I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I wish to thank hon. Members on both sides of the House for the contribution that they have made so far to consideration of the Bill on Second Reading, in Committee and earlier today. I also wish to extend my thanks and, I am sure, the thanks of the whole House, to all the officials in my Department and elsewhere who have helped the smooth passage of the Bill.
The Bill is small and finely and tightly focused, so there is not much room for manoeuvre, although we began our deliberations, as always, by listening and considering where there might be opportunities for improvement. We made one concession, on the powers for citizen's arrest, and I was pleased that Mr. Grieve saw that as a positive move.
The hon. Gentleman and others have acknowledged that we had plenty of time for the scrutiny of the Bill. That was another welcome aspect of our proceedings. He and I have quite regular exchanges across the Floor of the House nowadays. I also enjoyed my exchanges with Mr. Carmichael and indeed all the hon. Members who took part in the Standing Committee. We had good discussions.
Strong opinions have been expressed outside this place and I say again that I want to engage with them. I want to listen and to offer reassurance where possible. When we draw up the guidance for the legislation, I want to do so in dialogue.
We have considered the Lester amendment. My argument is that it would take us no further. We have looked at definitions of religion, and I argued that that is a matter for the courts rather than for us. We have discussed the likely limb and I have tried to offer the House reassurance that it is still a high test, requiring a high level of intention or awareness. It is also a test of probability, not liability.
Has the Minister looked at the definition of hatred so as to include only conduct that is likely to encourage others to commit acts of violence or other unlawful conduct?
I have looked carefully at "hatred", and I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Gentleman missed our later discussions on the subject. A range of legislation, going back over many years, includes the word "hatred". We have never sought to define that word previously, nor do we do so at this stage. It has never caused us a problem in the past and I do not think that it will in relation to the Bill.
We are introducing the legislation first and foremost because we think that it is the right thing to do. We also want to remove the anomaly whereby Jews and Sikhs are protected while other religious groups are not. Currently, extremists can exploit a loophole in the legislation and we want to prevent that by ensuring that we close that loophole.
I conclude by quoting, unexpectedly perhaps—
No, not Voltaire and not Mill, but the Leader of the Opposition, who, in the House this afternoon, in a measured comment on the dreadful events of last Thursday, said that the terrorists had tried with the fires of hate to destroy the bonds of love. I agree wholeheartedly. We need to take on the hate-mongers, whether they are terrorists or extremists operating in communities up and down our country. The Bill is not the whole answer. We have religiously aggravated offences on the statute book, and it is also an offence to incite violence and murder. But there is a gap, and, through the Bill, we seek to close it.
Legislation on its own is not enough, however, and that is why all our efforts to build community cohesion so that people can live free from fear are so important.
I join the Minister wholeheartedly in thanking all those who have participated in the consideration of the Bill. As always, it has been a pleasure to debate the matter with him. He is right: for the first time in my recollection, we can say that a Bill has had adequate scrutiny in the House. That is a rare event, but as I mentioned in Committee, it is certainly to the credit of the Whips, especially the Government Whips and, I suspect, of the Minister that the opportunity was made available to us.
I am also grateful to the Minister for the fact that we have secured an amendment to the Bill. It may only be one amendment, but it certainly commended itself to me, and I am delighted therefore that the Government have taken it on board. Having said that, I fear that the Bill remains, despite that single improvement, seriously and catastrophically flawed. It seeks to do something that is in itself controversial, and I am afraid that it does so rather badly.
Let us start with the controversial element. It is, as the Minister has acknowledged, a fettering of the freedom of speech and expression, but he and the Government say that that is necessary and that they have sought to draft the measure sufficiently tightly that freedom of speech will not be unduly restricted. Yet there are fundamental flaws in the Bill's presentation because, as has been acknowledged in Committee and, indeed, on Report, it is in fact extremely widely drafted and is dependent on a selective interpretation by those who may or not bring prosecutions in determining whom should be penalised for transgressing it. That is a very bad way to start a legislative process.
