Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Clappison: On Muslims.

Mr. Straw: I am so sorry; I meant "made on Muslims".

The Government are aware of the concerns of some religious groups, especially Muslim organisations. Last week, I met Muslim community leaders to discuss that

23 Jun 1998 : Column 894

issue, as I have done many times. Naturally, they are worried about the way in which the words that were originally in the Race Relations Act 1976, which were replicated in the Public Order Act 1986 and which are now in the Bill, have been judicially interpreted, not least in the case--although it was a non-criminal case--of Mandla v. Dowell Lee, a decision of the House of Lords in 1983.

We believe that, in practice, most--in my judgment, almost all--cases that appear to have a religious element will also have a racial element. When the perpetrators of these offences, for example, attack Muslims, they do not generally do so because of hostility to the tenets of Islam. I suggest that, in almost every case, they will be wholly ignorant of the tenets of Islam. They make their attacks because of racial hostility towards the victim and towards the ethnic minority groups that are associated with the Muslim faith in this country.

The test of what amounts to "racially aggravated" for the purposes of these offences requires that the racial hostility is "wholly or partly" a motivating factor. It follows that, even if there is religious hostility, provided part of the hostility is racist, the offence will be covered by the provisions.

I took account of the representations made to me last week, and I examined carefully the transcripts of the debates in Committee last week. I believe that we should make it even clearer in the Bill that people charged with these offences cannot claim that they were motivated by religious, and not racial, hatred. For that reason, we have tabled amendment No. 160, which states:


7 pm

Under the clause, as drafted to include those important assertions, even if religious hostility is the principal or main trigger for the hostility, as long as there is some racial element--I suggest that that will be present in almost every case--the offence will be proved, and a conviction should follow. I am only too familiar with the kind of racial harassment and attacks that are suffered by the Muslim community, and I believe that this amendment will cover almost every circumstance in which Muslims are victims.

I am aware of the provisions of amendment No. 10, to which the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), spoke, and to which the Liberal Democrats have appended their names. The amendment seeks to insert the word "religion" after "race". As I think the supporters of the amendment accept, including that single word would significantly extend the terms of this group of racially motivated offences to cover religiously motivated offences generally.

We do not rule out the possibility of bringing forward legislation in due course to cover religiously motivated offences in the same way as we are covering racially motivated offences, even where the principal motivation is religious. However, this area requires careful consideration.

For example, the issue of whether someone belongs to a particular racial group, as defined initially in the Race Relations Act 1976 and subsequently, can be subject to

23 Jun 1998 : Column 895

an objective test. It is a matter which can be proved by external evidence. It is better defined in clause 28(2), which states:


    "In this section 'racial group'"--

it is a pretty wide definition--


    "means a group of persons defined by reference to race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins."

It is obviously much more difficult to define whether someone is a member of a religious group, which involves a subjective as well as an objective test. That does not mean that it may not be a candidate for future legislation, but it makes the matter more complicated.

I know that the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who speaks on behalf of the Opposition, is about to respond. I gently remind the Opposition that, despite the calls from Labour and the Liberal Democrats over many years regarding racially motivated crimes, those calls were resisted by the previous Government, often on the ground of the difficulty involved in defining such crimes. If that was difficult, it is still more difficult to define crimes that are based on religious hostility or hatred. We do not rule it out, but we point to the difficulty involved.

In Standing Committee, my hon. Friend the Minister said that we were establishing research on the nature and the scale of religious discrimination in order to establish the size of the problem. On 12 May, the hon. Member for Hertsmere asked whether that research would include religious attacks within the framework of the Bill. The Minister replied:


That is obviously an important part of the research. However, that research has not yet been concluded--and it could not be concluded before the Bill is likely to become law.

I appreciate that the changes do not go as far as some groups would wish. However, I remind the House--and particularly those hon. Members who support amendment No. 10--that the Muslim Council of Britain, a representative group which came to see me last Tuesday, issued a statement after I had moved the amendment and the equivalent amendments for Scotland.

The council said that it welcomed my decision to table the amendment, and also the guidance that we shall publish along with the Bill. It went on:


I record my thanks to the Muslim Council of Britain for those remarks. Given my comments and the important clarification provided by the Government amendments, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press amendment No. 10.

Mr. Clappison: I have listened carefully to the Home Secretary's important speech, and I am grateful for the care that he has brought to the subject. As was evident to

23 Jun 1998 : Column 896

all those who are familiar with the way in which it was dealt with in Committee, the matter has been handled sensitively by all sides. We share common objectives: it is a question not of whether we should do what we can to combat racial and religious attacks, but of how we will do so.

I welcome the Home Secretary's comments about amendments Nos. 16 and 17. They improve the Bill and will deal with the situation that arises when a person from one racial group is attacked by someone who believes that that person belongs to a different racial group. The amendments take the matter a little further and will cover certain cases. We welcome that move.

