Orders of the Day — Racial and Religious Hatred Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:13 pm on 21st June 2005.

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Photo of David Davis David Davis Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office) 5:13 pm, 21st June 2005

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.