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Simon Hughes: Does the hon. Gentleman accept my assurance, as one who has a strong commitment to one faith but who does not think that it should have particular protection, that I would not support the new clause if I did not think it would give my Muslim constituents the same protection as my Sikh constituents and my Jewish constituents have and deserve? I want them to have equality, which is why the new clause is the best way forward.

David Winnick: I accept entirely the hon. Gentleman's sincerity. Not wishing to be patronising, I accept that he wants to protect his Muslim constituents, as he does others. I do not question that, but I believe that Government amendment No. 106 makes a substantial improvement on the wording by replacing "racial and religious hatred" with "hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds". I cannot see why that should be unacceptable.

I realise that the Government's proposal might face difficulties in the other place and might not come into law before the general election. None the less, despite my reservations and my desire to protect free speech—which I hope that we succeeded in protecting when my Labour colleagues and I supported the law on incitement to racial violence; I am not aware that our country is less free as a result of what we did 35 or 40 years ago—I believe that, on balance, the Government are right to try to protect those who are not currently protected by the Race Relations Act 1976, and I shall vote accordingly.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): We are discussing a delicate but crucial difference. I hope that the whole House recognises that we are trying to achieve the same end and that the argument is about how to achieve it effectively.

The new clause is designed not to remove the protection that Jews and Sikhs have, but to extend as far as is proper that protection to other religions without getting into the position in which, in trying to close a manifest gap, we create serious problems—first, of over-expectation, and then of people using the law for nefarious reasons such as their own aggrandisement or for the harassment of others, and without the disadvantage of recognising that religious views are held with considerable strength, that in stating belief it is difficult not to cast doubt on the claims of others, and that some religions, by their nature, are more sensitive about such things than others.

As someone who has experienced a different point of view as a convert, even within the Christian Church, I know that people can be extremely offensive. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) is certainly robust in his opposition to the Catholic Church. Sometimes he crosses the line, and has been found to go beyond what can reasonably be done under the present law. I have witnessed occasions on which he has caused considerable pain, and has sought to heap ridicule, contempt and, frankly, hatred on the faith that I hold. However painful and hurtful, we have to accept such behaviour in a free society. We may have to seek to
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ask people to be more reticent in a tolerant society, and it is perfectly reasonable to argue that it would be better not to show "Popetown". However—this is an important difference—we are saying that it should not be banned.

Some religions have more difficulty with that than others, especially when challenged by people within as well as outside their faith. I shall choose my words carefully, because I do not wish to cause any offence. One of the advantages of the free society in which we live is that some faiths can open themselves up. That is more difficult in countries where a faith is entrenched, and many of us have seen various instances of that. With reference not only to the Muslim faith but to the recent argument over a theatrical performance written by someone of the Sikh faith, I believe that some faiths will benefit enormously from a lively and virile discussion within those faiths.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Is not the right hon. Gentleman reassured, as I am, by Government amendment No. 106, which makes it clear that the proposals on religious incitement are designed not to protect religions from criticism, but to protect people from the activities of extremist organisations that wish to stir up hatred against them? He cited the Sikh play "Behzti". The law already prevents incitement of hatred against Sikhs, but it did not result in any prosecution involving that play.

Mr. Gummer: I am reassured that it is better this way than it was before. As the Government have found it difficult to get the balance right, I urge the House to go a stage further and introduce a better formulation that meets the need more effectively. Expectations are crucial.

I have heard programmes in which Members of Parliament have explained what they hope that this change will mean. In their minds it means, for example, the opportunity to prosecute the author of "The Satanic Verses". They may now recognise that the Government are not prepared to go that far, but that shows the nature of the demand.

5.30 pm

Many others wish to speak, so I shall say only one more thing. For those of us whose faith is the most important thing in our lives—that is true of members of a range of faiths in the House—there is little more painful than hearing the founder of one's religion, whom one believes to be divine, blasphemed. But I do not believe that in a secular society people should be prevented from doing that. Similarly, if I feel, as I do, that the claims of Islam are based upon facts that I dispute, I hope that I would say so in a polite and proper way—but I must not feel in any way inhibited from expressing that, because it is too important for its expression to be restrained.

That is why this matter is so crucial. I do not treat my faith, or other faiths, lightly—precisely the opposite. Because faith is the most important thing in life, it should be able to stand on its own feet and be looked at properly, and be able to live in an increasingly, and properly, much more various world.
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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Surely what my right hon. Friend is describing is the importance of tolerance. Does he recall saying on 28 November 1997, in a different context but very validly, that tolerance is not about putting up with things about which one does not greatly care one way or another, but about putting up with and allowing to continue statements and activities of which one personally profoundly disapproves?

Mr. Gummer: I am immensely flattered by my hon. Friend's memory of such a thing. I hope the fact that that was said about something wholly different will underline the strength of my feeling on the present issue. No man is tolerant if he is not prepared to tolerate the deepest, toughest criticism of that which he believes most strongly. That criticism cannot easily be distinguished from incitement to hatred in the terms of the Government's clause and amendment. That is why I commend the alternative reading to the House.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) tried to make provision for all religions and all communities, but fell at the first hurdle when my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) questioned him on the protection afforded to the Jewish and the Sikh communities. The hon. Gentleman must realise that the Muslim community, like the Buddhist, Hindu and other religious communities, are not formed from the base of a single race. People must understand that. The Sikh community was brought under the Race Relations Act 1996, following the case of a Mr. Mandla. The ruling by Lord Scarman included the Jewish community because they were a race.

We are not discussing the Blasphemy Act, through which hon. Members have tried to attack the Government's proposal on incitement to racial hatred. The debate is not about people being unable to defend their religion or expose what they believe to be the faults in other religions. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome referred to the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) cited a document that we all received, which argues the contrary. Iqbal Sacranie made that clear.

Mr. Heath: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I understand the point about Sikhs and Jews, but that provision would not be removed by our new clause. The letter from the Muslim Council of Britain quoted by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) was extremely helpful. I was trying to explain that the earlier confusion will be shared by many people who have not had the benefit of reading that advice.

Mr. Mahmood: The hon. Gentleman makes an issue of the confusion. That was before the proposals were printed, put to the House and explained to people. The Muslim Council of Britain and other organisations, such as the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism, which looks at issues of Islamophobia—
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