I am afraid that the Bill is underpinned by the fact that it comes on the back of a series of promises that the Government have made to various groups—often, I fear, raising expectations that will never be fulfilled—in trying to create some kind of equal playing field between religious and racial hatred, and some of the fundamental difficulties with the legislation stem from that. If the Government had sought to present a Bill to the House that centred on religious hatred as a separate issue, I have a feeling that, even though there might have been very serious disagreements and, indeed, a great deal of debate, we might well have been able to focus on some of the key objectives that we have, in fact, been unable to achieve.
In presenting various amendments—particularly new clause 2 and, indeed, new clause 4, presented by Dr. Wright—we seem to have come close, as the Minister identified, to considering some of the key things that need to be protected, as well as the mischief that were are trying to prevent. The Bill, sadly, achieves none of those things. Unless it is radically improved in another place, I fear that it will become a classic example of good intentions leading us down a dangerous road.
Mention was made during the debates on Report—in the comments of Mr. Winnick—that we should derive comfort from the legislation on race relations and racial hatred because it was suggested when it was passed that it was very controversial. I was mindful of his comments. Indeed, I recollect that, although I was very young at the time, my late father expressed as a lawyer some disquiet about the legislation. It is precisely because I think that I can see where his disquiet may have been misplaced that I have certainly attempted to consider the Bill with the idea in mind of whether I could say in 20 years' time that I was mistaken. However, the profound difference between a religious belief and a racial identity inclines me to the view that I am not mistaken at all in taking the attitude that this legislation will, in fact, make no contribution to improving community relations in this country.
The Minister quoted my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and I agree with everything that he said. There is a language of hatred and it needs to be fought, but the best way to fight it is by the public expression of views that those who hate others on matters where they should not do so are wrong. The Government's attempt to introduce what is in effect a mechanistic system of what is and what is not appropriate, far from helping the situation, I believe, will make it worse. It is for those reasons that, although I appreciate the good intentions behind the Government's ideas, yet again, the Opposition are compelled to say that we cannot support the Bill on Third Reading. The improvements made to it are slight; the mischief that remains as a result of it is great.
If the Government really want to tackle this issue, they must get away from the promises made to various people of an equal playing field, accept that religion and race are different, start to look at the real nature of the problem and try to come up with some constructive solutions. We can all agree that it is undesirable that people should preach violence or words that lead to violence, but what the Bill will achieve is the prevention of the perfectly lawful expression of differences of view, which is the very foundation on which our democracy has been based.
The strength of our society lies with its tolerance, understanding and diversity. That has emerged over centuries, and although the overwhelming majority of people enjoy the benefits that it brings, there are those, for their own odious and self-interested motives, who want to take advantage of the system and abuse it. An inevitable defect of decency and tolerance is allowing those who do not share our views or values to speak out and have their say too, however unpleasant and unwelcome that is.
In May, I was returned in Keighley and Ilkley following a bitter, dreadful fight where hope triumphed over hate. Perhaps the most odious of characters, the chairman of the British National party, was soundly defeated into last place. With the defeat of extremism comes, I believe, a great responsibility to understand and address the reasons why it came to my constituency and to ensure that it never returns. One of the main reasons was the undercurrent of the feeling of unfairness and inequality that was able to take root. It is perceived that many minority groups are viewed differently and treated more leniently by the law as a result of their minority status. In essence, protection is offered from the full weight of the law for the fear of being branded a racist. That perception has crippled political, social and economic development in cities such as Bradford. Lord Ouseley, whose report was commissioned prior to the Bradford riots in 2001, spoke out about the fear of debate in Bradford and the need to have open and frank discussions. Some four years later, we are no further forward. The manifestation of the BNP in Bradford and Keighley is a result of that failure.
I am not suggesting for one minute that protection under the law should not be offered to those who are in danger of persecution or violence. However, I am simply not convinced that well-intentioned legislation that emphasises differences and identifies segregation provides that protection. It might, in reality, have the reverse effect.
In a rich society such as ours in which our diversity should be celebrated and encouraged, rather than concentrating on what makes us different, perhaps we should look more at what unites us: our humanity, social conscience, willingness to help others and steadfast faith in democracy, equality and achievement. Surely the celebration of our common values and beliefs must be the way forward, thus shifting away from an attempt to isolate or segregate any specific community or religion. That would be far more successful at encouraging integration, which is what I look forward to and work for.
