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

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.