Mr. Grieve: New clause 3, to which my name and those of some of my colleagues have been added, follows closely an amendment that I tabled in Committee that sought to achieve the same ends. I therefore have no hesitation in welcoming the intention behind the proposal that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) has put to the House.
This is a very difficult issue, and I am the first to accept the good intention behind the Government's proposals. It is of course important that we all seek to express ourselves moderately in society. Those who seek to do so immoderately, and certainly those who seek to inspire hatred of other people, should do so with great caution. In many cases, of course, they will transgress existing criminal law.
However, we must face the fact that there are occasions when we do express, and try to inspire, intense dislike of others. Members of this House do so regularlyand in my view not improperlywhen, for instance, dealing with and expressing hatred of members of the British National party. Indeed, we take steps at all manner of levels to discriminate against themfor example, by barring them from holding meetings in public rooms. To say that there is never a time when it is legitimate to express intense dislike of others appears to me to miss the point.
This law will not apply, as the Government propose, just to mainstream religions but to every religious sect that worships a deity, be it God or the devil. I am bound to say that if the provision goes through, and if I were a member of the British National party, I would be thinking rapidly about worshipping Wotan as a devotee, thereby gaining the protection of the Bill. The House has to face up to the fact that if we pass such legislation, that could happen all too readily, however far-fetched it sounds. The law does not discriminate in any way between what constitutes a good or a bad religion.
In that light, I have to tell the Minister that, while I fully understand the sentiments that have inspired the Government and those who back the Bill, particularly within the Muslim communitythey may understandably have wanted to quieten the tone of the discoursewe will be making a grave and serious error
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if we proceed with the Bill in its current form. It will raise expectations at every level, which will, in fact, never be fulfilled. I have no doubt that although the number of prosecutions per annum will be minute, the number of times that prosecution is demanded will be massive, as each group seeks to use the legislation as a weapon with which to get at another group.
Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some individuals will court prosecution because they want their arguments advanced in open court in order to give maximum publicity to their vile claims?
The problem remains that as we become an increasingly pluralistic society, that requires greater degrees of tolerance from us. The House should be sending out a message that tolerance of the expression of others' views, so long as it does not offend the criminal law, is something that we all have to put up with. Let me provide another example, in the form of a recent book called "The Da Vinci Code". I have not had the chance to read the whole book, but I have looked at parts of it and I have to say that it is a blasphemous work. There cannot be the slightest doubt about that in respect of the theological principles on which it is based. I have not wasted one second in sleepless nights over this work, but I suspect that if similar theological mumbo-jumbo were written about other faiths, the demands for the prosecution of the author and the banning of the work would be considerable.
It is for that sort of reason that I cannot support the Government, and I urge them to accept the amending provisions that have been suggested. I fully acknowledge that new clause 3 may not be perfect, but it is designed to provide a balance that offers a degree of extra statutory protection, by building on existing case law, for those affected when people seek to use religion to incite hatred against racial groups.
Ms Abbott: Many members of the Muslim community passionately support the Bill because they believe that it will protect Islam from insult. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that in a free society it is not possible to protect any religion from insult, and that the Bill will raise expectations in the community that cannot be satisfied?
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op):
What would the hon. Gentleman say to my Muslim constituents who tell me that in the present climate, someone who is Jewish or Sikh is protected, but a Muslim is not?
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Mr. Grieve: I believe that Muslims are protectedbut because they are identified as part of a particular racial group, rather than on the basis of their religious faith. The merit of new clause 3 is that it would extend exactly the same degree of protection to racial groups who are being attacked through their religion. I have already acknowledged that new clause 3 may not be perfect, but it is as close to perfection as possible. That is why I commend it to the hon. Gentlemanbut failing that, he should reject the Government's provision.
