Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Blunkett: I do not honestly believe that many of us have been caught in it. I agree—thank goodness the Committee as a whole appears to agree—that the aggravated offence is correct and should be extended to religion. At least that is progress. I accept that the aggravated offence has been used extensively. Incitement to race hate has not, although eight cases have been agreed by the Attorney-General this year. An important aspect of what we are doing on incitement, not just on race hatred but on religious hatred, was eloquently described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) as discouraging people from certain behaviour. The difficulty with the aggravated offence is that we can punish people more severely for having done something with an aggravated element built into it, but by itself that does not discourage people from behaving in a certain way.

It is precisely because we wish to change that behaviour, as has been said in our debate, that we are seeking to extend the relevant provisions. Two factors affected my thinking on whether to include religion—I shall deal in a moment with those who advocated that we do so and still do—the first of which was internal reassurance. Since 11 September, people in this country have had a genuine fear, which was articulated earlier this afternoon, that individuals would seek to attack or abuse people, not because of their race but because they are Muslims. Similarly, there is a fear that those who sought to stir up hate against those whom they described as the infidel were equally untouchable under the existing law.

The second factor was international provision. In the past 11 weeks, considerable attention has been focused on the United Kingdom by other countries, particularly Arab countries. In satellite broadcasts and interviews, it became patently clear that the commitment on religion made on 3 October had a significant impact on people living in and viewing satellite broadcasts in certain countries, including interviewers. They appreciated that that particular change had an impact; they perceived that we were prepared to protect people whom they were told we did not care about and in whom we had no interest because, prima facie, the intention was to damage their religion. Those serious issues deserve serious consideration for the reassurance, resilience and social cohesion of our own community; it is important to be able to contribute to that.

Both those factors convinced me that it was worth making a simple addition. Future interpretation would not be simple, but it would be open to the Attorney-General to deal with it.

That is why I am resisting the amendments that would complicate the situation—for example, by using terms such as "supernatural". To amuse myself over a difficult weekend, I thought how ironic it was for the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) to table an amendment dealing with "a supernatural being".

26 Nov 2001 : Column 704

5.45 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): When the Home Secretary next comes down to Bournemouth, perhaps he will visit the priory in Christchurch, which is more than 900 years old, and hear about the miracle of the miraculous beam and other great things that went on in Christchurch. He will know that it is a centre of religion.

One of the concerns expressed to me by my constituents is that if they wish to criticise and, indeed, hate those overseas who are persecuting Christians, they will fall foul of the law in this country. I asked the Home Secretary in a parliamentary question whether the law on religious belief would include protection for Moonies, Muslim fundamentalists and those who believe in the teachings of bin Laden. The right hon. Gentleman refused to give a straight answer to that question. Can he clear that up now?

Mr. Blunkett: Let me clear up a number of things. The allegation was made earlier that somehow the clever lawyers of the Moonies would be able to get the Moonies off charges of taking children away from their families and other such activities. That has nothing to do with the Bill or the clause.

Mr. Francois: I thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in giving way. With great respect, that is not what was said. It was not said that the Moonies would somehow get themselves off; it was suggested that they could use the legislation to blunt criticism of their activities and to silence those who criticised them.

Mr. Blunkett: The Bill does not work that way round. We are dealing with Public Order Acts and incitement to undertake particular actions. The debate is not about prosecuting those who do so, or arguing against or opposing them. There seems to be a considerable misunderstanding about the intention and how the measure will work in practice. Calling the Pope the Anti-Christ does not fall within the definitions that we are discussing.

We are discussing a particular set of actions intended to evoke a particular reaction which, within the law, would lead others to engage in practices which all of us believe are unacceptable. That is the way round it works. I stress that the debate is about the Public Order Acts, not about religion or what people think or say about particular sects or faiths. That is not at stake this evening. For the benefit of the hon. Member for Christchurch, we believe that the subject of amendment No. 19, which, I think, he tabled, is covered by the existing law. If it is not, I am prepared for the matter to be taken up in the Lords.

Mr. Wilshire: May I ask the right hon. Gentleman the same question as I asked my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)? If I could demonstrate, as I could, that certain people who are members of the Children of God advocate and take part in sexual activity between themselves—adults—and young children, it is likely that my so doing would cause a breach of the peace because some members of the public could well take the law into their own hands. Why does the Home Secretary seek to protect those people?

Mr. Blunkett: Let us cool it a little. The hon. Gentleman would be suggesting that a group of people

26 Nov 2001 : Column 705

were acting not only illegally, but obscenely and unacceptably. By doing so, he would be advocating that the law enforcement agencies start to enforce the law and take action against them. He would provide proof and they would act. If they do not act and he has proof, I invite him to come and see me. I will get our lawyers, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney-General to ensure that we take action. I give the hon. Gentleman that absolute assurance.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): The Home Secretary said earlier that one of the Government's intentions was to reassure vulnerable faith groups such as the Muslim community that are currently under-protected by the law. I am sure that he has seen the submission made to the Select Committee on Home Affairs by a number of Muslim organisations, including the Muslim College, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Association of Muslim Schools, the Muslim Parliament and the Union of Muslim Organisations, all of which say:

If the measure is supposed to provide reassurance, it is not working.

Mr. Blunkett: That is very good, except that the groups that the hon. Gentleman quotes had not seen the Bill at that time; they have been debating it since. Today, the Muslim Council of Britain issued a statement saying that it "supports the present proposals"—[Interruption.] Hang on, I have not even finished quoting the statement. The council supports the

I very much welcome that statement, which is extremely helpful. I hope that other smaller and less representative groups will also express their support.

I hope that the Committee will also take notice of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, especially as many hon. Members are, perfectly reasonably, always asking those on the Front Bench to take notice of the United Nations in one form or another. It said:

It went on to express its hope that government—it uses the term "state parties"—will

So, we are dealing with a little bit of support, as the Home Affairs Committee learned from the Law Commission, the Law Society and Justice.

26 Nov 2001 : Column 706

If we want to bandy about the names of those who are or are not in favour of the Bill, let us bandy about the website of the British National party, which states:

The BNP's website is not, however, anywhere near as bad as the pamphlet that it has been putting through people's doors. In expressing its view of Muslims, it states that

Those are the sort of views that we are currently having to put up with from organisations such as the BNP. If the Bill would help in any way to ensure that we could take on and defeat such hatred and the sort of disgusting activity that seeks to incite people against each other, I stand guilty of supporting it.

In the end, Parliament can make up its mind. It can determine whether it feels that adding religion to laws on incitement would make a difference and provide just that little extra element in our armoury, first, to discourage people from taking those steps or inciting that hatred, and secondly, to enable us to do something about it. I put it to the Committee that, although it is open to people to proselytise, put down, debate and criticise other people's faith or religious beliefs, incitement to hatred of any sort is unacceptable. We can see from the amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats that they, too, hold that view. Taking a small step—something to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton referred—may not satisfy everyone in achieving what they want, but it is a substantial move towards ensuring that we stop the sort of disgusting hatred that exists around us and that was demonstrated by the words that I read out a moment ago.

Next Section

IndexHome Page