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Mr. Blunkett: The right hon. Gentleman quoted the Prime Minister correctly, but at the time we all took ithe clarified it for me afterwardsthat he meant "supplementing". [Interruption.] Well, he did.
David Davis: I accept the Home Secretary's correction. He obviously chastised the Prime Minister, but he will forgive me for using the word that appears in Hansard, not the word that he was given later.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Was it not a Freudian slip, because as I recall, it was the policy of the Conservative Government to employ civilians to release police to go out on the beat? However, it appears to be the policy of the Labour Government to employ quasi-civilians to release police so that they can spend their time in offices doing paperwork.
Mr. Bercow: Harking back momentarily to clauses 116 to 118, on the protection of individuals engaged in animal research, of course, the Government are absolutely right to act, and two of my constituents who work at Huntingdon Life Sciences will be delighted that the Home Secretary has done so. However, does my right hon. Friend not accept that his brief exchange about language underlines the important point that sometimes Governments should be concerned not simply to legislate, regulate and act but to speak out alongside legislation in support of valuable work? Animal research is not an evil to be toleratedit is something of profound benefit to the country. The more speeches from the Home Secretary and his right hon. and hon. Friends in support of that proposition, the better.
David Davis: My hon. Friend is quite right, and puts it better than I could. As I have said, the Government need to show determination and resolution in public as often as possible. Indeed, this is probably the only occasion on which I shall encourage the Home Secretary to make more speeches rather than fewer.
Chris Bryant: Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the issue of CSOs, could I entice him to south Wales, so that he could talk to police officers who, two years ago, were profoundly cynical and sceptical about the introduction of CSOs in areas such as the Rhondda, where there is a low level of crime but quite a high level of antisocial behaviour? Those officers are now universally in favour of CSOs.
I am tempted to tell the hon. Gentleman that I will do so only if he comes with me to Hampshire, but I might be misunderstood. However, I told the
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Home Secretary that we need a full review, which will consider the sort of evidence that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I do not object to CSOs, as long as they are additional to the policethat is the point that I was making about the word "supplanting". [Interruption.] Well, they are not. In Hampshire, for example, there is a ring-fenced funding for CSOs, and the force will not get police officers instead. We must look at the way in which CSOs work and identify their strengths and weaknesses before delivering change. In the run-up to an election, the Government appear to be in a devil of a hurry to make a series of changes that do not appear to be based on fact but on their wish to be seen as tough on crime, whatever the evidence of the past seven years.
David Davis: I am afraid not, as I want to turn to the most contentious part of the Bill. The measure is about 220 pages long, but I have serious difficulty with two pagesthe rest, one way or another, we can broadly support. As the Home Secretary knows, the part on which we fundamentally disagree is the provisions dealing with incitement to religious hatred. I understand and have considerable sympathy with the Government's aims in trying to prevent religious hatred. I associate myself at the Dispatch Box with my predecessor's comments, which were quoted by the Home Secretary, about his noble aims.
There is no dispute over the aims, but I sometimes wonder whether the Government understand the implications of their proposals. A simple change to previous legislation it may be, making it an offence to stir up religious hatred, but its impact will be profound, wide-reaching and not necessarily that intended. Indeed, the effect may be the opposite of that intended, as I shall explain.
For centuries the United Kingdom has had a tradition of religious tolerance, and at the same time a tradition of extremely robust religious disputation. That has produced a healthy society in which religious freedom and free speech have coexisted to the advantage of all. These joint freedoms have contributed in no small measure to the intellectual vigour of our society over those same centuries. They spawned the creativity that fostered a wealth of talent in many areas, from science to satire. Freedom of speech is one of the great virtues and simultaneously one of the great strengths of our society. The danger is that the Bill will curb that freedom of speech without any benefit being realised from the legislation.
The Bill curbs freedom of speech where free speech is entirely appropriate. Unlike race, religion is a matter of choicechoice of beliefs, values, practices and behaviour. It is quite proper that such things should be debated and contested, and the proposed curb is almost entirely unnecessary. Words intended to provoke violence or cause alarm, distress or harassment are all caught by existing laws. The Bill would sacrifice freedom of speech for little or no gain. The drafting is so ill defined that it is not even clear what is meant by religion. The provision is drafted so widely that any sect or cult could be covered by it.
