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 On both occasions, the relevant clauses had to be withdrawn because of timetable pressures to secure the passage of other important legislation.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.