Protection comes in many forms: the weight of criminal justice—which if applied is more than sufficient—argument, and education. All those offer powerful solutions. If I am described as an infidel because of my beliefs, do we want the accuser to be prosecuted, or do we want to engage with that perverse view and demonstrate how erroneous it is? One of the fundamental principles of any religious belief must be tolerance, so allowing prosecution is a dangerous path to tread.
How was the BNP defeated in Keighley and Ilkley? It was achieved not by prosecution, but by reasonable argument. Its members were exposed as liars and the party was shown to be the politically bankrupt group that it truly is. Opposition to the BNP was based on a broad coalition of trade unions, churches, mosques, voluntary groups and businesses—indeed, all the decent people of Keighley and Ilkley. The sheer weight of argument, concentrating on those issues that unite us, irrespective of colour, religion, age and sex, for example, expose extremism for what it is. Take away the fear from debate, and our common interests—humanity, decency, tolerance and equality—are allowed to shine through. Restrictions, however well intentioned, stifle that debate. How can we ever expect to rid our society of the horrors of honour killings if we are limited by those whose perverse understanding of their religion makes them believe that it is their entitlement and they may threaten prosecution?
Does the Bill take us in the wrong direction? Perhaps we should be looking in the opposite direction and remove the blasphemy laws from the statute book so that we are all of equal status. I cherish the diversity in my constituency and throughout the country. I am yet more determined to defeat extremism from wherever it originates. I want to have a constituency, and a country, that is comfortable with itself and its neighbours. That is my ambition. I am not convinced that legislation that encourages further segregation, however, well intentioned, will provide the protections that it aims to deliver.
It is a pleasure to follow Mrs. Cryer. I commend her on what I thought was a remarkably thoughtful and major contribution. I welcome her to the debate on the Bill.
Consideration of the Bill in Committee was a pleasure, principally because of the good humoured way in which the Minister handled the proceedings. It is often said that the Government are leading us into a nanny state. I suspect that there may be some truth in that, and I suspect also that we have in the Minister a new Labour Mary Poppins. He is the man who provides the spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. However, what he has provided us with in the Bill remains a pretty unpalatable medicine. It remains a medicine that is in search of an ill to cure.
As I understood the Minister on Report, he seems to be telling us that the Government are bringing forward this legislation and insisting on it because they have a wish to address a perceived anomaly in the treatment of Jews and Sikhs under existing legislation, and other religious groups. At the same time, he accepted that the nature of that cover was such that other groups were already covered to the same extent by existing legislation. Perhaps it was not intellectually the Minister's finest hour, if I might put it like that.
An interesting feature of the Minister's speech was his offer to provide draft guidance on good practice that would be used to implement the Bill's provisions. I welcome that. Such guidance will be useful. However, I wonder why we are hearing about guidance at this stage. What was the rush in introducing the Bill? Why have we had Second Reading, consideration in Committee followed by consideration on Report in such a short compass when we are in an 18-month Session? If the guidance is to be made available, surely it should have been provided to us at a time when we could have made proper use of it. The guidance might well have answered many of the objections that have been raised. We do not know because the refusal to publish it so far means that, effectively, the Government are asking us to buy a pig in a poke.
I am embarrassed that we are sending forward a Bill that is so bad even after we have spent so much time on it. I accept what the Minister says that whatever faults there have been in the Government's approach to this proposed legislation, lack of time has not been one of them. I suggest, however, that the Bill is ill conceived in its thinking. It will be dangerous in its execution and I am confident that we have not seen the last of it.
We, the elected House, should not be relying on the other place to give the Bill the sort of scrutiny and the sort of amendment that it so clearly requires. Come the vote on Third Reading, Liberal Democrat Members will be voting against it.