Religion and race should not be put in the same category. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), the shadow Attorney-
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General, commented to the Home Secretary earlier, what if an individual made remarks about a sect, cult or religion such as satanism, attacking it for cruelty or deviance? Will such groups have a case against the individual? They would, so far as I can tell, under the Bill. The two examples cited in today's written ministerial statement would be covered by existing laws if they led to violence or harassment, so why do we need to introduce new provisions?
I am sure the Home Secretary is aware that similarnot identicallegislation was introduced in Victoria, Australia. At present two Christian pastors are on trial for holding a seminar on Islam. The seminar was designed to educate Christians about the concept of jihad. Three Muslims came to the seminar and afterwards filed a complaint against the pastors, saying that the seminar vilified Muslims. People who initially supported the law in Australia have now realised its disastrous consequences. The Government may say that the Bill states that cases will have to be approved by the Attorney-General, but does the Home Secretary not understand that in the highly politicised environment in which the decision to prosecute will have been made, the impartiality of the Attorney-General will be undermined?
There are many incalculable ramifications of the Bill. It might encourage hostile legal action between religions or even within a religion, between different sects. It might deter publication of controversial texts. It might even cause resentment against those whom it sets out to help. Worst of all, it starts from the wrong premise.
The Bill starts from the wrong premise. Britain learned long ago the paradox that more freedom of speech leads to more vigorous debate, which leads to more tolerance. Evil ideas should be met with challenge. The best remedy for evil ideas is more speech, not less speech. We will support the Bill on Second Reading, but we do so on the understanding that we will seek to remove the relevant provisions from the Bill. We, too, oppose religious hatred, but we will do so by using our traditional freedoms, not by suppressing them.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I was hoping to welcome the Bill, believing it to be a serious organised crime Bill, and I do welcome it, in large part. It is perhaps a reflection of the rather excessive personality of the Home Secretary that he could not leave it as a serious organised crime Bill. Introducing a seasonal note, if the Bill were a Christmas tree, it would be so overloaded with baubles that it would have fallen over long ago. At my count, it contains at least 22 measures in addition to the establishment of the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
We are given to understand that serious organised crime encompasses search on suspicion of harbouring a firework, the power of arrest for dropping a sweet paper, and dear Mr. Brian Haw in Parliament square. Those do not fall within my definition of serious organised crime, but I understand that we are nearing the end of a
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Parliament and the Home Secretary wishes to clear his filing cabinets of all the measures that he has not managed to introduce in any of the previous Bills that he has put before the House, so we must do what we can to subject them to proper scrutiny.
We have 155 clauses before us. On most of them, we broadly agree with the direction in which the Home Secretary is taking us. Some of them cover serious mattersdisclosure in court procedure, for instance, is not a matter to be lightly dismissed and will need our scrutiny. Harassment in relation to animal experimentation is a matter of huge importance and I welcome the fact that the Government are taking it forward. We have already had a substantive debate on incitement to religious hatred, and I shall return to that.
My favourite clause, from my quick reading of the Bill in its initial stages, has not yet been mentioned, as it is not considered to be the most important clause. It is a quintessential piece of Home Office drafting. Clause 107, which deals with the photographing of suspects, states that a person may be photographed elsewhere than at a police station
I shall deal first with the single agency. I do not often urge the Home Secretary to go further than he has done in any of the measures that he introduces, but in this case his proposals are modest. I support them because in the modern age of organised, international and national crime we need an agency capable of dealing with it. Our traditionally structured police forces cannot adequately meet those demands. That is why integrating the work of various agencies in a comprehensive way is the right way forward.
Other categories of crime that go well beyond police authority boundaries encompass different specialties and could probably, and could possibly in future, be incorporated into the working of the agency. I would support that, not because I want to establish a national police force under the Home Secretary's control, but because I want to free chief constables and local constabularies to deal with that which should be their first priority. At present, they have a large number of national and international distractions. Those are important and must be dealt with but, at the risk of sounding like the TV programme, "The League of Gentlemen", we sometimes forget that local police are there to deal with local crime for local people. That must be a key priority of local policing. The resources of chief constables are often under enormous pressure to deal with matters that go well beyond that definition. Therefore, I hope that the agency will prove to be a wider resource that enables our chief constables and police forces to crack down hard on crime in local neighbourhoods more effectively.
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