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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Blunkett: I promise to give way in a moment to Members from both sides of the House, because this is an important issue. It is about reference to incitement, religious belief or lack of belief, and groups of persons defined by reference to religious belief. That is what we are seeking to deal with in extending what exists already in terms of those groups that can be defined in relation to their nationality.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way. I do not doubt that he has a worthy motive—now and in November 2001—but is there not a question of ensuring that we do not infringe legitimate freedom of speech? Can he confirm what appears to be the case from the notes on clauses, which is that this offence may be committed not just with intent, but without?

Mr. Blunkett: No, I do not think we can infer that. I have made a written statement to back up the debate on Second Reading, so that Members will have it for consideration in Committee. This is about the preservation of the right to legitimate freedom of speech and freedom of religion. It is also about and includes the right to engage in free and vigorous debate on religion, including the right to criticise religious beliefs and practices. It will not criminalise material just because it
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stirs up ridicule, prejudice, dislike, contempt, anger or similar causes. It is about inciting people in a way that will damage those individuals because of their religion, not because of their beliefs.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Blunkett: I promised to give way behind me.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I am still perplexed because there is no definition of religion. On the 2001 census form, 5,015 people in Sheffield gave Jedi knight as their religion. I hate "Star Wars", so should I be worried?

Mr. Blunkett: If someone incited people because of their love of "Star Wars", or against people with a love of "Star Wars", they would be caught under existing law, but not in terms of religion. That is the whole point—

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): That is the point!

Mr. Blunkett: No, that is the point of having to bring in the new measure to provide equity of treatment in relation to faith.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way, but is there not a genuine risk that the courts will misinterpret an attack on someone's religion as an attack on the person who holds that religion? There is a real problem here as people have deeply held religious beliefs that some things, such as evil and some religions, should be hated.

Mr. Blunkett: Look, where there is mono-ethnicity in terms of faith and race, we apply these powers. We are attempting to ensure that the powers are available in cases where that is not the situation—that is, Muslims and Christians.

There is nothing sinister about this; people can crack jokes. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint) and I took a look at the jokes that appeared in the Evening Standard and The Guardian. Well, they might not have been very funny, but they would not be caught by this measure. People can ridicule for all they are worth, but if we genuinely want to address the issue sensibly—we need a sensible debate in Committee to ensure that we get it right—let us not have ridicule of a measure by silliness. It must be addressed philosophically, politically and practically.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): It is sometimes said that there are two things about which people should never argue: one is politics, and the other is religion. That might strike some of us dumb. Is not there some similarity between politics and religion, in that they consider belief systems, seek to interpret and are concerned with values? If there is to be a law against religious hatred, does it follow that there should be a law against political hatred? Does not that illustrate the danger of such a law in connection with religion?
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Mr. Blunkett: The crucial issue is incitement. Incidentally, I agree with my hon. Friend about what we were taught when we were little: my grandfather and my mother instilled in me that I should never argue about politics and religion. I got involved with the Methodist Church and became a lay preacher, and argued so much that they said that I would be better in politics than in the pulpit. I am afraid that I am therefore inflicting myself on the House rather than on the Methodist Church.

It is crucial that we home in on incitement to attack, hurt or damage people because of their faith. We are talking about incitement to hate, which leads to that hate damaging those people. We are not talking about all the things that we would expect in a free society, which I read out a moment ago: criticising beliefs, criticising practices and having a really good argument. Three years ago, we discussed these matters and nearly reached an agreement—we were within a whisker of it. In the other place, the argument was that that Act was an inappropriate vehicle for passing this clause. [Hon. Members: It was."] People are saying that it was, and that is fine. This is another vehicle, so those who said that they objected to the vehicle as opposed to the principle will now be with us, and those who objected to the principle will need to be persuaded.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): To help me in my approach to clause 119, can the Home Secretary explain what menace he is seeking to address? What is happening in society today in the United Kingdom that he wants to stop happening? That is what he has not explained, and that is what I do not understand.

Mr. Blunkett: We are trying to stop groups of people who are prepared verbally, communicating through writing or the internet, to incite others to hate because of someone's faith. That does not relate to the argument about their faith. For instance, we will not stop anyone proselytising—I emphasise that point, because I met those of all parties, including those in the House who have both a political and religious role, about that. It is important that we do not make a mockery and a monkey of the law, and I would not want Parliament to engage in such debate. I just want to ensure that people out there who feel threatened, which they do, who feel that society is not embracing them, which they do, and who feel that the existing law relating to mono-faith, in terms of nationality and faith, protects such people—those who incite hatred—but does not protect them, are covered. That is why we are seeking to extend the law.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I apologise to the Home Secretary as I have not heard all of his speech. On this point, however, is it not important that the clause puts right an injustice? No Muslims have available to them the present redress which members of other faiths have because their faith coincides with their ethnicity. Putting right that injustice is a fair reason for the clause.

Mr. Blunkett: That is exactly what we are attempting to do. I can feel the differences of opinion that will exist within political parties in the House as well as between
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them. [Hon. Members: "This is cross-party."] That is what I have just said. I can hear the differences that exist within as well as between political parties.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Blunkett: I shall give way to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley)—I was going to call him learned as well, although I do not think that he has a law degree. He came to see me and we had a vigorous conversation, which did me far more good than it did him.

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): The Home Secretary is dealing with the issue of interpretation. Who will interpret whether a statement that is contrary to the views of people who think differently religiously is incitement? Were a Protestant to look at the Book of Common Prayer, he would see many things that would be absolutely anathema to a Roman Catholic. Are those things incitement? I advise Members to read the Book of Common Prayer and see that, because some people who think that they have read it have never done so. We must be careful that we do not put the courts into a position in which they must be interpreters of what is and is not incitement. I would think that incitement would be a clear call from a person to attack others if they had a certain belief, which is already covered in the law.

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