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Mr. Letwin: I beg the Home Secretary to consider a distinction. No one is suggesting—least of all me—that it is his intention to prevent sensible people from taking sensible action and making sensible statements about certain sects. Of course that is not his intention. However, I am trying to call his attention to the fact that the clause, as drafted, may have that untoward effect. I do not believe that the House has had anything like the sufficient time to consider whether what I am saying is right or wrong—and the country has certainly not had anything like sufficient time. Rather than rushing into legislation, we need to consider whether these risks exist in practice. I earnestly believe that they do.

Mr. Gerrard: The hon. Gentleman refers to the role of the Attorney-General. Does he accept that the Attorney-General may be subject to considerable political pressures on such issues, especially as the Bill, as drafted, means that it will be possible to be prosecuted for saying things about people anywhere in the world? That is the effect of clauses 36 and 37.

Mr. Letwin: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not suggest that the current Attorney-General would allow himself to be persuaded by such pressures, but the construction of the clause could, over time, have that effect. That would be wrong.

I have said enough, and perhaps too much. It is essential that the Committee divide on these clauses. The Government will try to command their forces to push these clauses through and that is their right as the elected Government. However, I hope that the provisions will be checked in another place and that the Government will genuinely listen to the arguments. Notwithstanding the remarks of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, I hope that we will have the opportunity to establish a consensus on something that should not be a matter of dispute between the political parties. The harmony of our society depends so completely on achieving consensus on such issues.

5.30 pm

Mr. Blunkett: The debate has addressed the issues directly and sensitively, and I hope it will continue to do so, while exploring the possible difficulties in applying the law. The Sunday Telegraph was not correct, and I want to make it clear that I have no intention of

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withdrawing the clauses. As I said last Monday and Wednesday, I am intent on listening and responding to positive suggestions on how to improve the legislation.

If a review of the clauses over the next two years would assist and if the two main Opposition parties were genuine in their claims to take that seriously, we would be in business, but we will get nowhere if we are concerned only with referring to the most enormous public kerfuffle, with which I shall deal in a moment, on inserting in legislation something that was intended to be a simple addition to incorporate religion in the incitement to race hate. It is our aim to ensure that the addition is simple and straightforward so that we incorporate a particular aspect that has been debated for a long time—the Law Commission, for instance, has been mentioned in that regard. We are trying to protect those who find themselves less protected under existing legislation than those for whom jurisprudence has determined that their race and religion are covered by the law. It is particular groups, under the Public Order Act 1986 and within public order in general, that we are dealing with today.

Over the past few weeks, and in particular the past few days, I have heard and read enough nonsense about the Bill and its implications to last a lifetime. It seems to go like this: think of an absurd allegation and extend it; add a little bile, print it at great length, watch it expand until people are really worried, and sit back and watch the implications grow; then move on to something else. We saw it last week with clause 17 and we see it in relation to the incitement of religious hatred.

There was tremendous support for including religion in the legislation, which can be checked in the cuttings, until Rowan Atkinson—God bless him—wrote to The Times—[Hon. Members: "Oh no."] I suggest that hon. Members go to the Library and take a look at what was said. There was an immediate reaction to the suggestion that the inclusion of religion would preclude those who go about their normal business amusing people from cracking jokes and taking the mickey out of religion. The "Life of Brian", which was used as an analogy at the time, was a good satire on the political left in the 1960s and 1970s and, tragically, on the Spanish civil war to boot. If anyone does not think that to be the case I suggest they take another look at it, and very amusing it was.

Jokes and amusing behaviour, the criticism of people's religion and the way in which people express their religion will not—this is not our intention—fall foul of the measures.

Mr. Sedgemore: The Home Secretary cannot say that.

Mr. Blunkett: I can inform my hon. Friend, who has now entered the Chamber to make my life more miserable, that I am saying that. I am advised by Home Office lawyers that the courts, in their interpretation, will take notice of what has been said, which is why Home Secretaries have to be more careful than sometimes I would wish to be.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way with his customary courtesy. He must remember that when he made his statement to the House, which was before Rowan Atkinson's letter,

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some Members, including me, raised legitimate doubts. He must have heard, from all quarters of the Chamber, Members who are serious in intent and genuinely anxious to reach the right solution express their belief that it is a mistake to legislate in this context and at this speed. We are asking him to provide the House with a proper opportunity to consider a draft Bill and to move at a measured pace, so that we can try to put into statute a law that makes sense and is not open to the sort of abuse to which this Bill, enacted in this way, will be.

Mr. Blunkett: I accept that the hon. Gentleman raised those concerns. That was not the point I was making. I was making a point about the general atmosphere surrounding the proposal to insert religion, alongside race, in measures on incitement. The racial aspects of existing laws, including the Race Relations Act 1965, the Public Order Act 1986 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, were intended to apply to threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour that is intended to stir up hatred and lead people to take actions against others which, under the Public Order Act, everyone in the Committee would find unacceptable.

We can therefore assure those from the Evangelical Alliance and small religious denominations such as the Plymouth Brethren, who are present this evening, that their proselytising will not be caught by a clause that inserts religion, alongside race, in measures on incitement. Incitement to what? Not only to hate, but to activities that, as defined by the Public Order Act, threaten others.

Denzil Davies: My right hon. Friend will know that the word "incitement" does not appear in any of the legislation. Does he accept that one problem is that section 18(1) of the Public Order Act has two separate limbs? The first refers to intention, but the second refers merely to likelihood. If my right hon. Friend seeks amelioration, and possibly a compromise, would he consider dropping the second limb, so that a prosecution would have to prove intention, which courts can usually do in criminal cases? It would not then be necessary to refer to the second limb, whose scope is much wider.

Mr. Blunkett: We are, of course, talking about an amendment to part III of the 1986 Act. I understand my right hon. Friend's point. It would be easy to drop the second part, but the difficulty is that in such cases we are not dealing with people of good will. We are dealing with, for instance, the British National party. That takes us back to the point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), who raised serious issues that I intend to try to address. We are trying to deal with those who, understandably from their point of view, would claim that their intention was not to stir up hatred. They would say that they had fallen foul of the law purely by accident, even though their objective, in using certain language in a certain way, was precisely to achieve the goals that we are trying to outlaw this evening.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I am sure that the Home Secretary will remember from his years in local government, when he sought to apply race relations legislation to eliminate discrimination and harassment, that real progress was made on legislation that specifically addressed the activities of discrimination, harassment and

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now aggravated offences. From the legal advice that the Department has given him, I assume he will know that there have been little more than three prosecutions a year on incitement since the 1986 Act was passed. One reason for that is the impossibility of making a sustained case that does not end up discrediting the action itself. Does my right hon. Friend realise that the great strength of what he is doing today is to be found in clause 39, which addresses the gap on aggravated offences? However, he should not extend the nonsense and trap that has caught many of us over the years with clauses 36 to 38.

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