for asking me to follow that. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of a Bill that I referred to in my maiden speech almost a month ago. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik) and for Copeland (Mr. Reed) on making their maiden speeches this evening. My contribution to this debate falls into two sections. First, why is there a need for this legislation? Secondly, I want to deal with some of the concerns raised by Members of this Chamber and by others outside it.
Our country has a good track record of positive relations between different races, cultures and religions stretching back hundreds of years. Prophesies made by former Members of this House about race riots leading to rivers of blood have proved to be grossly false and nothing more than scaremongering. However, life in the UK for some is far from utopian. Pockets of our community are suffering and parts of it are less equal than others. There are some in our community—thankfully, a small minority—who exploit circumstances to incite hatred against the most vulnerable, knowing that they will get away with it.
It was a Labour Government, in the face of huge opposition, who first introduced race relations legislation in this country in 1968. A Conservative Government introduced the Public Order Act 1986, which contains the current law outlawing incitement to racial hatred. Parliamentarians, academics and commentators—I am afraid that I found no examples of comedians—all bemoaned and criticised the need for those new laws. It was said that they would stifle robust debate and destroy the centuries-old tradition of freedom of speech, and that it was political correctness gone mad.
No one today is seriously suggesting that inciting hatred against blacks is acceptable—of course it should be against the law. The courts were right to interpret those laws to give protection to the followers of mono-ethnic faiths such as Judaism and Sikhism. Those laws, which were so contentious, have made a real difference to the lives of black and ethnic-minority people in Britain. They did not just stop the abuse; they made us feel full citizens of this, our country.
This Bill is about trying to close a loophole that far-right groups are well aware of, and outlawing incitement against the followers—the followers—of multi-ethnic faiths. In the last few years, the far right have cynically and deliberately been targeting British Muslims. "Freedom", the British National party magazine, has explained the loophole to its readers. An article under the headline, "Police drop a clanger" said that a supporter who repeatedly displayed a copy of an "Islam out of Britain" poster in his window was arrested, questioned and charged with "incitement to racial hatred". The article continues:
"The snag for the police, however, is that Muslims are not covered by anti-free speech race law . . . it's legal to say anything you want about Muslims, even far more extreme things".
Incidentally, that person sued the police for wrongful arrest. Far right groups no longer—thank God!—have posters saying, "Blacks out of Britain" or "Jews out of Britain". Why? Because they know that they would be committing a criminal offence. They know that creating such an atmosphere by inciting hatred is unlawful. However, they have no such qualms in respect of Muslims.
Vulnerable communities who are at the receiving end of the violence that religious and racial hatred can lead to have no problems with hate language being censored, or with the environment in which such harassment or violence takes place being challenged. Let us be clear that we are not talking about gagging comedians—the jokes and gags can go on. We are talking about hatred creating an atmosphere in which Muslim women—British women, some of them white—wearing a hijab or scarf are spat at, insulted, sworn at and even hit.
It is not about race, as many of these women are white converts. One third of British Muslims are not of Asian heritage. Young children with Muslim names are bullied and picked on as a result of the atmosphere that hatred breeds. Clearly, those children have not made a decision about their religion; like many of us, they have been brought up in it, so why are they not protected?
No, I am sorry.
The idea that one cannot choose one's race but can choose one's religion so that the former but not the latter should get protection is absurd. Some people talk about religion as a lifestyle choice, but what is being suggested—that Britain's 1.6 million Muslims should convert to Christianity or become atheists? We have a duty to protect our most vulnerable communities.
As I understand it, there are four main objections to the Bill. First, it is argued that there is no need for new law because the existing laws are sufficient. That is simply not the case. The amendment that the Liberal Democrats and the Tories have produced—the "dream team" amendment—demonstrates that neither of the main Opposition parties have any solutions to these problems. If it were possible to identify religious hatred as linked to racial hatred, there would be no need for the proposed law. That is why the so-called Lester amendment is inadequate.
The hon. Gentleman used some illustrations of horrible behaviour to Muslims, and I think that he would concede that they are all already criminal offences. What he is trying to achieve through the Bill is a change in people's mindset. Will he explain how or why that will come about and will he also deal with the undoubted fettering of freedom of speech that will result from what is, in fact, a draconian piece of legislation?
I shall deal with the last point later. On his first point, the examples that I provided are not covered. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that there should be only one criminal law to deal with every criminal act that is committed? The reality is that if he were arrested for murder, he could be charged with any of four criminal offences.