I listened to what the Home Secretary said about amendment No. 10, and I am not sure that I can extend as warm a welcome to those remarks--although I appreciate the care that the Home Secretary has brought to the subject. I shall reply gently to the Home Secretary's comments about the previous Government's approach to racial attacks. It has long been established in law that a racial element of a case is an aggravating feature, and the courts regard it as such. There is strong authority--including recent authority given during the lifetime of the last Parliament by Lord Justice Taylor--that racial attacks should be regarded as an aggravating feature by the courts.

That system applied across the board to all types of offences where there was a racial feature. It was not a question of whether a racial element should be regarded as an aggravating feature--that has always been the case. The Government have their own view about how that should be achieved, and the Bill marks a change in the way in which the law deals with racial attacks. Instead of the question whether a racial element is being decided by the judge in all cases, as at present, the Bill would put that question into the hands of the jury in certain cases.

It is a slightly wider application, and I shall not go far down this road, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I should like to return, gently, a point the Home Secretary made to me. As the Government are minded to change the way in which the courts approach racial attacks, why do they not go the step further that we suggested in our earlier amendments and include all offences, including the most serious offences of personal violence and public order that are not currently included in the Bill? I am straying slightly from the main subject, but I wanted to respond to the Home Secretary's point.

That is not the point at issue in amendments Nos. 10 and 11, which reflect the fact that, as the Bill stands, offences committed because of hostility towards religion rather than race are not regarded as having aggravated features for the purposes of the Bill. We believe that offences committed against individuals because of their religion are every bit as evil as offences committed against individuals because of their race; and that both are extremely evil.

To attack people because they are wearing a hejab or sporting a beard is every bit as evil as attacking people because they are black or brown. Many would say that there is not a great deal of similarity between those factual circumstances, but the key distinction for the purposes of the Bill as it stands is whether the attack is motivated by racial hostility or religious hostility. Racial hostility is covered by the Bill, but religious hostility is not.

23 Jun 1998 : Column 897

From what he said, it is evident that the Home Secretary is mindful of that problem, and sympathetic to attempts to deal with it. I listened carefully to his description of the Government amendment, which we have been considering since it was tabled. As the Home Secretary said, its intention is to make it clear that, even where there may be a religious element in a specific crime, if the hostility is even partly racist it will be covered by the Bill. We regard the amendment as an attempt by the Government to move in the right direction, but we fear that, in practice and in effect, they have not moved far, if at all.

Without the Government amendment, it is clear on the face of the Bill that offences that are motivated "wholly or partly" by hostility towards a racial group are covered by the Bill, so, unamended, it already covers matters encompassed by the amendment. Therefore, the amendment does not take matters a great deal--or, on reflection, I would have to say, any--further. In Committee, both the Opposition and the Government accepted that, where there is even a partial racial motivation, offences that have a mixed religious and racial motivation will be covered by the Bill. The amendment might be designed to make that more explicit, but it is already the effect in law, so the amendment is little more than a restatement of the Bill's existing provisions.

The Home Secretary said that, in his judgment, in many of the cases involving a religious motive, if not in almost all, there would also be a racial motive. I am not entirely convinced that that is true. It is necessary to go further and cover cases where there is an entirely religious motive and no racial motive.

Sadly, attacks are made on people purely and exclusively because of their religion. The Bill as it stands will not cover the case referred to by the Home Secretary, of the white woman wearing a hejab, which was related in a recent briefing meeting that I attended. The right hon. Gentleman said that the case would be covered if the person attacking the white woman wearing the hejab thought that she was Bangladeshi. That might be so, but cases where that is not so--where the attacker knows that the woman is white and attacks her purely because she is wearing that badge of religious identity--will not be covered by the Bill. I put it to the Home Secretary that the same would apply whatever the racial or ethnic origin of the person attacked, solely because they were wearing a badge of religious identity.

Our concern is that, even with the amendment, the Bill will not cover those cases in which a person is attacked purely because of that person's religion, and where there is no racial motive for the attack. The Home Secretary cannot tell the House that such cases will be covered by the Bill. We fear that, if it is not amended, we shall create all sorts of anomalies, whether actual or perceived, and potential sources of injustice.

The Government are aware that the courts have judged Sikhs to have the characteristics of a single ethnic group, whereas Muslims come from many different ethnic groups; it follows that any offence committed against a Sikh will automatically be covered by the provisions, but that an offence against a Muslim will not necessarily be covered. We are in danger of creating a sense of injustice. The Home Secretary knows that there is widespread concern--especially among the Muslim community

23 Jun 1998 : Column 898

because of the variety of ethnic backgrounds from which Muslims are drawn, but among other communities as well--about that possible source of anomaly and injustice.


Next Section

IndexHome Page