Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Cameron: Is that not the point? Here we are, almost at the 11th hour of the 11th day, discussing the Bill. The Attorney-General may issue guidance; we do not have that guidance and do not know what it will include. This is a complicated area, as the Home Affairs Committee said in its report. Why is it being included in an emergency Bill and why is it being legislated for in this way?

Beverley Hughes: I have gone through the reasons why we think that it is right to include it in the Bill; I am now trying to deal with Members' arguments against that.

Denzil Davies: The amendment refers to conduct consisting of

What is meant by a legitimate expression, and will that be defined when the guidance comes along?

Beverley Hughes: To answer that question and that of the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Attorney-General is trying his best to make sure that the guidance will be available tomorrow. I cannot commit

12 Dec 2001 : Column 939

him to that, but that is his intention. I am fairly confident that Members will be able to see a copy of the guidance tomorrow.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Beverley Hughes: I must respond to the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies) asked about the word "legitimate". We all know what we mean by that. [Hon. Members: "No we do not."] Members will have to wait and see the Attorney-General's guidance. However, the intention, as I have made clear in response to Members' concerns, is that debate and statements about beliefs that are scrutinising, discursive and do not incite hatred—

Mr. Hogg: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you advise us whether such guidance is debatable or amendable?

Mr. Speaker: That is a matter for debate, and the Speaker cannot get involved in debate.

Beverley Hughes: The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) knows that the guidance is a matter for the Attorney-General, if the provision to enable him to issue guidance is enacted.

Mr. Fisher: Does not the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham have a good point? The guidance will create offences. Should that not be written into the Bill? If the Attorney-General is producing guidance, why cannot it be included in the Bill? That is where offences ought to be created, not in guidance.

Beverley Hughes: The intention is not to create offences, but to clarify the kind of behaviour in relation to freedom of expression that the Attorney-General, in consenting to prosecutions going ahead, will not regard as criminal and will regard as a legitimate expression of—

Jeremy Corbyn: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you help us? The Minister has just referred to the nature of the guidance to be given by the Attorney- General, which clearly has serious implications for the interpretation of the Bill. Is it in order to proceed with the debate about a part of the Bill, when we know that it will be interpreted by the Attorney-General in a way that we are not allowed to see?

Mr. Speaker: Of course it is in order. The hon. Lady is in order. If she was out of order, I would have made that known to her.

Beverley Hughes: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Simon Hughes: Does the Minister accept that we are in a nonsensical position? I do not attribute blame to her personally. The House has decided, at the Government's behest, that we must complete the legislation tomorrow. That is the effect of the order that we were made to pass. We are a little more than 24 hours from that. We are discussing the definition of an offence that we have never had. Guidance may be issued, but it can never be debated subsequently and it may be seen by only one House, a

12 Dec 2001 : Column 940

couple of hours before the end of proceedings. Would it not be better for the Minister to take the measure away, consult widely and come back, as many of us suggested, when we will try to do what the hon. Lady wants—pass a law that works and in which people have confidence?

Beverley Hughes: No, it would not be better. The guidance is a matter for the Attorney-General. If he is given the power in the Bill to produce the guidance, he will produce it. I cannot give a commitment on when it will be produced, as I am not writing the guidance—the Attorney-General is. I know that it is his intention to produce it as early as possible tomorrow.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: The right hon. Member for Llanelli (Denzil Davies) made a good point. What constitutes a legitimate expression of religious belief is highly subjective—it is capable of innumerable definitions. The hon. Lady is presenting us with a huge power to be conferred on the Attorney-General to define a legitimate expression of religious belief. That will make his life intolerable and give him unwarranted powers. The Bill is not the place for such a measure.

Beverley Hughes: That is nonsense. The Attorney- General has the power. He must give his consent for any offence of incitement to racial hatred. That power of consent will be applied to the offence of incitement to religious hatred, if approved by both Houses. The Attorney- General will be applying the power that he already has. In response to hon. Members' concerns about any limitation on freedom of expression, the Government have offered in the amendment that the Attorney-General will clarify the circumstances that he will not regard as incitement—as public order offences. That is certainly within his power. The provision in the amendment goes a long way to answering the legitimate concern of hon. Members to ensure that we do not limit discussion or scrutiny.

10.15 pm

Denzil Davies: My hon. Friend has spoken about the power of the Attorney-General. As she knows, other measures provide for a discretion that he exercises in the public interest. I suggest to her, however, that the Government are fettering that discretion in respect of the guidelines. If that is the case, should not those guidelines come before the House so that we can debate them?

Beverley Hughes: The provisions do not fetter the responsibility of the Attorney-General to take into account the public interest, which my right hon. Friend mentioned. In addition to that responsibility, the Government amendment clarifies the fact that the guidance will simply say what sort of words and behaviour the Attorney- General will regard as being outside the offence of incitement. That will include legitimate expression of opinion and scrutiny and discussion. In conjunction with existing safeguards, the amendment will reassure people who feared that those expressing their truly held beliefs could inadvertently find themselves being prosecuted for an offence.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The problem of the Attorney-General and his role in giving guidance is wider than has been suggested. The Bill states that religious hatred is

12 Dec 2001 : Column 941

What will be required, therefore, is guidance on what can be said in expressing religious or anti-religious views. The definition of what is legitimate in religious debate will be determined by the Attorney-General and not by us in this House.

Beverley Hughes: In so far as the Attorney-General already has the power to consent to a prosecution, and to the extent that he uses that power, he is required to give his consent. The Government amendment adds nothing new in that respect. This is a matter for the Attorney- General. He is not defining offences, but setting out by way of clarification the behaviour that he will regard as outside the remit of an offence of incitement to religious hatred.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Is not it fair to say that the specific reason why the amendment was tabled is the problem that was presented to us in Committee by the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B Mawhinney)? It related specifically to the question of how he might accidentally, in stating his own Christian faith as a Catholic—[Interruption.] I should point out to hon. Members that there is no discourtesy in confusing one denomination of the Christian faith with another; none the less, I apologise to him. Would it not be fair to say that the amendment has been tabled precisely to meet a very specific objection and not to turn the provisions into some sort of pseudo-blasphemy law, as others seem to be suggesting?

Beverley Hughes: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, because he has taken the argument back to the point at which I started. I reminded hon. Members why the Government amendment was tabled and of the process that had occurred since the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire and others expressed their concerns about the limit on freedom of expression. The amendment is a response to those concerns.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: It is certainly right to say that it was my intervention that caused the Government to think again. I am grateful to them for having done so, although the House must understand that I am not responsible for the answer that they have provided. Given the disquiet on both sides of the House, does not the hon. Lady understand that, as it was peers from all parts of the other place who threw out clause 39, all that is happening now is that we are reinforcing their determination to throw out the clause again tomorrow? Perhaps she might provide them with some encouragement by giving an indication of the view the Government might take if they were to throw out the clause a second time.

Next Section

IndexHome Page