I am going to continue. The whole point is to protect a group of people who do not fall under a single racial identity. That is why so many senior police officers, including the recently retired Metropolitan Police Commissioner, believe that current legislation is inadequate and support the new offence.
Mr. Grieve advanced the second objection—that the Bill will restrict freedom of speech. The idea that we have complete and unrestricted freedom of speech is nonsense. Article 10 of the European convention on human rights—the article that deals with free speech—also talks about the "rights and responsibilities" that go with free speech in civil society. Free speech has a number of restrictions to ensure the smooth running of society. Examples where such restrictions apply include pornography, intellectual property, race hatred, defamation and national security issues. If Voltaire were inciting hatred on grounds of race, I would not fight to the death to defend his right to say that.
The fact that the new offence will not be in breach of our article 10 obligations is confirmed by the support for the proposals of such groups as the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Law Society, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, Justice—Mr. Streeter was wrong to say that Justice opposes the Bill; it supports it—and the UN Human Rights Committee. In fact, what many international human rights organisations say is that by failing to protect our most vulnerable citizens, we are in breach of our obligations as a State.
The third objection is that this is a sop to the Muslim community, giving them preferential treatment because of the Iraq war. I heard a new one today; apparently, it is blasphemy law for Islam by the back door. Well, as my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson said earlier, the first time the then Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett tried to introduce this legislation was in winter 2001—more than a year before the war with Iraq—so I am afraid that the chronology of those who make that point is simply wrong. If British Muslims really were as powerful and influential as Mr. Johnson suggests, one would have thought that they could have persuaded the Government not to fight the Iraq war in the first place.
Not only the Government and Labour Members believe in equality before the law for all of our communities. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Church of England, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, the Hindu Council UK, the network of Sikh organisations, the CRE and other organisations all support the Bill. They are hardly a bunch of Muslim fundamentalists looking for preferential treatment or special favours, or seeking a new blasphemy law for Muslims by the back door.
The fourth point that has been made is that the Bill will lead to unemployment—of comedians, artists and theologians—and possibly to their prosecution. That is just humbug. The new law will not stop anyone offending, criticising, ridiculing or taking the p*** out of faiths. Police vans will not wait outside comedy clubs, and censors will not go through everything that is said, written or done. Nobody wants to stop our irreverent sense of humour flourishing. The bigots are the only ones who have anything to fear from the Bill.
The Bill is about protecting people from hatred, and not about protecting faiths from criticism. That goal is entirely in keeping with Britain's unique record of religious and racial tolerance. A society should be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members. A loophole that allows religious hatred to be propagated must finally be closed. This Bill closes that loophole, and I urge the House to support it.
Dr. Wright made at least two very important points in his powerful speech. He said that we need to recognise that there are issues in society that must be dealt with. He also said that some communities rightly feel under pressure and that something has to be done to help them. Neither I nor my Liberal Democrat colleagues believe that the choice is between this Bill and doing nothing. We recognise that it must be made absolutely clear that the people described by Mr. Malik as racists and members of the extreme right cannot hide behind religious words, language and descriptions to escape prosecution under the race hate laws. I wanted to make that point during the hon. Gentleman's speech, but he would not allow me to intervene.
Liberal Democrat Members believe—as do Conservative Members and, as the outcome of many votes show, a lot of Labour Members—that the best way to make matters completely clear is to extend existing laws against incitement to racial hatred. That would cover the activities of the extreme right and the BNP when they use religious words as a proxy for inciting racial hatred. Nothing that those people do is theological. They are not making theological points when they attack Muslims or Hindus: they are making thinly veiled racist points. If such actions are not covered by the existing legislation, extending that legislation in statute will make matters clear.
It is also important to recognise that incitement to violence is already an offence, as are direct assaults and vandalism, and that all those offences can be religiously exacerbated. Moreover, direct insults, abuse and threats are already criminal offences under the public order or harassment legislation. No law change is needed to cover that behaviour, but three hon. Members who support the Government have said that such a change must be implemented. Mr. Khan spoke about a person being spat on or abused. That is already an offence, and since 2001 it is capable of attracting a steeper sentence if it is considered to be religiously aggravated. That is an example of the type of Aunt Sally that is put up as an argument in favour of changing the law, even though it is not true.
Mr. Hendrick adopted that approach. He is not in the Chamber, but I see Ms Thornberry sitting on the Cross Benches. She said that people had been vilified for wearing headscarves, but that is already a public order offence, at the very least, and it can be religiously exacerbated.
"Mothers collecting children from school have been abused and assaulted . . . Homes have been stoned and fire-bombed . . . Yet . . . our present laws offer no special protection to Muslims around incitement to these acts."
