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Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) (LD): Before my hon. Friend comes to the issue of the offence, does he accept that there is one other consensus: those of us in all parties who have a strong faith—we are of many different faiths—believe that our faith is strong enough to resist and to be able to defend itself? It does not need the law to defend it. It stands by its own merit. That is the nature of faith. Therefore, the law should not be required to give it that extra protection. It manages that by itself intrinsically without legal support.

Mr. Heath: I agree. The point that my hon. Friend makes is relevant to the debate that we may have on the amendment on the present blasphemy law. I personally believe that the Christian faith is capable of standing up for itself without the protection of the law. That law is not extended to others, so there is a further anomaly.

There is a critical difference between race and religion because a person cannot choose the race to which they belong but they can choose their religion. Belief systems are mutable. Beliefs are mutable. Therefore, in the case of religion, there is not the clear definition that is affordable in the field of race. That has the potential to give difficulties in definition—no more than that, but there is that potential.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman referred to the right to criticise religion. Of course, I would not in any way disagree with that, but is he aware that some of his arguments, which touch on free speech and the right of free expression, which we are all in favour of, were used in the 1960s against provisions on the incitement of race hatred? I remember the debates in the House of Commons. Those who argued against any such provisions said that they totally opposed and deplored racism but did not believe that infringement of free speech should be allowed in law. I hope that the Gentleman will bear it in mind that some of his arguments border on what I have just said.

4.45 pm

Mr. Heath: I will treat the hon. Gentleman's intervention in the most benign way. I hope that he is not suggesting that I would argue in that way, but I accept that there is a balance to be struck. I accept that free speech has its limitations, and we have accepted that in the context of what already exists. The question is whether the law that the Government propose puts the balance in the right place and that is the only matter under debate—how best we achieve the objectives that we share in providing protection for those religious
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groups that may be the subject of incitement to hatred on the basis of their religion, which, as I said earlier, is used as a cipher or a proxy for their race.

The hon. Gentleman's argument is relevant in another way, because if we are to extend this to religion, why not other systems of belief? What is the difference between incitement to religious hatred intrinsically and incitement to hatred on the basis of political belief, for instance? I am against hatred. I believe that he is against hatred and incitement to hatred against any group of individuals on an arbitrary basis. But there is clearly a spectrum that we have to consider when we are dealing with such offences.

Mrs. Barbara Roche (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab): If the new clause is put to a vote and the vote is lost, will the hon. Gentleman then seek to reverse the case law that protects the Jewish and the Sikh communities?

Mr. Heath: Certainly not. I make it clear that I am trying to achieve a satisfactory law that deals with the problem that the Government have identified. Let no one be under any illusions about that. We are all, I hope, trying to provide satisfactory law that does not have some of the potential pitfalls of this legislation.

Let me deal with what the Government propose, because it is important and, although it may seem odd in the context, I want to defend what they are doing. I know exactly their intention. We have discussed it away from the Chamber and we know where they are coming from and they know, if they are honest with us and with the House, where we are coming from as well.

First, the Government say that the law is framed in incitement to hatred and that hatred in itself is a high threshold, and I agree. It is a difficult thing to define, but it is not a light consideration for the courts. Incitement to hatred is a relatively high threshold. The second and much more important point is that the Government have framed their proposition in the context of hatred against a group of people defined by religion, rather than the religion itself, or any of the practices of that religion. That is an important point that people have failed to understand in some of the debate on the matter. I was brought up as a west country Liberal nonconformist and was always taught to love the sinner and hate the sin. That is the distinction that the Government have rightly identified in the framing of their proposal—that it is the hatred against the "sinner" that is deprecated, not their belief system. The third part of the Government's contention is that the Attorney-General, as a lock on proceedings, prevents the inappropriate suit from being put.

Let me put, I hope soberly and sensibly, the alternative view about why the measure will not work as the Government intend at the moment. First, there are difficulties of definition. They are not, I say straight away, completely avoided by the alternative formulation that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) propose today. There is a particular issue in the fact that the Government's present proposition goes with either intention, which we all understand, or likelihood, rather than recklessness or anything of that kind. Likelihood, on an objective test, is difficult to assess, as it can only be
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taken in the context in which the remarks are made. That is potentially difficult. We must recognise that we already have laws against incitement to crimes—that poses no difficulty. The difficulty is posed only when the subject of incitement is hatred without a crime.

Secondly, there is a question of trust. It is not a strong point, but it is one that I need to put, as it is held by many people outside the House. They understand that the Attorney-General will make the decision about whether a prosecution should be mounted, but they say, "Who is the Attorney-General? The Attorney-General is a Minister of the Crown, a politician, and irrespective of his legal merits, somebody who can be tested by public opinion." That is a matter of concern to them.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): On the agreement of the Attorney-General being a lock on the legislation, those of us who remember the furore over "The Satanic Verses" recall that persons who were upset because a criminal case was not taken against Salman Rushdie went to court to try to overturn the Attorney-General's ruling. The idea of the Attorney-General's lock will not avoid vexatious litigation.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that observation. I will come to that in a moment, because the expectation of what the law will provide is the most difficult part of what we are considering.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the fears that some people had put to him about the nature of the Attorney-General as a Member of Parliament and a politician. I dare say that he will have explained to them that, in that role, the Attorney-General forswears all political allegiance and does not allow himself to be influenced either by Government policy or public opinion of a political nature. He is concerned about ensuring that the law is properly applied.

Mr. Heath: Not only am I fully aware of that, but I have made that point. It does not alter the perception of those outside.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): What about Iraq?

Mr. Heath: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a valid point from a sedentary position.

Thirdly, on the human rights position, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has produced a report that is critical of this part of the Bill and raises reservations about it. I know that the Government have answered that, and I will not therefore rehearse the Government's answer but simply say in passing that there are genuine concerns about the compatibility of what is proposed with human rights legislation.

My biggest concern is the huge burden of expectation put on this clause. Many people in this country have argued cogently and coherently that all faith groups, particularly their own, should be protected from what is, in any normal sense of the term, incitement to racial hatred expressed through religious means. They have been led to believe that not only will this proposition
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from the Government deal with that mischief, but that it will effectively provide them with a blasphemy law of their own—[Hon. Members: "No."] Hon. Gentlemen can say no, but that is what people believe is being proposed in the House today—not only do they believe it but they expect it from the House.

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