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Beverley Hughes: I do not accept that. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the provision contains operational safeguards, as do the provisions on incitement to racial hatred. The clause establishes a public order offence; it will require the Attorney-General's consent. I do not share the right hon. Gentleman's fears that cults such as scientology will be the subject of offences under the provision.
First, there is a connection between the events of 11 September and the consequences that have flowed from that. Secondly, there is an anomaly in law whereby two groups are protected and other religious groups are not. Thirdly, despite the dissent voiced here and in the other place, there is widespread support for the provision. The view of the Church of England was expressed by the Bishop of Southwark in the other place. The Muslim Council of Britain, the Law Society and the Joint Committee on Human Rights acknowledge the "pressing social need". The United Nations Human Rights Committee noted the increase in harassment after 11 September and pressed the need for reaction.
Beverley Hughes: In the operation of the law on incitement to racial hatred offences, we saw a small but important deterrent effect on some of the worst excesses of extreme racist groups. I have no doubt that the provision on incitement to religious hatred would have a similarly significant deterrent effect on the groups that seek to extend their violent and distressing propaganda to Muslims and other religious groups. That is another important reason why it should be included in the Bill.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Will my hon. Friend not concede that she is confusing ethnicity, which we cannot change, and belief, which we choose? I cannot escape from being a middle-aged white English person, but I choose my socialist beliefs and I want them to be challenged and open to discussion.
I refer again to the powerful speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton who used his own experience to illustrate the fact that people respond to him in terms of his religion, not his ethnicity. That is the view that we have taken.
Ms Abbott: For the avoidance of doubt, I, too, stand four-square against discrimination against Muslims. One of the problems with the clause is that it does not provide protection against discrimination; it is about incitement to religious hatred. Furthermore, I believe that 99 per cent. of what it is now fashionable to describe as Islamophobia is either an offence under racial hatred legislation, or a straightforward public order offence.
Beverley Hughes: There are gaps in the legislation. If Members think about why we need the incitement to racial hatred offence in addition to the other provisions in the Public Order Act 1986 and in addition to the racially aggravated offences provisions, perhaps they will apply that thinking to why we need the incitement to religious hatred offence. Current provisions do not cover every eventuality. They do not cover incitement as it is defined in the Bill: the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour intended or likely to result in public disorder. That is the difference. It is not covered in other parts of the Public Order Act, nor is it covered in the other legislation to which my hon. Friend referred.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): We on the Liberal Democrat Benches are extremely sympathetic to those in vulnerable communities who may be victims of incitement, which extends beyond Muslims and race to, for example, homophobic attacks. We support legislation covering a much wider range of people. Why did the Minister and her colleagues vote against an
A number of arguments have been advanced to demonstrate why the provision should not be in the Bill. I understand that there are concerns about limits to freedom of expression that might result from having an offence of incitement to religious hatred. The Government do not underestimate the concerns that have been expressed by many Members of this place and of the other place that a person should not be prosecuted for expressing their legitimate religious beliefs and for having legitimate debate on and scrutiny of those beliefs.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary undertook to consider the amendment that was tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), who is in his place, to determine how best to ensure that that limitation on expression did not occur. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's co-operation. We have closely examined the amendments tabled in Committee that sought to provide that protection. We have also closely examined the amendments that were moved in another place. After careful consideration and the involvement of the right hon. Gentleman, we have concluded that the amendments would not be effective in addressing the concerns that have been expressedlegitimate as those concerns are.
The difficulty is that creating an exclusion from prosecution, or creating a specific defence where, for example, a person cited a religious text, would create a loophole that could and would be exploited by those who deliberately seek to incite hatred. Those are the very people whom we need to catch by this legislation.
Groups have lifted quotes from the Bible out of context and used them as headlines on their literature in order to incite religious hatred. We therefore propose to reinstate an amended clause on incitement to religious hatreda guidance provision that will provide reassurance on this specific point.
The amendment says that the Attorney-General "may" produce guidance. I would like to see that guidance before any commitment is made, but why does the amendment state that he "may" produce guidance, and not that he will produce guidance? Alternatively, when the Bill goes to another place, will the Minister change the wording so that the Attorney-General will produce guidance?
Beverley Hughes: For reasons to do with legal advice that we received, the word "may" was included in the amendment, but we have made it clear, and the Attorney-General has made it clear on the record, that that guidance will be produced, so there is no difficulty in changing the word "may" to "will". I am happy to tell the right hon. Gentleman that we shall do that when the Bill goes to another place.
Beverley Hughes: In tabling the amendment, the Attorney-General and the Government were responding to the legitimate concerns of Members that the provision should not limit legitimate expression or discussion of religious beliefs. We agree with that. I do not accept the right hon. and learned Gentleman's interpretation of the guidance. As he has outlined, the guidance will exclude legitimate expression and make it clear that such behaviour will not be regarded as criminal; it will not be regarded as inciting hatred or public order.