I was startled by the suggestion from Mr. Carmichael that there had been a rush to judgment. He may not remember it, but the proposal was first introduced by the Government in November 2001 in response to representations from Muslims throughout the country, who felt that they were being targeted by people stirring up religious hatred against them after the evil events in New York and Washington. I was surprised and taken aback by comments that implied that, because the representations were made by Muslims and the Government responded to them, there was something wrong. We spend all our time in politics responding to representations—sometimes we reject them, at other times we take them on board. However, the proposal was introduced in response to reasonable representations.
The air of today's debate—and I know that there have been serious discussions in Committee—was characterised by some nice academic and philosophical debating points. However, it is not nice, academic or philosophical on the streets of my constituency at the moment, and neither was it in 2001. Women are taking their children to school and collecting them in fear because they wear a hijab or headscarf. I want to protect them against the hatred stirred up against them by hate-filled people who make them go about their ordinary day-to-day life in fear. We owe it to all our constituents to try to protect them against people who incite fear.
One objection to the Bill rests on the fact that it is acceptable to outlaw incitement to racial hatred, because race is innate whereas as religion is not—it is a matter of choice. Several Members, including the Minister, who made a very fine speech in response to an earlier debate, pointed out that most people are born into the religion in which they remain. I shall ignore that point, however, and urge people to pursue the logic of their argument: it is all right to try to protect people against incitement to hatred because of their race, which they cannot change, but it is not all right to try to protect people from incitement to hatred because of their religion, which they can change. To me, that practically amounts to an incitement to incitement. People can put themselves right with the hate-mongers by changing their religion or abandoning their beliefs. That is not a sound proposition to make in a democratic Parliament.
We have heard all this stuff about comedians whose freedom of expression will be curtailed, as they will be deprived of the right to incite people to hatred against others because of their religion. That is a rather extreme joke, and I am notorious for politically incorrect jokes myself. People will not fall foul of the provision unwittingly. Under the Bill, they must intend to stir up hatred or, in all the circumstances, be likely to do so. If comedians cannot manage to avoid that, I suggest that they shut up shop altogether.
Clearly the measure, like the law against racial hatred, has two effects. First, it has a genuine deterrent effect. The law against incitement to racial hatred has deterred a great deal of mouthing off, which was dangerous. That is indicated, in part, by the relatively low number of cases that have been brought. Secondly, it was a declaratory matter. We declared that incitement to racial hatred was wrong. That is an unusual concept in the common law. If we pass the Bill, we will be declaring that incitement to hatred of people because of their religion is wrong. That will be another step forward. Who needs the right, which we apparently want to maintain for them, to incite hatred of people because of their religion? I submit that no one requires that right, and if they feel they currently have it, we ought to deprive them of it.
Finally, this is no rush to judgment. This is a proposition that I was advocating before the Government introduced it in November 2001. On Second Reading I said that I hoped we would pass the law before there was a major terrorist incident, so that for once the law got in in advance of events. Sadly, we had the awful events of Thursday last week. Two of the explosions were in my constituency. We are not rushing to judgment. It is a total coincidence that we are changing the law on the Monday afterwards, but it is the right and proper thing to do.
The circumstances to which the Government proportionately and properly responded in 2001 have arisen again. If we take seriously the protection of all our fellow citizens, it is up to us to offer that protection. For all its possible shortcomings and difficulties, the Bill does that. I hope that the House of Lords leaves it alone—it does not need to come back to this place—and that we get a new law and implement it.
I shall be brief. I listened with great interest to the last debate. The flaw in the discussions in the House is not the distinction between racial hatred and religious hatred. I do not think that there is a distinction worth making there. The error lies in the concept of what should be made illegal.
I am the first to acknowledge that stirring up hatred is a thoroughly bad thing to do. It is quite wrong and immoral, but that does not mean that it should be illegal. When one is determining what is or is not to be made illegal, one must consider the consequences. The question that I ask myself is not whether what someone is doing is immoral or offensive, but whether it is disruptive to the state. I come to the conclusion that it becomes disruptive to the state only if the consequence of the emotion that has been whipped up is to cause serious peril to the state. That is why, in the course of a series of interventions on my hon. Friends and others, I have tried to associate the concept of hatred with conduct likely to cause violence or other criminal activity. I should like the House to stand back and to consider the definition of hatred, and to say that only that which is likely to cause illegal acts and violence to those who are being criticised should be rendered illegal. The fact that one may cause other people to be held in a state of hatred, moral contempt or whatever should not make the act illegal, albeit that I am the first to concede that it is immoral to do it.
