|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
This is a very large Bill that addresses serious issues, many of which it will be necessary to debate in detail, but I have serious concerns about the timetable for debate. If we do not do justice to the Bill in Committee and do not have the opportunity to deal with matters on Report, justice will be done in the other place. Therefore, it is in Ministers' interest to arrange matters so that we have a sensible amount of time to debate matters in this House; otherwise, great difficulties in timetabling may arise in the future.
By my estimate, we have had nearly 50 Home Office law and order Bills from this Government. More than 700 new offences have been put on the statute book. Sometimes the new offences repeal offences that have not even been implemented. I doubt whether incessant activity is a substitute for effectiveness. My argument has always been that talking tough is cheap, in every sense of the word, and it is far more difficult to be effective. Elements in the Bill will increase the effectiveness of our policing and security services and those are the elements that I shall support. However, I shall seek to reject those that are simply Christmas decorationsthe baubles.
Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway) (Lab): It is a great, profound and rare joy to be able to congratulate the Government on what is for the most part a measured, effective and necessary piece of legislation. However, no pleasure is unalloyed, so having got over that, it is possible to be curmudgeonly about one or two general and specific parts of the Billso I will indeed curmudgeon about them.
It is not surprising that the Bill has almost unanimous general support, as one can see by looking round the Chamber. I have been instructed by the Whip to speak as slowly as possiblean instruction that I shall uncharacteristically ignore.
The first matter of general importance that I want to raise is the way in which the Bill began its introduction to the House. As a criminal lawyerby that, of course, I mean a lawyer who has dealt with crime for most of my professional lifeI have a small plea: let us stop talking up professional crime and professional criminals. Let us, as a matter of practice, stop telling each other, and the people, how good those criminals are, and how effective, big and dangerous they are. It is an unhappy fact that many law enforcement agencies, and, indeed, many politicians, have a vested interest in so doing. The more powerful one's enemy, the greater the plaudits when one succeeds and the greater the mitigation when one fails.
It has been my happy, or unhappy, task many times in my life to prosecute or defend those who are engaged in major professional national and international crime, and it is a plain fact that they, like all criminals, are cut and bleed just like everybody else; they all whinge and
7 Dec 2004 : Column 1073
whine in precisely the same way when they are caught, and beside the power of the state they are pygmies, in precisely the same way as all criminals are pygmies. Adulating serious crimeglorifying itis a matter for the media, not for us, and we serve no purpose by doing so. We must treat it as a criminal enterprise; it is something to be dealt with, and we can indeed deal with it. The Bill, as it is right immediately to say, makes a considerable contribution to doing that.
I shall expend a little time on the other two controversial elements of the Bill. The first is the incitement to religious hatred. I have to say that the law will have difficulty with that. The job of the law is to interpret legislation, and the better the legislation, the easier it is to interpret. But juries and magistrates will have a problem with that element. The Attorney-General will have a problem in deciding what is and what is not to be prosecuted.
At root, the matter is philosophical; there is a profound difference between hatred based on race, sex or ageall of which are thrust upon us; we have no choiceand on religion, which is not thrust upon us. Religion is a matter of choice; it is a matter of what we do. It is intolerable, and should be criminal, to incite hatred of a man or woman because of what they are, but I have grave doubts whether it should be criminal, as opposed to merely socially unacceptable, to incite hatred of someone because of what they do. Religion is what we do, not what we are. We shall have grave difficulties with those proposals.
I join with ease in the plaudits to the Home Secretary for his motives, but motives must be thought about carefully. They pave not only the route to hell but the route to extreme difficulties in enforcing the law in society.
Mr. Brazier: The hon. and learned Gentleman is making some strong points, based on his years of legal experience. As it is already a criminal offence to incite violence, what possible interpretation, even in principle, could a court put on the Bill as adding to the existing law? What else could it possibly mean, except people objecting to other people's beliefs? What innocent interpretation could a court put on the measure, given that there is an existing law against incitement to violence?
Mr. Marshall-Andrews: The truth, which goes to the core of the argument, is that there is no interpretation. The fact is that the Attorney-General will interpret the Act in a way that is not written in statute, and bring prosecutions only when incitement is not only to hatred but also likely to cause serious violence. That is not in the Bill, but that is how it will be interpreted and it is not a happy state of affairs. I take the hon. Gentleman's point, which is well founded.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD):
In the light of the concerns that the hon. and learned Gentleman has expressed about the difference between religion and race, what does he make of the Government's decision, following a review, not to repeal the blasphemy laws, which, had they done so, would have made it clear to people that the Bill, which they are, rightly or wrongly, introducing, was not about
7 Dec 2004 : Column 1074
the protection of ideology and ideas? Is not that a missed opportunity, and would he support a measure to repeal the blasphemy laws in the context of the Bill?
