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Mr. Bryant: In which case, what parliamentary check is there on the Attorney-General when he or she makes a series of decisions, which amount to case law, about when to proceed or not to proceed in respect of incitement to racial hatred?

Mr. Letwin: As a matter of fact, that is not case law, but let us leave that aside. The point is well taken.

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On incitement to racial hatred, the Attorney-General makes decisions about whether to prosecute. However, the burden of the argument made not just from those on these Conservative Benches, but from those on the Labour Benches; not just in this House, but in the other place; and not just in Parliament, but outside, is precisely that there is a great distinction between incitement to racial hatred and incitement to religious hatred, as the quality of decision that it falls to the administrator to make in the one is far simpler than in the other. That is precisely the problem that has repeatedly been drawn to the Government's attention, and it will not do to argue as if that difference does not exist.

It is not the duty of the House this evening to rehearse the arguments for or against Government amendment (a), which I believe are strong among Conservative Members and weak on the Government side, although we have inevitably been forced to do so. We are considering purely whether the decision of the Lords, who not just by a majority, but by an overwhelming majority consisting of Labour peers, Cross-Benchers, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, voted to throw the proposal out, should be reversed in an attempt to reinsert in emergency legislation a provision that is, at very least, highly controversial. Surely anyone who listened to the Minister cannot conclude that the case is made for taking that extreme action.

Lynne Jones: May I reinforce the hon. Gentleman's point? The Minister said that Members will make up their own minds, but the fact is that the majority of Members on both sides of the House who are in the Chamber are concerned about the legislation. Those who will vote with the Government are not here to listen; those who are concerned are present, and Members on both sides share his anxieties.

Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that remark, which illustrates the point.

Close to the conclusion of the Minister's remarks—I think I quote her reasonably accurately—she said that it is sometimes right for politicians to seize an opportunity. That is true: it is sometimes right for politicians to do that. This is the moment for the Government to seize an opportunity, or rather two.

First, the Government have the opportunity to establish an unremitting cross-party consensus for the fostering of a proper Bill dealing with religious discrimination and religious tolerance that will set the country on the right track for many years—an opportunity that should not be wasted. Secondly, they have the opportunity to enable the two Houses to reach the consensus that we all seek on this necessary Bill by removing from it a wholly unnecessary, ill-considered and damaging clause.

Mr. Fisher: The Minister was right to say that Members in all parts of the House find religious hatred repugnant, and the shadow Home Secretary was right to say that this was about words rather than actions.

The Minister was very complimentary about my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), but his speech on Second Reading was misconceived, because it was entirely about actions and

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not about words. Here we are dealing with hatred, not the consequences of hatred. The Minister is, however, entirely right to suggest that this is a serious matter. The words of hate can be as vicious and damaging as actions to individuals and communities.

We need only consider the debate about "hate speech" in the United States, which has considered the issue in far more detail over the past 20 years than we have even begun to. We need only recall what happened in Germany between 1927 and the beginning of the second world war, when words galvanised by the Nazis set up all the appalling events of the 1940s. Words are of course damaging, and they need much more consideration than we are giving them here.

These are complicated issues. We talk of joined-up government, but the Government's own position on faith schools in the context of legislation of this kind shows that these are confusing, contradictory areas in which a great deal of nuance and paradox must be dealt with. We cannot legislate at such speed, and in such an ill-considered way. As the Home Secretary and the Minister have said, these matters are vitally important, but they require calm, reflection and time. The measures should not be rushed through like this; they will stand for a long time.

This is not, in itself, an emergency, in that religious hatred, regrettably, has been with us for a long time. We must get the provision right. We can easily return to it later in the current Parliament, or at some other time, but we should return to it in a much subtler, calmer and more considered fashion. This is not the right time, and I cannot support this part of the Bill.

Simon Hughes: I shall be extremely brief, as only a couple of minutes remain.

There are huge issues on the national agenda. There is the issue of how to ensure that people do not suffer discrimination on the basis of their faith. The Bill does not deal with that; nor should it. There is the issue of how to bring people together to respect and value each other, and the issue of faith schools—a linked issue, but one that, properly, is not dealt with here.

We are dealing with one item on a wide agenda—an item that has always been recognised as being hugely controversial. How do we achieve the right balance between free speech and the ability to criticise, whether the criticism is of scientologists, Protestants, Roman Catholics or any world or local faith? How do we ensure that people are respected?

As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) said, we are trying to achieve that within the narrow confines of concepts such as public order and incitement to hatred by words or actions. Whole issues are left undebated, such as how it can be established that someone has such action in mind—whether it is part of his or her intention. There is a bizarre tautology in the Attorney-General's suggested guidelines, which deem such conduct acceptable if it consists of a legitimate expression of religious belief. By definition, we are trying to establish what is such a legitimate expression.

For a long time, we have argued that it is proper for that issue to be on the national agenda. Long before 11 September, it was an issue. All the people who might have been persuaded that it is now or never have said that they would rather it were debated, if possible, in the

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context of wider legislation about the blasphemy law, religious discrimination and incitement to religious hatred. The Minister said that it is now or never. That is absolutely the wrong approach. The Scottish Executive have said, "Let us take it out, come back to it next year, talk to people about it, get views around the country and then legislate carefully with maximum consensus."

We are offered guidelines as the concession, as it were. To change from law that is difficult, even if it is in the Bill, to law that will be defined by something not in the Bill and that could change, is to substitute uncertain law at best for less certain and even more difficult to define law at worst.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: Does the hon. Gentleman at least recognise that it was the Government's willingness to address some of the legitimate concerns that were raised on Second Reading that has produced the amendment, which is causing so much difficulty? In that sense, there was a response. Will he press the Government to pursue that response further, rather than this evening?

Simon Hughes: The right hon. Gentleman and colleagues throughout the House and in the other place are right. The Government need time to respond. Issues have been raised by the right hon. Gentleman and colleagues. The other place has only just begun to grasp and grapple with those issues.

The Liberal Democrats are unanimous. Whatever our different faiths or lack of them, whatever our different nationalities, we ask the Government to join with the consensus among Conservative Front Benchers, their colleagues and people around the country and say that this is not the time, this is not the place, and this is not the way. We can protect people in the meantime but we must legislate properly. We must not do it with our faces against the wall and the clock ticking away, resulting in law that no one will be satisfied has adequately met the task. These are huge issues and they cannot be resolved properly in the next 24 hours.

Ms Abbott: The Lords struck out the clause. I rise to urge the House not to reinstate it. The House needs to reflect on the genesis of the demand from the Muslim community for protection against incitement to religious hatred. I know what the genesis was because I was in the House at the time. The genesis of that powerful demand was the debate around Salman Rushdie. It is all about the issue of freedom of speech. If Members had been in the House at that time and had had the debate with the Muslim community that I had, they would know why the clause must be phrased much more carefully.

Furthermore, the powerful speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was wholly misconceived because he dealt largely with racial discrimination rather than incitement to religious hatred as such. Of course, every hon. Member is against discrimination against Muslims and believes that all religions should be given a measure of protection, but it should be in a properly thought out Bill introduced at the right time. It is the wrong clause. It is the wrong Bill. It represents a serious threat to freedom of speech. I urge the House to support the Lords in striking it down.

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