I rise strongly to support my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe and my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, both of whom have made strong cases. I also want to apologise to the Minister and to my hon. Friend Nick Herbert for not having been here for the bulk of my hon. Friend's speech or for that of the Minister. However, I hope that I have picked up much of the thread of the debate as we have gone along. I must also declare an interest as the churchwarden of the Royal Garrison church in Aldershot.
These are difficult issues, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire explained. One pitfall of debating these matters is that we are always at risk of treading on sensitivities. Fortunately, the tenor of the debate this evening has done the House proud, but deeply held convictions are involved. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, it is extraordinary how we have moved in a short space of time from observing centuries of established Church of England teaching to questioning that teaching. Those who previously questioned that teaching were given every right to argue their case, but those of us who now seek to defend that original teaching are regarded almost as pariahs. The House therefore needs to be extremely careful about the possibly unintended consequences of this legislation.
My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend have both given examples of past practice. I would add to the catalogue set out by my right hon. Friend the case of the Bishop of Chester. That was a dreadful case in which the bishop had his collar felt by P.C. Plod in the form of no less than the chief constable of Cheshire. That was absolutely extraordinary and outrageous. I wrote to the bishop to support him, but I also wrote to the chief constable to tell him that he had absolutely no business interfering with the freedom of expression of a bishop.
The Minister has said that a protection is available in the legislation because the authorities will have to prove intent to stir up hatred. That will probably be okay for the bishop, and it might be just enough to spare Lynette Burrows and Sir Iqbal Sacranie. However, I fear that lesser mortals will not enjoy the sort of protection that the bishop and certain others will undoubtedly enjoy as a result of the measure that the Minister is seeking to present to the House this evening. I fear that, if a complaint were lodged against an ordinary mortal, who was perhaps slightly less careful in the way that he had phrased his remarks—and which might not have been uttered in a religious building such as a church or a church hall—the police and the authorities would have no compunction about looking over their shoulder and saying, "I'd better not feel the collar of the bishop, because I might get into trouble, but this is only a mortal soul. We will be able to deal with him with impunity."
I am afraid that the Minister has not persuaded my right hon. and hon. Friends and me that the protection that she has sought to present to the House as being sufficient will turn out to be so. It is also unfortunate that the guidance notes are not here tonight. This Government have frequently produced legislation that needs to be interpreted or supported either by statutory instruments or by some form of guidance, and it is a discourtesy to the House not to produce such guidance, especially when the Minister is partly relying on it.
It is right that we should adopt the amendment that has been proposed in the other place. I can see nothing wrong with saying "for the avoidance of doubt". After all, under our constitutional arrangements, when there is an element of doubt in the minds of the judiciary—rather than in this place—it is the duty of the courts to interpret the will of this House. That is why a procedure now exists whereby the courts can take into account remarks made from the Dispatch Box. When we are dealing with a matter as sensitive and as essential to the culture of these islands as the freedom of expression of our people, it is our duty to leave the courts in no doubt as to our intentions. David Howarth suggested that one of his reasons for opposing the amendment was that the courts had no need of guidance. If that were the case, there would be no harm in accepting the Lords amendment and incorporating it into the Bill, because we would then all be clear as to the position. Furthermore, the judges would be clear about it as well, because the House would have given its express view and made its intention crystal clear.
These are extremely important issues. The fact that there is not a large number of right hon. and hon. Members in the House tonight should not leave the public with the feeling that we do not care about these matters. Free speech is extremely important. I myself have taken advantage of the Bill of Rights of 1688 in the last few days, and it is extremely important that we should be able to afford the protection of free speech that we enjoy here to our fellow citizens.
It is significant that both Matthew Parris and Iain Dale have spoken against this legislation, and the House would do well to take advantage of the offer from the other place. It may have been late at night and the Government may have sent their people home to bed early, but the result there was a sensible compromise that will assist the promotion of freedom of expression as well as protecting those whom the House wishes to protect. It is also important to send a clear message to the judges that they must err on the side of allowing freedom of speech in our country.