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.
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 arguedsuccessfully, as it turns outfor 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 peopleespecially, but not exclusively, in the Muslim communityfeel 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 discoursesometimes vigorous discourseabout 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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sensitivitiesa lot of humour is based on touching on the sensitivities of one person or anotherand 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.