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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 7 December 2004


Armed Forces Chaplains

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): The armed forces attach importance to supporting the spiritual development of their personnel and to facilitating, where possible, religious observance. The service chaplaincy services have a long and distinguished record of caring for service personnel. However, existing chaplains are drawn exclusively from Christian denominations, and although they provide valuable moral, pastoral and welfare support to all service personnel, they are not able to provide spiritual support to those of faiths other than Christian.

I have therefore been considering, in close consultation with the faith community representatives on the Ministry of Defence's religious advisory panel, how best we might enhance our provision for the spiritual support of personnel and their families from faith communities other than Christian. This reflects the increasing diversity of service personnel, and our desire to provide an environment which welcomes and encourages people throughout society to join, and stay with, the armed forces.

These consultations have resulted in a decision to recruit civilian chaplains to the armed forces from the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh faiths, which are those, other than Christian, most represented within the armed forces. These chaplains will be MOD civil servants, but will be integrated into the existing service chaplaincy organisations.

Existing longstanding arrangements under which the Jewish community provides an honorary chaplain to the armed forces will continue for the time being, but it is expected that in due course a further civilian chaplain will be recruited to bring the arrangements in line with those for the other faiths.

Advertisements for these four posts will appear in the national press on Thursday 16 December, and in appropriate faith media at the closest convenient date. The relevant faith communities will participate fully in the selection process that will follow in the new year.


Regional Housing Investment

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill): I am announcing today the publication of a consultation paper concerning the regional split of funds for housing investment by local authorities and housing associations allocated through regional housing pots.
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The sustainable communities plan introduced new arrangements for allocation for mainstream funding to support housing investment. Under these new arrangements allocations are increasingly being directed to address strategic regional priorities based on advice from regional housing boards.

The split of such investment funding between the nine English regions has for many years been allocated on a largely formulaic basis. The paper seeks views on our proposal that the split continues to be made on a formulaic basis, but the formula itself be simplified and linked more directly to the Government's housing objectives and associated public service agreement targets on balancing supply and demand (PSA5) and on decent homes (PSA7).

Consultation will run until 4 February 2005. Copies of the consultation paper have been made available in the Libraries of both Houses and it is available on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's website.



The Minister of State, Department of Health (Ms Rosie Winterton): My noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner) made the following Written Ministerial Statement on 6 December 2004.

Following interest in both Houses about the issues surrounding the safety of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), this statement informs the House of the completion of the United Kingdom review of SSRIs and the publication today of the report. The Committee on Safety of Medicine (CSM) expert working group has now delivered comprehensive advice on the use of these drugs in children, young people and adults following a thorough review of all the evidence available. This gives parents, patients and those who treat depressive illnesses the information they need to make informed decisions about treatment of these potentially devastating conditions.

In 2003 an expert working group of the CSM was set up to consider further the safety of SSRIs, with particular reference to suicidal behaviour and withdrawal reactions. The expert group has examined all the evidence available from a wide range of sources, including a specific objective to listen to the patient viewpoint. The expert group has already reached conclusions on the use of SSRIs in children and the Government have published its findings. This latest report focuses on the use of SSRIs in adults. The work of this group is now complete and a comprehensive account of this work is being published today. In short, it concludes that:

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The CSM has also recommended that treatment with venlafaxine (Efexor) should only be initiated by specialists and that there should be in place arrangements for ongoing supervision of the patient.

The report includes the key evidence on which the advice of the expert working group is based, including summaries of clinical trials submitted by companies at the MHRA's request. This unusual step demonstrates the MHRA's commitment to being as open as possible in drug regulation.

The report of the expert group is being published alongside guidelines from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) on depression and anxiety. In this way, the new advice of CSM can feed directly into clinical practice. Copies of the expert group's report and the NICE guidelines have been placed in the Library.

Communications to patients and prescribers are taking place today and copies of these materials have also been placed in the Library. SSRIs are an important group of medicines, which help patients who suffer depressive illness. The health benefits of SSRIs in adults are still considered to outweigh the risk of adverse drug reactions. Patients currently taking venlafaxine should not stop taking their medicine but should consult their doctor for advice on treatment as should patients taking other SSRIs who are experiencing any side effects or are concerned about their treatment.


Incitement to Religious Hatred

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): I am pleased to be able to give the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill its second reading today.

Part IV of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill contains provisions to combat the activities of the extremists within our community who stir up hatred against groups targeted because of their religious beliefs, or lack of religious beliefs, as well as those targeted on racial grounds.

Evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on Religious Offences in 2003 highlighted the need for such protection and we have had ample further examples of that need since. We need to combat the extremists who stir up such hatred so that people can be free to practice their religion without fear. When people hate others because of their race or religious beliefs it is often manifested; this might be in the commission of subsequent crimes motivated by hate, or in abuse,
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discrimination or prejudice. The reactions vary from person to person, but all hatred has a detrimental effect on both individual victims and society as a whole.