Again, those are poor examples because those acts are most definitely covered by existing law.
"You're saying at the moment that Muslims at the moment are not protected from incitement to violence and harassment" the Minister said:
"Not on the basis of their religious belief."
That is true because they do not need to be protected on the basis of their religious belief because they are protected by the fact that incitement to violence and harassment are already criminal offences, some of which can be religiously exacerbated. However, such things are offences even without religion exacerbation. The argument that the Bill is needed to close some loopholes has been overstated to say the least. The argument is not about direct threats, direct insults or violence; they are already illegal.
Freedom of speech and expression are precious, and the freedom to dispute, even in strong terms, is a necessary part of such freedom. The Bill lacks certainty. That shows the problem of the chilling effect. People may want to self-censor or be censored by those who would otherwise want to hear their arguments, publish their books, print their articles or stage their plays. The Bill lacks clarity, as we have heard, because which religions are covered, what is the threshold for hatred and what is hatred are also not clear and are not defined—and, of course, intention is not a requirement.
Again, there are further examples of people's doubts. Indeed, the Minister was asked in the same interview whether someone would be allowed to say, "I hate Muslims", or "We hate Muslims." He first said no. He then said, "Maybe" and that it would be up to the courts, not politicians, to decide. I have the transcript here. The point is that he says that the decision should not be for politicians, but we as politicians making law in Parliament have a duty to provide citizens with certainty. I have never had an answer to the question about whether I can say, when a group of fundamentalist Christians, for example, are vilifying another group—for example, homosexuals—that we should hate those Christian bigots. Could I say that freely outside the Chamber if this law were in place?
The Minister often makes light of comedians—specifically, Rowan Atkinson—but those of us who have had an opportunity to hear him speak know that he talks about the freedom for him to make religious jokes. He said:
"The Government claim that one would be allowed to say what you like about beliefs because the measure is not intended to defend beliefs but believers. But I don't see how you can distinguish between them. Beliefs are only invested with life and meaning by believers. If you attack beliefs, you are automatically attacking those who believe the beliefs. You wouldn't need to criticise beliefs if no one believed them."
There may be answers to that point, but I hope that the Minister will recognise that the points made by the creative community are relevant and need to be tackled, without simply being dismissed as coming from those in the entertainment industry.
I believe that the Bill has massively raised expectations among those in the Muslim community, many of whom think that it will provide them with a blasphemy law or that it covers incitement to violence, which they believe is not currently covered. Even some hon. Members tend to have those views. As is well known, during the debate on the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill Ms Abbott asked whether "The Satanic Verses" would be covered, and said that at that time that
"there were thousands and thousands of Muslims who believed emphatically that people were not entitled to criticise their religion."
In response, Mr. Mahmood said:
"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 . . . "
Lynne Jones raised that with the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety. She asked the Minister to make it clear that
"the 'incitement to religious hatred clause' would not, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr implied, give carte blanche to anyone who wanted to prosecute Salman Rushdie".—[Hansard, 7 February 2005; Vol. 430, c. 1216–23.]
However, the Minister failed to provide a simple, reassuring answer that, no, it would not give carte blanche. The Government's failure to be clear worries many people.
Mr. Denham, who is not in the Chamber, gave a hypothetical example to show that Muslims would not be protected by the current race hate laws against someone saying, "Muslims out" or "No Muslims wanted here". Many experts doubt that claim; indeed, a member of the British National party was arrested recently under the race hate laws. However, even if the situation described by the right hon. Gentleman was not covered at present, the Lester amendment would certainly deal with it. That would also apply to his other examples, where some Semites were protected while others were not. It can be made clear that people who are actually attacked racially but on the notional basis of their religion are entitled to protection—they would be covered by the amendment's extension to the law. The BNP is not making a theological point, but a racist one.
If the Government want to reassure people such as me and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, who wanted an assurance that free speech would be protected, and if they want to end discrimination against some religions in favour of others, why on earth do they not use the Bill to repeal the blasphemy laws? They are discriminatory and have a chilling effect on free speech. Everyone knows where the Church of England stands; it gave evidence to the Select Committee on Religious Offences. It is time to repeal those laws and the Government's failure to do so makes many of us doubt their motives and whether they really care about free speech.
I am a bit surprised by the uniform opposition to the Bill from the Conservative Benches, because during the recent election campaign one of their parliamentary candidates was deselected for having made anti-Catholic comments. There is obviously a procedure to deal with people in the Conservative party who make anti-religious comments, yet the Conservatives do not want to extend it to the rest of the country.
