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Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. I hope that the Ministers concerned will take careful notice of what he said. Ministers are expected to notify Members before visiting their constituencies, and the same courtesy should extend to the announcement of new initiatives affecting Members' constituencies, particularly when they concern issues of high political sensitivity.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In our next business, we shall debate amendments dealing with religious hatred and blasphemy. I think that most Members would agree that religion is about people's consciences. I understand that some Opposition parties have been given a free vote on the issue. I have asked for one from my party and wonder whether, at this late stage, it has revealed whether we shall have one.

Mr. Speaker: As far as the Speaker is concerned, all votes are free.
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Orders of the Day

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill

[1st Allotted Day]

As amended in the Committee, considered.

New Clause 3

Racial and religious hatred

   'For section 17 of the Public Order Act 1986 (c. 64) (meaning of "racial hatred") substitute—

"(1)   In this Part 'racial hatred' means hatred against a racial group, of persons defined by reference (whether directly or indirectly) to colour, race, nationality, (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins ("a racial group").

(2)   In this section—

(a)   'an indirect reference' means a reference to religion or religious belief or to a person's membership or presumed membership of a religious group as a pretext for stirring up racial hatred against a racial group;

(b)   'religious group' means a group of persons defined by reference to religion or religious belief.".'.— [Mr. Heath.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.35 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker: With this we may take the following Amendment No. 11, in page 89, line 6, leave out clause 122.

Amendment No. 12, in page 187, line 34, leave out schedule 10.

Government amendment No. 106

Amendment No. 182, in schedule 10, page 189, line 20, at end insert—

'11A   After section 26 insert—

   Nothing in this Part applies to activity which consists of—

(a)   criticising beliefs, teachings or practices of a religion or its followers, for example, by claiming that they are false or harmful;

(b)   proselytising one's own religion or urging followers of a different religion to cease practising theirs;

(c)   expressing irreverent comedic comments about religion or belief, its worship, teaching, practice or observance; or

(d)   expressing antipathy towards, or dislike of, particular religions or their adherents.".'.

New clause 4—Blasphemy—

   'The offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel are abolished.'.

Amendment No. 7, in title, line 8, after 'orders;', insert

'to abolish the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel;'.

Mr. Heath: This is an extraordinarily important debate for many of our constituents. I say that knowing that it will be examined carefully by people of all faiths
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and of none because they are keen for us to get this right. To an extent, the issue has overshadowed the rest of what is a complex and important Bill.

The Bill contains a great number of provisions, but at times it has seemed as though it were the incitement to religious hatred Bill. I am going to suggest what I hope will be a positive direction for the debate that has engaged us both in Committee and outside the House. I want to underline what I believe is a strong consensus in the House. That consensus is in two parts. First, I do not believe that any Member does not deplore and abhor incitement to religious hatred, especially when it is used so often as a proxy or cipher for incitement to racial hatred as a way of subverting the present laws.

Along with my party and, I know, all other Members, I want our law to be as comprehensive as possible in bearing down on crimes of either racial or religious hatred and I want to find ways of expressing our law in an appropriate way. It is not because we do not deplore incitement to religious hatred that we seek to amend the Government's proposals. Quite the reverse: many of us have argued, in the context of the plethora of Home Office Bills with which we have dealt over the years, that there is already a crying need for the recognition of crimes with a religious connection. Obviously that applies particularly to the Muslim and Hindu faiths, but it applies to many others as well. We argued—successfully, as it turns out—for the introduction of an aggravating factor in such crimes. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to see that the sector in which aggravating offences are committed has been increasing in recent years as, it would seem, we have become a more intolerant society.

There is an argument that the current racial hatred provisions cover, by almost an accident of interpretation, those who are Sikhs and those who are Jews. That is true. We should not be content with the fact that some sections of the community are covered by law and others are not. I recognise why we need to address the issue and why people—especially, but not exclusively, in the Muslim community—feel strongly that they do not have the protection that is afforded to others.

I hope that there is another, secondary consensus, in the House and shared outside it, though perhaps not universally. That consensus is based on another principle of a liberal democracy: that we believe people should have no bar to either believing in or pronouncing on their own faith. There should be no bar to them proselytising their faith without fear of intimidation or persecution. There should be the capacity within our laws to engage in discourse—sometimes vigorous discourse—about the merits not only of one's faith but of other faiths. It is necessarily the case that, if one believes in one faith, one does not hold to another and one believes that criticisms are inherent in the faith held by another. Therefore, criticisms of belief systems and of the usage of other faiths should not be matters in which the law intervenes.

We believe in the House in the right of free speech, which enables us to criticise, sometimes to deplore and even to hate the beliefs that some people hold. There is a difference between hating the belief and hating the believer, which I shall return to in a moment. Furthermore, there is in a liberal democracy a right to lampoon, to ridicule, to tell jokes that will touch on
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sensitivities—a lot of humour is based on touching on the sensitivities of one person or another—and to depict the practices of a religious faith in books, plays and other works of fiction. Again, it is important to preserve that right. Lastly, I believe that it is right that one should be allowed to say words that will have the effect of forming an adverse opinion in the minds of others on occasions, not to the point where one is inciting hatred, but to the point where one can simply say, "I believe that this person is wrong and that their activities are hateful", without running the risk of prosecution.

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