Orders of the Day — Racial and Religious Hatred Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:46 pm on 21st June 2005.

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Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead 8:46 pm, 21st June 2005

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.