I am proud of the Bill on racial harassment that I introduced in the 1980s, important aspects of which became law. I support this Bill, too. It moves towards giving the members of all faiths equal protection under the law from incitement to hatred.
Incitement to hatred can be incredibly dangerous. At its worst, it motivates killings such as those in Nazi Germany. It burns my soul when I see, or recall, war documentaries showing Nazi leaders spitting out hatred of "der Juden" as being to blame for all the ills of the world. That set up the conditions for the Holocaust. In more recent times, incitement to hatred has been instrumental in killings in the Balkans and Rwanda—tribal in the latter. However, there was a religious aspect to the murders in the Balkans—the Muslim communities, in particular, were deemed to have fewer rights, to be less than human, and thus to be disposed of more easily.
There was clearly an element of religious hatred behind the recent despicable desecration of the Jewish cemetery in West Ham. In the UK, however, incitement to hatred mostly applies in racial assaults. Some of the culprits, although they would not fall foul of any present or proposed law, are national newspapers that repeatedly refer to asylum seekers so unsympathetically and negatively that the words are turned into a term of abuse. As a result, the number of racist incidents in England and Wales—from verbal abuse to vicious assaults—has risen in recent years from 48,000 in 2000 to 52,700 in 2004. Those figures include some despicable murders. We have reached the point where Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said in March:
"Today Jews, Muslims and gypsies tell the CRE that they are under siege in Britain."
In the face of that, the present law against racial violence and hatred needs to be implemented more effectively. No one in their right mind would say that the law is not necessary; clearly, it is. There is a religious hatred element to the violence, and there is certainly huge potential to spread hatred based on religion against Muslims especially, but also against Jews and people of other faiths.
There is an institutional aspect to Islamophobia because it can arise from fear generated by the war on terror, which some deliberately misinterpret as a war on Muslims. The violence inflicted on innocent Muslim citizens on the streets and in neighbourhoods is the ugly personal face of Islamophobia. Hatred is propagated by the British National party, those associated with it and others with similar ugly attitudes. They want incitement to hatred to be converted into violence against Muslims or Jews.
There is currently a loophole in our law because although racial hatred is covered by it, religious hatred is not. Jews and Sikhs are covered by existing laws on the incitement to racial hatred because the courts deemed that they had a distinct ethnic origin, but Christians, Muslims and Hindus are not covered by the current interpretation of the law. The Bill will end that anomaly. Labour made it clear that it would enact the Bill in its recent election manifesto, which said:
"It remains our firm and clear intention to give people of all faiths the same protection against incitement to hatred on the basis of their religion. We will legislate to outlaw it".
I am proud to support that passage of the Labour manifesto.
The hon. Gentleman is making important points and I do not disagree with his intentions. However, will he consider this? In the BNP's literature, some of its members amazingly appear to worship Thor and Wotan and the white supremacist god. If I were a member of the BNP and the Bill was passed, I would put myself into a religious sect on that basis and say that those who criticised my white supremacist views were attacking my religious outlook, and thus claim the protection of the Bill. No aspect of the Bill would prevent that from happening, except of course the intervention of the Attorney-General.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the Secretary of State made it clear that the wording of the Bill would be examined in Committee, which I would welcome if it strengthened the Bill. However, Miss Widdecombe and other Opposition Members made a key mistake because the Bill will, hopefully, deal with incitement to violence, so violence will be discouraged, but not talk about other religions.
Does my hon. Friend agree that mischievous examples such as that given by Mr. Grieve are the same as those put forward two years ago when laws were brought in to protect employees who were suffering religious discrimination in the workplace? There has been no example over the past two years of an employee pretending to be involved in a religious sect, or inventing one, to get the protection of that legislation.
Does it not worry the hon. Gentleman that the Government have not been able to come forward with one concrete example of a violent act or incitement that is not already covered by existing laws? We have laws in this country covering intimidation, discrimination and incitement to violence. The Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 introduced the concept of religiously aggravated offences. Surely he accepts that those laws cover the examples that have been cited so far.
No, because as I and other hon. Members have said, there is a loophole that must be filled. I understood that clear examples were cited to the House of Lords Committee that considered the matter. Indeed, my hon. Friend Ms Thornberry also gave us a clear example. Many of our constituents, especially those from Muslim backgrounds, could give examples of the abuse that they or others have suffered due to their religion.Laws against inciting racial hatred have been on the statute book for almost 20 years. During that time only 72 people have been prosecuted for that offence. I think that there is a case for more people being prosecuted. Such a possibility has an important deterrent effect. As my hon. Friend the Minister has written:
"The courts would have to remember their obligation under the European Convention on Human Rights, so that free speech and freedom of religion are preserved. But where there are court cases, they will send a powerful message about the kind of values—tolerance, justice and equality—that we hold dear in the UK."