These measures build on the protection already afforded by the existing incitement to racial hatred offences by amending the offences in Part III of the Public Order Act 1986 to also protect people targeted because of their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs. They will make it an offence for a person to use words or behaviour or material that they know are threatening, abusive or insulting, and which are intended or likely to stir up hatred against the target of those threats, abuse or insults.

Here are two examples of situations where, taking into account all the circumstances, the prosecuting authorities would consider taking action under the new offence:

These measures will be applied with equity, protecting people of varied religious beliefs and of none. They will provide a powerful response and a strong deterrent to extreme political and racist individuals and organisations who target people because of their religious beliefs and also to religious extremists who stir up hatred of others because they do not share their religious beliefs.

The Government are committed to the preservation of the right to legitimate freedom of speech and freedom of religion. This includes the right to engage in free and vigorous debate about religion, including the right to criticise religious beliefs and practices. The Government also recognise that proselytism is an integral activity for many faith communities. Such debate, criticism and proselytism can be undertaken without using threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour that is intended or likely to stir up hatred. Expressions of antipathy or dislike of particular religions or their adherents can also be made without crossing the thresholds of the offence. This provision will not restrict but protect people's legitimate freedom to practise their religion without fear.

The provisions do not make any blanket exceptions, for example, for any activity which may be presented as a religious activity or for the recitation of any passage from sacred texts. This is because, although the vast majority of such activities would not meet any part of the thresholds for this offence, in extreme circumstances it is, for example, possible to quote or misquote passages of sacred texts out of context so that they become threatening, abusive or insulting and intended or likely to stir up hatred. Such activities would rightly be caught by the scope of the offence. Nor do the provisions define all the terms of the offence. This is deliberate and will provide the enforcement agencies with the flexibility to
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ensure that these offences make a full contribution in combating hate-mongering in all its various forms and contexts.

The proposals retain the high thresholds and necessary safeguards contained in the existing incitement to racial hatred provision. The primary safeguards are contained in the offence itself. It has a two-part structure which examines not only the content of the words, behaviour, written material, recordings or programmes, which must be threatening, abusive or insulting, but also examines the effect of the material which must be intended or likely to stir up racial or religious hatred.

"Religious hatred" is defined as "hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or lack of religious belief". Accordingly, the offence will capture only those activities which stir up hatred of a group of people defined by their beliefs or lack of religious beliefs. It is not a new blasphemy law and will protect people rather than ideologies.

Hatred is a strong term, relating to an extreme emotion. The offences will not criminalise material that just stirs up ridicule, prejudice, dislike, contempt or anger or which simply causes offence. A further safeguard in the legislation is that a person who does not intend to stir up hatred is not guilty of an offence if they did not know that their words, behaviour, written material, recording or programmes were threatening, abusive or insulting. Furthermore the offences do not apply to anything that takes place in one's own home. All prosecutions require the consent of the Attorney-General, which will prevent the offences being misused through private prosecutions.

Of themselves, the following would not be caught by the offence:

Of themselves these activities do not meet the criteria of the offences. However if a person were to use threatening, abusive or insulting words, actions or material with the intent or likely effect that hatred would be stirred up whilst undertaking the actions listed above, then by definition, they could rightly fall into the scope of the offence.

These measures accord with, and will operate in the light of, the guarantees afforded by the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998. Under the Human Rights Act any Court in interpreting legislation, including these offences, must do so in a way that is compatible with the rights under the European Convention. With these offences the rights in play are going to be Article 9, the right to
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freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and Article 10, the right to freedom of expression. In interpreting these offences the Court will have to consider both of these rights and, if necessary, balance one against the other. Article 9 states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and that this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. It also states that freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject to limitations prescribed by law and necessary in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order and the rights and freedoms of others.

Article 10 of the European Convention states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression and that this includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas. Similarly it also states that the exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to restrictions prescribed by law that are necessary in the interests of public safety, the prevention of disorder or crime and the protection of the reputation or rights of others.

These offences are justifiable, necessary and proportionate measures for the prevention of disorder or crime and the protection of the rights of others; the need for which is reflected in these articles. Indeed because these provisions protect groups from hatred directed against them because of religious belief, they safeguard the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion enshrined in Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Crown Prosecution Service will produce guidance on how these offences will be enforced but it is important that this guidance does not pre-empt the consideration of these proposals by Parliament. There will be consultation on that guidance as it is developed and it will be subject to regular review.

With the support of my colleague, the Attorney-General, I make this statement as a matter of public record, which can be drawn upon in any future decisions taken by all the enforcement agencies, to clarify to all that this new measure will provide protection for those who need it without restricting legitimate freedom of speech and religion.

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