Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Andrew Mitchell: Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman does my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) an injustice in that he was making the point that, unlike most European countries that sadly experienced conflict through religious wars, this country has generally avoided them.

Chris Bryant: This country has avoided religious wars, but we are straying again into the area of history. Many Catholics left this country at one point because they were fearful for their lives and many Protestants left when there was a change of dispensation—hence, not so much the vicar of Dibley, but the vicar of Bray, who changed his view on bishops according to whichever King came to power.

Mr. Mitchell: Nevertheless, the important point and the flaw in the hon. Gentleman's argument is that, although the vicar of Bray may have changed his religion, he did not lose his head.

Chris Bryant: There seemed to be a slight sigh in the House then and there is a slight sigh in my heart at being enticed further down that route, although I admit that I started it off.

Mr. Heath: I shall entice the hon. Gentleman down a different route. He is making an interesting speech in defence of the Home Secretary's proposals and many hon. Members share a lot of the concerns that he has expressed, but we still retain a nervousness about the way that the law will work in practice. I wonder whether he will comment on something. I do not expect a plethora of prosecutions because they must be agreed by the Attorney-General. Indeed, there have been few prosecutions for incitement to racial hatred. However, there will be an awful lot of complaints to the police and investigating authorities about people who are simply exercising their right to profess their faith. That will cause a great deal of unhappiness, discomfort and useless activity by Christian groups and many others.

Chris Bryant: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for moving me on to a different tack. I suspect that there will be remarkably few complaints, unless some of the hon. Members who spoke today are suddenly going to declare themselves. Once the few vexatious cases that are brought in the first months are dealt with robustly, we will have seen off the problem. I honestly do not believe that the measure is likely to produce a plethora of complaints over a long time. In fact, the gain to be had from being able to say to the British Muslim community that it is considered to be a resident part of our community, with the same protections under the law as other racial and faith groups, represents a significant benefit to all our society.

I am aware that Rowan Atkinson has advanced a counter-argument. I think he once played the Bishop of Bath and Wells in "Blackadder", and he has always been interested in religion as a ripe source of comedy. I remember watching the hilarious moment when many
7 Dec 2004 : Column 1115
Muslims were shown bowing down to pray and someone said, "The Ayatollah Khomeini has lost his contact lens." Rowan Atkinson said yesterday that it was important that he should not be prevented from cracking that kind of joke. Similarly, I remember Robert Runcie and David Jenkins being heartily lampooned in "Spitting Image". I knew David Jenkins at the time, and he enormously enjoyed the idea of having achieved such prominence. It may be that Anglicans are used to being lampooned because we have had centuries of it.

The truth of the matter is that I do not believe for a single instance that anybody is likely to use the Bill to prevent comedians from cracking decent jokes or from satirising, lampooning or holding up for jolly abuse clerics of any particular religion. The spiritual pride and hubris shown by any cleric who chose to use the Bill to prevent the mickey being taken out of him would be his undoing. The argument of those who think that we will lose the ability to satirise religion is overblown and misplaced. For that matter, I do not believe that theological disputes will come to an end just because we have instituted a law on incitement to religious hatred.

Mr. McWalter: If I understand my hon. Friend correctly, he is saying that the law will justify a significant number of actions, but they will not happen in practice, so it is all right. Is that it?

Chris Bryant: No. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me an opportunity to clarify my argument, which is that there is an injustice in the law. Many groups in society are protected from incitement to hatred against them, but those who are not include those of particular religions, most notably those who subscribe to the Islamic faith. They should have that injustice seen to in law. I am almost certain that some cases will be vexatious, but there will not be many of them. Once they have been dealt with robustly by the Attorney-General, it is unlikely that such vexatious cases will be brought again. If there is real incitement to religious hatred, however, the law should be used to tackle the problem, not least because Islamophobia is rife. It leads to an increasing sense of danger for many young Muslims in particular, and we should give them every protection that the law can afford.

The version of religion that I have heard today is not the version that I have grown used to, neither through my schooling in Cheltenham nor, for that matter, through my theological training at Oxford. I do not believe that all religions hold as their fundamental tenet that they are unique. Indeed, many religions expressly declare that there is truth in other religions. All three of the main world religions declare that the others have some truth in them.

It reminds me of the classic story of the Welshman from the valleys who is lost on a desert island. When he is rescued, having been there for 10 years, his rescuer says, "I see you have built two chapels. I can understand why you have built one chapel, but why build two?". The Welshman responds by saying, "It is simple. That is the chapel I go to; and that is the chapel I don't go to." It is all too easy, after the crusades and centuries of battles between different expressions of faith, to subscribe to
7 Dec 2004 : Column 1116
the view that every religion is always a problem in society because it preaches hatred. I do not subscribe to the tenets of the dark side, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead mentioned earlier, and I do not believe that we should be encapsulating in law what the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said earlier—that he reserved his right as a Christian to hate other people.

My final point to Ministers is that although the Bill is a good measure, we could make it better by abolishing the blasphemy laws and, for that matter, by removing the Church of England's privileges in terms of its seats on the Bishops' Bench in the House of Lords.

5.41 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): First, I apologise for not having been in my place to hear the conclusion of the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who made one of his typically robust defences of Government policy to the House. I would also like to highlight the speech of the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter). In characteristically thoughtful style and with philosophical and historical sweep, he drew attention to the issues surrounding clause 119 and schedule 10, to which I too want to speak. I suspect that when he hears my speech, he may find some pale echoes of his own thoughts.

There is much in the Bill to agree with and support. The Home Secretary described it in his peroration as a practical Bill with practical applications. Most of the Bill might meet that stricture, but I am not entirely sure that clause 119 does. I do not believe that that clause and its associated schedule are practical in their application in tackling the problem that the Home Secretary outlined.

I shall suggest a few reasons why I believe that clause 119 will not work. First, there is a great deal of confusion between race and religion. The Bill seeks to draw together religious and racial hatred in the context of the legislation that first brought the crime of inciting racial hatred into force in 1986. It is right that people of every race should receive special protection from discrimination and hatred. There comes a point, however, when certain religious groups—we have talked about the Jews and Sikhs—are regarded in case law as being ethnic groups in their own right. They receive protection, as was made clear in a particular legal case, not necessarily on account of their religion, but because of their ethnic group.

I believe that we should distinguish between people's race and their religion. To exaggerate to make a point, a person's religion is, on the whole, a matter of choice, conscience or conversion, whereas a person's race is not. Speaking as a cradle Catholic, I can happily say that there may be cultural or family reasons why someone embraces a faith, and that those reasons may change over time in accordance with the exercise of conscience, but religion remains largely a matter of choice. As the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead said, some people reject the gift that is offered to them through their lives,
7 Dec 2004 : Column 1117
whereas some would argue, "Once a Catholic, always a Catholic"—I am not convinced that that is necessarily so, although in my case it may be.

Next Section IndexHome Page