|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Beverley Hughes: We believe, for the reasons that I have tried to outline, that the Bill should include the offence. We believe that it is important to protect vulnerable religious communities. The Bill affords an
Simon Hughes: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. More than half the debate has been spent on the Minister having to answer questions. As the Chief Whip is in her place, may I make an appeal through you for Government Front Benchers to consider introducing a proposal to extend the time for this debate and the remaining debates? The current position is nonsensical.
The limit on freedom of expression is an important argument, to which we have tried to respond. It was also argued that the power should be debated for longer to get it right. I remind hon. Members that the provision is an extension of existing law, not new law. Hon. Members are familiar with the operation of the current law on race hatred. It has worked for years, despite similar arguments against it when it was introduced. We have debated the subject for some weeks. If the mythical better version of the provision genuinely exists, where is it? The Attorney- General recently asked that question. I do not believe that it exists.
The third argument is that the provision is inappropriate to an anti-terrorism measure. I began my remarks by pointing out the link with 11 September, especially the consequences for some Muslim people. It is therefore appropriate to include it in the Bill.
Sometimes politicians must be prepared to seize the moment and the opportunity. The events of 11 September offer us the opportunity to put the provision on the statute book. Hon. Members here and in the other place must decide whether they are prepared to seize the moment, to correct an anomaly, and to protect vulnerable religious
It is evident that almost everyone who has spoken on the matter, whether for or against, in either House, has been united in their condemnation of the words and behaviour that would constitute incitement to religious hatred. Now is the time to ensure that the provision is on the statute book, given the opportunity that the Bill affords.
Mr. Letwin: Let me begin where the Minister left off. She is absolutely right to say that there is consensus in the House that there are grotesque abuses of our social freedoms involved in the victimisation of members of particular religions. We are united in this Houseand, I suspect, in the other House, tooin wishing to prevent those abuses. There are also grave problems of religious discrimination. As I understand it, it is lawful in this country at present to put up a sign outside a pub, stating: "No Muslims here" or "No Hindus here". That is a grotesque lacuna in our law, and changes are needed. We are at one in wishing to see those changes made. That is not, however, the issue that we are debating now. The Minister has not introduced a serious and considered Bill on religious discrimination. Indeed, she has not addressed that issue. The Bill addresses a different question.
In the last 43 or 44 minutes, the Minister has illustrated better than we could ever have hoped to do the reasons why this clause does not belong in the Bill, and why the amendment is not a sufficient answer to the problems raised. In her description of the clause, she mis-stated its intent not once, not twice, not thrice but four timesexcept that, on the fourth occasion, she mis-stated her mis-statement. She described the incitement as an incitement to "disorder". It is not so. Were it so, the matter would be easier to address. It is an incitement to hatred. The record will show that she used the word"disorder" three times. On the fourth occasion, she used the term "order". [Interruption.] This is not a matter of being too clever by half. It is a matter of attending to the issue that we are meant to be attending to: the words of the statute. Labour Members appear to believe that we can legislate without attending to the words that we use. We cannot do so. Our tradition of law insists on the ability of a judge to observe what is written. The duty of this House and of the other place is to write the right words. The duty of Ministers is to represent correctly what is intended to be written.
The problem with the clause is that it seeks to prevent an incitement which may occur through the statement of all sorts of propositions that are matters of legitimate belief, and that it seeks to make unlawful a hatred which may be engendered by the expression of those legitimate forms of belief. It does not provide us with an adequate means of distinguishing between those circumstances and the circumstances in which loathsome individuals engage in loathsome acts intended to create public disorder. That is the nub of the issue, and the Minister systematically obscured it.
Mr. Letwin: I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. That is the next problem that the Minister's speech so admirably, if unintentionally, illuminated. The Government have made a genuine attempt, for which we give them credit, to address the problems raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), Protestant as he is. In so doing, however, the Government have merely illustrated the underlying problem of the clause.
It is true, as the Minister repeatedly said, that under the clause as it stood, the Attorney-General would have had the power to adjudicate on which matters he would prosecute. It is, in principle, an advance that, before exercising that power, he should state on what principles he would exercise it. But my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire is right to say that if that is the method chosen for acting in such cases, it is one that will allow of arbitrary and uncertain action.
The Minister illustrated that so pellucidly that she cannot possibly have understood what she was doing when she told the House that the Attorney-General intended to produce the guidance tomorrow. The clause and its amendment were first conceived approximately 48 hours ago. So, in some 72 hours, the Attorney-General will have produced law for this country. What is to guarantee that, 72 hours later, he will not produce some other law? [Interruption.] If the Home Secretary is saying that the Attorney-General contemplated producing the guidance much earlier, that information is helpful.
Mr. Blunkett: I shall be brief, as I merely want to say that the Attorney-General put down on paper the illustration of his guidance in response to requests to do so, including some from Conservative Members, who wanted to see the nature of the beast before voting on it. Far from being awkward, he tried to help, to illustrate what it would be and to respond to suggestions regarding inadequacy.
Mr. Letwin: I accept entirely that the Attorney-General tried to be helpful, but he has produced guidance in a very short time. What is to guarantee that, a short time thereafter, he will not see fit to alter the guidance? What parliamentary check will there be on continuous alteration of the guidance? To what extent can we possibly hope that religious relationships in this country will be given a firm and certain basis in law if he can repeatedly change, without parliamentary check, the basis on which the law is to be enforced? This cannot be the right way to proceed in a matter so subtle, so delicate and so dangerous.