I hope that those in the other place will consider the definition of hatred, whether in the context of religious or racial hatred, so as only to outlaw—by which I mean to render criminally unlawful—those things that are likely to result in acts of violence or criminal activities.
My right hon. Friend Frank Dobson spoke powerfully about the need to do something. That is always a powerful call, and no one who has taken part in the debate has dissented from the proposition that there is an issue that needs to be tackled.
Our task when we turn to legislation is to decide whether the issue is being tackled in the most appropriate way. It probably would have been much better for the Government to introduce a separate piece of religious hatred legislation, not to piggy-back it on the top of existing racial hatred legislation. That is the source of much of the difficulty that we have experienced. That is why we have worried about the absence of a definition of religion or of hatred and about the fusion of issues of belief and believers.
It is not good enough simply to say that we should do something because certain people are under serious attack or pressure, because there is a line that it would be very dangerous to cross—the line that says, "You cannot properly and legitimately attack religious belief systems." It is fundamental to our kind of society that we are able to attack religious belief systems as we can attack political belief systems, cultural belief systems, and all other types of belief systems. Perhaps the Government said, as part of their conversation with the communities that came to them, "We want to do everything that we can to protect you, but you in turn must understand that it is part of this society that people are able legitimately to attack religious belief systems." Those things that are hateful should be hated; we should not be too squeamish about that.
I would caution those who have suggested that the events of the past few days contribute decisively to the arguments about the Bill. One could make the argument on both sides. One could argue that it is even more necessary to preserve the right to attack religious bigotry in all its forms, given that people use religion as a cloak for all kinds of extremism. It would be just as possible to argue that because whole communities may be victimised because of what has happened, we need to give them extra protection. Both arguments could be made, but it is not sensible at this moment to deploy either of them. We should try to keep our heads and get the balance right.
New clause 4, which I tabled, was, for some reason, not called. Perhaps I missed the moment. It meant that I was deprived of the opportunity of telling my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that I intended to withdraw it. However, I was going to withdraw it on the basis that I am a gullible chap, he is a gentle and persuasive Minister and I therefore keep believing everything that he tells me.
My hon. Friend told me on Second Reading that he would table an amendment that would deal with our concerns and provide the appropriate balance. I was therefore disappointed when I discovered today that he had not done that. He has now told me that he will re-examine the matter and that my amendment was too weak. By implication, he wants a stronger amendment. He must therefore be prepared to consider the next stage and return with an amendment that covers our concerns and finds the correct balance. In that spirit, had I been given the opportunity, I would have withdrawn the amendment.
I am sure that Dr. Wright feels, as I do, that, perhaps not for the first time, our hope lies in the Lords.
No one could impugn the good faith and intentions of either the Under-Secretary, who is an amiable and genuine chap, or the Government. However, not only the road to hell but that to legislative chaos is paved with good intentions. If there were time and it were in order, I could cite the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and many other knee-jerk reaction Bills, which you and I, Mr. Speaker, have seen pass through the House and that subsequently either passed into oblivion or caused danger.
Frank Dobson made a powerful speech. I am sure that he did not mean to imply that, if the Bill had been enacted four years ago, the events of last Thursday would not have happened, but it is important that people read his speech and my comments on it in that context because a careless listening or reading could give the wrong impression.
I was moved by the testimony of Mrs. Cryer. I am delighted—I am sure we all are—that she so thoroughly beat off the nasty challenge of the BNP. Her words deserve wide circulation and careful study because if we stand for anything in this place, it is freedom of thought and expression, unfettered freedom of speech and, of course, proper constraints and sanctions against those who do what my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg described: encourage people to violence and evil. They must be dealt with. No hon. Member would disagree with that.
