Equality Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 9th November 2005.

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Photo of Lord Lyell of Markyate Lord Lyell of Markyate Conservative 5:30 pm, 9th November 2005

My Lords, I am a latecomer to this Bill, because it had its Second Reading before I was introduced. However, when you come to analyse it, you find that it makes a deep-seated attack on freedom of speech and on freedom of religion. We fought over the centuries for freedom of religion. We did not have it in the 17th century; it was not until the 1820s that we got Catholic emancipation and it was not until well into the 19th century that we got religious freedom. Now we are making a move through this Bill—not deliberately, but this will be the effect—of actually restricting religious freedom very tightly and in very remarkable ways.

Under this Bill, John Wesley would have been prevented from preaching in most open-air areas. Biggleswade marketplace or the Marlowes in Hemel Hempstead are places where people go and speak and express their opinions, and are owned by the public authorities. There is a serious danger that people might be restricted in what they are seeking to do. People set out their stalls for different religions—principally Christian religions, but they might well be Muslim religions. As many noble Lords have said, not only the possibility of prosecution is at issue; it is the much wider risk of what public officials will believe that it is their duty to do to restrict free speech and free activity.

I praise my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon because she has made the most constructive effort to improve this Bill by removing the words "or effect". There is no doubt that removing those words would represent a significant advance, because at least that would bring the Bill closer to requiring deliberate intent. But having listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and others, including my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, one has to wonder whether removing those words would go far enough, because purpose is not quite of the same nature as intent. After all, it is an essential of freedom of religion that you preach your religion with the purpose of saving the soul of another person. You must be entitled to do that in a free society, whether you are a Muslim, a Christian, a Sikh or a Jew, or of any other religion—or, indeed, a humanist or secularist—because you profoundly believe that to be the truth and that you will improve the world and the lot of your fellow men and women if you do that.

I shall say just one word about the sheer importance of freedom of speech. One cannot believe that the Government have lost sight of it. On "Thought for the Day" there is a regular Muslim speaker, and there is Indarjit Singh of the Sikh Messenger—and there you find enormous wisdom expressed. We have reached a very dangerous situation, in which we have what my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay rightly referred to as something like "distorted religions" or mistaken ideas of religions—probably referring to the Muslim religion. Let us suppose that there is a publicly owned block of flats in north London and that some of the Muslims who speak there wish to hold a meeting in which they wish to say, "We must uphold our faith but we must be careful of distortion". Will they be allowed to hold that, when they will be criticising fellow Muslims of a different type of that faith, just as we Christians sometimes criticise each other for different approaches to our own faith? They may be doing it in ways that would transgress this Bill.

I believe that this part of the Bill, and this clause, present very grave dangers. If the House is moved to support the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Miller, I shall vote for it, and if we move on to delete the clause altogether, I shall vote for that.