I turn to the third matter that I want briefly to deal with: the missed opportunity in the Bill in relation to plea bargaining. What is contained in the Bill is not plea bargaining; it enshrines what is already practice in the courts to provide either immunity or a diminution in sentence for those who turn Queen's evidence. That is not plea bargaining, which has a specific, largely American, cognisance and is an absolute direct bargain between plea and sentence. That is anathema to our law, because in the past it has been felt that defendants have said that they were, at least, misled, sometimes grievously, by their lawyers, or by their lawyers in conjunction with prosecution lawyers or even with the judge, and that they entered pleas on a basis that they did not understand. The purpose of our law, which is anathema to plea bargaining, is to protect the defendant.
The same is not the case in offences of serious fraud. I have spoken to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), about this matter, and hoped that we could take this opportunity to put into statute a provision to allow for plea bargaining in offences of serious fraud. This may seem a tributary, but it is not, because we spend a great deal of courts' and jurors' time on itfar more than on anything else. Our arguments about inconvenience to jurors would largely be negated if we were to allow a simple amendment.
Serious fraudsters do not require protection from their own lawyers; the reverse is more often the case. In those circumstances, there is no reason why for such offences, carefully regulated and tabulated direct plea bargaininga sentence known in advance in respect of a pleacould not properly be introduced in the Bill. Will the Minister give that matter her consideration? If necessary, rather than being sentenced to the honour of serving on the Committee, I should be delighted to discuss that perfectly reasonable, small but effective provision, which could be added to an otherwise admirable Bill.
He declared a principle of Christianity: that salvation and everlasting life is vested solely and only in the Saviour. It has been rightly said in the House today that every religion must have a dogmatic objective; religions must say something confidently that they believe, and that, of course, rules out other beliefs.
I am not accusing the Home Secretary of having something sinister in what he is doing. We all know him, and the time that I spent with him in his office was quite pleasant, as well as straight. I am not lining him up and
7 Dec 2004 : Column 1075
saying that I believe that there is an ulterior motive. However, we must say that in the argument that we have heard in the House from him today, he seems to suggest that he can lean on the link between racism and hatred of people because of their race, and religious belief. That does not hold water in argument because, as the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) has said already, religion is a matter of choice. If a person happens to be a Jew and becomes converted, he does not change his race, and still he is a Christianbut if a Christian becomes a Muslim, for instance, he ceases to be a Christian, because that is a matter of religion. That is a different issue from hatred because of race. What we have then is the interpretation, and I referred to that in my questions.
People should read the Book of Common Prayer that lies on the Table, and with which the House opens in prayer every day. A man said to me the other day, "Parts of the Bible should be cut out because I don't like them." I said, "Yes, we may come to a day when we'll be back to pre-Reformation times, when people were burned because they believed in the whole Bible." So we are on very dangerous territory when we ask the Attorney-General to do more than all the cardinals of Rome can do, and interpret something in that way. His interpretation may lead to a prosecution, and the poor jurors will be called on to ground of which they may have no knowledge, and they will have to make their decision. I say to the House today that that needs to be very carefully considered indeed.
Across the board, people may disagree vehemently with my religious beliefs, and people may disagree vehemently about my defence of what I believe is the very heart of the nationthe Christian familyyet those people will have the same problem with this matter. This is not a sectarian objection; this is something that takes in all religion and all peoples, and there is very serious worry. It is no use saying that people who say things in the pulpit will be exempt. According to the Bill, they will not be exempt. Even a preacher in his Sunday morning serviceif he has a Sunday morning sermon; some preachers do not have that todaywould be open to prosecution if he said something that would cause offence to a person in his congregation.
Now that the Bill has come to the House, it is time to apply our minds to the fact that we cannot link such issues merely with hatred because of race. There have been cases, even here in this country, where people have been brought to court because of the placards that they held. One man held up a placard denouncing homosexuality, and he was brought to court, found guilty and fined very heavily. In all fairness I must add that Peter Tatchell, who would take an opposite view, said that it was ridiculous and shameful that a man of that character was taken to court, tried and found guilty. Such matters could be accelerated if we do not remedy this matter.
I shall not detain the House because I have other duties elsewhere today, as hon. Members know, but I came to speak because I felt that, on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party in this House, I must put up our marker on this matter.
7 Dec 2004 : Column 1076
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|