However, the Bill is not the way to achieve that. I was unable to take part in the Second Reading debate because I was still fighting the general election. However, I received petitions, containing many hundreds of signatures, and many dozens of letters from churches and chapels in my constituency. They were from ordinary, decent people, who have as high a regard for their Muslim friends and neighbours as the hon. Member for Keighley and I do. I remind hon. Members, 10 years to the day after Srebrenica, that I was one of the few who spoke out against those appalling atrocities in Bosnia. However, my constituents do not believe that the Bill is the way to help their Muslim friends and neighbours.
My constituents are also concerned about the inhibitions that the Bill might place on them in proclaiming their beliefs and faith fearlessly and openly. We want a society where people can proclaim and defend their beliefs and, yes, attack those of others if they feel that they are wrong. We want a truly tolerant and free society. I am sure that the Government and the Under-Secretary want that. However, the Bill, which the Under-Secretary clearly took through the Committee with great good humour, is not the way to achieve that. I shall vote against the Bill without any qualms or inhibitions. I hope very much that, when it comes back from the other place, it will have been significantly improved, and that the points raised in new clause 4 and the other amendments that have been rejected, withdrawn or not moved tonight will have been inserted into it so that it becomes workable and manageable. In its present state, it manifestly is not.
Mr. Grieve said on the last day in Committee something that rang a bell for me. He said that the Bill walked on eggshells. He was almost right. It certainly walks a tightrope between trying to maintain freedom of speech and trying to ensure that everyone in this land has an equal opportunity to express and enjoy their religion without suffering the fear that my right hon. Friend Frank Dobson described. That is why Labour Members' advocacy of the Bill has sometimes been cautious, rather than aggressive or over-assertive. Those who have argued against elements of the Bill, although they have expressed serious and important concerns, have also perhaps overstated them.
I support the Bill for the simple reason that, at present, a legal anomaly leaves a growing part of this country unprotected and uncertain of its relationship to society at a time when there is growing disaffection among many young Muslim people. I also support the Bill because of the potential for growing hostility towards people in this land who seem to be different by virtue of their race or their religion. It is important for the state to take action in these circumstances, even if that action is merely declaratory, as my right hon. Friend said earlier.
We shall need to do certain things in the near future to ensure that this legislation works effectively. For example, there should be greater protection under the law for places of worship, especially for Jewish and Muslim cemeteries. We should not rely on ancient legislation such as the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 in that regard. We should enact proper legislation to ensure that such protection exists for all religions. I also happen to agree with Dr. Harris that we should abolish the blasphemy law, and if I thought for an instant that this legislation would result in an advancement of that law, I should not be able to vote for it. There are other hate crimes in this land, some of which are perpetrated by people who hold very strong religious views, and I hope that the Equality Bill will give us an opportunity to deal with those crimes as well.
We all agree on one thing here tonight, and that is that the Minister is a well-intentioned person. However, in the end we are judged not on the width of the Minister's smile but on the quality of our legislation, and this is a bad Bill. If we pass it into law, we shall be doing the nation a disservice. The Bill is unnecessary and, although Frank Dobson made a powerful speech, he did not put forward the other side of the story.
The Bill is cloaked in uncertainty: it does not define religion or hatred. If we pass it into law, people out there will still not know what they are free to say and what they are not. The Bill is also likely to have unintended consequences. We all want tolerance, harmony and respect between the religious communities in this country, but the Bill is likely to provoke the opposite. The Government have said that they will listen to reasonable objections, but they have done so with closed ears. If the Bill becomes law, we shall stumble into darkness and uncertainty, and I urge the House to reject it.
It is a great irony that the Bill will penalise those whom it seeks to protect. I have never been worried about jokes or comedians in this regard, but I am worried now. Religion is not some cosy thing that people do. It often preaches hatred and incites people to share such views, even though we might wish that it were otherwise. One of the reasons that there were 2,000 or 3,000 religious leaders outside here today was that they were concerned that they would no longer be able to practise their religion freely in this country. It is a great irony that, in seeking to achieve that freedom, the Government might prohibit it. I am also concerned that in the current climate of terrible attacks on Muslims, such a Bill is the wrong answer. The answer is education. Declaration is not enough.
Because I must finish, I will simply say that legislation will not stop hatred, and legislation will not stop incitement to hatred. It will simply and sadly contribute to it.