Simon Hughes: Does the hon. Gentleman agree thatcontrary to the initial arguments from Labour Membersnew clause 3 would deal with the inequality of the present position, in which Sikhs and Jews are protected but other faiths are not? It would also protect people against the consequence of hatredattackand would do so gradually, which should deal with the problem without unintended extra consequences.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Is my hon. Friend, like me, swayed by the number of people with sincere religious beliefs of various sorts who have written to their Members of Parliament, including me, to say that this measure is not helpful, and that they hope that it will be amended along the lines that he suggests?
Mr. Grieve: My right hon. Friend is right. The broad expression of views, including those of secularists, people in the theatrical world and those with strong religious beliefs, suggests that the Government's proposals are seriously flawed. The Government should take that into account, and I hope that they will change their mind.
The Conservative position is that any vote on the blasphemy laws would be a free vote. My view as a lawyer has always been that the blasphemy laws are, if not obsolete, certainly obsolescent, and most unlikely ever to be used to bring a prosecution. Hon. Members can make up their own minds whether they wish those laws to be preserved.
On the main point, I encourage all hon. Members on both sides of the House to give new clause 3 serious consideration, because it is the best way forward. Despite their good intentions, the Government have made a great mistake in this aspect of the Bill.
David Winnick: This matter has caused a good deal of concern, and the dilemma is whether it is right to go ahead with it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) made a strong case, with which I largely concur. I understand the concern that expectations will be raised, and the feeling that religions are being protected, which in many respects is undesirable.
On the radio today I heard Rowan Atkinson, who, like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), made a reasoned case. I listened carefully to Mr. Atkinson and he accepted that in practice there are unlikely to be many prosecutions, but he went on to
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say that the pressure on the Attorney-General would be very great indeed. We must wait and seeif the provision is introduced.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): A further point that Rowan Atkinson makes is that while the Attorney-General may rule out prosecution of comedians, he would do so after a complaint, after questioning, perhaps after an arrest and perhaps even after a charge. Why should people have to go through all those stages, in the climate they are likely to produce, before the Attorney-General's protection is invoked?
As I said during an earlier intervention, we may compare the objections that are now being made with the objections that were made to the provision that outlawed incitement to race hatred, which is now accepted. Hardly anyone would say that that law should be changed, but nearly 35 years ago, almost to the week, Lord Deedeshe obviously was not in the House of Lords at the timeargued that that section of the Race Relations Act 1965 should be repealed. He said that he was totally opposed to racism, but that the provision was an infringement of free speech.
Those of us who took a different view put our case, and because there was a Labour majority in February 1970, we won the daybut it is interesting to look at the Division list for Lord Deedes' ten-minute Bill: almost every Conservative Back Bencher voted for the repeal of that section, which is now accepted.
It is also now fully accepted that Jews and Sikhs should be protected in law. Despite my reservations and the fears that have been expressed, I must ask myself this question: if Jews and Sikhs are protected in law, why not Muslims? If Muslims are not protected, as they clearly are not under present law, and if they are subject to a great deal of abusethe sort of abuse that every Member of this House opposesas we know they are, the question inevitably arises: are the Government right in doing as they are? I believe that they are rightdespite all the drawbacks, the reservations and the possibility that things will go wrong.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome quoted a Muslim spokesman in Australia. It is interesting to see that in the letter sent to us by the Muslim Council of Britain, which argues in favour of the Government's proposal, under the heading "Could the proposed new law raise unrealistic expectations?", the secretary-general says:
"It is sometimes argued that certain people, for example people in Muslim communities, believe that the proposed amendment to the Public Order Act will protect them against being offended. But since the prevention of offence is not the purpose of the amendment, such people will be disappointed."
Therefore, although expectations will be raised and demands will be made of the Attorney-General, whether by Muslims or by Sikhsthe latter are protected by existing law to some extent, but some demonstrated in Birminghamit does not follow that those who take the view that their religion will be protected will ultimately
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find that it is. We are dealing with a wholly different issue. We are dealing with abusethe sort of abuse that we acted against in the racial sphere 40 years ago.