Schedule 26 — Hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 6th May 2008.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister, Innovation, Universities and Skills 9:15 pm, 6th May 2008

I understand that there are two parts to any law, unless I missed something in my limited legal education. The first is having someone go through a trial even if there is not much of a penalty at the end. We have already established in relation to the investigation of people such as the Lancashire couple who wanted to put literature in the registry office or, indeed, Lynette Burrows, that the hon. Gentleman's colleagues were saying that just having a police investigation—not even a prosecution—was traumatic enough and could destroy lives. It is not good enough to say that we can still prosecute even if there is not much of a penalty. It is not just about the penalty. I would expect us to have more proportionate and reasonable penalties for all our laws, whether homicide or burglary, than some of the states we seek to advise or criticise.

Finally, something needs to be said about the motivations behind the measure. In the House of Lords, something curious happened. The archbishops, in their joint letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said:

"Having signalled for more than 20 years that the blasphemy laws could, in the right context, be abolished, the Church is not going to oppose abolition now, provided— this was the rider—

"we can be assured that provisions are in place to afford the necessary protection to individuals and to society".

We in the House worked hard to narrowly defeat the Government to ensure that the religious hatred laws did not protect opinion or religion, but only, in clear and narrow cases, individuals from incitement to hatred. I did not for one moment think that those laws would be cited by the Government as something to reassure the archbishops. I am very disappointed that the Minister in the Lords then stated:

"The church made it clear in 2002 that, if such an offence were enacted"— that is a reference to the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006

"and proved effective, it would provide the context in which the current offence of blasphemy could be safely repealed. This context of stronger legislation weakens any argument to keep the status quo."

I am disappointed that the Government say to our House when we are debating the religious hatred legislation, "Don't worry, this isn't about protecting religious belief," and then in the House of Lords they imply that blasphemy will be substituted by an effective use of the religious hatred Act. That is not the case; I am confident that the religious hatred legislation will not be a substitute, and that the Government were just saying that in the House of Lords to placate the bishops.

Baroness O'Cathain claimed that I was arguing that this was a secularising move. She quoted a letter I wrote to Lords when they were debating this issue:

"Dr. Evan Harris said in response:

'It should be seen as a secularising move, and with pride'.

I rest my case."—[ Hansard, House of Lords, 5 March 2008; Vol. 699, c. 1121, 1129.]

In fact, however, this is what my letter said in full:

"It should be seen as a secularising move, and with pride...by both religious and secular people because it removes a layer of religious privilege in, and religious censorship of, society which is no longer seen as appropriate."

That is an important point.

I do not see why we should have any qualms about trying to secularise the state. There is a difference between that and the view that Richard Dawkins expresses, which is that religious people are wrong. I have never said that in this House; Members can check the record. What people believe is their own business, so far as I am concerned, and religion is a matter for the individual and the home, and for family, church and social clubs. However, there is an argument that the state should be neutral in religious matters—that we should have a secular state.

That is not an argument against people having individual religious views. Many of my best friends—as the cliché goes—have strong religious views, and I respect them. I may or may not share them; I have never discussed my own religious views. I just passionately believe in a secular state.