Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Has the hon. Gentleman seen reports that the Home Secretary might be minded to heed the strong feeling in the House that the Bill is not the right vehicle for legislation on this highly sensitive matter? Would it not assist us materially if the Home Secretary told us now that that is correct, so that we could devote more time to the other important aspects of the Bill?

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman provides a timely prompt, as I have seen those reports. I suppose that I am thereby owning up to reading The Sunday Telegraph, as other hon. Members do, but I am glad to do so. This

26 Nov 2001 : Column 675

morning, I also heard the Under–Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), on the radio. Although she said that the Government had not yet changed their mind, she seemed to suggest that they might be persuaded to do so. I would therefore be very happy to give way to the Home Secretary if he would like to tell us the Government's current position.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): I can do no better than to quote Mr. Speaker's recent words: "Don't believe everything that you read in the newspapers."

Simon Hughes: On that basis, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), other hon. Members and I will have to proceed to debate these important provisions.

The provisions seem to deal with three important and clearly interdependent issues: how people worship, how people express their faith and their comments, and how people with no faith comment on faith and on people with faith. They also deal with three freedoms: the freedom of religion and the freedom of expression, both of which are protected in law, and the freedom from discrimination, which is substantially but not completely protected in law.

It is fair to say, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire said, that the Bill's inclusion of provisions addressing those issues has been the subject of much comment and controversy and considerable concern. Authors and comedians have clearly said that they want to be able to write and speak critically about faith or faiths and about those who profess them. I should think that there is no dissension from that proposition on either side of the Committee. Moreover, adherents of faith want to be able to express and share their faith and seek to win people to it. Other amendments in this group, not least that tabled by the right hon. Member for North–West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), seek to clarify that issue.

Many people of a recognised faith, of private faith and of no faith have expressed concern about the fact that the legislation deals with matters of faith and associates those matters with the concept of terrorism. Their concern is a particularly strong reason why the Government must overwhelmingly convince the Committee of the need to deal with those matters in the Bill. All hon. Members and all corners in British politics have made it clear that, logically, those matters should not be associated even by implication with a war, battle or campaign against terrorism, and that we must make it clear that the legislation is not directed against any particular faith or people of any particular faith.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Evangelical Alliance, among other groups, has written to hon. Members to say that although it wants legislation to address those issues, it does not believe that they are appropriately addressed in this Bill? The alliance wants wider debate and properly considered legislation.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I saw the Evangelical Alliance's very short and straightforward submission, which stated that although it

26 Nov 2001 : Column 676

understood the issue and supported the argument, it did not think that it was possible in the time available to do justice to the cause. Moreover, that view is shared by all the representatives of Britain's faith communities to whom I have spoken or whose submissions I have read since we learned that the Government were considering placing such a provision on their agenda.

In recent days, I have not read anything said by the Church or by the Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or Hindu communities that suggests that this Bill is the right place to deal with those matters. I have also had express conversations with those who know the mind of, for example, the General Synod of the Church of England and of the coalition of Muslim groups and they seem to hold precisely the same view. They also seem to have grown stronger in that view in recent days.

3.45 pm

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): The hon. Gentleman is a lawyer. If he waives his fee for a second, could I ask him a question? If the legislation were in force and someone said, "I hate all religious fundamentalists and all right-minded people should hate them", would they be caught by this provision?

Simon Hughes: It is a difficult question, but I shall seek to answer it; there is certainly no question of a fee. Under the Bill as drafted, the person concerned must have had the intention to produce a consequence, the consequence being that people would suffer as a result of what had been said. There has to be the statement and the consequence. To be fair, the Bill clearly specifies that. The trouble is that it would be a matter for the courts, in each case, to define whether there was the intention as well as the statement. Clearly, that issue must be discussed and sorted out.

The provision cannot go into legislation if there is a doubt about whether certain words or language could be turned into something that would have imputed to them an intention, as opposed to no intention, of a consequence. That is exactly the sort of phrase that does not have an immediate answer, which is why we need to proceed carefully. I will come back to the other arguments that suggest that the wording of the Bill is not clear enough, and which may persuade the Committee about the new clause.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): In order that the debate should proceed from the right position, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the way in which the Bill is drafted means that even if it were not the intention of the person speaking to produce the consequence of hatred, but it was likely in all the circumstances that hatred might follow, that person might be caught?

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman prompts me to deal with a point that I was going to make later—that it is the second linked formulation of the offence that makes it even more far reaching. There is not just an intention to commit an offence, but a likelihood that an offence might be committed, that violence might follow or that there might be the consequence of hatred. That is much more difficult to get right.

I wish to refer to an example in the context of the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for North–West Cambridgeshire. Jews might say things—or Sikhs,

26 Nov 2001 : Column 677

Muslims or Christians—that they feel are matters of belief for them. They might say them with the conviction that they are justified in so speaking. They might not intend that their words should incite anybody else to any particular activity. However, it might be said in a way that does incite people to that particular activity. For example, if one went into a mixed-faith crowd and said that Islam was the only true faith and that anybody who did not follow the true faith would not have eternal life and would go to hell, that could be regarded, by definition, as going down the route towards incitement.

Mr. Blunkett: How could it?

Simon Hughes: I am not seeking to exaggerate the import of the Bill. I am not seeking to say that the courts will take a wider interpretation as opposed to a narrow interpretation. But no definition of religion is proposed, and this is not something with which the courts are used to dealing. There are one or two other pieces of legislation where there has been a reference to religion, but that is another reason why we must be careful. We have not specified exactly the meaning of the offence.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that it might go further and that in response to his example others may react violently, putting the blame on the statement and arguing "likely effect", and that it would be within the scope of the Bill to do so?

Simon Hughes: I understand that, and others might argue that that justified their reaction or response. To be fair, the commission of the offence could be judged objectively only in terms of what the person accused did. I have not taken six legal opinions, but the advice we have received suggests that judgment would have to be made on the normal interpretation and normal consequence of the words used. Therefore, if someone interpreted such a statement as inciting or provocative, that would not necessarily carry them over the threshold. However, that is not clear.

Some people, including the Evangelical Alliance, say that before we proceed there needs to be a code of guidance and rules about when it would be used. The protection in law—namely, that the Attorney-General would have to authorise prosecutions—is not sufficient at present because we still do not know the context of certain prosecutions. Of course the legislation will be used carefully, but that does not mean it will never be used in a way that people do not expect. For example, the use of the blasphemy law some 15 or 20 years ago, originally in a private prosecution, suddenly invoked legislation where it had not been expected or intended. We must be careful not to go down that road again.

Next Section

IndexHome Page