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Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con): I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The point made to me again and again has been the expectation that prosecutions would be brought in such circumstances. As we have plainly seen, for instance, in the case of the gurdwara in Birmingham, there was never any prospect of a prosecution being brought against that theatrical performance, even though, under the current state of the law, it could have happened.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right about the incident in Birmingham.

Part of the confusion has arisen as a direct result of what the Home Office has said. At one stage, the previous Home Secretary found it difficult to identify exactly what the new law would catch, but the statement that he eventually produced included this suggestion:

Note the use of, "Islam", as a faith, rather than "people who are Muslim", which is the sort of thing that creates confusion in the minds of those who are listening.

I would not suggest that the highly respected chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain, Iqbal Sacranie, is confused. On the Radio 4 programme, "The Moral Maze" on 14 July 2004, however, he said that, under the new law, any "insult" or "outrageous comments" about Islam or the Muslim community would be illegal, as would any

The Minister has said that that is not what the proposal will do, but that is what people believe that it will do.

Mr. Hogg: The hon. Gentleman is right that there is confusion, and new clause 4, which would abolish the law of blasphemy so far as Christianity is concerned, is one way in which to dispel it, because it would mean that people could not urge a counterpart offence.

Mr. Heath: The right hon. and learned Gentleman may have an opportunity to discuss the proposal to remove the outdated law of blasphemy and blasphemous libel later.

My great concern is how the law will operate in practice. The Attorney-General will not bring people to court, other than in a few cases in which prosecutions should clearly be brought. However, there will be a huge number of complaints that people have, in exercising their proper right to criticise or to speak freely, contravened the law in some way. Every one of those complaints will require investigation by the police and consideration by the Crown Prosecution Service of whether to pass it to the Attorney-General for a decision on prosecution.

We will find ourselves in a dangerous situation in which people expect court action to proceed, but it will not, which will have two effects. First, large sections of
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the community who believe that they have been given protection will be greatly disappointed. Secondly, many organisations' activities will be impeded. Some of those organisations will consist of evangelical Christians, who are concerned about the new law, and some of them will consist of those who take an interest in arguing the relative merits of different faiths. For example, I have received valuable briefing material from the Barnabas Trust.

I suspect that the major group who will be disadvantaged by the legislation includes the people who think that they will obtain the greatest benefit from it, namely the Muslim community. Some hon. Members may be aware of the Victorian state law, and the experience in Australia allows us to know what will happen. Amir Butler, the executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee, was one of the main advocates of an analogous law in the Victorian state legislature, but he is now against it because he says:

I fear that this will have an enormously divisive effect unless we are extremely careful.

5 pm

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale) (Lab): Surely we all agree that, if somebody is preaching hatred of an individual, whether from a pulpit of any religion or no religion, they should rightfully be brought to justice, for preaching hatred.

Mr. Heath: I hope that the hon. Lady can make that distinction—I believe that she can and that the Government can—between hatred of the individual and hatred of the faith. However, I fear that there are many people who will not make that distinction and see any criticism of their faith system as criticism of themselves, and any incitement in others to consider as less valuable the belief system of another to be incitement to hatred of themselves. That is the difficulty in which the Government find themselves with this proposal.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Is this not the problem that the hon. Gentleman is trying to get at: under the terms of what the Government are proposing, an imam in my constituency could open himself to prosecution merely by quoting verses from a religious text? That is possible, whereas under the terms of the hon. Gentleman's excellent amendment, it would not.

Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the whole House is seriously engaged, including those Government Members who have been kind enough to support the amendment, in trying to find a satisfactory conclusion to a difficult problem that we want solved. We want to ensure that evil racist people are prevented from spreading their hatred. At the same time, we want to be absolutely clear that professing one's faith, even if that faith involves, as many faiths do, criticism of other faiths—it is inherent in a faith system
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that it excludes as well as includes—is not an incitement to hatred but exercising the rights to religious freedoms that we have long held dear.

I know that other Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude. I believe that our formulation satisfies the needs of the communities that feel under threat without creating new difficulties for both themselves and others and raising expectations. If the Government are not prepared to accept that, they should seriously consider something alone the lines of amendment No. 182, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), and which provides clear exceptions. It reads:


Again, that would put the proposal clearly in context.

I wish that we had the opportunity—it is not open to us because of the construction of the Bill—to debate the other new clauses that we have tabled, which would have introduced proper legislation for discrimination on religious grounds. That would have an enormously greater effect on the day-to-day activities of people in the faith communities. I would have liked to debate the prospect of an harassment clause. Again, that would have had a much greater effect on the day-to-day activities of those in the faith communities.

We do not have the opportunity to do that. Instead, we have a Government proposal that I believe is flawed but not of bad intent. I want to support what the Government are doing but I want also to find a way of expressing that which, I believe, will achieve their intent and not the opposite.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab): I believe that all of us are entitled to the quiet enjoyment of our homes and to feel safe, and be safe, on the streets where we live and work and find our pleasure, and so are all our children. The general law tries to protect us all. However, some of our fellow citizens are subject to additional hazards, and in those instances we must take special measures to protect them against those hazards. In the past, and even now, some people have been attacked because of their race and colour. In the 1980s, to help protect people against that additional hazard, this Parliament decided to make incitement to racial hatred an offence. These days some of our fellow citizens—women, children and men, particularly Muslims—are subject to abuse and assault because of their religion. That is why I have been pressing for some years for us to legislate to outlaw inciting hatred on religious grounds. I therefore welcome what the Government are doing, because such incitement is a cause not of all, but of some, of the assaults and abuse suffered by our Muslim fellow citizens, and by others from other religious groups.

I emphasise that the Government are simply trying to outlaw incitement to such hatred, and their amendment No. 106, which does not outlaw criticism, offensive remarks or jokes, brings that about. Who needs the freedom of speech to incite hatred of anyone for any reason? I should also emphasise that the amendment is not an extension of the outdated and ridiculous
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blasphemy law—which, contrary to popular belief, protects only the Church of England and not any other Christian grouping. I have long advocated the abolition of that law, and it logically follows that if we are to outlaw incitement to hatred on the ground of religion, we should get rid of it. I hope that the Government will agree to doing so, even if they will not so agree today.

I recognise that there are concerns about possible limitations on freedom of speech. There is also a possibility—when the law first comes into operation, at least—of tit-for-tat complaints by various religious groups against others, or of accusations that the Attorney-General, in deciding to proceed or not to proceed with a particular case, is subject to religious prejudice. Even those in favour of this change in the law must recognise that there are reservations and disadvantages, but none of those outweighs our duty to provide special protection for our especially vulnerable fellow citizens. This proposal does that, so I hope that it will be adopted.

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