That is an excellent passage in the Minister's article, which I fully endorse.
Opponents of the Bill claim dire consequences, but that is not the position with the existing anti-hatred law. The myths that the opponents of the measure have put out deserve to be put in their place. The Bill will not criminalise someone criticising the beliefs, teachings or practices of a religion or its followers. It will not criminalise someone urging followers of a different religion to cease practising their religion and perhaps to convert. It will not criminalise someone telling jokes about religion. It will not criminalise someone expressing antipathy or a dislike of a particular religion. Furthermore, there is the powerful safeguard that before any prosecution could go ahead it would have to be personally approved by the Attorney-General.
Discussions between religions and about religions must be conducted with at least a degree of tolerance, not a will to target for violence those of a different faith. For the first time inflammatory statements would be covered—for example, where they are made at an extremist rally where the intention is clearly to incite hatred against people not present at the rally because they are of a different religion. Killings and assaults have happened following such incitement. Those actions must be warned off by the law.
Many recent laws, including those introduced before the Labour Government took office, have targeted personal behaviour that is antisocial or damaging to the safety of others. In that context, arguing not to extend that principle to protect people of different faiths from hatred-inducing violence seems to rest on very thin ice intellectually.
I think that Muslims will be significant beneficiaries of the proposed legislation, but so will people from other religions. Christians will be winners. They fall through the current loophole and the Bill will provide them with explicit protection. Furthermore, in circumstances that suit them, it is not beyond BNP supporters to pick on small black Christian churches, mainly because they are black, but using the language of religious detestation.
I acknowledge that that would be covered by the Lester amendment, but that amendment is weaker overall than the provisions in the Bill. There should not be a proxy for racism. Religious hatred needs to be dealt with in its own right.
Members of all faiths should have equal protection under the law. That is what the Government avow they are working towards with the Bill. I believe that they should go further towards achieving that by removing the mediaeval and discriminatory blasphemy laws—which, in any event, are not used these days—from the statute book. Notwithstanding that, the Bill has merits in its own right and I fully support it. I believe that UK residents of all religions and of none will be safer when the Bill is on the statute book.
First, I commend Harry Cohen on his heartfelt address. However, I disagreed with almost every word of it, because this is a bad and dangerous piece of legislation, which has the scope to limit and undermine our freedom of expression. It will create greater tensions in our communities, and it will be counter-productive.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that the Bill is born of the Government's misconception about race and religion in relation to freedom of speech. We have discussed that at length but, surprisingly, some Government Members do not understand that religion is fundamentally a matter of choice, and should not be included in legislation relating to race, which is a matter of birth. In a liberal democracy, it is clearly outrageous to criticise or hate someone on account of something over which they do not have any control or choice such as race. The Bill, however, raises the prospect that argument and disagreement over religion, about which people do have a choice, may be regarded as inciting religious hatred. That is nonsense, and it is clearly wrong.
The Government claim that the Bill is not intended to criminalise religious debate. However, given its poor wording, there can be no guarantee about that. Religious hatred is not properly defined, so a great deal of interpretation will be subjective. For example, the new offence does not include a definition of religion, so if a journalist writes an article in which he claims that Satanists are an evil cult, the Satanists can report him to the police, claiming that he is inciting religious hatred against them. Given that the Government have not been able to produce a single clear instance of the way in which the Bill would apply, there is no reason to suggest that my example would not be caught by the Bill. After all, it is intuitive to hate that which is considered evil.
I am particularly concerned about the new test for both racial and religious incitement, as discussed in the explanatory notes to the Bill. I pressed the Home Secretary on that issue, because it is of fundamental importance, and I should be grateful for a response during the winding-up speeches. The explanatory notes say that for material likely to stir up racial or religious hatred
"it need only be shown that it was likely to be seen or heard by a person in whom it is likely to stir up racial or religious hatred."
The Bill appears to suggest that the accused is responsible for the unintended and unforeseen reactions to their comments by people who could be bigoted and hate-filled. That is dangerous ground. In principle, the Bill could privilege the interpretations of the most ignorant people in our society at the expense of the meaning intended by the accused. That is wrong, and it will limit free speech. Furthermore, the legislation will create a fear of prosecution, as individuals must consider whether their remarks could be misconstrued by others. Such self-censorship will further erode our culture of freedom.